Expat advice: Packing and shipping

preparing for an international move

To be honest, packing was the most stressful part of the whole moving abroad experience. Each day seemed to pass more quickly than the last and there was still so much to do! No one likes to move and for a planner like me, the ‘unknowns’ of my new life only added to the stress. How are you to decide what stays and goes when you aren’t even sure what your life will be like when you move?

I’ve talked a bit in a previous post about research that should be done to prepare, but there is so much more that is involved with setting up house in a foreign country.

Depending on the length of your assignment and what your company will provide, options can vary widely. Our assignment was two years in length and Cody’s company would pay for a large (‘D size,’ to be exact) air shipment container. This meant we wouldn’t be bringing any furniture or large items. But on the plus side, the air shipment would arrive much more quickly than larger shipments which are transported by sea.

This was my first time working with a moving company and I have mixed feelings regarding our experience. Thinking of the positives, I was relieved that I wasn’t responsible for the dreaded task of packing the kitchen and that we wouldn’t have to ply our friends with beer and free lunch to help us move. Also, since the moving and packing service was provided, we didn’t have to research, choose or arrange anything.

However, there was so much misinformation and lack of communication regarding where our shipment was and its arrival date that I almost pulled my hair out. Lastly, I’ve learned (from my own experience and from talking to others) that no matter how careful the packers are, things will inevitably arrive damaged or broken.

I suggest you keep these things in mind when preparing your personal belongings for an international move:

Ship, Store or Salvation Army?

Once you know your space and weight limitations, it’s time to choose what stays and what goes. I like getting rid of things and on more than one occasion I’ve gone a little overboard only to regret it later. However, with only so much space even I had to crank it up a notch! Here are some considerations when deciding whether to put an item in storage, donate it or bring it with you:

Appliances: When I was having lunch with a girlfriend the other day—who’s husband happens to work for the same company and moved to Bogotá the same time we did—I asked her thoughts on the whole moving situation. She had a great point about bringing appliances—if one of them were to break, the parts needed to repair them may not be available and local shops may not know how to repair them. Not only that, but most of their appliances arrived worse for wear despite the fact that they were carefully wrapped. You’ll have to decide which option is best for you, but looking back she said she would have preferred to use that space for something else and purchased appliances after the move.

I’m not a big kitchen gadget person and the only things in the ‘appliance’ category that I was mildly attached to were our food processor and juicer. I decided to bring our juicer instead of our food processor, because I had one of those mini blenders and thought it would be a better way to use the space.  Hmmm….bringing a huge, bulky juicer to the land of fresh fruit juice on every corner? Not the brightest move. And guess what, that little blender is terrible (which I secretly knew and ignored) and I miss my beautiful food processor every day. I learned the hard way to carefully consider what items you use most, instead of what you spent a lot of money on and don’t want to part with.

Fragile or sentimental items: Even though you see your things being enshrined in bubble wrap, packed neatly into boxes and then neatly fitted into that shipping container, things will break. I don’t know if the containers are rolled down a hill before being loaded onto the boat, but stuff will inevitably arrive in a different condition then when they left. Think twice before packing fragile items that you can’t replace or have sentimental value—perhaps they’d be better left in storage or with a family member.

Things like jewelry, personal documents, or anything that would break your heart if it were to go missing should never be sent in your shipment but instead carried on the plane with you. You never know what could happen in the several weeks you are waiting for your shipment.

Furniture: If you’re coming from the U.S. like we were, you should consider the size of your current home compared to that of your future home because housing (and therefore furnishings and appliances) are typically bigger in the U.S. Also consider that styles in your home country are most likely different than your new home and your old things may not ‘fit’ with this design. Lastly, remember my comments about things not arriving in the same condition—will the hand me down Ikea desk be worth it after 3,000 miles and a couple of tumbles?

Clothes: Consider the difference in climate and lifestyle you’ll be experiencing once you arrive in your new country. I was moving from San Diego, where it’s always warm and sunny, to Bogotá where it’s much cooler and there is a pretty good chance of rain each day. I really, really took a hard look at my warm weather clothes and gave many of them away. Even though I knew my day to day life would be more ‘house wife’ and less office worker, I still brought my office wear with me. My thought was that many places outside the U.S. have a more formal style of dress and I knew that I could easily incorporate many of these items in everyday wear. And also, I had a lurking thought that I might get a job and that I’d need them!

Take Inventory

Once you know what you’ll be bringing with you, it’s helpful to have an actual inventory list of your things.  Firstly, the moving company will want a list of all items being shipped and their estimated value for insurance purposes. I recommend that you do this several weeks before your appointment with the movers. This way, you can take your time and not feel pressured or rushed.

Doing your inventory in advance also allows you to do a little internet research or (if they are big ticket items) review receipts to fill in the value gaps. Unfortunately, with our experience, I had no idea this was a requirement and received the inventory list about three weeks after our things had been packed. Not only that, but they told us that our shipment was still in San Diego and wouldn’t be sent until I completed the inventory. With all of the rush of last minute tasks, it was difficult to remember each item packed and to be able to estimate it’s value. The fact that our things were waiting on my completion of the inventory only made it worse.

After the final rush of packing things up and sending them to storage or waiting several weeks for them to arrive in your new country, it’s helpful to have a list of what is where. There are a few things that I swear I had packed in our container that never arrived and I am now questioning whether I gave them away or put them in storage.

And Don’t Forget…

Official Documents:  I’m not sure what happened to my brain in the weeks before we moved (and to be honest I wasn’t sure where to go for advice on the matter) but for some reason, I didn’t think we’d need any documents besides our passports. We had scanned copies of our marriage license and social security cards but none of these copies were sufficient when trying to open a bank account in Bogotá. So, make sure you double check whether or not scanned or notarized copies will be sufficient to set up accounts!

Also, as I was contemplating looking for a job (a desire I had not anticipated when moving) I realized that most prospective employers would be interested in seeing my diplomas! If you’re not comfortable taking these items with you, at least leave them with a close family member who can ship them to you if needed.

Banking:  We decided to maintain our U.S. bank accounts and a U.S. billing address.  Banks and credit card companies all have different regulations about making purchases or sending money from one country to another. These accounts have allowed us to easily pay bills (because student loans don’t disappear when you move abroad!) and send gifts to family.

Personal Favorites:  If you are loyal to a particular snack, toiletry item or anything specific to your country, bring a sufficient supply with you. My favorite cosmetics and skin care products aren’t available in Bogotá, so I stocked up before our move and now send replacements to whichever family or friends are coming to visit us.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list, just a few of my thoughts looking back on my experience. Lucky for you, I recently stumbled across this helpful checklist for expats preparing to move. This web page also has considerations for families moving abroad and a great suggested reading list.

4 thoughts on “Expat advice: Packing and shipping

  1. Nice tips! Moving is rough, especially when you have to ship everything. And yes, I’m pretty sure that any container being shipped gets a mandatory roll down a large, rocky hillside for security purposes.

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