Plan your packing for a move abroad

The Expatability Chat Podcast

How to organise your packing and shipments efficiently

An overview of how to organise your possessions into the different transportation options you have for your move overseas.

Tips on what to pack into shipping containers, air freight, luggage and carry-on. Plus information about taking your vehicle overseas.

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Resources to help you organise your expat life!

Plan And Pack For Your Overseas Move

A complete guide to organising your packing ready to move abroad. eBook available here

Packing Lists

Packing lists to cover all the possible shipment combinations, all ready made for you

'You've Arrived! Now What?'
Invaluable ‘things to pack and do’ ready for your arrival in a new country!

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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of

Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole, and today I want to talk to you about planning your packing and how to organise your packing and shipments efficiently. Because packing for an international move is actually more a matter of prioritising each and every thing that you own, and then considering whether or not you'll need it, or even want it in your new country. A large part of this process is working out how long you can live without most of your belongings before they arrive at your destination. Because moving overseas usually involves a shipping container and that can take at least two months to arrive.

First things first. Get organised. The sooner you can start this, the better, because decluttering is really part of the process however much you hate the idea. You won't believe how long decluttering can take, especially when you have day to day life and children to deal with as well. And you've got so many other things that need sorting out and organising too. So the decluttering can become really overwhelming if you don't plan it well.

So you need to have some kind of handle on what is going where before your in-home packing surveyor arrives. This is when somebody from your chosen removal company comes into your home to calculate how much it will all cost and how big a container you'll need. I understand that some packing companies are currently using virtual surveys where you film the inside of your house and then they send you a quote.

Basically, an in-home surveyor goes around your home calculating how big a container you'll need and how much it's going to cost you. And that's why you need to have a handle on what is likely to be shipped, before that happens.

So you'll know how long you'll be away for. We thought we were going to be moving for four years. We ended up staying for 12 in different countries. So, yeah, I know you can't look into the future, but it's a big difference if you're going to be moving for a set period of time or if you're moving permanently. If you're moving permanently, then you won't need to put anything into storage in your home country. If you're moving for a set period - a couple of years or so - you may want to research storage facilities for certain items you want to keep, but don't actually want to take overseas with you.

If you're only going to be moving with a couple of suitcases, this whole episode won't affect you at all and I suggest you go listen to Episode 5 'Arriving Well'!

Right. What are your removal options? Your different consignments? Unless you're moving within driving distance, i.e. on the same continent, you will need to use a ship to get the majority of your goods to your new home abroad. Moving everything by road is only possible if you're relocating on the same continent. I mean, that makes sense, doesn't it? Generally, you have four consignments to organise: shipping: air freight: luggage and hand luggage. And this means having separate packing sessions for all of it. So you'll have one packing session, probably will come first of your shipping container, this will be the majority of your items. Then some items you can send by air freight a little closer to your leaving time. And then the luggage you take with you on the plane and your hand luggage, of course.

As well as working out what you can live without for a few months, you need to make sure you can get up and running in your new home as soon as you arrive as much as possible.

It can be fraught with difficulties. But I'm here to help you organise yourself and your home. A brief outline of your options. Shipping is most of your worldly goods, and that can take a couple of months from door to door. Air freight, although expensive and limited in weight and space, it can prove very useful for shipping things that are valuable and you'll need soon after arrival. The luggage that you'll take on your plane, I've talked about in previous episodes and your carry on again I'll talk about that another time maybe.

The first thing you need to know is what is your allowance for the luggage, the luggage that you take with you on the plane, and then you sort of subtract that from the rest of your shipping. Find out early on what your allowance will be so that you can plan accordingly. And if you have to change planes en route, make sure you know your allowance for every leg of your journey, otherwise, you'll end up having to pay excess baggage fees.

With your carry on, find out how many bags and what size they are. Some allow you a carry on plus a bag, a handbag or a laptop; some don't. So back to your shipping. How long can you live without most of your belongings? Because transporting your household effects by ship can take at least two months, sometimes longer, sometimes less, it depends where you're going, where you're travelling from, how customs work, how your chosen shipping company works. But basically your container has to go both overland and then by sea and then must clear customs. It all takes time. Therefore, when sorting and packing, you have to be realistic about how long you can live without most of your stuff. As adults, this really isn't such a great hardship, but children are less patient. Having said that, as long as you have the important stuff with you, such as Teddy, they will not actually pine for it as they'll be too busy living in the moment, as kids do. And then when everything does eventually arrive, you experience mixed emotions.

The first one being, yes, home is here at last! And the second is, oh my god, why have I got all this stuff? And your kids will think it's Christmas because they'll find things that they'd forgotten. I don't believe any shipper's that say that your shipping will only take two weeks. It will not. Obviously, a short trip will take less time than if you're moving to the other side of the world. I recommend planning for a minimum of four to six weeks, depending on the distance, and then be pleasantly surprised if it arrives sooner, but don't be upset if it takes eight weeks or more, because that happens to.

The good news is you can send a smaller number of vital items by air freight, which should arrive a lot quicker. With all this in mind, you do need to plan for the unexpected and be aware that you cannot plan for what happens after your goods have left your home. This bit is completely out of your control, so don't stress about it.

Our first move abroad from the U.K. to Japan was meticulously, yet very naively, planned. My packing plant involved shipping our heavy baggage, i.e. everything including ornaments, books, summer clothes (we moved in the winter) two months before our late November departure. The intention was that this shipment would arrive two or three weeks after we arrived in Japan and we were able to do this kind of shipment so early because we took no furniture and no white goods. And we also had a lot of extra kitchen and other stuff that we could live with in the remaining time back in the U.K. Also because we were moving to Japan where the electricity voltage was very different from the U.K. We couldn't take most of our electronics.

So our first relocation consisted of just 'stuff'. Mostly ornaments and books and clothes, if I recall correctly. For our urgent possessions; extra winter clothes, toys, my computer, cat food, Christmas presents, you know, the important stuff, I packed these in air freight a week before our departure, so that they would be actually waiting for us when we arrived. You can guess what actually happened can't you? Oh yeah. A couple of days after we arrived in Tokyo, our container suddenly arrived totally unexpectedly, a giant lorry reversing up a tiny street. It was a sight to behold. Our urgent air freight, however, was held up in customs for ages, and that turned up a week before Christmas, with all the Christmas presents in. It all worked out well in the end, but it was a bit fraught there for a while.

Another unexpected that I personally experienced was that we were initially moving for just four years and then we fully expected to move back to the U.K. after that. And we ended up, as you well know, overseas for 12 years. We had no idea in advance, it's just the way things happened. But we put lots of stuff into storage; some in my mum's attic, and some in a facility. And when we finally got back to the UK in 2018, we had not just our shipping container delivered, we had all the stuff from Mum's attic, all of the stuff from the storage facility. And it all appeared roughly in the same week in my living room. Why on earth did I think we wanted to keep all that stuff?

When we finally unpacked everything, most of it just went straight back in boxes to go to charity. The rest of it has gone into the attic because the house is small. There were several, what appeared to be several, households worth of stuff in storage that I'd just completely forgotten about. And if I hadn't looked at it or remembered it for 12 years, why the hell would I want to keep it now? One day I'll get back around to decluttering the attic and get rid of the rest of it.

So plan very thoroughly, but expect the unexpected.

So what to pack and where? I'd like to give you an overview of what types of items to include in your separate shipments or container, your air freight, your luggage and your carry-on so that you can start planning and decluttering.

Use your shipping container for as much as possible. This is where the big stuff in the heavy stuff will go; furniture, white goods, ornaments, books, the bulk of your clothes, toys. Basically anything and everything you want to move overseas with you that isn't something you will desperately need all of the time. It is pretty much all of your house, basically! Your shipped items are measured by cubic capacity and dictate the size of the shipping container, and therefore the cost of shipping containers generally come in 10 feet, 20 feet and 40 feet sizes. And yes, they are referred to, in feet, even though most of the world is metric. For an average family, if you're not shipping a vehicle, a 20 foot container usually is enough. And this will allow you to move a fair amount of furniture; sofas, beds, dressers, wardrobes, etc. But it really depends on your family and the amount of stuff that you have. The contents of a four bedroom house with everything included may need a 40 foot container. For smaller shipments you may have the opportunity to share a container with somebody else. And this is why you need to bring in the professionals. They know what they're doing. They know what's available, and they know how much fits where. Just by looking at it. It's brilliant!

With airfreight, because it's expensive and because it's measured by a different format you don't really want to send too much by plane. Generally, these will be the things that you'll need in the first month in your new place. Consider what the season and climate will be at your destination and what your new home will be supplied with, if anything. Check with your chosen air freight company to find out how much you'll be able to send as it can be expensive, as I said, and you may be limited to how many boxes you can send.

Air freight is measured by volumetric, also known as dimensional weight. I'm not going to go into the maths here, it drives me insane, but basically a box of air costs the same amount as a box of bricks. I'll pop something in the show notes. I have books and downloads that you can use.

So what to include in your airfreight now? You need to have an idea of what accommodation you'll be moving into when you arrive in your new country, as this will have a bearing on what to transport. It will be different, depending on whether you'll be in a hotel for a few weeks or a serviced apartment, or if you'll be moving into your new, but very empty home.

If your new place won't be supplied with kitchen items like pans and plates, you may want to pack some in your airfreight or luggage. A few paper plates, plastic mugs and plastic cutlery are a great idea. I hate plastic cutlery, but somebody recommended it to me, so I'm sharing it with you. Obviously, ignore this if you're moving into a hotel. My absolute necessities are my computer, my printer, my cables. The thing is, I use a full desktop computer rather than a laptop so I'm making life a bit difficult for myself there. And your must haves will be different. Some bits and pieces to make your new home feel like home, especially for the kids, is also helpful. Some special toys, favourite books, a new game, perhaps? Some favourite foods, tea, coffee, chocolate, cereals. Remember the whole thing about breakfast cereals for the kids? Yeah, take some of those. Don't underestimate how obsessed expats get about food. It will happen to you, I promise you! And your children will appreciate something familiar in the early days, too.

If you have the room, kids bikes can probably go by airfreight and toys and games because they will want a lot of stuff now and you want something to keep them occupied. Take note of the customs requirements as some countries don't allow you to send outdoor equipment without rigorous decontamination first, and then that decontamination will need to be officially certified.

More items for your airfreight: bed linen, maybe a pillow, spare towels. Vacuum bags are great for squeezing this stuff down to sensible levels of space. Extra clothes and shoes that you can't fit into your luggage. And I promise you, you will not be able to fit an awful lot into your suitcases once all of this is done. And this is especially important if the season and climate will be very different from your country of origin. I always like to slip in a treat of some kind for us all. Usually food treats, maybe a fancy candle and toiletries. A new book, just something to cheer everybody up, something that your heart and soul needs as a little bit of a surprise after the upheaval of the move. And anything else you'll need soon after arrival, this is your judgment call.

Now on to the luggage, the stuff you take on the plane with you. So normal suitcase stuff, yeah? No, not at all! You'll be amazed at how much ends up in your suitcases. Just a quick reminder again, check your allowances with the plane. Pack in your luggage the things that you'll need right away but you can live without if your luggage gets lost. Don't put anything precious or valuable in your luggage. That's what you carry in your hand luggage. So clothes, shoes, wash bags, obviously, first aid kit. Check out my episode on 'arriving well', episode five. And that goes into quite a lot of detail on what to take in your luggage.

Take some food with you, just some snacks that you can have in the first hour of your new home until you get out to the shops. Depending on your situation and your plans, you might find it useful to take in some kid's school stuff like backpacks, lunchboxes, musical instruments, for example. That's particularly useful if the kid will be starting school straight away. And as usual, anything else that you'll need on arrival. Spread the packing out over everybody's suitcases so everybody's got something if one or two go missing. We know it happens.

And now down to hand luggage - the carry on. What you'll find is that after you've got rid of everything on the ship and you're rattling around an empty house and then you pack up the airfreight and the house is even more empty, you pack your luggage, realise that you can't get everything into it, and then frantically look around to find a larger hand luggage / carry-on. And everything that can't fit into the suitcases get stuffed in your carry-on!

Mainly, you need to put the important and valuable items that you cannot afford to lose and any documentation you need. Also, you'll need to have things to occupy the kids on the plane, especially if you're flying longhaul. And you'll need extra muscles because this bag ends up really heavy and you have to pretend it isn't when you go through the airport. Check with your airline, find out what the carry on regulations and limit are for the class you'll be travelling in.

You do need to be on the ball and double, triple check the rules as they change suddenly. Some airlines allow a small rolling suitcase type carry on, plus a second smaller item like a laptop case or a woman's handbag. Some allow only one small carry on bag, and that doesn't include a handbag, so we find that we're trying to stuff a handbag into the carry on as well. That's always fun in the queue for the plane! And as before, if you're making connections, make sure you know each leg of the journey and the limits. If you don't, you risk having your carry on bag taken away from you and checked in as luggage, which as it's containing all your documents and really important stuff, is not something you want to happen.

So, as I say, I've got downloads for you that I'll add in to the show notes for all the packing lists that you'll ever need.

So I just want to run through quickly what type of things go into your hand luggage... So paperwork, your passports, your visas, your ticket information, all your important documents, your birth certificates, your marriage certificates, vaccination records, medical records, school records, pet paperwork... Do you see what I mean? It's going to get heavy scan and photograph these documents before you leave and email them to yourself in case they get lost. You still need to have the hard copy with you, though. They're really, really important documents.

Any medicines and prescriptions that you'll need. Your glasses, your contact lenses, plug adapters - have at least two in your hand luggage so that you can recharge something as soon as you arrive, or at least get the kettle to work! Money, of course, your wallet and anything else you need to keep with you obviously, during the journey, any precious jewellery and any other valuables that you cannot put into your luggage. Laptop, camera, phone, other devices with their charges and adapters. Now it starts getting daft as these things rarely all fit into a standard carry on bag. My tip is, as somebody who has a fancy camera and many techie gadgets, jewellery and other precious bits - farm some out to all the other members of the family. It doesn't have the children to have their own carry on bags too. It makes them feel important, pop some treats and games and there is a bit of bribery.

Oh, and don't forget the contact details for everybody at home and in your new country. Again, try to ensure these are backed up or on good old fashioned paper. Don't rely on electronics. And as I say, I'll have fuller lists available in the show notes for you.

So a few other considerations on what to take overseas and what to leave behind. Certain larger items, maybe types of furniture and big space consuming toys should be considered carefully. Do you really want to move the old rocking horse? The cost of shipping can far outweigh the value of the item. Or the item may be a once in a lifetime valuable and irreplaceable, such as family heirlooms, which would be just too valuable or fragile to risk sending by ship. An example just pulled out of nowhere, a grandfather clock, maybe a piano. Piano's actually require specialist handling. There are people that can move it for you and they usually require very experienced movers. You may decide to leave these items with a relative or put them into storage until you can either transport them safely or you return home, depending on your plans.

What about a car or motorbike? A lot of people want to take their car overseas, but think very carefully about it. It may seem like a great saving, especially if it's a nice new car or a particularly adored vehicle. But the overall and unexpected expenses may not be worth it in the end. Again, this depends on where you're moving from and your destination. You will probably need to have your vehicle altered on arrival because, before you can drive it in your destination country, it has to pass certain tests for you to be permitted to drive it there. Emissions tests, for example. These tests are usually due to the different country's emissions rules and various other regulations. Alterations include often missed details such as changing the speedometer to kilometres per hour instead of miles per hour and so on.

Some countries don't even permit the importation of cars, which have the driver on the wrong side. Having said all that, my husband chose to ship our car from Germany to South Africa. Our car was actually bought in the UK, delivered to Germany, and then he moved it to South Africa - I didn't get involved. That was totally down to him. Anyway, that move went incredibly smoothly and that car served us very well for a couple of years until I wrote it off in an accident. And it was totally not my fault. It really wasn't. The reason it ended up as a write off was because the parts to fix it were not available in South Africa because it originated in the UK. If the accident had happened in Europe, we'd likely have been able to fix it and get it mended. So that's also something to consider -are the parts likely to be available in your destination country? And because he's obviously a glutton for car punishment, he also brought his Land Rover from South Africa back to the UK, too. Now think about this. This Land Rover was built in the UK, transported to South Africa (it's a special edition) then from South Africa back to the UK again. Yeah, I don't ask. I just don't. That took a lot longer to clear the British rules and regulations and although he hasn't specifically shared the details with me, I think it cost a hell of a lot to get it through. Still, he loves it and that's what's important.

So there's a lot of research and you may decide that it's just not worth it, in which case you need to plan how and when to sell your car and yet retain it long enough to continue your day to day life. Sell it and rent a car for the duration. If you decide it's definitely worth it it may be a condition that influences which. International removal company you choose, so bear this in mind when researching your options.

So that is a very, very brief overview of organising your packing. I've actually written a whole book on this! The link will be in the show notes. I need to update the book soon, but time, you know?

So to summarise, be focused and logically organised at all stages of this packing. These stages are generally declutter. Know when the in home survey is happening. And to know what's what before that happens. The next stage will be planning for the actual packing day. And I'll talk about that in another episode.

You are aiming for about four groups of packing, the shipping, the air freight, the luggage and your carry on. Shipping can take a couple of months to arrive. Air freight is really useful, make use of it if you can. Check the weight allowances for absolutely everything that's going on an aeroplane. Suitcases can get out of control really quickly! Invest in a sturdy luggage scale to ensure that you're not going over the limits and also to make sure that you can actually move the things.

Hand luggage also gets out of control very quickly and also very heavy. Or that may just be me. And plan for the unexpected. Yeah, I know, back to the old expat crystal ball again, but just do your best.

Good luck. I hope your packing day goes really well. I've really got excellent downloads, and a book and all sorts about packing. I've got it down to a fine art these days, although I hope never to do it again!

If I can help in any way as ever, please get in touch. Take care. Bye.

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