The Expat Packing List- Household Goods. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation

Unconventional but Essential Items for your Household Goods Shipment… Your Expat Packing List

The Expat Packing List- Household Goods. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocationMy Facebook page is bubbling with excitement this week, as three members of my friends and family are due to receive their household goods shipment. Somehow, the arrival of your previously treasured possessions brings home the reality that you have arrived somewhere for the long haul, and for the kids especially, it comes as a combination of Christmas and birthdays rolled in to one.

The flip side of course, is that the sea of boxes in front of you is a brutal reminder that you are not, after all on vacation, and there are three days of unpacking to be done. Which, when you get to it, inevitably leads to the question, “What on earth was I thinking when I packed that?!”

There are very few rules about what to take to a new location, and most will center around advice from other expats – all of which will be from their own personal perspective, not yours. So for those of you inveterate overpackers, here’s my list – the result of three continents-worth of accumulation, dejunking and general dislike for the unpacking process…


Stuff that makes you feel at home.

For me, this is white porcelain china, good silverware, bed linens and vases. My way of nurturing people is to feed them, so anything involving food preparation and service is first on my list. I do, however, only own 5 cooking pans –  Le Creuset saucepans, frying pan, and a wok and  huge stainless steel stockpot – and I have yet to need anything else.

I am ridiculed locally for my rather rigid approach to decorating; everything is either white, sand, silver or slate grey, but these are the colors that I find soothing, and after the chaos and confusion of packing, air travel, temporary accommodation and the endless form-filling, any serenity that comes from a packing box rather than a wine bottle is very welcome.

N.B. No matter where you are in the world, if your children go to school and you have any sort of non-local accent, you will be required to exhibit at the school International fair. Virtually every school (especially the International variety) hold one annually, during which you will be expected to represent your home nation with flags, costumes and other assorted paraphernalia. Using valuable luggage allowances to ship Welsh hats, dragons and love spoons was painful, so take it from the formerly unprepared; pack a box of anything that is traditional to your country now. Think 6ft x 3ft table with backdrop and go wild…



An anonymous apartment quickly becomes home when you have photos of your family and friends in it. The good news with photos is that they are easy to pack; remove them from their frames, just in case and make scanned copies. I no longer bother taking many picture frames with me, instead buying local ones for each house.



I’d love to pretend that these were the collected sonnets of Shakespeare and a few Greek tragedies, but in reality, my literary tastes center around historical whodunits and the complete works of Janet Evanovitch. Hardly highbrow, but they provide escapism, humor and just enough mental activity to keep me engaged without keeping me up all night. And somehow, the sight of the familiar titles on a bookshelf anywhere reassure me that I will always have something enjoyable to read, even if I already know who killed whom, and how and where.


Board games and cards.

No family room is complete without a set of rarely-played board games, and they are the ultimate antidote to childhood boredom. The words “if you’re bored, we can always play a game” instantly empties a room of any moaning offspring, who disappear off in search of more understanding and less demanding company. Promises of a Friday Family Game night can be used to improve involvement in local community programs, after school activities, and extra credit homework. Unless you discover the “Settlers of Catan’ series, in which case you end up with a house full of wool-trading teenagers… I kid you not.


Personal Mementos.

Every expat parent will be familiar with the lament “you never kept my … ,” which arises every time a teacher sets some sort of personal history project. There is a teacher training torture center somewhere that collates all previous child memento projects, and in attempt to keep the children interested and the parents completely bald, changes the requirement every darn year. Last year it was their first shoes, this term it’s ‘first pictures’. Next year it’ll be the family tree, interview your grandma, or yet another task that we have no way of fulfilling without a private jet or a clairvoyant. So, before you put all your worldly goods in storage, put together a comprehensive memory box to thwart even the most tyrannical of kindergarten teachers. It should contain: first shoes, early artwork (scans or photos will do, providing you are willing to recreate them surreptitiously), any school certificates and trophies, no matter how precarious the pretext), photographs of the ENTIRE family (both sides) and any other items of specific religious or cultural significance, and dates of first steps, first words and first day of school, etc, etc.

In the event you are reading this 3,000 miles away from the storage unit that contains the above, there is still hope. It can all be found in the form of Google, a printer, the local thrift shop and the ability to lie convincingly. For more detailed instructions see “Relocation Dilemmas – Faking Your Family Tree”… You have my blessing.


Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum 


10 thoughts on “Unconventional but Essential Items for your Household Goods Shipment… Your Expat Packing List”

  1. oo oo oo …. when you rewrite the family tree next time… please please can I be reincarnated as a fashionable person… it would be so lovely NOT to be that child with National Health glasses and birds nest wire wool hair. PLEEEEESE

    1. Pfft. The magic wand has been waved. You now bear a startling resemblance to Kim Kardashian, and the unruly hair and glasses have been replaced with Spanx and 5inch stiletto heels. Be careful what you wish for..

  2. The Shipment is Always Late. Long Live the Shipment.

    Great advice…especially the bit about being prepared for those damn family history projects!

    My kids were quite young the first time we went overseas, and I vividly remember my then-three-year-old weeping in his bed one night in our new home. I asked him why he was so sad. “I miss the lobsters in the tank at Safeway,” he answered. I knew that there were no lobsters coming in the shipment, and it was a sad knowledge.

    1. “the shipment is always late” oooh, yeah – especially in Kenya. We had an expat group that would regularly run a welcome coffee at the International school, and our offers of interim household goods were always initially turned down by the confident (albeit naive) incomers. Three weeks later, tearful faces would reappear, having experienced numerous false alarms, broken promises and general let downs. Four months later, their possessions would finally materialize, by which time they had learned to live without, and our loaner store would gain a whole new set of goods. Still, it was better than one friend, whose entire household goods container fell off the ship somewhere off the coast of India..

  3. Not a lover for heavy packing, I found the invention of iPad a Godsend, photo frame to keep all the photos from kids’ birth, book reader even for hard to find Chinese books in Africa as well as recipes, games to keep kids occupied, movie player on the no-personal-screen flights…possibilities!
    Things I always pack are the paraphirlanias from our home countries (blow up boxing kangaroo and Chinese dragon!), and some small kids toys for unique birthday presents, and cooking stuffs that are hard to find other than ur home country (Vegemite and scallop sauce!)
    Wish I did bring our kids time capsules with us though…as we don’t know anymore whether we’ll be back to collect them by the time kids hit 18!

    1. We await the delivery (tomorrow) of the third iPad – this time for Grandma (the kids both have one, and I agree, they are a Godsend!), for the reasons you mention. I have a feeling that once she gets the hang of using it, she’ll be incommunicado for weeks.

    1. I have a very nice Welsh National costume that I can send to you, should you ever start having pangs of envy..

  4. I have DEFINITELY learned my lesson on the STUFF used for international food day, UN day, etc. Very hard to come up with something that represents USA when there is no official country dress!

  5. Keep those International Costumes forever! I’m always in denial..but then people find out I lived in Arabia..I have to dig out that old abayah…I always regret I didn’t buy a decent one, just a crappy polyester Chinese version..I wish I had a readymade slide show of “expat life in Saudi Arabia” but it has to be re-created each time since I think “never again”. Somehow, no matter how old you get (I’m 63) being an expat is still your claim to fame at every high school reunion and new community..My tombstone will read “She’s not showing any more PowerPoints about Saudi Arabia, thank goodness”. there are times one feels like a circus freak!

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