Understanding shipping identification codes

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Understanding shipping identification codes

Fundamental to international trade, shipping containers carry around 80% of the world’s cargo, delivering to all corners of the globe. When you look at a container door, you probably notice the various numbers and letters marked on it.

The codes, including container, booking, and bill of lading numbers, serve as unique identifiers that streamline the transportation process, prevent errors, and facilitate communication among stakeholders. Through this guide, the essential shipping identification codes will be clarified by explaining their formats, uses, and decoding methods to enhance logistics operations, improve supervision accuracy, and provide insights into the companies involved.

What are Container Numbers?

In 1933, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) established the Bureau International des Containers (BIC) to educate business professionals about international and intermodal transport. The ISO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is a non-governmental body that establishes global standards. BIC, appointed by the ISO, serves as the worldwide container prefix registry. BIC introduced the ISO 6346 international standard to standardize tracking and marking globally in 1970.

Definition and Uses

Shipping container numbers, also known as container codes or container tracking numbers are unique symbols assigned to a container, serving as a critical tool in the logistics industry for tracing and managing the movement of goods. These alphanumeric codes, typically follow the ISO 6346 international standard.

Detailed Format

The container format generally includes four letters and seven digits, split into the prefix and the serial number. The first three letters, called the prefix, indicate the operator, such as a line identification or a leasing company. The fourth letter in the prefix identifies the equipment category, which consists of one of the following capital letters of the Latin alphabet: U for all freight containers, J for detachable freight equipment, and Z for trailers and chassis. The final seven digits serve as a unique identifier for each container. Here is the breakdown of each component:


Owner Code: The first three letters that the BIC assigns.

Equipment Category Identifier: The fourth character, typically “U, J, or Z” denotes the container type.

Serial Number: The next six digits uniquely identify the container within the owner’s fleet.

Check Digit: The final digit validates the accuracy of the entire number.


Example: ABCU1234567

ABC: Owner code

U: Equipment category identifier (standard freight container)

123456: Serial number

7: Check digit

Decoding Container Numbers

Knowing the owner code allows for quick identification of the shipping or leasing company responsible for the container, facilitating communication and coordination.

The equipment category identifier helps determine the specific type of container, whether a standard freight unit, detachable equipment, or a trailer, which is crucial for handling and storage decisions. The unique serial number ensures precise surveillance of individual containers, reducing errors and enhancing efficiency in the logistics chain.


Step-by-Step Guide to Using Online Tools:

Step 1: Enter the number into the search field on the chosen website or app.

Step 2: The tool will analyze the operator code and display the corresponding company.

Step 3: Additional information, such as container type and status, may also be provided.


Example: Inputting “MAEU1234567” will reveal “MAEU” as Maersk, with further details about the container

Exploring Booking Numbers

In 1955, Malcolm McLean pioneered standardized containers, revolutionizing global trade by introducing uniform metallic boxes for packing goods. From the 1990s onwards, container ship capacity surged with the introduction of larger vessels capable of carrying hundreds or even thousands of TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs) emerged, delivering over 20,000 TEUs, marking significant milestones in the maritime industry’s evolution.

Definition and Functions

A booking number format is a unique identifier a company or freight forwarder assigns to a specific delivery or reservation. These codes track and manage shipments, whereas formats are specific to individual containers. This mark serves several key functions such as:

Tracking and Management: The format allows shippers, consignees, and providers to track the status and location of the transport in real-time.

Documentation: It is used on all documents, including the bill of lading, packing list, and invoice, ensuring that all paperwork corresponds to the correct shipment.

Communication: It facilitates communication between all parties involved in the shipment, including shippers, carriers, customs authorities, and consignees, by providing a common reference point.

Coordination: It helps coordinate the transportation details, such as the loading and unloading of cargo, scheduling of transport modes, and handling of any special requirements.

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Detailed Format

Understanding the booking format ensures that all parties have a consistent reference point, enhancing communication and coordination.

Here is the breakdown of each component of a booking number:

Prefix: Often consists of a combination of letters, usually representing the maritime company or freight forwarder.

Example: “MSC” for Mediterranean Shipping Company or “HAPAG” for Hapag-Lloyd.

Numeric Sequence:

A chain of digits that uniquely identifies the specific booking. The length of the numeric sequence can vary but generally ranges from 6 to 10 digits.

Example: “123456” or “0001234567”.

Check Digit (Optional):

Some codes include a scan digit at the end to verify the accuracy of the number.

The check digit is calculated using a specific algorithm based on the preceding digits.

Example: “8” in “MSC1234568”.

Examples and How to Read Them

Example 1: MSC1234568

MSC: Prefix indicating Mediterranean Shipping Company.

123456: Unique numeric sequence identifying the specific booking.

8: Check the digit verifying the booking number’s accuracy.


Example 2: TGHU 9623307

TGHU: Prefix indicating Textainer.

962330: Unique numeric sequence identifying the specific booking

7: This is the check digit used to verify the accuracy of the number.

The Importance of the Bill of Lading Numbers

The bill of lading (BoL) number is a critical element in the shipping and logistics industry, serving multiple essential functions that ensure the smooth flow of goods from origin to destination.

What They Are and How They Work?

A BoL is a unique identifier assigned to a bill of lading, which is a crucial document in the maritime industry. This number facilitates shipment tracking, verification, and management, serving as proof of the contract between the shipper and carrier. Historically, the concept of a BoL can be traced back to medieval times when it was used to record the receipt of goods on ships. Over the centuries, it has evolved into a standardized document essential for modern logistics, ensuring legal compliance, accurate documentation, and efficient handling of goods across global supply chains.

Detailed Format

A bill of lading typically consists of a combination of letters and figures that uniquely identify a shipment. BoL often vary in format and unlike container codes, they do not follow a standardized format as determined by the issuing company. It generally includes:

Prefix: A few letters that represent the carrier or shipping company.

Numeric Sequence: A series of digits that provide a unique identifier for the specific BoL.

Check Digit (Optional): Some formats include a check digit at the end to verify the accuracy of the number.


Example and Its Components

Example 1: MAEU1234567890

Prefix: MAEU (could represent the company, Maersk)

Numeric Sequence: 1234567890 (a unique sequence for the specific shipment)

Example 2: COSU8765432109

Prefix: COSU (could represent COSCO)

Numeric Sequence: 8765432109

Decoding Process

The prefix of the bill of lading reveals which company is handling the shipment. This information is crucial for surveillance and communication.

Shipment Details: By entering the number into the carrier’s system, one can access detailed information about the shipment, such as origin, destination, cargo details, and transit status.

Logistics Coordination: Understanding the format and components of the BoL helps in coordinating various activities, including loading, unloading, and customs clearance.

Historical Context: Some companies maintain databases of previous shipments, which can be accessed using the bill of lading number. This historical data can provide insights into patterns and company operations.

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Practical Applications Techniques

It covers methods to decode these codes, ensuring accurate data interpretation. This knowledge is crucial for enhancing operational efficiency and reliability in the supply chain industry.

Tools and Resources for Decoding

Various tools and resources are available to help professionals accurately interpret container, booking, and bill of lading codes. From online databases and mobile applications to industry publications and community forums, these resources provide valuable support in tracking shipments, verifying information, and ensuring compliance.


Online Databases

  • BIC Database: Provides a comprehensive registry of carrier codes, helping users identify the company. This is accessible online for quick reference and verification.


  • Shipping Company Websites: Many major carriers offer online tracking tools where users can enter booking, container, or bill of lading codes to retrieve detailed delivery information. Examples include Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd.


Mobile Applications

  • Container Check Digit Calculator: A handy tool for verifying the accuracy of codes by calculating the check digit. This ensures that the entered number is valid and correctly formatted.
  • BoxTech: The global database provides detailed information on containers, including status, specifications, and ownership.


Industry Publications

  • Reference Guides: Books and manuals on logistics often include sections on decoding various codes. The guides offer detailed explanations and examples, making them valuable resources for both beginners and professionals.
  • Online Forums and Communities: Platforms like LinkedIn groups, Reddit, and specialized forums provide spaces where industry professionals share insights, tips, and resources for decoding shipping codes.


Engaging with these communities can provide up-to-date information and practical advice from peers.

Sinay's Solutions for Shipping Identification Code Management

Our company specializes in maritime data solutions that significantly enhance identification management. We develop three solutions for container tracking. Our freemium container tracking tool is an easy-to-start product for web integration. Our container tracking API was developed to allow you to build or enrich your solution. Our collaborative platform Safecube is a sophisticated platform dedicated to global shipment visibility.

By standardizing data from various lines and integrating AIS data, we ensure consistent and reliable information. The centralized API endpoint streamlines access to comprehensive tracing details, while frequent updates keep the data current.

Additionally, we support environmental monitoring with APIs for CO2 and noise emissions, helping maritime businesses manage both logistics and environmental impacts effectively and sustainably.

Shipping identification codes are like secret keys that unlock the mysteries of moving goods around the globe. They ensure seamless tracking, management, and coordination of freights worldwide, serving as unique identifiers that streamline transportation processes and foster effective communication among involved parties. Considering the quantity of containers that are in circulation around the world, to transport about 2 billion tons of cargo annually, unique identifiers are assigned to every container used for the transport and storage of cargo.

FAQ about shipping indentification codes

Shipping identification codes are unique alphanumeric codes used to identify and track packages throughout the shipping and delivery process.

These codes ensure accurate and efficient management of goods in the supply chain, helping to streamline logistics operations and reduce errors.

Shipping identification codes are crucial for supply chain efficiency because they provide a standardized method for tracking and managing shipments.

This enhances transparency, reduces the risk of lost or misrouted packages, and allows for real-time updates and accurate delivery estimates, ultimately improving customer satisfaction.

Decoding shipping identification codes involves understanding the structure and meaning of each part of the code.

Different carriers and logistics companies may use various formats, but common elements include origin, destination, carrier information, and a unique identifier for the shipment. Familiarizing yourself with these components can help you accurately interpret and utilize these codes.

Common types of shipping identification codes include tracking numbers, barcodes, QR codes, and RFID tags. Each type serves a specific purpose, such as providing real-time tracking information or enabling automated sorting and handling of packages.

Understanding these different types can help businesses choose the right solution for their logistics needs.

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