Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on June 19, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.

“When I was in the Peace Corps in Central America and my family in the States would mail me packages, my local friends recommended that they drew crosses on the box and addressed it to ‘Pastora Angela,’ like Pastor Angela. Customs agents were less likely to take something out of the package if it was addressed to a member of the clergy.”

Angela was in the Peace Corps from 2006 to 2008 in Latin America, and she experienced firsthand the frustrations of trying to get items mailed to her overseas. Although today she has primarily stopped using the international mail services, she explained that, a decade later, there are many more reliable options, which include not having to write “Pastora” on the box. Mail providers like DHL, FedEx, and forwarding services have made the transportation of goods between countries more reliable and, in many cases, quicker.

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Mail arriving by plane.

“And when I would get sneakers sent to me, one sneaker would be sent in one box, and the other sneaker in another. Two separate packages with one sneaker in each prevented sticky fingers.”

She also couldn’t help but remember when she had cans of tuna sent to her. Tuna, she mentioned, was impossible to find, but when it was found, it cost an arm and a leg. So her friends sent her a handful of cans. But when she picked up the box from customs, she said it felt really light. Upon opening the package, she realized that the box only contained a letter saying that her items were confiscated.

As Angela recounted her experiences, she did so with a laugh. “It’s ridiculous and can be frustrating,” she said, “but it is what it is. You learn to live with what you have and what is available to you.”

Now, take a moment to think about everything you order online. Do you have Amazon Prime?

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Uh-oh, are you getting accustomed to the quick 2-day delivery or locker pick-up? Perhaps you do your grocery shopping online and fresh food awaits at your doorstep when you get home from work. Or online clothes shopping with free returns? This, my friends, is convenience.

Depending on where in the world you are planning to send mail, the convenience of the USPS or FedEx may not always be there. This article is not meant to deter you from sending mail overseas, but just realize that as soon as you put your package in the mailbox, its fate depends entirely on the system.

Below, you’ll find a few helpful tips that were learned along the way. Please note that these are general mailing tips (not freight tips), and depending on where you’re mailing to, there may be other best practices.

  1. Take the price tag off the new goods you are mailing and write “USED” on everything, regardless of whether it is new or old.
    Many countries will charge you duty on the imported items. The rate is entirely at the discretion of the country. Some countries may not charge anything for the item, while others may charge a full 100% for the same item.

    In Belize, for example, most imports are charged 0-45% of the purchase price, depending on what the item is and the condition that it is in. This tax is assessed by a customs agent when it enters the country.  In addition, there is a 12.5% General Sales Tax (GST) and 3% environmental tax. Click here for the governmental overview of imports to Belize. Again, these taxes depend on the country.

  2. Write as much as you can for the address.
    In developed nations, the mail system appears simple yet organized and effective – we have addresses that are not dependent on points-of-interest or large trees, we have a reliable means of transportation, and there are strict laws about unlawfully going through another person’s mail. In many developing parts of the world, street signs, proper addresses, and mailmen who walk from house to house delivering mail in a navy-blue uniform don’t exist. Instead, addresses look something along the lines of, “2 miles south of the lake, 2 blocks north, 5 feet east #59, {INSERT CITY NAME}, {INSERT COUNTRY}.” And the mail will get there, albeit not immediately.
    If you are mailing to an uncertain address, add in as much information that you can about the address and the recipient – the person’s name, phone number, email address, etc. Also, be sure your return address is legible in case it has to be sent back.
  3. TRACK IT!
    I write point number 3 in capital letters because of its importance. If you are sending anything, pay a couple of extra dollars to have it registered/tracked. This will provide peace of mind in knowing where your personal documents, friend’s gift, goodie for your pen pal, or whatever you’re sending is in the process.
    There have been a few occasions where folks have used regular mail, and to this day, their mail still hasn’t arrived to its final destination. In one case, specifically, a client mailed his condo paperwork through United States Postal Service, and four years later, we’re still waiting for it to show up. Perhaps it’ll wash up in a bottle on the beach of Ambergris Caye. Regardless, that’s not the kind of paper you want floating around!

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Ambergris Caye’s post office.

Have a friend or family member who is coming to visit you soon? Ask them to be your FedEx; you’ll know when the item will get there and who the transporter is. When bringing a new item into the country that you’re planning to keep in the country, there may be a small tax if declared – but that’ll be up to your customs agent.

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Label tape, an item we had a very difficult time finding in Belize.

After hearing countless stories of packages going MIA, high taxes and fees, etc., I think Angela captured it best – you learn to live with what you have and what is available to you. Otherwise, like a few of my friends, you keep a running list of what you need, so it’s a quick trip to Target when back in the States. Then you stuff your Consumer Resource Guidesuitcase with as much as you can.

Each country has a different mail system, and if you’re planning to relocate, take a deeper dive into that country’s system and processes. Where is the closest post office? Where is the international package pick-up? Can you get a mailbox at Mailboxes Etc.? Can you send and receive via DHL or FedEx? What does the local mail system entail? Will mail be delivered directly to your home or do you need to pick it up somewhere? How long does it take to mail something back to your friends at home? These are just a few questions to consider as you continue your journey abroad. And if you’re expecting care packages, they are great ones to ask as you get yourself established.

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Small post office in Michigan.

As we close up here, Angela has a tip for anyone who wants to send chocolate overseas, “Send 100 Grands. They don’t melt like other chocolates.” Well, there you have it folks. Send 100 Grand off to those loved ones abroad!

Do I Need a Carrier Pigeon, Hedwig, or Just Good Luck?Delicious!

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on June 19, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.