How to buy a shipping container

How to Buy a Shipping Container: Your Complete Purchasing Guide

Buying a shipping container may seem like an easy task, but there are countless factors to consider to ensure you end up with the right fit for your needs. Whether you are buying a new or used shipping container for transportation purposes or exploring other shipping container uses like building a house or business, learning the process and common tips for how to buy a shipping container is crucial before you get started.

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Steps for How to Buy a Shipping Container
What to Look for When Buying a Shipping Container
The Cheapest Way to Buy Shipping Containers
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Steps for How to Buy a Shipping Container

Step 1: Decide if You Should Buy a New or Used Shipping Container

If you are looking to transport precious cargo or build a home, restaurant, etc. with shipping containers, your first thought may be to play it safe and buy a new container. But the decision whether to buy a used shipping container or a new one is a bit more nuanced than that and depends heavily on your needs.

Unsurprisingly, used containers are often in less-than-pristine condition; after all, they have likely been subjected to some level of wear and tear over their lifetimes. However, if you can find a used shipping container that’s only a few years old and has good weatherproofing, you can sometimes get a cheaper price without sacrificing quality. After all, cargo containers are meant to last! 

It’s not just the condition you’ll want to consider, though. You also need to think about lifespan and how long you will need to use this container. New containers have a much longer lifespan than used ones. Depending on the age of the used container, they can last around five or six years compared to upwards of 20 years for new containers. 

Step 2: Choosing the Right Type of Shipping Container to Buy

Start by determining the required size of your container depending on the size of cargo or space needed for container conversion. The two most common sizes for standard containers are 20ft and 40ft, and suppliers like Container Sales Group also offer 40ft. High Cube and 45ft. High Cube containers if you need extra vertical space. 

If you have particularly fragile or oversized cargo loads, you may want to explore options beyond the standard containers. Some of the most common specialized container types include…

  1. Open Top Containers replace a typical solid roof with a tarp. This still keeps freight protected and dry, but provides extra flexibility for top-loading and transporting oversized or abnormally shaped cargo such as timber. 
  2. Open Side Containers – also called “full access containers – allow quick and easy access to cargo through the larger opening. This makes them fantastic for long-term storage where you may not want to dig through every item to get to something in the back. They are also great for restaurant or bar conversions. 
  3. Double Door Containers feature doors that open on each short end of the container, providing extra flexibility for loading and unloading cargo. They also provide flexibility to partition the space to transport two different types of freight in one container.
  4. Flat Rack Containers have only two short sides and no top, offering ultimate versatility for transporting items of all shapes and sizes. These shipping containers also make it easier to load and unload cargo.
  5. Other Container Types: Finally, determine if you need any additional special conditions for your cargo, which could require a refrigerated container, dry cargo container, or insulated/thermal retainer. 

Container suppliers like Container Sales Group also offer custom storage containers to fit your specific needs. Call us today at (708) 734-4073 to learn more. 

Step 3: Set Your Budget

We recommend doing this step after determining what type of container you need – this will allow you to get a better sense of reasonable price ranges for your specific container needs vs. coming up with an arbitrary number upfront.

However, the average price for a used shipping container is somewhere between $1,500 – $5,000 while new containers and one-trip containers are usually more expensive and range from $3,000 – $5,000.

Location also plays an important part in the cost of shipping containers. As China and the rest of Asia have more exports than imports, these countries often face a deficit of containers, as they export more than they import. Consequently, there are often not enough containers available. Buying a container in Shanghai, for example, will cost more than buying one in Hamburg, Germany. In addition, the further a container needs to travel to get to you, the more it will likely cost.

Unsure about where to set your budget? Contact Container Sales Group for a quote based on your specific location and container needs. 

Step 4: Decide Where to Buy the Shipping Container

The need for shipping containers has skyrocketed in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and as they become increasingly popular for the construction of structures like homes and restaurants. Unsurprisingly, there are some who have tried to benefit from this increased need at the expense of consumers. To avoid this, try to opt for a reputable, proven shipping container supplier that has been in business for more than just a few years. 

Next, in order to get the best rate when buying a shipping container, you’ll want to know where the company you’re considering buying from gets their containers. The more middlemen are involved, the more your bottom line is impacted without much (or any) added value. Consider purchasing from a company like Container Sales Group, which buys shipping containers direct from the steamship lines to offer our customers the highest quality container at the most competitive prices.

Lastly, be sure to read reviews for any company before moving forward to get an unbiased perspective from other customers. 

Step 5: Container Inspection

Containers must be inspected before purchase to ensure that they are not damaged. If you plan on using your container for work purposes, it will need to meet certain safety standards. Containers should also include the proper documentation and markings if they are going to be used internationally or carried by ship. 

New containers will be made of new steel and may come with additional features like security boxes to prevent the lock from being cut off for forklift pockets for easy moving, or other brand markings that were placed on it at the factory. 

When used, shipping containers can spend years in a harsh marine environment. A dent here, some rust patches there testify to their journey. While minor cosmetic damages don’t jeopardize their structural integrity, serious damages aren’t uncommon among containers making them less robust than their counterparts. Based on their conditions, shipping containers are classified into the following categories: 

  1. “AS IS” – Used containers are units that are retired cargo containers sold with possible holes, floor damage, or other fixable repairs. These containers have heavy signs of usage and deterioration. “As Is” storage containers make a good option for customers looking for a discounted container that they can repair themselves or build with. 
  2. Wind & Water Tight (WWT): These weatherproof units are typically 10-20 years of age and are retired from the steamship lines lease fleet.  The exterior condition of the containers can have some rust, dings, dents & professional welded patches or repairs due to some damage that was sustained in shipping products overseas. These containers cannot be used for ocean export because their CSC plate is expired but are great for ground-level, portable storage, or building purposes.
  3. Cargo Worthy (CW): This is a CSC (Container Safety Convention) criterion under which a used shipping container is deemed suitable for the transport of cargo overseas all over the world.  These units are typically 10-15 years of age, made from strong Cor-Ten Steel, wind/watertight, and structurally sound for international cargo transport.  Aesthetically, Cargo Worthy containers all have some exterior rust, dings, dents & welded patches. The floors are made from solid marine-grade laminated plywood with steel horizontal bars running underneath the flooring every 4-6” running the length of the container. The quality of these containers is ideal for ocean export, ground-level storage, or building purposes at a lower price point than New/One-Trip Containers.
  4. IICL (International Container Lessor):  IICL has created a standard of inspection that ensures that a Shipping Container (aka ISO Container) is in adequate condition to be leased for cargo transportation. IICL often guarantees a high standard of quality (regarding the condition of the container) but also ensures that the container will also be dependable and last for many years. On average IICL units are newer, structurally sound, and have a better cosmetic appearance than other used containers. Excellent for ocean export, ground-level portable storage, or building.
  5. One-Trip / New: These units are manufactured overseas and have made a one-way move with cargo over to the United States. These containers have not spent a lot of time on a vessel or being handled at the port and make an excellent choice for ocean export, ground-level portable storage or building.

There’s a lot to consider when evaluating the condition of a container, but reputable suppliers will inspect the containers before putting them up for sale and help guide you along the way. Plus, certain container suppliers are committed to only offering top-quality containers, meaning you’ll need to spend less time on this step and you incur little to no risk of purchasing an unfit container for your needs. At Container Sales Group, for example, all of our shipping containers are wind and watertight and meet cargo-worthy standards. 

Step 6: Find Out if You Need Permits and Obtain Them if Needed

Shipping containers can be used as a permanent or temporary storage option in place of a shed, garage, or workshop. Many years ago, most areas did not require a permit for metal shipping containers, but some areas are now requiring one even if it is for storage. Before you purchase an international shipping container, it is important to know if your local municipality or village requires a permit. 

To obtain a permit, you will have to reach out to your local government contact and apply for official permission.  Usually, this requires paying a fee and agreeing that you will abide by the rules guiding its issuance. The requirements for permits differ from city to city, county to county, and state to state.  Once you obtain permission, you will then need to consider a couple of factors with delivery.

Step 7: Prepare Your Space for Container Delivery


The space needed for delivery will depend on who you are purchasing the container from. Container Sales Group, for example, uses a tilt body (roll-off truck), meaning the container slides off the back of the truck as it pulls forward. We can also deliver longer distances with a flatbed truck requiring customers to lift off containers at the time of arrival.

It is important to consider how much distance you will need to have at your property to confirm if you have enough room for delivery.  Measuring ahead of time will help you decide on container size as well as ensure you have a smooth delivery.

Here is a general rule of thumb:

  • 20 ft. containers need 50 ft. straight-line space
  • 40 ft. containers need 150 ft. of straight-line space
  • 16 ft. Height Clearance, and 12 ft. Width- No wires or trees

Prepping the Ground

Finally, determining where you are going to put the container is very important not only to the delivery space as mentioned above but for the long-term maintenance of your container.  Your ground must be solid, level, and have a well-drained surface or asphalt, gravel, or even a concrete pad. Keep in mind that the ground needs to be level, especially for a 40 ft. container for the doors to open and close properly. You might consider placing railroad ties or wood blocks under each of the 4 corner posts of the container for additional support.

What to Look for When Buying a Shipping Container

1. Paint And Markings

Most new shipping containers have a solid color, usually tan or white, and won’t have any markings on them. On the other hand, the used ones are usually painted with colors that reflect the shipping line’s branding. Some containers may also bear the shipping line’s logo and name.

Based on how long they have been used, the quality of the paint may vary. Good sellers should be able to offer a simple paint job to eliminate this problem.

2. Condition Of The Container

As you might expect, a new shipping container will have only been moved once (from the factory to the depot) and is unlikely to be damaged. They have been built to the highest standard. The rigors of shipping might cause a few signs of wear, but these are more than likely due to their use.

When you purchase used containers, on the other hand, you’ll need to pay more attention to the condition and how it fits with your anticipated needs for the container. You will want to make sure your container supply company has had an inspection done and can provide proper paperwork, otherwise, you may want to invest in an inspection on your own to confirm conditioners are right for your needs. 

3. Security And Transportation

There will be lockboxes on many brand-new shipping containers. These are housings around the locks that help prevent the lock from being cut. You won’t find this feature on most used shipping containers.

In addition, most new shipping containers come with forklift pockets, which are invaluable to contractors or yard workers who need to move them around. Depending on the used container, you may find them, but many will not, so cranes and special lifts will be required to move them.

Lockboxes On Many Brand-New Shipping Containers For Sale
Lockboxes On Brand-New Shipping Containers

4. Reputation of the Company

When purchasing a shipping container, it is important not only to look at the quality of the container itself but the quality and reputation of the company you are buying from.

Be sure the company conducts inspections of used containers so you feel confident in the reported condition of the container. Companies like Container Sales Group which buy containers directly from steamships also tend to offer much more competitive pricing. 

Any company you choose to work with should have reviews and/or testimonials to speak to the quality of their products and purchasing experience. 

The Cheapest Way to Buy Shipping Containers

Tight budget? Looking to get the best possible deal on a shipping container? Follow these tips to learn how to buy shipping containers as cost-effectively as possible: 

  1. Buy used: This doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the condition of your container; in fact, that’s just about the last thing you should do, particularly if you plan to use your container to carry precious cargo. However, cargo containers are strong and built to last, so if you can get a used container in good condition, you’ll likely save a good chunk of change without sacrificing on quality. 
  2. Work with a company that buys direct: Companies like Container Sales Group buy shipping containers direct from the steamship lines to offer our customers the highest quality container at the most competitive prices.
  3. Save on delivery costs: Shipping container delivery can be expensive. While you can get your purchase delivered to you empty, consider whether it makes sense to lease your container to a company for one-way use. For example, say that you are moving your box from Los Angeles, USA to Shanghai, China, and you find a company that needs a container for one-way use for that same journey. You can lease out your shipping container for one-way use, so the company gets their cargo moved and you get your container without having to pay for delivery. 

Need help with how to buy a shipping container? 

Container Sales Group has been in business of new & used shipping container sales for more than 24 years. We offer quality containers around the United States at the most competitive prices while also offering industry-leading customer support. Contact us for a quote or call today at (708) 998-5543.

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