A comprehensive guide to choosing an international shipping company
If you've read my introductory post on this website (it's at this link if you're interested), you'll know that I am a well-seasoned international mover. I have moved back and forth between Ireland and the United States 4 times in the last decade or so. What can I say, I can't sit still 🙂
During those moves I've learned an awful lot about international shipping. I've painstakingly spent numerous hours calculating what is worth taking and what's not. I've spent countless days researching and selecting international moving companies (in Ireland they're called removal companies). I've shipped goods via regular mail. I've personally packed my goods on one side to be picked up by a moving company, and I've picked them up at the destination. I've researched insurance options, dealt with freight companies, and so much more. I think at this point, I've been through it all.
Being honest about it I think my most recent move taught me most of what I know on the topic. I'd have to put that down to being a parent now, as opposed to any other time I've moved. I've gone from just shoving everything I needed in to a suitcase to needing professionals to get me where I'm going.
I hope I can provide some guidance to you with the information below. Some of what I will share will hopefully help you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way, save you time, and hopefully save you some money too. Let's get started...
Invest plenty of time up front
One of the best pieces of advice I can give you when planning your international move is not to waste any time in starting your search for a moving company. I began my hunt about 5 months before I left the U.S. and I wish I had even more time. I would've liked more time to correspond with more moving companies, research them a little better, and if possible, get references from past customers. These services are not cheap, and you really need to know you're getting the best deal, and most importantly, that your things will arrive on time, and in the condition you sent them.
If you've begun looking already, you'll probably have noticed that you didn't need to spend very much time searching before you found a long list of moving companies. However, you'll need to spend quite a bit more time before you will find a company who you think you can trust your life’s belongings with. There are literally hundreds of companies who operate as moving pros, and they’ll all be very happy to take your money. Whether they'll actually provide a satisfactory service or not is another thing. Giving yourself plenty of time will help you weed out the companies you don't think will fit your needs.
Get a personal recommendation
If you can get a personal recommendation from someone you trust who has previously moved internationally, then this might be one of the best options available to you. A lot of moving companies thrive off word-of-mouth business, so they'll go out of their way to make sure they have happy customers. Receiving a personal recommendation is great, but I would suggest considering the following:
- Did the person who recommended this company to you move to the same place as you are? If not, then be prepared for some differences in the service you experience. Moving companies have contacts in different countries/cities, and who they work with may impact the quality (and price) of service they can give you.
- Does your friend have any vested interest in the moving company e.g. payment of any sort for referrals. It's ok if they do, but they should be transparent about it with you, and you should feel comfortable that they would still recommend the moving company even if money was not a factor.
A step by step guide to choosing an international shipping company
I’ll guide you through each step I took along the way to choosing a moving company now. I hope it flows well, and makes sense. Please let me know if I need to clarify anything. Also, towards the bottom of this article, there are a few more moving tips to consider, so be sure to read those too.
1. Decide what you are bringing
The very first thing that I would recommend that you do before contacting any moving company is figure out what you are going to be taking with you to your new country. To do this, I wrote down a list of everything in my home. I literally went room by room (wall to wall and ceiling to ceiling) around my home and categorized everything as follows: a) must-bring or b) would like to bring or c) leave behind. There were a variety of reasons why things didn't make it onto the must-bring list, for example it was cheaper to re-buy it in Ireland, it had no sentimental value, I hadn't used it (or even seen it) in years, etc. Choosing which category you would put your own things into is a very personal decision, so I'll leave you to it. However if you want to follow a similar method I've created a simple download sheet for you (it's in PDF format). Feel free to use it how you like. You can grab it at this link.
As you can imagine my list was long. Very long. I did group certain things as one item on the list e.g. picture frames, silverware, computers, but the list was still very extensive.
Next to each item on the list I put a check-mark in one of the 3 columns indicating whether this was a must bring, like to bring or leave behind, item. Of utmost importance was the next exercise: reviewing the list with other's in the household. In my case, I sat down with my wife and we reviewed it together. It would be a terrible shame to throw away, donate, or sell anything that is on your leave behind list, but is on your moving partner's must bring list. My wife and I spent many hours reviewing our list, and it was almost like a negotiation activity. Things that I thought we could do without, my wife wanted to bring, and vice-versa. We finally had a list we were both happy with, but re-visited it after a few days to make sure we hadn't changed our mind about anything.
2. Calculate the cubic footage of your items
This is an extremely difficult thing to do, but something that your moving costs will heavily depend on. You need to do your best to come up with a size estimate (in cubic feet) before you contact the moving company, or at least have some sort of an idea of how big your shipment will be. The reason I say it's so difficult is because if you are shipping your household goods, there's a strong chance that you've never packaged them all together in this way before, and you are probably not going to do it before you look for shipping quotes. After all, you'll probably need your things for the next few months before you move. But even so, you'll need a number.
Calculating the cubic size of your furniture won't be difficult. As an example, to measure the cubic feet of a piece of furniture, multiply the height by width by length (in feet). However, figuring out what size all your regular household items will be is not an easy task. In my case I basically took a guess at how many boxes I would need to fit everything. The boxes were 4.5 cubic feet each, and to tell you the truth, my initial guess for how many of those I needed, was about half of what I ended up using! My suggestion is build some wiggle room into your estimate.
3. LCL vs FCL
If you've started browsing shipping websites you're probably familiar with the following terminology: LCL and FCL.
FCL is an acronym for Full Container Load, which, in lay mans terms, means you will have exclusive use of a shipping container for your goods. The standard sizes for ocean freight containers are 20' x 8' x 8' 6" and 40' x 8' x 8' 6". Based on your estimated cubic footage you'll be able to decide which one you'll need.
LCL is an acronym for Less than Container Load. What this means for you, is that your things will be packaged (most likely on a pallet) and sent overseas in a shared container. Basically, your things will be put into a container along with the personal items of other movers, or commercial products being sent overseas. If you don't have a lot of items to ship, then LCL might be right for you. Keep in mind though, that the container your items are in might make multiple stops before it arrives at your destination. It is also likely that your things will be loaded and unloaded more than once, placed into new containers on different ships, and might take quite some time to get to you. I have used LCL shipping in the past, and it took 9 (yes nine!) weeks to go from Los Angeles to Cork. Of course I was quoted a much shorter amount of time than this (4-6 weeks), but looking back on it, I think that was just a ploy to get me to sign on the dotted line.
4. Get like for like quotes
Be very sure of what you want to send, and how you want to send it, when you are researching quotes. Aside from choosing between LCL and FCL, you will have a wide array of options available to you. You might be able to find shipping quotes for door to door, port to door, door to port, and port to port. When I say compare like for like, I'm not just referring to which of those options you want to go with. For example, if you receive 2 door to door quotes, compare what exactly is being offered: e.g. included insurance, additional insurance rates, if packing is included, length of time it will take, etc.
5. Who to contact
There are international moving quote websites that you can go to, enter your details and wait for responses. You can expect to receive multiple quotes/calls/emails, within a day or 2, from various moving companies. I think you'll be amazed at the price variations that you'll see. I think a lot of that variation is a result of who your mover works with in your area and the area you are moving to. If the company does a lot of business in your area, you might get a better deal. Same goes for where you're shipping your items to. I would begin by trying out some of these websites, but don't be afraid to quickly discard some of the results you get. From the emails and calls I've received using this method, some of the companies seem very professional and thorough. I think many do have a good understanding that people who move internationally have a lot of emotion attached to their personal belongings, unlike a company that is just shipping a product overseas for commercial purposes. Take the time to talk with the people at these companies, but keep in mind that this is a very competitive field. If you don't like one, you can quickly move on to the next.
You could also go direct to any one of many international shipping companies. A quick Google search on the topic will throw back many results. You'll notice too that there are a lot of companies advertising on Google for this service. It's highly lucrative, and they are paying a lot of money for those ads. They really do want your business, so if you have a chance to negotiate let them know you can move along if their price/service isn't to your liking.
6. Making the choice
I went with my gut feeling for my shipping service. I can't say I was overly pleased, but I wasn't too disappointed either. I expected everything to arrive, which it did, but there were a couple of breakages, which are somewhat understandable. I guess the thing that irked me the most was the 9 week delay from pickup to drop off. As mentioned above I was advised it would take 4-6 weeks.
I would urge you to consider the following when choosing your international moving service:
Price - cheapest most certainly isn't always best, but that's not to say that most expensive is either. Find the service that fits your budget, but also your needs.
Negotiate - Remember the price might be negotiable. Or maybe you can get them to throw in additional services at no extra cost (insurance, packing, pick up etc)
Professionalism - if the staff at the company aren't courteous and polite, and don't have the answers to your questions, then I would move on to the next option.
Insurance - be sure you understand the insurance options. I've learned that for goods shipped any way other than door to door that you are only covered if the load is a complete loss e.g. falls off the ship, fire damaged, etc. So, if your fancy silverware set goes missing and you didn’t go with door to door service, it's tough luck! Ask the shipper for details, and have them explain exactly what is covered, and under what circumstances.
Reviews - are there customer reviews/testimonials available? If so, do they seem real? Read them, but, unless they are all bad, keep in mind that everyone can have a bad day at the office.
Moving scams - Yes, unfortunately, moving is not exempt from the mean folk out there who want to capitalize illegally somehow. Be on the lookout for anything suspicious. movingscam.com is worth a quick browse.
Scare tactics - one company that I had been in touch with emailed me almost weekly for months telling me that there was "a General Rate Increase to take effect" shortly, and I should "lock in the rate now". This struck me as too pushy (and possibly fake), and I stayed clear of them for this. You'll also find companies contacting you asking to see competitor offers, which they'll match or beat. While not exactly a scare tactic, you'll see how eager they are to get your business. Try to use this to your advantage.
Hidden fees - what can I say... just try to find them! Make sure you know exactly how much you are paying, and exactly what you are getting. And get it in writing.
Special items - if you are shipping anything unusual or special (cars, piano's, etc) try to find someone who has expertise in this area.
7. A few final tips
- There might be a delay between when you send your items and when you actually depart for your new home. You may have some extra items you want to ship last minute. I did, and to do so I used a combination of USPS (regular US mail) and extra airline baggage. Both are extremely expensive options in comparison to what it would cost to send the items via freight. Try to minimize the amount of things you’ll want to send just before you move as much as possible.
- If you live in a country where your donations are tax deductible, try to minimize your loses as much as possible by donating what you don't need, and be sure to save the donation receipts. You won't recoup the full value of your items, but every little counts.
- Ensure your mover is bonded/insured. In the United States this should be by the Federal Maritime Commission (fmc.gov).
- International shipping quotes are given by volume not weight. The weight of your items should not matter. Two things to consider: First, if you receive a weight-based quote, question it or move on. Second, look up some packing tips for international moving. You don’t want any unused space, and you might want to make use of packing aids e.g. vacuum bags for duvets and other bulky textile items.
- Be aware of port fees in Ireland. Check are they included in your shipping contract/quote.
- When your goods arrive in Ireland they need to be cleared by Customs. For this you will need to complete a Transfer of Residence form (TOR). This is an application and declaration to the Irish government for exemption from import tax on your goods. I was unaware of this process and the associated fees (maybe the moving company should’ve known and told me), until my things had arrived in Ireland. I paid 130 Euro for them to be cleared (split as follows: 65 agency fee and 65 customs clearance fee). You will also need to provide proof that you are taking up residence in Ireland, proof you were living abroad, and a list of the goods. I was also asked for a PPS number (Irish version of a social security number).
If you have information that can improve this article, or expand on it, please add a comment below.
Best of luck with your move!