Shipping Household Goods Internationally: What to Expect

Published: Nov 9, 2015

Unlike U.S. domestic relocations, where crossing state borders is just a matter of driving by the “Welcome” sign on the road side, shipping household goods internationally requires a much keener awareness of external forces that can cause delays and negatively impact service delivery. Knowledge of the process creates more realistic expectation levels for all concerned.

Bob Kelly, Director of Sales with New World Van Lines and New World International, explains the realities of how household goods stack up in the grand scheme of international shipping, what services you can expect to receive, how timelines may vary and the most common kinds of disruptions.

Setting Expectations for International Household Goods Shipments

Within the world of “cargo” and from a universal perspective of global air and sea transportation providers, the category of household goods is considered a low priority.

For example, even if a household goods container is “booked” on a certain vessel for a specific departure date, if there is one spot left on the vessel and the choice is between your relocating employee’s 20-foot container filled with household goods and a 20-foot container filled with “perishables”, guess which container gets loaded?

If you chose “perishables” you are correct; the shipment with perishables gets priority, while the container with International Household Goods (IHHG) is rolled to the next vessel one week later. A similar scenario could apply to air shipments as well.

Having said that, most IHHG shipments do move according to the original schedule, but you can now begin to see the rippling effect for potential delays.

“Having an understanding of the various circumstances that can impact the shipping of household goods internationally assists in setting the right expectations,” said Bob Kelly. “The example above also offers a clear picture that, unlike the shipping of household goods within the continental U.S., the shipment of goods around the world faces many more possible external situations (forces) that could impact overall door-to-door transit time. Throughout this article, we will touch on a number of these IHHG processes, circumstances and challenges (forces).”

As a starting point, the landscape for all global activities has changed dramatically over the last several years. This not only includes personal/leisure air and ocean travel, but also shipping of household goods around the world. Meeting increased security standards and subsequent scrutiny has affected the general timelines from origin country to destination country, as well as the service methods applied to moving household goods around the globe.

Typical Services

In general, moving services included in shipping goods internationally are:

  • origin services (packing, wrapping, inventory, securing/bracing, loading),
  • inland ground transportation to the port of debarkation (airport or seaport),
  • sea and/or air transportation,
  • customs clearance,
  • normal destination port services,
  • inland transportation (from port to destination agent warehouse),
  • delivery to residence,
  • complete unwrap/unpacking,
  • customary furniture set up, and
  • carton/debris associated debris removal.

Common Disruptions

In terms of disrupted service, there are a number of situations than can impact transit timelines.

  • Cargo Prioritization. As discussed earlier, space availability on a vessel or aircraft can be impacted by the container contents. Household goods are considered a low priority.
  • Cargo Aircraft Only. Household goods and personal effects are considered as “unknown shipper” and are not allowed to be transported on passenger aircraft—only cargo aircraft. This impacts the frequency of flights available.
  • Acts of God. Includes severe weather or earthquakes, for example.
  • Civil Unrest, Political Instability or Labor/Port Strikes
  • Threats of Terrorism
  • Vessel or Aircraft Mechanical Issues
  • Crew Availability During Peak Demand Periods

Examples: The smooth flow of sea shipments heading towards India can be often impacted by frequent port strikes that last days.

You may also recall the recent Los Angeles/Long Beach port-strike that affected the movement of many cargo ships and thousands of containers. The strike is estimated to have cost the industry $1 billion dollars per day. For weeks ships piled up and remained idle outside both of these large ports of entry into the U.S. waiting for the strike to break or for a temporary “skeleton crew” to unload the containers.

These unforeseen and costly events have a direct impact to all types of commodities, as well as, striking close to home in regards to global mobility and our overall ability to provide timely service to relocating employees and families.

Security Concerns and Stringent Compliance Measures

“The state of the world in which we live today has caused increased security measures, geopolitical changes, terrorist threats, cyber-attacks, identity theft, etc.,” explained Kelly. “These security concerns affect countries, companies and individuals and have become a part of today’s reality. As a result, the relocating employee and the IHHG service provider have to meet a number of stringent compliance measures to ship personal effects around the world.”

Some destination countries require complete inspection of paperwork before shipping household goods from the origin location and will give a “green light” once documentation is approved for importation. Notwithstanding valuable information obtained from the U.S. State Department, the IHHG service provider relies heavily on its global household goods service partner network and the involvement of its association(s), IAM, FIDI, OMNI, etc., for the latest country requirements and restrictions.

Customs Inspections

Nearly 100% of International household goods shipments into the U.S. are examined. Costs could range from approximately $200 USD to $1,500 USD and delays at customs could last a few days to a few weeks. Listed below are the different types of expected inspections and what could trigger extensive delays:

  • Non-intrusive Inspections. All household goods shipments entering the U.S. (import) are subjected to 100% customs (non-intrusive) x-ray inspection utilizing a Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) examination.
  • Intrusive Inspections. Any shape abnormality, heat signature, etc., within the container and reflected on the monitor, or any paperwork issues will trigger a more extensive (intrusive) inspection.
  • Other Inspection Triggers. If food items are found, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be involved; if plant items, soil, etc., are found, the Department of Agriculture will be involved. Each individual department/agency can trigger additional cost and time. Your IHHG moving service partner or its port agent have very little influence or control with customs officials in avoiding inspections.

Listed below are a couple steps that could help minimize delays:

  • Increased Awareness. The only impact the moving company has is making sure that the relocating employee is aware of what can and cannot be shipped.
  • Accurate Documentation. Accurate completion of all proper paperwork, documentation control (passports, visas) and follow-on instructions -- coupled with IHHG service provider expertise and experience will prevent any red flags.

Maritime law still allows the captain of a container ship or any other type of ship unencumbered authority, in order to save the ship threatened by severe weather and/or unsafe sea state conditions, to jettison, “pickle”, any and all of the ship’s cargo into the sea. Containers of household goods are typically the lightest of those carried on a ship, thus they are loaded on the weather deck (outside) and on top of the stack…making them the most vulnerable of all containers.

In Summary

While the majority of shipments proceed as planned, anything can happen—one cannot make firm commitments on door-to-door deliveries. Understanding the process and realities of IHHG shipping practice and the numerous external forces that might cause delays helps to set relocating employees’ expectations and make international move as stress-free as possible.