Should You Ship All Your Belongings When You Move Overseas?

To ship or not to ship? That's the vexing question many prospective expats face about their belongings when moving overseas.
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To ship or not to ship? That's the vexing question many prospective expats face about their belongings when moving overseas. On the one hand, there are the mystery boxes in your attic or basement that have remained sealed since that last move. Then there are the books, the keepsakes and that comfy chair. The china cabinet you cherish and the china inside it. Can you bear to leave these behind and just start over?

When my wife and I moved to Ecuador three and a half years ago, we had no such angst. We knew we were shipping a full container for three reasons.

Reason 1.
A few years earlier, we built a new home and took the opportunity to finally replace furniture, dishes and linens that had severely overstayed their welcome. It made no sense to us to unload it all for pennies on the dollar, then turn around and buy new stuff at retail that we probably wouldn't love as much. Plus, the notion of replacing everything we have accumulated over our long marriage -- from potholders to that garlic press we've had forever -- seemed too daunting.

Reason 2. We were delighted to learn that sending our belongings all the way from Las Vegas to our new home in Cuenca, Ecuador, was cheaper (by thousands of dollars) than our move to Vegas from Charleston, South Carolina. How is this possible? Well, that moving van traveling cross-country was filled with only our possessions, while the expenses of a huge container vessel are spread among lots of customers. Plus, Ecuador allows you to ship your belongings duty free if you do it within six months of obtaining your residence visa.

Reason 3
. We envisioned that moving to a foreign country where we didn't really speak or understand the language would be difficult. We were correct. So, as we stumbled and bumbled our way through the inevitable transition period, being surrounded by familiar possessions provided a comforting oasis in a new and unfamiliar world.

But that's us. Several of our friends had similar feelings and decided, as we did, to ship their belongings. But we know many more who chucked it all and arrived in Ecuador with only suitcases.

For some, it's all part of the adventure. For others, it's an excuse to finally get rid of that ratty sofa they've been sick of for years.

How liberating to say goodbye to your old life and truly start over! You get to design your own life, right down to the new sheets and pillows on your new bed. Booming residential construction in our new home town, Cuenca, is supported by a host of furniture stores happy to fill the empty spaces in your home. And custom furniture makers can craft beautiful cabinets for reasonable prices.

One great benefit to starting over is that you must "get out there" to find everything you need. As you search for the best place to buy curtains or a blender, you quickly learn your city or town's layout. Along the way, you inevitably discover other gems like art galleries and cute restaurants. Unless you're the Lone-Ranger type, locating all the bits and bobs for your new digs is also a terrific opportunity to network with other expats who have blazed the trail ahead of you. You never know -- finding out which shop has ironing boards may lead to a dinner invitation and an unexpected friendship.

If you choose to ship your belongings, I recommend using a shipping agent. In Ecuador and other Latin American countries, rules and regulations change frequently. Even the rules that don't change are open to interpretation. A local representative is better able than you are to shepherd your precious cargo through customs with minimum hassle and delay. Here in Ecuador, Sandy Baquero, owner of Sanestar International, has been in the business over 20 years and is highly qualified to assist you. Email:

Be aware that the two standard-size shipping containers are 20 feet and 40 feet square. You might guess that the larger one is twice the cost of the smaller, but it's actually not that much more. And should you only wish to send along a small volume, your shipping agent should be able to advise you on shipping only a pallet.

For those of you planning to arrive in Latin America with only suitcases, I recommend trying to fly via a Latin American carrier. Most of them allow two heavy, checked bags for free and don't charge much for even a third bag. You'll find employees eager to assist you and manage all your luggage in the airports for a small gratuity.

Ultimately, other people's experiences should not influence your decision on whether to ship your belongings. The right answer is what's right for you.

As a rule of thumb, ask yourself: Do I love my stuff? Did I pay a lot for it? Can I not imagine living without it? If any of your answers is "yes," strongly consider shipping.

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