If you’re moving overseas, you already have a ton on your mind—packing up your household, arranging transportation, maybe nailing down details about a job, or where you’ll live—and on and on. You also have to figure out how to move all your stuff. Shipping personal items overseas in a shipping container is much more complicated than sending them, say, from Boston to Arizona in a moving van.
You’ll need to get up to speed on what you can and can’t ship in an ocean container, assemble the paperwork, prepare to clear Customs, load all your things into the container and secure it so it stays safe throughout the trip.
With such a long to-do list, you’ll be glad to know there’s at least one thing you won’t have to worry about when you move: paying duties on your personal effects. At least, not if you follow the rules and present all the necessary documents.
This guide to shipping personal items overseas explains the steps required to move your household goods without damage, delay or extra cost.
What you can and can’t ship
You can ship almost anything you want in a shipping container. But only personal effects—things you’ve actually been using in your life—can enter a foreign country without duties or taxes. Five boxes filled with your winter wardrobe? Fine. One bottle of vodka? No problem.
But be careful about quantities. Sure, it’s been eight months since you bought those two cases of your favorite household cleanser at Costco. It’s a great product, and you want plenty on hand to keep your new home clean. To Customs, though, it looks like you’re bringing in supplies for a janitorial business—a commercial import. Officials might let a couple of bottles slide, but you’ll pay duty on the rest.
Also, Customs considers an item personal property only if you’ve owned it for more than six months. Customs agents won’t scrutinize each product to figure out its age. But a major item that looks new, or that you pack in its original box, will probably catch an agent’s eye. If you ship a large screen TV, or any other major item, make sure you can present a receipt to prove when you bought it.
Jewelry and other small, high-value items can travel in a container, but why take the chance? Keep them close and safe in your carry-on bag when you fly.
If you own firearms, you should check them on the plane as checked luggage, not load them into a container. While you’re planning your trip, check with the authorities in your destination country to make sure you’re allowed to bring in those particular firearms, as the rules may vary. Also, bring documentation to prove you owned those guns legally in the US.
How many containers may you ship overseas?
As many as you like if you have a significant volume of goods to move. As long as Customs agents agree that these are used personal effects, you won’t pay duties.
Similarly, you may go back to the US any number of times to load and ship more containers to your new home. The catch is, you must do this within one year of your first shipment. After that, Customs will treat your container as commercial freight and charge you duties and taxes.
Bringing a container to your home
When shipping household goods overseas, 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 a truck driver takes 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 make these arrangements, check with your local government for any regulations that might prohibit trucks of a certain size from entering your street. These restrictions aren’t common in the U.S., but you should check, just in case. If a truck isn’t allowed on your street, you might arrange to move your goods to another location, such as a nearby church parking lot, and load the container there.
If the truck is allowed, make sure there’s an accessible, legal and safe place to park the container, especially if you’ll be keeping it for more than a few hours. This shouldn’t be a problem if you live in a house with a good-sized driveway. But in a dense urban area, it could be hard to find a parking spot big enough for a shipping container. And you might need a permit, especially if you plan to keep the container overnight.
Even when space and local laws don’t pose a problem, many truckers simply don’t want to park a container on the street for several days. What if an inattentive driver runs into the box and gets hurt? That’s the trucker’s liability. If you need to keep a container on an urban street, you—or your forwarder—will have to search for a trucking company willing to oblige.
Loading the Container
To keep loading time to a minimum, pack everything you plan to move, and seal it up, before the container arrives. Stage as much as you can near the front door or in the garage, so you can carry everything out easily and fast.
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 quickly.
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.
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. 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.
To help remember all these details, refer to our checklist on shipping personal items overseas.
A word about Customs
As a rule, your shipment does not go through a Customs clearance process when it leaves the country. The one exception is when you export a motor vehicle (see below). Then you’ll need to provide export paperwork.
Every now and then, though, a Customs officer in the US decides to do a random inspection on an outbound container, looking for contraband or stolen items. If there’s nothing illegal about your shipment, of course, you’ll pass this inspection without a problem. The bad news is, you’ll have to pay a fee for this. Or you might have to pay for an extra inspection that a Customs agent in your destination country decides to conduct, beyond the official clearance procedure. These additional inspections are extremely rare. But, unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do if an agent happens to pick your container for a spot check. So don’t be astonished if the invoice for your shipment includes this extra charge.
Arrival in the destination country
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 when shipping overseas, like 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.
Let’s say you are shipping personal freight to Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The destination port will keep your container free of charge for several business days. But if Customs holds up your container, you might rack up storage charges. So, whenever your forwarder asks for paperwork or other information, provide it as soon as possible. A good forwarder will then make sure that Customs gets the documents it needs before it receives your container, reducing the risk of delay.
Unloading at the destination
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.
As at the origin, you might want to build a ramp to help you unload your goods from the container. But many people simply station a couple of helpers in the container to pass items to people on the ground.
While rules that restrict trucks on certain streets are rare in the US, they’re more common in other countries and, of course, the details vary from place to place. So it’s especially important to check local regulations before you bring a shipping container to your new home. The same goes for regulations that might keep your trucker from parking a container on the street.
Often, the safest and simplest way to handle international car shipping is in a shipping container. If you’re moving an entire household, container shipping is also an extremely economical choice. 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. The same goes for a motorcycle, boat or other motor vehicle.
Here are some tips for shipping vehicles:
Vehicles you can ship duty-free
To avoid duties, when you ship a motor vehicle, you must prove that you’ve owned it for more than six months, and you’ve kept it registered during that time. The six-month rule establishes that this is a vehicle you’ve actually been using—not a car or motorcycle you bought just to bring to your new country.
If you’ve been leasing your car, however, you’ll need to be careful about an interesting wrinkle. Say you’ve leased for three years and then bought the car. Can you take it overseas without paying duties and taxes? That depends.
In some states, the title would have listed you as the owner throughout the leasing period. For Customs purposes, that makes the car your personal property for more than six months. In other states, the title would have listed the leasing company as the owner. The car becomes yours only on the day you buy it. If you take it overseas five months later, you’ll owe duties and taxes.
The question of ownership and registration may also be murky if a relative gave you the car as a gift. If there’s even the slightest doubt, check with your freight forwarder, or with Customs in your destination country, to see if your vehicle is really exempt from duty and value-added tax (VAT). If it’s not, depending on circumstances, you might be better off selling the car before you move.
A question of age
Many countries have rules about the age of the vehicles you can bring in. For up-to-date details, check with the Customs office that will receive your shipment, or have your forwarder’s office in the destination country make that inquiry for you.
If your car is two years old, you’ll probably have no trouble taking it abroad. But the car that has served you faithfully for a dozen years is another story.
Because they’re concerned about engine emissions, many countries won’t let you import a car above a certain age. The cutoff varies from country to country, and the rules may change over time. So, before you arrange to ship your vehicle, check with the Customs office in your destination country.
If you want to ship something like a 1966 Mustang, however, you’re in luck: old cars are welcome if they qualify as antiques. For example, countries in the European Union allow you to bring in a car that’s 25 years old or more. Many other countries have similar rules.
Loading a vehicle in a container
If you ship a vehicle with other personal items, load all your other property first, and then back the car in so the front windshield faces toward the doors. That way, when a Customs officer inspects the container, it will be easy to reach the vehicle and examine the Vehicle Identification Number through the windshield.
To prevent damage in transit, it’s important to secure the vehicle properly inside the container. To keep it 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. An upended king- or queen-sized mattress makes a good barrier to keep other items from knocking against a vehicle. In addition, you can make a barrier out of plywood or other materials.
Since a container doesn’t come with a loading ramp, you’ll need a flatbed tow truck to help you load a car into it, and then another to unload it at the destination. If you’re shipping just a vehicle, a freight forwarder that ships personal effects can arrange for a flatbed tow truck to pick up the car and drive it to their warehouse for loading into a container. The forwarder will make sure the car is correctly loaded and secured. It can arrange for a similar service for delivering the car in your destination country.
The RO-RO option
If you’re shipping just a vehicle, and not other personal effects, you might consider using roll-on, roll-off (RO-RO) service. A RO-RO ship is like a floating parking facility for cars, machinery and other vehicles—anything that can be driven on and off the ship. You drive your car to the port, hand over the keys, meet it at the port overseas and drive it home.
But RO-RO also comes with drawbacks. For one thing, RO-RO carriers call only certain ports. If you’re moving to Poland, for example, you’ll have to travel to Germany to claim your car. And unlike cars shipped in containers, a car on a RO-RO ship must travel empty: you can’t pack it full of extra items you want to move. Also, while RO-RO carriers do shield their cargo from the elements, your car won’t get the solid protection it would have within the steel walls of a sealed container.
Don’t forget insurance!
When you take a car overseas, you can drive it for a limited amount of time with your US license plates, but your US insurance doesn’t apply. You’ll need to carry local coverage during your stay. Of course, if you’re moving permanently, you’ll need to register and insure your car in the new country.
Paperwork you’ll need
The first paperwork you’ll need for shipping household goods overseas is a list of all the items you’re moving. You’ll need to produce three copies of this list, each for a different purpose:
- The first copy, in English, goes to your freight forwarder, which will use it to produce a Bill of Lading, a Shipper’s Export Declaration and any other necessary documents. The list should include estimated values and weights for major items.
- You’ll need a second copy of in the language of your destination country. Hand this to the agent at the overseas Customs office where you clear your shipment. Your shipping company will handle all the other paperwork required to clear export Customs.
- The third copy, in any language you like, stays with you. This list should name categories, not individual items: “8 boxes of clothing, 6 boxes of dishes, 4 boxes of children’s toys,” etc.
Label and number each box, bag or tote you plan to load into the container, with matching labels on your copy of the list. This will help you quickly find whatever items a Customs agent might want to inspect.
Other paperwork you’ll need in order to import personal effects duty free are:
- At least a year’s worth of rent receipts, bills for gas or electric service, landline telephone bills, or other official paperwork that proves you’ve lived in the country you are leaving for at least 12 months, without a break.
- Paperwork from a local government office in the destination country, proving that you have registered a permanent address in the country or have applied to do so.
- A sales receipt for any item that appears to be new. This is to prove you’ve owned the item for at least six months.
- For any motor vehicle, the title and registration, to prove that you have owned the vehicle for at least six months and kept it registered during that time.
Your secret to success in shipping personal items overseas: a knowledgeable partner
If you’ve come this far in our personal effects shipping guide, you know that moving possessions across the ocean is a complex enterprise, 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 get off to a good start, ask your freight forwarder for a list of Frequently Asked Questions. A good set of FAQs will help you avoid mistakes that could cost you time and money.
But those questions and answers are only the start. A freight forwarder with strong experience shipping personal items overseas will guide you through every step of the process, door to door. This partner will manage many of the details for you, and give you instructions for handling the rest on your own.
And just as a good tax accountant will point out deductions you didn’t know were available, an experienced forwarder will help you negotiate the intricacies of import regulations. This partner will make sure goods move safely and that you don’t spend a dollar more than needed.
To start planning the best strategy for shipping your personal effects, contact the international moving experts at I.C.E. Transport.