A Moving Experience

Thinking about shipping your household goods from the USA to Portugal, Spain, or anywhere else in the European Union?

Think again. And again. Very, very carefully!

From finances to frustrations, the entire process of getting your stuff from there to here (or here to there) can take a toll on even the most patient and persevering people.

I’m persistent, yes! But patient? Hardly.

Some international shipping companies are thieves, cheaters, and liars. I’d call how they operate and charge “highway robberies,” but they’re on the seas, not on land. So, let’s just say I think they are pirates …

Start by trying to get a price quote on shipping your household goods – clothing, furniture, linens, artwork, tools, etc. – from various international shipping companies. Here’s how:

Go to Google. Enter “International-shipping-household-goods-USA-to-Portugal (or wherever).” Oilà! Up pops a list beginning with paid advertisers that supposedly are in the business of shipping your domestic drayage anywhere around the world. Most of the ad listings, especially, include “click-me” bait, offering free price quotes and/or estimates by filling out their online questionnaires on the specifications of your shipment. Your information is then shared with a number of shipping companies that will contact you, offering the “best deal anywhere,” if you’ll only complete their own set of questions, too.

Avid art lovers and collectors, all we really had wanted to ship from the USA to Portugal were about two dozen pieces of artwork that we treasured, because we’d found them in our 25 years of life together. Everything else we could leave behind: Adios, clothing. Adieu, furniture. Sayonara, dishes and glassware. Arrivederci, rugs and rags. Adeus, America.

But, time and again, we were told by these international moving companies that it’s “more practical … much cheaper, too,” to ship a full container (a contrivance that measures approximately 8’ x 8’ x 20’) than to share one with someone else or to ship – regardless of the transport means – a dozen or so boxes containing whatever.

So, we filled out the forms identifying what we would be shipping, including how many boxes and cartons of various sizes.

Responses ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.

One highly-regarded and recommended company proposed an “all-inclusive” charge that brought its fee to more than twice what the others wanted … but they shared an invaluable nugget of wisdom: Whichever company we ultimately chose to carry the contents of our lives across the Atlantic, be sure that (1) it included destination terminal handling charges and port charges, which many don’t include or even mention; and (2) it is a member in good standing of FIDI, the largest global alliance of professional moving and relocation companies.

Based on our online communications, we narrowed our choice of international shipping companies to three. Only one belonged to FIDI. All were members of other moving industry alliances. We researched everything we could find that had been reported in reviews about each – positive and negative – and paid particular attention to their ratings and how they responded to complaints posted with the Better Business Bureau. We asked lots of questions, expressed our concerns, and requested clarifications.

Ultimately, we chose an international shipping company based on its price, communications, and reputation. Even before signing the contract and paying a deposit, we understood that the company was, essentially, our “broker” and liaison to other companies … kind of like the hub of a wheel with many spokes: the company that came to our house to pick up everything we were shipping and deliver it to the port of Chicago; the company in the port of Chicago that unloaded the truck, packed it into a container, and put it aboard the ship; the actual “ship”ping company that would transfer our goods from one of its ships to another (and another), before arriving here in Portugal; the logistics company in Lisbon that handled all the paperwork and clearance procedures with Customs; and the company that would ultimately unload our container and deliver its contents to our home in Lousa.

Before anything at all can be imported “duty-free” to Portugal, however, one first must be granted a residence visa from a Portuguese consulate. Suffice it to say that household goods and personal effects can be imported duty-free by people establishing residency in Portugal who have secured a residency visa … provided that these “household goods” were part of your previous residence and you don’t have a furnished home in Portugal.

To qualify for this duty-free status, the goods must be accompanied by a “Baggage Certificate” (Certificado de Bagagem) issued by the Consulate handling your visa. The goods must be cleared through Customs within 90 days of their arrival in the country.

Obtaining the certificate isn’t that difficult: You submit a list in triplicate of all items that you’re sending to Portugal. Each numbered page should state, “List of Personal Effects of (Name)”; it can identify items by box (Box #1: Clothing, Box #2: Kitchen Utensils, Box #3: Books, etc.) or by description (King Size Bed and Mattress, Chest of Drawers, Artwork, etc.); and all electronic appliances must clearly list their serial numbers. The Consulate wants you to leave a few blank spaces after the last listing on each page for official signatures, and this statement must accompany your list: “I hereby certify that the above items have been in my use and possession for over six months” (Signature and date). Finally, a company, bank, or certified check – or a money order – payable to the Consular Section-Embassy of Portugal must be included and a postage paid, self-addressed (preferably trackable) envelope enclosed.

With all required documents in hand, scanned and sent to the shipping company, we began packing and making certain that every box, along with every non-boxed item, was clearly numbered and identified exactly as listed on our official baggage certificate. Measuring off an area slightly less than 8 x 8 x 20 feet in our garage, we made sure that we didn’t go beyond what would fit in the container.

Recalling the fires that had left so many Portuguese homeless and destitute not far from where we’d be living, we bought blankets, comforters, quilts, spreads, linens, towels, and curtains that could be used to wrap our household goods and then donated to those in need.

Unfortunately, the shipping company had other ideas.

The company insisted that, for insurance reasons, they needed to pack and “shrink-wrap” all of the furniture that we had so carefully covered with layers of blankets held tight to their contents with bungee cords. The unused blankets and coverlets would be shipped in other boxes.

Honestly, we experienced no real problems until about three weeks before our container was scheduled to arrive in Lisbon. The Portuguese “partner” of our American agent then requested additional documents.

Because our “contribuinte” – or fiscal – numbers had been obtained for us by our Portuguese attorney when we assigned her power of attorney to purchase our house, the forms showed her address. Not acceptable. To release our container from the port and deliver its contents to our home in Lousa, our address – not hers – was required. We contacted Liliana, our lawyer. Though it was no simple matter to have our address changed on the official documents, she was able to accomplish it for us. The new documents were forwarded to our Portuguese shipping agent.

“Perfect!” they exclaimed. “Now you must send us an official copy of your Atestado de Residencia,” the document issued with a seal by the town hall of our jurisdiction and signed by its president. The Atestado declares that we are known to be living in the town. With a note hastily translated by Google and printed out, we rushed off to our local town hall (freguesia), where the document was produced for a small fee. Since the freguesia shared space with the local post office, the document was dispatched via DHL with guaranteed next-day delivery.

It got there just fine, but the document wasn’t …

“No,” said customer service agent at our shipping company. “The Atestados must state that you have been living in Lousa since the 25th of March.”

But that wasn’t true. I tried to explain that we had arrived on the evening of the 26th, due to delays in our flights.  Then, each time we attempted to visit the town hall, it was closed. After all, it was the week before Easter and everything (along with everyone) was operating on limited schedules and hours. Very limited. It was April 3rd that we were finally able to get our Atestados de Residencia.

“No matter,” she replied. “It is not our choice. Portuguese law requires that the documents be worded and dated precisely as I have stated.” Well, fiddle-dee-dee. Now what? A newcomer to town, was I supposed to annoy the town hall clerk by trying to explain what was wrong, why and how it needed to be revised? “Never mind,” the agent advised. “We will take care of it for you.”

And they did. Somehow, they contacted the town hall’s clerk in our tiny village and convince him not only to revise the document, affix the official seal, get the president to sign it again, and send it via courier to the shipping company’s offices in Lisbon … without involving me or even an additional fee.

With all our papers and documentation in order, we waited for our shipment to arrive. Three times, we were notified that our ship would be delayed. Finally, it arrived: ten days later than anticipated. All things considered, not too bad.

But, then came the bills from our Portuguese shipping representatives: €420 in port charges, to be paid immediately. I dashed out to the bank and transferred the funds. Immediately, came this reply: Your balance remaining is €970,00 … another €420 in “terminal handling charges” (THC)  plus €550 for shuttle van service, as our street is too narrow for a truck to park and unload a 20 x 8 x 8 container. We knew we’d have no choice but to pay for this shuttle: we couldn’t block the two-way traffic coming and going on the “main” street in town!

“Why did you wait to send me this second invoice?” I asked. “I just came back from driving to the bank to transfer the funds from your first payment request. Now, I have to go back again to transfer more money!”

Her explanation didn’t make any sense whatsoever to me but, at that point, I didn’t care anymore. It was only more money hemorrhaging. As long as the contents of our container were delivered on Wednesday …

They were.

But a bunch of stuff that we didn’t pack, the movers did – an antique chest-of-drawers, a large baking “stone,” some collectible glassware – arrived broken beyond repair. I sent emails and pictures of the damaged goods to everyone professionally involved with our move, but I still haven’t heard a word back in reply. It’s been over a week now.

As I said at the beginning of this chapter, if you are considering shipping household goods internationally, please think very carefully about it. Then, think again. And again.

Consider your options.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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4 thoughts on “A Moving Experience

  1. Thank you for the story.
    Sorry for the broken items. I had the same experience when moved within USA and nobody wanted to take responsibility.
    It would be useful to name 3 companies (“we narrowed our choice of international shipping companies to three) and estimated prices they wanted and noted the one you did deal with.

  2. Pingback: Ten Must-Take Items to Pack before Leaving the USA for Iberia | "Exactly!"

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