Beginners guide to exporting shipping containers

This beginners guide to exporting shipping containers is intended as a basic introduction for anyone needing to export an amount of goods around the world that may equate to filling a shipping container. We cover a lot of the basic questions and offer some insider tips from the perspective of people who have worked within the industry. Care of a huge variety of goods and reasons to ship abroad, we can’t promise this guide has everything covered for you. but we hope it will serve as a helpful introduction on where to go and what you need to do if you are looking to export shipping containers abroad.

Complete Beginners start here:

So you have a lot of stuff to export. You may be a manufacturer selling your goods to a customer abroad, you may be a charity or community group looking to pack up and send relief goods, books, constructions materials or any other charity aid in a container and ship it out to destination, you may be emigrating and looking at a shipping container instead of a removals company, or you may have an item central to your operation that you want to ship out to a customer, or an event and bring it back again, these are all common reasons we encounter for wanting or needing to find out more about shipping your goods abroad.

Learning how an industry that you are not used to works is always a challenge, but when it’s your life, your livelihood or all your belongings going around the world then it can get very important, and things can go very wrong if you don’t have the right knowledge, help or support handy, so this leads onto our first piece of advice:

1: Get the right help and support

So if this is our first ever shipment, our first piece of advice is that you want to be speaking to a freight forwarder, or a freight forwarding company. These companies specialise in sending other peoples goods around the world.

There are a huge array of freight forwarding companies; Google will return plenty, in the UK the trade association BIFA has a lookup tool on their website for you to find a member who is also a freight forwarder.

Freight forwarders come in many sizes and cover many specialties. They don’t just do shipping container import and exports, they will generally also cover air freight and road freight movements in and out of the UK. Some will ‘stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ buy may cut back on the level of service they can offer by doing this. Others may charge more but may spend more time with you covering the finer details. Our best advice here is to shop around well. Have a good chat with a number of forwarders about your project. As well as asking for your quote, ask lots of questions about how this will work and judge for yourself if they are engaging back with you, and if you would want this company looking after your goods or not.

In our experience there are bedroom operations, all the way up to huge international groups that offer freight forwarding services. All of these book the freight with 3rd parties so the 2 main differentiations any forwarder can offer is price point (which commonly comes from their buying power), and the service levels and knowledge they can offer for your shipment. If this is your first shipment we would recommend shipping with a member of BIFA as you are then reasonably assured that they are an established and reputable operator.

Whilst it is possible to approach shipping lines directly and deal with them without the middleman, if this is your first shipment or a one off shipment, then we advice against this for the following reasons:

  1. You won’t’ necessarily save any money, most freight forwarders have good buying power with shipping lines and can offer very similar prices to you as an end user.
  2. Shipping Lines are large, process heavy behemoths. They have little flexibility in their service provision, and they will be more focused on the basic job that help and support for a beginner.
  3. Shipping lines do make mistakes (just like anyone) and most are fair and reputable operations, however your freight forwarder will probably have a much closer relationship with their shipping lines, perhaps even direct contacts for senior members whose ear they can chew as necessary.
  4. If this is your first shipment, you will probably appreciate having someone to call up who knows about your project. Most freight forwarders will offer this, most shipping lines won’t.

2: You probably don’t need to buy your own shipping container

This may seem an odd bit of advice from a container sales company, but frankly if you don’t need to buy one, we’d rather you find out now and not after spending significant sums buying your own shipping container.

The vast majority of sea freight movements around the world are in ‘liner owned’ shipping containers. This means the shipping line owns the physical container (or they may lease them in, but its theirs to control) A shipping line will usually include the price for lending you one of their containers for your shipment into the price. In reality as the UK generally has a lot more imports than exports, then most shipping lines will not offer any discount if you use your own shipping container as they want to get their own empty containers out of the UK again.

There are a lot of reason to buy your own shipping container, very briefly the most common reasons are:

  • You are shipping somewhere the shipping line doesn’t want its containers to go. Most notably that would include war zones and political hot spots, extremely remote locations (polar regions, centre of rainforests etc) and also a lot of African destinations, but shipping lines can make up their own restrictions and these will change over time.
  • You want to use the shipping container to store your items at destination before use, or you want a storage container to use once you arrive. Some examples of this include
    • One ship care company uses a shipping container as a big toolbox and mobile workshop. They ship this to wherever in the world their customers have a ship that needs work done, they do they work on site and ship the container home when they have finished.
    • If emigrating and also doing a serious renovation or self build once you arrive, then you may want a container to store your goods for a significant period of time at destination. If you use a shipping line container, its free for your trip, but they put hefty restrictions on how quickly they must get it back – and they will levy hefty daily charges for shipping containers that are returned late.
    • You may have a boat, or spots car or exhibition stand that needs to go around the world to events and trip home at the end of, it, the shipping container may also double as a handy storage unit whilst this is at its destination.
    • If exporting to Africa for commercial or charitable reasons, you may find you can sell your shipping container on for a profit at destination, or re-purpose it for your charity to use or give away for the local community to re-use once your goods arrive at destination.
    • With specific reference to African shipments many shipping lines wont’ let you take the shipping container out of the port, without paying a returnable deposit equal to the replacement value on the shipping container. (This may also be a restriction imposed from time to time in areas of political uncertainty elsewhere in the world). If you are shipping to an inland African country buying your own container may at times be the best overall option.
    • You may want to cross a border that the shipping line wont’ cross. This may sound odd but for example recently Maersk (the world biggest shipping line) would not let any of its own containers cross the border from norther Turkey to Iraq, so shippers of good into the northern regions of Iraq commonly ended up buying their own shipping containers for this work.

The above are more commonly the exception rather than the rules. If you are shipping goods to and from 2 major, stable countries with even basic infrastructure then it’s highly likely that you can borrow a free shipping container from your shipping line for the duration of your trip.

3: Expect to pay upfront and pay promptly

If you are a private individual, you will need to pay for the full shipment before the line or your freight forwarder will release the container for you

If you are a small business this is probably the same

If you are a very big business with a strong credit history, if your doing this for this first time expect very stringent payment terms to begin with.

The reasons for this largely revolve around the fact that everyone in the industry has been stung before and this is the best way to protect themselves from customers not paying. Holding your good to ransom to ensure payment has been around since the dawn of shipping itself, and you can expect these days, with this much experience the shipping lines and ports are (if necessary) very good at this.

Very commonly you wont’ get anyone chase you for payment, you’ll be sent all the information and if you don’t get the info and payment back, then you are delaying your own shipment. This likley depends on if you are using a freight forwarder and how much extra help they are offering.

Ordinarily you will need to pay in full before the shipping line issues you with your shipping documents (often the Bill of Lading document)

The Bill of lading document is the legal document of title for the goods that are in your container (and the container itself if you also own this), and you will need this document to effect the release of the container at destination. This document is only issued once the ship leaves UK territorial waters, which does mean you need to get these documents to your customs agent at destination promptly.

If you delay payment, you will delay the bill of lading document being issued, and this may then arrive with you after your shipping container has arrived, and when your shipping container has already incurred extra storage charges at the destination port. These can very commonly be the equivalent of £50-100 per 20ft (or twice this for a 40ft) per DAY that the container is sat at port.

Bill of lading documents are now being largely replaced with electronic versions called waybills. Whist these are easier to transmit and communicate, they process by which they are issued is much the same. Essentially you need to pass this document onto your customs agent at the destination port and they will use this to apply to the port to get your container released at destination. Your freight forwarder will be able to give yo more specific info here in relation to the specific port or country you are shipping to.

4: Your goods are not insured as standard

You are paying a company to move your goods and that all, insurance is not included unless the laws in that country require it. Often any statutory insurance offered is way short of appropriate.

Insurance is usually pretty cheap, anywhere from 0.5-1.5% of the value of the cargo is a typical value to be quoted. However we do recommend to avoid total loss insurance. This only covers you in the even that your entire shipment is lost. If they salvage a single item from your shipment then you are no longer covered under total loss cover.

5: Minor delays are common, bigger problems do occasionally happen

Everyone from the industry has the odd nightmare story to share and these do occasionally happen but are very rare.

Firstly shipping companies advise sailing schedules in advance. the chances of them running perfectly to schedule are unlikely, and delays of a few days are pretty common. Shipping companies can very occasionally send your container to the wrong part of the world, boats hit delays, or have mechanical issues, or may even have political or commercial issues. We’ve seen containers get stuck at a port for 4 months just because the port was overloaded and they could not load the container onto a boat. Very occasionally boats catch fire or sink. These events are of course extremely rare, but they have been happening within the shipping industry and delaying or disrupting shipments since shipping began. These issues won’t’ disappear completely any time soon.

Minor delays are much more common, boats are delayed, and sometimes the boat owner may choose to slow their boat down. If they are short of export booking at the destination port, slowing the vessel down will save fuel costs plus also mean there are more containers waiting for them to take back, when they do finally arrive at their destination. Never treat the sailing schedules as a guarantee, more of a guide.

As well as boat, trucks and trains also run late or experience technical issues. Punctuality between different hauliers and shipping lines can vary dramatically.Most hauliers feel obliged to publish a 99% punctuality figure – in our experience this is more often that not very misleading.

In the UK, for container haulage, Fridays and 4 day weeks (Bank holiday weeks and often the weeks before the bank holiday weekend as well) are traditional peak times, and Mondays are the traditional quiet day. Book your export load for a Monday and we suggest it’s much more likely to be on time than a booking for a Friday on a 4 day week.

6: Take care packing your container

All official transit documents are termed ‘shippers load, stow and count’ which means the shipper (the person sending the goods, probably you!) is required to pack and stow safely, and also required to accurately declare what is inside the container. As well as packign safely this also means that you are required to provide an accurate and detailed list of the contents to the container.

Badly packed shipping containers risk more than just damaged cargo, they are a danger to others who are working to move your container around. Loose cargo can destabilise a truck or port crane, and in extreme cases a truck needing to do an emergency stop may then have a heavy item push through from the shipping container and kill him. They also account for over half of all cargo and freight damage so this is the single biggest risk to a trouble free shipment.

As the shipper you are quite likely liable for any issues due to bad or unsafe packing.

You can get professionals in to pack your shipping container for you, or you can do this yourself. There are lots of guides online about how to pack specific items in a shipping container, but  generally ensure everything is lashed down well, and ensure the container is evenly loaded (Do not put all your heavy items at one end and all the light items at the other end, this can also destabilise trucks and port equipment) and these are the main points covered.

You may also want to think about condensation control. As shipping containers cool down overnight the heat escapes through the roof of the container and condensation will often form. At times this may drop onto our cargo. If you are shipping any moisture sensitive items you may want to consider some condensation treatment to help prevent moisture damage to your shipment. We have a great rang of shipping container desiccants designed specifically for this purpose. For one off / first time shipment we typically recommend our range of Absorpoles which are super easy to use and install.

With regards to a packing list, again its worth speaking to your freight forwarder and / or customers agent well in advance. Household effects jobs (a container full of someones personal belongings) is often treated differently to commercial shipments. With a commercial shipments you will likley need copies of invoices if you have paid for product to export, or a copy of the invoice being sent out to the person buying the goods so an accurate value can be determined.

There is a lot more detail than we can include here, but due to the wide range of potential items going into a container we cannot cover all the possibilities here.

7: It’s your responsibility to declare hazardous goods

You have a legal responsibility to declare if you are transporting any hazardous goods.

Your freight forwarder or agent should be able to help you more here with more detail specific to your shipment.

Generally any large volumes of paint, solvents, or anything flammable or explosive needs to be considered. This includes fuel left at the bottom of a fuel tank if shipping a car or even a petrol lawnmower.

Large volumes of batteries and any forms of compressed gasses are to be considered hazardous as well.

However you also need to consider how it is stored. The shipping industry does have a ‘limited quality’ setup for lower volumes of hazardous goods, but these can change per item. For example you can ship 200 litres of paint in the same 5 litre tins you buy in a shop often without them being classed as dangerous goods. The same amount of paint in a single barrel then firstly needs to be in the right type of barrel (A UN approved design), but your shipment will then be classes as a hazardous shipment and subject to more procedures and a slightly increased shipping cost.

You may also be surprised by what can be hazardous. Did you know that large volumes of loose walnuts are considered highly explosive? If anyone sees walnuts on your manifest its very likely the line or agent will want a lot more information on the volume of nuts you are shipping and how they are packed.

Each potentially hazardous substance has a different set of rules and procedures, it’s well worth over-checking these details early on than risk issues further down the line. Most domestic or charity shipments won’t have much of a problem, but for more commercial shipments with significant volumes of potentially hazardous goods, you may also want to instruct a dangerous goods safety adviser (DGSA) who will be able to help with a lot more detail.

8: Get a good customs agent

Most of the time, you will get prices from freight forwarders from the UK to the port at the destination country. (The exact nature of what they can or can’t quote you for will depend on a lot of factors, some will be able to offer a full door to door service, and in some cases this may not be the most competitive option – the country you are shipping to and the UK’s trading relationship with that country are major factors.)

If you are getting prices in to the nearest port of shipment, (or even the major port of shipment into the area or region) you will then want a good customs agent at that destination, these will nearly all be based at or near the port and a quick Google search should pull up plenty of options.

A good customs agent can offer a lot of benefits

  • They know the local market and setup, and can advise on what is and isn’t viable or practically possible
  • They should be able to offer onward haulage services from the port to your site
  • They know their local governments tariffs and tax setup, and they can advise you on the best setup for this. For example if shipping a load of old furniture in a shipping container, this could be potentially classed as ‘furniture’, ‘antique furniture’, ‘used furniture’ or ‘bric a brac’. In this example the local government may impose different tax levels on each of these commodities, and whilst they might all be the same to you, there may be a significant different in tax to pay by choosing the best option available to you.

9: Check what you are allowed to ship

Many destination countries may ban imports of certain goods for various reasons. For example:

Many African countries have banned imports of used cars older than 5 years, as they want to avoid having all of Europe’s old scrap cars in their country. Many may have restrictions on electronics or other restrictions to help protect major industries, wildlife or ecosystems.

Many may have exceptions if you are emigrating, but its your responsibility to ensure that you are allowed to ship the goods you want to send. Checking online and with the countries embassies or consulates should mean you can get more specific advice relating to your destination country.

As ever, not checking and making a mistake can become considerably more expensive, and may in some cases make you a smuggler. It’s your  responsibility to ensure you are not breaking the law of the country you are shipping to.

10: Special favours are unlikely. Plan well.

In reality is often natural to expect the red carpet service when shelling out a large amount of money, but bear in mind if you’ve paid $5000 for your shipment, that’s less than 5 seconds revenue for a shipping giant like Maersk based on their 2017 group turnover. You are not a VIP client for spending this cash, you are just another customer. (Based on $35 Billion group turnover 2017 Wikipedia)

You are working with a very process heavy industry, what may seem like a reasonable request to you may well be impossible for the shipping industry to accommodate. If you are shipping a one off container for the first time then no offence, but commercially you are going to be a very small priority for the shipping line. Even their customers who ship multiple containers every day may feel they are quite a way down the pecking order.

In reality, once your container is closed and sealed and has left your site, you cannot see it again until it arrives at its destination.

Common requests and issues we see are:

 I’ve left my [important item] in the shipping container, can i drive to the port and collect it, can i meet the driver on his way to the port and collect it?

Generally, no you can’t.

The haulier will quite often be working for someone who isn’t you, the shipping line, the agent, someone potentially 5 or 8 steps away from you. The administrative burden on the chain, the need to ensure security (i.e.: that you are indeed who you say you are), issues over breaking the seal and re-sealing the container once it has left site, and potential risk that the driver gets blamed for this – and the risks the haulier faces by getting this wrong will often mean they will simply refuse to entertain this.

Once the container is at the port, the terminal will never let members of the public onto the quay for a host of reasons. Firstly this is like going air side at an airport, you would need a lot of security checks done, but as ports do not allow members of the public into the port, they are not set up for this.

The other reason is health and safety, they have huge port cranes moving containers around like Lego bricks, and frankly if the ports let members of the public on site, the chances of people getting squashed or run over is pretty high.

The only option in this situation it to pay your shipping line and the port for a ‘frustrated export’ this is often a circa £200 charge but can be considerably more. You can then send a haulier back in to pick this up and bring it back to you (and they will want paying for this). The total costs for this sort of issue and returning the shipping container back to port when you have recovered your item can easily escalate up to and over £1000 in many cases.

Can your driver nip around the corner to our other yard to load a few more items?

Typically no they can’t.

This may seems like an easy and obvious request if they are there with you, but for a haulier this isn’t as easy. Put simply the hauliers customer (usually the shipping line) will instruct the haulier to follow their instructions to the letter only.

There may be security implications if they go to another site or a new address to finish a load, or the very practical solution you have, may have been used by scammers, fraudsters or criminals in the past. This is why a shipping line will refuse to let the haulier take instructions from the site direct. In this specific example the potential is that the legitimate goods are loaded at one site, and the illegal goods are loaded at the other site. In this case this works very well for the criminals as there will be no record of this second loading site so no way to track back the suspect shipment.

Its examples like this which will mean a typical container haulier will only want to perform the exact instructions they have been given.

This related to an example where you decide to ask the driver at the last moment to load at this second location. Usually loading at 2 sites will be fine, if requested at the time of your quote (or formally requested afterwards which will probably add a small additional cost to the job) – but last minute request will either get a no, or will commonly cost a lot more than if you asked earlier on in the process.

11) Corruption still exists, and you should not assume other countries are the same as the UK.

Obviously we will be very wary about publishing exact areas of concern, but from our industry experience we have seen or heard of issues all over the world. In general the less westernised the country, the more likely customs issues may be experienced. we have a lot of examples from Africa, quite a few from Russia and still the odd exceptional case from the USA.

The USA cases we have heard about targeted manufactured goods only. But in reality whenever anyone is moving goods across boarders, where there are large volumes of trade and goods, all priced as low as possible, this will always be an area criminals look to exploit.

One common scam we have heard about is undefined customs ‘issues’ – quote commonly you get 7 days free time at your destination port from its arrival date to get your container out of the port. Within this time you have to ensure the container has cleared customs, otherwise you can get hit with very hefty quay rent charges.

We have heard before that port offices have in the past advised of ‘problems’ or ‘delays’, but of course some form of payment may help speed up this delay.

Unfortunately in this case, if you are not the police, the government or a major business in the area then you probably have little choice here but to pay it. We don’t like saying this but in practical terms. You can take on the local port office if you like but we suggest that paying the bribe is more likely going to be quicker and less costly.

12) Seal your container and record the seal number before it leaves your site

It may sound alarming but most containers are shipped without padlocks on and this is perfectly normal.

As standard, the vast majority of shipping containers in transit are sealed with a bolt seal. Every time your shipping container is ‘interchanged’ (passed between trucks, trains or boats on its journey) the seal a number is recorded. That way if the container is broken into – where this was broken into can be traced back to the specific link in the chain.

Bolt seals are available to buy from us, or if you buy a shipping container from us, we will send you a free bolt seal in the post on request.

This means it’s simply not worth breaking into containers. You will get found out and you will probably get found out long before you find something ‘interesting’ or worth stealing, so in general it prevents any long term issues at ports or in any other terminal.

You must record the number on the seal before it leaves site and check it before you break the seal when it arrives at destination. Also check for damage on the seal that might suggest it has been tampered with. If the seal is missing, or has been changed for a new seal, or if it looks like the seal has been tampered with you should ideally report this to your freight forwarder before opening the container up.

If customs want to look inside your container, they will break your seal and replace with their own customs seal.  If required you should be able to contact the customers office that broke the seal to check their records of the seal number that they broke before taking a look inside.

13) Know your haulage options

side-lifter deliver service collecting a loaded CSC plated shipping container

When loading a container for export there are a number of options available to shippers.

Many freight forwarder may not be fully aware of the available options, so our article showing the types of haulage available when loading for export is well worth a look if you are at all unsure.

14) Know Your Shipping Containers

It is possible ship anything, given the right budgets and timescales, but knowing what practical and cost effective can save you a small fortune.

Its worth noting that its normally not viable to ship a 10ft container, (it will normally be a lot cheaper to half fill a 20ft container) – as ports and boats just aren’t made to handle 10ft containers any more. 30ft shipping containers are also not commonly viable to ship as the shipping lien will still charge you for a 40ft space on the ship.

If you are completely new to shipping containers, our guide detailing the types of shipping container available for export use may be a handy reference guide.

15) Can you reclaim VAT?

All goods heading out of the European union are VAT exempt. this often means that when you buy the goods you still have to pay the VAT, but if you can provide a proof of export for these goods then you can reclaim all VAT on the goods and any associated transport.

We will of course update this article when we know more about BREXIT implications.

If this is relevant to you then its well worth taking more advice from your freight forwarder earlier on.

Normally, you will have to claim back the VAT directly from the company you have purchased the goods from, and they must of course be VAT registered (otherwise you never paid VAT when you purchased the item to this would not apply). You will need a copy of your VAT invoice, and these goods will have to show on your export documentation (the bill of laiding document)

The supplier will want to see a copy of your bill of lading document and this will allow them to refund any VAT as long as the item they have sold to you is clearly listed.

16) Its does work

If you’ve read this article you may be panicking that everything that could go wrong will. This isn’t quite fair. Well over 99% of exports leave the country and arrive at destination without issue or damage. Container shipping is very much the oil that keeps the wheels of capitalism turning in the modern world. The bigger issues raised are a tiny minority of total shipments and whilst you should be aware of the potential for problems, major issues we extremely unlikely.

It may be hard to put your trust in a large, anonymous system – especially if it’s your life’s’ worth of possessions sitting inside this one tin can. However small delays and packing issues aside, containers generally all get there in 1 piece and without major issue. If they didn’t the industry as we know it would be in operation.

If it helps put your mind at rest a little, here are some other bits of info that might put your mind at rest.

  • Anyone who physically sees and handles your container, typically won’t have a clue what’s inside. When you lodge paperwork with your freight forwarder or customs agent, this is separated from the people who handle or move your container during transit.
  • Criminals aren’t interested in your household effects. No offence of course, but however nice your stuff is, it’s not going to be as attractive or as sell-able as a container load of cigarettes, alcohol, consumer electronics or other high value and easy to move items.

If you have done your first shipment and would like to add any advice to this, please let us know and we will be happy to add anything we feel is relevant to this article. We are happy to offer credits and links in return for any input. offer the UK’s largest online range of shipping containers for sale with a nationwide network of storage and conversion yards and crane equipped delivery vehicles.

If you need a shipping container feel free to browse our online range of shipping containers for sale. You can also call us on freephone 0808 1234 215 any time 9am – 5pm weekdays and our team will be happy to discuss your requirements. Alternatively, you can use our online shipping container quote form or request a telephone callback. In both cases we aim to get back to you within 1-2 working hours (may take longer for more detailed quotes).

Thanks to Freight Agency Limited for their input with this article.

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