After the tickets are bought and the bags are packed, families leaving Beijing will be bracing themselves for more than just a plane ride. It will also be an emotional rollercoaster of nostalgia, sadness, nervousness, and excitement.
Ed and Mandy Barlow began the process of relocating from Beijing to Shanghai in 2011 with their 9-month-old daughter, Penny. As they packed their boxes, they realized the bigger chore would be finding a company to ship it all. “It would be good to have a list of top-rated moving companies so that you don’t need to do the research [them]yourself,” says Mandy. In the end, they decided to go with Santa Fe.
“They were useful and transparent,” says Ed. “We have since moved apartments using a local company that, despite promising us that their quote was all-inclusive, sprung several additional charges for things like taking the sofas up the stairs. Santa Fe and similar companies won’t pull that.”
Some families decide they don’t need a moving company at all. Mike and Sarah Fortino first moved to Beijing last August to work as high school teachers at an international school. However, their belongings arrived six months late. “We were eating with plastic utensils and dishes for months, thinking our things would soon arrive and not wanting to buy a bunch of new stuff,” says Mike.
The year before, the Fortinos had worked at an international school in Italy that had paid for two shipments of belongings when they moved there. Assuming they would also be granted two shipments when they left, Mike and Sarah sent one shipment to their family in the US and the other to Beijing for the coming school year.
However, the school in Italy ended up covering only one of the shipments and Bolliger, the relocation company, did not inform the couple that they would be stuck with the bill. As a result, their belongings sat in Italy well past the Fortinos’ arrival in Beijing.
Sarah was especially upset that Catherine, their baby girl, had no toys or books to play with because of the delay. By November, they were freezing; the shipment contained all their winter clothes. It was spring by the time it finally arrived. To make matters worse, the Fortinos had to pay duty on all the items they received because their employer only offered them a 364-day visa rather than the full year visa required to avoid such costs. In all, they paid an extra RMB 4,000 for items that they didn’t end up using because they were already out-of-season.
To avoid a repeat of this incident, the Fortinos – who are moving to Vietnam after the end of the current school year – decided to forgo shipping altogether in favor of freight and paying excess baggage fees with their airline.
“It will be quite a bit pricier, but the peace of mind is worth the added expense,” says Mike. “It’ll just be like checked baggage; all we’ll have to do it pick it up.”
Granted, the Fortinos’ situation is not typical; many families may feel the cost of paying freight is too steep. Luckily, there are many options for the latter group.
Many families decide to use a relocation company, distinct from a moving company which doesn’t have such a comprehensive range of services. Typically, a relocation company aims to help customers make a smooth transition, whether that’s packing boxes, helping them find an apartment, or showing them around their new neighborhood.
Joseph Pellicano, relocation services manager for Santa Fe Relocation Services’ Beijing office, says that one of the greatest challenges that expats face is getting the full security deposit back from their landlord and then getting the money out of China.
“With a currency exchange limit of USD 500 per day for non-Chinese nationals, receiving a one-month, two-month, or in some cases three-month security deposit refund in cash means you may be left with a huge amount of money in hand and no way to get it out of the country in the time you have left before departing from Beijing,” he explains.
Advance planning is key. Pellicano says there are some situations where the USD 500 limit can be waived; it’s worth checking with both your employer and your bank. Reducing the amount of money you need to take out of the country can also help.
“Before terminating the lease, try to negotiate with your landlord to have part of your security deposit offset by a final rental payment,” says Pellicano. “The landlord may not accept to use the whole deposit this way, but even a partial offset will lessen the amount that needs to be recovered, also in turn reducing the risk of the landlord not paying it back.”
Making sure that the apartment is clean and tidy goes a long way towards getting your deposit back, specifies account manager Faiszal Taib. “Santa Fe usually does an inspection with the landlord present before we begin shipping items out of homes. Prior to that, we also ask that clients check if there is any damage to the property and suggest that they make repairs themselves, otherwise the landlord could seek compensation that might be higher than the cost of the family fixing it themselves.”
Nassim Bouguettaya is the corporate services manager in Beijing for Asian Tigers Mobility, a popular relocation company. He agrees that most of the hard work happens in the planning stages.
“The most useful thing a family can do is to organize in advance what they want to ship and what they want to carry in their own luggage,” he says. While this may seem like common sense, he says that the number of families who don’t take such measures is much higher than you expect.
By Air or By Sea
Many people don’t consider which items they’ll need quickly and which ones they can wait for – or which items are even allowed to be shipped by air. For instance, bulky items such as furniture must be shipped by sea, which takes weeks. Air shipments are best-suited to necessities like clothes and books, but families often try to cram items like soaps, plants, fruits, and electronics, which are not allowed to be shipped by air.
Being aware of these limitations beforehand can make the shipment process faster and prevent disappointment. “Essentially, air shipping is good for the items that you need to arrive quickly and shipping by sea is best for the bigger things that you can wait for,” says Bouguettaya.
Relocation companies often handle most moving details like visas and customs clearance to put their clients at ease. But if those clients do some of the aforementioned legwork beforehand, the process can begin more smoothly.
Of course, one way to simplify the process is to donate some of your belongings. That’s what Mark Thirlwall realized when he moved to Sydney with his family. “We used Asian Tigers and they were excellent,” he says. “[But they] moved way too much stuff. My advice is to give it all away to a good cause before you leave China.”
Before the move:
• Notify your landlord if you’re planning to terminate your lease and follow the terms of lease termination outlined in your contract. Most leases should have a clause clarifying the property handover and the ending of the lease. It’s best to issue a written notification and send it to the landlord by courier to ensure it’s received.
• If relocating pets, familiarize yourself with the destination country’s requirements well in advance. Pet bloodwork, chipping and vaccination boosters may need several months planning prior to your final move.
• Check your house or apartment for damage and make repairs as best you can. A good cleaning can also go a long way to ensuring a smooth deposit recovery.
• Start looking into ways to move currency out of the country. As there are strict laws concerning currency exchange, it is worth thinking and planning for this in advance.
• If you’ll be shipping goods by air, familiarize yourself with the customs regulations for your destination country, as there may be strict rules governing what can or cannot be imported via air. Your moving services provider should have this information available.
• Decide exactly what you want to ship, and what you want to bring in your luggage.
• Double-check which items you’re allowed to ship by air or by sea. For example, books and clothes can be shipping by air while food and plants can only be shipped by sea. Nothing corrosive, explosive, or containing other dangerous chemicals can shipped by air. These items must be shipped by sea and include detergents, candles, and soaps. Batteries are not permitted in air shipments and must be removed. Take electronics in your luggage rather than removing the batteries and sending them by air.
• Decide on a moving or relocation company by determining your budget and needs. For example, do you need a no-frills moving company to just ship the boxes or a full-service relocation company like Asian Tigers or Santa Fe to help you find a place to live and familiarize yourself with your neighborhood?
• Identify your other needs. Expat Blog, a popular online forum, suggests taking out insurance on shipments: “Zero risk does not exist. Loss and damage luggage insurance is highly recommended. Nearly all shipping companies can handle this service.”
During the move:
Your moving company should be able to handle these details, including paperwork for customs clearance. However, be sure to take down the tracking number and contact information of your shipping company so you can easily check on your items.
After the move:
• Decide how you want to retrieve your shipment. Do you want to pick up your items yourself or are you willing to spend a little more to have your shipment sent to your front door?
• Will you need help settling into your new environment? Many employers offer such services, but if not some relocation companies can help fill the void.
Photos courtesy of Mark Thirlwall & Ed Barlow