If the thought of moving your household overseas makes you nervous, who can blame you? Think of it: you pack your worldly goods—furniture, dishes, family heirlooms—into a shipping container, seal it up and send it off for weeks. Then what? Cross your fingers?
Luckily, there’s much more you can do to reduce the risk of damage, delay or extra cost.
Here’s a practical guide to shipping personal effects overseas—what to expect, what to do and what not to do to move your possessions economically and safely.
What you can and can’t ship in an ocean container
- Nearly anything you’d ship in a moving van can go in an ocean container. That includes a motor vehicle, if you’re taking one. It costs the same to ship a container whether it’s half full or stuffed to the ceiling. So, if there’s room for a vehicle, you’re shipping it practically for free.
- Exceptions? Fine jewelry and other small valuables are safer in your carry-on bag. You’re not allowed to ship firearms. And don’t pack a two-year supply of your favorite laundry detergent or Kentucky bourbon. Customs in your destination country will slap duties on anything you stock in bulk. In fact, to keep things simple, don’t ship alcohol at all.
Arranging the shipment
- Your shipping company will make an appointment to bring a container to your home. Your cheapest option is to keep the container for two or three hours before the driver drives it away. But if you need more time, you can pay to keep it for an extra hour or two, or even for a couple of days.
Before you load
- Make two lists of everything you will put in the container:
- Customs agents want a written inventory with estimated values and weights.
- For your own use, label each box, tote or bag with a number and the contents, and then make a list of those labels.
- Pack and seal everything before the truck arrives. Stage as much as you can near the front door or in the garage, so you can carry everything out easily and fast.
Loading the container
- You—not the shipping company, not the truck driver—are responsible for loading the container. Line up enough helpers to get the job done.
- As you load, note on your list where in the container you put each item. That way, if Customs wants to inspect certain boxes, you can find them fast.
- Unlike a moving van, a shipping container doesn’t come with a ramp. If you use dollies or hand carts to roll items onto the container, you’ll need to build or rent your own ramp.
- If you’re putting a motor vehicle in the container, you’ll need to arrange for a flatbed tow truck to help. Load the vehicle into the container last. In case of a Customs inspection, you’ll want to make it easy to reach.
Securing your goods
- Use ratcheting straps to keep items from sliding around and breaking in transit. Wrap the straps around the hooks installed along the container’s floor and roof.
- An upended king- or queen-sized mattress makes a good barrier to keep other items from knocking against a vehicle. You can also make a barrier out of plywood or other materials.
- To keep a vehicle from shifting, cut wooden 2x4s into smaller pieces and screw them into the wooden floor around each wheel. You can also run ratcheting straps through the wheels or suspension and attach them to hooks in the floor.
- Some creative shippers erect a wooden structure with a plywood floor inside the container, to create a second level for safer loading and securing.
- Despite your precautions, there’s always some risk of damage during a move. Ask your insurance company about coverage to protect your property.
- When your container is ready, the driver shuts the door, puts a seal on the container, records the seal number and then hauls the container to a rail terminal or directly to the seaport.
- Your shipping company will handle all the paperwork required to clear export Customs.
- In the destination country, you are responsible for clearing your container through Customs, in person. You can designate an agent to handle those formalities for you. But since you know where you loaded each item in your container, it’s usually simpler to conduct this business yourself.
- If your new home is far from the port of entry, your shipping service can send the container in bond to a Customs office near your location.
- To avoid duties, if you’re moving to the European Union, you’ll need documents to prove that you’ve been living in the U.S. (or wherever you’re moving from) for a year or more, and that you’ve owned the major items in your container for six months or more. Other countries have similar requirements, although the details vary.
- You’ll also need to prove that you have a permanent address in the destination country.
- Once your container clears Customs, your shipping company will have it trucked to your new location, where you are responsible for unloading. Most people need only two or three hours to unload.
The bottom line when shipping personal items
Yes, moving personal possessions across the ocean is a little scary, with dozens of details to get right. But plenty of people pull it off without problems. The key is to work with an expert company that has been managing door-to-door, international shipments of personal effects for many years.
To learn more about shipping personal items between any two countries, including moves between Poland and the U.S., contact I.C.E. Transport.