You load 16 tons, and what do you get

Shipping containers. Tax exemptions. One of the questions that comes up when you start thinking about moving to the Philippines permanently is: what do you do with all your stuff?  Over the years, most of us accumulate large quantities of furniture, appliances, electronics, books, tools, etc.  Do we store it? Give it to the Salvation Army? Hold a giant yard sale? Cram it all into balikbayan boxes?

It’s common knowledge that you’re entitled to bring in one shipping container of personal and household goods, exempt from VAT tax and import duties, if you get a permanent resident visa such as a 13A (spousal visa) or an SRRV (retiree visa).  It says so right here: (This also applies to returning overseas Filipino workers.)

In an unbelievably laborious and expensive experiment which I hope to never ever repeat, we have proved that this can actually be done.  For the benefit of any others who may be rash enough to let their wives talk them into this, and would like to know what they’re getting into, here are some random observations, which is the best I can manage at the moment since I’m still tired and cranky from working like a carabao loading and unloading 16,700 pounds of stuff. (Yes, I know that’s not quite 16 tons. Poetic license. Yes, I had help. Even so.)

Our container made it, let me help you with yours
Our container made it, let me help you with yours

Anyway, here’s what it takes to ship a 40 foot container from the U.S. to the Philippines:

1. Hire a customs broker at whatever port you’re shipping to.  You don’t need any Philippine government paperwork to load and ship the container — that part comes later.  You do need to have transport lined up ready to receive the container at the destination port. The ocean shipping company requires this.  They want to be sure they have someone to call to pick up the container when it’s unloaded from the ship, and it has to be a company on their approved list, since they want to be sure of getting the container back after you unload it. (Containers are expensive.)  As a practical matter, you need a customs broker anyway, and a customs broker can set up the transport, so best to get this lined up before you start.  (It was surprisingly hard to find a customs broker who was familiar with shipping of personal goods. After some shopping around, we used Fely Morata (0919 825 7881), a customs broker here in Davao, who did a creditable job.)

2. Figure out what you’re allowed to bring.  As with many things here in the Philippines, the rules are somewhat subject to interpretation – what things qualify as “household goods”, and how much is a “commercial quantity”?  It’s wise to discuss any possibly questionable items with your customs broker, in detail, with pictures if necessary.  Shipping vehicles is a non-starter – it can be done, in theory, but vehicles don’t qualify for duty exemption, and the taxes are very high (see  Also be sure to check U.S. export restrictions – things like firearms, cash, pirated software, etc. may get you in trouble with U.S. authorities.

3. Figure out how you’re going to load and unload.  There are two main options: (a) do it yourself, or (b) let the moving company do it.  I’m far too tightwad to spring for option (b), which potentially adds thousands to the cost. We were going to have to box all the smaller stuff ourselves anyway, and a big advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is you don’t have to box everything, you can fit a lot of non-fragile things into the nooks and crannys between the bigger items.  Anyway, I’ve schlepped all this stuff through several other moves, each time loading it all in a couple of U-Haul trucks – how hard could it be?

What will you bring?
What will you bring?

So I had this fantasy that a shipping container would magically appear on my front lawn one morning, like a roll-off dumpster, and I would take, say, a week, and fill it up an item at a time, same as with the U-Hauls.  Well, no. The standard deal for a self-load is, you get two hours.  Extra hours, depending on the company, are quoted at anything from $40 to $100 per hour.  In theory, you can get a “dropoff”, where they leave the container for a few days, but for that they typically charge double drayage.  “Drayage” is the charge for trucking the container to and from the port.  We were in Phoenix, the port is in Los Angeles, drayage was about $1,500, not something I was eager to double.   Bottom line: unless you live near a port, or unless you have everything already in storage and well enough organized that you can load 2,500 cubic feet of stuff in two hours or so, you need to find a company that can organize a several day dropoff without charging double drayage. Which brings us to the real challenge:

4. Find a shipper.  This was by far the hardest part.  In case this isn’t obvious (it wasn’t to me), you don’t deal directly with the ocean shipping company (the company that operates the ship, Maersk Lines in our case). You deal with an international moving company that arranges to get the container, transport it to your location for loading, transport it to the port afterward, and do all the required paperwork with U.S. Customs and the ocean shipping company.

If you google for “ship container to Philippines”, you’ll find lots of companies that will claim to be able to do it.  As best I can tell, a shockingly high percentage of them are ripoffs. Take a look at if you don’t believe me.  Keep in mind that whatever company you choose is going to have thousands of dollars of your money, in advance, plus all your worldly goods — this leaves you in a poor bargaining position if they then start inventing new things to charge you for.  You can check the Federal Maritime Commission web site to be sure that the company you choose is licensed and bonded (see, especially the section on “Moving Household Goods” and the material on “rogue movers”).  Unfortunately, though, lots of the sharks are licensed, so it’s essential to do your homework and thoroughly check out the reputation of whatever company you’re going to use.

Bringing a container to the Philippines
Bringing a container to the Philippines

In our case, we started out by requesting bids from all the companies we could find on google. We chose a company in Florida that seemed the most reasonable, and made what we thought was a deal over the phone. Weeks went by, with several broken promises, two increases in the price, and no sign of the promised written booking. Then the deal changed from a three day dropoff to six hours.  With our departure date looming, and now gambling $2,500 of non-refundable plane tickets on whether this company would show up as agreed, it was time to rethink the plan. While looking through consumer protection sites like, I ran across several posts by a seemingly knowledgeable moving company executive (Art Haddow, of Premier Van Lines), so I called him up to get some advice. As luck would have it, his company turned out to be headquartered less than two miles from my house.  When I explained the problem, he gave me a quote that was less than any of the others I had gotten, and – the important part – he was able to arrange to pick up a container that was already in Phoenix, thus getting us a four day dropoff with no extra charge for double drayage from Los Angeles. (For my money, Art is the real deal – after we shipped, the ocean shipping company added several hundred dollars of “surprise” charges, but Art stuck to his original quote as agreed. My best piece of advice to anyone in the U.S. thinking of doing this is: call Art.  (877) 668 6825.)

Plenty of helpers available in the Philippines!
Plenty of helpers available in the Philippines!

One other bit of advice: if your destination port is not Manila, route the shipment so that it arrives there directly. Ours went from LA to Malaysia, where the container was transferred to another ship going to Davao, so we cleared customs in Davao – no problem. I have talked to others whose shipment went through Manila, and they were required to clear customs in Manila, and had to unload the container and load everything into a different container for shipment to the ultimate destination.

5.  Load the container.  This was another place where the U-Haul fantasy broke down. They don’t actually “drop off” the container – they park a semi-trailer in front of your house, with the container sitting on it.  This means that the floor of the container is four and a half feet above the ground.  It doesn’t come with a lift gate or a ramp, either. Here, too, Art came through for us – after pointing out the problem, he loaned us a 16 foot ramp, of the kind used for loading vehicles.  I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if I had gone with the original company, and wound up having to load the piano, the refrigerator, etc., plus everything else, without a ramp, in two hours.

Containers differ from U-Hauls in another way: containers don’t have convenient rails along the inside for tying everything down. Ours had metal loops, floor and ceiling, every ten feet; I’m told some don’t have even that. You have to load the container in such a way that items can’t shift around too much, so it needs to be full, or at least full up to some point where you can tie down something big enough to keep the rest from shifting. In our case it didn’t appear that there had been much movement, but ships don’t always stay level, and crane operators can get careless.  Our biggest challenge was my wife’s two china hutches, complete with mirror backs and glass doors, the results of a multi-month china-hutch-hunting odyssey on Craigslist, and which she would, given the choice, sooner part with a kidney than turn loose of either of them. Miraculously, both arrived undamaged, standing vertically, sandwiched between mattresses.

Keep in mind that one of the requirements for the tax exemption is a detailed packing list, so don’t forget to note down what you’re loading. Ours listed boxes by category (i.e. 20 boxes of books), and separately loaded items individually (i.e. 2 sofas), and this seemed to satisfy the Department of Finance. It’s also necessary to declare the value of the shipment; as best I could determine, the usual practice is to declare $1,500.  More than $2,500 requires additional U.S. Customs paperwork and a fee, and also there’s no point declaring a high amount and setting oneself up for high taxes if the exemption falls through for some reason.

6.  Get the tax exemption.  To get the tax exemption, you need a letter from the Philippine Department of Finance. Their policy (I have no idea why) is that you cannot apply for this letter until three business days before the shipment is due to arrive, but it also has to be within 60 days after your own arrival. (Transporting the container from the U.S. takes four to six weeks, if everything goes right.)  In theory, you can have a representative get the exemption letter, but we went to Manila and did it ourselves.  The requirements were:

A lot of truckloads!
A lot of truckloads!

The packing list;
The bill of lading (provided by the shipper)
Copy of marriage contract
ACR card, or copy of application for ACR card
Passport and 13A visa
Notarized affidavit
Letter to Dept. of Finance requesting the exemption.

If these requirements are published anywhere, I haven’t found it. Instead, call Cynthia Delantar at the Dept. of Finance (phone number 02 526 8458 in Manila), who was very helpful in telling us what was needed. She also told me over the phone what the affidavit needed to say; I typed it up myself, we took it to a notary and got it notarized, and it seemed to work.  Despite my skepticism, Ms. Delantar turned out to be right that we could get this all done in one day – we arrived at the DOF (in the Bangko Sentral complex on Roxas) at 9 a.m. and had the letter by 2 p.m.  Then we were sent across town to the Bureau of Customs for some additional signatures, which took another couple of hours, but we still made it back to Davao the same day.

7. Get the container and unload it. Getting the container sprung from customs was a total non-event. Exemption notwithstanding, I was expecting a spirited bargaining session, probably lubricated with wads of pesos. My wife is quite good at those, and I was looking forward to watching, figuring it would be entertaining, but it didn’t happen. As best I can tell, the container was never opened, no questions were asked, and no “grease” was offered or asked for.

In theory, you can have the container trucked to your house and unload it there. In our case — ferry crossing to Samal, tight corners, narrow dirt road – wasn’t going to happen. We borrowed a corner of a parking lot and unloaded into three smaller trucks. No ramp, but approximately eight able-bodied helpers, so unloading only took a day.

Cost breakdown (not including packaging, strapping, and other incidentals, and not including cost of trip to Manila to get the exemption letter):

Shipping, Phoenix to Davao, including four day dropoff: $4,478
Labor during loading the heavy stuff, 3 helpers, 4 hours each: $150
Fee for exemption letter: P260
Customs broker’s fee and processing fees: P10,400
Wharfage and other related charges: P6,795
Truck transport to and from unloading site: P4,000
Rental of trucks to transport after unloading: P10,000
Ferry charges and tolls: P7,600
Labor during unloading and transport: P8,000

Total cost: about $5,700

Conclusion: it can be done. Was it a good idea? I’d say the jury is still out on that. I’m glad I didn’t have to figure out how to get rid of 16,700 pounds of accumulated possessions and then replace a lot of it here. I’m not sure paying $5,000+ to ship it all here was the smartest solution, but at least my wife has her beloved china hutches.

Post Author: Jack Emery (6 Posts)

Jack Emery is a guest writer participating on the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine.

Live in the Philippines Consulting


  1. JohnM says

    Jack: Probably one of the more valuable articles to appear on this site… Anyone who is contemplating this should print it out and keep it close at hand.

    I would say you were very lucky… Being in the maritime industry, I can tell you that shipping is geared towards massive loads and commodities… Not some guy’s furniture. As you found out, this is one area in which you should not penny pinch nor play games.

    • says

      John, I appreciate the kind comments, especially from someone who has written as many valuable articles on this site as you have. I didn’t realize you were in the maritime industry — ocean shipping is definitely a lot more complicated than I assumed.

      • Michael St.Dizier says

        Hi Jack, I’m wanting to ship to a church in the Philippines donation, clothes and household goods. Question whats better to do buy or rent container? The church i’m shipping to can utilize a container if its not much more, i’ve seen used containers for around $1500.

    • roy says

      I totally agree John. I was about to copy paste or what. But as I read it to the end, I have this sinking feeling that it’s too much work and not exactly cost effective.
      But thank you jack for this valuable information. :-)

      • says

        Roy, as best I can tell, when you’ve accumulated an adult lifetime’s worth of stuff, there isn’t any solution that isn’t too much work and not exactly cost effective. And actually it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared, or as it could have been. Basically loading the container wasn’t all that much harder than moving by UHaul, which we’ve done several times. Unloading was much easier, with all the help. It was expensive, but on a per mile basis far cheaper than a UHaul. The exemption paperwork was no big deal, a one day thing. So don’t let me discourage you.

    • Jun Prado says

      This article will definitely benefit many. I could say I will be one of them. Those contacts in Pinas is precious. My origin will be in Australia. Full cost of a 20 foot container drop at your doorsteps to be picked up after a week and shipped to Manila will just cost AUD2,000.00.

      The information about how to received the container in Manila and having a waiver to have the goods tax free, is many don’t know. On less than handful broker from over a dozen brokers I emailed and asked about. They always reply only the first 10,000.00 pesos. The succeeding will be be taxed accordingly.

      I could only say, Well done 16 Tons.

    • says

      Thanks, Brian. I’ve benefitted a lot from the advice of others on this site and elsewhere in the process of becoming an “Am-Fil” — the learning curve is surprisingly steep in places. I hope some of this turns out to be useful to someone.

  2. John says

    Jack-Fantastic article- My company did the move for me and they were so frustrated trying to source a decent broker who knew the rules, sadly there was some grease money in my adventure. My only nightmare was getting the truck into the compound—it wouldn’t fit past the gate house so the community was able to see every item I owned.

    The only mistake I made was bringing small appliances, I thought “I’ll remember to use the transformer” ya right zap zap almost all gone.

    • says

      Thanks, John. I’ve never actually done a move where an employer handled it — mostly been self-employed — must be nice. Getting trucks that size through some of the narrow streets we have around here would definitely be a challenge — in our case, there was a ferry trip involved so that was a non-starter. Haven’t zapped any small appliances so far, but we’ll see. In the house we’re building we’re supposedly wiring 110 into the kitchen, so that should avoid at least some of the problem.

      • John says

        Having 110 would be so nice, I visit Baguio often and for some reason most of the houses are 110 there. I think the nicest thing doing the container was like you a piano. But for me being able to bring my beds was a must, I have looked all over Manila and I really don’t see the quality. But the highlight is my gas BBQ–I have seen ones that cost $200-400 in Canada sell for 38K – 75K.

        • says

          John, my impression is 110 is easier to do that it appears. Most of the transformers on the pole here, at least in this area, are the same 220 transformers as the ones in the US. They have three terminals on the side, the middle is the common and the two outside ones are the 110, 180 degrees out of phase. Here, they usually just run a wire from the center terminal to a stake in the ground and wire the house with the two outside ones. I’m told that if you can persuade, bribe, or whatever the power company folks to run you a wire from the middle terminal, you can wire the house (or part of it) on 110 just like in the US. We’ll find out, I guess, we’re still under construction.
          Definitely agree about the piano. If I had it to do over I think I might sell the piano and get a better one to bring (kind of attached to this one, though, my son learned on it ). My wife definitely agrees about the beds, that was another thing she was pretty determined about. We’re very spoiled that way. Lot of folks here sleep on wooden or bamboo platforms — I tried it once and boy was I sore.

  3. PaulB says

    So do you think its it better to ship mutiple balakbayan boxes shipped to Davao or use a Container as you did? Sounds as though as long as you don’t have non collapsible items like a Vehicle it’s probably overall easier to ship multiple boxes than a container? Like you, I have been told to get a container, but I’m not convinced!

    • Gary says

      I believe Paul K wrote an article a while back about only shipping balikbayan boxes. It all depends on what you want to bring, what you want to give up. The cost to ship vs the cost to replace – or just live without. Obviously furniture won’t fit in a balikbayan box, large TV, or other electronics you may not be able to or want to ship by box. The value of bringing appliances is debatable. But if you’ve pared all your stuff down to things that will fit into balikbayan boxes, I’d say that’s the way to go – you can ship a lot of boxes for the same amount of money and probably less stress.

      • says

        I tend to agree with that. My wife did some scouting around re what it would cost to replace furniture, and seemed to conclude that it would be fairly expensive. It kind of surprises me how expensive a lot of the furniture and appliances are here, you’d think with the low cost labor and the proximity to Japan and China all that stuff would be cheap, but it doesn’t seem to be. And in the U.S., nowadays especially, at least in Phoenix, you can get furniture and appliances in excellent condition off Craigslist, practically given away. As best I can tell there isn’t much of a used market here in Davao (if there is one and I just don’t know about it I hope someone will tell me) — seems like everyone keeps their stuff once they have it so you’re stuck buying new.

        • roy says

          Hi Jack, w/o looking at the link below, I’d say your appraisal on the cost of furniture in the Phil is spot on. American society is very mobile. When they relocate, most Americans just bring w/ them their suitcase. ( I used to observe this in the movies haha) But as it turned out, this is fairly true. People leave their plates, books, some furniture right in the alley. In Craigslist, there’s actually a section for Free Stuff. Nothing of that sort exists in the Philippines.

          • says

            Roy, I think you’re right. I have the impression this is much less a throwaway society than the U.S. — here, most of the people we know have fewer things, but what they have they really take care of.

    • says

      From Phoenix, we could ship BB boxes for $75 a box, did that many times over 20 years and never any problem. A jumbo box is 6 cubic feet, no weight limit, so that’s $12.50 per cubic foot. A 40 foot shipping container is about 2400 cubic feet useable interior space, assuming you fill it fairly full, so if it cost ~$6k, that’s about $2.50 per cubic foot. The $6k would cover shipping about 80 BB boxes. I’d say if you can fit all the stuff you care about in 80 BB boxes or less, clearly that would be the way to go. That probably would have been my choice if I had been making the decision for myself alone, but my wife had some furniture and appliances that she really wanted to keep, and I have to admit there were also a few things that I was happy to be able to keep that wouldn’t have fit in a BB box (my cello, the piano, a few shop tools, my windsurfer, etc). We finally decided that if we did BB boxes we would be close to the $6k anyway, and by doing the container we were basically free to throw in whatever we wanted, so that’s what we did. But I have to tell you we flip-flopped on that decision several times along the way.

  4. Gary says

    Great post, and excellent contacts that you can vouch for. Anyone thinking about this from the US will really benefit.

    We went through the process in ’09. Finding a good shipper at a fair price can be time consuming and stressful. Seems most of the movers specializing in international shipping typically work with relocating execs, so they can be pricey since the employers are paying. We also went a cheaper DYI route.

    It’s been over a year and half so I don’t remember all the details now. We shipped a 20 footer. Packed it in Dallas in July. Coming from Phoenix you’d probably laugh when I say it was hot, but it was hot :)

    • says

      Thanks, Gary. Fortunately we did it in the winter, so the heat wasn’t a problem. There is no way I would try to load a container in Phoenix in the summer.

    • lew says

      hey gary….i live about 20 miles from dallas…..can you email me the name of the shipping company that you used…..and also the name of the broker in the phils that you used?? and any other advice that you can give me ……thx…..i soooooooooooooooo appreciate it……..ya i know its a lot of of headaches but im sure it was worth it to keep your wife happy as i want to do the same for mine..hahahah…… have a nice day…..

  5. DWAYNE says

    When I move over here I will not bring much of anything as I have determined that as much as I like many of the things I now have in my home in the USA most of it is not worth the expense or hassle to bring it here. Except for some artwork most all of it is easily replaceable with new things here which would be mostly furniture related. Now for sure I will bring some things like kitchen related, bedding, towels and other small items which can be shipped safely by balikbayan box. If I decide to bring in my precious artwork (painting and sculture) I will do so LCL tax free at a much reduced cost. But in all honesty in my opinion to spend 5k to bring stuff to the Philippines is just plain nuts!!!I mean why lug 20 boxes of books you have already read. Buy books here at the millions of second hand book stores. Garage sales or craigslist in the states can be very productive and the money you generate can more than cover your new purchases here coupled with the savings from not shipping and all the hassles thereof. I actually am interested in simplifying my life so I would not consider shipping my stuff here it in a million years but it appears it worked for you so congrats.

    • says

      Dwayne, I hear you. I thought it was kind of nuts myself. But when I penciled out what it was likely to wind up costing for BB boxes and replacing appliances, the numbers weren’t all that different. Your comment about books brings up an interesting point — I did bring a lot of books, which I use in my work, and which I can’t replace here. You mention millions of second hand book stores, I haven’t seen any in Davao, if someone knows where there are some I’d love to know about them. But the other factor is, I’ve become a huge fan of ebooks since we came over here — hopefully, very soon we won’t have to lug any books around at all, all we need to carry is a Kindle or whatever. I kept my Phoenix library membership active and they have lots of ebooks now, you just check them out online.

    • ian says

      Dwayne- when I left 2 years ago I sold lots of stuff through Craigslist- and boy was I surprised. Few people there want to buy used things. My 4 month old microwave which I paid $120 for went for $10- and even that took me 6 weeks. A new one – not top of the line- cost me 3500 pesos at nccc mall. I realize that the one i sold was 110 but a transformer for small items only cost 450 pesos

      • DWAYNE says

        A few years back I sold a Heywood Wakefield dining table and chairs for only 25% less than what I paid for it. The same for a Natuzzi leather couch. I guess maybe it depends on the items and the market you live in but yes you are right many items won’t go for very especially kitchen related. I however, have top of the line stuff and it holds its value fairly well so in my case I think that using online selling sites will work out for me. I have also come to the conclusion that if I live in Manila I can prettty much have this high end stuff again buying from Ethan Allan and other quality stores in Fort Bon, Makati or Rockwell, etc.. but if I chose to live in the province then I will get nice stuff but not even remotely close to high end. I am an admitted snob LOL and can’t relate to fake leather, vinyl or polyester but those that can will adapt here much more easier than me. The province and all its critters will devastate furniture, artwork, etc… as I have that information first hand from friends I have made here that have lost many things to the unforgiving environment. I won’t make that mistake and will need to find a compromise with my snobbery somehow LOL

        ALSO, After reading today that HSBC and other banking institutions are predicting a 35 peso by 2012 I would urge caution about bringing stuff over here unless you are prepared financially to stay here permanently as there is no doubt, many will be heading in the opposite direction (back to USA or Vietnam, Cambodia) as they won’t be able to afford the Philippines anymore.

        • says

          If the peso does go to 35 in 2012 it won’t just be foreigners who will be in a world of hurt. The Philippine economy is very dependent on remittances, and everyone is getting a double whammy with inflation up and the dollar down. At some point you’d get political instability. Also it would be terrible for exporters. I wouldn’t think the Philippine government would let it go that far if they can help it — which they easily can by just printing more money. My bet would be the low is 42ish and then back the other way, but heaven knows I’m no genius when it comes to exchange rates, if I could predict them I’d be a lot wealthier than I am.

          • DWAYNE says

            I hope you are right. A stronger peso would be terrible for the Philippines. The real estate market would get slammed and could plunge the economy in economic chaos and then politcal chaos. I am thinking around 40 to 41 and even that would be quite challenging for the thousands surviving just on SS.

      • says

        That was our experience too. I did sell some stuff on Craigslist but didn’t really even get enough to pay me for the time to fool with it — sold an electric welder for $20, a boat trailer for $100, had a nearly new window a/c that cost almost $300, listed it for $100, not a single call. I think Dwayne is right that you do better on high end stuff, but in this economy, at least in Phoenix, everyone is selling and no one is buying. If I were doing this over again I’d think real seriously about just giving away a lot of our furniture and buying higher quality stuff on Craigslist to ship over here — it wouldn’t have cost that much, there’s tons of it out there.

  6. Dan says

    I think it was a great post for those that need or want or just have to bring all their stuff with them to the Phillipines. My self if I were to move there…I would just bring a suitcase and have plenty of money tucked away and buy what I wanted when was there…..Of course I understand those that have a wife that has been with them from the Phillipines and living in another country and then they both decide to move back…..well sure that is a different story…..because most women love to hang on to their stuff from what I have seen…..and sure it becomes a big battle if you the man says something like this……”we really do not need to bring all this stuff…….after all its just stuff”.

    • says

      Thanks, Dan. I can’t really blame my wife on this one, it was a joint decision, and we probably brought more of my stuff by weight than hers. I definitely understand the temptation to go light and start fresh. However, another thing that one doesn’t think about until the time comes is that it isn’t all that easy to get rid of 20 years of accumulated stuff even if you wanted to. A lot of it you can’t even throw away, at least in Tempe they’re very strict about what can go in the trash, and a rolloff dumpster is expensive. Goodwill nowadays is fairly picky about what they will take. Basically, you wind up with a lot of stuff that you hate to throw away, but that you’d have to make a career out of listing zillions of items on Craigslist and keeping track of it all if you want to sell it. So there are a lot of factors to consider.

  7. Chasdv says

    Hi Jack,
    Interesting story with some good advice for those considering the same,but not for me,way too much hassle.Western furniture from cooler climates does not last well in the tropics and $5700 buys a lot of local furniture in PH.
    I’m all for selling off and starting over again,apart from a few BB boxes of personal stuff,then again there is only me to move,lol.

    • says

      Chas, there’s a lot of appeal in the starting over approach. How much furniture $5700 buys depends on where you are, I think. I get the impression it buys quite a bit in Manila. Here in Davao, it doesn’t seem to, or maybe I just haven’t found the right places yet. But my wife is from here and we have lots of extended family here, so I imagine she would know. Appliances, especially, seem to be fairly expensive here.

      • Steven says

        Jack, I really don’t think it buys you that much in the way of furniture. Even up here in Manila stuff is really quite expensive.

        • says

          Steven, I agree, my impression is a few thousand + Craigslist back in Phoenix you could furnish a whole house with fairly nice stuff including appliances. Here in Davao the choice seems to be either WalMart quality stuff in the mall at high prices, or local made stuff, some of which is very beautiful but correspondingly expensive.

    • AussieLee says

      Hi Chas & Jack,
      You have written my post for me, Chas. Exactly my thoughts. When it comes to moving possessions=STRESS, the less the better. You are also dead right about the suitability of western items in the tropics. Just keep a few boxes of treasured personal items AND whatsmore, I would even then, in the first instance, only take from this box what I actually needed. Most westerners will return home within a few years so leave this stuff with a trusted, stable family member back “home”. If you decide you are staying permanently then organise things on a trip home.

      • says

        AussieLee, actually that was one factor that made me lean toward going ahead with the container. Our intent was to move here permanently, so I’d rather not make it too easy to give up and go back. Sometimes its better to burn a few bridges . . . .

    • Paul Thompson says

      Jack & Chas;
      Over the years I’ve found that the quality and the design of most furniture is nothing I’d be interested in. As for shipping from overseas even less desirable. This country is chock-a-block full of talented furniture/cabinet makers. 95% of my furniture is hand made locally, I’ll go on line, print the pictures of what I want made, pick out the type/quality of wood I want, and negotiate a price. I’ve yet to have replace anything so far, as it’s stood the test of time.

      • says

        Paul, that sounds like a good strategy. Maybe you could take that as a topic for one of your excellent articles some time, and give us some more detail. As I described in response to another comment here, we tried getting a piece of furniture made that way, with fairly poor results. I’m guessing that like everything else there are some tricks to it, and it sounds like you would know what they are.

        • Paul Thompson says

          There is no real trick to finding a craftsmen, just a lot of investigation.
          While visiting with friend, you notice a piece of furniture that is quality made. Inquire as to where it was made, and by whom. I won’t ask the price as that’s the Kano in me. Restaurants, Hotels and resorts, ask the manager where you could find quality made items like they have. After the complement I paid them, most are more than happy to share their knowledge, and the name of the company are the person who made it. Word of mouth and asking questions is how it worked for me.

  8. says

    Excellent article — should be required reading for anyone contemplating a shipping container for household goods. I particularly liked the ” give up a kidney” reference. Convince me the route to go is the use of balikbayan boxes for important personal stuff only.

  9. says

    Thanks Rich. Yeah, probably be sleeping outside with the dog a couple nights for that ‘kidney’ comment. I tend to agree, if you can get it all into BB boxes, it’s way easier.

  10. Pita Mike says

    I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this, I don’t wanna go through this,

    We have nice stuff, but nice stuff can be replaced with other nice stuff. With the money we make selling all our nice stuff at a garage sale or on Craigs list, along with $6k + in shipping costs will give my funny little honey some nice new stuff. And God knows how she likes to shop!

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    Did I mention how much I don’t wanna go through this?

    • Steven says

      It really depends Brian on the quality you want and where you go to buy it.

      A few examples…

      Our king size bed with a solid wood headboard cost me 15,000peso. I had seen the same bed design in SM for 40,000peso.

      A very standard laminated wardrobe will go for anything between 5000 – 10000 peso.

      A cheap sofa will go from 20,000peso. Most of the nicer, European style ones, will go for closer to 50,000peso.

      A cheap microwave will be 3000peso +++. (and thats for the cheap ones).
      The latest flat screen tv’s are going for around 200,000peso at the moment. About the cheapest you will get a 40inch tv for is around 50,000peso (for the locally made ones)
      Your looking at 20,000 – 40,000 peso for a gas powered stove and oven.

      • Chasdv says

        Steven,you know whats interesting about your list,apart from TV prices,all the other PH prices are about equal to UK prices.

    • John says


      It is so hard to calculate and compare furniture, quality doesn’t exist, unless custom made. I had a shoe rack made and it cost me 22K. So much MDF low end stuff is what locals cherish.
      All I can say is after Ondoy my insurance company valued my furnishings at 1.8 million pesos, the same contents are valued at half in Canada. I am on my way to Thailand and I asked the question and the value is in line with the CDN valuation, which leads me to believe costs are double to replace items, but I have no clue where I could buy such items.

      Most of the appliaces may say Marks of Canada, or American Home—it means nothing all low end private label from China.

      My condo didn’t have hot water showers, the local cost was 14K installed and in BKK I can buy a better unit for 3K PHP, plus 1K fee from a local to install.

      I had a mate who decided to buy local and it drove her nuts, it took her months to set up properly, it is one thing to see what you want but the added delivery fees and chaos wasn’t worth the pain.

      Post your list of hot items, and I can see when I am out what prices could be in MNL.

      • says

        John, that must be a heck of a shoe rack. Our experience with local custom made has been less than totally satisfactory — I ordered a piece of furniture which was supposed to be ready in two weeks for 10000 pesos, it took over two months, the price more than doubled, then the maker refused to come out and put it together as agreed unless we paid another thousand (at which point I refused and did it myself), and despite giving them detailed dimensions there were substantial deviations from what I ordered, a lot of it obvious corner-cutting to save costs. If I ever do it again, I’m going to want to see what they’re coming up with at every step, and I won’t let them get ahead of me on the advances.

  11. Bruce Michels says

    Your article has truley answered a thousand questions. As for myself shipping all of my household effects via container no way. Reading about your expierence and from what I know you were alot more patient than I ever would be.
    Showed my wife the article and your cost. Then I asked her do you want to ship our OLD FURNITURE our would you like to have that money and buy new furniture to put into you new home. Her eyes lite up and she cracked a small smile. Need I tell you the answer. BB Boxes here we come!!!
    Great job Jake you saved me days perswation and nights on the couch. :)

    • says

      Bruce, always glad to be of service. However, there is of course a third alternative, which is get rid of your old furniture, buy a bunch of good stuff on Craigslist, and ship that, along with all your stuff that you’d prefer to keep. If I were doing it again I believe that’s what I would do. As it was, we didn’t nail down a shipper that I felt I could trust until only a couple of weeks before we had to load, so there just wasn’t time to do that. But I would venture the guess that in most US cities, a few thousand on craigslist will get you very much more and better quality stuff than you can get here for the same amount — in the US, especially now, furniture and appliances are practically given away. (I may be wrong about that, we haven’t been here that long so I’m no expert on what’s available here.)

      • Bruce Michels says

        I think the best approach to my move is a few boxes of personal effects and start life anew.
        When I mean anew everything new except the wife :)
        She loves to shop and decorate so heck let the fun begin and give our stateside stuff to the kids they were asking for it anyway. But to their disappiontment all my electronics are 110/240 so they will be coming with me minus the tv’s. Jokes on them. :0

  12. Craig says

    Well, reading all these coments. I guess im a little different. I would never pay to bring furniture, etc. from the states. Last 3 months i was there in the Phils, i wanted a good quality cabnet. However, as many of you know, that is not easy to find. Or if you find quality items, they are very expesive. I wanted a cabnet for our kitchen, made of hardwood, and glass top for rulling out dough, cookies, etc.. (Im teaching the wife how to bake.) I even talked to and tried to hire different local contractors and carpenters. They all tell me that “it can NOT be done”. So, i gave up and decided to do it myself.

    I simply went to the local junk shop, bought 6 hardwood palets. Tear them apart, and used the boards to make my own cabnet. Added some doors, and put a thick glass top on it. Basically, i had the time to do the work. Some junk palets, sandpaper, wood stain, hinges, etc.. and the glass top. The entire thing only cost me less than 2000p (The glass was expensive)
    **NOTE** When i started this, i did not realize there are no tools available around her family neighborhood. So, had to buy a hammer, saw, etc.. and do it all by hand. So, it took longer and more work than i thought it would. But well worth it, and nice thing for her an i to do together. Oh.. yes.. she helped also every step of the way.

    So, allready planning on the next trip, i just toss a few simple power tools in my checked luggage. (Saw, drill and sander)So, i’ll be making a couche and chairs, along with nice dinning table and chairs. And we have a local appolstry shop that does great work cheap there in Phils. So, i can get those items cushions, etc.. for around maybe 2,000p.

    If you dont’ know how to work with wood, etc.. there are plenty of books, sites, etc on the Do-it-yourself things. Im just saying, take a little time, you get good quality, made your way and for much cheaper.

    Also i noticed a pride on her face and much respect from the local comunnity when they all see “the forigner” working and building things bought from a junk shop and making items that even thier best carpenters say can not be done. I did not realize it at the time i was doing it, i just knew we wanted the cabnet that we wanted. But i think the respect and the different way the neighborhood treats me now (like a friend, not a forigner), was worth more than any cabnet.

    Sorry the story is so long here. lol To sum it up, i would BB a few boxes of important paperwork, photos, etc.. non replacabe items, and a few tools. And just make the other things myself. I would not bother with appliances, we allready have a stove and fridge in the Phils, i brought a few food processors in my checked luggage last time. But with all the brownouts, etc.. i don’t count on any appliances, except the fridge. All others are just extra things.

    Just my thoughts,

    • says

      Craig, I like your way of doing it. In our case the furniture was really almost incidental — it’s tempting to think you can send a few BB boxes and done, but when my wife started actually filling boxes and we figured out how many boxes it was going to take just for all the smaller stuff, between her kitchen and my tools and books, it turned out to be a lot — I’m guessing it would have been at least 40 boxes or so. Now you’re up to half the cost of the container. Then you think about some of the things you’re going to need that are expensive here and that you can’t ship in a BB box (appliances, piano). In our case that made it more or less a tossup on the cost, even without considering the furniture. Once you’ve gotten that far it’s easy to tell yourself, might as well do the container, then I can throw in whatever I want, marginal cost is zero at that point. If we’d had more time I would have used that ‘bonus’ space for something more compelling than old furniture — if a guy were clever about it you could probably even cover the cost of the move if you shipped the right things and then sell them here — but in our case there just wasn’t time, so I just filled up the container with what we had.

    • Bruce Michels says

      My question of thought is this. will north american wood and frabics not crack and fade in the hot pacific enviroment? In the Philippines they have two climates hot&dry and Hot&wet.
      North america has 4 and none are as extreme as the Philippines when it comes to heat.

      • John says

        The only issue I have had is my piano needs tuning frequently, I think the humidity takes it toll on that, as for the rest of my furniture has held up really well, I have more problems with the local stuff in the RP finding the right wood furniture oil. I was shocked how quickly rust happens, I had a great office chair and within months it was covered with rust underneath.

    • Chasdv says

      Kudos to you Craig.
      Sheryls father and two brothers earn their living as Carpenters,handy for me.
      I saw a bed and a couple of chairs one of her brothers made for her older sister,pretty decent stuff.

      • Craig says

        Thanks Chasdv,

        The wife and i allready figure we can easily sell any furniture we make when we leave (or most likely just make into gifts for family or friends).

        I know the main tool i will be buying when i eventually start staying in the Phils for at least 6month a year or longer.. is a WELDER!!! lol It drove me crazy trying to find a decent shop to do a little welding there. Even the “best” welder in the neighborhood, came to the house do the job.. and he been welding for over 30yrs. From what i could tell… seems as long as it makes sparks, and the items stick together, then they think it was a job well done. lol

        Ive been welding a long time, owned my own weld shop and trained many people. Most the professional welders i saw in the Phils, looked like a person with maybe 1 or 2 days training. It was a mess and very dangerous to see the way they are welding tricycles, vehicles, etc… I must say.. i DID find a machine shop between Polomolok and Gensan… Um.. “Raflos” or something like that, who actually had trained some men there to make decent welds, and even weld aluminum. So i must give that place credit. They cost more.. but well worth the safety if its something that needs good welds.

  13. ian says

    Craig- just dont forget when you get those power tools here that they are 110 volts! Or they will be smoking like my hair dryer after my wife plugged it in lol

    • Craig says

      Yes.. i allready bought a couple different size transformers there. I can bring simple, low cost hand power tools from here.. that are not too big for my converters. And pick them up cheap here at garage sales. So, easy for me to just leave there in the Phils to another family member or friend.

  14. hudson says

    Hi Craig,
    I was just wondering about purchasing a used shipping container here in SoCal, storing it at one of those rental yards for RV’s and such, so I can take whatever time I need to fill it up.

    So then when I get to the Philippines, I have a ready made storage unit.

    • says

      Hudson, I really wanted to do that, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get the container from the port of davao to our place on samal — the only way across is a car ferry, and the road from there to our place would be completely impassable with that kind of load. Also keep in mind most of the containers that they sell used aren’t usable for ocean shipping, they’re ones that aren’t sufficiently watertight or structurally sound any more. Not positive about this but I seem to recall that there’s some certification that they have to have or shippers won’t take them. New 40 footers seem to sell on ebay for around $5000, used ones for storage less than half that, so I suppose the cost of one in good enough shape for ocean shipping would probably cost somewhere in the upper part of that range.

      • Craig says

        Actually i have seen many pictures of h0uses made out of the shipping containers and did a little research on them last year. There are various websites that will give you pretty good drawing, plans and how to info on making very nice homes from them. Its actually pretty cool thing.

  15. Frank says

    Hi Jack, Thank you so much for this article. I am planing on moving to the Philippines within the next 12 months, and this information has been very helpful.

    • says

      Thanks. Moving halfway around the world is definitely an adventure, but in our case it’s turned out pretty well so far. Good luck with your plans.

  16. says

    CORRECTION: Apparently I used an old phone number for Art Haddow and his international moving company, Premier Van Lines International. The number should be 800-409-7629 (US).

  17. Mark G. says

    Nice article Jack,
    I’ve been wondering what items I should ship and what I should ditch. I notice the cost of personal electronics there (PCs, laptops, game systems, and LCD TVs) is totally outrageous but that wood products or custom metal work can be had cheap (finding the right person is the key). There are plenty of skilled carpenters, and iron workers. I agree with Paul T, you can have pretty much any type of furnishings, cabinetry or fancy woodwork you want at great prices as long as you find a quality worker. I also have a lot of tools (Snap-On, Matco, S-K, Craftsmen) as well as the rollaways to store them that would cost a kings ransom in the Phils. I know my inlaws could use them but what will it cost to ship those over? Any duty or fees for that quantity of tools (I was a mechanic for years before I got into a different line of work). Would someone assume I’m going to setup shop if I bring them over and would that result in extra duty? I have a custom motorcycle but won’t be driving there so it’s got to go (P10 for some fellow to pedal my butt around town beats dodging the crowd). Same with my car and two business vans. I can hire a driver if I need to. So the question becomes what can I live without and what must I have to maintain my sanity, lol. My office full of computers, printers, software and furnishings; I think not! But then again I may be able to donate the software and PCs to relatives or schools that couldn’t afford them otherwise. My beds? Nice firm Seeley mattress beats but the bamboo platform I slept on for the last two weeks but is it worth shipping it? and how long will it last in the provinces? What about things like DVDs, CDs, VHS movies, books, sports equipment, camping stuff, fishing stuff, lol? I could go on and on. Even if I don’t keep them wouldn’t it make more sense to give them away there where thier value may be higher, and they may be appreciated more, than to throw or give them away here? The questions still linger but your article gives good insight into what’s involved with the process. It’s such a quandry what to do with 50 years of stuff…Mark G

  18. Peter D says

    Your ’16 tons’ posting is just great – so much information and a real eye opener. I’m planning to retire to the Philippines this year, and there is so much conflicting information to consider. I’m a UK citizen living and working in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years, so all my my stuff is here. But some of the info in your original posting doesn’t apply to me, especially re visas I think, as I don’t have a Filipino wife. For the past 20 years I have been coming to the Philippines at least 3 times a year, and when I retire this year I will finally settle down with my partner there. We were advised a while back that I should apply for a retirement visa. But since then we have been told it’s better for me to arrive as usual with a tourist visa, and then go for the regular extensions, rather than tying up capital for the retirement visa.

    But how does that leave me re bringing my stuff in? I will have a container which will be packed and shipped and insured by my company (so none of those problems you mentioned thankfully!!), but what about the import regulations you talk about? Will it be a problem if I go for the ‘tourist visa’ option – or will I need a retirement visa to do this? Also, if I cannot be in the Philippines when my shipment arrives, can I nominate my partner to accept it on my behalf?

    Any advice will be very welcome! Thanks.

  19. Paul LaPoint says

    It is my understanding that a 40′ container of household possessions are allowed duty free. I am an avid woodworker and of course wish to pursue this hobby when I retire in the Philippines. My question is, would my equipment, i.e. table saw, planer, joiner, air compressor, band saw etc. be classified as household items or commercial goods? If some items are classified as having commercial status what would be the rate at which they are taxed? Thank you for any help you can give me on this matter.

  20. Randy says

    Great info Paul. Now with your 20/20 hind sight clearly focused, what would you NOT have shipped. We will be going through the same process but will try to get our possessions reduced to fit in a 20′ container. You mentioned a refrigerator….would you recommend bringing ours? Power tools? Any electrical items you would not bring? Your help is greatly appreciated.

  21. says

    Thank you for this posting. It will be very helpful when we do this in a few years. But my real question is about the Bill of Laden. You say 20 boxes of books, did you have to list all the books or just Misc Books? How about clothing? Boxes of Clothes or do we had to detail every pair of socks? My wife’s shoe collection is only topped by Imelda Marco’s collection, by just a few pairs. You know any examples on line anywhere? Again thanks for all the great information.

  22. Freddie Mercury says

    One issue here is that you paid a very high/ one off rate for shipping. Someone sending monthly containers would be paying $1,200 or under for the shipping component, plus to and fro & port plus taxes etc. Probably if you had the right connections knock about $2k off the overall price.
    The main argument I have with my wife about this is that “Ok, so most Balikbayan containers don’t get checked/ BUT SOME DO!!! The fact is that IF/ WHEN they check your container/ your manifest is going to be worth toilet paper if they are serious. If it was only $1,500 worth of stuff; you would no way known bother sending it. If Customs want to, they can value the stuff item by item according to ‘normal market prices’ then give you a bill for 30% of that/ which you MUST PAY before collecting your container. It doesn’t matter if you got yhe stuff for nothing. If you are found to be in breach of the exemption, the full duty is payable. So better either have the cash on hand or be prepared to gamble, at whatever odds, that you lose your stuff.

  23. Ink says

    Im so glad I found this site… Thank you! My husband and I can’t decide what to do with his moms furnitures, I don’t care much about our furniture but I love his moms bedrooms set…. $5,700 is worth taking all her furnitures to Davao city, if we ever decided to move to the Philippines… That’s another dilemma. … Almost $6000 is not much compared to what my husband thought it would cost to move the furnitures.;)))). Thanks again for this great info!

  24. Freddie Mercury says

    Why is it that nobody seems to get this fact:

    The exemption is for $1,500 worth of goods.

    That is it. If they open your container and begin to value it, how long will it take them to get to $1,500 (P65,000)? I think in most cases they would barely need to go futher than opening the door. Then guess what? You have LIED ON AN OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT. Unless your stuff is genuinely worth $100 a tonne or less, you are busted. You will then become liable for the full 30% on the entire content’s estimated resale value. You may also be prosecuted for attempted tax fraud/ Estafa against the government.

    Unless you are prepared to take these serious risks, think twice about the balik bayan exemption. It is not an automatic tax free entry to whatever you can jam in a container. It is simply a matter of numbers. Only about 1 to 3% of containers are checked. If yours is one of those, you are in it up to your neck

  25. ScottF says

    Not only would I NEVER be able to completely fill a cargo container, unless I also put my car inside, but I don’t think it would be worth the stress of it all to send it. I’m having my second garage sale this weekend. I hoep to sell nearly everything else needed to sell that I won’t need during our remaining several months here in the U.S. Then, maybe one more to clear out the last few things we won’t be taking. The rest, will be packed into Balik Bayan boxes and we will pray for their arrival a few months after we arrive. It’s funny how you can collect so much stuff, and have absolutely no attachment to it. I am however, glad your wife got her china cabinets to the RP… for your sake. :) I’ll buy my wife some when we get there.

    God bless!


  26. says

    This is where I find myself fortunate to be a minimalist. What you describe is my worst nightmare.. and only a woman could talk me into it. Even, dropping the woman would seriously cross my mind if she insisted on this endeavor. :)

    When I prepared to make my permanent move here, my original plan was.. 1 Laptop bag, 1 Large Suitcase. And most of the suitcase would be more computer stuff like printer, monitor, etc. with some clothes to pad it in.

    Long story short.. I ended up taking 1 Laptop bag, 1 Large Suitcase, 1 Carry-On, and two more medium suitcases that my girlfriend brought with her later. All that for just one ‘minimalist’ guy. I really did not plan on bringing so much stuff but when it came down to it.. even the mandatory ‘must have’ stuff was alot.

    But after reading of your endeavor, I tip my hat to you.. I’d never try that. I’m lucky that my g/f is from Cebu and all her stuff is already here. ha!

  27. angeljme says

    that’s sure is a lot of work and money… you can get the same things in the Philippines for half the price… or the best quality still at the same price that you’ve used during the move, minus the headache

    besides, electronics/appliances in the Philippines is set up as 220VAC, and in the US it is 110VAC… that’s another thing to consider

    books and nick-nacks are ok to haul half-way around the world… furnitures and appliances? not so much

    there’s plenty of malls in the Philippines to get them…

  28. Larry says

    I don’t agree with those who say you can get everything cheaper or same as western price here in the Philippines. High end electronics are definitely not cheaper here. For example, my 55″ 3D LED Flat screen tv (full 1080p, 240mhz refresh rate, etc.) cost me $1600 in the U.S. Where can I find that price here? The lowest I’ve seen it here is p200,000 (p250,000 less p50,000 cash discount). That is almost $5000 for that TV here. If I were to live here permanently and had to have my “things” here, just shipping that alone would be worth the cost. Great article with valuable information. I appreciate it.

  29. Ednalyn Salva says

    Hi Jack,

    We’re planning to move to the Philippines too and want to bring our stuff. Can you send me the request letter of tax exemption to the Department of Finance? I would really appreciate it.

    Thank you for the information when we needed it the most.

  30. Alona says

    Hi Jack,

    Could you please also send me the request letter of tax exemption to the Department of Finance? We are moving to the Philippines and planning to ship a 40ft container.

    Thank you very much and I really appreciate your help.

  31. Maria says

    Hello, Jack.
    Thank you so much for sharing this information. This is the most valuable piece of information I have seen on this topic. If you happen to have retained a copy of the request letter you submitted to the Dept of Finance, would you mind e-mailing that to me? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks a million.

  32. says

    Good morning from fall in Canada Mr. Emery,
    More likely from Gatineau, (Qc) just on the North side if the river from Ottawa.
    Our family plan is Cebu or around in 4 years.
    Your container Reality Check sure put things in perspective LOL. Still we probably will do a 20 footer. Somethings, similar to China cabinets, have to tag along. As for me, light traveler, those days are gone LOL.
    We look forward to reducing the pace. Don’t think my body pass 60 will endure the North American stresses much longer + austerity budgets…
    4 years to go for pre-pension to kick-in.
    Thank you for your article and the humor you put in. Having been twice to Phils brings back memories. Although here all is so controlled, taking initiative is almost against the law.

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