Understand everything about container tracking

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Discover everything about container tracking

The time when predicting the arrival of a container was difficult is over. Indeed, it is not necessary to constantly ask where a shipment is, if it has been diverted or lost anymore. Today, with the digitalization of shipping, containers transmit real-time data on their location and status. The development of new technologies is changing the maritime industry to make it even more reliable and efficient. This article provides an overview of how container tracking works, the impact on logistic parties, and most importantly, its many benefits.

What is container tracking?

From its origin to its final destination, a container will make a long journey through the supply chain. The main difficulty in this type of expedition is the management of disruptions caused by unpredictable events. This can be due to a strike, terminal congestion, or even bad weather conditions. No matter what the cause is, the result is the same: shipping delays and therefore additional costs. With tracking, you know exactly the position of your goods anywhere in the world. This is capital information to anticipate the consequences of any interruption in the process. To provide these data, a container will pass through several key points during its transit which is recorded and notified. Some of them are: 

  • Gate out empty: the empty container was removed from the terminal by the consignee.
  • Gate in full: the full and sealed container passed the check-in at the port terminal.
  • Loaded: the container was loaded on the ship and it is ready to go to sea.
  • Vessel departure: vessel carrying the container left the port of loading (POL). You can track the ship and see its estimated time of arrival (ETA) at the next port of call.
  • Vessel arrival: vessel arrived at the port of discharge (POD).
  • Container unloaded: the container was discharged from the ship and is waiting to be picked up.
  • Gate out full: the full container is removed from the controlled area for delivery.
  • Gate in empty: the empty and cleaned container is entered into the terminal and is ready to be reused.

What are the benefits of real-time tracking systems?

1. Time-saving

If you have hundreds of containers to manage, it is no longer necessary to go to the websites of all different carriers to check their status manually. All information is now updated automatically and centralized in a platform. You have full visibility of your container fleet and you receive notifications of any event. With the integration of electronic data interchange (EDI) software, the transfer of documentation is also quicker and safer. The EDI collects all the information and generates the required documents in electronic format. These technologies help employees to have time to complete more productive tasks.

How to Track a Ship In Real-Time ?

Let us look at how a ships’ real-time tracker works, its details and features, its benefits for all players in the shipping sector but also its weaknesses…

2. Costs Reduction

Before the implementation of tracking devices, you could think that your container was still on its way while it was already unloaded at the port terminal. Now with the notifications generated by the application programming interface (API), you can answer faster to any disruption and take corrective measures. Costs incurred by detention or demurrage are significantly reduced.

3. Relationship with clients enhanced

Clients receive accurate information about the ETA of their shipment. It allows them to make their own arrangements in case of delays. Tracking systems provide a better customer experience and it is a good way to build long-term partnerships.

Different technologies are used to track shipment

4. Losses prevented

Millions of containers are transported every year with high-value cargo. During the transit, some of them can be lost or even stolen. With the status updates, you have greater visibility on what may have happened in the supply chain. It is also an efficient tool in the case of a container that has gone off the track. You are now alerted early enough to take the necessary measures and get it back on the correct route. Security of shipment is improved from the warehouse to the client.

5. Return on Investment (ROI)

Investment in tracking technologies ensures a good ROI for businesses. They have detailed data on their shipment which allows them to make better decisions. The production of goods is optimized, efficiency is increased and customer satisfaction is improved. Shipping companies also use this information to enhance their routes and offer faster services.

What are the methods used to trace your shipment?

Tracing of shipments has been made possible by the use of automatic identification systems (AIS), container tracking devices (CTDs), and smart containers.

AIS Tracking

As per SOLAS regulation V/19, large international container vessels have to be equipped with AIS. Transponders are fitted onboard to automatically broadcast the ship’s heading, position, and speed. By using very high frequency (VHF), AIS transmits the information to other ships in the vicinity or land-based systems fitted with transceivers. Carriers and tracking services providers can use these indications to trace a container as they know on which vessel it has been assigned.

CTDs technology

CTDs are trackers which can be fitted inside the container, outside on a panel, or used as a seal with a locking mechanism. With a global positioning system (GPS), they send the latitude and longitude of a shipment to a central server. Unlike the AIS, additional inputs can be measured to give more detailed information like temperature and humidity for reefers.

Communication with the shore is made via satellite or cellular (GSM). If your container is on a ship sailing through an area with no AIS coverage, you can still track it with the CTD. Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons are also part of these Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.

They have a shorter range than GPS devices but a longer battery life. Some of the BLE and GPS systems offer the possibility to customize the reporting frequency. It means that you have the flexibility to receive alerts at different intervals throughout the day.

Smart containers

IoT technologies, solar panels, and GPS devices are already pre-fitted on the container. It is easier to choose this method because there is no need to fit trackers on each of your shipments. Their main advantage is that they transmit very accurate information like details on handling operations. 

Smart containers generate a lot of data that can be combined with AI algorithms. That’s why at Sinay, we developed a secure container tracking API to exploit them. Once the API key is generated on Sinay’s developer platform, users can check the last and next events related to their shipment. They have real-time reports which include ETA to the POD or transshipment port. To have access to these elements, some information is nevertheless necessary.

Information required to track a container

What information is required to trace a container?

To trace a container, you must have the bill of lading, the container number, or the booking number to enter it into the tracking platform.

Bill of lading

The bill of lading, also named BoL or B/L, provides details of the shipment like the type, the destination, or the name of the ship on which it has been loaded. This is an important legal document in shipping because it acts as a contract between the carrier, the shipper, and the consignee. There are different types of BoL but in all of them, you will find a number that can be used to trace your goods.

Container number

To identify containers, a unique number is assigned to each of them by ISO through the Bureau of International Containers (BIC). It is written on the top right part of the door and on the sides for operators. This marking is composed of four letters and seven numbers, for example, HLXU1234569, which have the following meaning:

  • The first three letters refer to the owner.
  • The fourth letter is the equipment category. In our case, the letter “U” is for a freight container.
  • The letters are then followed by the six-digit serial number decided by the owner.

The last number is the check digit. It is used to confirm the previous code and serial numbers are accurate with the BIC container check digit calculator.

Booking number

The booking number is given by the shipping company. It is issued once a reservation has been made for a shipment and then used by agents and carriers.

How to Track a Ship In Real-Time ?

Let us look at how a ships’ real-time tracker works, its details and features, its benefits for all players in the shipping sector but also its weaknesses…

Which are the parties concerned by supply chain management?

Container tracking could be much easier with only one party involved in the process. It would simply consist in placing a tracking device on a container that reports data to a central server fitted on the ship. All of the information would then be sent via GPS. But in fact, four parties are involved and each of them has a major role to play:

  • The first party or 1PL: they are companies or individuals who need to transport goods or products by container to one or more recipients. Tracing in real-time is essential to offer good customer service.
  • The second party or 2PL: is the shipping company in charge of moving the goods from one point to another. Container tracking is mandatory for them to insure the transfer of their client shipments with no damage and with no delay. 
  • The third party or 3PL: they are logistics providers that take care of transport and storage, but also the management and the organization of these activities. They have consequently coordinated several 2PL on behalf of 1PL.
  • The fourth party or 4PL: they act as consultants or auditors to streamline the supply chain of the 1PL via several 3PL providers.     

Among these different parties, it is mainly the 1PL and 2PL that are directly involved in the use of CTDs. For a first party who wants to install this type of device, it will have to make sure that it is correctly fitted on the container. For the second party, their vessels are not loaded with containers that only belong to their shipping company. It is therefore necessary to control the moments when the trackers are placed and removed from the containers.


Container tracking has been significantly revolutionized by IoT in the last few years. The increasing number of smart containers and therefore of data have made the use of APIs inevitable. Digitalization is ongoing and marks a new era for shipping.

Frequently Asked Questions About Container Tracking

Container tracking involves using technology to monitor the location and status of shipping containers throughout their journey from origin to destination. This helps companies anticipate any disruptions in the supply chain and avoid delays.

Real-time tracking systems offer many benefits, including time-saving, cost reduction, enhanced customer relationships, prevention of losses, and a good return on investment.

AIS tracking involves the use of transponders onboard large international container vessels to automatically broadcast the ship’s heading, position, and speed.

This information is transmitted to other ships in the vicinity or land-based systems, allowing carriers and tracking service providers to trace a container as they know which vessel it has been assigned to.

CTDs (container tracking devices) are trackers that can be fitted inside or outside the container or used as a seal with a locking mechanism.

They use GPS to send the latitude and longitude of a shipment to a central server, and can also measure additional inputs like temperature and humidity for reefers. Communication with the shore is made via satellite or cellular (GSM).

Tracing of shipments has been made possible by the use of automatic identification systems (AIS), container tracking devices (CTDs), and smart containers. AIS tracking is used for large international container vessels, while CTDs and smart containers offer more detailed information and can be used on any vessel.

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