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Navigating customs in your international move

Navigating customs in your international move
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Advice to get your personal belongings through customs without delay

When you move abroad you will be moving some of your personal belongings to your new country of residence. Because you are exporting and importing your personal effects they will need to pass through customs at your destination.

What happens to personal effects when they go through customs?

Customs officers will check your inventory of domestic goods – sometimes called unaccompanied personal effects – to make sure you are not bringing in anything banned or restricted and so they can bill you for any customs duty or import duty – this is the tax imposed on goods when they are carried across international borders. In the process they may search your personal effects.

Get advice about clearing customs in the country you are moving to

It can be difficult to get your head round all the different customs regulations and if you make a mistake in your packing or in filling out a form it can cause your belongings to be delayed on their journey to your new home. So ask for advice from an experienced expert as you plan your move.

An experienced international moving company will have the knowledge and insight to ensure your goods are packed in a way that speeds them through customs. You may also need help filling in customs forms and declarations, particularly if they have to be written in the local language.

If you choose a shipping company that offers a personal effects shipping service it can also advise on getting your domestic goods safely through customs. In some cases it might be a good idea to seek the services of a customs agent or broker at your destination.

Find out what the customs regulations are for the country you are moving to

Every country has different customs regulations relating to the importing of personal effects, and it is a good idea to go direct to that country’s own published information if you can. For example:

Check the list of prohibited, restricted and controlled items

Every country will have lists of items that are prohibited, controlled or restricted.

Prohibited are banned outright and will be seized and often destroyed by customs if you attempt to bring them into your new country of residence. To bring restricted items into a country you will need a licence. And controlled goods are classes of items that you can bring in, but only in limited quantities and only if you pay duty.

Common prohibited, restricted or controlled items include:

  • food
  • tobacco
  • alcohol
  • plants and seeds
  • controlled drugs
  • weapons
  • explosives
  • indecent material
  • items made from products derived from endangered species
  • firearms, weapons and explosives
  • pirated media
  • criminal evidence if the police suspect a crime

But ask your shipping company or customs broker for advice. And check the customs information provided by your destination country.

Make a detailed inventory of the personal belongings you are moving

A detailed inventory of the domestic goods you are bringing with you when you move abroad is a vital tool. Make an inventory, and make lots of copies of it! Your removal company will want to see an inventory to quote for your move and to plan your shipping. It will help you with packing and it will help you when you unpack. When you come to insure your move, your insurer will want to see an inventory. And an inventory will help your personal effects move smoothly through customs.

Note that in some cases you may need an inventory that is written in the local language.

Can I avoid paying customs duties when moving abroad?

In many cases the customs duty on personal effects is not much. Most countries have a very generous allowance for used personal effects, and some countries will offer relief from customs charges on the personal belongings of people coming to live there. Your move co-ordinator, removals company, shipping company or customs agent can tell you more about this and help you to apply.

But can you dodge customs fees by not declaring restricted goods? We would say categorically that it is not worth doing this. Attempting to smuggle goods into another country to avoid paying duty will increase your anxiety levels; and if you are caught the penalties can be severe and your personal effects are more likely to be delayed or damaged. It would not be a good start to your new life in another country.

Do I need to be present when my domestic goods go through customs?

When your unaccompanied personal effects pass through customs, in most cases you don’t have to be present. But the rules vary by country. Some nations require you to be in the same country when your goods come through customs. Other customs departments need you – or your representative – to come and pick them up personally, while others will send your personal effects onwards to your new address.

How much does it cost to go through customs?

When you work out how much your international move will be, you should factor in customs duties. But import duty costs and conditions vary so much that it is impossible to give a basic figure. Once you have your inventory your move co-ordinator or customs broker will be able to give you a more exact figure. If you are keen to keep your moving costs down, make sure you get a quote from Insure Your Move for your removals insurance.