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:

  1. How much work do you want to put into it?

  2. How much do you want, or need, to bring with you?

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:

  • The local mover knows nothing of Costa Rican import restrictions and will pack everything in the house. Inventories will not be sufficiently specific for declarations. Restricted cargo can cost thousands, and months of delay.

  • Being the lowest bidder the broker is incentivised to cut corners and e.g. declare items with a lower tax code, skimming the difference, or use the cheapest warehouse where security may not be the best. The same applies to the selection of delivery companies.

  • The moving business is unregulated in many parts of the US and is rife with unsavory people and practices preying upon overwhelmed individuals. The international moving business isn’t any better

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

  1. First and most obviously is the ocean shipping which includes the rental of the container and local drayage

  2. Next is inland transport -- getting the container to your location and returned to the port.

  3. US port fees -- these are the fees for handling your container.

  4. The US broker fees -- the broker files the documents on the US side and represents your interests before US Customs.

  5. In CR there are again port fees

  6. The CR broker files the import docs, oversees inspections and pays the taxes.

  7. Bonded warehouse is where cargo is unloaded and inspected by customs.

  8. Taxes. Costa Rica applies import taxes to everything shipped into the country. Import Tax is an entire discussion in itself and is touched upon briefly below.

  9. Handling, origination/termination and doc fees are grab bags of often unenumerated costs including, among many others, document filing fees, engineering notes, notary fees, legal fees, tips and something for us.

  10. Delivery to wherever in Costa Rica you will be unloading the truck.

  11. As for “surprise” costs, there can be a few:

    • Random customs inspections or audits (US or CR) can result in delays and very significant direct and delay-driven costs. Both countries are known to target personal household effects. While the west coast of the US has proven the most problematic in this regard, it can happen at any point where customs is involved.

    • Costs from extra loading or unloading time at your locations

    • Costs associated with customs finding restricted items in the cargo

    • Cost associated with delays due to unexpected government actions, pandemics, strikes and weather, among others.

    • Costs due to an inaccurate inventory, incorrect piece count, or poor loading.

    • Costs resulting from last minute itinerary or inventory changes.

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

  1. The first thing that may come to many people’s mind is the size of the container. While certainly this is a driver it is comparatively minor. Taxes will of course be commensurate with the amount of cargo. Excluding taxes, all other costs considered, a 40’ may only end up costing only 15% more than a 20’.

  2. The originating port can have an impact on the cost. Some ports are more competitive or are less troublesome with respect to US Customs practices. Consider also, west coast ports ship to Caldera, CR. Not only is the ocean trip 3 times as far, the cargo must be transferred in Panama or Mexico to a smaller ship that is able to enter Caldera port.

  3. Your distance from the port. While rail is sometimes used to move your container, trucking is by far the most common. Inland transport, both total distance and distance from major trucking routes, can be a significant driver.

  4. The contents and volume of your cargo. Taxes can vary greatly depending on the contents but again, taxes are what they are and the driver here is what and how much you choose to put into the container.

  5. How your container is loaded, e.g. hand packed versus pallets, will determine how much effort is needed to unload it, stage it and oversee inspection. If the broker must oversee the unloading and staging of a complicated and disorganized load, it can get exponentially more difficult and charges will reflect that.

  6. Your documentation is definitely a driver. A properly itemized, labeled and inventoried load will be processed faster and with fewer complications. A poor inventory can result in added broker and warehouse charges.


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.

  1. To begin with we will need to provide you a quote. We will need an exact loading address, the type of contents and the size of container desired. Note that a residential address will typically cost more than a commercial address. A quote can be difficult to prepare and should not be requested unless you are serious about it

  2. Once you have accepted the quote then we can schedule the container and make the ocean booking. Please note: in many regions, and on the west coast in particular, the completed inventory is necessary to complete the booking and schedule the container delivery. The booking must be made at least 2 weeks in advance.

  3. On the scheduled day the container is delivered to your loading location. You are given one or two hours to load the container, and each subsequent hour costs between $100/hr and $130/hr. If you are truly prepared this is not as much of a stretch as you might think. When you are finished the driver places a seal on the container and takes it away.

  4. The container is taken to the port. There it will be examined and your inventory reviewed by customs. Randomly selected, the container may be x-ray scanned, opened and inspected or taken to a bonded warehouse and unloaded for inspection by US Customs. All costs associated with such inspections, including reloading and warehouse charges, are considered extraordinary and are the responsibility of the shipper, you.

  5. The container is loaded onto the ship and transported to the Costa Rican port. During this time a customs declaration based on your inventory is prepared

  6. When the container arrives at the CR port the broker is notified and sometime over the course of the next two days the container will be placed on a truck and transported to the bonded warehouse.

  7. In the bonded warehouse the cargo is unloaded and the container taken away. Your belongings are staged and inspected, the declaration is filed and taxes are paid.

  8. When the declaration is approved and the release issued your belongings are loaded onto a tractor trailer or large truck.

  9. Your belongings are taken to the unloading location -- your home, or the nearest place where a tractor trailer can be unloaded. If you live on a dirt road up a mountain for example, you will have to unload at a truck accessible location and then transfer your belongings to the final destination.

    • The truck unloading, and/or delivery of your possessions to their final destination, is an add-on service. We are happy to give you a quote.


While we can’t understate 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

  1. Start with a complete list of everything that is going into the container and the size of large or strangely shaped items such as vehicles, pallets, kayaks, etc.

  2. It is very important to have a load plan that everybody can consult, and be prepared to change it as you go. Draw out the floor plan and where you think everything will go, at least in general terms. There is no particular order or arrangement that is best but most loaders put pallets in the nose, then large items (BBQ, bicycles, furniture, etc) and then backfill with boxes or smaller items on top of, around and behind everything else. Particularly large, heavy or unwieldy items (e.g. hot tub) will most usually go on last with everything else blocked in front of them.

  3. Large or heavy items (e.g. smoker, table saw, etc) are best loaded on pallets or in crates, for easier unloading and safer handling at the bonded warehouse.

  4. Know where you will park the container and secure the space well in advance. The space is best if it is level with at least 25ft of open maneuvering area behind for cargo handling

  5. Make sure you have any required HOA, city or county permits in place for parking the container. Survey access/egress routes for low branches and power lines that could prevent the truck from reaching you or leaving.

  6. The container floor is nearly 5 feet off the ground. Know how you will get everything onto the container and moved into place once there.

  7. Identify any needed equipment or supplies. Here is a partial list of things, depending on your load, that you may need to have in place before the container arrives. You don’t want to pay $120/hr while you run to the hardware store.

    • Ramp, pallet jack, pallet stacker, forklift

    • Roll-back tow truck with rear stabilizer, for vehicles or other very large cargo

    • Handtrucks, dollies

    • Lumber and pallets for loading and blocking

      • Hint: lumber can be used to build a ramp and then re-used for the blocking at the end.

    • Ratchet straps & tie-downs, shrink wrap, rope, tape, strapping/banding

    • Beer and wine

  8. Make a roster of people who are going to help you load and what they will be doing - and what they drink.

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

  1. Make sure everyone involved knows what they will be doing in advance.

  2. Keep a photo record of EVERYTHING

    • Take photos every 5 to 10 feet during the packing process

    • Take a photo of the completed load before the doors are closed

    • Take a photo of the entire rear of the container with the doors closed and sealed

    • Take a photo of the seal numbers after the seal is installed

  3. Make sure everything is blocked into place, either by other cargo or dedicated blocking, so that it can’t slide or tip over. Plywood, or OSB, and 2x3s are commonly used for this purpose. The 2x3s, cut slightly longer than the container is wide, can be wedged between the sidewalls to block up pallets or OSB sheets. Hooks are provided top and bottom, the length of the container, for tie-downs.

  4. Do not rush. If it costs an extra hour of loading time that will be cheaper than a bunch of broken cargo.

  5. Accurately count the pieces loaded. This is critical to US and CR customs clearance.

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.

  • Have they provided you a delineation of responsibilities -- who is responsible for what.

  • Are the supplies, equipment or equipment rentals included in the price?

  • Have they examined your cargo and asked for an inventory and/or count of items to be loaded? Have they measured or estimated the weight of your cargo? How else can they provide a reliable quote?

  • Have they committed to the number of hours it will take? If not, will they give you a “not to exceed” price? Have they disclosed all possible extraordinary charges?

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

  1. A container delivered to your loading location

  2. US customs clearance

  3. Ocean Shipping

  4. Bonded warehouse unloading and reloading

  5. CR customs clearance,

    • Bonded warehouseDeclarations

    • fees and taxes paid

  6. Delivery of your cargo to a semi truck accessible unloading location of your choice

    • Optional services

  • Unloading

  • Delivery to and/or into your new home

  • Unpacking and trash removal

  • Storage

  • Storage with staged delivery

Your Responsibilities as Shipper

  1. The following completed documents, provided by us:

    • The signed and notarized Power Of Attorney to authorize the US broker to act on your behalf in the matters of this US export.

    • The signed and notarized declaration stating that no dangerous or restricted items are included in the cargo.

    • The signed statement of value and piece count.

      • Before the container can be delivered we must have a count of the total number of pieces to be loaded and the total value of the cargo. If upon sealing the doors the piece count or value have changed, we must be notified immediately (no change greater than 5% is permitted).

      • Costa Rica customs counts the pieces as they are unloaded at the bonded warehouse. If inspected by US Customs the counts must match. If the count differs from the declaration at either end it can be very problematic and very expensive -- and can result in extensive delays.

  2. An accurate and reliable inventory, per our instructions, with values declared for each line item of used belongings, and receipts for all new items. The total must agree with the statement in 1.c.

  3. You are solely responsible for the loading of the container and the securing of the contents

  4. Everything must be documented in pictures

    • at regular stages of the loading process, min every 10ft.

    • picture of the final load before the doors are closed,

    • picture of the closed container from the rear with the entire container number in the frame,

    • picture of the registration number on the installed seal.

  5. Payment in full prior to shipping

  6. Unloading and final delivery to your home/business is your responsibility.

    • Whether by separate contract, or performed personally, the shipper must provide:

      • a suitable location, people, equipment and materials for unloading.

      • Equipment, people and materials for transport from the unloading location to the final destination.



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.

  • You are responsible for seaworthiness certification

  • You are responsible for drayage and inland transportation -- trucking to your loading site and to the port and drayage is more expensive for SOCs (shipper owned containers).

  • Not all ocean transporters accept SOCs usually resulting in higher ocean rates, longer shipping times and costlier inland transport.

  • You must pay import duties of 30% on the purchase price of the container.

  • Your belongings will be unloaded at the bonded warehouse. Normally the container is returned to the port. If you own it you must pay for storage, as well as the use of the rolling chassis under it, until your cargo is cleared so you can reload, OR you can pay to have it shipped to your destination and then pay again to have the cargo sent by truck.

  • If you choose to wait and put the cargo back into the container -- when it arrives at your location you must remove the cargo before the container can be unloaded. Removing a full container from the chassis involves specialized equipment that is not readily available in CR. After it is emptied you will typically require 1 or 2 backhoes with chains to remove and place the container.

  • Some additional consideration -- is the equipment available in your area to move a container? Can you get a container to your area? Many roads are too steep, turns too tight or power lines too low.

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.

  1. The first is putting the container on the ground, loading it and then having it picked up. You will almost surely need to own the container to do that. You will be faced with locating (and paying for) equipment that can lift a packed container from the ground and has the authorization to operate in the port.

  2. The second scenario is to just park the container on the chassis in the driveway or on the street for a few days while the container is being loaded. This is more likely but the shipping lines charge for sending the truck out twice. It will probably become economical if you think you will need to load for an entire day.

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.