One of the most frequent question we get when we tell people that we’re driving around the world is “How do you get the car from one continent to another?”

The answer is simple – by ship! There are hundreds of thousands of brand new cars and overland traveller vehicles being shipped around the globe at this very moment, however finding information on how to do it is VERY difficult to come across (especially if you’re not a big car manufacturer or importer).

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This is a post about our experience shipping our van from Sydney, Australia to Seattle, USA and how we dealt with all the requirements, documentation and actual shipping. We hope it can be helpful to others out there who are looking to do the same thing.

Methods to ship a vehicle

There are many different ways you can ship your vehicle on a large vessel. They vary in price and in how secure your vehicle will be while it’s onboard.

By container

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A kombi being shipped by container.

Putting your car in a container is the most secure way to ship any vehicle – it is also generally the most expensive. Basically you’ll drive your car into the container and chain it tightly down. The container will then be locked with a numbered lock and craned onto a container ship where it will be secure and where your car won’t be exposed to the elements or to theft.

Although it’s quite pricey, there’s the option of sharing a container with someone else (as a 40 foot container can fit two vehicles in it). If you can find someone else looking at shipping belongings or another car to a similar area and around the same time then you’ve hit the jackpot! Although it may seem unlikely, by communicating to other overlanders through online forums such as Overland Sphere, you may indeed find someone to share a container with.

Roll on, roll off (RORO)

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Cars lining up ready to be shipped RORO.

This is when you leave your car at the port and someone will literally drive it onboard the ship for you. The car will be parked and tied down under the ship’s deck, so it will be secure from the weather above. The downside is that the car will be open at all times and any port workers or sailers may have access to it during the shipment process.

Most cars will not be accepted to board the ship if they contain any personal belongings, however campers are an exception to this rule (cooking, sleeping and some personal belongings may remain in the car). Unfortunately it’s quite frequent for things to go missing during RORO shipments.

Crane (or beak bulk)

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A truck being craned onto a ship – break bulk shipping.

This is the cheapest method of shipment, and therefore is the least secure. Your car will be directly craned onto the deck of the ship with no container or cover. This means it’ll be exposed to both the ocean spray/weather and opportunistic theft. Damage caused to the vehicle while hoisting can also be a possibility.

Ferry

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A car ferry in Turkey.

A lot of smaller sea or lake crossings can be made in ferries, such as from Korea to Japan or Spain to Morocco. Usually you’ll just drive your car onboard yourself and accompany your vehicle on the same ferry.

Finding a reasonable quote from a shipping agency

This process can take a while. We started researching our car’s shipment a year in advance, however you’ll only ever be able to get an accurate quote a couple of months prior to shipment. When looking to get the best price on shipping make sure you shop around first – Google your heart out and contact as many international shipping companies you can find. It also helps to be flexible in shipment dates, shipping methods and ports of departure/arrival – for example we found it to be significantly cheaper to ship our car to Seattle, USA instead of our original plan to ship to Vancouver, Canada. The two cities are only a couple of hundred kms apart so in the end it was more beneficial shipping into the US.

Some helpful links for international shipping companies:

Overall costs: US$ 2403.50

After a lot of research and communication with different shipping companies we decided to ship with Ever Global International for the price of US $1,250. This was the best price we found by far – but keep in mind when you’re receiving quotes that they will not include any port charges at either end, cleaning or customs fees. These can all add up quite fast.

Below you’ll find the full break down of every single expense we had when shipping our car:

Total costs Australia end : AU$ 2499.01  (US$ 1903.50)

 Total costs USA end: US $500.00

Documentation needed to ship your vehicle

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Carnet de passage for an Estonian vehicle entering Sudan in 2011.

Depending on which country you plan to ship you vehicle to, you’ll need a variety of different documents on hand to make everything run smoothly. Some countries also require a bond to be paid (which you’ll receive back once you leave the country) and/or a carnet de passage (think of it as your vehicle’s passport) which you can purchase from your home country’s official motoring organisation.

Useful paperwork to have:

If you’ve got all these documents in order you’ll find that the shipping process is actually easier than you expect. The shipping company you employ will guide you through the process from here on.

Cleaning your vehicle

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Pressure washing the underbody of our van before shipment.

Making sure your car is clean before you ship it is extremely important. When your vehicle/shipping container arrives at it’s destination, it will most likely be inspected for particles of dirt, leaves or any organic matter. If your vehicle doesn’t pass this inspection you may be refused entry into the country or made to pay for fumigation and professional cleaning costs (which can get quite pricey).

Each country varies in how strict it inspects and enforces this rule. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada are super picky with vehicle cleanliness so take extra care when preparing your vehicle for shipping to these countries.

Cleaning the underbody, engine bay and exterior of your vehicle

We spent a good three and a half days cleaning the inside and outside of our van to make sure we wouldn’t be charged for cleaning or fumigation when we arrived in the US. We found that using degreaser, stiff scrubbing brushes and a pressure cleaner worked well for cleaning the underbody and engine bay. We spray painted any stubborn engrained dirt marks to make sure we’d pass the inspection (some engrained dirt just never comes off no matter how hard or long you scrub)!

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Cleaning the van’s interior and all personal items for shipment.

Cleaning the interior of your vehicle

When cleaning the inside of your car start from the roof down. Take special car to clean around air vents (dust can enter here), behind seats or fittings and in every nook and cranny. We used a dust-pan and broom and wet cloth to clean the roof, walls and dash, scrubbing brushes to remove dirt from storage areas and a super-high suctioning vacuum for the floors, seats and carpets.

Thankfully all the hard work paid off once we reached the US – we didn’t have to pay a cent for cleaning or fumigation.

Dropping your vehicle at the port

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Alex dressed in high-visibility wear, about to drive our van into the shipyards at Wollongong Port, near Sydney.

This process will vary depending on if you ship by container, RORO or by crane. We’ll explain the process for shipping RORO as we’ve only had experience with this (so far).

Before you get to the port to ship your vehicle by roll on, roll off make sure you do not have ANY valuables in your car, and that if you are shipping some of your personal effects you write a contents list for the record.  Although we took special care not to leave anything too valuable in our van, a heap of items were stolen during it’s 45 day shipping schedule.

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Our car was ransacked en route to the US and many things went missing.

We noticed that even things with hardly any value were taken, so be aware of the risks when leaving the following items in your vehicle – tools, electronic equipment (even haircutters and blenders), quality pots/pans, cooking utensils, torches, medicine, car jumper leads, card/board games, nice looking containers, costume/fake jewellery and sporting equipment. We had all of the above, plus more, stolen from our car.

You may be required to pay for and undergo a training/induction session in order to drive your car onto the port area when you’re ready for shipping. Once you’re educated on all the safety and rules you’ll be asked to drive your car into the queue of car’s waiting to be shipped. Once this is done you’ll give the keys to the shipping company and leave the rest to them.

They’ll inspect, measure and weigh the vehicle before driving it onto the ship themselves. Cross your fingers and put your entire faith in the shipping company, as you won’t see your vehicle until you’re on another continent!

Tracking your vehicle during shipment

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A screen shot of the tracker we used to follow our ship, the Parsifal, bound for Port Tacoma, near Seattle.

These days all large vessel have satellite tracking system onboard and their locations is made public online. So as long as you know the ship’s name your vehicle is aboard, you should can track it online. Also, most carriers offer updated schedule and tracking information on their websites.

We used www.marinetraffic.com to track the van as she was shipped through South East Asia towards her destination near Seattle.

Hiring a shipping agent to help with arrival documentation on the other end

Although we had thoroughly researched the process of temporarily importing a vehicle into the US and were confident to complete all the required paperwork to do so ourselves, we were forced to hire an agent for two key reasons.

One; we needed an official escort to take us onto the port in Tacoma, and two; all the documentation we had already completed needed to be filed through a computer system that isn’t available to the public. This was frustrating but unfortunately necessary. We ended up hiring Gwen from Sound Brokerage International in Tacoma who was able to do the above two formalities for us for a fair price.

Depending on the country you’re shipping to, you may be able to skip this step and do all the documentation yourselves. However, any mistake can be extremely costly and we strongly recommend getting help from experienced agents. Especially in countries like India, Brazil or places you don’t speak the language.

Clearing customs on the other end

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Our joy and relief to be back with our van again, this time on the other side of the world.

You’ll have plenty of time to make it to the port of arrival yourselves before your vehicle does. It took 45 days for our van to be shipped from Sydney to Seattle and we took the opportunity to do some backpacking through Asia while we waited. US customs required us to be in the country before the van arrived in Seattle, so we booked our flights for a couple of days before the ship’s scheduled arrival.

The ship arrived three days late and then it took another three days for the Port and Customs processes to be completed before we could pick up our vehicle. Be prepared for these delays as they are quite common.

When we finally got permission to pick the van up, it was a super simple process. We signed a whole pile of paperwork, were driven onto the port and finally watched on with glee as our van was driven towards us by some port workers.

Arriving and driving in another country

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Some countries require all vehicles to carry certain items when on the road (eg. emergency warning triangles, fire extinguisher or snow chains), so be aware of this before you start driving and make sure you’re prepared. It can also be useful to carry an International Driver’s License with you (basically just a translation of your original licence), especially if driving in countries where police can’t read English.

We made sure we had anti-freeze coolant, snow chains and compulsory insurance before we started driving in the US during fall/winter. It also took us a couple of days to get used to driving a right-hand-drive car on the other side of the road to what we were used to.

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Our first night in the van in the United States of America!

So far the transition has been very smooth and easy for us as we’ve driven through North America. Shipping our van turned out to be a little cheaper and a LOT easier than we ever expected it to be. If you’re considering doing something similar yourself don’t be scared off by the amount of work involved – its definitely worth it in the end!

 

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