How Do International Moves Work?

Chances are you have moved a time or two, or more if you have a wanderer’s soul. But the big move overseas to another country is the one you are gearing up for now, and the biggest challenge so far. There is no doubt moving abroad is more complicated than moving to another state here in the US, especially on the mainland. Some of the questions that determine the level of complexity are whether the move is permanent or temporary, just you or a whole family, sponsored by an employer or undertaken on your own, and, of course, where you are headed.

Establishing whether you are leaving for a temporary period or permanently will help you make some foundational decisions about the move. If your relocation is temporary, it may make sense to leave your goods in storage. Shipping household items abroad is costly, and not logical for short term use. Consider renting out your US residence, perhaps even furnished, if your plan includes a return date.

If the journey is long or of indefinite duration, and you want to bring your household goods with you, be selective. Overseas shipping is costly and slow. In many countries, houses are small compared to US standards, and your large items may not fit or may be difficult to move in. Measure what you have against the floor plan before you decide. But if you have high-end, elegant furnishings, or sentimental items that are important to you, it may be well worth shipping them. Or perhaps your employer—private or public—is paying for the move to provide you and your family with the comforts of home while you complete your service in another country.

Move planning is even more vital for the international move than for domestic relocation. Start sooner and make an effort to compare quotes and check references. Don’t trust just any company to pack your possessions into a shipping container and assume everything will appear intact on the other side of the Atlantic.

Who handles the international move?

Because an international move has more steps than domestic transport, there is usually a move manager. This party might be the origin agent, usually the local representative of the national moving company you chose to handle the move. The origin agent is the party that will survey items included, and if applicable, will complete the packing. That agent will load the goods into the first truck. In some cases, there could be a separate facilitator, or the shipper (the person moving) can be the move manager. For sponsored moves, the corporate or government procurement or human resource department may act in this role. 

Regardless, the move manager coordinates with the freight forwarder to arrange for the actual shipping, which will usually be contracted to a consolidation warehouse, depending on its size. In most cases, the shipment will be less than a full container load (FCL), which results in the load being combined with another delivery. Waiting for the additional quantity to fill the container can add to the length of the process. One option is to pay for the Full Container Load, but this can be a significant addition to the cost.

Once the container is full, it is transported to your departure port and loaded onto a ship. Shippers have many rights pertaining to lack of liability for loss or damage of cargo, so verify that you obtain adequate insurance if your belongings suffer any delays or other incidents. The ship travels to the arrival port, and the cargo container load is distributed to the customs warehouse. Your origin agent will advise you whether you need to contact the destination agent for the customs process to take place. In some countries, you will need to be present for your shipment to be processed, but in others, the entire container will be processed without sorting. Finally, the destination agent will move your possessions to your new residence, or into storage, depending on the timing. 

How do I choose the right mover for international relocation?

As with any relocation, take your time and perform your due diligence. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations. Check with the Better Business Bureau and the FMCSA to validate that the company you are considering has a favorable safety history and a lack of complaints. Consider an agent for an international moving company licensed with the Federal Maritime Commission, which makes the following recommendations for a satisfactory relocation:

  • Use the moving company’s packing services and request that your items will be shrink-wrapped and palleted.
  • Make sure anything that is used outside, such as bicycles and garden equipment is clean and free of insects. Check with the mover before including grills or lawnmowers—they may not be allowed in the destination country.
  • Carefully check to see that the inventory accurately labels items (such as “Tiffany goblet” not “wine glass”) and provides size, make, model, and serial number for larger items such as electronic components and televisions.
  • Ensure that the mover’s inventory and description of the condition of contents is correct. If you find a discrepancy, discuss it with the mover and note it on the packing list.
  • The Maritime Commission also recommends never shipping cash, stock, bonds, jewelry, coins, and photo albums—valuables should be transported by you personally, and reminds consumers that plants, seeds, pet food, pesticides, firearms, and meat products cannot be shipped.

What about bringing my pet?

You may be reluctant to move without your devoted pet, and that is understandable. With careful planning, you should be able to successfully arrange for your pet to accompany you to your new home. It is crucial to start your research early since countries have varied requirements for vaccinations and quarantine periods. The easiest method of ascertaining the rules in your destination will be to contact the consulate for that country. Your vet can help you obtain any needed medications and immunizations and provide you with a certification of good health. Your vet may also be able to offer a sedative or anxiety medication for use while traveling, and microchip your pet if you haven’t already done so. Several organizations support pet lovers going abroad, including IPATA, the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, and Petmovers. Contact these groups for referrals to pet transport companies, or for help in obtaining information on local requirements.

Once you arrive in your new country, check in with the local US Consulate. Unlike the US Embassy, which interacts with the host country government, a consulate is there to serve nationals from the home country. These services should include renewing or replacing passports, helping with necessary medical and legal assistance, making arrangements in the event of a death, registering births to nationals, assisting with notarization or absentee voting, and arranging for evacuation or other support in emergencies.

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