Saturday, June 13, 2015

Expat Moves

Lots of expats have moved more than I have, but here are some things I've learned in my three moves. 

Expat moves are different from regular moves because it generally takes at least a month to see your stuff again. Living out of suitcases for that long takes some planning, and arriving in a new place with very little is hard, too. In my last two moves, it was a month in our new country before our things arrived. 

We were lucky to know about our move several months ahead, so there was plenty of time to get ready. 

Months ahead (as soon as you can):
  • Touch every object and piece of clothing in your house. Decide if it's to keep, sell, or toss/donate. 
  • Box up the stuff to sell and get it gone (yard sale, consignment, Salvation Army, whatever)
  • If there are things you want to throw out that are still useful, consider throwing them away later; they may be handy after your shipment has gone but before you leave the country (for example: old towels, cutlery, dishes, etc that will get you through the last week or so of living in an empty house.)

Two months ahead:
  • Get shipping estimates (3-5 companies is good)
  • Compare insurance rates, packing fees per hour, packing materials (will they reuse boxes for less money?) storage fees in case the shipment can't leave right away or arrives too soon before you are in your new country.
  • If you are bringing carpets, get them cleaned
  • If you have things you've been meaning to frame, do it.
  • Tie up loose ends: back up computers, sort through kids' old artwork and scan/save only the best, finish projects, etc. Make a list and stick to it. 
  • Once again, go through everything to be sure you really want to ship each thing. Now's the time to check that each marker has ink, that your decks of cards are all complete, that the DVD cases have the right discs inside. It's so annoying to get to your new place and deal with unfinished messiness from your last life!

Two to three weeks before the movers come:
  • Identify the basics you'd like to have once the house is empty. (For example: will you cook? Better leave yourself an old pot/pan that you can toss when you leave. Will you still be working? Save out 1-2 professional outfits.)
  • Once these things are identified, put them aside so they don't end up in the shipment
  • Dry clean any clothes you plan to ship, as needed.
  • Make up some freezer meals in disposable pans: lasagna, taco casserole, soups. Believe it or not, kids get tired of take-out and restaurant food, and some of your home cooking will be comforting.
  • Make two floor plans: One for your current place and one for your new place (if you know it). Give each room a number, matching up the numbers. For example, make the kitchen #1 in your current place and #1 in your new place. Then the boxes with #1 will be the ones coming from your kitchen and will get unpacked into your kitchen.
  • Complete your inventory. Identify the cost of items you'd like to replace if lost or damaged. I had a friend whose entire shipment sank to the bottom of the ocean; that inspired me to claim a bit more than usual just in case. My most precious items are ones that are irreplaceable (family photos, artwork) so I claim mainly the replacement value of practical things instead. A whole new wardrobe for each person in the family? It adds up. An entire kitchen-worth of stuff? Yup, it's a lot. We claimed $30,000 in insurance which cost under $1,000 extra on top of the move. If we lost everything, that would get us the basics. Note: We didn't ship much furniture. 

One week before the movers come:
  • Pack your suitcase with clothes you want to keep out of the shipment. For us, it's pretty much the same as packing for summer vacation. Aim for one suitcase per person. Keep another set of suitcases empty (for us, it's carry-ons) and use them for overflow and loose ends when you finally leave.
  • Set aside the towels you want to ship and put out only the old towels for your family to use. That way, you don't end up with "good" towels in the laundry on the day of your move.
  • Put the temporary sheets and blankets on the beds. Wash the "good" sheets and bedding and set all of it aside for the shipment.
  • Check your car to be sure there's nothing in it that you want to ship (CDs? GPS?) 
  • Go through each room and confirm with your family members what is going in the shipment and what is staying behind. If you have kids, talk it through several times; it can be hard to grasp the logistics.
  • Pack up your office. Box the things to ship and bring them home, set aside the things you need for your last weeks, identify things you can leave behind for your successor.

The night before packing:
  • Choose pillows (the worst ones) and give one to each family member; put the rest, the good ones, aside for the shipment
  • Disconnect TVs, DVD players, gas from the grill and such.
  • Watch out for kitchen items you want to ship; make sure none of them are in the dishwasher.
  • Take pictures off the walls that you plan to ship; it helps you be sure they get packed.
  • Go through each room again and confirm with your family members what is going in the shipment and what is staying behind. Split the room into "take" and "stay" so that it's clear for the packers.

Packing Day
  • Walk through the rooms with your mover and be clear about the room numbers. Each box should have a room number on it that matches the numbered floor plan of your current and your new place. Even if you don't know where you'll be yet, at least you'll know what room the things came from.
  • Open every cabinet and every drawer before the movers leave. I thought we were all packed up until I instinctively opened the cabinet above the sink for a cup and realized everything was still in there. If the shipment had left, that would have been a major drag.

A word about selling:
  • Price your larger items, such as furniture, as low as you can bear. In exchange for low prices, require buyers to take care of the transportation.
  • Sell your items early but keep them in your home as late as possible. Again, for low prices you can ask for buyers' flexibility. Be clear ahead of time about which items you can part with early and which ones (your beds) you need until the end.
  • Require buyers to pay in full to hold the items they want. If you price your things low enough, they'll be ok with paying and waiting.
  • Consider posting your things in a google doc that you can update as needed. 
  • Just before you leave, sell your temporary stuff (the old sheets, towels, cutlery, etc) or, even better, donate the whole lot. Perhaps your school would like a starter set for a teacher coming in? Or maybe there's a shelter that could use the things.

  • When it's all gone, sit back and enjoy the emptiness. It's such a relief when you've sent it off, knowing that what's in those boxes is truly the best of your household.

In the comments, I'd love to hear other tips!

Here are some other posts about expat moving:
Expat Info Desk: Extensive checklist covering everything, not just the packing/moving process.
Expat Arrivals: Good for people moving abroad for the first time.


  1. No, whati's in the boxes is the best of your STUFF. The best of your HOUSEHOLD is what is sitting there with you enjoying the emptiness.

    Bon Voyage! will there be a companion piece on unpacking and settling into a new city/country/culture?

  2. Wow, you are a pro, Sarah! Are you sure you hadn't done this in 9 years?