Ship or Mule? Big Decision When Moving Abroad

Once you have made the decision to move to a foreign country, the next thing most people start to think about is “what should I bring with me?” This is an important question, but like most decisions when it comes to moving abroad, the answer is different for different people.

When we decided to move to Ecuador, my wife and I shipped a 20-foot container. But I know several expats who brought only a couple of suitcases and are just as happy with their decision as we are with ours. There are some guidelines that can help you however, no matter what you ultimately decide.

Let’s start with the basics. If you are moving to Ecuador and plan to get a residency visa, you have a golden opportunity to bring in personal belongings and household goods without paying a Duty Fee. You can fill a pallet, or even a 20 or 40-foot container, and pay only the shipping costs. This offer is only good for 6 months, dating from the time your visa is registered, so if you want to take advantage of this, you need to plan early.

UPDATE (9/23/2018! – Since posting this article, Sandra Baquero of  Sanestar International Shipping Services informs me of a change in Ecuador importing rules for expats. When you file for residency now, it is a two-step process (this has changed since we registered). First you have a temporary two-year visa, and after the first 18 months you can file for permanent status to begin when the temp runs out. The shipping rule is you now have 6 months to bring in your goods from the date of your last entry into Ecuador. Note you can only do this one time duty-free, however. That means you have time to try a few places, and make a more informed decision of whether or not to ship, and what you need.

The first decision of course, is do you need to ship anything? This can depend on several factors, the biggest of which concerns your new home. If you are renting, or purchased a furnished home, you may decide not to bother. Perhaps you are renting for now, but not sure if you will stay in that location, or how long it will take to find your perfect fit, so the time restraint makes it difficult. In that case, learning to mule may be your best option. Either way, most expats feel that the transition to their new lives can be much easier if there is a little something of the home they left behind still around for them.

“Muling” means simply to pack as much of things that are hard to find, too expensive, or of lower quality in Ecuador and bring it in with your luggage. Every time we visit the States, we leave Ecuador with two lightly packed suitcases inside of two other suitcases, and return with 4 suitcases and 4 carry on bags packed as close to the weight limit as we can get them. It gets to be a game almost, The Weight is Right – how close can you come without going over?

If you are going to be filling a new, unfurnished home however, then shipping a container can be a cost-effective option. To use our own experience as an example, we had a 2000 square foot, 4-bedroom 4-bath condo that we bought without a stick of furniture, and no appliances. We knew we planned on living there at least 5 years, possibly as much as 10 or even longer. We filled a shipping container, 20 feet long, 9 feet high and 8 feet wide with a variety of items, from furniture and small appliances to clothing and even musical instruments and a large bathtub! (Ecuadorian bathtubs are notoriously small. If I sit in one before running the water, my American-sized posterior creates an assdamn that keeps the back of the tub dry.)

Our tub – for us, shipping this was essential!

In total, we spent about $11,000 to bring it all to Ecuador. That may sound like a lot, but we have since estimated that it would have cost us over $40,000 to buy everything locally – and in some cases, we would not have been able to find them in Ecuador at all. Finally, some of what we could have purchased here would have been more expensive and of lesser quality.

I know you are probably thinking, “Hey wait – I thought it was cheap to live in Ecuador?” Yes, it is true that you can live in Ecuador on much less than in the States. Local foods, health care, property taxes, and more are all very inexpensive. In many areas you can live without the expense of a car, which is huge. Renovations to your home, cleaning services, just about anything that calls for manual labor is very affordable. But manufactured goods brought in from other countries can be very expensive, due to taxes and duties placed on them.

Another factor that makes Ecuador more attractive, is that they use the same 120v/60Hz AC standard used in the US, so there are no adaptors needed.

Here are some of the things you should consider shipping to Ecuador if you are going to use a pallet, or part or all of a larger container. The list is similar for other countries, but you should of course do your own due diligence.

• Electronics – This is probably where you can make the biggest savings. Things like TVs, audio equipment, cell phones, computers and printers are very expensive in Ecuador. You should also consider shipping one or more UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply). They are too heavy to mule in cheaply, and worth their weight in gold for protecting your equipment from brownouts, power outages, and power surges.

• Small kitchen appliance – Mixers, food processors, toaster ovens, are all either expensive or of lesser quality. If going the container route, consider microwave ovens or large appliances as well.

• Cookware – There’s plenty of inexpensive cookware and cutlery available, but it is not of very good quality. If cooking is something you enjoy, you will be much happier if you bring your supplies with you. For example, one of my favorite meals requires muled okra and filé.

• Dishes, glassware and silverware – Same as cookware.

• Tools – If you are a do-it-yourself person, you will want to bring a well-stocked toolbox. If bringing an electric drill, make it a hammer-drill, as a lot of concrete is used for construction.

• Personal Items – This varies for everyone. For me, it was bringing musical instruments. For my wife, bringing some chairs that belonged to her mom, and a good vacuum cleaner and rug shampooer.

• Linens and towels – This is another example of items you can find in Ecuador, but you may not like the price you pay or the quality. Special note: mattress sizes are not the same in Ecuador. Fitted sheets will not be a perfect fit.

• Clothing – Ecuadorians tend to be smaller than North Americans. If you wear a large size, or need shoes that are either very narrow or very wide, it is wise to bring a good wardrobe along.

• Furniture – This varies a lot with where you are going to live. There are villages in Ecuador with artisans that make beautiful wood furniture to order, but in many places comfortable padded couches and chairs may be hard to find. In particular, due again to the smaller people, you will find couches and chairs tend to be lower to the floor. This can make getting up a struggle for taller people, or you can find yourself staring at your knees when you sit down to watch TV.

Even after you are established in your home, there are some items you may want to mule in periodically as “supplies”. Any of the above that you can fit into a suitcase or carry on is fair game of course, but here are some of the smaller things that are easily transported and will make your life more pleasant. I have personally brought all of these and more without any problems with Customs.

• Medical Supplies – Many drugs and medical supplies are available in Ecuador cheaply. If you are on regular medication, check availability and compare prices. You may find it better to bring a 6-month supply in your suitcase if it cannot be purchased locally. Here’s a link to Fybeca, an Ecuadorian drug store chain, that has a link at the top of the page to Search for medications (Que estás buscando?). Keep in mind you may need to enter the generic name.

• Spices – My personal favorite. I love the foods and fresh spices available at our local markets, but sometimes you need some Old Bay for your shrimp, or some Cajun or creole spices. And I always bring back at least one big bottle of Sriracha. Special note: baking soda is not available in Ecuador.

• Toiletries – Replacement razor blades, favorite brands of toothpaste, hair care products, are all popular mule items. My wife for example likes a particular shampoo brand not available here. Necessary? No, but if it makes you feel more at home, it is worth the effort.

• Printer and electronic supplies – Printer ink, accessories for your computer, streaming devices like Roku or AppleTV, network routers or Wi-Fi extenders, cables or adaptors – this is a big category, and very popular.

The best thing you can do before you decide whether shipping is right for you is to spend some time visiting the local stores and malls in Ecuador (or whatever your target country), to get a feel for the prices and quality of the durable goods and appliances that you will need. Then you can make an informed decision based on what is important to you. Keep in mind that import rules for cargo and for airport baggage change frequently, so always check with the airlines or Ecuador Consulate before flying, and use only experienced and certified international shipping companies when importing cargo.

Our shipment arrives in Ecuador

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  • Stacy Mahon says:

    What company did you use for shipping? Does the 11k count packing and unpacking the container?
    I would be coming from MN to Ecuador (city still undecided). I also read somewhere that there was a limit to how many electronics you carried into the country. I believe it was 3 per person.
    Thank you so much for all of your great info!

    • Jim Santos says:

      We used a local US company to load the container itself and ship it to Ecuador c/o a Relocation Services of Ecuador. We did all of the box packing and inventory ourselves, and RSE translated the inventory and handled the Ecuador end and delivery to our condo. We recently shipped a container back to the US, using another Ecuador company, Sanestar. Both Ecuador companies were great.
      RSE – Paul Wilches
      Sanestar – Sandra Baquero
      We brought a LOT of electronics, computer gear, and musical instruments. It is all in how you pack and list them. For example, “living room TV”, “guest bedroom tv”, master bedroom tv”, etc. If they are brand new, open the boxes and remove manuals and paperwork and pack separately. Also, if you are packing for a man and a woman, you are allowed a certain number of pounds of clothes for each, but could not bring children’s clothes. Your shippers will have all of that information for you, just follow their directions and you shouldn’t have any problems. The only expats I’ve talked to with customs horror stories decided at some point that they knew better than the shipper, or tried to cut corners.

    • Jim Santos says:

      We’ve used two shippers in Ecuador. One is Relocation Services of Ecuador ( and the other is Sanestar ( Both provided excellent service.

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