If You're Moving to Another Country, Find Out How to Move Your Stuff

Compare Moving Your Stuff by Boat or Plane

Empty living room with boxes
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When making an international move, there are two ways to transport your household goods: by air and by sea. There are pros and cons to each type of move, and your decision may be determined by your moving budget, how much time you have, and what you're moving. If you have relatively few things to move, it's more likely you can afford air transport, which also saves considerable time. On the other hand, a large move almost always requires sea transport, which takes longer but can be much less expensive.

It makes sense to look at both options in terms of cost and to factor in the cost of furnished rentals if you choose to leave your furnishings behind.

Moving Your Stuff By Boat

If moving by sea, your household goods will be packed into containers that are usually loaded at your residence. The loaded containers are shipped by rail or truck to a port, where they are loaded onto a steamship container. The container is then loaded onto the boat as cargo. Once your goods have arrived in the new country, the container is unloaded and must pass through customs. An international mover company will be able to help you with the customs forms and is responsible for clearing your goods.

How Much Space Do You Need?

If you're looking to move items from a small apartment or at least a couple of bedrooms, or any type of car, you'll almost certainly be shipping by sea. But how much space do you need in the shipping container?

Most household moves involve 20-foot or 40-foot containers. A large move may require multiple containers. Here are the basic specs on these two standard container sizes:

20-foot container: 

  • Dimensions: 19 feet, 10 1/2 inches long x 8 feet wide x 8 feet, 6 inches high
  • Volume/usable space: 1,169 cubic feet
  • Shipping load (including container): 61,289 pounds
  • Typically moves one to two bedrooms or one car plus some boxes

40-Foot Container:

  • Dimensions: 40 feet long x 8 feet wide x 8 feet, six inches high
  • Volume/usable space: 2,385 cubic feet
  • Shipping load (including container): 57,759 pounds
  • Typically moves three to five bedrooms or one car and two bedrooms

Getting Your Stuff Out and In

When shipping by boat, you have three options for getting your items loaded into the container, getting the container to the port, and, on the destination end, getting your goods from the port to your new home (from least to most expensive):

  • Port to port: You bring your items to the port and load them in a container. At the destination, you pick up your goods at the port and bring them to your new home.
  • Drop and fill: The shipper drops off the container at your house, you load it, and they pick it up. The reverse happens at the destination.
  • Door to door: The moving company brings and loads the container at your house, then unloads it at your new home, similar to a full-service domestic move.

Moving Your Stuff By Air

Moving household items by air is becoming increasingly popular, despite a much higher price tag than shipping by boat.

This usually involves packing your items into heavy-duty cardboard boxes, but some air freight companies use dedicated containers. Given the high cost of shipping by air, it is strongly recommended that you downsize the amount of stuff you plan to move. Leave non-essential items—book are a good example—with friends, or investigate long-term storage options. Be sure include the monthly fees in your moving budget when determining how much it will cost you to move.

If cost—and consequently, limited space—are the clear downsides to air freight, the clear upsides are speed and reliability. Planes leave a lot more often and move a lot faster than boats. This means you can get your items in a few days on a plane, versus a few weeks (or longer) on a boat. As for reliability, plane flights certainly can get delayed by weather and other problems, but these tend to be less of an issue than with sea freight.