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What is TEU? Everything You Need to Know

If you’re in the shipping business, you’ll eventually come across the phrase TEU. The first time you see it you might be wondering “what is TEU?”

Well, in short, it’s a measure of cargo shipping options and the acronym stands for a twenty-foot equivalent unit. It’s one of the more popular shipping vessel sizes and may be perfect for your cargo.

But, what exactly is it? Yes, we know what the acronym means but that’s not all there is to it.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into everything you need to know about TEU. We’ll discuss its history, how it compares to FEU, and much more. Consider this article your complete guide to TEU.

So, read along with us and find out if TEU is the answer to your shipment needs. There’s a lot of information to cover, so let’s get going.

What Is TEU?

If you’re wondering “what is TEU?”, we’ve got you covered. As we said earlier, the acronym stands for twenty-foot equivalent unit. The measurement calculates the dimensions of a standard shipping container. It’s also an internationally standardized measurement.

TEU helps shipping companies to easily count standard ISO containers. If you’re unfamiliar with those, they are the metal storage containers you see on the back of cargo ships and freight trains. You may have also seen the trend of storage container houses in recent years.

TEU does more than measure the outside of a shipping container. It’s also used as a measurement to calculate the amount of cargo that can go inside the container. Using this measurement also helps shipping operators to quickly calculate the overall capacity of their entire vessel.

Where It All Started

So, how did we arrive at this measurement? Where TEU came from, and who invented it, are important parts of understanding how the measurement helps cargo companies today. The history of TEU directly impacts the history of shipping and shipping containers, as well.

TEU is the brainchild of a man by the name of Martin McLean. Martin was an entrepreneur at the turn of the century. And, like most successful entrepreneurs, Martin saw a problem that needed solving. He saw that loading and unloading cargo was a confusing and time-consuming process.

At this point in our history, goods were being moved by ship. Chests and crates were moved from ship to ship one by one. They were loaded and unloaded at the port one by one, as well. Moving one item at a time wasn’t sustainable in the commercial shipping business, so something had to be done.

McLean took it upon himself to figure out a way to streamline and standardize the shipping process. His idea for doing so was to start using a standard-sized container to ship all goods. The result was revolutionary for the shipping and cargo business.

Now, goods could ship in a standardized container that didn’t have to be unloaded from boat to boat or place to place. Since the containers were all the same size, they could easily fit on the back of a truck or a boat. With no need for loading and unloading in between stops, transport of goods became much faster.

McLean set out to improve on containers that were already available on the market. The current options were 24 feet in length. McLean made his containers 35 feet long. While this provided much-needed extra cargo space, it caused problems for the U.S. government.

It was a problem for the U.S. government to adapt to shipping 24 and 35-foot long cargo containers. In order to make things easier, and even more standardized, the U.S. developed a system of 20 and 40-foot shipping containers.

And, thus, TEU was born. The twenty-foot container established back then by the U.S. government became what we know today as the twenty-foot equivalent unit.


You may have made the connection by now that if TEU is the twenty-foot container, then FEU is the forty-foot one. 

The standard dimensions for TEU containers are 20 feet long, eight feet wide, and eight feet high. Each container can hold somewhere between nine and eleven palettes. The amount of palettes it can hold depends on the size of the palettes.

If the palettes are European, the TEU will fit a different number than if they were American palettes.

An FEU container is 40 feet long, eight feet wide, and eight feet high. FEU containers can fit 20-24 palettes inside, depending on the size.

TEU and FEU help to describe the amount of cargo on board, as well.

what is TEU

Understanding TEU

There are a few key elements in understanding the everyday role of TEU in shipping. Taking a look at them in a little more detail will help you to understand how TEU improves the efficiency of shipping operations around the globe. 

The first is that TEU is the unit for counting shipping containers regardless of their dimensions. This helps to standardize container counts and payload amounts. Without this standardization, international shipping would not be possible on today’s scale.

One TEU represents a standard twenty-foot container. A forty-foot container counts as 2 TEU. Naturally, larger containers have higher What is TEU counts.

After a forty-foot container, you have 45, 48, and 53-foot long containers. Those are the most common measurements. These containers are 2, 2.4, and 2.65 TEU, respectively.

The goal of adopting TEU as the standard measurement was to easily calculate the shipping capacity of ships that can accommodate 40-foot containers. But, there are still some strange containers.

Certain ships might elect to use a high cube or half-height container. If that’s the case, each container counts as 1 TEU. 

Benefits of TEU

Aside from standardizing the cargo industry, What is TEU has some other benefits to major transport companies. 

The first, and one of the most important, is that TEU helps with traceability. Standard container and vessel sizes allow your cargo to stay in one container throughout its entire journey. As a result, customers and shipping companies can track their goods as they travel around the globe.

Customers and businesses alike know exactly when to expect their goods. It also helps companies within the shipping industry spot problems, and solve them, much faster.

TEU also offers protection. Containers are made of durable materials and each container has a lockable door. This ensures that any cargo on-board a vessel stays safe throughout the entire transit process.

These containers also help to shield goods from unexpected weather. Storm systems out on the open ocean can be unpredictable. It’s nice to know that goods will remain safe no matter what happens.

TEU containers are also great for regulating the atmosphere your goods ship in. If your cargo requires heat or refrigeration, the atmosphere within the container can be easily adapted to fit your needs. Cargo containers can be also be ventilated, if necessary.

Another great benefit of the What is TEU system is that it allows containers to travel intermodally. Containers can be easily transitioned from a cargo ship to a truck, or even to the back of a freight train. This is a huge benefit in the case of any shipping emergencies.

If a particular route is closed down, or there’s inclement weather, shipping companies can choose to re-route using other modes of transportation. Goods still arrive where they need to go and there’s not much time lost during the shipping process.

TEU Today

Today, What is TEU plays a very important role in the modern shipping world. The most popular shipping companies, and shipping container sizes, rely on TEU as a benchmark. TEU even applies to the size of shipping vessels, as well.

Some of the largest container ships traveling the oceans can handle up to 14,000 TEU worth of cargo onboard. In contrast, the smallest ships can only handle 1,000 TEU. These small ships are known as feeder ships.

The largest shipping vessel to date is owned by a Swiss-Italian company. The company goes by the name of MSC. Their biggest ship is 400 meters long, 61.5 meters wide, and 33.2 meters high.

This monster ship can hold 23,756 TEU worth of cargo.

Without TEU as the standard measurement for shipping container size and cargo volumes, modern transportation of goods wouldn’t be what it is today. Companies are shipping goods to the tune of several million TEU per year. All told, the entire shipping industry is shipping somewhere close to 1 billion TEUs in payload capacity.

Keep On Truckin’

We hope we’ve answered the question “what is TEU?” for you. Whether you’re in the shipping business, or taking on your first shipping project, knowing what TEU is and how it works is an important part of the process.

If you have any questions about TEU, or other shipping topics, contact OGL today. We’re happy to help and we look forward to finding the shipping solution that’s right for you.

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