Should I Ship a Container?

Shipping your household in a dedicated container can be very cost effective, but not always.  Whether it is right for you will depend on two principal questions:  

Let’s start with the first question.  Bringing in a container is very much a hands-on process.  You will be taking on several new responsibilities, much of which would otherwise be handled by the licensed consolidator and/or the freight forwarder for smaller quantities of cargo.  First to come to mind would be the loading and unloading.  This may involve scheduling, people, loading equipment, loading supplies and permits, as well as documentation.  Also, consider, a containerfull is a lot more packing and inventory work than just a couple or three pallets. 

This often leads many to consider shipping with a local mover that promises to take care of everything.  We would suggest exercising caution.  Moving companies network with other companies along the export/import chain and when it gets to CR it is often just handed off to the lowest bidder for clearing, taxes and delivery.  There are several risk factors here that can lead to months or years of delays:

Moving on to the second question, you need to thoroughly come to terms with what you want to be packing into a container.  You should check out the “MOVING TO COSTA RICA” page for some creative solutions and valuable hints on what you may or may not want to bring with you to Costa Rica. Many people find that moving to Costa Rica is an opportunity to ‘start over’ and free themselves from rampant consumerism.  They find unloading all those years of accumulated STUFF rather cathartic, if not addictive.  Well, Costa Rica certainly affords opportunity for a simpler lifestyle and, given the much higher cost of STUFF in CR, starting a new collection of STUFF while here can be cost prohibitive.  On the flip side of that, some things you may need such as ceiling fans, plumbing fixtures, appliances or new mattresses may be much cheaper or more available at home, and re-acquiring things you need can be expensive.  Or, if you already own everything you need to set up your new home in Costa Rica, you may want to just send it on down.  Repurchasing can be time consuming and costly, and you will certainly find selections more limited.  

When shipping a container there is always the temptation to fill any remaining space in a container with more stuff.  After all, the container is paid for so the only added cost would be the taxes, and that is cheaper than buying it in CR, right?  As you add cargo the costs are spread across more pieces so the cost per piece goes down.  Yes, all of that is true, but be careful.  Often, it seems, the justification is not that the added cargo is needed but that it is simply “too valuable to part with”.  One must carefully consider whether it will retain that value in Costa Rica -- in the marketplace or to you and a new lifestyle.

What Does a Container Cost?

Of course we can’t give you an actual price without putting together a formal quote and we can’t do that without answering the two questions above.  Still, understanding costs and cost drivers is important so lets start with a breakdown.  We often hear people lament “so many surprise costs”.  Like our customers, we don’t typically like “surprise costs” so let’s talk about what the costs are, and conclude with what might surprise us.

Summary of costs

Cost Drivers -- next we should talk about what drives those costs in one direction or the other.


There is a worldwide logistics crisis, sometimes referred to in the news as a supply chain crisis.  The bottom line is that the system is totally discombobulated.  Ships and containers are just not where they need to be.   Ports are full and can't unload ships, empties are waiting in far away ports while the ships are waiting offshore thousands of miles away.  As you can imagine this has created quite a problem for the ocean carriers.  When they have containers they go first to their biggest customer with the most important contracts.   Your one-off container with personal household effects is the lowest possible priority.   All of this is exacerbated by the inland trucking.  When the pandemic hit the trucking companies were short on drivers and it is even worse now.  As pertains to us, they are over-employed turning around containers at the ports and are disinclined to break their routine to drive maybe hundreds of miles and sit around while a homeowner takes 5 or 6 hours to load the container.  It can actually be more difficult to book the truck than the ocean trip.

As if all of that wasn't complication enough, US Customs is apparently cracking down on containers of personal household effects.  Nowhere is this felt more than the west coast of the US.  We have heard recent reports that, depending on the west coast port (LA and Long Beach being the worst) 50% to 90% of containers are being flagged for inspection.   We have seen nothing near those levels on the east coast though we have received reports that Houston may be kicking it up a notch.  So what does that mean.  Well, Customs can, if they choose, request 1 or more of 3 levels of inspection.  The first is to run your container through an x-ray scanner; the second is to open it and do a visual inspection; the third is to relocate your container to a bonded warehouse where everything is unloaded and inspected, reloaded and returned to the port.   If they don't like what they see they can request the next level.  In all cases you are responsible for all associated costs and fees including the loading/unloading.  That is not necessarily the worst part either.  If US Customs is not timely in their actions, or if Customs performs 2 or more inspections sequentially, there is the distinct possibility that your container could miss your ocean booking.  If that is the case you will be responsible for paying for storage and demurrage until it can be rolled to another booking.  The next booking could be as little as a week or as much as 2 months away, or even more.   The cost of everything related to such inspections and roll-overs (including US Customs charges, drayage, warehouse, loading/unloading, storage and demurrage) can total many thousands of dollars.  The most we've ever seen is $19,000 and the lowest was $450.


The Process

At the highest level the process is simple: you book the container, you load it, you pay for it, you wait and finally you unload it.  As always, the devil is in the details.  So, let’s drill down a bit deeper into the process so you have a firm understanding of what must happen to get your belongings to your new location in Costa Rica.  

This is a general process discussion.  There are variations such as owning your own container or sharing the container and these are discussed briefly below.


While we can’t overstate the importance of proper loading of the container you will almost surely find that the bulk of the actual work will be deciding what to bring and then packing it up.  “What to bring” is a regular detour in every discussion of moving to Costa Rica.  If you haven’t been there already we suggest that you check out the “MOVING TO COSTA RICA” pages.  There you will find a process for answering that question as it relates specifically to you and your personal situation.  In those pages you will also find some specific packing suggestions and hints.

In this section we focus on the preparation and the loading of the container.   If you have packed well and are fully prepared you will surely find that the loading of the container was, in the end, the easiest part.

Pre-Load Preparation

Packing the Container

As noted earlier, if you are prepared as described above you will find that the actual loading process is not as difficult as you might imagine.  Again, preparation is everything -- know what you are loading, where it is going and exactly how you will get it there

Loading Options

Alternatively, many will hire professional packers.  Moving and packing are not regulated businesses in many places and the industry seems to be rife with unsavory people and practices.   Here are some things to consider.

Proceed with an abundance of caution.

Finally, you might consider seeking a nearby commercial warehouse with a loading dock and/or loading equipment.  Your goal would be an arrangement that would allow you to deliver your cargo to the warehouse as you pack it.  Once it is all there they would load it and secure it.  That is what they do.  One big advantage to you is that your cargo can be delivered one pickup or SUV load at a time, and it is out of your hair while you pack the next.  They have the equipment and supplies to palletize, wrap, band or whatever is needed, knowledgeable people, and the equipment to make it all easy.  While the warehouse is an additional cost, it is in part offset by what it avoids -- extra loading time charges, the higher delivery charges for residential locations, costly equipment rentals, friend and spousal abuse and a lot of worry time.  Consider talking with local businesses also.  Many small businesses (e.g. tile stores, carpet store, etc) are struggling, have the space and equipment, and might be open to a little contract work.  


What We Provide

Your Responsibilities as Shipper



Containers can come in a variety of sizes ranging from 20 ft to 53 ft, and as open platforms, but not all are able to be shipped to Costa Rica.  The sizes we are able to ship are 20’, 40’ and 40’HC.  The ‘HC’ denotes ‘High Cube’ and they are a foot taller than the standard height.  The 45’HC may also be available in very limited areas.


You can go HERE for some specifics but in general a 20’ holds a lot and a 40’HC holds a WHOLE LOT more.  All joking aside, it is very hard to explain but let me try.  You can park a car in a container and you can park a car in your garage.  Now, park your car in your garage about 8 inches from one wall.  Next, imagine the other wall is 8 inches from the other side of your car.  That imaginary width, going from front to back of your garage (about 20’), and to an 8’ ceiling, is about how much volume you would have with a 20’ container.  A 40’HC has more than double that volume, about 125% more, or two of those garages to a 9’ ceiling.  Alternatively, chalk it out on your driveway or in the street and stand in one corner with someone walking from corner to corner with an 8’ 2x4 on end until you can visualize it clearly.  How much you can put in there depends on how well you can pack, but I’ve seen large households packed into a 40’HC.  Few people use all of the space available.


The short answer is ‘yes’.  The long answer is, ‘nobody does -- for good reason’.  While containers can be cheap in the States, if you buy your own container you are taking on significantly more responsibility and cost.  Here are just a few reasons others have chosen not to ship their own container.

Many people want to use the container to build a house or as a bodega.  Consider -- you will still need a roof or it will rust through, and you will need footers to put it on if you don’t want the bottom to rust out.  Containers can reach sustained temperatures of 150deg F which may be detrimental to some things stored long term.  Installing windows and doors is difficult and costly.  By the time you have your bodega in place you probably could have built a conventional prefab bodega, dimensioned so as to allow for tools or storage on both sides of the room, for the same cost  -- or a bedroom room dimensioned so that you can actually walk around a queen bed.


The answer is perhaps.  Two scenarios have typically been proposed and we have never had anybody execute on it yet.  

In either case you should check with all of the local authorities, including the homeowners’ association, regarding permissions and paid permits that may be required.


Yes, operating under a CR consolidator’s license we are able to process multiple importers in your container.  When the container is rented from the shipping lines, as is almost always the case, the container is allowed only a single stop however.  When it is loaded it is sealed and only customs can remove the seal until it reaches its destination.  This means that the second person must bring their cargo to the container.  The timing must be carefully considered.  That is, the first party can store the second party's cargo until the container is being loaded, or the second party can meet the container during the loading process, but the container cannot be moved to a second location.  There are also added charges related to the CR broker, filing fees and the bonded warehouse.  Also to be considered are the final delivery arrangements once the cargo clears customs


Yes we can ship your vehicle in your container.  You can go to the IMPORT A VEHICLE page for vehicle specifics and pricing.  Putting your vehicle in the container will save about $1,000 of the regular cost of importing it.  Nothing that is not part of the vehicle can be shipped inside the vehicle however.  You are solely responsible for loading and securing the vehicle.  The vehicle must be last on / first off the container.