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Overweight container guide for US roads | 20' 40' shipping container weight limits | Maximum weight allowed for ocean containers

The concept of containerized shipping would seem like an ideal solution for shipping a wide variety of goods—everything from foods, manufactured goods, and bulk materials—especially in our increasingly global economy. Simply load the container at the source and deliver it—much as you would any other parcel—to its destination. 

Advantages of containerized loads include modular shipment, door-to-door shipment, less handling of product, ease of shipment tracking, less theft, and less product damage due to excessive handling, 

In 1984, the FHWA established policies that allowed states the option to consider ISO container loads non-divisible loads. At least 28 states currently apply the option. The remaining sates may require overweight containers to be opened and the contents divided into smaller loads or apply other strategies. 

To be considered a non-divisible load and eligible to be hauled under a state DOT/OW permit, a shipping container must be sealed for international shipment and in route for import or export to/from a foreign country.  

The world of international shipping, however, is not a perfect world. And the sole problem is weight. Worldwide, weight standards are not uniform, and it is possible—and often occurs—that containers can be filled to the point that they result in an overweight load somewhere along the transportation route. European and Asian countries often allow heavier loads on trucks than in the United States. And, shipping to the US is further complicated by the fact that there are no uniform maximum overweight standards for the various states.

The fact is, accepting and transporting a containerized load from the shipping terminal to its final destination, may, in fact, not be possible, at least not without the added expenses of overweight permits and/or opening the container and dividing the load between two containers, two trucks, two drivers, etc. Effectively reducing the purpose and benefit of containerized shipping.  

The Challenge – An Example with Basic Numbers

Based on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) the maximum weight for a standard loaded 40-ft container should be 67,200 lb. (It should be noted that at times international shippers, both trucks and container ships, do not accurately verify the weight of each loaded container, hence containers could be overweight before they are loaded onto the truck for delivery.)

Table of Key Weights

Type Weight (lbs.)Notes
Tractor Trailer Tare Weight 30,000Actual weight may vary
40' Loaded Container67,200ISO Container
Maximum Road Load limit 80,0005 Axles
Tractor Trailer plus Loaded Container 97,200Typical
Overweight by17,200Permit (?)


As indicated above, many states consider a sealed container shipment a non-divisible load.

For estimating purposes, assume the tare weight of a five-axle tractor and container frame trailer is 30,000 pounds (Table of Key Weights). 

Assuming a fully loaded container on the average truck, the total weight of the vehicle and load will be 97,200 pounds. 

The first hurdle to shipping this container in the United States is that the standard maximum weight on the nation’s highway system is 80,000 lb. Immediately, the load is 17,200 lb. overweight. 

Let’s assume that the load was delivered to and picked up at the port of Chicago, Illinois. We can get an Illinois overweight permit for a non-divisible load for a maximum weight up to 98,000 lb. At only 97,200 lb., our load is “good-to-go” with an overweight permit fee. (One caution, in addition to meeting the gross weight limits, the truck must not exceed individual axle loads—typically 20,000 lb. per axle.)  

However, our delivery point is in mid-state Indiana. The maximum overweight limit in Indiana is 95,000 lb. The vehicle and cargo load weighing in excess of 95,000 lb. will be intercepted at the first inspection station in Indiana. In addition to any fines levied for excess weight, there will the added costs for stripping and repacking.

The fact is, however, you cannot expect any exceptions for overweight shipments or leniency from states when it comes to weight limitation violations.

Overweight loads up to 97,000 lb. (or more) can be hauled in some states with the proper overweight permits. Unfortunately, many states only permit overweight loads up to 96,000 or 95,000, or 93,000 lb. What happens when a truck picks up a fully loaded container in a state that permits 97,000 lb. weight, but then must travel into another state that only permits 96,000 or 95,000 lb.?  

The shipment will have to be stripped of its original container and repacked according to weight restrictions. In addition to any fines, there will be added costs associated with the delay; the stripping and repacking; and the additional container, truck, and driver required to deliver the now divided shipment. 

To avoid these excessive delays, fines, and penalties, operators should get accurate weights of the loaded truck before departure and make the needed adjustments.

Once the container is opened, there is the potential for loss and/or damage to a portion of the container load. Any warranty from the original shipper for quantity or quality may be voided when the seal is broken before final delivery without proper coordination.

The Purpose of Road Weight Limits?

At times, weight restrictions for shipments can seem arbitrary, especially when they vary significantly between states on what appear to be identical road systems. Weight limits are imposed and enforced by each state for safety reasons. They serve to control weight of vehicles, mostly trucks, on roads. They are in place for structural and environmental reasons and to:

  • Enforce safety for other vehicles and traffic
  • Prevent damage to roads, bridges, and buildings
  • Protect the environment
  • Manage or reduce traffic congestion

The construction, management, or even the dimensions of roads and bridges can differ from state to state, and a simplification or unification of road weight limits is unlikely soon.

What is overweight?

A container or shipment can be considered overweight in one or all the following three ways:

Gross weight: A truck and its cargo may not exceed a total gross weight, including tractor weight, chassis, container and cargo. Road weight limits vary from state to state, from interstates to state highways, and on local roads. 

Axle Weight: This is the allowed gross weight on a single axle of the truck, or a set of axles. In the United States, this is regulated by individual states and limits can vary. A truck or shipment passing through several states must comply with all individual state regulations. Over 50% of all US overweight violations are axle issues and are typically caused by uneven weight distribution inside the container. Use this Max Axle Weight Calculator to calculate the max permitted weight allowed per axle/group.

Federal Bridge Formula (FBF): The US Federal Bridge Formula is used to calculate the maximum allowed weight according to the distance between sets of axles. Divided into Inner Bridge (between axle 2 and 5) and Outer Bridge (axle 1 and axle 5) measurements. Bridge formula compliance depends on vehicle length, number of axles and total weight to arrive at an allowance per axle. Based on spacing, the maximum FBF is 20,000 lb. per axle. You can instantly apply the FBF here using the federal bridge formula calculator

The Size of The Problem of Road Weight Limits

Unfortunately, there is no universal maximum cargo weight or vehicle weight. Limits and restrictions include the tractor, chassis, and container in addition to the cargo, and all these elements can vary from state to state and from shipment to shipment. 

One of the most common reasons for a weight violation is the distribution of the load within the container that causes one axle to exceed the 20,000-lb individual axle weight limit. 

Options Available to Trucks to Carry Fully Loaded ISO Containers in the United States

Based on state and Federal rules, there appear to be six options for carrying fully loaded containers in the United States: (1) obtaining a non-divisible oversize/overweight permit when possible, (2) operating on special haul routes, (3) using grandfathered weight limits, (4) using state roads, (5) reducing truck tare weight, and (6) operating outside of formal regulations.

A scan of state and Federal vehicle weights and overweight permitting reveals several different options for 40-ft container operations.

Non-divisible Oversize/Overweight Permits

There are also differences among the 28 states that permit containers as non-divisible. These differences include different operating conditions, different gross vehicle weights (GVW), different axle weight limits, etc. 

For example, ten states (Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, and West Virginia) permit loads of 97,000 lb. (which is adequate for loaded containers), while the remaining states set the GVW at 88,000 to 96,000 lb. These lower weight restrictions often require trucks with six or seven axles (if permitted) or loads divided among several trucks defeating the objective of allowing them to be non-divisible. 

Florida restricts the routing to movements directly from a maritime port to the destination, from a maritime port to a railroad facility, from an origin to a maritime port, or from railroad facility directly to the maritime port of embarkation. 

Minnesota will only issue OS/OW permits for containers if they are hauling raw or unprocessed agricultural products in international trade. 

Ohio will only issue a permit if the container is an international export movement originating in the state. 

These types of conditions can create a fractured regulatory system for transporting fully loaded containers by truck and/or prohibit the use of fully loaded ISO containers for domestic movements. 

Special Haul Routes

To protect the states’ highway structures and allow efficient movement of containers from shipping terminals to intermodal transfer facilities, several states have designated special haul routes for overweight sealed containers used in international trade. Overweight non-divisible loads can travel on these designated routes with overweight permits.  Washington, Texas, and California currently use this option in one form or another. 

For example, Washington designated a limited number of heavy haul industrial corridors from the Canadian border to the Oroville railhead and several local streets near the Port of Tacoma within port district property. The state requires six-axle rigs that can carry fully loaded containers. 

In general, Texas and California, fully loaded containers are not permitted, however there are exceptions granted in specific areas that allow movement of fully loaded containers to travel to Mexico (Texas) or to trans-shipment sites (California).

Grandfathered Weight Limits

On some U.S. highways, trucks can carry fully loaded containers through options created by grandfathered exemptions to the 80,000 lb. federal limit. The higher grandfathered weight limits may allow the legal transportation of fully loaded containers with or without an overweight permit, depending on the state regulation. 

Grandfathered exemptions may require specially configured trucks that exceed the 80,000-lb limit. For example, to meet FBF B weight limits, a seven-axle truck with an outer spacing of 75 feet has a maximum weight of 103,000 pounds—more than enough to carry a fully loaded 40-ft. container.

State Roads

On some non-interstate highways, trucks may carry fully loaded containers because the state has set weight limits for state roads above 80,000 lb. Eighteen states allow legal GVWs above 80,000 lb. on non-interstate highways, whereas five restrict GVWs to less than 80,000 lb. on non-interstate highways. A limitation of this option is that it can lead to safety, productivity, and environmental disadvantages because of the design of some state roads versus interstate highways.

Reduced Truck Tare Weight

Many truck and trailer manufacturers offer lightweight models that reduce tare weight by 3,000 lb. or more by using aluminum, metal alloys, composites, and other lightweight components. These include lightweight day-cabs and lightweight tandem axle container frame that reduce truck tare weight by as much as 3,300 pounds compared to conventional tractor trailers.  This option would allow these trucks to haul loaded containers and stay under 95,000 lb. weight restrictions. Of course, this involves an investment in new, essentially special-purpose equipment. 

Operation outside of Formal Regulations

One, non-recommended strategy is violating weight restrictions for short distances. This is most likely to occur when truck operators do not directly control container weights. It is also suggested that enforcement of such strategies may be inconsistent from state to state. A flaw in this approach, in addition to violations, is that it could have adverse effects on roads and bridges along these routes. Check out this free guide on oversize overweight fines by state.

Examples of Constrained Movements on Selected Corridors

Truck size and weight regulations can affect truck productivity and operations, environmental sustainability, competition between states, and national export agendas. The following section is a discussion regarding implications arising from differing container weight regulations between states.

To illustrate fully loaded container movements between states in the United States, three case studies are presented that represent most of the options identified in this research. 

Wisconsin-Illinois Movements. The port of Chicago is a large marine container ship port that supports the commerce of several surrounding states.  Illinois treats containers as non-divisible and, with overweight limit of 98,000, will issue permit that will allow the transport of a fully loaded container. However, the adjacent states of Indiana (95K max) and Wisconsin (90K max) cannot permit a fully loaded containers (with limited exceptions for bulk commodities such as grain or coal).  This means that a container of consumer goods to be shipped to either of these two states would have to be broken down into two smaller loads, requiring the time and cost of labor to break down the load, as well as the cost of an additional driver, truck, and trailer,  effectively reducing the economic advantage of the containerized shipment. The same process is reversed for goods produced in Indiana and Wisconsin—goods must be shipped to Illinois where they can be combined into a container, again at the added cost of extra handling and hauling.1

Missouri-Illinois-Indiana-Michigan Movements. In Missouri, containers are treated in a similar fashion as in Illinois, where ISO containers are considered non-divisible loads and are provided with routine overweight permits using a tridem or quad axle arrangement. Michigan (GVW 89,000 lb.) and Indiana (GVW 95,000), cannot transport fully loaded containers. Not only do these limitations apply within Michigan and Indiana, they prevent trans shipments through these states for access the port in Chicago. Michigan does allow trucks with a unique tridem spread of 18 ft to carry fully loaded containers. 1  

Ohio-Pennsylvania-New York Movements. Ohio is not container-overweight-friendly. Ohio considers international containers as a non-divisible load when traveling within the state to an Ohio intermodal facility when the shipment is intended for a destination outside of the United States. Permits are not issued for transshipments through Ohio, of from Ohio to other destinations in the United States. 

Pennsylvania provides permits for the movement of sealed, seagoing, international containerized cargo up to 40.8 t (90,000 lb.) GVW.

New York permits sealed containers up to 100,000 lb. on trucks with five axles with a 51 ft. outer bridge limit. 

Ohio trucks are limited to 94,000 lb. within Ohio but restricted to 90,000 lb. when traveling through Pennsylvania to New York ports. The Ohio limit is also applicable to trucks transiting the state.

Environmental Sustainability

The disparity between different states is not only a challenge for trucking companies to navigate, but also impedes the movement of international goods across the country. Increased, more uniform state weight limits could increase trucking efficiency and productivity, reduce emissions, and by reducing the number of trips, likely slightly reduce wear and tear on the highway systems. 

Since the standard for international shipments is the loaded 40-ft. container with a maximum ISO weight of 67,700 lb. on a truck with a minimum typical weight of 30,000 lb., a uniform maximum truck weight of 98,000 to 100,000 (with overweight permits and fees) could simplify international container shipments, and benefit states through increased permit revenues.

Summary and Caution

This summary report was prepared with what was believed to be the latest available information, state rules, etc. However, before planning any haul involving ISO containers, review the rules for the states through which you expect to operate. Rules and regulations change, and what appear to be current resources may be out of date, especially regarding any recent changes in a state’s rules regarding maximum weights and truck configurations. It is recommended that operators work with a permitting partner to ensure compliance with various state rules and permitting requirements to avoid unnecessary delays and expenses.


Resources Used in the Preparation of this Article:

1.     hauling oversize overweight loads - an overview

2. Options for Hauling Fully Loaded ISO Containers in the United States, Journal of Transportation and Engineering, ASCE, 2012

3.     Indiana Department of Revenue

4.     Federal Bridge Formula (https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/freight/publications/brdg_frm_wghts/index.htm)

5. Code of Federal Register, Title 23 - Highways

6. Weighing Containers in Ports and Terminals, a PEMA Information Paper