Tips For A Cheap Overseas Move

Living abroad can be one of life’s most rewarding and exhilarating experiences.

According to Statista, in 2020:

  • 13% of expats moved on their own without a job lined up
  • 10% were sent by an employer
  • 8% were looking for a better quality of life
  • 4% were retirees

Though there’s no such thing as an “average” overseas move, costs can range from $1,000 to well over $40,000 depending on a number of factors.

In addition to being expensive, international relocations are prone to stress-inducing delivery delays, language, and cultural barriers, and visa and customs issues.

But here’s the deal –

With a little planning and preparation, it’s possible to nip many of these perils in the bud and save yourself some money in the process.

Let’s see how.

1. Plan Ahead

George S. Patton said –

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

His timeless words apply to nearly every aspect of life – especially moving overseas.

When moving to another country it’s wise to start the process 3 or 4 months (yes, months) before setting out on your epic adventure.

Everything from your move to your mental health and finances will benefit from taking the structured proactive approach.

So be a Patton, not a procrastinator.

2. Consider Possible Destinations

Regardless of your motivations and whether you’re a planner or spur of the moment traveler, when moving abroad it’s worth looking into things like:

  • Cost of living
  • Ease of getting (and price) for work permits, tourist, resident, and retirement visas
  • Whether or not there’s an established expat community
  • Climate
  • Crime rates
  • Quality of schools and medical care
  • Job market for expats
  • Vaccinations requirements
  • Restrictions on moving pets

Keep in mind that in many developing countries like those in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa, employment opportunities are often limited to volunteering, teaching English, working in a bar for peanuts, or starting a business.

3. Sell Things You Don’t Use or Need

Always remember the 3 Ds of moving –


Though it’s probably obvious, it’s worth noting that the less you ship the cheaper your international move will be.

As a general rule, families should plan on taking half of their items with them, and discarding, donating, giving away, or storing the rest.

In other words:

Before moving overseas, channel your inner minimalist by taking a hard look at things that rarely (or never) get used.

If you’re heading to Thailand, that Top Gun-style aviator jacket that’s been hibernating in your hall closet won’t get much use.

And while you’re at it, get rid of that clunky oak living room set too.

It’ll cost a ton to move and look hopelessly out of place in a flat in Bangkok.

When downsizing for an international move, consider:
  • Selling items on Craig’s List or Facebook
  • Donating them to a charity or thrift shop (think free pick-ups and tax write-offs)
  • Putting them out for the trash collectors
  • Giving them to friends, family and neighbors

4. Opt for Ocean Freight Over Air Freight

Unless you’re moving between adjacent countries like Canada and Mexico, your items will be shipped by air or sea.

Airfreight is fast and convenient, but it’s usually reserved for executive-level moves and small parcels of professional gear and electronics that you’ll need shortly after arrival.

The reason?

It’s prohibitively expensive.

That leaves efficient and affordable ocean freight as the option of choice for most travelers.

It’s only major drawback is that it can take a month or two for your items to make their way around the globe, clear customs, and be delivered to your new home or apartment.

With Ocean Freight There Are Two Options

Full Container Load (FCL) or Less Than Container Load (LCL)

With FCL you’ll pay for the exclusive use of a 20 or 40-foot container, whether you use all the space or not.

Though you won’t have to share unused space, you’ll pay for it, so if your shipment is very small (less than a few thousand pounds) LCL may be a cost-effective alternative.

On the downside, with LCL your goods will be transported to a warehouse where they’ll be consolidated with other shipments to fill the container before being loaded onto a ship.

This means multiple handling and more opportunity for loss, damage, theft, and delays.

Your forwarder should help you weigh the pros and cons of each before making a decision.

5. Compare Shipping Quotes

Most of us wouldn’t buy a new car or move cross-country without comparing multiple quotes, and it’s a good practice when moving overseas too.

International moving companies (freight forwarders) are nearly as abundant as their domestic counterparts, and vetting them carefully is important.

In the international moving arena, freight forwarders handle nearly every aspect of your move from packing, loading, and transportation, to customs clearance and delivery to your new residence.

Like you would on a local or interstate move, get estimates from a number of companies and compare them item by item.

Make sure that each is based on roughly the same weight and cubic feet, and that they all include the same services and insurance.

6. Buy Flights Early

Though buying plane tickets at the last minute can result in paying too much, doing it too early isn’t wise either.

There’s a “sweet spot” that generally lasts from 8 to 16 weeks before your move date.

Usually, the shorter end of the spectrum applies on short and mid-range international flights, while the lengthier side is more conducive to getting better deals on long-distance ones.

Consider this tactic –

Monitor fairs using multiple travel websites, and keep a written record of your findings.

It’ll help you spot trends, and you may just have a “Eureka!” moment when clicking that “Buy” button just feels right.

In addition:

  • Days in the middle of the week are typically the worst for buying flights, whereas Sundays are the best
  • There are usually better deals to be found if you’re traveling during the off-season, though with the Covid-19 pandemic full flights probably won’t be a concern

7. Shop for Expat Health Insurance

Unless you’re young, fit and relatively fearless, you’ll probably want expat health insurance while living abroad.

Though most developed countries have top-notch healthcare systems, as a foreigner you’ll likely incur big expenses if you need to use them, especially if you haven’t been around long enough to qualify as a permanent resident.

On the other hand, healthcare in many less developed countries can be downright scary, in which case having a policy with an emergency evacuation clause may be necessary.

Even in these countries, however, there are usually hospitals and clinics staffed by expat doctors, but they’re often pricey if you’re paying cash.

Depending on your age, health, and family situation, expat health insurance may actually save you money in the long run, just get quotes from multiple providers before choosing a plan.

8. Tell Your Bank You’re Moving

Though it may be tempting to close your bank account in your home country and make a clean break of it, it’s rarely a good idea.

Many would-be expatriates realize early on that living abroad isn’t the adventure it’s cracked up to be.

A better option is to keep your account and tell the bank you’re moving overseas.

If they’re not aware that you’ve moved abroad, they may freeze your account when you try to charge cocktails and scuba lessons on a tropical island 6,000 miles away from your last known address.

Consider stopping by in-person and spending a half-hour with a representative.

Ask them about things like:

  • International wire transfers
  • How to register for online bill-pay and customer service
  • If they have partner banks in your new country

9. Have All the Right Documents

Arriving in a new country for the first time can be overwhelming.

Plan on spending some time at the airport filling out forms and proving your identity before being turned loose to begin your new life.

In the first few days, you’ll also likely need to find a home or apartment, open a bank account, apply for a work permit, look for a job, and rent a car or motorbike.

In almost every instance you’ll be asked to provide at least one of the following:

  • Passport
  • Birth certificate
  • Medical records
  • Visa
  • Driver’s license
  • Marriage certificate

10. Address Possible Customs Issues

When you hire an international moving company (freight forwarder), getting your items through customs and into your new home country is largely their responsibility.

If you’ve chosen wisely they’ll have local agents familiar with the process, and their services shouldn’t cost extra.

But the customs clearing process can turn into a nightmare, especially when the proper procedures haven’t been followed.

And here’s the scary part:

Getting on custom’s bad side can result in extra costs, excruciating delays, additional paperwork, and mysteriously vanishing items – especially in less developed countries.

To avoid this, make sure you’re dealing with a company that has experience in moving people to your new country.

Though it’s the company’s responsibility to provide a detailed inventory of everything being imported, there will be forms you’ll need to fill out as well.

Be honest and accurate because they’ll be scrutinized by finicky officials intent on collecting duties and keeping forbidden items out of their country.

Also keep in mind that in most countries containers are scanned or X-Rayed, and in some cases randomly checked, so trying to sneak in prohibited items like alcohol or new electronics for resale is a horrible idea.

To prevent issues like these, your mover should provide you with country-specific customs information.

Frequently Asked Questions – FAQ

Can I ship a car overseas?

Yes, but you’ll want to look into import duties, licensing and insurance requirements, and traffic safety statistics before deciding if driving in a foreign country makes sense.

Will the Coronavirus affect my move abroad?

It may. Many countries now have very strict entrance requirements, so in some cases it may be better to wait until things return to normal.

Do expats have to pay taxes?

It depends on the laws of the country of which you’re a citizen and where you’ll be living. Expats may be required to pay taxes in both countries, one or the other, or neither. It can be confusing, so consider consulting a tax professional before your move.

How can I find a home or apartment?

In most countries, realtor services are free for renters and buyers. If you plan on buying a home you’ll want to do it in person, but securing a temporary apartment can often be done online before arriving, though you’ll likely need to send a deposit.

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