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How Many CBM is a 20ft Container?

Published by Tamar Hela.

What's in this article?
  1. What is a 20 ft Container?
  2. What is CBM?
  3. Standard Dimensions of a 20ft Container
  4. Exterior Dimensions
  5. Internal Dimensions
  6. Maximum Weight Capacities
  7. Metric Unit Conversions
  8. Common Types of Containers and Their Capacity
  9. Dry Containers
  10. Reefer Containers
  11. Flat Racks
  12. How Many CBM is a 20ft Container?
  13. Other Considerations When Calculating CBM in a Container
  14. Standard Pallets vs Wide Range Pallets
  15. Bubble Wrap or Other Packing Materials
  16. Key Takeaways
How Many CBM is a 20ft Container?

A thorough understanding of how container dimensions translate to cargo capacity is essential for any company regularly involved in international shipping.

Whether you're a manufacturer looking to maximize output per container, a freight forwarder designing optimal bookings, or a customs broker confirming declarations, accurately correlating space in cubic meters to container sizes drives efficiency and saves money across the entire supply chain.

This in-depth article will explore all the critical factors in calculating the cubic meter capacity of standard 20-foot dry cargo shipping containers.

We'll examine container specifications, weight restrictions, common container types, and other practical considerations affecting true loadable volume.


What is a 20 ft Container?

A 20-foot container, commonly called a "20-footer, " is one of the most widely used standard container types in global shipping. These standard containers come pre-built to facilitate efficient cargo transport by ship, train, and truck. Made from corrugated steel, 20-foot shipping containers are 20 feet long and 8 feet wide on the exterior. This specific size allows for stacking 10 abreast on container ships and optimal loading on trains and trucks.

As an easily recognizable unit of shipping that maintains the exact dimensions regardless of transit mode, 20ft containers have revolutionized global trade since their widespread adoption in the 1950s.

What is CBM?

CBM stands for cubic meters, the metric unit used to measure volume capacity. Within shipping, it is essential to quantify precisely how much interior space is available inside a container to determine how much cargo can be loaded.

Cubic meters translate the physical dimensions of containers into usable volumes that various goods can then fill. Shippers must understand CBM capacity when arranging international movements and maximizing container loads to save on transport costs.

The calculations involve taking internal measurements of length x width x height to derive a cube or volume in cubic meters.

Standard Dimensions of a 20ft Container

See below for an explanation of the standard dimensions of a typical 20-foot container:

Exterior Dimensions

As mentioned, a standard shipping container's exterior dimensions are a length of exactly 20 feet, width of 8 feet, and height of 8 feet 6 inches. These fixed outer measurements allow for highly automated loading, stacking, and handling using specialized lifting and locking equipment at every point along the supply chain.

Internal Dimensions

However, internal usable space is slightly less once structural elements are accounted for. A 20ft container interior will typically measure 18 feet in length from inside wall to inside wall. The width is 7 feet 6 inches between the interior corrugated steel panels. The height from floor to ceiling is 7 feet 6 inches.

Taking away the extra few inches on all sides leaves shippers with a slightly smaller internal cube than the exterior envelope within which to fit cargo.

Maximum Weight Capacities

While they provide over 34 cubic meters of potential volume, standard 20-foot containers also have legal maximum loading weights that must be considered. For road transport within countries, limits are often set around 24,000 kgs or 26,400 pounds, including the empty container's weight.

Some nations allow slightly more for ocean carriage, but shipping lines restrict container weights to safe operating levels, usually 24,000 kgs or 52,910 pounds for 20ft boxes. When packing, volume alone can't be maximized - weight ratings must be respected to avoid penalties or dangers of overloading infrastructure.

Heavier goods, therefore, take up fewer cubic meters within the given tonnage constraints.

Metric Unit Conversions

To assist non-metric clients, here are the key 20 ft shipping container dimensions converted to imperial measurements:

  • Exterior Length: 20 feet
  • External Width: 8 feet
  • External Height: 8 feet 6 inches
  • Interior Length: 18 feet
  • Interior Width: 7 feet 6 inches
  • Internal Height: 7 feet 6 inches
  • Maximum Volume: 1,230 cubic feet = 34.8 cubic meters
    Staying familiar with both systems helps shipping professionals globally communicate critical specification details.

Common Types of Containers and Their Capacity

While all 20-foot containers are the same length, different specialized containerscan have various capacities. See below for a rundown:

Dry Containers

We have been primarily discussing the primary dry cargo container without environmental controls thus far. With internal dimensions noted above, a standard 20ft dry box gives shippers a maximum of 34.8 cubic meters or 1,230 cubic feet to load assorted general freight.

Reefer Containers

20ft refrigerated containers, called reefer boxes, maintain cooled or heated conditions for temperature-sensitive cargo like fresh produce, frozen meat, or pharmaceuticals. Refrigeration machinery and additional insulation reduce the internal cube slightly to 33.1 cubic meters or 1,170 cubic feet in most cases. However, the environmental controls expand usable commodity listings tremendously.

Flat Racks

Open-top frames called flat racks provide 31.6 cubic meters or 1,115 cubic feet of lading space in a 20ft configuration. The top-opening design precludes stacking cargo above, thus decreasing total volume potential compared to dry vans and reefers with enclosed roofs. However, flat racks maintain versatility for transporting oversized or non-stackable items that wouldn't otherwise fit container confines.

How Many CBM is a 20ft Container?

To answer the question directly, based on standard international specifications, the maximum potential cubic meter capacity of a primary 20ft dry cargo shipping container is 34.8 cubic meters. This figure assumes the interior volume is densely filled in all dimensions without sacrificing structural integrity or exceeding weight limits.


Other Considerations When Calculating CBM in a Container

Standard Pallets vs Wide Range Pallets

The type of pallets used impacts the stacking density inside a box. Standard 40x48 inch wood pallets allow for tighter organization than wider sheet pallets at 56x48 inches. The latter reduces potential cubic meter loading even when container weight regulations are met.

Bubble Wrap or Other Packing Materials

Any void-filling supplies like plastic wrapping, foam, or air pillows displace space that cargo could otherwise occupy. Additional packing subtracts from the container's gross cubic meter capacity on paper since unfilled volume can no longer physically hold the product.

Key Takeaways

In closing, properly determining CBM capacity requires comprehending technical container dimensions, accounting for all material reductions to usable space like insulation and refrigeration, and considering the variety of cargo characteristics that impact stacking densities, such as pallet sizes and void materials.

Shippers can optimize container loads only with a thorough grasp of specifications integrated with warehousing realities.

Ensure you maximize each container to cut shipping costs with A1 Auto Transport. Our experts understand how cargo characteristics impact fill rates and can help analyze container plans to derive every possible CBM - contact us today for a free quote.

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Tamar Hela is one of our featured writers at A-1 Auto Transport, researching everything from AI auto shipments out of China to what paperwork is required to move long distance. We can safely say she's become well versed in all things shipping and logistics while making the information easy to digest and understandable. 

Tamar has been a copywriter for over 16 years and was trained in the 7-Figure Copywriting Accelerator course through American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). She's also an incredibly seasoned copyeditor, having previously been the Chief Editor and Publishing Director for Cosby Media Productions, based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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CSI Logistics
435 Division Street
Elizabeth, NJ 07201
FMC 22206
Intl Cargo
45 Campus Drive
Edison, NJ 08837
NO. 17858N
Trans Global Auto Logistics, Inc.
3401 E Randol Mill Rd,
Arlington, TX 76011
NO. 018191NF
CFR Rinkens
15501 Texaco Avenue
Paramount, CA 90723
NO. 013055NF
ABC Worldwide LLC
2840 NW 2nd Ave #105
Boca Raton, FL 33431
NO. 025472F
ShipYourCarNow LLC
1160 South Rogers Circle Suite 1
Boca Raton, FL 33487
NO. 025646
Merco Air & Ocean Cargo, Inc.
6 Fir Way
Cooper City, FL 33026
NO. 021869F
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