15 lessons we learned about moving goods abroad

Including the costs of each of our 3 international moves!

Posted on December 8, 2022
Updated on July 17, 2023

In this post, we’ll focus specifically on moving goods abroad, because it is a lot more than just wrapping stuff. There is so much between packing and unpacking; there is a long wait for the things to arrive, the realization that some things that were packed should be in the luggage, the fear that goods will be lost, that something will not come or be broken and the unpredictability of when they will arrive, the loss of normality – not having a phone number, an address, a local bank account, to name a few. There are a lot of lessons that come from all of it as well.

The expectation in all my moves, according to the information provided by the moving companies, was that things would take about two months to arrive. The realities were:

Moving goods abroad
From Houston! Maybe my container is in the picture! Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.

Moving from Brazil to Estonia (2011)

Cost of moving goods abroad

It costed my former employer around 15k (in dollars) to pay for my move. Back then, I was single, so I had considerably less things to be moved. Don’t let this stop you; this was by far the most expensive move I had.

Time from packing until receiving the goods

Despite being told that it would take about two months for my goods to arrive – the same estimate, by the way, that I was told in each of my three transcontinental moves – it took only 40 days for the things to arrive.

It may seem good at first sight when the move arrives earlier than expected; but when it arrives too early, before you have even managed to rent a place to live permanently, it can be a problem. You’ll see it happening ahead. 😉

Main lessons

1) The packing was perfect, everything arrived, but some of my books got a bit of mold in the transition. I believe the container with my goods let some moisture in, somehow. Therefore, if you care about your books, make sure they are involved in plastic, as they can mold in the container.

moving to another country
In case you are wondering, yes, I kept the books. Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.

2) everything in the home will come indeed. I even received a plastic bag with the contents of my kitchen trash, so be informed that you should empty your trashes before the moving crew comes.  

3) The moving companies pack better than me. I had asked for a few boxes to be dropped earlier, as I wanted to pack them myself, because these were some particularly important goods to me. I packed them carefully and to the best of my abilities, just to see the crew in action doing a much better job for things far less relevant.

Moving from Estonia to the USA (2017)

Cost of moving goods abroad

Despite the fact that this move was 6 years after the previous one and that now there were 3 people on the move, one of them being a small child (Kiddo was 3 years old), with the absurd volume of toys that a small, single child has, this move also costed my employer 15k (in dollars). You see the pattern, right? Moving companies seem to charge this base amount from government institutions, which is way more than they do to private people, as we’ll see on my next and final move.

Time from packing until receiving the goods

This time it took 75 days. The bureaucracy to take the things out of the harbor made this the longest wait for our goods, and this hurts because my then 3 years old Kiddo had an empty room and was deprived of many of his toys for a long time in his first months adjusting to the new home and country. We did pack him a luggage full of toys, but as kids that age change fast, he wasn’t so interested in them soon after our arrival. Ironically, this was the one time I was really longing for our stuff.

Photo by Polesie Toys on Pexels.

Main lessons

4) Packing was rushed, and the crew complained that there were too many things. Everything arrived, but we noticed that the faux leather of our office chairs, shoes and clothes started to peel off right after we received the goods. Coincidence or some weird weather phenomenon going on within the container? That remains a mystery. Containers can damage faux leather too.

5) The main thing we learnt from this move was that with small kids, it is well worth to pack a kid’s costume within the luggage. These are used rarely, but as soon as we arrived and registered our son in a preschool, there was a Halloween party that required them to wear a costume; so we went desperately – without car, without knowing the city or anybody in it, without the number of a taxi company, without a phone to call an Uber or a taxi, and without a local bank card – looking for a costume so that our baby wouldn’t be the only kid around not dressed to the occasion.

moving to another country
Photo by Yeye on Pexels

When moving to Spain, keep that in mind. Spain has many celebrations along the year. There is Carnival in February or March (depending on the year) and the different regions celebrate their own special dates, some with costume parties; Halloween is also a big deal here. This situation happened to us again upon arriving in Spain close to the “days of Andalusia”, but this time the Spiderman suit was nicely at hand.

After these two transcontinental moves, I would consider I had some experience on the matter. But the fact is that there is always a layer of unknown that comes mainly from the regulations of the country itself. For this reason, and because for the first time we were buying a home instead of renting, our move to Spain was not only complicated, but it was also the hardest one. It felt like a roller coaster, and I don’t like roller coasters!

Move from the USA to Spain (2022)

Cost of moving goods abroad

Once again, we were 3 people on the move; this time we had more computers than before and more furniture, though we did not bring some of the biggest pieces: no dining table, no beds, and Kiddo’s furniture also stayed behind – we wanted to update all of these, and the time of moving is great for renovating furniture. Still, it was a big amount of goods, according to the Spanish side of things.

This time, we paid for our move. It was estimated first in 8k (in dollars), but we were informed that other costs, such as insurance and payments on the delivery side would also be requested. It finished at about 10k. Besides this not being a government paid move, there were other differences impacting the cost: when organizing the move, you have some options, such as keeping the goods longer in the harbor of departure or delivery or hiring a bigger insurance, that can affect your final cost. My employer hired all the best; I didn’t .

By the way, I talk about our packing process for this move in details in the post about packing our move to Spain. Take a look there; it’s a sibling post to this one!

Time from packing until receiving the goods

30 days. Punch in the stomach, 30 days only from packing until our goods arrived in Spain. This means the goods arrived before we had concluded the purchase of the home, and therefore we had nowhere to put our stuff. Which was sort of a minor problem, considering that we also didn’t have the local documentation that would allow us to take our goods from the port. Ha!

Our move to Spain
A roller coaster. That’s how our first days after the move felt like. Photo by Athena on Pexels

Main lessons

Guess what? The container, again. This time, everything that was of creamy consistency became more liquid. Lots of cosmetics went to the trash. Too much heat, maybe? Pack your favourite creams in your main luggage, just in case. But you would do it anyway, so I won’t count this as a main lesson.

6) If you are planning a move and want to renovate your furniture, wait until after the move. You don’t know if whatever you buy now will fit or look good in your future home; also, buying after the move you avoid something mysterious happening to it inside the container.

7) I did a thorough clean up on Kiddo’s room and on my own wardrobe before the moving company came to check our volume of goods to estimate the price. A good clean up opens space and saves on the move, because the price estimate is based on the volume of goods.

8) You can pick and choose what options you care for from the moving company and therefore you can regulate the moving costs to some extent. I’m referring to storage time, additional insurance, and whatever else they offer as optional.

9) We asked the moving company to give us a list of what we were allowed or not allowed to send to Spain. They sent us the corresponding regulations. This information was very helpful and is now available on our post about what to know when moving goods and pets to Spain. If you read up to here, I bet you are going to like that one too. Therefore, ask the moving company for the regulations about importing goods to the country where you are moving to – even if you are moving to Spain, because there can be some updates.

10) The company we hired in the US, Road Runner, did a good job, and I recommend them. But the thing with moving is that you choose and hire a company at your location, and they sub hire the shipment and a company on the delivery side.

The company you hire actually deals with the origin side of the moving – packing, loading in the truck, storing and boarding it. Then the ship company deals with the transoceanic transport, and another moving company deals with receiving the goods, customs, unloading and transporting to the final destination. We liked Road Runner, but the company on the Spanish side was not nearly as good.

So this Spanish company informed us that in order to remove the goods from the port of Malaga, we needed two documents: a NIE and a Padrón. The other options would be either to pay taxes for importing everything we were bringing (wow!!) or to leave it on the harbor until we could supply the requested documentation.

11) Harbors charge quite a lot for storing goods, and it is a progressive charge. Leave for 1 to 4 days and it is free; day 5 costs x, then day 6 costs 1.5x and so on; day 30 is like 10x. The moving company informed that another of their clients, who had left his goods in the port of Malaga for a month, paid around €3.000. Each harbor has its own rules for pricing.

Therefore, we needed to have those documents fast to conclude our move to Spain. By that time, we already had NIEs, but in order to have a Padrón, we would need a permanent address, be it in a rented or in our own home. We didn’t have either, as we were still in a vacation rental. Some people argue that vacation rentals can offer a Padrón, but at least in Benalmádena the minimum required rented time to provide a Padrón is 3 months, and we rented for less time.

Also, before leaving the US I had contacted several apartments offered for rent in Idealista.com asking if they would provide us with the documentation needed to have a Padrón if we rented for 6 months, and they all denied it, I don’t know why (Edit: now I do know. And i know why it is so hard for a foreigner to rent a place; you can read about it on this post about okupas).

12) As we were stuck and pulling our hairs out, it was the real estate agent, Brice Karsenty from L’Agence that was dealing with our home purchase who came to our rescue. We explained our situation and he contacted his own accountant (which is currently our accountant too) and she had a solution: she told us that we could pay a fee of about €2.000 to remove our goods immediately, and this fee would be reimbursed provided we presented the needed documents within 6 months. Savior. Be informed that there is this possibility if you are moving to Spain.

moving goods abroad
Lesson 12 saved us a lot! Photo by John Guccione on Pexels.

Why didn’t the moving company inform us about this option? I asked them, and they said they did. But no, they didn’t; I read our full e-mail exchange again, it is nowhere.

The documents side was solved. We paid the fee and got a 90% reimbursement a few months later, when we presented our documents. The Spanish moving company said they kept some of the cash to pay for the company they had sub hired to do this procedure (I think they didn’t deal with this option at all before).

Now we needed a place to put our goods… And we were far from finishing the purchase of the home. To keep you grounded, we arrived in mid-January and our goods arrived in mid-February, when we had just signed the contract to buy the home (Contracto de Arras). We actually asked the sellers if they would mind giving us the padrón, as we were already committed to buying their home, but they denied our request. Moreover, the then owners of our future home were not in Spain, and we would have to wait until they could travel to conclude the purchase of the apartment.

13) We considered hiring a storage place and putting our goods there until we could complete the purchase process. We didn’t do it, but it is good to remember this is a possibility.

We also knew that all our boxed goods stacked fit in a 15m2, as this was the area of the container we were using. We and the US moving company considered our amount of goods to be of small mount, but we ended up having 199 boxes, which turned out to be considered a big amount of goods by the Spanish moving company that unloaded it, and we had to pay a little extra for the big unload.

Hiring a storage, be it a small or big amount of goods, would mean an extra cost and the need to hire another moving company to bring the boxes from the storage to our place once the home purchase was concluded.

Once again Brice, the real estate agent, came to our rescue. To say he went an extra mile would be an understatement and we recommend his services if you are looking for a real estate agent in Benalmadena. He managed to convince the owners of our future home to let us store our boxes there.

This way we managed to remove the goods from the harbor and deliver them to their final destination about 50 days before we actually moved into our new home. The owners of the apartment did not live there; they actually lived abroad and just used the apartment for vacations and as a rental. The place was, therefore, empty (at least in theory… more about it here).

14) Don’t trust expectations too much, even if they are based on facts. With Covid still around and the impact this pandemic caused in worldwide transportation, I would never expect our goods to arrive so fast. Our move to Spain was faster than any of our previous moves, actually. I was counting this would be the longest one as container scarcity was still a thing (only in my mind, apparently).

It would have been a lot easier if this move had taken the expected two months, and even better if it took three. This crazy roller coaster ride on strange times led us to conclude our hardest move ever. It is times like this that makes me value normality so much.

15) Final lesson: keep in mind that it is often possible to ask the moving company in the origin to store your goods for a while (a month or so) before sending. This may come with some extra cost, and certainly mean that the things will take a while longer to arrive, but it is cheaper than storing them in the harbor or moving the goods to a third-party storage. If you plan to buy a home in Spain, I strongly suggest you take this precaution.

Next: The best way to go about money transfers & banking in Spain for non-residents

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