Relocation companies are booming in China – there are now more than 20 large firms advertising their services to the growing number of foreigners assigned to new posts in country.
But the moving packages on offer are not all the same, and choosing the company that can best meet your needs is especially important in China, which remains one of the most stressful places to move to for any foreigner.
“Everyone now wants to come to China, but it is also the place with the most assignment failures,” said Glenn Bai, business development manager at Santa Fe, one of the largest relocation firms operating in the country.
Problems can emerge right from the beginning. Unlike many other nations, China charges duties on used personal goods imported into the country. Electrical equipment such as televisions can be subject to duties of up to US$135 depending on the size and type.
Though few foreigners can be found lugging heavily appliances through customs, these regulations catch some unawares.
Lukas Birk, a photographer and seasoned traveler, recently arrived in Beijing and used a logistics firm to ship expensive electronic equipment to China. “[The company] didn’t tell me anything. When my stuff got to China, their partner here called me with a list of items that could be taxed up to 50%.”
Customs requirements also vary depending on port of entry.
“In China, there are no uniform regulations for the whole country,” said Dai. “For example, you cannot import a piano to Shanghai, but you can to other cities, albeit at a very high duty.”
Pre-moving advice is one of the features that sets more sophisticated relocation firms apart from basic movers. Companies like Santa Fe and Kings Mover International alert clients to immigration laws and customs regulations before clients make the move and can also give them detailed schedules for tracking their belongings as they clear customs.
Even for clients with previous experience moving house in Asia, surprises can still easily pop up. Santa Fe’s Bai related another story of a client who was moving to Taiwan, having already lived in Singapore and Thailand. The client was expecting to find a new, modern apartment in the center of Taipei.
“[We told him] that’s just not possible because there are no new apartments there. Part of our job is to set expectations straight from the beginning.”
Moving beyond ‘movers’
Nowadays relocation specialists offer a whole range of services, from visa help and finding a home before arrival to setting up a bank account and enrolling in Chinese lessons.
“The goal is to ensure that the new China employees become productive for their company as quickly as possible,” said Bai. “Our job is not just to move the box from London to Beijing but also to make sure we give assignees the tools to adapt to life here.”
Extra help is especially important for those headed to one of China’s second- or third-tier cities, a rising trend in foreign postings.
“[Moving to] second-tier cities needs more hand-holding,” said Bai, whose firm has branches in 14 cities around the country. “There’s less there in terms of schools, and they don’t have the same international medical facilities as Beijing or Shanghai.”
Santa Fe prepares more extensive orientation material for clients going to second-tier cities such as locating English-speaking doctors. It also provides some customers with a VIP phone with the phone numbers of its local consultants and apartment management office pre-programmed.
Old and new hands
Relocation firms say they typically deal with two kinds of clients – the inexperienced expat, making his first move to Asia and those with several moves already under their belts. For the uninitiated, using a relocation firm with seasoned, English-speaking managers can be reassuring.
“It’s a bit like going to the dentist. You need to know that the dentist has also had to sit in the chair,” said Lewis Turner, general manager of Asian Tigers, a relocation firm with branches across China. “This is my ninth country and my sixth in Asia so I’ve been through several moves. All our key management people are also expats with personal moving experience.”
This experience is equally valuable to those with experience moving around Asia, who may develop a false sense of security. “I fell into a trap myself,” Turner said. “I had lived in Hong Kong and traveled regularly to Korea and China, but moving to Beijing, I realized I hadn’t really seen much of life here.”
Visiting a place is much different than moving there, he warns.
Being able to consolidate all the hassles of moving – from packing up to settling in – into one company contact is a major stress reliever. Many multinationals now work with a single moving company that handles all expatriate assignments. These companies, often based in the US, will then recruit local partners to arrange everything.
Local expertise will be especially valuable this year when the Beijing Olympics put a severe strain on short-term housing supply. Rents are expected to double or triple in some cities and certain things will become more difficult to import, according to Bai.
“The equestrian events are causing a huge backlog at customs for all animals including pets,” he said. This might make people think twice about bringing their pets to China before the summer.
They may not be able to make moving house a completely stress-free process, but relocation firms do offer a guiding hand around the potential pitfalls.