living_overseas (5 Part Series)
So you got a job overseas. Great! Now you need to get there.
If your new employer has top-notch relocation services, you’re probably taken care of. If you’re on your own (even partially), this is for you.
Most important of all, remain calm and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. My friends and (ex-)co-workers have provided much-needed assistance and support over the years.
I’ve done a few big moves: U.S. to Japan, Japan to China, and recently China to Cyprus. During that time I’ve probably flown through over 30 airports in 25 countries. This is largely based on those experiences.
This is an opportune time to thin out your belongings. The less you have the less you have to move.
Some typical ways to deal with stuff you don’t want to move:
- Give: to friends/family/co-workers. My personal favourite, everybody likes free stuff and makes it easier to ask for help later
- Sell: most places have something like craigslist, second-hand stores, etc.
- Recycle/Donate: different countries/cities have different programs, in the U.S. there’s Goodwill, Salvation Army, AMVETS, etc.
- Store: storing stuff with friends/family is an option, but there’s always the chance you’ll be asked to move it. Renting a storage unit can get pretty pricey long-term
- Dispose: last-ditch option, mind local waste policies as you may have to pay for excess garbage
Keep in mind things have to go through customs at your destination and some items may be prohibited. You probably want to leave your “vintage porn collection” at home.
Once you’ve got your worldly belongings pared down to the bare necessities, it’s time to figure out how to get things there.
Start organizing your stuff in terms of what’s going to get moved when and how. When’s the last time you need it here, and how soon do you need it there?
International shipping typically comes in some combination of: air, land, and sea. Air being the fastest but most expensive (per kg), sea being the slowest (e.g. 1-2 months) but cheapest.
Prices vary depending are where you send it from and to. The cheapest option will be somewhere in the ballpark of (per item) $20 for the first kg and $3 for each additional kg. For example, I sent a 15 kg box from China to Cyprus for around $45. Keeping this cost in mind can be helpful when deciding whether or not it’s worth moving something.
I’ve had boxes arrive from the cheapest, slowest method looking like they were transported via cannon. Don’t move anything important/valuable/irreplaceable this way. Either pay more for air transport or pack it as luggage. It’s ok for clothing, books, and anything that generally can’t get broken.
Take a look at Prohibited Articles and Restrictions by Country. That’s by the U.S. Postal Service, but since it’s dictated by the receiving end I suspect it’s relevant to everyone. Particularly important these days is restrictions on lithium batteries.
Find out in advance how stringent the destination is regarding imports and levying taxes/VAT. You may be expected to produce receipts or other proof of purchase and pay a fee to receive your belongings.
More valuable items you may want to bring as checked luggage on your flight. Over the years I’ve flown with 3 generations of video game consoles this way. You can move a lot of stuff this way, and while it’s cheaper and safer than shipping it requires more lifting on your part.
Depending on the route, you’ll be permitted checked luggage with limits on one or more of: weight, dimensions, and number of items. Keep in mind the normal rules regarding checked luggage apply. In particular, lithium ion batteries are prohibited.
Pre-weigh your luggage with a body scale. You really don’t want to get to the airport and be surprised to find out you’re overweight. The fees can be steep ($100 or more).
Consider the logistics for both departure and arrival. It helps if you are familiar with the airports and know where to: arrange drop-off and pick-up, get luggage carts, and so on.
Depending on your mileage status, ticket class, and credit cards you may get additional luggage allowances.
One of the problems I faced as a tech person is, if you can’t ship or place devices with lithium ion batteries in checked baggage, what do you do with all your gadgets?
I filled a maximum allowed carry-on with electronics.
If you do this you’re going to bring a ton of electronics through security and your bag will likely get pulled. So, make sure to leave yourself plenty of time at the airport.
Some airlines like Emirates and Qatar have stricter carry-on policies than American carriers. At check-in they’ve asked to weigh my carry-on. Again, it doesn’t hurt to weigh things before you go to the airport.
Some countries make things more difficult.
As of a few weeks ago, China Post has a strict check in place where a Post employee will go through every item you attempt to ship. They stand there with you and make you unfold every article of clothing, open every box and container, flip through books, and so on. They also forbid liquids, electronics, cosmetics, and some other types of items. This also includes liquid-like materials such as gel; they declined my can of shoe polish (hard wax).
If you’re unsure of the process, or have a large number of items and aren’t in a hurry to move, consider going and sending a “test” package first.
Pets add an additional layer of complexity. Additional requirements may include:
- Dogs and cats are generally ok (some breeds may be restricted), other animals may not be permitted
- Some airlines permit animals in the cabin, some don’t
- Most airlines will only permit animals as checked luggage/cargo when the air temperature is below a certain amount (a Summer flight may not be possible)
- Microchip and rabies vaccine (at least a month but not more than a year before departure)
- Blood work 3 months before
- Deal with export process for departure, and import for arrival
Check requirements for the airlines and both the origin and destination countries. And then double-check the requirements.
At some point you may or may not find need to invoke the assistance of an agent. This is especially common regarding visas and pets.
Make inquiries to multiple agents. You may get substantially different pricing, service, and answers.
The next step up from this is relocation companies. I’ve never done this. But, if you have a lot of stuff, children, or just want to avoid all the hassle, you can pay money to make the problems go away. The prices vary wildly and depend on the services/quantities involved, but in general it’s $1000s.
Don’t overlook the luggage storage service available in many airports. If you make a mistake regarding the luggage policy, have back-to-back flights, or whatever, you can leave items there for a nominal fee.
Dealing with banking and currency exchange is a pretty big topic. I’m going to cover that in the next post. But it’s a good idea to arrange some foreign currency before you leave. Note customs restrictions on “currency and monetary instruments”, but a few hundred dollars worth should be plenty if it's only for backup. If the foreign currency isn’t available where you are, obtain USD/Euros or some other “generally accepted” currency.