Overweight container guide

container yard aerial view

Why are overweight containers a problem?

Overweight containers are a very serious problem. As container vessels become larger and containers are stacked higher to keep up with the growth of world trade, overweight containers can:

  • Lead to vessels being improperly stowed, which can adversely affect vessel stability and possible loss of containers overboard.
  • Cause damage to chassis and terminal handling equipment
  • Cause injuries to dock workers while containers are handled in container yards
  • Contribute to citations or accidents on highways and railways.

The SOLAS Container Weight Verification Requirement

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has amended the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) to require, as a condition for loading a packed container onto a ship for export, that the container has a verified weight. The shipper is responsible for the verification of the packed container’s weight. This requirement became legally effective on July 1, 2016. After this date, it became a violation of SOLAS to load a packed container onto a vessel if the vessel operator and marine terminal operator do not have a verified container weight.

The Verified Gross Mass (VGM) is the weight of the cargo including dunnage and bracing plus the tare weight of the container carrying this cargo. SOLAS requires the shipper to provide VGM in a “shipping document,” either as part of the shipping instruction or in a separate communication, before vessel loading. 

What action should the shipping line take when the container is received at a terminal without a VGM?

Before a packed container can be loaded onto a ship, its weight must be determined through weighing. It is a violation of SOLAS to load a packed container aboard a vessel without a signed verified gross mass provided by the shipper. Estimating the weight at the time of booking is not permitted.

If a container arrives at the terminal without a VGM, the container line must obtain, in advance of vessel loading, the signed verified actual gross mass of the container from the shipper Failure by the shipper to provide a signed VGM will result in the container not loading the vessel and being rolled to the following week sailing. 

A carrier may rely on a shipper’s signed weight verification to be accurate. The carrier does not need to be a “verifier” of the shipper’s weight verification. Nor do the SOLAS amendments require a carrier to verify that a shipper providing a verified weight has used a method that has been certified and approved by the competent authority of the jurisdiction in which the packing and sealing of the container was completed. 

The lack of a signed shipper weight verification can be remedied by weighing the packed container at the port. If the marine terminal does not have the equipment to weigh the container and provide a verified weight, alternative means must be found to obtain a verified container weight; otherwise, the packed container may not be loaded on to the ship.

When a marine terminal receives a packed export container that does not have a signed shipper weight verification or VGM is not a requirement, there will need to be processes in place at the terminal for obtaining the weight of such containers and using such weights in the vessel stow plan. Terminals and carriers will need to agree on how these situations will be handled.

If a packed container is weighed at the load port, that weight is to be used for vessel stow planning. Vessel stow plans should use verified weights for all packed containers loaded on board.

How much cargo weight can be safely and legally loaded in containers for highway transport in the US?

For highway transport in the US, the maximum cargo weight that can be safely and legally loaded, when a triaxle chassis is used, is:

  • In a 20” container - 44,000 lbs (19,958kg)
  • In a 40” container - 44,500 lbs (20,185kg)

Shippers must be aware that when factoring in the truck, chassis and container weight, in most places, the maximum gross vehicle weight cannot exceed 80,000 lbs (36,287kg), which is the basic legal limit for US highway transport. Even though some states allow higher weight limits, we recommend that the cargo weight is limited to the above-stated maximums. Shippers must spread the weight evenly throughout the container or the container can be subject to an axle weight violation.

Where are containers currently being weighed in the US?

Import containers- some terminals use the carrier’s EDI manifested weights (VGM). Import containers are not weighed at the time of out gate or loading to on dock rail. It is the responsibility of the carrier pulling the load to make sure that the container is of legal weight before departing the terminal.

Export containers- the container should be scaled during the in gate process and the scaled weight is recorded. The VGM from the carrier super cedes the terminal scaled weight. For export containers arriving at the terminal on the rail, all containers are weighed during in gate. Containers without weight information are weighed before export.

There are scales available to truckers on US highways but these scales are not be used as a VGM. These scales may not be accurate and should only be used if a container is leaning or to verify the weight certified by the shipper.  

What are the fines or penalties for overweight containers in the US?

Shipping lines can impose fines to the shippers for overweight containers that arrive at marine terminals. If shipping lines decide to fine shippers for overweight or containers, a clause in the service contract would be required. These fines act as a deterrent to force shippers to load legal weights and send a message to the shippers that the shipping lines will no longer tolerate such overloading of cargo by shippers. 

Fines and penalties can also be imposed by local authorities if it is found that the container is not of legal weight. In the instance that there is an accident and it is found that the cause of the accident is due to the overloading of the container, the Shipper and Carrier(s) could also be liable to the parties it caused damage to. 

Equipment tare weight summary

Below are approximate weights of equipment before considering cargo weight (reefer items in magenta).


20' dry = 4,800 lbs. (2,177kg)

20' reefer = 6,600 lbs. (2,994kg)

20' reefer w/clip-on genset and full fuel tank = 9,600 lbs. (4,355kg)

20' dry = 4,800 lbs. (2,177kg)

40' standard dry = 8,400 lbs. (3,810kg)

40' hi-cube dry = 8,900 lbs. (4,037kg)

40' hi-cube reefer = 9,700 lbs. (4,400kg)

40' reefer w/clip-on genset and full fuel tank:

At rail ITM ramp origin: 12,700 lbs. (5,761kg)

At rail ITM ramp destination for on-street movement: 12,300 lbs. (5,579kg)


20' 2-axle = 6,300 lbs. (2,858kg)

20' 3-axle = 10,500 lbs. to 10,950 lbs. (4,763kg to 4,967kg)

40' 2-axle = 6,800 lbs. (3,084kg)

40' 2-axle chassis with underslung chassis-mount genset = 8,600 lbs. to 9,000 lbs. (3,901kg to 4,082kg)

40' 3-axle = 10,800 lbs. (4,899kg)

45’ 2-axle = 7,700 lbs. (3,493kg) “extendables” can be heavier


3-axle standard, no sleeper cab = 18,500 lbs. (8,392kg) average

3-axle road (sleeper cab) tractor = 19,000 lbs. to 21,000 lbs. (8,618k to 9,526kg) average


Clip-on genset and its fuel (full tank) = 3,000 lbs. (1,361kg)

20’ Dry on slider chassis: 39,200 lbs. (17,780 kg)

20’ Dry on Tri axle slider chassis: 44,000 lbs. (19,960 kg) maximum outside California designated Overweight Corridors, i.e., Alameda Corridor in S. Calif., and Harbor Blvd/Maritime St. in Oakland

20’ RF on slider chassis: 34,900 lbs. (15,830 kg)

20’ RF on Tri axle slider chassis 39,700 lbs. (18,010 kg) maximum outside California Overweight Corridors when moving with a clip-on genset

40’ Dry on standard chassis 44,000 lbs. (19,960 kg)

40’ Hi-cube on standard chassis 43,700 lbs. (19,820 kg)

40’ RF on standard chassis 39,800 lbs. (18,050 kg) with a clip-on genset

40’ RF Hi-cube on standard chassis 39,300 lbs. (17,830 kg) with a clip-on genset

Maximum axle weights allowed when gross weight allowed is limited to 80,000 lbs. (36,287 kg) per 5-axle rig are:

12,000 lbs. (5,443 kg) front axle (tractor steer axle)

34,000 lbs. (15,422 kg) middle tandems (tractor drive axles)

34,000 lbs. (15,422 kg) rear tandems


George Radu

Claims Executive

Meaghan Argentieri

Senior Claims Executive