Where to Buy a Shipping Container

When buying products where you aren’t familiar with the supply chain, it is easy to wind up unhappy with the result.  Shipping containers were invented in the 1950s to transport cargo internationally in the most efficient way possible.  Recently, with the explosion of the secondary market, lots of people are buying and selling containers for other uses.  So where is the best place to buy them?

Let’s start with how containers get to the US to begin with.  Manufacturers, primarily in China, build containers thousands at a time.  Obviously this is the least expensive place to buy them.  Unless you’re buying multiple thousands at a time, you’re not going to be a big enough customer to be able to.  Additionally, if you try to buy them from a manufacturer, you’re going to have to pay freight to get them to the US, handling fees at the port, and then trucking to get them to your location.

There are several large companies in the US that are set up to buy new containers from the manufacturers and surplus used containers from a shipping line, and resell them.  These companies are called wholesalers. To get around the shipping fee, these wholesalers have large overseas organizations that have relationships with shipping lines.  They also may find people with freight to ship and match their destinations up with people who want containers.  A wholesaler can often have containers delivered to any major city in the US with no shipping cost at all.  They also maintain facilities, often near the ports, where they have stock available for sale.  These facilities are called “depots”.  A depot will have a large inventory of every container imaginable, new and used.

Anyone can buy a container from any depot, from anywhere in the country, on a sliding price scale depending on quantity.  Plenty of people have resale businesses set up to access lower prices and broker individual or small quantity container purchases using inventory from a depot.  Not surprisingly, these businesses are called “brokers.”  They rarely have the opportunity to lay eyes on a container before it is sent to the end customer.  However, as they buy high quantities and have little to no overhead, their prices are usually attractive.

So where should you go to buy your container?  It depends on where you are, how many containers you want to buy, and what’s important to you.

For businesses that use lots of containers, you’re going to want to develop a relationship with a wholesaler.  They will be able to order the exact containers you want and can often work with the overseas team to have them delivered to your yard with little to no freight costs.  This is also where you’ll get the best bulk price.

Individuals or businesses looking for a single or small number of containers are going to be best served either going to your nearest depot or working with a broker.  The farther away you buy, the higher your cost to get the container from the depot to your location. The brokers have access to the wholesale pricing at the depots and also have relationships with reputable shipping companies in the US.  The only downside is you’re basically stuck with whatever container arrives unless you want to pay to ship it back. No matter where you buy, be sure to ask if you need a forklift to get the container off the truck at your end.  If you don’t have one, you’ll either need to rent a crane or buy from a depot within 100 miles of your delivery location so the container can be delivered on a tilt bed.

if you need help finding a reputable wholesaler, depot, or broker in your area, we are happy to recommend one.

New vs Used Containers

When buying a shipping container, you will hear different terminology to describe its condition.  Most of the time, these terms have nothing to do with appearance.  Shipping containers were designed and built to carry cargo across the ocean.  The primary users aren’t concerned with what it would look like turned into a hotel.  The secondary market of recycling containers for storage and buildings hasn’t developed a uniform language yet.

New Containers

There are two basic categories of container: new and used.  Even the term “new” is misleading.  As the vast majority of containers are manufactured overseas, they will have all made at least one trip across the ocean to get to the US.  Most of the time, this shipping cost was paid by someone who needed to move cargo, and the container was not sent over empty.  Thus, new containers are commonly referred to as “one trip”.

One trip containers are not perfect but they are as close as you’re going to get.  They don’t bubble wrap containers on ocean liners.  They may have scratches, small dings, and scuffs in the floors.

Used Containers

All containers available in the US other than a one trip are used.  This means they have been carrying cargo all over the world on the ocean.  The shipping lines use them as long as they have cargo to move.  When they have a surplus available somewhere, they sell them to wholesalers for use in the secondary market.  Their condition is labeled strictly by ability to carry cargo, not appearance or age.  A 30 year old, dented and rusted container is just as good as a one trip as long as it is safe to ship cargo.

Official Terms

In the shipping world, the terms for describing the condition are:

CW – Cargo Worthy – The container meets the ISO spec for carrying cargo, in a stack, on the ocean, has been inspected by a licensed and trained inspector, and is certified to be safe.

WWT – Wind and Water Tight – The container is not certified to be safe to transport cargo on a ship.  It has had a visual inspection by a trained inspector and does not have any holes where water or light can come through.

As-Is – There are no representations that the container is safe or water tight.

Occasionally containers sustain significant damage when being used to transport cargo. When the container arrives in a port, it can be repaired and re-certified to CW. The depot estimates how much it will cost to repair the container so it can be re-certified. There are different “grades” which categorize the container by cost to repair to CW.  For example, a Grade A container may only need $50-$100 to repair.  This still doesn’t have anything to do with container age or appearance.  The repairs usually are for things like structural integrity, water tightness, or perhaps damaged latch gear.

Unofficial Terms

Again, none of these terms describe the number of dents, amount of rust, interior smell, or general appearance of the container.  On the secondary market, some resellers have created their own terms to classify a container by appearance.  You might hear someone say “Grade A, B, or C” or “Type I, II, or III” to describe appearance.  These are not official terms and vary depending on where you shop for your container.  They may not even be graded by the same individual using the same criteria within a company.  Be sure to ask for clarification if you are buying a used container with a label other than CW or WWT.