Cargo tracking in five steps

We list the top ways for cargo tracking available in the market right now

By Katerina Ignatiou

February 7, 2018

Cargo tracking in five steps

This blog post was updated on 14/6/2021

It can be unbearable to wait for a package you’ve ordered from overseas.

That goes to explain why consumers have demanded that companies like retailer Amazon plough millions of dollars into research and new technology. This technology allows for faster deliveries and greater visibility over the entire supply chain, from producer right to the customer’s front door.

Today, a huge percentage of the things we buy come from factories in the Far East. Unless you’re willing to pay a substantial premium for air freight, shipping by sea – usually in container ships – is the cheapest and most efficient method. However, this can still take weeks or even months.

Thanks to technological advances, it has never been easier to track the passage of goods. However, if you don’t have the weight of a huge retail giant behind you, tracking a cargo’s slow journey around the globe can be both a challenging and frustrating task.

Here are five options available to the average consumer that allow you to track your cargo from origin to destination.

Personal, up-close monitoring

Some shipments are so valuable or important that they need constant care and supervision throughout their journey. If you have the time, it is still possible to hitch a ride on an ocean-going container ship. This provides both a no-frills travel experience and the opportunity to keep your cargo in sight at all times. 

However, despite the low comfort levels, passenger rates on container ships aren’t cheap, at roughly 100 Euros per day at sea. With most sailings from China to Europe taking around a month, this is both one of the most time-consuming and expensive options.

GPS asset tracking

If you have access to your cargo before it begins its voyage, consumer GPS tracking devices can be purchased for under E200. These devices allow you to watch the passage of your cargo in more-or-less real time. However, without access to the device during the voyage, you are unable to prevent any damage to the antenna or other vital parts that could stop it functioning. 

Also, if the sailing is delayed, which happens regularly for weeks at a time, you run the risk of the device’s battery going flat and completely losing the signal.

Live satellite imagery

With the knowledge of which vessel your cargo will be carried on, you can pay for satellite imagery that will allow you to track the vessel’s journey across the ocean. 

However, with high daily costs and no guarantee that you will be able to keep tracking your ship if she runs into bad weather or diverts from her planned course, this could be an expensive and unreliable option.


cargo tracking

Container tracking services

Each standard intermodal container carries its own unique ISO 6346 International Shipping Container Standard Information reporting mark, which can be tracked and monitored at every major freight terminal the cargo passes through. 

However, as this is not a live tracking system like GPS, you are left unaware of the container’s location for the long time it spends between terminals, such as when in transit via rail, road or sea.

Some shipping companies offer customers the option to track their container, however this often relies on satellite technology that tracks the vessel, rather than the individual container. Not all companies offer this service and with companies that do, you have no guarantees about the timeliness or the accuracy of the tracking information.

AIS Vessel Tracking

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is comprised of small transponders fitted to shipping vessels worldwide. Their location broadcasts are collected by a vast network of receivers and can be aggregated to create a near-real-time picture of global shipping traffic. 

If you know the IMO number or the name of the vessel carrying your cargo, you can enter this with an AIS maritime tracking intelligence provider, like MarineTraffic, to track the vessel’s progress at sea. 

Most services allow you to check the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) at port and to receive notifications about important events that happen during the ship’s voyage. For example, diversions, adverse weather conditions or terminal issues, that could affect the ETA. 

MarineTraffic is the only ship tracking company in the world that incorporates data from the three major satellite providers which combined with the largest AIS Terrestrial network, allows us to calculate a vessel’s ETA much more accurately. This means that it’s easier for people to best understand when their shipment will be arriving.

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Katerina Ignatiou

Katerina Ignatiou

Events & Digital Campaigns Manager @MarineTraffic

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