Shipping a vehicle to Australia
First off you will obviously need a vehicle, but are all vehicles the same? A newer one may cost you more than you are willing to pay, which could put you off driving around Australia altogether. If you are anything like us (not a lottery winner), it's better to have an older vehicle, BUT it should be in pristine condition. Australia is a tough country for driving, with long distances between towns in some areas, and you and your vehicle must be self-sufficient. You can’t just pick up the phone and call for roadside assistance every time your vehicle has an issue, partly because a lot of Australia, and especially the Outback, is lacking in cell signal, and partly because the nearest roadside assistance could literally be days away. To further illustrate this point, we saw so many abandoned cars littering the sides of the road that you just may be able to find a spare part from one of them, if you’re lucky!
Personally we have a 1995 Range Rover Classic LWB named Reggie that has been our go-to overlanding vehicle for years, and the best part about Reggie is that he is considered an inexpensive vehicle, worth around $6,000 USD. The base price of your vehicle is a big factor when it comes to shipping to a country that requires a Carnet, which is basically a bond guaranteeing that you will not leave your car in that country. Even if you have a lot of expensive modifications and extra equipment in and on the vehicle, as we do, the cost of the Carnet for Australia only depends on the Blue Book value of the base vehicle, which makes older vehicles the preferred choice. The cost of a Carnet also differs depending on the country that you are shipping the vehicle to, and that cost can vary widely. Fortunately there aren't too many countries that require a Carnet, but Australia is one of them, along with India. Australia requires 100% of the base value of the vehicle as a bond, plus the added non-refundable service fees. If you are really flush with cash, you may want to take your vehicle to India, but you'll have to shell out 500% of the car's worth just to see the Taj Mahal. Please note that there is a way to change the Carnet to more of a guarantee than a bond, which increases the service fees a bit, but then allows you to decrease the initial bulk payment, so check out the options with the company issuing the Carnet before you pay.
After a lot of research and misinformation on which companies are licensed to issue a Carnet, we found Boomerang Carnets, which is now the issuing body for a Carnet in the US, and the process turned out to be very fast and easy. Once you know what company will issue your vehicle's Carnet you should wait to request the Carnet until a few days before the vehicle arrives in the requiring country. While this might seem counterintuitive, a Carnet is only valid for one year from the date issued, so you don’t want it finalized too early. It is also important to note that you do not need the Carnet before you ship the vehicle, but you do need it in place when your vehicle arrives in the requiring country, or your vehicle cannot be processed through Customs. Therefore you should contact the company who will issue the Carnet at some point just before shipping, so that you have a list of what information you will need for its processing, and know the difference between a bond vs a guarantee, but then go ahead and ship your vehicle without the Carnet in place. A few days before the vehicle arrives at its destination, contact the company again and request that the Carnet be finalized - the official documents will need to be Express-shipped to an address of your choosing. After that, you or your shipping company can lodge the finalized Carnet with Customs on the day the vehicle docks at port in the requiring country, and that’s it! In our case Reggie was to arrive in the Brisbane shipping port on July 10th, but we were going to be in between addresses from July 3rd to the time we arrived in Australia, so we asked Boomerang to issue the Carnet on June 30th, so we could be sure to receive the paperwork through the postal service before we left. We arrived in Australia on July 8th, and turned over the Carnet to our shipping company on July 9th, who then lodged it with Customs on July 10th. Doing it this way maximized our driving time in Australia as much as possible, since we didn’t want our visa dates and the vehicle's Carnet date to be vastly different from each other. You can always extend the Carnet, which we’ve heard is quite easy, but then you may get hit with more service fees, so it’s best to try and align the dates as closely as possible from the get-go.
Once the freighter containing your precious cargo has arrived in country you will be very anxious to be reunited with your vehicle, but unfortunately be prepared to wait, as you are just one little shipping container in a vast sea of ships, containers, and items that have to be processed through the port, Customs, and the dreaded Quarantine process. We’ve heard that shipping your vehicle RORO (Roll-In, Roll-Out) can speed up this process a bit, as it then doesn’t have to get unloaded from a container, and is in everybody’s way at the port, but there are pros and cons to that type of shipping as well. Getting the paperwork cleared by Customs usually only takes a few days, depending on your itemized packing list and what you are declaring, but successfully navigating Quarantine can really make a vehicle owner sweat. Preparing for the Quarantine inspection was our biggest and most arduous project to date, bar none. We literally spent over a month cleaning and re-cleaning every inch of the vehicle, which comprises just one part of the inspection. Luckily, we had spent a significant amount of time in the 12 months prior to shipping rebuilding most of the mechanical parts on the vehicle, so all of the years of accumulated grease had already been dealt with. Another great tip is to paint any exposed surface on the underside of the vehicle black, to help cut down on the visual collection of dirt.
The Australian Quarantine process is very tough, and the inspectors will check pretty much every nook and cranny, even places that you would believe to be impossible to clean. A few days before we were due in California to ship our vehicle, an overlanding icon, Andrew St. Pierre White, pointed us to a man named Paul Marsh. Paul has spent most of his life planning and organizing travel expeditions all over the world, so when we called Paul at his home in Cape Town, he had some really valuable advice for us, taken from his experiences of getting overland vehicles into Australia. His advice seemed so obvious, yet certain areas that he noted don't normally receive much attention are the foremost places the inspectors check, and hadn't made it to our list of tasks. Paul advised us to pull all door panels and clean inside each door, flush and clean the inside of the frame rails, ensure that there aren't any bugs in the radiator, clean between the radiator and the air conditioning condenser, install a new air filter once you arrive at the shipping warehouse, clean the top of the gas tank, and pick all pebbles out of the tires, including the spare. Paul continued naming off items, and, as we really wanted our vehicle to quickly pass through Quarantine, our to-do list grew longer as the time to ship was coming up on us fast, but we did the best we could.
Then came the packing of what we were going to ship inside the vehicle, which comprises the second part of the Quarantine inspection. Again, keeping Quarantine first and foremost in our minds, we found a list of banned and restricted items online. Banned items cannot be taken into Australia for any reason, and includes things like weapons and explosives. Restricted items may be taken into Australia, when declared through Customs, but must adhere to certain guidelines. For example, one restricted item is drugs. You may take valid drug prescriptions into Australia, but only 30 days worth, and you need to have the prescription printed out. Under no circumstances can you ship fresh food in your vehicle, including meat, seafood, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Also, seeds are banned outright, but you may be able to take wood and plant products in, depending on what the item is. We were allowed to keep our new sheets made out of eucalyptus fibers, and our bamboo kitchen utensils. In addition, certain vehicle and camping products are banned, including fire extinguishers, propane bottles, lighters, etc. In the end it does really just come down to who the inspector is and if that person is having a good or bad day!
Our strategy for items shipped inside the vehicle was to have a designated place for everything, and to have 99% of items inside a storage container or drawer. We personally believe that the more individual items that you ship inside the vehicle, and any type of disorganization to those items, will result in a longer Quarantine process. We placed a comprehensive inventory list on the dash of the vehicle, which included a call-out in bold type of any item that we felt Customs might want to inspect, and also a detailed individual storage container inventory inside of, and taped on top of, each box or drawer. We also labeled any item that could potentially be considered dirty, like clothes, sheets, blankets, shoes, etc, with labels marking them as "new" or "cleaned/washed", since stray seeds, dirt and grasses are prohibited from entering Australia.
Now we had a cleaned and packed vehicle ready to ship to Australia, but we were living in Arizona and had to deliver it to the shipping company in California, so we opted to go ahead and drive it there. With over a month already spent on cleaning, replacing a lot of the parts that get the dirtiest, and re-coating the vehicle body and chassis, we still decided to find a hotel as close to the shipping company as possible, so that we could spend 2 final days deep-cleaning and ticking off all the new tasks that Paul had given us. We were very lucky to be able to negotiate with the owners of a car wash close to the shipping company so that we could stay there the entire day, getting buckets of water from them, as well as being able to use the restrooms. When we finally dropped Reggie off at the warehouse we felt that he was about as clean as when he left the factory in 1995, and we had to be satisfied with all the work we had put in.
It was now time to deliver Reggie to the shipping company for his long journey across to Australia. It will usually take your vehicle ~five weeks to get from Los Angeles to Brisbane, or vice versa, so you need to have a plan in place for what you are going to do during that time - we travelled around Arizona and Colorado, since we had family we could stay with in both states, until our flight out to Brisbane. Most people that we know take that enforced waiting time to either go back to family and friends, or fly to a small country where you wouldn’t normally take your vehicle. We constantly watched the location of where our container was online, which was fun, so we could follow Reggie’s journey, and be aware of any possible delays. The ship went from Los Angeles to Asia, and at one point Reggie was offloaded and sat for four days in China, before being loaded onto a different ship to continue on to Brisbane, so it was interesting to mark his progress.
There are two items that need to be arranged once you personally arrive in Australia, with the first being vehicle insurance, since any insurance that you had back in your home country will not cover you in this new country. We worked on these mandatory items after we landed in Brisbane, as we were waiting for our vehicle to wind its way through the temporary import process. Australian vehicle owners actually have their mandatory insurance bundled into their vehicle registration, but because a temporary import is not recorded into the Department of Motor Registration’s (DMR) computer system, we had to go about it in a different way. Insurance itself is pretty simple but not all Australian insurers will cover a foreign vehicle. We finally connected with a company called QBE, which gave us the minimum required insurance to legally drive in Australia, and we found them to be fast, friendly, with a reasonable price. We also decided to shop for optional insurance to cover any damage to the vehicle and its contents, which is also optional for Australians. We went with a company called Club 4x4, who turned out to be great to work with, reasonably priced, and covered us for up to $15,000AUD in recovery charges. This may sound like a lot, but we figured that with our driving route, which was going to take us through long stretches of uninhabited areas, if we happened to break down 6 days away from any town, and possibly need a special recovery vehicle to get us out of wherever the vehicle is stuck, that we would probably end up spending more than that. Additionally, with our vehicle being our home, and the fact that the vehicle must leave the country at the end of the Carnet, we felt that this coverage was well worth it for our peace of mind.
The second thing that needs to be completed once you arrive in Australia is the temporary vehicle registration, or “rego” as the Australians like to call it. Before flying to Australia we found these documents online at the Queensland transportation web site (you should check the transportation website for whatever state your vehicle will first be registered in). Once you finalize your mandatory insurance you can then complete the last space on this form, which you then turn in to the state's DMR. We walked in without an appointment, and just waited for our number to be called, which actually didn't take too long at all. The representative of the Queensland government who assisted us was extremely helpful, even though she literally had never seen that particular form before. She jumped on her computer and went to the URL listed on the forms that we had printed, and seemed very excited to have something new to learn, promptly telling all of her coworkers. She was really great and hung in there asking around and figuring out what needed to be done, which included using our passports and US drivers licenses to create a user in their system, since the paperwork requires a user account number. When it was all said and done, all of the vehicle, insurance, and Carnet information was listed on a piece of paper that had an official stamp and was signed by the DMR manager, but was not keyed into the system!
Australia has a central vehicle registration database, which contains the vehicle owner name (as a user), the state that the vehicle is registered in, the license plate number, the vehicle information (as the registration fee depends on the number of cylinders that the vehicle has), and the insurance information. You, as an overseas temporary import driver, however, will not be required to have the vehicle information in the system, probably because they don't want the hassle of remembering to remove it when the vehicle leaves. Instead, they will add you as a user and then fill out and stamp a paper that you are then required to have in the vehicle at all times. We were a bit confused about traveling between Australian states, but we spoke to a policeman who told us that the initial registration is adequate, unless you are going to stay in a state other than the initial registration state for the bulk of the Carnet time period. We had also heard that you don't really need the temporary vehicle import form, but we did run into a policeman at a drink-driving checkpoint that asked to see it, so we're glad we had done everything by the book.
At this point we knew that Reggie was in Brisbane, and were prepared to wait a couple of weeks for him to be released, but to our utter shock and amazement, our vehicle only spent three hours in Quarantine! The shipping company was just as shocked and noted that they had never seen that happen before, and in their experience all shipped vehicles go out for a quarantine wash, at the very least. Quarantine inspectors also have the option of sending your vehicle out for fumigation if they find any seeds, grasses, or insects, and you as the client are responsible for the cost of both the wash and the treatment, along with any potential storage costs. We have heard many stories of vehicles that had to spend weeks in Quarantine, and were subjected to one or more rounds of cleaning and treatment, courtesy of the Australian government, and with a large bill to pay at the end, so we considered ourselves very fortunate. We had planned and budgeted $1000 dollars for any treatment that might be required, but were elated to keep that money, as well as having the satisfaction of knowing that the days and weeks of scrubbing and hard work paid off. This meant that the longest wait period was for the vehicle to be unloaded from the container, which is where shipping RORO might come in handy - it took 4.5 days after the ship docked before Reggie was actually removed from his shipping container.
After the call came in from the shipping company we caught a ride to the Customs warehouse, showed our paperwork, and spoke to the Quarantine officer who had inspected Reggie. We then had to pack up the vehicle, as officials have the right to unload everything from inside, but aren’t required to put everything back 😂. Once we had literally thrown everything inside and secured the roof-top tent, we just drove away, which seemed really weird. When we picked up the vehicle nobody checked our insurance or temporary import, so we were a little confused. No one seemed to care, although again, if you get stopped by the police you may be in trouble if you don’t have those things. We, of course, did have all the right things taken care of, but it was interesting that no one checked before we drove it away. And now it is time for you and your vehicle to explore Australia! Just stay on the correct side of the road (the left), follow Australian traffic laws (no inside turn on red), and be prepared to stop for mandatory drink-driving checkpoints, of which there seemed to be many. You will truly enjoy your travels in Australia, just like we did!