August 26, 2016

Shipping Books Internationally

I have now arrived at my new position in Ireland, and am pleased to report that my books have also arrived more-or-less unscathed. I expended a good deal of time and energy over the summer figuring out how best to transport my books. In the end, the actual process of shipping them was not very difficult or frustrating; it was the lack of any good information on how to go about it that was the problem. Hence, this blog post.

First, people may advise you to ship books by a freight service since they are so heavy. Generally, this only makes sense if you are shipping a truly enormous number of books (more than a typical professor's office), or if you are shipping a lot of household goods (or one or more pieces of furniture) along with the books. If you are VERY patient, Seven Seas, which markets itself for handling 'excess baggage' for study abroad students, etc., (rather than as a typical moving company) might be a little cheaper than the option outlined below, but it's only a little cheaper and it's a lot slower (up to 9 months!).

I had 240 pounds of books to ship (that was after heavy weeding of my library), and I determined that everything else I was taking could go in airline luggage. This situation is probably not unusual for junior academics. Most freight companies would not even respond to my request for a quotation and the one that did (Schumacher) quoted me nearly $3,000 - which, incidentally, is as much as what I was told should be the cost of moving the complete contents of a one bedroom apartment, including furniture! So that was clearly not going to work.

The correct solution is USPS Air Mail M-Bags, which is an international version of media mail. (Similar services exist for shipping from many other countries to the US.) With this option, you bring your pile of books to the post office and load them into large canvas/plastic mail bags which the post office will provide, with each bag weighing up to 65 pounds. It took less than two weeks for my books to ship from Minneapolis to Dublin this way, and it cost less than $1200. There are, however, a few tricks that are helpful to know.

First, the M-Bag regulations require that the items be separately packaged in packages each weighing no more than 4 pounds. (This is kind of a goofy regulation; I'm not sure what its purpose is.) The way to accomplish this is to order giant-sized poly bubble mailers in bulk (these ones worked well for me) and pack a few books into each mailer. I also printed address labels to put the shipping and return address on every package, just in case, but this technically shouldn't be required. When I did this, the clerk at the post office did not weigh my packages separately, but I would still recommend trying to keep to within four pounds. Also, don't overstuff the mailers; a couple of my books had badly damaged corners from poking through the mailer.

Second, you will need to fill out a customs form separately for each sack stating the contents. It is fine to write 'philosophy books' or whatever, but you will need to state the number of volumes in the sack. Since you are packing the sacks at the post office, you'll need to count as you go. For this reason, make sure to write on each package the number of volumes it contains.

Third, postal clerks may not know about M-Bags and small post offices may not have the sacks and forms you need. (The sacks are just regular mail sacks, but there are special tags you have to fill out with the address and the custom form that can't just be printed on a regular printer.) So you'll need to go to a large post office, and you may want to bring a print out of the regulations. (It couldn't hurt to use your web browser settings to put a timestamp on it; at least one postal clerk tried to tell me the program had been discontinued.) Also, if you ask they will generally let you roll a mail cart out to your car to fill up with your packages of books.

One thing to note: I had five sacks and all five of them arrived safely. However, there is no tracking or insurance available for M-Bags. They gave me a tracking number and told me that it would at least allow me to monitor their progress through customs clearance, but no updates ever appeared on the USPS web-site in connection with that. The UPS store had quoted me a price about $600 higher than USPS, and tracking and insurance would have been available, but I determined that I could replace the complete contents of one sack (with used copies) for no more than $600 so as long as they only lost one sack I'd still come out ahead. (And, as I said, they didn't lose any.) If you do try the UPS option, be sure to talk to a UPS store about the optimal way to pack the books in order to get the best shipping rate: UPS prices depend not only on the total weight but also the size, shape, and number of packages. The UPS store I spoke to was able to give me a quote that included purchasing ultra-heavy-duty boxes of just the right size for optimal shipping prices.

And that is what I learned on my summer 'vacation'.

Posted by Kenny at August 26, 2016 3:14 PM
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