There are many levels of mafia in this modern age. Sure, some may go by the guise of “corporation” but they are, despite their official status, still a mafia that you have to deal with. And so it goes with shipping goods by boat. Yes, there appear to be many companies when you start looking around, but in the end, they’re all just piggybacking on what seem to be four main lines. Ultimately, you have to deal with them and their prices that are pretty much all the same.

The trick in all of it is to find that level of shipping with the least successive degree of piggyback you can access to provide the best cost to you. You see, unless you’re a business shipping a set product (say bricks), no shipper really wants to deal with you. To go one step further, say you’re shipping your personal furniture and such, then all “real” shipping companies kick you out to furniture shippers. This is of course a joke as all these guys are just reselling the packages of the main shippers but with a substantial markup.

Say for instance you want to send a 20′ dry container (basically half of one of those long containers you see on the back of a semi truck and can fit the crap of a one bedroom apartment) from the West Coast of the US to Europe. The cost from a “personal shit” shipper will be about $10,000 USD. This price may seem absurd, but it comes with some advantages. For instance, that will be the set price from your door to the final door. They handle customs and trucks and all the crap for you. Plus, if you find the right shipper, they’ll pack up everything for you and dispose of the packing material on the other end.

Now, you can completely side step this cost and process if you’re able to go to a shipper directly (who is again a reseller of another main shipping company) and pay about $3,500 for the initial shipping cost to get a container, have a truck pick it up, and get it to Europe. The only catch in this is that you need to pack everything and deal with receiving it on the other end which, in a country like Spain means paying another $1,200 USD or so of what is basically blood money to get your stuff out of the dock and to your destination.

The catch in this for the budget-oriented is that you have to lie. You have to lie to the shipper in the US that you’re moving an office or doing something else that is most assuredly not moving personal effects. You have to lie on the manifest and paint everything as non-personal effects because ultimately it doesn’t matter except to the “real” shipper who will again, kick you to a “personal shit” shipper if he thinks that’s what you’re doing. To cover up this lie, you need an EIN from the IRS to put up the tax front that you are indeed a business.

That’s really the trick in that you appear to be a business shipping “something” out of the US. Stick to that and you’ll get it out of the US. Getting it in to the receiving country is something completely different though as you’ll need to claim that these are all personal effects you’re bringing in. While most every country has some clause that allows you to do this, keep in mind that you can only do it every couple of years and you’ll need to get a statement from an embassy. If a US citizen, then in the European country you’re going to or if a foreign citizen in the US, from your country’s consulate in the US, but basically the “de-registration” papers from that consulate will suffice, just get multiple copies.

This may seem like a pain in the ass, but there is the rather nice aspect to things that when you bring in a shipping container of “personal effects”, unless the drug/bomb sniffing dogs find something up with it, no one will want to open it. There will be no taxes imposed and generally, if you do everything right, it will slide on through without a problem.

So in the end, you can do everything yourself and pay about $5,000 USD in shipping or have someone do it all for you and pay $10,000 USD. In an ideal world, you don’t need to pay that extra $5,000 USD. It’s like buying an extended warranty and well, paying “protection money” to the shipping mafia. If you can spare it, I’d say to do it though as even the best circumstances in international shipping are still frustrating like the fact you can’t set foot on the docks. You have to pay a truck to bring your container to or from the dock even if you’re just bringing it outside the gate.

Again, there are ways around these things like a friend of mine in Barcelona who hired a pile of Peruvians outside the Ikea and went to the dock to pick up some furniture he’d shipped from Bali. Once there, one of the Peruvians borrowed a vest from a dock worker and lied that he was a bonded trucker in order to get in and load up their furniture without having to pay the aforementioned blood money to some actual trucker.

If there’s one thing to be learned in international shipping, it’s that there are vast oceans of grey that dwarf the Pacific. If you know what you’re doing (which most likely you won’t as this is your first time) you can easily save a pile of money. The question is, how much personal pain and backbreaking physical work are you willing to do to keep your bucks in your pocket?