How to Pack for an Overseas Move

Local and interstate moves are rarely a walk in the park.

Add in foreign bureaucracies, new languages, and living away from established comfort zones, and international moves can be even more trying.

Some simple ways to streamline your move include downsizing ahead of time and making a pre-move checklist, but nothing is more important than working with an international mover with verified customer reviews.

This post will cover several helpful tips for planning and packing for your overseas move.

Before reading on, check out these resources:

You may need to leave the packing to the movers

You may be ready to rush out and buy boxes, tape, and packing paper.

If so, hold your horses because your international mover will do most or all of the packing.

On overseas relocations, every carton must be listed on the inventory as if the moving company packed it. 

Unlike on domestic moves, packed-by-owner cartons aren’t allowed.

For this reason and others, most international movers’ quotes include full packing service.

Sadly, self-packing may not be an option for cost-conscious consumers.

Even if you pack a few cartons yourself, the packers will need to inspect them and list them on the inventory as if they were professionally packed.

Ask prospective movers about their packing policies during the quote process. 

Make a detailed pre-move checklist (or use ours)

From vetting movers and enrolling kids in international schools to getting deposits from landlords and cable companies, there’s lots to do before setting out on an overseas odyssey.

With so much going on, items on your “to-do” list may fall through the cracks.

We’ve put together a  comprehensive moving abroad checklist to keep you on track in the months and weeks leading up to your move.

Research import restrictions for your destination country

You’ll find that certain items are restricted (or prohibited) regardless of where you’re moving.

Rules vary by country, but regulated items generally include:

  • New electronics, appliances, and vehicles
  • Alcohol and firearms
  • Large amounts of foreign currency
  • Hazardous materials
  • Pirated products
  • Agricultural products
  • Perishable items
  • Offensive material

Always do your research and ask your mover what can and cannot go. 

Insist on working with a world-class international mover

Unless you’re getting rid of everything and moving with a suitcase and a backpack, you won’t be able to go the DIY route when relocating overseas.

That said, vetting international movers and getting quotes is relatively easy.

Ask your employer about moving assistance or negotiate a relocation package if you’re moving for work.

If not, ask friends, family, and coworkers for referrals.

Schedule in-home or virtual video surveys with prospective movers so each estimator can see what needs to be moved.

Become a minimalist by discarding, donating, and downsizing

In hindsight, many ex-pats regret moving so much “stuff” from their home country.

Furniture, appliances, bedding, and kitchenware can be burdens when moving and living abroad.

In addition, they’re not cheap to move, bulky items may not fit in your new place, and many ex-pats move frequently.

If you’re moving short-term or just giving the ex-pat life a test drive, consider putting your household goods into temporary storage in your home country.

When downsizing, also consider:

  • How long you’ll be living abroad
  • The climate in your destination country
  • That many homes and apartments in your new country may be furnished
  • Whether or not you’ll be able to buy what you need once you’re there (yes, you can buy toothpaste in Ecuador)
  • Whether you’re moving for work, for retirement, to surf, or to write your first novel

Check out this post for more pre-move downsizing tips.

Let your mover know if you have high-value items

Point out high-value items to your estimators and set them aside before the packers arrive. 

Depending on their value, they may be listed on a separate high-value inventory.

High-value inventory forms are generally reserved for items worth more than $100 per pound, like:

  • Laptops, phones, and other electronic devices
  • Gold and silver
  • Jewelry
  • Artwork

Consider your destination country’s electrical system

Many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America use different plugs, sockets, and electrical systems than the United States.

It’s a good idea to purchase adapters if you’re moving electronics and appliances.

If foreign electrical systems are above your pay grade, stop into local appliance and consumer electronics shops and ask for help.

Chances are they’ll have all the advice and hardware you’ll need.

Know your insurance options

Since loss and damage are common on international moves, learning everything you can about insurance is time well spent. 

Most international movers offer comprehensive marine insurance policies with various deductible options.

In addition, many consumers purchase supplemental coverage through third-party insurers.

When considering insurance:

  • Choose the appropriate deductible option
  • Verify that your items are covered for damage and total loss
  • Make sure that your coverage extends to transportation by land, sea, and air (if applicable)
  • Declare a total policy value sufficient to replace everything in the event of an accident, fire, or natural disaster

Consider shipping professional gear by air on corporate moves

Your employer may allow you to ship professional items via air if you’re moving for work.

This will ensure that promotional material and technical gear arrive at about the same time as you do and that you’ll be able to hit the ground running.

Unfortunately, air freight may be prohibitively expensive if you’re paying for your move out of pocket.

Either way, transit times on international moves can stretch into months, so plan accordingly.

Set air shipment items aside before the packers arrive.

Get up to speed with your airline’s baggage policy

Every airline has a baggage policy.

Most have restrictions regarding weight, volume, and the number of items that can be checked and carried onto the airplane.

Restrictions usually vary by ticket class, and going over the limit almost always means hefty additional fees.

Do a pre-move dry run by measuring your bags and weighing them on a portable scale to avoid check-in hassles.

Pack your suitcases and carry-on bags like a pro

Using every available nook and cranny when packing for an overseas move is essential.

Space bags are worth considering, but they may be a needless expense if you’re an efficient packer.

To make the most of available space:

  • Roll your clothes instead of folding them
  • Use high-quality zip-top freezer bags
  • Use ergonomically designed high-volume suitcases and backpacks
  • Pack the items you use least (or will need last) at the bottom
  • Pack outfits together
  • Distribute weight as evenly as possible

Consider wearing the heaviest items in your carry-on onto the plane to reduce weight.

Once on board, take them off and stow them in an overhead bin.

To avoid the headaches associated with lost or delayed bags, have a change of clothes and other necessities on hand to get you through the first day or two after arrival.

Keep essential items within arm’s reach

We’ve all heard horror stories of travelers arriving at airports without their passports, plane tickets, and vital medications.

Most of these folks probably didn’t have “essential items lists.”

Include these items (and others) on your list:

  • Airline tickets
  • Passports and other travel documents
  • Other essential documents like birth certificates and health and school records
  • Cash, credit cards, and additional forms of identification like a driver’s license and Social Security card
  • Medications, hygiene, and first aid items like Tylenol, Dramamine, wet wipes, and Band-Aids
  • Toiletries (make sure everything is travel size and packed in a leak-proof zip-top bag)
  • Toys, books, and drawing material to keep little ones occupied
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Glasses and contact lenses

Frequently asked questions (faqs)

What are the most common problems when moving to another country?

Many ex-pats have a hard time dealing with culture shock, the language barrier, and feelings of isolation, all of which can lead to depression.

How can I make money overseas?

Many American ex-pats start small businesses, freelance, or teach English to support themselves while living overseas.

How much does it cost to move abroad?

Moving the contents of a minimally furnished 1-bedroom apartment to a neighboring country can cost as little as $1,500. Packing and shipping the contents of a multi-bedroom home halfway around the world may cost more than $30,000. For most families, the cost is usually between $7,000 and $10,000.

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