International Moving

How does an international move work?

Process- International Moving

Many people have a vague understanding of the long and complex process that their belongings go through once their items leave their door. This is because virtually almost every step of the moving process is organized for those who are relocating.

Understanding this process and its many key particpants is a very smart and proactive thing to do if you are moving your life abroad or even if your just shipping a couple of boxes. Even more importantly, it clues you in on why exactly some quotes from moving companies may vary amongst each other.

Below we have detailed several key people/companies that are involved in your international move and will provide helpful tips regarding some of them (even though you will most likely have direct contact with only one or two and no contact with the others).

1. The Shipper – That’s You 

You are the shipper/exporter who ships your belongings from an origin country. If you are already at your destination country but are still having your goods shipped to you then you are the importer.

As a person shipping in either form, you are responsible for adhering to rules and regulations for the shipment of all your items. In addition, you are responsible for any import duties, paperwork, and, most importantly, any charges that might arise in the event of some unusual occurrence like a port strike, a customs inspection, or an unusual delivery situation. Before having your belongings shipped make sure to know the rules and regulations of your destination country. Read our helpful article about what NOT to pack for your shipment.

2. The International Moving/Shipping Company (Move Management)

The International Moving/Shipping Company that you have chosen is responsible for managing multiple aspects of your move. They will oversee your shipment, give you the contract/agreement that you have to sign, and will be sending you your invoice for your international move. They are the main company you will be corresponding with the International Moving/Shipping Company in the event of any damages, updates on your shipment, details about your moving insurance, and about any general concerns regarding the shipping process.

Everyone else listed below who is involved with your shipment will most likely be subcontractors of the International Moving/Shipping Company. Many of these subcontractors have specific functions. However, we advise our relocators (that’s you!) to try choose international moving companies who perform some of these functions themselves. For example, try choose an international moving company that also functions as a freight forwarder, origin agent, or destination agent. We advise this because:

  • It simplifies communication amongst all parties handling your belongings
  • It centralizes responsibility to one party should anything go wrong with your move.
  • It can save you money. Since your international moving company might also function as a destination agent or freight forwarder, you won’t be charged with extra handling fees that you would have otherwise paid.

When you are in contact with several international moving companies, ask them how much of the moving process do they handle themselves. Do they also function as the freight forwarder, destination agent, origin agent, and consolidation warehouse?

Check out our video 7 tips on how to choose an international mover!”

7 tips on how to choose an international mover!

Movie about how to choose an international mover

3. The Origin Agent

This is a local company responsible for performing a visual survey of your move. This is where the company sends in a representative to quickly go through your house or apartment and takes notes of what is being moved. This gives a more accurate quote for your entire move. In addition, they are responsible for packing and loading your belongings for shipment.

4. The Freight Forwarder

Simply put, a freight forwarder is the company that arranges the importing and exporting of your belongings. They take care of every organization aspect of the importing and exporting. This includes shipping consolidation, cargo insurance, booking cargo space, preparation of shipping documents and much more. What they DON’T do is actually move your belongings (freight/cargo) itself.

The freight forwarder acts as an intermediary between the shipper and many transportation services. In many cases, the international moving/shipping company also acts as the freight forwarder. This is ideal for movers like you because freight forwarders have extensive knowledge on documentation requirements, efficient transport of cargo from and to various destinations, transportation costs, and local regulations. They also have established relationships with various transportation agencies which helps them negotiate better prices for a particular shipment.

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5. A Consolidating Warehouse

Your belongings will undoubtedly end up in a container for shipment. If your belongings are not big enough in volume to be considered a Full Container Load (FCL) they will not be exclusively shipped in one container. Rather, they will be consolidated and stored in a consolidating warehouse where they will join other Less than Container Load (LCL) cargo for eventual shipment. Once the volume of all these cargos combined (including yours) fill up an entire container, your goods are set to be shipped.

If all your belongings together considered LCL a shipment that can mean two things for you. First, you will have to potentially wait longer for the shipment of your belongings to arrive. This is because they will only be shipped when there is enough volume consolidated to create a FCL shipment. Sometimes certain consolidation warehouses don’t experience much traffic to create FCL shipments quickly. This means you will have to wait even longer. The second scenario is that you ship your belongings regardless of their volume in their own container. This means you will have to pay for the difference. That price difference will depend on many scenarios so its best to ask your international moving company about it.

Note: There is the possiblity that the company organizing your shipment does not consolidate at all and will, therfore, charge you the full price of a Full Container Load shipment.

To understand more about different freight options and specific information about shipping containers you can read our helpful article here.

6. The Export/Origin Port

Once your personal effects has been loaded into a container and sealed, then it is taken to the port to be loaded onto a shipping lines vessel for exporting. The port is called your Export Port,Origin Port, or Origin Port of Departure (OPD).

The important thing to know is whether the Origin Port Fees and Origin Terminal Handling Charges are included in your quote from the International Moving/Shipping Company. They will usually be listed as “Origin Port Fees” or “OTHC” (Origin Terminal Handling Charges). These fees are sometimes regulated, relatively low and a majority of the time are always included. Always double check with your international moving company to make sure.

7. The Ship Line

The Ship Line is basically the company that owns the ship transporting your belongings. It is in charge of issuing the “Master Bill of Lading”— a document that serves as a receipt for the transfer of a shipment and a summary of all contents that were shipped.

Note: It’s a good idea to ask which ship line your belongings will be transported on so you can be sure your moving costs were quoted on actual rates, and to ensure you can track your belongings online.

Ship Lines move everything from house hold goods to commercial cargo and automobiles to military equipment. Needless to say, they play integral roles for the world economy. Because of this, Ship Lines have certain privilleges   and exemption rights which are important to keep in mind as they may apply directly to you the shipper.

  • If there are damages to your belongings during transit or if there are any damages to your belongings because of late arrival of the shipment, Ship Lines may not responsible to compensate you for these damages
  • Like airlines, Ship Lines have the right to overbook your cargo to the next available ship. Should this happen, you must pay for the additional costs.
  • If the ship is in danger of sinking due to damage, the Ship Line has the right to throw your cargo overbboard and is not liable for the losses associated with that.
  • If the destination port of your cargo has become unavailable due to an employee strike, war, or other uncontrollable event, it can declare what’s called “End of Voyage”. Should this happen you must pay for the corresponding costs.
  • Mandatory changes in routes, schedules, or almost anything come with it additional costs. You may be required to pay for these costs
  • Ship Lines have to be paid for their services before any release of cargo.

All that said, don’t be discouraged by the prospect of any of these events as they are, in most instances, rare. What’s more, you can confirm the occurance of any of these events through the Ship Line Bill or by asking the Ship Line directly. The most sound advise regarding this matter is to insure the safe arrival of your belongings. You can read our helpful article on everything you NEED to know about insurance here.

    A Ship Line can also be the “Container Line”. For all intensive purposes, however, you don’t need to make the distinction.

8. The Destination Port

This is where you goods will be unloaded and go through one final check at customs. The processes at the destination port involves lots of coordination, sometimes manual labor, and yes, paper work. Nevertheless, you won’t have to deal with any of that. You will, however, be paying a certain amount to customs usually called “Destination Port Fees” and “Destination Terminal Handling Charges”.

Note: It is very important to know that these very fees and charges mentioned SHOULD be included –or at least noted that they will be in included– in your price quote. When in doubt, ask your international moving company if their quote includes this or not. Also noteworthy is that these specific Destination Port Fees are to be paid in the currency of the destination country.

There are the rare cases where you simply can’t see these fees in advance (this is common for third-world countries). If this applies to you one useful tip is to contact a international shipping company at the destination country and see if they can clarify what kind of fees to expect. You can also maybe organize your shipment through that company. In the event you can’t find all this information beforehand, expect Destination Port Fees within a range of $1,000-$2,000 (US) which applies to any size shipment.

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9. The Customs Warehouse

This is where your belongings will be stored until you clear them with customs. The most important point here is that how these items are cleared varies with every country. In some countries you will have to be present when your belongings arrive, while in other countries an entire container can be cleared through customs at once (even if there were numerous shipments in that one container). Find out through your international moving company which process applies to you and then plan accordingly. The last thing you want to happen is to be hit with extra fees because you did not plan this well.

10. The Destination Agent

The company that deals with all the processes your belongings have to go through at the destination country. This includes clearing customs, other port-related activities, and of course the delivery of your belongings to your door. It is routine for people to use the international moving company of origin country to arrange their entire move. If the country you are moving to has unclear laws and regulations for personal imports, or if it is a country that speaks your native language, then using the destination agent to arrange your entire move might make sense.

If you are having an international moving company from country of origin arrange your move it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with the destination agent that they might be collaborating with as the destination agent might know more about local restrictions and regulations, import taxes, and exemptions. For example they might know that your destination country has standard elevator sizes that will make it difficult to accomodate some of the over-sized items you bought in your origin country.


We hope this article has shed some light on the international shipping process for our relocators. If you are moving soon or are interested in getting an early start to organizing your relocation abroad, the best thing to do is get quotes on your move. Getting quotes is the fastest and most simple way to get an idea of what your moving costs would be as you would be getting quotes from real international moving companies. The best part? It’s free.

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