The Must Read Basics of Importing and Exporting Shipping Containers

The dos and don’ts of exporting shipping containers might be a handful, especially to those who are just starting to grasp the vast concept of this industry — the beginners. We know, we have been there before, and that is why, we want to help you. 

We thought it timely to create a list of fundamental pointers or pieces of advice from the people who know this field like the back of their hands. This roll may not answer all of the questions you have in mind, but it surely attempts to deal with all the groundwork necessary in exporting shipping containers abroad.

From correctly stuffing goods into an empty shipping container to adequately protecting your items while in transit, we hope that this The Must Read Basics of Importing and Exporting Shipping Containers can successfully assist you while you take those baby steps and leaps of faith into this shipping container industry.

On Your Marks!

Different items are being shipped outside the country. They may include any of the following:

  • Donations and/or relief goods from community foundations or charitable institutions;
  • Merchandise from various manufacturing companies;
  • Steelworks or any other building materials from construction firms;
  • Personal items of immigrants or ex-pats; and
  • Other materials that are important for business operations that get shipped to and fro a customer.

None of the items stated is unimportant to anyone. And for that, you have a gnawing need to find out more about your stuff in transport. After all, when everything you own traverses to a different part of the globe, understanding the shipping container industry becomes a top priority. You wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to your belongings, would you?

However, knowing the ins and outs of an enterprise that you are not familiar with may prove quite a challenge. Damages can be incurred once you’re not knowledgeable enough on how your goods are handled. You know you need help. So let’s get you started.

1. Get Professional Assistance

First advice: Get professional assistance from a freight forwarder you can fully rely on.Shipping Containers and Shipping Liner

Freight forwarders are experts in arranging and monitoring the whole transportation process of your goods. They can assist you in different levels of services for your stuff between destinations. The United Kingdom has an extensive selection of freight forwarders. You can check Google or BIFA’s website (British International Freight Association) for more information on these agencies.

That said, you still need to take note that each freight forwarder may specialise in different services. So, consider asking yourself these questions before you trust them with your goods:

  1. What particular type of cargo do they specialise in? 
  2. What relevant documents can they provide?
  3. Do they cover the shipping movement in both air freight and road haulage? 
  4. If they offer cheap services, in what area or areas of the logistics they may be retrenching on?
  5. If they offer expensive services, in what area or areas of the logistics they may be putting extra care on?
  6. Do they offer extra services that will be advantageous for your shipment?
  7. What are their restrictions? 


Before deciding on which company to hire, you must first canvass a number of forwarders about the details of your shipment. Then, ask a lot of questions especially when it comes to your quote. Afterwards, judge how well they respond to you and your queries. Lastly, conclude if you can establish good communication and a friendly relationship with the freight forwarder. 

We know that the freight forwarding services offered by smaller companies up to the bigger ones may be through a third party booking. So, the basic distinction they can offer is on their price point which is largely based on their buying power and capabilities in overseeing your shipment.

For first-timers, you are best secured with the services of a forwarder connected with BIFA. This organization assures that the members are legitimate and reliable operators.

“I think I can connect directly to a shipping line without employing the services of a forwarder.”

Yes, you can! But, we dissuade you from doing that particularly if it is going to be your first shipment or your one-off delivery. Why? It is because:

  • You might make a mistake. The shipping line might make a mistake. Where will you go for help? 

Freight forwarders surely maintain direct contact, even a close relationship, with the members of the shipping line. If there are mistakes, they definitely know what to do and who to call up in order to correct the errors and save a lot of pressure off of you.

  • You might need someone to constantly update you on your cargo. 

As a beginner, you need help and support. Thus, you might find it needful to contact someone in charge of your cargo. Regretfully, there is a possibility that the shipping line of your choice does not offer the follow-up service you want. They mostly have little to zero wriggle rooms in their services because of the magnitude on which they operate.

  • You might not save money at all. 

After doing your computations, you might be surprised to find out that a freight forwarder can offer a similar price to what you expect to pay when you connect directly to a shipping line. This is because of a forwarder’s established buying power.

2. Buy or NOT Buy A Shipping Container

Figure out if you need to buy a new shipping container because frankly, you probably do not have to.

The majority of the shipping lines move around the continent with their own physical containers. And one of the services they may provide is a leasing term agreement. Of course, the liner may have a separate price for lending their containers and for the shipment of your items. Still, it definitely sounds more practical than buying your own.

Also, the majority of the shipping lines in the UK deal mostly on imports rather than exports. They might not offer any discount even if you use your own shipping container. Most certainly, they prefer that you use their empty containers to set it out of the UK anew.

We do not want you spending a significant amount of money on an item that you might not need for your project. Yet, if one of your reasons fall below, then we encourage you to buy your own container.Shipping Container

  1. You are shipping to a destination where the liner does not want their containers to go. 

Shipping lines can lay their own restrictions such as on certain points in Africa, highly political zones, overly remote locations, war-prone spots, etc. These restrictions may change over time hence you might need your own container if you plan on shipping to these places.

  2. You plan on modifying your shipping container.

If you are planning to use your shipping container to store or transport your belongings to a new location, and then repurpose it when it reaches its destination. In that case, by all means, go on and buy your own shipping container.

Repurposing of the shipping container may include but are not limited to the following examples:

  • A Mobile Workshop

Or in other words, a huge toolbox. Normally, ship care companies use this kind of repurposing. They load the container with tools for repair and then transport it wherever the customer has the ship that needs fixing. The customer and his chosen crew will then work on all the repairs. Afterwards, they will ship the container back to the company when they are done with the patching ups.

If you plan on putting up this kind of business, then you need your own shipping container.

  • A Showcase Luggage

If you want to showcase your luxury items such as your sports car, boat, or an artefact that is exhibition worthy, a shipping container may prove to be a handy storage unit during the entire course of your expo on any location.

  • A Temporary Storage

If you are an ex-pat, emigrant, or just a traveller who may need a temporary storage unit for your belongings while you try to settle in a new country. For this reason, shipping containers may best serve this purpose.

Apparently, some people use the liners’ shipping containers instead of buying a new one. Although the liner will not charge you for the trip, it may fine hefty penalties if you fail to return their container on time.

  • A Donation to Africa

If you are exporting or travelling to Africa for personal or professional reasons, you may find that one way to help Africa is by donating a shipping container that they can re-use in the local community. Some even sell their shipping containers once their goods arrive at their destination. After that, they donate the profit to a charitable institution in Africa.

  • An Option for Restrictions

The best option when you’re planning to ship to Africa is to buy your own shipping container.

There are some shipping liners that will not allow you to use their containers out of their ports without paying a deposit. This deposit payment equals the replacement amount of the shipping container. In other words, it will make you feel that you just bought a new container for yourself. And this restriction is not limited to Africa only, a shipping liner may choose to implement this restriction anywhere else in the globe. Just like Maersk.

Maersk holds the record of being the world’s largest shipping line. Nevertheless, they hold a restriction against Iraq. They refuse to let their containers across the border from Northern Turkey to Iraq. This compels shippers to buy their own shipping containers in order to have their shipment land on Iraq.

3. Commit to Prompt Payment

A freight forwarder normally asks for a full shipment payment before they discharge the container to you. This proves true for individual and small business transactions. Howbeit, the rules change when you are a large business with a strong credit line. They will have to impose the strictest standards on the payment method.

Based on our experience, this industry has encountered numerous accounts of non-paying customers. Thus, holding your goods as a ransom has been played around at the onset of the shipping industry. In fact, a lot of shipping lines and ports had become experts in this scheme. This is the company’s ways to protect themselves from nonpaying customers.

Thankfully, no one is appointed to hunt you down for your payment. They will just send all the info needed to release your cargo. However, you get the disadvantage of having your shipment delayed. Now, the solution to this problem may depend on your freight forwarder and on how efficient their support system is.

Bill of Lading

Once they receive your payment, the shipping liner will issue your Bill of Lading document.

The Bill of Lading lists down your goods that can be found inside your container, and whether the container is yours or not. This legal document is processed once the ship leaves the territorial waters of the UK. After that, you will need to obtain this bill from your customs agent once your shipment reaches its journey’s end.

The delay in your payment will result in the delay of the document’s release. If that happens, you might receive this document after your cargo has landed. Unfortunately, on each day of delay, you will incur extra charges from the terminal where your shipment is held ransom.

The DAILY port charges for a delayed or unclaimed shipping container measured at 20 ft. is normally around £50 to £100. That DOUBLES UP as the container gets larger by another 20 ft.

Technology has now replaced the Bill of Lading with its electronic counterpart – the waybill. Waybills are a lot easier to process and transmit from the customer to the shipping line back to the customer, yet its issuance process remains the same: You need to pass this bill to the customs agent at the port. Then through this document, the agent will communicate with the port to have your container discharged.

You need to obtain specific information about the port of the country to which you plan to ship your container. Your freight forwarder will be able to assist you on this.

4. Dodge Total Loss Insurance

Do not expect that your shipment is insured unless the laws of the country of destination require it. Shipping lines are focused on their basic job to which you, as a customer, pay them for. And that is to transport your goods from its origin to destination. That’s all!

We do recommend that you get your shipment insured. Typical insurance rates around 0.5 – 15% from the value of the shipment which is pretty reasonable. Nevertheless, we sternly advise that you dodge the total loss insurance. Putting it simply, this insurance only covers you once your ENTIRE shipment has been lost while on transit. If the shipping line manages to recover just one – no matter how big or small – of your items, this insurance is voided. You lose insurance claims on a total loss of items.

5. Expect minor holdups and occasional hiccups

Horror stories are common to those who had been in this industry for so long. They do happen albeit very rare. In the shipping industry, a few expected days of delay which can be caused by a variety of factors.

Ship Delays

Delays can be caused by boat hits, mechanical issues, or even current political/territorial disputes.  In some extremely rare disastrous events, a boat may catch fire or even sink. Howbeit seldom, a cargo shipped to a wrong port adds to the delay.

Although shipping companies put up their sailing schedules ahead of time, the chances of them running exactly as scheduled are also unlikely. Sometimes, ship owners themselves deliberately prolong the arrival of the shipment to their port of call. This happens when there is a shortage of export bookings. They slow their ships down in order to give some time for more containers to pile up before they arrive at their destination. Slowing down gives them the chance to haul more containers back with them and at the same time, they save some fuel.

Always treat shipping schedules as a guide, not a guarantee of on-time delivery.

Also, the people in this industry have seen containers sat at the port for around 4 months just because the port was overloaded. On occasions such as these, hauling containers onto ships tend to be very difficult. The liners could not find a way around this problem except to wait.

Technical and Mechanical Issues

Punctuality in this industry varies, dramatically. This is because ships, trucks, and trains are all susceptible to technical issues or mechanical malfunctions. Hauliers tend to promise an approximate of 90% prompt delivery. Still, that remains mostly unfulfilled.

In the container haulage business in the UK, the traditional peak times cover Fridays and 4-day-weeks, including bank holiday weeks and weeks before the bank holiday weekends. Generally, Monday is considered a slack day. We suggest that you book your exports on a Monday instead of a Friday to at least get a better chance of an on-time arrival.

Minor delays and occasional problems do take place in this industry. They had been inaugurated into this trade from the get-go. And there are no guarantees that these delays and problems will go away.

6. Fix your container’s packaging safely

Those are your goods, your belongings, hence it is your sole responsibility to box them up carefully and orderly. You will be held liable if any damage or issue arises from your unkempt or unsafe packing.

dislodged shipping containers

Personal Packing

Be mindful of the following whenever you do your own stowing:

  • Shippers load, stow and count.

They do not pack for you so make sure to thoroughly and evenly arrange your items inside your container.  DO NOT place all heavy items on one side and the lighter ones on the other. That will surely destabilise a truck or any port equipment. You can check loads of guidelines on how to safely pack in shipping containers on Google.

  • Loose cargo is a damaged cargo.

Not only that, but they also pose a danger to the people moving your container. A loosed cargo can sabotage a truck, knock a port crane off balance, or worse, kill an innocent driver who might get hit by a very heavy item forced out of container due to a sudden emergency stop. All because of a poorly packed cargo.

  • Control Condensation.

Condensation causes moisture that can damage your cargo. This happens when a shipping container is exposed to heat, and then cools downs overnight. The heat escapes through the roof and then the humidity in the air will cause condensation. So, if you have moisture-sensitive items in your container, you may want to have some damage control measures.

  • Prepare a Packing List.

Afterwards, rightfully declare ALL that is inside your container. Remember, a detailed list of all its contents is pivotal at this point. You may want to chat with your freight forwarder and/or customs agent on this in advance. If you have dominantly household items or other personal belongings in stow, your cargo might be treated as commercial shipment. When this happens, prepare your copies of invoices particularly if you have paid for your export. Also, send a copy of your invoice to your customers so that they can accurately confirm the value of the cargo.

All in all, if you want a no-hassle, damage-free shipment, fix your container’s packaging safely.

Professional Packing

You can always hire a professional to help you get the loads off your back. Surf websites on professional packaging services to know more about the agencies that can prep and pack your belongings on shipping containers.

7. Give honest declarations of potentially dangerous goods

Dangerous goods


This is your legal responsibility. Openly communicate with your freight forwarder about the specifics of your shipment, specifically, if you think that they may be tagged as hazardous goods like:

  1. Flammable materials like paints, solvents, and leftover fuels in car tanks, lawnmower, or any equipment that runs on petrol
  2. Dangerous explosives or chemicals
  3. Batteries
  4. Any form of compressed gasses
  5. Loose walnuts in large volumes

Yes, you read it right. Walnuts! They are considered highly explosive when they travel in large volumes. So, if anyone sees large volumes of loose walnuts in your list, the liner or an agent might get in touch with you and ask about the specifics of your walnuts which may be in terms of volume, purpose, and packaging.

Nonetheless, you have to consider how each potentially hazardous item is stored inside shipping containers. There are those that the shipping industry allows at a “limited quantity” setup. This, however, may vary per item.

For example, shipping 200 litres of paint contained in 40 tin cans with 5 litres on each tin (like the ones available in shops) will not be labelled as dangerous goods. On the contrary, if you place the same volume of paint unto a barrel, preferably the one with the UN approved design, it will then be classified as a hazardous shipment. Your cargo will now have to submit to strict procedures and incur an increased shipping cost.

Rules and Procedures

It is always advisable to check on early the set rules and procedures of shipping hazardous goods to avoid risking unnecessary issues in the future. Generally,  commercial shipments of dangerous materials may impose a different set of rules as compared to local or charity shipments. Thus, we recommend that you connect with a DGSA (Dangerous Goods Safety Adviser) to know more about the set guidelines on shipping potentially hazardous materials.

8. Hire a capable customs agent.

In the UK, freight forwarders normally base their charges on prices from port to country of destination. Though their quote accuracy depends on a number of factors like full door-to-door service, the country’s trading relationship with the UK, etc., you may find that in some cases, this may not be the most price competitive option.

Some shippers get their prices from the port of shipment. And if you are one of them, then you should get a customs agent – one you’re most comfortable with.

A good customs agent can bring light to some grey areas in your shipping details. He/she can:

  1. Advise you on the most appropriate system for your cargo, particularly on government taxation schemes and tariffs.
  2. Tie you in with an onward haulage service suitable to your location and shipment — from port to your site.
  3. Educate you about the local market and direct you to take practical measures for your shipment.

Search Google about customs agent stationed within or at least near your shipment’s destination port. It should show you loads of options to choose from.

9. Identify prohibited items.

There are many factors that affect the importation of certain products in a particular country. Let’s take Africa for example. This country has banned the imports of 5-year-old and even older used cars in their country. They stand to not have “Europe’s scraps” stay in their side of the earth.

If you are an immigrant, you should be mindful of the goods you may want to ship into your new territory. The country of your choice may have specific restrictions on gadgets to protect some of its finest industries, or pets and plants to preserve its wildlife and ecosystem. Though it is true that there are exceptions, you should still take the initiative to check online or communicate with the embassy or consulate of your destination country. You must enquire about what goods you are allowed to ship.

Do not be complacent. Save yourself from committing the grave mistake of breaking the law. It will definitely cost you a lot, brand you as a smuggler, and worse, put you in jail.

10. Employ good Judgement. 

Do not expect that because you shelled out a hefty sum, you and your cargo will get all the attention you want from the liner and the agents. Back in 2017, Maersk group turnover is about $5,000 per 5 seconds. No matter how huge a sum you may have paid the liner, still, you do not get to have that celebrity status. They will treat you fairly, just like the way they treat all the other customers.

What may seem like a legitimate request would still remain ungranted. Exceptions may be extended to one-off container deliveries but for commercial shipments, the chances are slim. Regular shipping line customers, who may have shipped several shipping containers a day, certainly know that shipping liners do not prioritise.

Truth is the only time that you can see your sealed container again once it has left your site is when it reaches its port of destination.

Common Issues:

1. You left something important inside your shipping container and you want to collect it asap. You asked if it’s possible to meet the driver on his way to the port. 

Nope. It won’t be possible. It is not that easy because of two major reasons: security and safety

First Reason: Security

Terminals are not open to the public on the quay for security reasons. Ports are enveloped with multiple levels of security checks. Security checks are principally done once the container reaches the port. So, by the time you realize you left something important inside your container, your shipment may have been a clear 5 to 8 steps ahead of you.

From the haulier to the liner to the agent, to the admin, to the security, to all of them that are linked into this chain would probably go through the tedious tasks of verifying your shipment ownership, breaking sealing, and resealing the container after leaving the site and assessing risk factors that may point fingers at the driver. Having said these, they most probably would not entertain your request.

Second Reason: Safety

Shipping containers are heavy metalworks. And so are the huge swinging port cranes that move them like toy blocks. They can easily crush any bone. Now imagine if these ports were open to the public. The probability of accidentally having people run over by these huge pieces of equipment or being crushed under their massive weight is extremely high.

Shipping Container Port

Now the best thing you can do under this circumstance is to pay £200 (or more) to the liner and the terminal for a frustrated export charge. Afterwards, you can send a haulier to bring your shipment back to your site. Again, you will need to pay the haulier for that. This sort of issue, returning the shipping container back to port after you have recovered your left item inside, may cost you over £1000 as the total cost. That’s a significant amount of money down the drain.

2. You forgot to load a few more items in your shipping container. You are requesting the driver to nip around the corner to your yard.

Sadly, the driver won’t do that. What may seem like an easy request for you is a completely different story for the hauliers. Hauliers answer to liners thus they are required to strictly follow and stay within the set of instructions of the shipping line.

Additionally, this kind of nip around the corner to our yard direction has been wrongly used in the past. Criminals, fraudsters and scammers will load legitimate goods in one area, and then load the illegal ones on another site. These felons have discovered that a second loading will not be recorded thus there is no way for the authorities to track them back through the shipment documents. For that reason, the liner may prevent the haulier from taking directions straight from the site.

As typical hauliers would perform specific instructions set only by the liner, you may formally post a last-minute request to load in a second site.  Usually loading at 2 separate sites is allowable provided it was made at the time of your quote. But requesting this at the last moment will either be declined or will call for extra charges.

11. Keep track of global custom issues. 

Customs corruption issues are likely to happen, and in general, among the less westernised countries. However, in all our years in this shipping container industry, we have heard customs issues in some parts of Africa, Russia and the USA.

The odd customs cases we have heard in the USA dealt mostly with manufactured goods. Because the liners move goods in large quantities across the boarders, it is expected that they give the lowest price possible. This is where the felons get their opportunity — exploiting the prices.

Among the scams we heard, the most common is delaying the release of the shipping containers so that you will have no choice but pay the penalties.

Normally, shipping containers may sit at the port free of charge for 7 days from its arrival date. It is expected that you complete all the requirements needed for customs clearance within this period. Else, customs will hit you with overpriced port rental fees.

In some cases, port offices had released advisories on these delays, and in order for you to speed up the release process, you need to shell out some money out of your pockets.

What is sad about these cases is you have little to no choice but to pay the bribe. And unless you’re a police officer, a government employee, or a major trade owner in the area, the best option for you is to be practical. Pay them, get your goods, then leave. Honestly, that’s the quickest, safest, and cheapest way to clear customs.

12. Lock Up or bolt seal your containers. 

4-Dial Combination Disc PadlockSome containers are sealed shut because of padlocks, while others are bolt sealed without padlocks. Check out our available padlocks if you plan to use it for your container. Click here.

Bolt seals on shipping containers carry with them a number that is recorded every time it passes or interchanges between trucks, trains, or ships while in transit. Through this procedure, anyone who has suspiciously broken into any shipping container can be pinpointed by tracing back the bolt seal records.

This is a foolproof way to prevent criminals from breaking in and stealing from your container. It simply would be worthy of their time and effort. This procedure also helps avoid prolonged negative issues in the quay or any other port.

Always record the number on the bolt seal before your shipping container leaves the site. Upon arrival at the destination port, check the seal if it is missing, has been tampered with or damaged, or has been replaced with a new seal. If there is any tampering, you should report it to your freight forwarder before breaking the seal yourself and opening your container.

If you see the customs seal on your container instead of the original bolt seal, then the customs had surely investigated cargo. Proceed to the customs office and confirm the said activity through the documents. Ask the officer why if you must, but make sure you check the seal number and the records first before breaking the seal to look inside your container.

13. Master your haulage options. 

You would be happy to know that a wide array of haulage options are available to shippers about loading or exporting shipping containers. Some freight forwarders may not be knowledgeable on these options, so we suggest that you pull up websites that will inform you more about haulage.

14. Note important details about your shipping container.

You can almost ship anything with the right budget and timeframe. However, shippers like you would still look for measures to save a fortune — big or small — in these transactions.

A doable shipping container normally measures at 10 ft. Regrettably, ports and boats were not constructed to handle a 10 ft. container. Also, it has been said that you can save more money by filling only half a 20 ft container.

It’s important to note that some ports and boats were not made to handle 10 ft shipping containers anymore. A container measuring at 30 ft is not considered viable as the liner will charge you the same price they charge a 40 ft. container.

If you want to know more about shipping containers and their types, search Google about articles or writings that can serve as a guide for your search.

15. Offsetting your VAT.

Usually, freight forwarders can give valuable advice on reclaiming your VAT and on the implications of BREXIT. But to explain it in a nutshell, VAT exemption is awarded to all goods headed out of the Eastern Union. This means that upon buying your items, you paid for their VAT, but if you can provide a legal document certifying that these goods are for export, then you can reclaim your VAT, both on the goods and the accompanying transport.

To completely reclaim your VATfrom your purchased goods, you must first make sure that the company from which you brought your items is VAT registered. otherwise, you will get no valid transaction. Next, you need to present a copy of your VAT invoice directly to the company. Then, the Bill of Lading document should specifically list all the goods for export.

Suppliers typically refund any VAT provided that you can present to them a clear list of the products you have purchased from them.

16. Proving the real deal.

At this point, you might be second-guessing yourself and thinking that something will definitely go wrong with your shipment. Don’t think that just yet.

The figures show that the success rate of cargos reaching their country of destination without any damage to the goods or issue of transport is a whopping 99%. The container shipping industry has established itself to be an important force in ensuring that the wheels of capitalism in this era are rotating. The issues mentioned here are but specks of the overall picture of the shipping container industry.

You may find it difficult to completely trust a vast system that is highly unfamiliar to you knowing that you are boxing up all of your life’s worth of possession in metal steel case travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles across continents. We understand. However, if you set aside the minor delays and packing issues you may encounter, you will discover that shipping containers do successfully reach their destinations. Had it been that this industry is failing to deliver goods in one piece, we wouldn’t be having this industry now as we know it. It would have stopped operating years ago, wouldn’t it?

Let’s Simmer It Down

This is not as dreadful as you think it is. Here, consider contemplating on these:Exporting Shipping Containers

  • The moment you sealed and shut your container, nobody is going to have a clue of what items you actually placed inside it. The people moving your container are separate from the ones handling your paperwork — your freight forwarder and customs agent.
  • Household items are not as appealing to criminals as you believe it to be. No matter how exquisite your stuff is, criminals would generally prefer saleable and moveable items such as a container full of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, gadgets and other items of the same or higher value.

Whether you are planning your first shipment or has already completed your first one, and yet you feel you still need more advice about shipping containers and the shipping container industry, please do not hesitate to give us a call at 0208 398 8441 or email us at and we will be happy to assist you.

If you need quality accessories for your shipping container, go on and browse our products here.

We are also on eBay and Amazon.

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