International house move with 4 children: the guide

Unless you have money to burn, there is an unfortunate truth about moving internationally that I tried to avoid for some time: you will be without any of your stuff for (at best) 6+ weeks whilst it rocks along over the seas on the back of a big ship. Whatever you do don’t google the shipping company that went bust and who were left bobbing around in the water with nowhere to dock and offload.

Don’t google this

In the days of amazon prime and ocado next day delivery I simply couldn’t believe it was true! Surely there was a new trendy dotcom or app that sped up this archaic process? NOTHING takes 6 weeks anymore apart from ordering expensive bespoke sofas and that’s only so you can spend the 6 weeks boring your friends talking about your new sofa that is being delivered in 6 weeks while you quietly panic that it won’t fit through the front door or will look totally shit and require an entire new living room.

Anyway. International house moves take 6 weeks.

Ours actually took 8 weeks, from the UK to Vancouver island, all our worldly possessions wending their way across the water to Montreal and then on a train across Canada to Vancouver, followed by truck&ferry to Vancouver island.

So you will have nothing for 8 weeks. Nothing! No sofas, beds, cutlery – no piles of lego and playmobil to distract your 4 children while you lie on the sofa.

‘It will be an adventure – like camping !’ Says your husband breezily while you ponder how to make the children a fish pie if you have no cutlery. How do I mash potatoes? Or even have a bath? Do we keep towels and bath mats?

My number one tip – and we did not do this – is to pack everything up, go and live with your mum for 6 weeks, and then move when all your things have arrived at their destination (preferably already unpacked by someone else).

If that isn’t an option, then go on a series of seriously expensive holidays while your things drift over to the destination (we did not do this either).

If this is also not an option – and I’m thinking for cost reasons but also the idea that you want to keep the disruption to your lives /children to a minimum- then here is your guide to surviving the whole dirty process. It’ll be an adventure!

1. Get a few assessment quotes from removals men, who will come to your house and look at all your things to guess what size container you need. Believe them all when they say they are the best option. This is a competitive industry and you will have people beating a path to your door to win the contract.

2. Choose the company that was quoted in an article by The Telegraph about international house moves because your grandpa used to read the Telegraph so they must be pretty reliable right? (For disclosure – we used robinsons removals )

3. Spend a few weeks compiling mental lists about what you need to survive the weeks while your husband says things like ‘all we need is a couple of plates and forks’ that make you think murderous thoughts. Write a number of half lists on your phone at 3am while breastfeeding your NEW BABY because you are silly enough to be undertaking this move with a 7 week old baby. An actual helpful list coming very soon.

4. Timing: Canada has a rule that you must be in-country to meet your belongings, so we timed our move to be shipped 4 weeks before we flew over, with the intention that we’d only have 0-2 weeks awaiting our things. Companies can give you an estimate about timings on the move – our estimate was 4-6 weeks – but this is not finalised until the ships actually sail.

5. Make sure that you will have something to sleep on at your departure address and also at the destination. In our case, we kept the 2 old and pretty knackered double/king mattresses at our old house and slept on the mattresses on the floor. Then I ordered mattresses online to be delivered to our destination address the week before we arrived, so that we could sleep on mattresses on the floor there too, while we waited for our bed frames to arrive. Ditto duvets – we kept old duvets in our departure address and ordered some to be delivered at the destination with the mattresses before we arrived (don’t forget duvet covers and pillows).

6. In your kitchen: move all food stuffs that you will want – and that you don’t want to be packed – into two or three cupboards. I’m talking about all the spices and oils and tins etc. In the rest of your house: move everything that you don’t want packed into a huge pile in your bathroom (check my soon-to-be-published list of essentials to pack and keep and don’t forget shoes – i nearly spent 6 weeks wearing a pair of new look ballet slippers that i keep by the door to go out to the bins). Move everything out of the bathroom that you want to take – i am talking about the bathroom scales and nice big expensive baskets, laundry hampers etc.

7. Order some coloured sticky dot stickers (big ones) from Amazon prime. At least some things are delivered in 24 hours. Put red dots on everything you don’t want to be moved. This is really an essential step – the removals guys work fast and it is impossible to stand around telling them what you do and don’t want to take (plus I think it would really wind them up and mostly you just want them to like you and look after your things). They don’t even look at what they’re packing, so if it doesn’t have a red dot, it’s getting packed – which is why my cling wrap and foil were packed, along with all sorts of useful items like an empty lucozade bottle. A friend had their entire recycling bin from Hong Kong delivered to them in the US when they moved and had forgotten to label the recycling bin as not to be shipped.

8.Take the children out of the house while everything is packed up.

9. Spend the first two weeks with no possessions telling everyone that really it is such an adventure! Feel smug! It is just an extreme version of KonMari and you feel so liberated by having limited possessions. There’s less tidying and it is quicker to get dressed when you are living out of an actual capsule suitcase instead of hunting through twenty similar black tops! In fact who needs toys anyway! Children are way more imaginative when they only have a couple of little things to entertain them. 

Actually, this part really has some truth and since our move I have had a huge declutter (might have been better to do that before packing everything and paying to move it) and we live with less in circulation before – the house is tidier and easier to live in as a result.

10. Spend the next six weeks desperately refreshing the ship tracker app to see whether it has got any further than Belgium yet. Actually, I tried not to pester the company about where our things were for the first week or two as I didn’t want to seem like a difficult client but in hindsight this is something I would do very differently – i.e., I would be a bit bolder about pestering in the first instance. Our container got stalled somewhere in Europe and wasn’t loaded onto the transatlantic leg of the journey as fast as it should have been – this was one of those things that only really got discovered once I started asking exactly where our container was, whether we could track it, etc. – so perhaps we would have saved ourselves a fortnight of empty house at our destination if I had been less worried about irritating someone with a phone call.

11. Your things arrive! Feel unbelievably happy and shamefully materialistic. Forget all the horrors of the previous 8 weeks. Enjoy sleeping off the floor like never before.

Really never been so happy to see a lorry

In summary: stick coloured red dots on things you don’t want to be in a container for 6 weeks! And pester the company until they have confirmed that the container is on the ship, for REAL!

And that is my 11 step guide to an international house move. Wondering what you will need to keep and what to ship? How to manage the 4-6 (8) week period with 4 children but no furniture or belongings? Helpful guide coming soon…

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