Christmas In October

19 October 2008

This is just a quick reminder.  If you are an American expat in China and hoping to send Christmas gifts home to the USA, it’s time to mail them.  If you are an American with a friend overseas, it’s time to mail those too, if you want to get them there by Christmas! 

It takes somewhere between eight and twelve weeks for packages sent by parcel post to travel around the globe between the USA and China.  (The shortest time any package ever took for me was about 5 1/2 weeks, and the longest was 13 weeks.)  If you slip up and wait too late, there are other options.  You can use DHL, UPS, and Fed Ex, but those options are more expensive.  Parcel post, however, is not too expensive and can be a great way to share things with your family and friends in your home country. 

There are a couple of ways to mail a package from China to the USA.  Some of the Five Star hotels offer mailing services, or even may have a Chinese post office in their business malls.  The employees in such a post office are more likely to have experience shipping packages overseas and may even speak a bit of English.  Unless you can use one of these services, it’s a good idea to take a Chinese speaking person with you (unless you can speak Chinese yourself).  Some Chinese postal service employees speak English, but don’t count on it! 

Before you go, package your goods sell wrapped in paper or bubble wrap.  Theoretically, the post office sells everything you need, but their inside packing materials are things like hard styrofoam and are not suitable for delicate items.  They also don’t supply packing tape, even if you buy the box from them. 

The postal employees are supposed to make sure that no newspaper is smuggled out of the country in the form of packaging.  One year, I had packed fragile items in newspaper before placing it in the box I carried from home.  The postal employee let me through, but warned me not to do it again.  They are also supposed to inspect and make sure you are not shipping out antiquities or illegal things.  Thus, do not seal the boxes prior to taking them to the postal service.  Leave things so they are easy to inspect.  Similarly, when I’ve shipped gifts, I have wrapped the gift but left the paper so that it was very easy to peek inside and see the contents inside the wrapping paper. 

When the item arrives in the receiving country, Customs there will also inspect it, so you want to have everything in a situation where it’s easy to inspect.  In light of the need to have things available for inspection at the postal service, you will need to carry your tape and packing supplies to seal the boxes up after they are inspected. 

As a matter of caution, I always put a paper inside the box which listed destination address and phone numbers as well as shipper address and phone numbers, and a photocopy of my passport.  That way, if the box were delivered to the wrong place or damaged, someone would know who to call for more information.  I also write the contact information on the outside of the box and place clear packing tape over the information, which is in addition to the shipping label.  I write the address in Chinese as well, because Chinese postal employees don’t all read English or Pinyin.  Probably not necessary, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.  I also never purchased the optional insurance.  Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t figure out how I’d ever collect on a claim if one arose.  Even this summer, when our air shipment boxes arrived here badly mishandled, the carrier claimed that the damage had occurred during Customs inspection.  (Fortunately, the contents had been rummaged through but not damaged.)

When you first arrive at the postal office, show the postal worker at the counter your boxes.  They may ask you (in Chinese), "ground or air?"  This distinction made for domestic envelopes does not apply to international shipments.  For international shipments, you fill out the international form and then figure out shipping cost based on weight and method of shipping. 

There are three different prices for shipping boxes internationally.  The cheapest way is to go by land (or sea) all the way, with no air component.  This is the option that takes about eight weeks.  The most expensive method is to air ship the box.  This will take somewhere between one and two weeks.  There is a third option, which is to send by a mixture of air and ground freight.  This third option will take about four weeks, so you really split the difference.  The third option also costs the average between the air and freight, so it is also the middle price tag.  When you take  your boxes to the desk the first time, they can weigh them, look up your destination, and tell you the exact cost for the three different choices.  Then comes the fun part. 

The job’s not finished until the paperwork is done. 

I heartily advise taking a hard pen and plenty of carbon paper to the Post Office when you mail your boxes from inside China.  This is because you will have to fill out each address form in triplicate.  I never had foresight to take carbon paper, but it is readily available in the little office supply shops that dot the city.  While you fill out your paperwork, make sure someone watches your boxes.  One time, one of my boxes disappeared while I was distracted with paperwork.  (Thank goodness, it was an empty box.  I’d like to think that someone thought it was an extra, but no one asked.  It was a reminder that all it takes is a moment of inattentiveness and you may have a very big loss.) 

In addition to the address forms, you will need to fill out a Customs declaration.  The postal worker will give this form to you.  One time I took my receipts for the items, to show them to the postal worker.  He said he didn’t care, that my Customs declaration was for U.S. Customs.  If they were to question me, he said, that’s when I’d have to produce receipts.  The form tells you to itemize and then put what you paid.  I generally said something about as detailed as, "six shirts, 300 RMB."   One time when I was sending a large box with a bunch of small "goodies" for some children in my family, I just wrote "various small gifts for children" and that went through Customs okay.  Of course, they had the option of looking in the box and they could see exactly what I meant.  Always assume that your boxes will be opened by Customs. 

For heavens sake, don’t try to ship in counterfeit goods.  Anything brand new with that designer label and certificate of authenticity is going to be stopped.  Also, don’t try to ship DVD’s to the USA.  Forget sending Grandma a Rolex watch or Mont Blanc pen!  There are nightmare stories about fines for people trying to do this.  In my view, we consumers are merely the victims.  How am I to know whether something is fake or not, but U.S. Customs will rank you right up there with the most reviled smugglers.  One time my husband got stopped and interrogated by Customs over his personal golf clubs.  The only thing that saved him was the dirt and scratches on them. 

This brings us to what is allowed to be in the box that you ship.  Different countries have different rules about food.  Australia is the most strict.  Australia won’t even let parents bring in baby formula in bottles.  So, no, do not try to ship even packaged food to Australia!  On the other hand, the USA is really only concerned about things that could bring in germs or seeds that could disrupt the environment or gene pool here in this country.  Packaged and processed food is okay. 

One time, for example, I had some dried apricots in my bag that I had purchased at a street market.  I assumed they were forbidden, so I pulled them out and showed them to the Customs officer as I entered the U.S. at an airport.  He replied, "we’re not concerned about those," and let me carry them into the country.  That’s because they were preserved and did not have any seeds that could grow.  I could not, however, have carried in a fresh apple, because it had seeds. 

With that said, one of the funnest gifts I sent "home," I think, was that one time I went to a Chinese grocery store and purchased packaged snack foods that you simply would not find in the USA.  It was things like eel flavored potato chips, strawberry flavored popcorn, shredded dried pork, and Chinese flower teas.  These were a fun treat for some children in my family to sample. 

All in all, a trip to the Chinese post office is a challenging trip.  Count on it taking at least an hour, longer if you have a lot of boxes, but lots of people do it with good success.  The people in the post office will work with you.  It’s helpful to have plenty of time, patience, and a Chinese friend to help you navigate. 

And in the end, there will be something from you and hopefully for you under that tree on Christmas day! 

Good luck! 

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