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Keeping Track of Shipping Containers

Believe it or not, there are thought to be around 17 million steel shipping containers currently in existence on the planet. To put that figure into context – that’s approximately two containers for each citizen of New York City!

Of that number, around a quarter are thought to be in active service, hauling freight around the US and across the globe on the back of trucks, trains and cargo ships. Approximately two-thirds of intermodal shipping containers are of the 40-foot variety. The remainder is comprised of 20-footers and other non-standard sizes, right the way down to compact 10-footers.

How Do Shipping Lines Identify Them?

As you will appreciate, that’s a lot of boxes for leasing companies and shipping lines to keep track of, especially when you consider then largest vessel plying the oceans is 1,297 feet in length and can accommodate up to 18,000 20-foot containers!

The most important method of identifying individual units is via the complex set of alpha-numeric registration codes you see printed on all working shipping containers. Although the layman will find these letters and numbers largely indecipherable, they have huge significance to their owners and the carriers.

Shipping container ID codes

BIC Codes and ISO Codes

Prior to beginning their working lives, all intermodal shipping containers must be registered with BIC (Bureau International Des Containers). This non-profit organization was founded in Paris in 1933, with the aim of promoting the safe, secure and sustainable expansion of containerization and intermodal transportation systems. Eventually, back in 1972, BIC was recognized as the official, international registry for container owner codes, which are published in its ‘Containers BIC Code Register’. The organization has expanded to include more than 2,100 members in over 120 countries.

Each registered container has a four-letter prefix and a seven-digit number (i.e. six serial numbers and a check digit). Owners are identified by a unique alphabetic code that they must register with the BIC. This is obviously extremely important in the current climate of concern around international crime, including trafficking and terrorism. ‘ISO 6346’ is the international standard of visual identification agreed by BIC, that covers these alpha-numeric markings.

There are currently only three category identifiers recognised by BIC:

U = all freight containers

J = detachable freight container-related equipment

Z = trailers and chassis

Further ISO codes found on intermodal shipping containers relate to their sizes and types. Here are some examples:

20GP = General purpose container

22BU = Bulk container

22RT = Reefer (refrigerated) container

22UT = Open top container

42HR = Insulated container

42PC = Flat (collapsible)

Remember, these are codes that you either need to be a longshoreman with years of freight terminal experience to understand or refer to official tables to decipher. A ‘GO’ prefix, for example, means ‘General opening at both ends’ and ‘RO’ means ‘Integral reefer mechanically refrigerated’.

Safe Handling and Stowage

In order to safely load and unload a shipping container at an extremely busy terminal, it’s essential that the size, weight and contents are verified. This is why ISO codes are so important. Thanks to great work done by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration in imposing correct markings, documentation and declarations, there are now far fewer accidents at docks.