The Importance Of ISO Standards For Shipping Containers

Have you ever wondered why the same shipping container can journey across an ocean, then cross dozens of states by rail, and finally ride a truck for the concluding stretch to its destination? The answer is the ISO standardization system, which allows for organization from shipment to shipment and makes containers usable across many platforms.

What Is ISO?

iso-standards-shipping-containersISO is the shorthand name for the International Organization for Standardization, which, per their website, focuses on ensuring that “products and services are safe, reliable and of good quality” by standardizing requirements for processes, materials, and goods. The organization publishes over “19,000 International Standards,” which are documents that provide “requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.”

Tracking ISO Containers

iso-standard-check-digit-calculatorThe important standard when it comes to containers is ISO 6346, which, per, “establishes a visual identification system for every container that includes a unique serial number, the owner, a country code, a size, type and equipment category as well as any operational marks.” Keeping track of what containers hold, who they belong to, and where they’re going would surely be an impossible task without such an identification method.

Standardizing ISO Containers

Another role of ISO 6346 is making shipping containers conform to similar, stackable sizes. If containers weren’t all of similar, or at least compatible, dimensions, then stacking them would become a nightmare. Fortunately, ISO 6346 recognizes and standardizes shipping-container lengths into five predominant sizes: 20 feet, 40 feet, 45 feet, 48 feet, and 53 feet. The 20- and 40-feet sizes are extremely widespread in ocean transport, while the 53-foot size is predominant in American tractor-trailer shipping, but mixing occurs across all platforms. Non-specialty containers are all 8 feet wide, making them stackable. ISO also standardizes the height of normal containers to 8 feet, 6 inches, which ensures they will fit through rail tunnels.


Containers standardized to fit through rail tunnels is just one example of how the ISO system makes it possible for the same container to use multiple modes of transportation. Because ISO containers can go from sea to air to land, transportation becomes cheaper and more efficient: There’s no need to unpack a container and put its contents on a new vehicle, plane, or ship every time it changes shipping modes, as a standard container will typically be able to move seamlessly between transportation methods.

The ISO system is how a shipment of new TVs from Japan can ride a truck to a port, float to the United States on a ship, make its way to a processing depot by air, and end up on another truck for the final leg of its journey. It’s an incredibly useful and important innovation.