How Long Does it Take to Unload a Cargo Ship?


How Long Does it Take to Unload a Cargo Ship?

Cargo shipping is the lifeline of the global supply chain, connecting economies worldwide. 

Ever wondered about the efficiency happening behind the scenes during cargo ship unloading? How do they manage to load and unload such massive cargo vessels within a limited turnaround time?

From 1980 to 2021, the volume of international trade carried by container ships has seen a consistent surge. In 2021 alone, approximately 1.95 billion tons of cargo were loaded onto these mighty vessels.

Naturally, time equals currency when it comes to cargo ship unloading. It is crucial to ensure seamless cargo integration into the supply chain.

The duration of cargo ship unloading varies based on several factors. Weather, port operations, cargo type, and infrastructure are a few of them. Understanding their influence is crucial for shippers seeking streamlined sea freight shipping operations.

This blog will uncover the process and time required to unload a cargo ship. We will also look at the factors that impact cargo unloading time. Gaining these insights will help you optimise sea freight operations and reduce shipping delays.

Understanding the Process of Cargo Ship Unloading

Cargo ships, also known as freighters, are designed to transport heavy loads of cargo. They serve as vital vessels for carrying goods between ports across the globe.

These vessels come in different sizes. And are equipped with cranes and other mechanisms for smooth loading and unloading. They are designed to accommodate various volumes and types of cargo. They can transport motor vehicles, containers, and bulk materials such as grain or oil.

The process of cargo vessel unloading is the reverse of the loading process. It involves lifting the cargo off the ship. Which is then placed on waiting carriers—ships, chassis, and wagons. Skilled operators handle the cranes with precision, ensuring the safe handling of cargo.

The Process of Cargo Ship Unloading

Cargo ship unloading is driven by a series of carefully orchestrated steps. These steps ensure seamless transfer of cargo from the ship to the shore.

1. Docking and Berthing

Upon arrival at the port, the cargo ship is guided by skilled harbour pilots to navigate safely to the berth. The ship is then secured, ensuring stability during unloading.

2. Cargo Identification and Organization

Before unloading, the cargo must be identified. The relevant information is recorded to ensure proper handling. This step includes: 

  • Verifying documentation

  • Ensuring compliance with customs regulations

  • Assigning appropriate storage locations

3. Equipment Preparation

Next step is to mobilise specialised equipment, such as cranes, forklifts, and conveyors. They are positioned strategically for greatest efficiency. It also involves equipment inspection and maintenance to guarantee optimal performance during unloading.

There are two main types of port cranes: quay cranes and yard cranes.

Quay cranes are also known as ship-to-shore (STS) cranes. They aid the movement of containers between the ship and the shore. These cranes are positioned along the dock, ensuring easy access to container ships. 

Yard cranes, on the other hand, are located in the port's container yard. They are responsible for transporting heavy containers to trailers.

4. Cargo Removal

With all preparations in place, the process of extracting cargo begins. Equipment lifts cargo to place onto trucks, conveyor belts, or dock storage areas.

So, How Long Does It Take To Unload a Cargo Ship?

Under normal circumstances, cargo ship unloading takes an average of 1 to 3 days. This is primarily because the number of containers on many ships often exceeds 10,000. 

The time it takes to unload a container ship at a seaport depends on the ship's capacity. The unit often used to measure a ship’s capacity is TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). 

So let’s assume it takes around 2-3 minutes for a crane to lift each container from the ship. If four cranes operate all at once on the seaport, the estimated unloading time for different ship is:

  • Feeder Ship (1500 TEUs): 15-16 hours

  • Panamax (4500 TEUs): 1-2 days

  • Post Panamax (6400 TEUs): 2-3 days

  • Suezmax (12000 TEUs): 4-5 days

  • Post-Suezmax (18000 TEUs): 7-8 days

Container ships typically do not load the maximum number of containers all at once. During each port visit, the ship unloads empty containers. It then reloads some import and export containers before moving to the next location. This leads to time spent on unloading and loading containers at each port, causing delays. 

Factors Affecting the Duration of Cargo Ship Unloading

Various factors can influence the duration of cargo ship unloading. Understanding them helps identify areas where efficiency can be improved and delays minimised.

Weather Conditions

Unloading cargo ships can be a tough task when the weather decides to throw a tantrum. Strong winds, heavy rain, or thick fog can bring the whole operation to a grinding halt. Imagine trying to manoeuvre heavy equipment to handle cargo amid a storm—it's not easy! Not only does lousy weather disrupt unloading, but it also has a ripple effect on the ship's schedule. 

Port Operations

Conditions, such as congestion or limited berthing availability, can delay container ship unloading. Overcrowded and inefficient ports result in slow and challenging container unloading.

Size and Type of Cargo Ship/span>

The size and type of cargo ship directly impact the duration of cargo unloading. Larger vessels—like container ships or bulk carriers, typically carry higher cargo volumes. Hence, it takes additional time to unload a container ship.

Specialised vessels—oil tankers, car carriers have specific unloading methods for their cargo.

Cargo Type and Packaging

The type of cargo significantly influences the duration of cargo ship unloading. Different cargo types may need different handling, affecting the time taken for unloading. 

Hazardous materials, for example, require extra safety precautions, thorough inspections, and specialised equipment. Fragile items, like glassware, need delicate handling to avoid any damage. These unique requirements can extend the time of unloading a shipping vessel. 

Port Infrastructure and Equipment

Efficient ports and top-notch port machinery are key to quick cargo ship unloading. Deep-deep-water berths, efficient storage facilities, and well-connected transport networks signify such ports. They aid in smoother unloading operations. 

Availability and functioning of cranes, stackers, or conveyor belts are worth considering. These factors also have a big contribution in expediting unloading and reducing delays.

Documentation and Customs Procedures

Smooth paperwork and customs procedures are essential for timely cargo ship unloading. It ensures that cargo is identified, accounted for, and directed to appropriate destinations. 

In the event of tangled paperwork or sluggish customs procedures, bottlenecks can occur. This inevitably delays the cargo unloading process. Electronic data interchange and customs clearance reduce time to unload a container ship.

Labour Availability and Workforce Efficiency

Cargo unloading efficiency begins with an adequate and experienced workforce. It’s common to see delays in cargo ship unloading because of the limited workforce struggling to handle the influx of cargo efficiently. 

Proper labour management and training can reduce time to unload a cargo ship. 

It's wise to ensure that warehouse workers, drivers, and shippers are on the same page regarding safety protocols, forklift traffic lanes, light communication systems, and security measures. It’s the best way to remain efficient and safe while cargo ship unloading. 

Cargo Ship Unloading Techniques and Strategies

Unloading cargo vessels can be done using different techniques; each method has its own time requirements. From cranes to automated systems, the choice of unloading technique directly impacts the duration of cargo unloading. 

For example, Roll-on/roll-off (RORO) is a faster way to unload cargo ships than a crane. It simply rolls the container onto a truck or train using a ramp. Lift-on/lift-off (LOLO), on the other hand, is perfect for oversized stuff like construction materials, vehicles, and machinery, allowing for quick and systematic unloading. 

Case Study: Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) For Rotterdam Container Terminal

Ericsson, a manufacturer of industrial sensors, has identified a valuable use case for smart ports. 

Rotterdam World Gateway is a leading container terminal in the Port of Rotterdam. Being Europe's largest port, it handles more than 430 million tons of cargo annually. It exemplifies the power of sensors in loading and unloading operations at ports.

During cargo ship unloading, giant dockside cranes transfer  containers onto driverless trucks —AGVs. A smart system controls the AGVs. The system uses sensors and a programmable logic controller (PLC) to guide movements. 

The AGVs swiftly transport the containers to the stacking yard. Stacker cranes, then stack them in the designated storage areas. The logistics computer knows precisely where each container should be placed. It ensures efficient unloading that meets strict schedules, as slightest delays are costly. Furthermore, continuous monitoring of equipment ensures reliability, minimising breakdowns regardless of weather conditions.


Cargo ship unloading time depends on various factors affecting its efficiency and speed. Optimising cargo ship unloading benefits businesses, supply chains, and customer satisfaction. Stakeholders in the shipping industry can achieve faster turnaround and cost savings by:

  • Enhancing port infrastructure

  • Leveraging technology for documentation and customs

  • Ensuring labour availability and training, and

  • Implementing effective unloading techniques

Moreover, the future of cargo ship unloading with AI and data analytics seems exciting. These advancements can transform unloading time through real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance. Ongoing investments in port infrastructure and equipment upgrades can further enhance unloading processes.

The ultimate goal is to balance speed and safety. While minimising disruptions and optimising resources. By continuously evaluating and improving upon the above factors, stakeholders can navigate the seas of logistics with greater ease and efficiency.

​​While there's no universal solution, cargo unloading involves complexities that demand specialised skills, infrastructure, and experience. To simplify your freight shipping processes and ensure a seamless experience, you need an expert shipping partner with a global network of carriers. 

PACK & SEND takes care of inbound and outbound logistics so that eCommerce businesses can focus on their core strengths: take great products to the global audience.

Reach out to us now and let us handle your freight requirements with utmost care.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much time does it take to unload a cargo ship?

On average, unloading a cargo vessel can take several hours to several days. 

Which factors affect the unloading speed of cargo ships?

The duration of unloading a cargo ship can vary depending on several factors, such as:

  • The weather conditions

  • The size and type of the ship

  • The type of cargo being unloaded

  • The port infrastructure

  • The availability of skilled labour

  • The chosen unloading techniques

  • The documentation and customs procedures

How do cargo ships unload?

Cargo vessel unloading is the reverse of the loading process. Cranes transfer cargo from the ship to carriers or storage areas at the destination port. Trained professionals operate the cranes to ensure careful manoeuvring of the cargo. 


Image sources: Statista, Science Direct, Logistics Cluster, ResearchGate, Liebherr

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