What Is a Contract Carrier?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A contract carrier is a business which works with a select group of shippers to move people and goods between locations serviced by the contract carrier. Such carriers have specific contracts of carriage with the shippers they work with. Sometimes, this carrier only works with one shipping company, while others may have contracts with several, depending on the size of the carrier and the needs of its clients.

Contract carriers can have an exclusive contract with one shipping company, or work with several.
Contract carriers can have an exclusive contract with one shipping company, or work with several.

This contrasts with a common carrier. Common carriers accept shipments of goods as well as passengers from anyone who will pay and provide transportation within their service area. Many airlines, for example, are common carriers: Anyone can book a seat on any flight that has available seats. Contract carriers have no obligations to provide general services to anyone who asks and usually limit the nature of the services they provide.

Contract carriers may work out of one specific port.
Contract carriers may work out of one specific port.

The contract carrier establishes an agreement with shippers which spells out the kinds of shipments the carrier will accept, where the carrier will take them, and the shipping fees which the shipper will be obliged to pay. Shippers in turn collect these fees from their customers. For example, a carrier which offers delivery of bread from community bakeries has a contract with each bakery to collect and deliver its bread, and the bakery in turn charges customers and retailers who receive deliveries a delivery charge.

Some transportation companies offer highly specialized transport services such as medical transport. These companies have personnel who have received unique training so that they can offer appropriate services to their customers. For example, a carrier which flies organ and tissue transplants, sensitive medications, and patients has a staff which is familiar with the special needs involved in these kinds of transportation situations. In exchange for charging higher fees than common carriers, such carriers offer a high standard of service.

A contract carrier can be as small as a single person with a delivery van or as large as an international company with a fleet of vehicles including trucks, aircraft, traincars, and ships. Usually consumers interact with these carriers only indirectly, in situations where they make arrangements with shippers and those shippers in turn contract with a carrier to get a shipment to its destination. Like common carriers, contract carriers may be prohibited by law from carrying certain types of items, including illegal and dangerous materials. People who attempt to ship such items without disclosing them can be subject to penalties.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


My daughter lived in Europe for several years, and when she left, many of her belongings were kept in storage over there.

Little by little, she has had these items shipped overseas to her. It can be somewhat confusing, because in this situation, both contract and common carriers are involved.

She has to pay a company to ship her boxes over to her, but the company she pays, hires a contract carrier to bring them over.

They always have to pass through customs and are not delivered directly to her house. She either has to pick them up at the airport or at a certain carrier company when they are delivered.


I had a friend who used to work as a contract carrier. He worked as a single carrier in his own vehicle, and delivered blood.

There were many times when he would need to deliver a certain type of blood to a specific location several hours away.

Because these were usually somewhat of an emergency type of situation, these deliveries paid much more than a regular delivery would.

It was not unusual for his phone to ring at any time of the day or night. He was pretty much on call all the time, knowing he might get called at any time.

Post your comments
Forgot password?