How to Track Your Container Shipment

Your container shipment is important. You have likely invested thousands of dollars (if not more) into the goods inside and the shipping process itself. You might have even bought the container and are hoping to use it in the future. All of this leads to significant interest on your part and a hope that all would go smoothly during shipping. Yet why hope when you can confirm?

In addition to the above investments, you likely need to know when your shipment is expected to arrive to plan out future business. How early will you need to order goods ahead in the future? At what point could you expect stock troubles? Most customers will not wait around for your product to come back in stock if you run out, especially if you aren't sure when they might be coming back, and they can find your product (or a variation) elsewhere. Therefore, poor tracking and delays can cause missed sales.

These needs and concerns have led to tracking methods clients can use to track shipping and get up-to-date information on their items. Not all processes are the same, so here are some of the most common ways to track your container shipment. Not everything will be in your control, but the information will let you better manage what you can.

Know the Plan Ahead of Time

Tracking your shipment is not helpful if you do not have a baseline or timeline to work from. Sure, your shipment is currently rounding South America, but should it be at this time? Is that normal? While you do not need to be a shipping expert (that's their job), you should at least have a basic itinerary and timeline, which you can easily get from most shipping companies. Note that while information and tracking have improved, it is not an exact science.

Every ship and shipping company will have detailed schedules and itineraries, especially in the increasingly efficient world of container shipping. Every minute is accounted for and used wisely, and that means you should at least be able to get a general idea of what is going on at any given time.

It will also help if you know what you can on your end as well. For example, how long will it take to unload a shipment into your warehouses or stores? Is space planned out for unloading or delivery? Will there be the appropriate personnel there to receive the delivery and work with it as needed? Such logistics on your end can keep the process smooth and reduce delays.

Things You Might Need

Some forms of tracking might use an account-based system. Others may simply ask for tracking numbers of one sort or another each time you want to check. In any case, you will likely need at least one of the following, even if you have an account:

  • The container number, which is usually four letters (owner code) followed by six digits and a check digit. The code shows the owner of the container, and the digits are the serial number. The last digit is used to check for typing errors or potential confusion and can be used to check against possible mistakes or misunderstandings. This is an important number, and you should have it available at all times when communicating with a shipping company or checking in on your cargo. If you are working with multiple containers, it can be helpful to have a list and perhaps a note on the container's contents.
  • The Bill of Lading, which might be noted as "BOL," is a document explaining what is in the container. The BOL describes the container and provides title to a party. It is a necessary part of shipping and is essential in international shipping.
  • You may also have a booking number, which is a number received from your cargo carrier or agent. You will get it from the shipping company when you book the cargo for shipping. You should always have this on hand when working with your shipping container or shipping company.

If you look online at any number of different shipping company apps or websites, you will likely see options to input one or more of the above. In most cases, you will not need to talk to anyone and will be able to find the necessary information on the app or site. You can then contact managers or employees with any issues or problems you uncover. If there is something non-standard about your shipment (unlikely), you might need a dedicated contact throughout the process.

You may also need some way to acknowledge your authority over the shipment. This could be a form of identification, specific paperwork, or something else. What you need will be listed in the terms and contracts. Just be sure to keep all appropriate paperwork and information together, whether virtual or physical.

While not directly related to something you need, we also advise that you take security and cybersecurity seriously when preparing and utilizing the above paperwork, figures, and accounts. Ensure you don't leak the information, it could make your life much harder, and some scammers may even try to steal your shipment. This is an unlikely scenario, and there are measures in place to prevent such happenings on multiple sides of the process, but you can never be too careful. Cybersecurity measures also protect you from hacking and social engineering, which is the more significant threat.

Tracking Systems

It is nearly unfathomable to work with a shipping company without some sort of tracking system in today's world. However, the exact system may vary depending on the ship or the shipping company you are using (some shipping companies guarantee tracking regardless of the vessel used). Tracking options may also be different depending on the plan or price you are paying for shipping or which countries are involved. Here are a couple of the most common types:

Standard Tracking

Standard tracking will update whenever the ship or container makes a major stop or passes through an important checkpoint. These parts of the journey are easy to keep tabs on. You may even choose to get a notification for specific events if you are focusing on one shipment or need to keep an extremely close eye on it (try not to stress about it too much, there is little you can do to affect how fast a ship is traveling).

Note that this should be the minimum standard for you to work with a company. If they do not do this, seriously consider your relationship with them and find a more responsible company. Nearly every shipping company has tracking these days, and a quick search or a few questions in your area will lead you to one of them.

Note that the checkpoints could come in many forms, and instead of being location-based, there might be several times a day the system checks in and provides data. Be sure to look into how the tracking works before you agree to anything. Even if you have used a company for a long time, they may change their strategies as new technology becomes available.

GPS Tracking

GPS tracking has worked with a wide variety of other shipments. After all, if you can track a package through USPS or UPS down to the exact street, why shouldn't one be able to know the general location of a vast shipping container on a ship?

GPS tracking generally works via a discreet tracker attached to the container (likely out of the way). The tracker relies on cell signals to provide location data for the shipping container (or a group of containers or a ship). If cell service is down, it can lead to some issues with the tracking.

Note that GPS tracking may be a few minutes or moments behind for either safety reasons or the fact that the website or app can only refresh so often. However, you will be able to get more than enough information for your purposes and get the peace of mind you are looking for. As opposed to standard tracking, you have a lot more information, and you can even get notified if a container goes somewhere it should not.

However, depending on how it's done, GPS tracking can be more expensive, adding up if you attach devices to every container. Prices can go up to $50 per container per month. If you need to consider costs, carefully go over your options. It could be a service you separately use from those provided by the shipping company, so make sure everything is compatible as well.

Other Options

There may be other options that are in use or being trialed. While 5G technology is not widespread yet, it might be used in the future. There may also be the usage of Bluetooth technology to track multiple containers simultaneously at a lower price than you would pay for GPS tracking. Whatever signal is cheapest to maintain yet reliable to use, shipping companies are likely to gravitate towards it.

Outside of making you aware of them, we do not wish to delve too deeply. Alternative options are not used often enough that you can count on them, and we do not know which experiments will turn out to be fruitful. It is better to focus on tried and true methods of tracking most of the time. However, if you see an opportunity for something new from the shipping company you are working with, consider taking it.

On Land

If there is a land portion to the shipping process, or you know that there will be delivery to your warehouse (or other designated location) as part of the shipping service, there should also be land tracking. Just note that it may be through a different company or series of tools and applications. Alternatively, you might be working with a full-service shipping company and have everything taken care of for you. If this is the case, your input will be minimal, and tracking will occur mainly through the same methods.

Source: Wikimedia user TheEgyptian licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The shipping of a container will be by train most of the time, though trucks may also be involved if you are ordering either the container itself or a large shipment to a nearby warehouse/location. You can certainly track anything based on land, as tracking is necessary not only for your sake but for the sake of the trucking companies and train lines that need to make sure that everything is on schedule.

Depending on your shipping method, the containers might change, or the delivery might not come in a container. This is fine, as long as you get your goods and are satisfied. If your tracking methods state otherwise, ask questions if you need to, but do not be alarmed.

As far as the exact way to track the shipment, that might depend on the company you are working with. There may be an app or a website where you can input information much as you would with the shipping container journey at sea. You should be given instructions on this ahead of time if tracking is available. If all else fails and you are worried about your shipment, you can contact the company and get more precise information.

In many cases, land transport is far more likely to experience unexpected delays or problems than shipping. While most of the time things run smoothly, there are issues with train tracks, and trucks can run into traffic, especially given the loads they are carrying. Warehouses and train yards can definitely be efficient but often not as efficient as ports. 


If you are not overseeing the unloading of your shipment yourself, you should be able to see confirmation that everything is moving along smoothly. This can provide you with some peace of mind. It can also allow you to proceed with plans if they are reliant upon successful and timely delivery.

Naturally, you will want confirmation of any deliveries and major steps of the process. Bringing up receipts is not usually important, but it is vitally important when it suddenly becomes necessary. Whether it is a conflict, some lost information, or providing information to potential buyers and managers in your company, having these receipts and records is essential.

You may wish to get notifications to this effect. Depending on the size of your shipment, you may also want a confirmation phone call. Again, it depends on the shipment and your situation.

Work with Your Shipping Company

As the world becomes more connected, it has become easier to track ships and shipments. Furthermore, in most cases, you can expect a shipping company to be monitoring every step of the process, if not for your benefit, then theirs. If you cannot find the information you are looking for, direct contact might be in order. You should see a contact number on the website or on the paperwork (digital or otherwise) that you received from them.

While you should not bother your shipping company every hour of every day (even if something is happening, you will not be able to change much), you can be confident that you will get more information if you contact the company. If there is a significant delay or issue, you should stay in contact with them. This is especially true if a large shipment is involved.

Size and Container Type Can Matter

In general, if you are using a non-standard shipping container or a shipping container that is larger or smaller than average (often 10' or 40' instead of the usual 20'), then you might not get the same schedule as you would expect with a regular one. Things such as refrigerated containers can have special needs which require special handling. The containers are likely on a different section of the ship unless the entire load is of that container type.

Of course, the port and the shipping company will know exactly what to do. After all, they have worked with thousands of uncommon containers before. You will have little to worry about in terms of mishandling or incompetence. Just know that such matters may require a bit more time or a particular section of this ship (you cannot stack a 40' container on top of a 10' container, after all). Unloading might be different from what you have experienced before. However, unless you need tracking and quick service down to the hour, there will be no difference to you.

Note that although many containers are out in the world and at port, there can be a lot to organize. Just be prudent about any policies they have and that any important goods are noted and tracked. The processes and everything else described in the rest of the article will still apply; there might simply be some slight changes.

Understand that Some Delays Are Inevitable

Even the best shipping companies will run into delays or circumstances beyond their control. For example, there might be political issues, customs issues, or a blockage or delay at a major shipping route. While the oceans are enormous, not every port is fully available and functioning at all times, and perfect efficiency has not yet been achieved (and likely never will). Furthermore, poor weather can cause unknown effects, and the safety of the crew must come first.

Finally, just based on the nature of the business, it might not be your shipping company that is directly responsible for everything that happens to your shipping container or the ships carrying it. Ports often do the work, and there may be contracting involved due to how worldwide the trade is. It is simply a more efficient arrangement, but one that does come with a few tradeoffs. The port may experience a delay or not provide as much information as you would like. The best defense is preparing for the unexpected, and even a day or two's worth of leeway is enough for many problems.

Finally, depending on what you are transporting, customs may have an impact. Officials need time to review goods and paperwork, and tracking on that end might not be as efficient as with the shipping line. The release of your goods is a vital step, and do whatever you can to help it along.

Not all Tracking Is Perfect

We want to let you know that while nearly all tracking will be reliable, especially within a specific range of time, nothing is perfect. Computer systems have errors, and even the best professionals might input the wrong time. Clocks fail, measurements can go wrong, and redundancies might not always work. While shipping companies and ports alike are fully invested in making sure they are doing proper tracking, there can be a problem.

This is not to say that this should be acceptable, but try and be reasonable when dealing with such an issue. Try to understand where the tracking went wrong, and then see how the offending party seeks to fix the problem (if they are going to).

Some Helpful Terms and Acronyms

Many shipping companies will use some standard acronyms on their paperwork or in their communication to save space. They can confuse the uninitiated and even more confusing if there is a language barrier (perhaps you know these terms by a different name).

While you are likely to know most of these, some could use clarification, and others you might know by another name. Here are the key ones:

There are, of course, many more, especially if you look into general shipping terms. However, the above should be good for the paperwork you will be looking at. Do not be afraid to ask questions or look something up if you are uncertain of a term. Looking ignorant for a moment is far better than mistaking a big and possibly expensive mistake.

Future Technologies and Opportunities

One last note we would like to mention here is that what we describe today will not always be what you will work with. Progress is always being made, slowly but surely.

The Internet of Things, and related devices, will be the first development to truly make an impact on tracking. With improved sensors and connectivity, the ability to track a container in real-time will become commonplace, and you will be able to get up-to-date data whenever and wherever you'd like. If a customer has a question about restocking, you will be able to provide a more precise answer.

Alternative to new technologies, existing technologies can and will become cheaper. While GPS tracking can be costly per container per month, companies can use alternative measures to reduce the costs to perhaps a dollar or two per month per container, which is far more acceptable. Even using fewer locators and sharing signals can result in massive improvements. While it may not be as accurate, the difference is negligible when a ship is on the open sea.

Finally, apps and websites will simply become easier to use and more mobile-friendly. More options may become available at just a click. More services may become automated, reducing their cost and making them more widespread. Tracking can get more detailed as shipping companies find more points for updates. It will depend partially on demand from clients, but that is unlikely to go away.


Tracking your container shipment is vital whether you are curious about the container's arrival or whether you need to manage a large-scale operation with logistics at the forefront of your mind. More options for tracking are being developed, and ships and companies are happy to help you learn more about your shipment. It is a win/win scenario for everyone involved, increasingly so as the technology becomes normalized.

Whatever your reason for reading this, we hope that you were able to get the information you need and that we were able to show you some strategies and solutions that can provide you with peace of mind. Of course, tracking isn't an exact science, but even being able to estimate can make running your business or managing inventory much easier.