How many containers does a ship contain?

The container | A brilliant idea

The idea is as ingenious as it is simple: a container for all purposes, standardized worldwide and the same everywhere, like Lego bricks that can be expanded, swapped and still connected and reused anytime, anywhere. So is the container. All over the world you can see the same colorful steel boxes, they fit on huge ships as well as on trucks and rail wagons, so they are compatible with all means of transport.


That was not always so. Whereas in the past cardboard boxes, sacks, pallets, boxes, barrels and bales were laboriously and time-consuming to load from one means of transport to the next, today the standardized boxes, full of all kinds of goods, are simply reloaded. Sounds simple and logical, but in the early days of containerization, as this development process is called, it was actually revolutionary.


38 million containers (TEU) are in circulation around the world.

Entering the port of Hamburg, photo: Achim Multhaupt

From containerization to globalization

Using the container reduced transport costs by up to 90 percent almost overnight. For us consumers, this means: a wide variety of products at affordable prices. Goods from far away countries suddenly became affordable thanks to the container.


And so the container has not only revolutionized the transport industry, it has turned the entire world trade inside out and made globalization possible in the first place. The container has brought the world together a huge part. Since 2000 alone, the annual turnover in ports has more than tripled from 200 million standard containers (TEU) to 620 million. Lined up in a row, the containers would cover a distance of almost 94 times around the globe. Incidentally, the Port of Hamburg has a share of 9 million TEU in this. This makes it one of the top 20 container ports in the world and one of the most important goods hubs for world trade in Europe.


Everyone is talking about TEU! What's this?

20 feet is the measure of all things in the world of transport. Since the container is an American invention and shipping is generally anglophone, the standard length was set in feet and not meters. TEU is the abbreviation for Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit, i.e. 20-foot container. 40-foot containers are also considered standard containers. A 40-foot container is therefore equivalent to two TEU. The term TEU is used, for example, for the loading capacity of container ships or the volumes handled in ports.

The number makes the difference

Around 38 million standard containers (TEU) are currently in circulation around the world. If they are all the same, how do you tell them apart? Every single container has an individual number that is unique in the world. The container number consists of four capital letters, the so-called prefix, which stand for the owner. The German container shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, for example, has the prefix HLXU. This is followed by a six-digit serial number and a control number. Using the container number, each box can be identified anywhere in the world and, for example, its position on a ship or in a port can be determined.

Robust, but not too heavy, containers have to be. In order to ensure the required stability, ribs are worked into the side walls of containers, which means that they can withstand high loads. Because transport is not always gentle. The containers are stacked many layers high on board. In addition, there is the constant reloading from ship to train, from train to truck, movement on the high seas, vibrations on the rails, all of this demands a lot from the container. And so the average lifespan of a container is only twelve years before it is retired.

Why are containers corrugated?

What does the container have to do with our wallet?

Bananas, coffee, T-shirts, kitchen utensils, wine, cell phones and much more. Almost everything we use every day was in a container at some point. And the fact that the supply of goods never ebbs and the shelves are always full is not least due to the containerization. The container means that transport costs are low, so that the products can be offered at affordable prices. An example: A twelve-meter-long 40-foot container fits around 10,000 jeans pants. The price for sea transport from Asia to Hamburg is around 1,500 euros. In addition, there are land transports from the factory and to the consumer. Together that's around 3,000 euros. This means that the proportion of transport costs for a pair of jeans is just 30 cents.

Port of Hamburg Marketing e.V. (HHM)

Pick lifts 6

20457 Hamburg



Cooperation of

Port of Hamburg Marketing e.V. (HHM),

Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG and

Hamburg Port Authority AöR