What Do the Different Colours on Shipping Containers Mean?

Everyone has seen groups of freight shipping containers with various colours on the outside of them. Each shipping container may have a solid exterior colour, such as green, yellow, white, orange, brown, red, or blue. Anyone may assume those colours are for decorative purposes only. But what if you found out they served a different purpose?

More than 820 million shipping containers exist at different seaports throughout the world. The solid colour paint on each shipping container is supposed to protect the containers and their stored cargo. But these are only some of the reasons for the use of different colours.

When a freight ship transports a load of multi-coloured shipping containers into a port, the staff members at the port use the colours to identify the cargo quickly. Many of the colours signal company branding, such as green, orange, grey, magenta, red, and yellow.

For example, a port staff member sees a white shipping container, it will signal that it contains perishable contents. Also, maroon and brown shipping containers are predominately from leasing companies.

Who Came Up With This Idea?

Colourful shipping containers have been around since the 1950s. The idea for colour-coded shipping containers came from a former truck driver turned entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean.

He wanted to create a way to maximize the productivity of cargo transport by sea. So, he came up with the idea of putting different coloured containers on large cargo ships to consolidate ship space, reduce the risk of theft, and offer more reliability to businesses and consumers.

All the shipping containers are made from durable steel material. That hasn’t changed since the 1950s. The only thing that has changed is how the colours identify products and company brands.

Shipping facilities and depots know how to store shipping containers simply by looking at their exterior colours. They don’t need to open up the containers to see what’s inside or research the exterior owner code markings to see who owns them. After all, the shipping container colours help identify company branding too.

As a result, it establishes a faster and more efficient environment for storing containers.

 Is It a Legal Requirement to Use Specific Colours on Shipping Containers?

Even though different colours have been used on shipping containers for several decades, there are no laws or legal requirements regarding their usage. It is at the discretion of the manufacturers and shipping companies to determine which colours to use on the shipping containers.

The only legal requirement is that the containers comply with Industry Standard ISO 6346. This requirement specifies that each container bares a unique marking to help identify the shipping container. It doesn’t necessarily have to be solid colours, but just any kind of markings which can identify the containers.

The Different Colours Explained

White Containers

Food products and other perishable items requiring refrigeration will usually get stored in white containers. Ports must recognise perishable items immediately because they must take the appropriate action to store them correctly. That way, the container items won’t spoil before they reach their final destination.

In some cases, the white colour may signal “one direction shipping” if it is not used to identify refrigerated items. But the white colour will always tell port workers to move the container to its destination faster.

Brown / Maroon Containers

Dark-coloured containers in brown or maroon are quite popular and common to see at seaports. The reason is that darker colours are better at preserving the life of the containers. So, if the containers are going to be reused regularly, they will likely have darker colours on the exterior. That is why leasing companies are best known for using brown and maroon-coloured containers.

Other Colours

If containers have other colours besides white, brown, or maroon, it probably means they are from particular company brands. Some examples of branding colours include yellow, magenta, red, orange, grey, and green. Freight ports are often filled with containers of many different colours like these.

Colours vs. Cargo

Companies may choose particular colours for their containers if they think those colours will directly affect the cargo inside them. The science behind this is fascinating because when sunlight hits specific colours outside the containers, those colours absorb heat and raise the temperature and humidity inside the containers.

Different colours will absorb different levels of sunlight. The rule of thumb is that lighter colours are better for reflecting sunlight away from the cargo to prevent rising humidity and temperatures inside. For this reason, containers storing perishables have a white colour because white is the best colour for reflecting heat and maintaining cooler temperatures inside.

Repainting and Repurposing Containers

Shipping containers don’t always stay with the same owners. Instead, they frequently get sold to different shipping companies and individuals.

If the new owners don’t like the existing colour paint on the outside of their purchased containers, they may repaint them in a new colour that identifies their specific cargo or brand. However, most companies would prefer to buy containers from similar companies to avoid the expense of repainting or repurposing them.

Leasing companies are a perfect example because they love to purchase shipping containers from other leasing companies. But if they want to change the branding by adding a new colour, they may decide to repaint it anyway.


Now you should have a better idea of why shipping containers have different colours on them. There is no legal requirement for adding specific colours to containers, but most shipping and leasing companies follow similar colour coding.

If you’re looking to lease shipping containers, you’ll have to use the colour that comes with them. The leasing companies should have an inventory of colour options for the shipping containers they have available for leasing.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to buy shipping containers, you shouldn’t concern yourself with the colours right now. Instead, look for the best prices for shipping containers, even if they have colours you don’t want. Then, when you finally buy the shipping containers, you can always repaint them with the colours you want.

If you have the need to transport a shipping container in Perth, Executive Towing Services can help. Call us on 0410 471 056 to find out more.