This is the ultimate logistics checklist for preparing to move to another country or becoming a digital nomad – the non-digital edition. Preparing digitally is another thing – see here for the digital preparation checklist.
It’s easy to forget things when moving to another country, especially when you’re moving your entire life. We’ve moved a few times (four countries as of early 2019) and so we’re sharing what we think is the best checklist for moving abroad. We try to keep our recommendations ultra narrow so you don’t have to go dig through other choices.
Sell everything you own in the right places so it’ll actually sell
It’s very tempting to have a garage sale. But in most developed cities, this is just a great way of selling 10% of what you own for 5% of what you paid for it (or maybe giving it away). Instead, if you have a month or two to prepare, think what channel suits everything you own.
- Vehicles: Car shopping sites/Craigslist/Gumtree. This could be a whole article in itself, but that’s not why you’re here! But for those who have never thought about how to sell a car: plan ahead, look on your local DMV, Vehicles registry etc. and find out exactly what documentation you need to provide to make a sale painless – smog certificates, inspections, whatever, and list that you’ve done those in the ad. A few tips to make a vehicle sale go smoothly:
- Add LOTS of great photos. 10+. Go get it washed, take it somewhere attractive, and take photos. Most cars/motorcycles really fall short here so it’s very simple to stand out and get more eyeballs.
- Include a detailed description that’s for the target audience. If it’s a Toyota Corolla, talk about mileage, being easy to drive and ease of parking. If it’s a Ford F-150, talk about storage space and being adventure ready. Talk about why YOU bought it.
- Throw shade at other listings: “Unlike most cars on Craigslist, this one has passed its smog inspection, has never been in an accident, is located in a convenient garage downtown and has had all its maintenance done on schedule.” Hopefully that’s true.
- Price competitively: It’s hard to pick a price. Forget websites like KBB and NADA Guides (except to benchmark… see below). See what other good listings are at and price slightly below that point, and then mention in the ad “Priced for quick sale – cheaper than KBB and NADA guides which are at $$$”. You won’t sell unless it’s literally the cheapest.
- Cameras, phones, expensive electronics: eBay. Use the app, it makes posting a lot more painless. People tend to brush eBay off because it seems like a pain to post things and then… post them, but it’s a good way to get 50-75% of the purchase price of expensive electronics (if in good condition, recent-ish)
- Whitegoods/homewares/home goods: Friends and your workplace. You need to make a list, post it at work and email it to your friends. Discount a lot, but at least you can sell this way! Nobody buys these second hand anywhere online or at garage sales.
- Clothes: Charity sale with friends. These are extremely hard to sell. If it’s high end branded stuff, you can use websites like Poshmark and TheRealReal, but they’re extremely selective. Most of this you’ll have to donate, so rather than donate it all to charity, have friends come by and try stuff on, and take payments and give it all to a charity of your choice.
One things’ for sure: You’re going to re-think every future purchase. You’ll be acutely aware of how hard it was to sell them last time. Lesson learned!
Freight things without getting screwed
If you are moving permanently, you need to freight your goods abroad.
There are a few freight shipping services that come up, and none of them are cheap AND easy to use. If you want to save money, you’ll need to plan very carefully.
Generally there are three types of freight.
Full service movers
Full service movers are like Seven Seas Worldwide. They cost thousands of dollars, but they help you with everything for door-to-door delivery on both sides. A few years ago, when I moved from Beijing to Hong Kong, I paid something like US$3,000 to ship two sofas, a wardrobe and 10 boxes of goods… but they did it door to door and packed everything. They even dismantled the wardrobe on one side and re-assembled it on the other! You pay a premium, but get a reward in convenience.
Port to port movers
Don’t use companies like ShippingQuest (see Shipping Quest Scams or their 1-star review on Yelp), These guys are, in comparison, a huge hassle, but slightly cheaper. The hassle is that the way to use them is to box your own stuff (boo-hoo, do this anyway) and take it to the port or freight area, and arrange customs clearance and transport on the other side. I used these to move goods from San Francisco to Australia.
There are MANY steps and hand-offs along the way in a shipping journey. At very least there was
- The shipping company, that has the ships
- The marketing company, that gets the customers and charges the money
- The port shipping contractor, that gets the stuff on the boat
- The port subcontractor, some other company that works in between
- Customs clearance agent at delivery
My experience was that it cost me about US$2500, after an initial quote of US$400. The extra came from
- Revised quote when taken to the dock, adding $300
- Fuel surcharges of about $400 (no idea what these are)
- Extra shipping cost of $300 above the quoted volume, even though I was SURE I was under
- Fumigation fees of $250
- $850 in customs clearance fees in Australia
The goods were originally due to arrive early October 2018. This was rescheduled many times, with final delivery
Pro tip: The total volume shipped is NOT just the volume of the boxes you take. It’s the total volume on the pallet. If you stack all the boxes into a crazy, voluminous shape… take the largest shape around all of it, and that’s the volume. It was massive for me. Weight doesn’t matter if you take it to the port, luckily.
Unaccompanied Baggage, Port-To-Door
In some countries, you can do ‘unaccompanied baggage’. Google this if you need to. It’s very cheap, and quite convenient. You do have to take your things to the airport, but then it arrives very quickly (within a week or two), and is delivered to the final destination – so it’s port-to-door. This is not available to and from the US, but is available in a lot of locations.
I’ve heard of a number of services, but many of them have gone under. One that i know exists and has decent reviews from nomads is SendMyBag.
Don’t mail your stuff home!
You might think there’s another option, like mailing your things home in boxes using the postal service. Don’t do this!! It’s hideously expensive. I’d only do this if I had maximum one small box of goods weighing no more than about 10kg. Other than that, I’d opt for a freight service
Similarly, there’s no such thing as safe peer to peer baggage sending. Why would you entrust your things to a stranger? How can they say that they packed their own gear?
Redirect your mail
In general, it’s useful to maintain a home mailing address in your country of origin, not a PO box. This is useful for things like company addresses, banks and other official reasons.
You could just redirect your mail to your parents house and ask them to scan everything, but your parents might not live in the right country, might not be good at scanning and anyway, are they your secretary service?? It can really add up.
You want a service that has
- A fixed mailbox that’s not a PO box
- Can open your mail
- Can scan mail and send it to you electronically
- Can forward on critical postage items (like a driver’s license which for some people takes nine or more months to clear the Department of Homeland Security’s obscure checks)
- Discards junk mail
- Has a decent web site (let’s be realistic)
After investigating a few services whose design teams seemed stuck in the mid 1990’s, we landed on Virtual Post Mail. It’s $15 a month (for the first month) and they scan mail for you and forward whatever you need to wherever you want.
Here’s what it looks like inside:
Get travel insurance that works
There’s travel insurance, and then there’s travel insurance that works. What is travel insurance that works? It covers you when you need it in emergencies, and the claims process isn’t a crazy ring-around designed to throw you off (like credit card insurance, for example).
People like to compare insurance by comparing networks and prices. But the truth is, the most important thing when assessing insurance is: how easy is it to make a claim and get paid back? The difference can be night and day.
To make a stark contrast, which of these is better:
- Insurance that costs $50 a month, and where you claim by fax, have to submit a ton of documentation, probably will get rejected and then maybe paid eventually 3 months later, if you follow up a few times?
- Insurance that costs $100 a month where you can submit a claim via an app and be repaid within a week?
I think you know the answer.
True story: one time in China, one of us (OK… Dana) got liver failure. Long story short, he didn’t have, as the doctor put it “either hepatitis, a gallstone or liver cancer”, but had in fact accidentally overdosed on cold and flu medicine. But before he knew this, he racked up nearly US$2,000 in expenses in a few tests at the best hospital in town, which was the one he directly went to.
Afterwards, wondering how to get reimbursed, he called WorldNomads, send them scans of the receipts over the phone and was refunded the entire lot (minus the $100 deductible).
You want insurance that works. Get WorldNomads.
Get health insurance
In case you are thinking of abandoning your health insurance policy altogether… this may not be an option for you.
If you live in a place like Australia, Canada, the UK, anywhere in Europe, most of Central Asia, China etc. (you get the idea, pretty much anywhere except the US) with socialized, freely available and high-quality healthcare, you don’t need health insurance. In case of a serious emergency, like if you get a brain tumour, you will get shipped home by your travel insurance and then your country will take care of you.
If you’re from the US or somewhere else without great public healthcare, you need to get good cover. This doesn’t have to be expensive, but plan for it.
One of the most popular international health insurance providers is BUPA, which provides international health insurance for $300 a year. Allianz and Cigna are also popular, but more expensive options.
Get a phone service that will work everywhere
Your phone is basically an extension of your life, and the device you use most. Do you want it to be unavailable? Do YOU want to be unavailable? Regardless of how off-the-grid you go, you’re going to need it to do things like contact hosts, make bookings, look up words and occasionally search for how to do something difficult.
In the past, we used to either stay offline (and hunt for Wi-Fi) or get local sim cards. Definitely something you should be able to do, but there’s a better option if you live in the US or UK: Google Fi.
A Google Fi service has a few benefits if you stay local (like cheap data, and a cheap unlimited data shared plan that’s capped out at $140 for two people in the US), but the main boon for travellers is unlimited high speed data roaming in hundreds of countries. The definition of ‘high speed’ varies, but in my experience in a few countries (Nicaragua, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) it is somewhere around the speed I’m used to in suburban San Francisco. I.e. totally fine, though I wouldn’t rely on it as my primary internet connection.
The main caveat: you need to use a Google branded phone (or a small selection of other fi-compatible phones). My favorite is the Google Pixel 2.
Yes, you’re going to become a green texter. Use Whatsapp, like the rest of the world.
Get a Charles Schwab debit card for zero transaction fees.
Wherever you travel, you’re going to need to take money out of ATMs to get cash. This is regardless of whether you’re in a relatively cashless society (like China or Sweden), or moving to a place that requires cash in a lot of situations (like Germany, Portugal or most of Latin America or Africa).
The vast majority of debit cards charge you fees twice: once from your bank, and once by the foreign ATM. This adds up to $4-6 per transaction.
A small number of credit cards waive the international withdrawal fee. However, you’ll still pay the foreign ATM charge.
The Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking card, not really one of their most prominent products but definitely one of the most useful to the traveller, is amazing in that it reimburses foreign ATM transaction fees! This means you pay ZERO per foreign ATM withdrawal – just the amount for currency conversion.
If you’re not from the US, there are a number of other options.
In Australia, the 28 Degrees Mastercard has no currency conversion fees and even gives free Boingo WiFi access (pretty good in the USA, and worth a $10/month membership fee).
Make sure your electrical devices will work and pack the right adapters
You need to ensure
- Your electrical devices are universal voltage (100-240V), and
- You have the right plug adapters.
Some people don’t realize that even with a plug adapter, you’re SOL if your device doesn’t work with an international voltage.
For example, electric toothbrush chargers are often rated at 220-240V, or 100-120V. Other similar culprits are hair dryers and electric hair curlers. Check the voltages first.
For plug adapters, you have to make sure you have seven to cover the world. No universal adapter will cover all of these in a fail-safe way (they all feel finicky), so I’d advise you to get something like this, a universal adapter set that covers you everywhere and gives you multiple ports per plug. If you like, take a power strip with you too, so you have more plugs for your loved one(s).