A Tale of Two Boxes: Don’t Ship to Portugal

Before I moved to Porto I looked up the logistics of shipping my goods from Thailand to Portugal. Reviews and blog posts screamed: DON’T DO IT. My packages were held up in customs for months, one man said. I had to pay extra tax, despite already paying tax when I bought the item, another blog stated. It was abundantly clear: carry everything on the plane.

Of course, that didn’t happen.  Turkish Airlines made me ship nearly 80% of my belongings from a ThaiPost office Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Transferring the contents of my luggage wasn’t so much of sorting as it was just throwing whatever wasn’t art or electronics into a box until I hit the maximum weight. When I had to get a second box, my friend opened up my carry-on duffle bag and started tossing even more things. I saw a flash of a colorful top and stopped him. “But that’s my favorite,” I said. Having traveled and moved so much, I know which comforts I need in order to feel at home. “You’ll see it in a few weeks,” he said, balling it up and shoving it in the box.

Two Weeks Later

Two weeks later, I was still without either box in Porto. The boxes had arrived in Lisbon one week after me, but they were held up in customs for inspection.

The contents of what made it to Portugal were slim, but manageable: yoga pants, racer-back tank tops, tennis shoes, a rain coat, one scarf, and an assortment of summery dresses and bathing suits because I’ve been living in one of the hottest cities in the world for the past fifteen months.

The mail service that would deliver my boxes once customs released them emailed to tell me that the process would take time. I asked how much. They replied: We inform that, due to the high number of parcels, the customs clearance process is still running, and we ask you to wait.

So I waited. I got an email saying I needed to fill out declaration forms declaring what was in each box and the value. I did.

Then I waited again.

Three Weeks Later

Near the end of my third week I got an email: you need to re-submit your declaration forms.

Again? Okay. So I submitted the forms again: sender/receiver, personal goods, worth 100€.

You need to re-submit your declaration forms.

…sender/receiver, personal goods, 100€.

You need to re-submit your declaration forms.

I added more detail to the form: clothes, blankets, knickknacks, books, a plush chameleon.

You need to re-submit your declaration forms.

FOR THE LOVE OF–I called CTT Expresso. I spoke with a very curt man. “I’ve sent the forms,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?”

“You need to list the sender and receiver,” he said.

“I did. They’re both me.” I explained the chaos of shipping everything from within the Suvarnabhumi Airport.

“You need to list your Portuguese tax number.”

“I did that, too.”

“You need to list what items are in the box and their values.”

“And I did that. Was I too vague? Do I need to be specific?”

“You need to tell us what is in the box.”

At this point I was frustrated with Portugal in general. Three weeks in and I was living in a nice, but dark and cramped hotel room. I had been wearing the same three outfits to  over and over. I was freezing. My visa process was becoming more and more complicated, and my workplace had turned into a dramatic debacle that reminded me of my students, but this time I couldn’t solve things by sending someone out of the room or taking away an iPad. I missed my friends in Bangkok. I missed my routine and the stability. Hell, I even missed my students.

I tried to keep my annoyance from seeping through the phone. “Do you want me to actually list: one pair of black pants, one red dress, one multi-colored dress, and things like that? Or is writing clothing, books, and knickknacks good enough?”

“You need to be specific.”

“But that’s the problem. I don’t know what’s in each box. I have a general idea, but not every single item.” I reiterated the chaos of shipping the boxes.

“You need to tell us what is in the boxes.”

“And if I can’t?”

He didn’t respond. Instead I heard (or imagined) the clicking of a computer mouse. “It says here you valued the boxes at 100€.”

“It’s all used. I have no idea what it’s worth.”

“You need to reevaluate the price.”

I felt like I was back in Asia. “Are you saying the price is too low?”

“You need to reevaluate the price.”

“And the tax I have to pay will be based on that amount, right?”


“So what you’re saying is I need to pay more money?”

“You need to reevaluate–”

“Yeah, I got it. How much do you want me to put?”

“You need to–”

I thanked the man and hung-up. I was dying to take my frustration out on someone, and this guy was curt enough to warrant it, but I also knew that a) he was standing in between me and wardrobe changes and b) I don’t want to live up to the “rude American” stereotype.

Four Weeks Later

I didn’t itemize the declaration forms, but I upped the price on everything. A few days went by and my HR manager got involved. She called CTT Expresso and spoke to a Brazilian woman. My HR manager talked with the woman about what it’s like to try to move to Portugal and how alienating it can be to leave your original country and start all over in a place with new customs, culture, and language. She was right. At this point, I longed to hear the tonal sounds of Thai over Portuguese. I didn’t want croissants or pastel de nata. I wanted pad kra pao and khao soi

The Brazilian lady filed a complaint. Two days later one of my coworkers gasped and poked her head through the staff canteen. “Georgia,” she said, “your box is here!”

I won’t lie: I practically ran. I know we’re all supposed to be zen and not care about material possessions, but after having lost nearly all the contents of my apartment due to Hurricane Irma a little over a year ago–well screw it I want my freaking clothing back. I paid a 100€ in tax and then finally I had at least 60% of my things.

Having one box arrive, I felt confident I’d see the other one soon. In the mean time, I zipped down to Lisbon to apply for a police background check through the Thai Embassy, and my company hired an immigration lawyer for me because it was becoming increasingly obvious that the visa process was too complicated for me (living in Thailand for over a year has given me an extra set of fiery hoops to jump through).

Five Weeks Later

A week after my first box arrived I got an email from CTT Expresso asking for yet another declaration form. I sent it (again! 6 times now–6!) and received a reply that the box had finally left customs and was on its way to Porto.

Six Weeks Later

The box didn’t show. My HR manager called again. This time she spoke to a man, who I suspect was the original curt guy I’d dealt with. She told him about the email saying the box was on the way. The man told her that that wasn’t possible; the box was still at customs. I hadn’t received any such email. My HR manager insisted that I had and the man basically called her crazy. I don’t know the specifics of the rest of the conversation because it was all in Portuguese, but my HR manager suddenly stood up very straight and got very loud. Very, very loud. One of my coworkers messaged me: “She be ANGRY.”

When she hung-up the phone she turned to me. “I don’t know where the box is,” she said. “I don’t think they know either.”

By now I had moved into an apartment. I’d unpacked everything and finally had an idea of what I was missing: all of my favorite items of clothing. I could still envision my friend at the airport going into my carry-on duffel bag and grabbing top after top. You’ll see it in a few weeks.

A few days after this angry phone call, I traveled back down to Lisbon, this time to start my FBI background check with the US Embassy (don’t even get me started on why I couldn’t visit both embassies on the same day). Neither my HR manager, nor I, nor, it seemed, customs or CTT Expresso knew where my box was. I had resigned myself to just not see any of the items again.

As the train approached Lisbon it occurred to me that the box was somewhere in the capital. I looked up the location of the customs office, which was just a mile and a half from the train stop I was approaching. Without much of a thought, I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the train.

The customs location was more warehouse-like than I had expected. I took a number and then explained to a woman behind the counter that I was there to claim a package. She didn’t speak any English and I can’t speak Portuguese, so we fumbled the exchange until I pulled up the declaration form on my phone. The woman told me to wait. A few minutes later she came back with another declaration form and asked me to fill it out.

“But it’s right here,” I said, pointing at my phone. “You…you see it, right?”

Still, she held a pen out to me.

I waited for another fifteen minutes before my number was called again. When I saw the second box I actually squealed. I wanted to say to the entire room: “Do you know what I had to do to get this? Do you know the only reason I’m here is because I took a 6 a.m. train from Porto and I have two hours to kill? Do you know that apparently NO ONE knew where this box was and yet it was magically found in under twenty minutes? DO YOU KNOW HOW SCREWED UP THIS IS?!”

Instead, I took my 20 lbs box and waddled out of the building. I carried it a few blocks to a Decathlon (like an REI, but cheaper) I’d passed in between the train station and customs. I bought a duffel bag and unpacked everything in the middle of a coffee shop. Since I was the only customer, the two baristas watched me bemused as a cheered every time I pulled something out: omg I missed this! And I missed this! AND I MISSED THIS.


I then had about forty minutes to store the bag somewhere, because you can’t take anything that large to the US Embassy, and make it to the embassy for my appointment. And just to make sure I wasn’t feeling too good about myself, it started to pour right as I walked outside.

And Finally…

And finally that was that. I had all of my stuff. It took a lot of perseverance, and never before have I walked into a government office with the sole purpose of demanding something, but it worked! I can change outfits once again, decorate, and start to make my way-too-expensive apartment feel like home.

And let’s recap: my initial choices were to pay 986€ to carry everything onto Turkish Airlines. I chose to ship, which cost about 550€. I then had to go through emotional hell to get one box back, four weeks and another 100€ later. I then went through mental hell (but only 6€ this time? The pricing makes no sense) and had to travel across the country (granted it’s a small country) to get the second box.

All of this for stuff I actually owned! Some of it for nearly ten years! Also, were any of the boxes even opened? Were they inspected by customs? No. So why the six week delay?

As an added note: when customs receives something of yours, you have sixty days to get it from them or they send it back to where it came from. I asked if the sixty days was included in the time it took them to “inspect” the box and continually email me that they were “processing” it. No one even answered that question so I think the answer is: sixty days is sixty days no matter what.

When it comes to shipping things to Portugal: Don’t. Or, if you must, resign yourself to the fact that you may not see it ever again unless you get downright pushy.

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