How To Ship Your Stuff Safely to the U.S.

(AP Photo/The Paris News, G.J. McCarthy)

Standing in my east London kitchen nine months ago, I wondered, how many spatulas does a girl need? I was trying to trim a collection of seven and had so far only ruled out the one stained yellow and a wooden thing with a fungal infection. It was our last chuck out before big men would heave our belongings into a van, then onto a boat bound for the U.S.. Shippers charge by bulk and weight, so I compromised on a pair of spatulas, reasoning that one would get lonely. If Noah took two of everything, so could I.

Shipping is the most popular option for those who aren’t prepared to dispose of their furniture just because they’re moving somewhere on the other side of an inconveniently situated ocean. And it’s a good one, so long as you’re cautious. First, know that, whichever company you chose, it will be expensive. Your company can provide a quote online or over the phone, but it’s safer to request a house call in which a surveyor will measure your belongings and give you a more accurate estimate.

Eventually, we slimmed our stuff to a modest twelve boxes – plus an armchair and a guitar – and our shipping costs still came to nearly £1000 with insurance (around 10 percent of the total). We did get cheaper quotes, but we settled on a company that got top reviews.

On average, it takes a minimum of four weeks for your boxes to reach you, though it’s more likely to be a couple of months. Don’t despair: if you need to look for a place to live when you arrive in the U.S., this delay could actually be helpful. This way, you won’t have to clog up your hotel room, office or friend’s apartment with sofas and dusty cardboard towers.

Most shippers will wrap and pack for you, and even bring their own boxes. But don’t leave them to it. Check they’re using the containers wisely (remember, you’re paying for the space your stuff takes up), and make sure they swathe your treasures properly. I bubble-wrapped our breakables myself, knowing our shippers would only provide paper.

If you’re not taking furniture and want your stuff to arrive quickly, there is another option. Companies like FedEx and DHL will fly your boxes, and they’ll get to you within a week. It’s not as pricey as you might imagine, although they do generally charge by weight rather than bulk so you’ll need to do the maths before deciding if this is a more economical option than traditional shipping.

But before posting your worldly possessions, bear in mind that this is the DIY choice. You’ll need to buy your own boxes, then pack and weigh them yourself. (Cue some sweary conversations with your bathroom scale.) And when they arrive, you’ll need to print off and present a customs form.

If you’re really prepared to pack light or want to offset some of your shipping costs, you could simply pay the excess baggage fees and take more on your flight. We paid Virgin (who allow up to 10 extra bags per adult) £64 for two gigantic extra bags. We did it online, saving £8 per case. (Subsequent bags would have cost £72 each online or £90 at the airport.) I won’t pretend it was fun navigating JFK with our own height in luggage. But this way, we had an immediate skeleton set of possessions, including bed linen and towels – things that we’d definitely need inside of two months. Oh, and I may have sneaked an extra spatula in a side pocket.

What are the best ways to ship items internationally? Tell us below:

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • Elaine

    I ended up having stuff sent over on three different occasions. I used DHL, but, packed the stuff myself, it went by ship. I found some great boxes, they are used to ship skis, huge and VERY deep, so deep, I nearly fell in them a few times !! LOL I used my clothing for padding and wrapping around breakables and out of the three times I had stuff sent over I only had ONE plate that arrived broken. So, check out your local ski shop. I didn’t bother sending anything electrical as voltage different, although for some reason i sent my mum’s sewing machine ( I don’t even sew) my one boo boo. Another tip, I saved a lot of money picking up stuff myself from the port of Entry, if i had had it delivered it would have nearly doubled the cost (i was in San Diego and port was Long Beach). So, if you can pick it up at the other end rather than have it delivered you could save more money.
    I’m glad i did it, even though I got rid of a ton of stuff, I was able to keep my childhood stuff and things from my mum and dad and it was well worth it.

  • Traci

    I shipped my belongings over, about 20 boxes if I remember rightly, mainly books, clothes, CDs and ornaments. It cost around 800 pounds and took a couple of months. To be honest, by the time I’d got the boxes I realised I could live without half the stuff I shipped over!

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  • Melvyn Cohen

    Instread of usuing DHL, UPS or Fedex your should have used a frieght forwarder like us. We have offices in UK as well US.
    See our websitre We are also members of the Florida Association of British Business.

  • gocanux

    We’re looking into shipping my fiance’s vintage 1956 Morris Minor over, to Washington (state, not DC). Any experience with shipping vehicles?

    • Mathew Lodge

      Yes, I shipped my sports car both ways, from US to UK and back again. Going UK->US was much easier — far less red tape. The shipping company (freight forwarder) that shipped our household goods picked up the car from our house and shipped it in its own container to LA. From there it was trucked to the local shipping company and I collected it from them. In California, you take the car to the local DMV for an inspection (they need to verify the vehicle identifier and other details) and they issue a title and registration.

  • Claire Barrett

    We hired a professional moving company and had a 20ft container filled with our possessions which arrived safely with only one breakage. We also flew our dog over to the USA and she was on the same flight as us. I’ve put more info on our blog, Diary of a wimpy Brit and would be happy to share our experience if anyone is thinking of doing something similar.

  • Rachael

    After being in the USA for 2 years we are making the move back to the UK! I was wondering if anyone had experience of shipping US to UK? We were hoping to get a container, as the indiviual boxes were a bit of a nightmare – but on a tight budget!
    Would also love to hear about similar experiences, or wise words about doing a return move.
    Thanks so much

    • Mathew L

      We used a local shipping company and they packed everything into a container. Much better value for the amount of stuff we had. A good international shipping company can advise you on options based on the amount of stuff you have — they can usually do half containers etc. if you have less.

    • John

      If you’d like I can hook you up with a friend of mine that just moved back to Brighton after living in Florida. That had to sell a house, cars and downsize to go back. I’m sure they’d be happy to speak to you. Just let me know. Good luck!

  • Eugene

    I moved back after 15 years six months ago. I used professionals and a container it’s not cheap but you save not having to acquire everything again. If you need to use storage for any period it’s a lot cheaper in the US.

    I had to buy a new home in London and the only real problem I had was trying to line up the shipping with my moving date. The shippers told me it would take a month and it arrived in two weeks. I then had additional storage charges in London.

    Selling a house in the US in the present market is a nightmare. It took me a year and a big loss. It is also useful to bank with the same company on both sides of the pond. I used HSBC and sending over funds from sale of house etc was very easy.

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  • StuckInNebraskaPleaseRescue

    My problem was not with the shipping company itself- but with US customs who unpacked all of my carefully wrapped and packed belongings in order to clean my shoes (yes really), throwing everything back in the boxes and then billing me on arrival for the process. End result: lots of breakages and a few pairs of suede heels that will never be the same again.