How Long Does it Take to Unload a Container Ship?

Tonnes of merchandise arrives at port facilities every year. Modern engineering and technology ensure effective and efficient logistics. Many aspects of the container unloading process at the seaport have been mechanized. In the following post, we will describe how a container is unloaded at a port and how long it takes.

How Are Containers Unloaded from the Ship?

Unloaded Container

Unloading is the process of lifting containers from a ship and placing them into another ship, wagon, chassis, or dock. This is normally accomplished with customized container cranes. 

Containers cannot be arranged in the port or put onto ships without the aid of these cranes. Yard cranes and quay cranes are the two types of port cranes.

Quay Cranes: Quay cranes are also called ship-to-shore (STS) cranes since they are used to move containers from ship to shore and vice versa. Along the dock, there are quay cranes that make it easy to get to container ships.

Yard Cranes: These cranes are mostly found in the port’s container yard, where they transport heavy containers to trailers. Rubber-Tired Gantry Cranes (RTG) and Rail-Mounted Gantry Cranes (RMG) are the two most prevalent types of yard cranes.

Containers can also be transported using AGVs (automated guided vehicles). These cars operate without the involvement of drivers. AGV transfers the container to the previously designated stack after receiving it. Containers can be held for a limited time on the stack, which is made up of numerous lines.

Automatically controlled container stackers, or ASCs, are used to place containers in such stacks.

You can check our article ‘How to Ship a Car‘ for specific guidelines if you ship cars.

Unloading Time for Different Sizes of Ships

unloaded container

The total number of moves needed for unloading and loading a container ship at a seaport is determined by the ship’s TEU capacity and the ratio of 20-foot-to-40-foot containers loaded. TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) is an imprecise unit of cargo capacity commonly used for container ships and container terminals.

To get this part right, we considered that it takes 2–3 minutes for a crane to lift each container from the ship. For a seaport with four cranes working at the same time, that will be the unloading time for various sizes of ships.

ShipCapacity (TEU)Unloading Time
Feeder Ship (for a short distance)150015-16 hours
Panamax4500 1-2 days
Post Panamax64002-3 days
Suezmax120004-5 days
Post-Suesmax180007-8 days

It is essential to keep in mind that container ships rarely load the maximum number of containers at once. They often follow a timetable similar to that of a city bus. They make many stops in China, for example, before heading to the United States, where they may make three, four, or more port visits. 

Although a ship may have a capacity of 6,000 containers, it will spend lots of time unloading empty containers before loading full containers at the first Chinese port. They could drop 1,000 empties and a few import fulls, then reload 1500 or 1600 export fulls before moving on to the next location and repeating the procedure. This is the case at every port. As a result, time is wasted unloading and loading. 

In order to get the accurate time for unloading, say 1000 containers, you will need to multiply by 2.5 minutes and divide the result by the number of cranes working, to get the minutes it will take. You can go further to convert the minutes to hours, then day.

What are the Factors that Affect Unloading Time?


The weather has to be the most critical factor in unloading delays. If the weather is bad, loading and unloading procedures will be halted, leading to delays in the vessel leaving the port and therefore extending its route to the next port of call.

Inadequate Port Infrastructure

The port business is a capital-intensive one, requiring a large initial expenditure – for land, construction, and drainage; purchasing cranes and many other container-handling gears; measures; security systems and processes; trained people; and so on; which can be a barrier to entry.

Port authorities often have the basic infrastructure they need, but they don’t have the money to improve their facilities and equipment to keep up with the growing number of containers and larger ships that call at their ports.

In such circumstances, the port’s ability to efficiently unload and manage containers calling at the port is hampered, resulting in longer loading and unloading periods, which causes vessel delays and has an influence on schedule dependability and delivery timelines.

Peak Season

Consumer demand for goods is substantially higher than usual at some periods of the year. This is common throughout the festival season, and it results in higher volumes, putting additional strain on ship capacity and cargo processing infrastructure at ports.

Due to the higher-than-normal volume of cargo, ports take longer to unload containers, resulting in lengthier port stays for ships, which delays other ships in line behind them, eventually causing delays at subsequent port visits.

There is no universally recognized peak season for ports. The peak season varies from country to country and port to port.

Unrest/Labor Shortage

In countries with strong labor unions, there are sometimes delays in handling ships because of labor unrest. This affects all ships that come to the port and throws off schedules, causing big delays and pile-ups.

Port Congestion

Inefficiency is one cause of port congestion, which affects port operations and the movement of cargo to its final destination. This, in turn, causes delays in berthing and unloading containers, which makes it harder to keep to a schedule.

Congested ports will make schedules even less reliable and add to transit times that are already longer during busy times or because of common problems like labor disputes, poor connections to the rest of the country, and so on.

What Parameters Determine the Cost of Unloading and Loading Operations?

The price of unloading and loading activities is affected by:

  • Dimensions and weight of cargo.
  • The number of unloaders involved
  • Nomenclature of equipment with which the work is performed.

The rate is determined by the sea line along which the cargo is transported and the terminal at which it is processed.

If you are relocating to the United States on a budget, we’ve put together a few articles to make the process stress free. You might want to see 10 Best Places To Move To With Little or No Money.

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