What is TEU in Shipping – Everything You Wanted to Know

Developed economies and rapid industrialization has led to the exponential growth of the cargo transport industry. 85% of international trade is done using ocean freight, with most cargo being transported in shipping containers.

Container vessels that can accommodate several thousand TEU on board help move large quantities of cargo from one point to another.

The largest of such vessels can accommodate about 23000 TEU! World Bank statistics show that nearly 800 million TEU containers were shipped globally in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on world trade and the movement of goods. However, the discovery of vaccines in 2021 to combat the pandemic is the silver lining, and the world’s economy is expected to bounce back.

Origin of the Modern Intermodal Container

The history of teu goes back to the mid-1950s. Before the shipping container and the teu unit came into the scene, the cargo was usually loaded on shipping vessels, inside boxes, crates or barrels of different sizes for handloading onto trucks and ships.

Malcolm Mclean, an American transport entrepreneur, developed the first container made of corrugated steel in 1955 that could be easily transported on a truck or ship. He later sold the idea of his invention to the United States military, which used these boxes to transport military equipment.

The two decades following the invention saw many container types with varying sizes and locking mechanisms that posed problems loading on trucks and ships. In the following years, these problems were gradually sorted out.

The first standard container vessel launched in 1968 was Hakone Maru, a Japanese registered ship. This ship sailed between Japan and the west coast of the US. It catered to transporting TEU containers and could transport 752 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers.

Along with the different modes of transport that cater to the shipping industry, the equipment used for transporting goods and technology has also evolved. Modern cranes and cargo handling equipment are just two examples.

Related reading: What is an Intermodal Container?

Types of Containers

Different types of cargo are transported over land, sea, and air. It is generally categorized as dry, chill, or frozen. Cargo could be temperature-sensitive, for example, food products, meat, pharmaceutical drugs, etc.

Such temperature-sensitive cargos must be transported in containers that can maintain the temperature or humidity requirements of the cargo.

There could be other special transportation requirements too. Containers of different types and sizes are used to transport the different kinds of cargo based on the customer’s needs. It is estimated that there are between 20 to 23 million TEU in circulation globally!

Containers are generally of two categories – dry containers and refrigerated containers.

Usually, dry containers are empty containers with lockable doors at one end, though containers with doors on either end are also found.

Refrigerated containers, also known as reefers, transport goods that require particular temperature settings so that they do not deteriorate or get damaged during transit and storage. The internal temperature of a reefer is controlled according to specifications.

open top container

Flat racks and open-top containers transport Out of Gauge cargo (OOG). These are cargo that comes in abnormal sizes and shapes that do not fit inside a conventional shipping container, such as a twenty-foot or a forty-foot container.

Examples of OOG cargo are wind turbine blades, large industrial boilers, bulldozers, etc. Flat racks and open-top containers are available in sizes of twenty-foot and forty-foot.

Container Size

Shipping containers come in two standard sizes, namely, twenty-foot and forty-foot containers. In shipping terms, these two are TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) and an FEU (Forty-foot Equivalent Units). A standard TEU or FEU also goes by the name of a general-purpose container (20’ or 40’ GP container).

TEU is the standard unit of measurement for counting containers of different capacities and describing the total of container ships and container terminals. It also offers a clear picture of port activity in terms of throughput. For instance, the busiest container ports in China, Shanghai and Shenzhen, handle over 65 million TEU annually.

Though containers of varying sizes are used globally for the transportation of goods, the TEU and FEU are the most common. Shipping containers come in other sizes: forty-foot High Cube (40’ HC), forty-five-foot High Cube (45’ HC), etc.

The high cube containers have a height of one foot more than the standard GP containers. It is interesting to note here that there are more general-purpose containers in the world container market than high cube ones, just as there are more FEUs in circulation than TEUs!

Typically, a TEU is made of tough, heavy-duty, weather and corrosion-resistant steel, known as Corten steel. The components of such a container are the front-end wall panels, a roof, two sidewall panels, the floor, and a door frame with the door assembly and locking mechanism. One of the sidewall panels usually has a small opening for ventilation.

Containers are locked using lock rods that run vertically on the two doors. Each door usually has two lock rods on it. Port authorities worldwide require that loaded containers for transport are secured using at least one container seal affixed to the lock-rod mechanism in its prescribed slot.

Container door lock

The lock and seal are for the safety and security of the cargo inside the container. Container seals are covered by the International Standards Organization (ISO) standards under ISO 17712:2013.

Let us take a look at the dimensions of a TEU here.

The external length of a twenty-foot equivalent GP unit is 20 feet. It has a width of 8 feet and a height of 8 feet 6 inches. Its internal dimensions for loading are a length of 19 feet 4 inches, a width of 7 feet 8 inches, and a height of 7 feet 10 inches.

There might be minor differences in measurements between containers made by different manufacturers but remember that they all have to fit correctly on the trucks they are loaded, meet the specifications of the lifting and handling equipment that are used in seaports, as well as in the container storage area of a ship.

Related Reading: A Guide to Shipping Container Dimensions


Typically, a general-purpose TEU can hold about 11 wooden pallets arranged in a single stack. The number of pallets can go up to 22 when pallets are double stacked. Again, many of these numbers depend on whether standard or euro-pallets are used. It also depends on the height of each packed pallet.

While the International Standards Organization (ISO) has set the standards for uniform pallet size and quality through its ISO standard 18333: 2014, the standard pallets and the euro-pallets vary in size. Dimensions of the former are 48 inches X 40 inches, while the latter has dimensions of 47.24 inches X 31.50 inches.

Container Load

What is the weight that can be loaded inside a twenty-foot container? Logistics and shipping companies normally load up to 24000 kilograms (24 metric tons) of cargo in a TEU.

An empty container of this size weighs 2280 kilograms (2.24 metric tons). Hence the total weight of a fully laden twenty-foot container will be 26280 kilograms (26.28 metric tons).

The weight-bearing capacity of a twenty-foot container is 28200 kilograms (28.2 metric tons), and its fully-laden total weight is 30480 kilograms (30.48 metric tons).

A cubic meter (CBM) is the standard unit to measure freight volume. If we look at the overall volume that a twenty-foot GP container can take, it is about 33 CBM (cubic meters). However, the actual usable freight volume will only be in the range of 25 to 28 CBM.

Now, that brings us to the question of what is the basis of charging freight by the shipping company? When a business leases a container for transporting cargo, the charge will be for the full container irrespective of whether it is wholly or partially filled.

However, according to the convention, for Less-than Container Load (LCL) shipments, if the weight of cargo exceeds 1000 kilograms (1 ton), then the weight is used for the calculation of freight charges.

Only when the weight is below 1 ton is the volume in CBM considered for the freight calculation.

TEU Reefer and Dimensions

Reefer containers are sturdy, large; portable refrigerators used to carry goods with special temperature requirements. They generally maintain temperatures between -30° C and +30° C.

Reefers are cooled using Gensets (generator sets) that work on electricity and fuel since they are transported over land and by sea on cargo carriers.

Refrigerated containers use temperature logging equipment called Data Loggers to indicate and log the temperature inside a reefer unit during transport.

This data can often be downloaded onto a personal computer for evaluation. Most of the reefer containers in circulation worldwide are of TEU size.

Reefer unit in container
Reefer container

Because of the design and insulation materials used in the construction of reefers, their internal dimensions are much less than normal dry vans or TEUs.

While loading and stacking cargo, enough gap has to be left to circulate cool air within the container. This eats into space further. Gratings on the container floor and the walls, along with the additional space at the base of a pallet, help in air circulation.

Another requirement while loading the container is to leave a minimum space of 12 centimetres between the cargo and the inner roof of the TEU reefer.

The internal length of a TEU reefer is 17 feet 10 inches. Its width is 7 feet 6 inches, and the height is 7 feet 1 inch. These containers have a tare weight (weight of the container when empty) of 2990 kilograms, and they can take a maximum payload of 21450 kilograms or a volume of 24 to 26 CBM (848 to 918 cubic feet) each.

What is a CSC Plate?

Containers used to transport cargo have a CSC plate fixed on them, and a TEU is no exception. The CSC plate is a safety approval plate that lists the container details such as its design, inspection date, the gross weight (total weight of the container and its payload), etc. These details are required as a minimum.

According to the CSC 1972 (Convention for Safe Containers), every container used for cargo transportation has to be inspected by an authorized inspector once in 30 months to certify its sea or roadworthiness. A CSC plate is fixed on the container after each successful inspection.

Container Markings

Convention for Safe Containers 1972

Convention for Safe Containers 1972, abbreviated to CSC 1972, is a set of uniform safety regulations that applies to all transport containers above a specific prescribed size.

The United Nations (UN) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) jointly held the convention to promote human safety while handling transport containers.

The CSC 1972 mandates containers covered under this convention to fit safety approval plates showing the required details.

Comparison – TEU and FEU

The table given below provides a quick comparison between the TEU and FEU.

Equipment Size

(L X W X H)

Internal Dimensions

(L X W X H)

Weight of Container (TARE) Weight of Cargo (NET WEIGHT) Volume
TEU 20’ X 8’ X 8’6” 19’4” X 7’8” X 7’10” 2280 KG 28200 KG 33 CBM
FEU 40’ X 8’ X 8’6” 39’5” X 7’8” X 7’10” 3700 KG 28800 KG 67 CBM
TEU REEFER 20’ X 8’ X 8’6” 17’10” X 7’6” X 7’1” 2990 KG 27490 KG 27 CBM
FEU REEFER HC 40’ X 8’ X 9’6” 37’11” X 7’11” X 7’11” 4520 KG 29480 KG 67.5 CBM
TEU OPEN TOP 20’ X 8’ X 8’6” 19’5” X 7’8” X 7’6” 2280 KG 28000 KG
Note: There may be minor variations in dimensions between containers of different series or make.

What Goes Inside a TEU?

Yet another difficult question is, what can go inside a TEU? It would depend on several factors, such as the cargo’s packing, weight, and volume.

For comparison sake, let us say about 282 bags of flour each weighing 100 kilograms, 2820 packets of corn weighing 10 kilograms each, one large car with enough padding around it to prevent scratches and damage, or about 100 washing machines double-stacked is what a GP TEU can hold. However, remember that these numbers depend a lot on the individual packing of cargo and other factors.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is meant by TEU in shipping?

TEU is an acronym used in container shipping or logistics, which means ‘Twenty Equipment Unit’, or a 20-foot container. TEU is the smallest piece of equipment used for transporting goods.

2. What is the purpose of a TEU Container?

A TEU is a standard intermodal freight container for transporting goods and materials by sea, land and air. It has specific dimensions, so it easily fits onto vessels, trucks and carriers.

3. Who made the first TEU container?

Malcolm Mclean, an American transport entrepreneur, developed the first container made of steel in 1955 that could be easily transported on a truck or ship. He later sold the idea of his invention to the United States military, which used these boxes to transport military equipment.

4. What are TEU and FEU?

Shipping containers come in two sizes. A TEU or Twenty Foot-Equivalent Unit is the standard size of a shipping container.  It is 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall. An FEU or Forty Foot-Equivalent Unit is double the size of a TEU. It is 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall.

5. Which is the largest container ship in the world?

Presently, the largest container ship in the world is the Ever Alot, constructed by CSSC with a 24,004 TEU capacity. However, the record for the most containers carried in a single trip is held by Ever Ace, which shipped 21,710 TEU of containers from Yantian to Europe.

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Disclaimer: The author’s views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used in the article, have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 

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About Author

Hari Menon is a Freelance writer with close to 20 years of professional experience in Logistics, Warehousing, Supply chain, and Contracts administration. An avid fitness freak, and bibliophile, he loves travelling too.

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One Comment

  1. A well written article explaining the TEUs and it’s various features. A must for anyone who is into Marine Cargo business.

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