Preparing for an international move: Knowing which household goods and personal effects can be legally and safely shipped will result in a successful move

March 21, 2018

When expats move from one country to another, some have a tendency to get attached to their possessions and bring local products with them for personal use or to share with new acquaintances. Most expats are generally aware that they cannot ship weapons, firearms, and drugs. However, what they may not be aware of is that depending on the country they are moving to, shipping some household possessions and personal effects could result in customs clearance problems, delays, and duties—even though they are for personal use in lieu of commercial.

Household possessions and personal effects, also known as removal goods, are generally used, owned by the expat for a length of time, and in reasonable quantities. In other words, the item does not appear like it will be sold after being imported or according to international laws, tariffs would apply. This is why some countries require you to maintain whatever you brought with you for a certain period of time. For example, Germany FIDI regulations state that the imported goods should “stay in the possession of the owner for at least 12 months” whether it’s new or old (Germany, 1). As for other countries like the USA, there are no duties if the item was owned for more than one year (USA, 1). For the most part, most companies recommend owning the household possessions and personal effects for a reasonable time period and in reasonable quantities.

Another aspect expats should be aware of is the mode of shipment. Some items that can be shipped by sea cannot be shipped by air and vice versa. For example, in China, you cannot export cosmetics and personal hygiene items by air, but it is perfectly legal to ship them by sea.

This article will discuss common internationally-prohibited items and household possessions and personal effects that have a history of being problematic — even though they aren’t necessarily prohibited. More comprehensive details can be found in published FIDI regulations.

Internationally Restricted Items:

As a general rule of thumb, you should always avoid shipping the below listed products (no matter the mode of transport):

  • Aerosol products
  • Combustibles and explosive items
  • Dangerous cargo (flammable items, matches, candles, etc.)
  • Weapons (firearms, guns (including toys), ammunition, knives (except kitchenware), etc.)
  • Corrosives items (bleach, acid, etc.)
  • Live plants (fresh fruit, including seeds, etc.)
  • Telecommunication equipment (walkie-talkies, transmitters, etc.)
  • Pirated products, politically sensitive books and audio (depending on the country), and pornographic material (sometimes even in the form of art)
  • Precious goods (currency, silver coins, jewelry, etc.)

Exceptions of products you can import only by sea:

  • Liquid cosmetics (lip gloss, perfume, face cream, etc.)
  • Hygienic products (shampoo, toothpaste, wet tissues, etc.)
  • Some chemical-based items (ink pens, crayons, paints, etc.)
  • Some magnetic products (computers, cell phones, fridge magnets, etc.)
  • General liquid products if not prohibited

Household possessions and personal effects that may present import/export problems:

Customs in every country considers importation a privilege, not a right and laws vary by country. However, some items are more likely to draw the attention of customs officials and may result in unnecessary delays, confiscation, or additional duties if included in an international shipment. Below are some common examples of articles that pose potential problems:

  • Clothes and shoes – When shipped by sea, these items may be exposed to extreme temperatures resulting in mold damage.
  • Dissembled furniture – When furniture is dissembled for shipping, there’s the potential for loss of components. All loose pieces should be placed in a parts bag and clearly labeled. In addition, a third party service or handyman may be required at destination to reassemble the furniture at an additional cost.
  • Furniture with glass doors or shelves – These items can be easily damaged during international transportation and requires the mover to construct customized wooden crates to safely ship the item. Additional charges will apply for crating services.
  • New household possessions and personal effects – Items owned less than one year may incur applicable duties at destination.
  • Books, CDs, instruments, etc. – There may be a limit on the quantity depending on the destination country.
  • Products of extra-ordinary value – Items of high value need to be declared and insured.
  • Toys – Some toys are banned in certain countries e.g. stuffed animal importation to Japan (Japan, 5).
  • Hover boards – Prohibited by most moving companies due to unexpected explosions.

Questionable Household Products:

Most moving companies recommend their clients avoid or at the very least, contact his or her agent, prior to shipping alcohol, tobacco, food, vehicles, pets, unusual quanties of medications, etc., in addition to the internationally prohibited items. Every country has its own policies regarding these goods; however, we will discuss general trends observed using certain countries as examples.

Alcohol and Wine:

Alcohol and wine are on the top of the un-recommended removal items. First, it is illegal to ship liquids by air. The only possible option to ship alcohol is by sea with limitations depending on the destination country. If the customer decides to ship alcohol, they will be made aware that there is always a risk of the bottles breaking—no matter how well they are packed. In addition, wine has the potential of spoiling when subjected to extreme temperatures. Customers may also experience an odor of alcohol on other items included in the container upon delivery.

Depending on the country, different laws apply to the shipment of alcohol. Some countries allow you to ship it to certain cities; others will allow shipment in restricted amounts with applicable duties like Germany (Germany, 2). United Kingdom’s FIDI regulations state that there is “typically 10-20% duty to be added to the value and then 20% VAT on the combined value” (UK, 2). In the case of China, alcohol and wine are prohibited to be imported by air or sea to most cities except for Shanghai and Nanjing. Currently, only four (4) bottles of alcohol can be shipped to Shanghai with possible duties (60%) (China, 6); however, it should be noted that China Customs frequently changes its applicable policies with regards to the import/export of alcohol to Shanghai and Nanjing and should therefore be avoided. Moreover, some countries prohibit the import/export of alcohol completely like the United Arab Emirates (UAE, 3). Either way, it’s recommended that you contact your agent in advance to learn the restrictions and regulations for your destination country. The easier and cheaper option may be buying alcohol or wine upon arrival.


The same recommendations for alcohol apply to tobacco products. The shipper may be required to pay duties on tobacco, and it is always preferred that the items be hand carried into the destination country. However, some countries have more lenient laws towards the importation of tobacco products and allow the items to be shipped by air and/or sea. A trained international move coordinator will be able to advise you of applicable customs regulations for the importation of tobacco. For example, in Japan “if declared, 400 cigarettes and 100 cigars” are allowed free of duty. The “combined weight” cannot “exceed 500 grams” (Japan, 5).


In most countries, there is a possibility of importing certain foods and in certain quantities with duties that may apply. In China, for example, food may only be imported by sea and in quantities of less than 0.5 kg per kind of food with 15% applicable duties. Forbidden food includes pet food, milk-, meat-, and fish-related products, beans, etc.

Although some countries allow the importation of food products, customers are discouraged from doing so because a shipment is usually subjected to a full inspection when food is involved. Immigration takes the importation of food, toys, and other products very seriously to ensure they meet the country’s standards. Inspection of food may cause lengthy delays and result in the entire shipment being quarantined. Additionally, food tends to spoil quickly when not preserved in the right environment and expires easily. Similar to China, most countries don’t allow importation of food products like meat, milk, eggs, fruit, seeds, perishables, and fresh produce.

Vehicles, boats, and motorcycles

Usually, if a vehicle meets a country’s specifications, then it can be shipped to that specific country. Customs officials may inspect the condition of the car, the car’s age, the amount of pollution it emits, and the position of the driver’s seat. However, even if it meets the requirements, duties may still need to be paid. There are also countries where importing a car is very complicated—even when it meets the country’s requirements. Because of the complexities involved, most customers prefer to sell their cars and buy a new one upon arrival.

Medicine and Recreational Drugs

It is usually legal to import medication given that it’s in a reasonable quantity, prescribed (OTC), and for personal use. It’s highly recommended that customers inquire on the most recent laws and regulations of the destination country prior to shipping medications. A kind reminder is that certain medication, if not stored in the correct environment, could become infective or unhealthy. Liquid medication might also spill and cause damage to other items in the shipment.

The importation of drugs is banned completely—even for countries that have legalized the use of certain recreational drugs.


Sherry Wang, Global Business Development Manager, Arpin International Group – China

Zineb El Bardai, Intern, Student of Boston University, USA

Works Cited:

FIDI Global Alliance. FIDI Customs Regulation China. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.

—. FIDI Customs Regulation Germany. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.

—. FIDI Customs Regulation Japan. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.

—. FIDI Customs Regulation United Arab Emirates. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.

—. FIDI Customs Regulation United Kingdom. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.

—. FIDI Customs Regulation United States of America. Place of Publication: FIDI Global Assistance, March 2016. PDF.