How to Ship Your Van to North America From Europe (or Vice Versa)
As many of you know, we’ve spent the last 4 years traveling and living full-time in our van across Europe. In our typical slow travel styles, we’ve pretty much visited almost all of the European countries. Our next move was to continue our journey on a new continent: North America.
Of course, we first checked the prices of vans and similar vehicles across the pond, but it was still a high price for a ‘real’ Westy and especially a T4 like ours. Numbers ranged from $16,000-20,000. We then checked the costs and possibilities of shipping our beloved Mork over. And that’s what actually happened.
In fact, I’m writing this post next to a Canadian lakeshore.
If you’re thinking of doing the same move, we’ll try to tell you exactly what you need to know and how to prepare. Let’s start with the paperwork, because it’s the most fun.* Grin.
A Driving License
In order to drive in Canada or the USA, you need a valid driving license and an International Driving License. Speaking about my homeland, Italy, I actually had to do two: one for Canada and one for the U.S., because they have different historic agreements (one from Geneve and the other from Vienna). It’s not a difficult job to get them.
You need the usual documents and pictures, filling in the forms and paying some taxes or fees. In total, it was around 60 Euros for each one. You can also ask for a fast delivery for an extra 5 Euros.
Don’t do these documents too far in advance, since they have an expiration date. Also, don’t forget to make sure your driving license won’t expire for the next 6 months to get in –and drive- in Canada or the USA.
You need to take your car registration, obviously, and your ownership documents. Make sure they are both in good condition and in English.
Finding a Shipping Company
We asked some van life friends in our communities for tips and advice in shipping companies. Before we chose one, we sent all the info they required by email, so they could give us a price quotation back. Normally, because the van gets shipped inside a container, they need all of the measurements of your van: length, width and height. The quotation changes depending on these measurements.
We sent out a couple of requests and found a good deal with Interglobal Shipping. You can actually see the pro forma invoice here we received from them. We didn’t choose just according to a cheaper price. We wanted a good location from where we could ship the van, a good location for picking it up, and lastly a direct flight for us to arrive at a nearby destination.
We chose: Emden to Halifax shipping, with a flight from Amsterdam to Toronto and then another short flight for Armando from Toronto to Halifax.
Some friends of ours are going to ship their van in 2017, although they chose another company that ships from Italy to the USA.
Once you choose the best deal for you, the actual operation is pretty easy: you need to scan or take pictures of your documents (car registration, driving license, passport) and send them by email. After this is done, they’ll inform you when the next boat’s available and when you can actually drop off your van at the harbor.
With Interglobal, we dropped the van in Emden (a port town in the North of Germany and close to the border with Netherlands). The van was booked for a boat sailing 1st August, but we had to drop it off 5 days before the shipping date.
Before dropping off your van, you’ll have to stop by the local border control. They check all of your shipping documents and inspect the van. Payments can easily be done by bank transfer. When the money is received, they send you all the documents you’ll require for the harbor.
Preparing the Van for Shipping
We had to remove all the extra stuff we normally have on the roof: the storage box, the solar shower and Armando’s surfboard. Then we had to figure out a way to put it all neatly together inside of the van. We also tried to put other stuff we couldn’t take with us into ‘difficult-to-access’ places, like under the couch or inside the kitchen cabinets.
You have to make sure that nothing can possibly roll or fall down, because several different people will be driving the van, opening it and inspecting it. Oh, and you’ll have to give them your extra set of keys for the van, too, of course.
The things we left inside were several things that we couldn’t take with us, like the surfboard, the camera slider, the road shower, excess clothes and all of the kitchen items. We also cleaned out the fridge. Everything was well packed, but DO NOT leave any valuables inside (computers, cameras, etc.). From what we’ve been told, 1 car in every 20 that gets shipped ends up missing something after the journey. We only had one loss: Armando’s small tool kit he’d forgotten, that had been laying between the two front seats.
Organizing Your Trip
This wasn’t an easy task for us, for several reasons: we travel with a dog; we only have our van as a home and car; and we tried to stay within a budget. The first thing we had to find after the van was on its way was a good flight. After a lot of research, we found an option from Amsterdam. It was closer to where we were actually staying in Germany than Frankfurt was.
For a direct flight to Toronto it was 400 Euro for two people one-way and for our dog, Ziggy. They had a pet policy and we paid an extra 35 Euros at the airport. Be sure to book flight dates that match the shipping arrival time, since shipping usually takes around 10 days, not including delays.
There is a 4-5 day ‘hold’ on the van after arrival, if you can’t make it exactly on the same day.
Getting Your Van in Halifax
The company you choose for shipping will give you all the info needed for getting your van from Halifax or in any other harbor. It typically takes 2-3 working days to be inspected by the Canadian/USA border control, but also this depends on the time of the year you ship the van. You get the contact of a Canadian company that takes care of your van and in order to get all the proper documents by email, you have to pay a Canadian Tax ($355 CAD).
Before getting to the ‘auto port’ (the huge parking lot where they keep all imported cars), be sure you stop by the border police office in town first. You just need to show your ID and car documents, get a nice stamp on your paperwork and then you’re ready to pick up the van.
At the auto port, show all your paperwork again and after they’ve done a check, they send somebody to bring the van just outside the office. All in one piece, hopefully. Ha. Bring your copy of the keys. Their standard procedure doesn’t allow them to give you the ones that were used in the transport of the van.
Check to make sure everything’s all right both outside and inside the van. For external or internal damage and to see if anything is missing, for example (by the way, all shipping companies offer a shipping insurance, just ask them for more details on their policies). Once that’s done, you’re free to go.
Insuring Your Car in North America
This was a bit tricky for us, because we were told nobody insures foreign cars in Canada. For this reason, we asked a few of our van life friends, like Tigger Travels and Bee Individual, for tips and advice. They came up with some contacts for a U.S. insurance broker that easily got us insurance for both Canada and the U.S. Then the insurance was sent by snail mail to Halifax.
There are also (from what we know) several EU companies that can insure your van for North America, just check online to see if they exist in your country of residence.
In order to get insurance, you need to provide these documents:
- Driving license
- International driving license
- Car documents and registration
If you want to travel safely in North America, it’s sound advice to get extra travel insurance for your vacation time. Many types of insurance can be done in your home country or directly in Canada, online. As you know, North America is pretty expensive when comes down to hospital and medication costs. Better safe than sorry, eh?
Sending Your Van Back to Old Europe
Since we’re not planning on doing that for quite a while, we don’t have so much info about it. We know that the shipping company that took care of our van in Halifax also does the shipping in the opposite way. You can directly ask them for a quotation.
How Long Can You Drive in Canada?
With your van, you’ll be able to drive in Canada as long as your visa lasts. In our case, that’s 3 months. For the USA, our van can stay for one year, but after that we’ll need to take it back or go elsewhere because it doesn’t fall under the law of ‘25+ years or older as a model.’ We’re just short of it at 21 years. Overstaying with your van means taking the risk of having your van confiscated or (gasp!) even destroyed. For your Visa here you can find usefull information.
Tips and Advice for VW Van Owners
If you come with a VW, we can advise (from personal experience) that it’s a good idea to buy some cheap extra or replacement parts in Europe, because it’s not really easy to find them in North America. For example: belts, filters, seals and even some gaskets.
If you have any mechanical problems, make sure you find a good VW mechanic in the area. Many North American mechanics haven’t a clue when it comes to ‘foreign European vehicles.’ Here are two lovelies we found – and tested – on our way:
Finding Kitchen Gas
Before leaving Europe, you’ll need to be prepared for using your propane kitchen bottle while here. We have aboard a 907 Campingaz 3Kg bottle, which is the standard for the EU and you can easily find in many camping stores, hardware stores, etc. Here? Not at all. The North American standard is different, mainly in size and also in how it functions.
You can buy an adaptor online like this one so you can fill your bottle at some of the local propane stations. We don’t have it, so we don’t actually know if it works 100% or not, but we’ll update this post once we’ll find out.
For ‘emergency use’ now (think: morning coffee!), we bought a gas stove at Walmart for $40 CAD and 4 small propane bottles for around $12.
It’s definitely not for long-term, since the small bottles finish pretty quickly. However, as a solution we now have our morning coffee and a hot meal daily. Why didn’t we have our 2 Campingaz bottles filled up before leaving Europe? Because we were told that for shipping, the gas has to be empty for safety reasons. It’s your choice.
Diesel and Gas Prices in North America
A really nice thing about North America is the price of gas. In Canada, it ranges from 85 cents to $1.15 per liter. Not bad at all. Most gas stations have more gas pumps than diesel, but it isn’t difficult at all to find a diesel pump.
Another cost-saving plus: nearly all of the highways in Canada are free, without tolls. Just keep your eye on the speed limit and enjoy the sensational landscapes while you’re driving through.
Shipping our van from Europe to North America was really quite an adventure. A lot of time, money, headaches and frustrations had to be waded through to get here. But we are overjoyed and enjoying the wonders we’re discovering. It’s all exciting. From Niagara Falls oddness to the warmth of a local powwow on an Indian Reservation to meeting up with Sero on the road, it’s been a blast. And so much more to come!
What about you? Have you shipped your van abroad? What was your experience like? Have you got any tips to add? Any questions we haven’t answered? We’d love to hear from you. Just let us know in the comments below!