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How To Ship Your Van Overseas

By May 16 2016All stories
Shipping a van across the Darien Gap or the Atlantic ocean can be quite a nerve-wrecking experience. Let’s say it’s not the usual 30 minute smooth-riding ferry experience. Our newest German collaborator Alexander Georgi was kind enough to share his experience of shipping his VW bus from Cartagena to Italy after a wonderful South American road trip. See below how to do this properly, the differences between Ro-Ro or Container options, dealing with the customs, agents and all the paperwork that has to be done!
Can you tell us more about you? What’s your story?
I quit my corporate job as a business consultant in Germany in 2014 and booked a one-way flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was tired of the business world, PowerPoint presentations, and night shifts in random hotel rooms. I had no idea what to expect, I had no plans. After spending a month in a school learning Spanish I booked a flight to Patagonia to do some hiking through its magnificent landscape. However, getting off the beaten tracks was difficult since distances were quite far and rental cars incredibly expensive. When I travelled the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile, I became more and more frustrated by public transportation which was almost non-existent. Bus tickets were sold out for a week in advance and even if I got a ticket, the bus went straight from town to town, each one looking exactly like the other. The real beauty of Patagonia passed by the windows of the public bus and all I wanted was to find more freedom! It was already planned that two friends from Germany would join me for a while.
Another reason to get rid of endless bus rides and hostel dorm rooms; we wanted to do our own thing. While I was riding in buses, I was thinking about potential vehicles for our trip. Something like a proper 4WD that I could easily sell further up north for more or less the same amount of money after finishing my trip – wherever this would be.
The day I arrived in Santiago the Chile, though, I found this old VW van. The previous owner asked me about my plans and what I would be going to do with it. When I told him that I wanted to travel all the way to Colombia – at least – he replied: “Dont do it, man! You’ll have many problems with the van. It won’t be fun.”
I’m a VW enthusiast and one of the goals of my trip was to acquire some mechanical VW skills in Mexico in order to be able to fix my 1974 VW Beetle back home. I thought: Why not? I have time and I’m eager to face a challenge. It will be fun! I bought it the same day without even looking for other cars. I became proud owner of a VW van!
So tell us more about this bus?
The van was manufactured in Brazil in 1983 and is called Kombi in South America. Compared to its German brothers and sisters, it has the bay window front but the back of the previous T1 model with barn doors instead of the sliding door and some other details of the old model. It has the typical 1600ccm air-cooled boxer engine. Of course, it has no off-road features such as 4wd or differential lock. The paint and tires were new and the interior was already made for camping, including a proper bed frame. The only thing that needed to be done is the lash of the crankshaft. Thats a typical problem with those old VW engines. The previous owner highly recommended getting it done in Santiago since it’s really time consuming and experienced mechanics are hard to find along this road. He knew two guys in Santiago who are specialized in rebuilding thes kind of engines.
Within two weeks, we put everything apart and overhauled the entire engine. I have to admit – due to my lack of mechanical knowledge – I’ve been more of a spectator. But we had a lot of fun and there was my internship for VW engines. I learned all the basics and how all the parts are called in Spanish. That’s absolutely essential in case you have to see a mechanic in South America something that would prove to be very helpful later. With a brand new engine in the back, I started my trip to somewhere!
Can you describe the shipping process to send your van from South America to Europe?

After arriving in Colombia I had to think about what to do with the van. You have to know, Colombia is like a dead-end road for overlanders. The border to Venezuela in the East is closed and anyways its not a country you want to travel on your own and with your own car. The area of the Northern border to Panama is a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest. The so called Darién Gap is considered as one of the most dangerous areas in the western hemisphere. If you want to continue on the Panamerican Highways, you’d have to ship your vehicle. Either way, my options were limited. I could either sell my car in Colombia or ship it to either Panama or Europe. After comparing the rates, it turned out that it doesn’t really matter where I was going because it’s about the same price. Most of the money goes into port fees and taxes anyway. After spending six months in Colombia, I finally decided to return to Europe – with my van. I found it impossible to sell it after more than a year living in it. So many memories and after all, it has become my home!

Here is a step by step guide on how I arranged the shipment:
1) First of all, you have to think about the type of shipment. Generally, there are two alternatives: RORO (roll-on, roll-off) or container. If you choose RORO, the vehicle drives (rolls) to the car deck of the ship. However, this is also the disadvantage. Travelers reported that people broke into their cars and stole things after the vessel left the port. Some other people also said, that companies/customs don’t allow personal belongings and/or camping gear inside the car. The car has to be completely empty. This option is especially suitable for big rigs or motorhomes that dont fit into a container.Plus it can be much cheaper than a container depending on the route.
The container on the other hand is more secure and can fit more than one vehicle. A small 20ft container usually fits a van and a motorbike. The bigger 40ft container fits twice as much. You can leave all your stuff inside the vehicle, it’s just the container that matters. If you load more than one vehicle this option can be much more cost-efficient since you can split the cost.
In Cartagena, Colombia – the easy part:
2) In foreign countries where they don’t speak your language, its highly recommendable to hire a shipment agent who arranges the shipment for you. He knows the routes, the schedules and the rates. I tried my luck by requesting RORO and contacting shipment companies directly, but they were either more expensive or I didnt even understand their reply due to all the logistics-specific vocabulary. It turned out that my agent had by far the cheapest rate. Well, no question in hiring one. In my case, RORO was much more expensive and the van would have to transfer to a different vessel in Panama (i.e. higher risk of somebody breaking in). So I choose the container option for 1790 USD: Colombia -> Italy. Since the Mediterranean route (including ports in Italy, France and Spain) runs more frequently, the rate was better than ports in Belgium, Netherlands or Germany (around 500 USD difference).

The paperwork.

3) My agent told me to come to his office about 10 days before the departure date. He needed A LOT of informations: passport, vehicle registration, customs documents, client evaluation form, and some other forms I still have no idea what they were for. More reasons to get a good agent!

4) I had to find a notary in order to get an official authentication of my documents. This process takes about 10 minutes and costs less than 5 USD.
5) Your agent will tell you at what date and time you would have to go to the port with your vehicle in order to load the container. This process can take between a couple of hours and a whole day. When I arrived at the port, an assistant of my agent welcomed me and told me where to go. He dealt with all the paperwork. I was just sitting in my van and waited. Every now and then a guy showed up, wanted to see my passport or asked for a signature. After two hours or so, the assistant returned – accompanied by a customs officer and two police officers. I had to drive into some sort of warehouse and unload everything from the van (camping gear, food, kitchen stuff, etc.).
The police checked the whole van for false bottoms and inspected typical drug hiding spots (e.g. spare wheel). Surprisingly, there were no dogs or X-ray scanners. After the police confirmed that the van is OK, they opened the container and I drove it into it. A port worker fixed it with lashing straps and closed the doors with a seal. That’s it! And it took me only three hours…pretty fast for Colombian standards.
6) Once the container is on board, you’ll receive the most important document – the Bill of Lading. I must say I was more than happy about how things worked out in Cartagena. Everything was straight forward and I had nothing else to do than simply being at the right place at the right time and wait. The agent did all the work. Great job!
In Livorno, Italy – the annoying part:
7) Since the agent in Colombia has no connection whatsoever to the destination port, I didn’t have any contact on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. However, you need to find a customs broker since they generally don’t trust anyone for customs related issues. I asked at the customs office for contacts and they referred me to an English speaking broker.
8) The Bill of Lading contains all the information they need to continue with the process. The first thing the customs broker did was to check whether the container was already released by the container firm. In order to release the container, I had to pay around 300 USD – for whatever reason but I had no choice. It’s a prerequisite for the next step.
9) Having the container released, the broker called the port administration in order to make an appointment for the freight pickup. The port authorities decided that the container can’t be opened inside the port area. They considered its contents as too dangerous since the vans fuel tank was obviously filled with gasoline. Consequently, my customs broker had to hire a trucking company to transfer my container into a warehouse outside the port. Cost: around 500 USD.
10) Once the container was outside the port, my broker made an arrangement with the customs officials in order to open the container and inspect its contents. After checking the numbers of the seal with the Bill of Lading, a dockworker removed the seal and opened the container. This was the first time I saw my van in Europe. I was quite happy. Luckily, the engine started right away and I could leave the container in reverse gear. I had to place the van on an open space so that a white truck was able to take X-ray scans from all angles. Since there was too much stuff inside the van, they asked me to clear out the van in order to take new shots. Obviously, they checked the van for drugs. Not a surprise considering the van arrived from Colombia.
11) After the customs officials confirmed that the van was OK, my customs broker had to go to the customs office in order to finish the paperwork. Since I m a German citizen, I had to officially import the van. Foreigners will receive a six months tourist permit for the vehicle and that’s it. Nothing else needed for driving within the Schengen Area. Since I arrived at the external frontier of the EU, I had to clear the customs at the German border. The Italian officials just gave me a so called T1 document for the transit after paying a guarantee of around 2000 USD. From now on I had 8 days in order to finish the importing process at any German customs office. The whole process in Italy took four days and cost around 1000 USD. This was more than I expected.
In Bad Reichenhall, Germany – the finish line:
12) After driving through Italy and Austria, I finally arrived at the German border. They immediately knew what to do and told me that I’d have to hire a forwarding agent (again) for the customs declaration. Luckily, there were plenty of agents around so I checked the prices and went for the cheapest option (75 USD).
13) With the declaration form in my hand, I went to the customs office again. The customs officer checked the vehicle and asked a few questions. Last but not least, I had to pay taxes: 19% VAT, 10% import tax and the annual tax on motor vehicles (425 USD). Luckily, they accepted the car value from the sales contract of 500 USD. The Italian authorities, however, didn’t and estimated the value of the car of 5000 USD. Needless to say that it makes a huge difference whether you have to pay 29% taxes on 500 USD or 5000 USD.
14) That’s it! I’m now able to drive my van in Germany. Sooner or later, I have to get German plates for it, but that’s another project… Surprisingly, the process at the German border went smoothly and all the paperwork was done within less than two hours.

15) Total shipping cost: 2800 USD (+ 260 USD importation fees in Germany)

Can you share any relevant tips or things not to forget before sending your freedom vessel on a boat? 

Generally spoken, it was a great experience to ship my van in a container to Europe. Nevertheless, there are a few things I would do differently next time. All the paperwork and activities in Colombia went smoothly. My shipment agent Ernesto did a great job. The trouble started in Italy, where I tried to get my van without an agent or broker. Next time, I would definitely look for a customs broker beforehand. Im pretty sure this would accelerate the whole process a lot and saves money in the end as well. Container shipment is a business for big global players and definitely nothing for private people. Let the experts do the work for you.
Secondly, I decided to ship the van to Italy because it was way cheaper than to Germany directly. However, I didnt expect so many additional costs at the destination port. The work with the customs officials was nerve-wracking as well. I assume that a direct shipment to Germany would have saved time, stress, and money at the end. So better do some research about the destination port and dont just look for the best rate.
Here are a few relevant links
The most helpful resource for overland travels might be Overland Sphere. Its a great community of overlanders from all over the world. People share their experiences from different continents and countries on the Facebook group.
While Overland Sphere covers the whole planet, the PanAmerican Travelers Association is more focused on overland travel around the Americas. Similar to Overland Sphere, it’s a great platform in order to ask for local shipment agents and people to share a container with. It’s also a good newsfeed for shipping routes and alternatives to cross the Darién Gap.
If you want to ship your vehicle out of Colombia, I can highly recommend my shipment agent Ernesto from Enlace Caribe LTDA. He was very professional and responsive to my questions:
Luis Ernesto La Rota R.
Enlace Caribe Ltda.
Manga, Calle 29 No. 25-69 Int No. 4
Cartagena, Colombia
Ph +57 (5) 660 8960
Mob + 57 315 758 5872
Another valuable resource is WikiOverland. Here, you’ll find a lot of country specific information regarding insurance, entering/leaving the country, required paperwork, safety, etc.
What’s next for you? Can you share 3 great moments from your past trips?
1) By far the best adventure was the 500km off-road route from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. In around one week, we drove through the scenic landscape of the Bolivian Altiplano with our van, i.e. surrounded by volcanoes, geysers, and colorful lagoons at 5000m above sea level.

Waking up at the bloody-red Laguna Colorada after spending the night with -25°C or climbing the Uturuncu volcano (6008m) are moments I will never forget.  For me personally, the Salar de Uyuni was the best place in South America. The salt flat seems endless and you easily lose your feeling for distances and directions. After it was snowing for a couple of hours, the whole thing turned into a big mirror. It was simply unbelievable!

2) Another unforgettable moment is our ride from Cusco to the Colca Canyon in Peru – again off-road. We had to cross several rivers without bridges and on top of all: our battery was broken. Every time the engine turned off, we had to push the van in order to get it running again.
The road was sheer endless and we were climbing higher and higher. At some point it started snowing and we could hardly see the path. It was impossible to stop here for an overnight stop so we kept on driving through the dark. We stopped at around midnight after reaching an altitude where the snow was not that deep anymore.
Totally exhausted, we felt asleep immediately. When we woke up the next morning, we realized that we stopped in front of a steep face. The sun was shining, the snow melted and we made breakfast with freshly squeezed orange juice. We all thought: What a night!
3) The trip to Cabo de la Vela in Colombia is something I won’t forget either. Cabo de la Vela is located in the La Guajira desert and close to the most northern point of South America. The area is very dry and the indigenous Wayuu people suffer from starvation and the lack of water. It’s a bit difficult to get there but we gave it a try. Before we left, we bought some cereal bars and water for the kids in this area.
The so-called candy bandits put up road barriers in order to make vehicles stop. They mainly ask for water and sweets but sometimes also money. With plenty of water and snacks on board, we stopped and gave them what they were asking for. You could see the happiness in their eyes!
Even though the van and I are back in Germany now, it is not the end of our trip. Together with a filmmaker from Germany, we’ll participate in a Charity Rally around the Baltic Sea. This means driving 7500km through 10 countries in only 16 days. No GPS, no motorways! This adventure includes breath-taking landscapes, Scandinavian challenges, the North Cape in midsummer, and the wicked culture of Russia and the Baltic States during the famous White Nights. The Baltic Sea is exploding with action this time of year. One of the main mission of the Baltic Sea Circle is that every team collects money for great charity projects before and while traveling the route. This money will be handed over to well-chosen NGO’s and local organizations, such as Viva con Agua: aims to improve drinking water supply in developing countries The German Bone Marrow Donor Center: aims at helping blood cancer patients who are at risk of dying – all over the world. …and others
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