Expat Guide To Moving Abroad

Expats Moving Abroad

Estimated reading time: 19 minutes

Moving abroad is a massively exciting step, whether you’re headed for distant shores to enjoy a well-earned retirement or embarking on new career. This Expat Guide to moving abroad will be your helping hand to make life a lot easier.

However, one element is a little less so: the practicalities of packing and shipping a lifetime of belongings.

In this guide, we’ll break it down to help you understand:

  • What it costs to move abroad
  • How to insure your belongings
  • Ways to ship oversized items and furniture
  • How to choose what to take and what to leave behind

Depending on where you are moving and if you are working to tight deadlines, moving abroad is not cheap – so it’s essential to do your homework and to plan as far in advance as possible.

Average Costs Of Moving Abroad

It’s impossible to give an accurate cost as to how much a move abroad will cost because that depends on:

  • Where you are moving to and from
  • How much furniture and belonging you want to take with you
  • How quickly you need to make the move
  • What specialist or large items like cars or valuables you are moving

The first step is to work out what size of shipping container you need. 

These come in standard sizes of 20 or 40 feet long, although you don’t need to pay for a complete container load if you don’t need the space.

Generally, you’re looking at anything from £1,000 to £5,000 or so to ship a 20-foot container from the UK and a bit more for the larger container.

Container Shipping Costs From The UK 

Shipping From the UK to:20-Foot Container:40-Foot Container:
Amsterdam, Netherlands£1,300£2,150
Barcelona, Spain£2,000£2,620
Dublin, Ireland£1,420£1,890
Hamburg, Germany£1,300£1,560
Jebel Ali, UAE£2,390£3,170
Le Havre, France£1,300£2,150
Limassol, Cyprus£2,000£2,620
Lisbon, Portugal£2,000£2,620
Montreal, Canada£3,440£4,560
New York, US£2,440£4,380
Sydney, Australia£2,100£3,160
Source: Movehub

Those costs are based on a full container load (FCL). However, you can book an LCL service, which stands for ‘less than container load’.

There are pros and cons to these options – and while LCL might seem an obvious choice if you don’t anticipate needing a full 20 or 40-foot container, there are some downsides to consider.

  • FCL services are better value and more economical per cubic metre than LCL. You get double space, but it’s not at double the price – as per the table above.
  • LCL is slower since you will need to wait for multiple consignments to be loaded and offloaded at various ports along the way. However, if you have an FCL container, it only contains your items and won’t be opened until it reaches your destination – this can be up to two weeks faster.
  • Safety is better in an FCL shipment, as multiple offloads and openings won’t expose your possessions to a greater risk of theft or breakage. If you have precious belongings or items of great personal value, the higher cost for FCL might be worthwhile.

If you’re shipping a car, FCL is undoubtedly a better option. That’s because, while vehicles are safely secured inside the container, they can cause damage to other cargo, so they are usually shipped alone or as part of a client’s FCL booking.

You can buy a shipping container if you have any future use for it, but these indicative costs are all based on hiring the container itself for the duration of the transport.

Buying a container costs around £2,000 for a new 20-foot unit, or approximately £3,000 for the 40-foot option.

How To Work Out Your Overseas Shipping Costs

A lot of the cost depends on how you are shipping your belongings and how far away your new home as an expat is from the UK.

An international shipping company considers several factors when putting together a quote:

Shipping by sea, air or road

It’s entirely up to you how you send your belongings abroad. Airfreight is by far the fastest option, but it’s also the most expensive.

Road freight is a lot cheaper, provided you are moving somewhere with regular transport links, and you might be waiting several weeks depending on when the next vehicle is scheduled.

Sea freight is a middle ground. Transport can take around a month or so but is also about five times cheaper than using air freight.

How much you need to ship

Movers will look at both the weight and the cubic volume of your belongings before they can give an accurate price.

For airfreight shipments, the weight is vital since the heavier the container, the higher the price.

Sea freight is more affordable for heavier loads. It doesn’t matter so much what the container weighs as to how much space it will take up when onboard the ship.

Distance and destination

If you are moving to Australia, it’s going to be more expensive than relocating to a country with road access in Europe.

It’s vital to ask your shipping company to quote for a door-to-door service unless you have access to a vehicle large enough to collect your items – and deliver your goods to the container before it leaves the UK.

While door-to-door is more expensive than port-to-port transport, it’s often far more convenient and avoids needing to hire vehicles to transport your belongings to the port for loading and unloading at each end of the journey.

Likewise, the port in question will impact the price.

Unfortunately, customs clearance charges and duties are part and parcel of moving abroad. 

For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to get three quotes

  • Getting at least three quotes for shipping before making any decisions.
  • Asking for comparable prices for different shipping methods and services.
  • Checking what duty charges will be payable on arrival.
  • Having a breakdown of precisely what is included – e.g. insurance, packing, collection and delivery.

The date of your move overseas may also be a factor since the busiest times for international shipping are between August and September and January and February.

Where space is at a premium, prices will bump up, so if you can avoid those busy periods, you’ll save on your moving costs.

Choosing The Right Size Container For Your International Move

If you’re unsure what size of shipping container you need, it’s best to consult an experienced company who will be able to help you calculate what sort of space you’re likely to require.

As a guide, the internal dimensions of each option (so the actual space you must pack your possessions) is:

  • 20-foot container: 5.9 metres long x 2.35 metres wide x 2.39 metres tall. Each container can store up to 150 square feet weighing up to 30,480 kilograms (29 tons).
  • 40-foot container: 12 metres long x 2.35 metres wide x 2.39 metres tall. Each container can store up to 305 square feet and hold up to 30,480 kilograms.

For most expats, a 20-foot container is large enough to hold all the contents of an average three-bedroom home, including furniture and appliances.

A 40-foot container provides double capacity but doesn’t cost twice as much, so it can be a good value option if you need to move everything from a property with four or more bedrooms.

If you wish to move abroad with your car, you’ll usually need a 20-foot container on its own or to use a larger 40-foot container to ship the vehicle along with other possessions.

Insuring Your Belongings For Overseas Shipping

Insurance is one of those costs that only seem worthwhile if you need it – and when you do, it’s invaluable. So you should seek out full insurance or verify whether your shipper offers adequate protection.

Remember that you won’t have sight of your belongings for up to several weeks, and you must have appropriate cover to ensure you can afford to replace anything that becomes lost or damaged.

As with any insurance, it’s all down to choosing a decent product that provides sufficient cover against:

  • The total replacement value of everything you are shipping
  • The costs of the shipping service itself
  • Any losses or damage at any stage of the journey

Most good insurance will cost anything from 0.6% to 4% of the value of the shipped goods, which is a minimal cost to cover all your possessions.

As a rough example, if you send an entire container with all of your furniture, clothes and appliances, worth collectively about £45,000, the insurance cover will cost about £270 to £1,800.

Some shippers will provide insurance within their quote – although you can choose to opt-out of this and take out a separate policy in most cases.

There are also varying levels of cover for a marine cargo policy, including:

Insurance Type:Coverage:
All-Risk InsuranceCovers everything in the container against just about any situation.
Named Perils CoverCovers specific items listed on the policy.
Total Loss Only PoliciesPays out when a whole vessel and all the cargo is lost.
Single Coverage InsuranceProtects your goods but only for one shipment as a one-off.
Open Coverage InsuranceInsures your belongings on multiple journeys, usually with a fixed end date.
General Average CoverageThis cover provides partial insurance against some of the costs if any cargo on board is lost.

Valuing your belongings for international shipping insurance can seem complex. Still, the easiest option is usually to make a list of everything of value and then look up how much it would cost you to replace each item.

You must use realistic estimates since an undervaluation might make the insurance a little cheaper but won’t pay out the total replacement value if anything goes wrong.

Ways To Reduce The Costs Of Moving Abroad

There are no two ways around it – moving your possessions overseas can be expensive. However, there are several ways to keep those costs down.

Sea freight is the least expensive option 

While sea freight is slower, you might find the extra shipping time isn’t that great. Road transport is only an option in some destinations, although it’s worth asking for comparable costs if you choose between road and sea.

A trip on a cargo vessel can take around two or three weeks at least, but there are often slots available reasonably quickly. 

Airfreight takes around three days, including customs clearance, but in times of high demand, you might wait a couple of weeks before your possessions are moved.

Booking in advance with flexible with dates is cost-effective

If you leave your furniture shipping till the last minute, you’ll likely have a mad panic trying to find a haulier or shipper who can manage your belongings and get them to you on time.

Booking transport a few weeks in advance, or as soon as your move abroad is confirmed, can save a considerable amount of cash, as well as stress.

The best time to start collating quotes is a good three or four months before you need your container to ship.

It’s always worthwhile comparing at least three quotes

Every shipper will have different rates, routes, and availability – so even if you’ve been quoted a high price, you might find a competitor substantially cheaper.

We’d advise asking for fully itemised quotes, so you have a clear comparison between each one, and know precisely what transport services are included, from and to which addresses.

Consider leaving your UK bank account up and running for a while.

One of the significant challenges in moving abroad is that you’ll need to get used to a new currency. For example, if you choose a British transport firm, you’ll expect to pay them in Sterling.

The exchange rates and transfer costs across borders can be expensive, so if you budget for your shipping costs and pay directly from your existing UK bank, you’ll avoid paying more than you need to.

Only ship the items you can’t do without

The less you ship, the less it’s going to cost. So while it might be tempting to pack up your whole household, this needs careful consideration.

For example, your favourite sofa might be comfy, but if it doesn’t fit in the doorway of your new home overseas, you will have wasted a lot of your budget on shipping furniture you can’t use.

Don’t forget you don’t need to take every item with you.

Selling furniture, gifting appliances, donating to charity or putting items into long-term storage will shed any excess possessions you won’t need abroad and keep your shipping costs under control.

Customs Duty On International Shipments

Along with the costs of shipping your container and insuring your possessions, you’ll also need to work out what to expect from the customs import process in your new home country.

Any good shipping company will help – and it’s vital to get your documents right. However, mistakes on the paperwork can mean:

  • Additional compliance paperwork
  • Administration charges and fines
  • Withholding of your container
  • Extra customs inspections and audits
  • Lost or retained items that won’t be returned to you

Every border-crossing centre will need a few key things – primarily, an itemised, detailed list of every item in your storage container.

Customs use that detailed documentation to verify the container contents through spot checks, calculate the customs charges accurately, and carry out any checks and inspections required to ensure there are no illegal items.

Most inspections are carried out via x-ray scanners or physical examinations, so you mustn’t put anything in the container at the last minute that isn’t included on your list.

Poorly packed containers may also prove difficult for customs to verify, and so there is the potential you’ll be charged extra fees for the additional time required.

What customs charges you’re likely to pay

Some of the typical customs charges include:

  • Duties – taxes paid on your cargo depending on the nature of the items.
  • Inspection fees – applied to only a small percentage of containers.
  • General Rate Increases (GRI) – a typical surcharge applied around monthly to cover general increases in international shipping costs.
  • Delivery charges – the costs to transport your goods from the ship to your destination if you haven’t paid for door-to-door service.
  • Quarantine charges – applied where goods are put into quarantine if any suspected contaminants are present. That can include seeds, food products, insects or bacteria.

Please make sure you’ve carefully checked any prohibited goods – that can include even harmless items such as chewing gum, sweets and toys, so never assume everything you wish to bring is permitted.

You can find various customs duty calculators online, such as the EU Customs Tariffs Tool.

Storing possessions during an international move

Storage is an excellent option in several scenarios:

  • If your long-term accommodation overseas isn’t yet organised.
  • You’re unsure about exact moving dates.
  • Where it’s possible you won’t be living permanently in your initial destination.

Affordable storage can be an excellent resource in many other situations and gives you breathing space to organise your new home without needing to keep moving furniture and appliances with you.

The best way to decide what to store and what you will need immediately is to be methodical about itemising possessions and making two lists.

Just as shipping can get more expensive the more you send, you don’t want to overestimate the storage requirement, as this will also add to your budget.

Once you know how much storage you require, you’ll also need to evaluate how long that needs to be. Short-term storage can be very affordable but ramp up in cost quickly over time.

Long-term storage usually requires a larger deposit but can be much more cost-effective if you need flexibility in your moving arrangements.

If you have a good shipping provider, they may well be able to recommend a reputable international storage company in your new country.

Otherwise, it’s well worth getting three or more quotes from businesses near your destination, as they may charge different prices and offer varying security controls to keep your stored items safe.

Packing tips for an overseas move

If you struggle to pack for a two-week holiday, packing for a move abroad can seem like a serious challenge.

The key is to plan in exacting detail, so you have a straightforward checklist to work to, and don’t leave anything to chance.

Here are some top tips for managing the logistics of your move abroad to begin life as an expat:

  • Measure your new home, or ask for detailed plans. You’ll need to know whether the furniture will fit, if you can use plug adaptors, and avoid bringing anything you won’t be able to use
  • Draw up an inventory of everything you want to bring, and use that to help work out what to sell, what to keep, and what to store
  • Look at your furniture and assess what has lots of life left in it and what is worn out and likely to need replacing soon anyway – those items can then be sold or donated as buying a new object may be more cost-effective
  • Pack correctly – international shipping is far more prone to knocks and damage than sending a package through the mail. Use plastic wrap, sturdy cardboard, cable ties and blankets to ensure everything is safe
  • Decide if you can pack up your belongings yourself or need to ask your shipping company to do this. Most will provide a complete packing, removals and transport service – or you can save on the cost if you have plenty of people to lend a hand.

Most transport companies will be more than happy for you to pack your items. Still, you will need to ensure these are very secure and packaged with suitable materials – any insufficient quality packaging may invalidate your insurance if the breakage is due to items not being secured in the container.

It’s also wise to put some thought into how you pack individual items. For example, lamps with wire cords should have the cables wrapped around the base and secured with a tie or tape.

You should disassemble furniture as much as possible. That means removing sofa legs, taking off armrests, and storing shelves or drawers outside the central unit to avoid damage.

Moving abroad is a big step, but if you put plenty of time and energy into planning and organising, everything will run much more smoothly.

Is air freight cheaper than sea freight?

Sea freight is typically the lowest cost way to move your possessions abroad – and about five times less expensive than air freight.

That said, the downside is that you will need to wait much longer for your container to arrive. Therefore, it depends on whether you are more concerned with keeping your moving costs down or getting your belongings as soon as possible.

As a rough guide, shipping everything from a one-bedroom flat from the UK to Australia costs around:

  • £1,700 for sea freight.
  • £7,000 via air freight.

Sea shipping is also more environmentally friendly and produces lower carbon emissions than road transport or air freight.

The table shows a comparable cost estimate based on a port-to-port shipment on an LCL basis for £15,000 worth of possessions sent from the UK weighing 250 kilograms.

Shipping From the UK to:Average Sea Freight Cost:Average Air Freight Cost:
Amsterdam, Netherlands£594£3,944
Auckland, New Zealand£594£3,948
Hong Kong, Hong Kong£645£3,975
Marseille, France£594£4,003
New York, US£659£3,910
Sydney, Australia£594£3,910

Expat Guide To Moving Abroad FAQ

Here we’ll answer some of the most popular questions about shipping possessions overseas when moving abroad as an expat.

What Do FCL and LCL Mean When Shipping My Belongings Overseas?

These terms indicate if you’re booking the whole of your shipping container or only need to use part of the space. 
FCL stands for ‘full container load’. LCL means ‘less than container load’.
Using an LCL service can be advisable if you don’t have a massive volume of things to ship or need to send clothes and possessions but aren’t bringing furniture with you.
There are pros and cons to this option – it is more cost-effective per cubic metre to book a whole container, but that might be a waste of money if you can share the space.
However, it’s worth noting that if customs raise queries or flag any of the consignment for inspection, customs officials will hold the entire container until the processes have been completed.

What should I look for in international shipping insurance?

Insurance on your possessions when moving abroad is essential. While there isn’t any particular risk that a shipper will lose a container, the worst can happen.
Likewise, a slipped load or movement in transit can cause items to slide or tip inside the container if they aren’t well secured, so it’s essential to have an appropriate cover.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulates international shipping, and there are strict standards about shipping containers, but insurance is still vital to protect against accidents.
If you’re concerned about insurance costs, it may be tempting to opt for a less comprehensive policy – but equally vital to be aware of what is and isn’t covered.
All risks cover is the most comprehensive – but always check your policy for exclusions. For example, which might be natural disasters, failure to pay on time, or rejections at customs.
Named perils and total loss insurance are less expensive but also less comprehensive than all risks. Named perils insurance indicates that some shipped items aren’t valued enough to need insurance, so they might even be considered non-essentials that you don’t need to send.
Total loss is riskier since the only scenario in which your insurance will payout is a severe disaster that destroys the ship and all cargo.
Single coverage policies are usually sufficient if you’re moving abroad as an expat and know that your items need to make one journey.
However, suppose you intend to relocate again shortly or ship your belongings to an interim destination. In that case, you’ll need either multiple single coverage insurance policies or an open coverage product.
An open coverage policy is usually cheaper in this scenario.
Finally, you need to know what exactly is and isn’t covered. For example, marine cargo insurance may only cover your goods when on the ship itself – and so if they are dropped or lost on the dock, the policy may not apply.

Can I ship furniture overseas from the UK?

Yes, you can ship just about anything from the UK to another country – including furniture, heavy-duty appliances and vehicles.
However, some countries have rules about imports, so for example, you can’t always ship a British car brand, so it’s wise to verify this in advance.
Furniture is expensive to ship, purely because of the size and weight of the items.
If you’re booking an FCL container, you should make sure you have measured everything carefully and can fit all furniture, and other items, into the same container.
There are also other costs involved in shipping furniture, such as:
1. Disassembling and reassembling furniture.
2. Packing and unpacking at each end.
3. Loading and unloading from the container.
4. Transport to and from the dock or airport.
5. Cleaning after transport.
As with all quotes for moving items abroad, ask for itemised pricing, so you know whether there will be additional services to budget for.

What is the safest way to pack items for a move abroad?

If you decide to manage the packing yourself, you will need to have professional quality packing materials. 
Poor packing can invalidate your insurance, and if items aren’t securely stacked or tied, they are susceptible to sliding.
Regular house-move packaging isn’t sturdy enough to withstand the rigours of international transport, so you should consider:
– Corrugated cardboard to separate items and prevent knocks.
– Cardboard boxes of the right size for each type of possession.
– Bubble wrap in triple layers to avoid breakages.
– Shrink-wrap to protect against dust and dirt and keep your items securely packed.
– Furniture blankets as a cushioning layer.
– Plastic sealable bags to store any nuts, screws, bolts and furniture legs or drawers for reassembly.
– Rope to tie down heavier objects.
– Tape and labels to ensure everything is sealed off and identifiable.

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