Moving To Europe VII – Shipping Your RV From USA to Europe
Pre-Post Note/ Thank you for all the support comments on my last post! We’re narrowing down clinics for Polly & Rand and will hopefully have a treatment plan in place soon. In the meantime it’s back to my “Moving to Europe” series of posts and today’s topic is one that I think will be of great interest to all my US RV friends. Enjoy!
If you have a reaaaaaly good memory you might recall that we were on the verge of buying a small rig (Leisure Van) in the US last year.
One of our big goals at the time was to use it in the US for ~6 months (= avoids having to pay import duty in Europe) and then ship it over to Europe and RV with it over here for the next 5-6 years. We were smitten with the van and really liked the US-style details (e.g. slides and large holding tanks, both of which are not common in EU), so we thought this would be the perfect option.
So WHY didn’t we go through with that plan??
Well it all came down to a single item, the very last thing I decided to check just a few minutes before we were scheduled to put down a deposit on the van. And the answer almost knocked me off my seat.
Insurance!! OM….frikkin…G! For our nifty new Leisure Travel full (comprehensive) insurance would have cost us $10,500 for 6 months which meant it was going to cost us ~$21,000/year in insurance to RV with our US-plated rig in Europe. WHAaaaaaaT???
Now there’s a reason it cost so much, and it CAN actually make sense to ship your US rig to EU, depending on your RV size/value and how long you’re planning to stay there. But there are other options too! US citizens can rent RVs in Europe (perfect for short stays), but they can actually also buy, even without residence or a local address (there’s a sneaky way to do it!). These are BIG topics however so I’m just going to talk about the first one today -> shipping a US RV to Europe. We’ll cover everything from costs to mods, insurance and hidden “gotchas”. Here goes….
Shipping Options & Costs
Shipping your RV from US can actually make sense if you’re planning longer-term travel around Europe. Bringing your RV with you means you’re ready to go RVing as soon as you land, and if you keep US plates on the vehicle that means you don’t have to worry about going through local registration, or getting a local drivers license, or any of that stuff. Plus the shipping part is actually quite affordable.
Type Of Shipping: The first thing you should understand is that there are basically 2 ways to ship vehicles over the ocean. You can ship them as Roll-On, Roll-Off (RoRo) where your RV is driven up a ramp into the open hull of a shipping vessel, tied down for shipping and then simply driven off the ramp on the other side. Alternatively you can ship them inside a standard shipping container (20ft, or 40ft, if it fits), which is then loaded onto a container ship. The former is much cheaper and easier and what most folks go with for vans and RVs.
Shipping Lines & Agents: There are several large vehicle-shipping companies that can accomodate your RV or van across the ocean. Wallenius-Willemsen (www.2wglobal.com/) and K-Line (www.kline.com) are 2 big names. However most folks don’t book directly with the shipping line, but instead use an Agent or Broker that specializes in RV shipments. The advantage of the latter is that they organize everything for you, including the mass of paperwork & docs required for transport & customs clearance (no small matter!). SeaBridge is a reputable name and one that many RVers use. IVSS is another big one.
Shipping Costs: Rig size & value are the 2 biggest factors for shipping costs. RORO prices for vehicles are normally priced by cubic metre (CBM = length x width x height in metres), for the type of vehicle shipped (larger vehicles have higher CBM rates). For vans & small RV’s, current rates run around US$50-53 per CBM. Measurements must include everything that “sticks out” such as side-mirrors, bumpers, hitches or air-cons. For this reason, folks will often remove as much of this stuff as they can before shipping. Obviously, the larger in total volume your vehicle is, the more it costs. Marine insurance, if you opt to pay for it is extra, and runs around 1.5% of the cost of your rig (so, the more expensive your rig, the more it costs to insure for shipping). In addition you may be charged security fees, gate fees, document fees, Terminal Handling Charges (THC) & clearance fees.
Shipping Ports: The other factor in shipping costs is where you ship from and to. When shipping from the US you’ll want to chose an exit port on the East Coast (MUCH cheaper than shipping from the West) and then you’ll need to chose your import port on the other side. Popular export ports are Halifax, Canada, Charleston SC & Brunswick NC. Popular import ports are Antwerp, Belgium, Zeebrugge, Belgium and Southampton, UK. Which port you use affects your costs! Some US-EU routes are cheaper than others, so definitely work with a shipper & shop/ask around on this.
Pro-Tip/ DO NOT ship to Germany since they require you to post a bond equal to 29% of the value of the vehicle, in cash, before they will release the vehicle, which is only returned to you when you leave the EU within 6 mo of arrival. Other European ports do not have this restriction.
Booking & Shipping Time: Folks recommend booking 1-3 months in advance of your dates (cargo shipping routes typically aren’t fixed more than 3 months in advance). Actual shipping only takes ~10 days, but you may have to drop off your RV a few days before that date at the origin port, and it may take some days for release/clearance on the other end. So plan for around 2-3 weeks total transit time.
An additional thing you need to consider before you bring your RV or van to Europe is that you’ll need to make some mods to it so it can function once it arrives
Voltage Differences – Europe operates on 230V whereas US operates on 110V so if you try to plug your US-based RV directly into a European pedestal it will burn out all your electrics! To prevent this you’ll need to install a step-down transformer (230v down to 110v). They are sized by wattage, so make sure to buy the size* you think you’ll need to run your most power-hungry appliance. In addition make sure to buy a collection of adapter plugs so you can plug your rig into the European-style pedestals.
*NOTE/ You Can’t Run It All: An additional thing to be aware of is that campsites in Europe are rated and tend to have very restricted supplies. They are generally rated at 16A or 10A, sometimes as low as 5A (all 230V of course), so even if you get a mega-sized transformer you won’t be able to plug in and run everything in your US RV all at once. Most of the time you’ll have to conserve/limit what you turn on in order to prevent tripping the main power supply. So plan on running your appliances one at a time and size your transformer for that.
Frequency Differences – The other little electricity wrinkle for US-built RV’s is that US electricity operates at 60Hz, whereas everything in Europe operates at 50Hz. Now most electronic devices these days are designed to run on either 50Hz or 60Hz, so they won’t care either way. But certain appliances with frequency-sensitive parts like motors and solenoids are designed and wound for a specific mains frequency (e.g. things like A/Cs, microwaves and washing machines may suffer a bit with the incorrect frequency). You can buy transformers that convert both voltage AND frequency, although they are pricier than simple step-down versions, but from reading through various forums most folks don’t seem to worry too much about it. Their washing machine may run a bit slower or their A/C may not cool as well, but they just live with it.
Propane Fittings – Propane fittings are different in EU & they differ by country too, so you’ll need several different types of propane fittings in order to refill your tanks. US-style fittings are called “ACME” so what you’re looking for is are “ACME to Europe Refill Adapters”. Roadtrekker did a good article on this HERE.
Other Common Mods– Although not required for your RV to function, many folks choose to add solar to their rigs either before or after they land in Europe. This is great for boondocking (there are lots of free places to camp in Europe) or for situations where you just don’t feel like plugging in. Also some folks choose to wire up a separate 220/240V system (with 220/240V outlets) to run European-style appliances inside their rig. Again not required, but kinda nice if you decide to buy any European appliances (e.g. kettles, hair dryers etc.) down the line.
Why Not Just Use Your Generator? Many modern US RV’s have generators that can run the entire RV, so why not just use that as your main power supply in Europe? Well noise control here is a big deal so many European campgrounds either limit or (more commonly) prohibit generator usage altogether. You may be able to use it every now and then, but don’t count on it as your main source of power.
RV/Van Size & Fuel Costs
One thing you cannot ignore when you come to Europe are RV size and fuel costs.
First of all everything is MUCH smaller here. Roads are narrower (especially in towns), campsites are smaller and some places even have limits on the width and weight of vehicle you can drive. So, although it CAN be done (there are several active forums in UK that specialize in large US-style motorhomes), I personally wouldn’t recommend bringing your 40-foot RV to Europe. You’ll be VERY limited in where you can go and what you can do.
Smaller vans or RVs are much better suited. Around 6m (just below 20ft) is superb and will get you in everywhere, plus you’ll save a ton of costs in ferry crossings and other places that price by size (prices jump significantly beyond 20ft). Around 7-7.5m (22-25 ft) is on the larger size, but totally do-able. You’ll pay more in ferry crossings and such, but you’ll be able to travel almost everywhere with ease. Above 8m (26 ft) is considered very large. You’ll start to feel limited.
Lastly fuel costs are a big deal. You might think $3 per gallon is expensive for diesel in the US, but here in Europe $6-10 per gallon is not out of the norm. So that 8 mpg guzzler you’re driving in the US will become a MONSTER of a guzzler over here. Smaller RVs get much better gas mileage, and will be much cheaper in the long run for travel around Europe.
UK-Based Resources For American RV Owners:
- The American RV Club: http://www.arvclub.co.uk/
- American RV Magazine: https://www.arvm.uk.com/
- American RV Owners Club: https://www.rvoc.co.uk/index.html
The other thing that you’ll have to consider before you bring your RV/van to Europe is driving insurance, and you’ll need to take care of this BEFORE you ship it over (you’ll need proof of that your RV insured to drive around Europe before it can be released to you at your destination port). American vehicle insurance will NOT cover you in Europe, so you’ll need to buy insurance from a specialized broker that covers US-plated vehicles abroad. There are only a limited number of agents who offer it (Thum Insurance and Tour Insure are two reputable names), and it is NOT cheap!
Important items to consider:
Type of Insurance (Basic Vs Comprehensive): As with all insurances you can buy the bare minimum or buy something that covers more. In Europe, the bare legal minimum is liability insurance. However this ONLY covers claims from others/third party if you are in an accident and does not cover ANY claims of damage/theft/loss to your own vehicle. If you want to cover your own vehicle, then you need a comprehensive insurance policy. The latter is much better, but also MUCH (much, much!!) more expensive, especially if you have a valuable (= expensive) RV.
Coverage Countries: Most European insurances will cover you across all European countries, but they may not cover you in certain Eastern Europe countries, or if you decide to winter in N.Africa. Always make sure you get a list of which countries are covered by your policy.
Coverage Time: The companies that insure US-Plated vehicles in Europe will typically price you in increments of either 30, 60 or 90 days (multiplied up if you want 6 mo or 12 mo coverage) so make sure you understand how long your coverage is valid when you get your quote.
Do I need A “Green Card”: If you Google international insurance you might come across the term “Green card”. This is simply an internationally-recognized certificate that proves you have the minimum compulsory insurance required by the law for the country (or countries) you’re visiting. It is no longer required in the EU, but if you’re RVing around it’s a “nice to have”(just makes life easier since it’s so well recognized). Most insurance agents will send you one for free after you buy your policy.
Pro Tip: If you only plan to RV part-time in Europe (say, you fly home to USA in-between Visa Stay limits), you can reduce insurance costs by cutting back your policy from fully comprehensive to just 3rd party, fire and theft when your RV is off the road in storage. Some storage places (e.g. in the Netherlands) will even include fire and theft for you.
Additional Gotchas? The 6 Month Rule
An additional “gotcha” which you’ll want to understand if you’re planning to bring your US vehicle to Europe is that US Plated vehicles (= vehicles meeting US emissions) can only legally stay in the Schengen Area for six months out of any calendar year*. If they stay longer than that they are supposed to be formally imported and switched to European Standards & European Plates.
If you’re a US citizen traveling on a regular tourist visa this won’t be a big deal since it will kinda match your tourist visa limits (US citizens are only allowed to stay in the Schengen Area 90 days out of every 180), but if you went through the process of getting a long-term stay visa before you came to Europe you might find yourself in a bit of a pickle. YOU can stay as long as your visa says you can, but your vehicle cannot. So, you’ll need to take your vehicle outside of the Schengen Area for the remaining 6 months of the year.
But I’ve Heard Of People Leaving Their US-Plated RV’s In Europe For Years? Yup, despite the official 6-month rule there are plenty of American’s who’ve come over with their RV’s and simply left them here for years, storing them in EU storage whenever they travel back to USA. So what’s with up that? Well, technically it’s not legal, but the reason folks get away with it is that EU countries don’t really have any formal way to check & track all the various vehicles that are driving around in Europe. So that’s why you’ll rarely hear the 6-month rule being talked about.
One Last Tip – Get An International Drivers Permit (IDP)
One last thing you’ll want to consider before you bring your RV to Europe is to get yourself an international Drivers Permit.
It’s basically an internationally-recognized translation of your US drivers license and although it’s not required in most EU countries, some countries like Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, ond Spain DO require it by law.
Plus it’s SUPER easy to get! You simply submit an application at your local AAA office (you can also mail it in) with a copy of your US State License, an ID photo and $20. 15 mins later you’ll walk out with an International Drivers Permit that is valid for a year. Easy peasy!
What About Switching Your RV To European Plates?
With insurance costs and the 6-month limit thing you might be thinking it makes more sense to formally import your RV into a European country and switch it to local plates. This will not only reduce insurance costs (WAY, WAY cheaper), but it will also allow your vehicle legally reside in Europe longer-term. So why not just do that?
Well, it’s not quite that simple….
First of all European technical standards are different from US standards, so you’ll need to go through a conversion process to get your vehicle compliant. The exact conversion you need to do will depend which country you are registering it in. For example in UK, headlamps need to be changed, amongst other things. In France it’s headlights and more. This takes time and money. Secondly each EU country has its own registration and emission requirements, so you’ll need to research how to register your vehicle and pass MOT emissions in the particular country where you’re registering your RV. Lots of paperwork and time involved in this one too.
Lastly YOU, as the owner, will also need to be legally resident (you can’t do all this on a tourist visa), so that means additional paperwork for the humans involved. Plus if you’re staying in Europe, you’ll eventually need to get a local license, and if your RV weight limit is above that of a standard drivers license (generally 3.5 tonnes in most of Europe) then you’ll need a special drivers license too.
All this said, if you’re settling somewhere in Europe and you can’t bear to leave your US RV behind there are companies who specialize in modifying US RV’s to be compliant. Some good examples in UK are LAS Motorhomes, Itchy Feet, and Signature RV, and in Germany ICF US Motorhomes.
What About Import VAT & Duty? If you’re switching your RV to Europe plates then you have to think about import taxes. In Europe these are big $$$ so you definitely don’t want to ignore them, but thankfully they’re not a problem as long as you’ve owned your RV for long enough before you ship it over. If you’ve been living in the US for more than a year (i.e. you’ve been living outside the EU zone for the past year) then you can bring your RV into EU free of duty and VAT as long as you have owned it for at least six months. So just make sure you meet those requirements before you ship it over.
So Should You Do It?
Well obviously it depends. I think shipping a rig to Europe can definitely make sense if you’re planning to RV over here for a few years and you have a smaller, older rig where insurance costs won’t be crazy. You land “ready to go” and don’t have to worry about acquiring an RV once you’re here. However if you’re coming for a shorter vacay OR you have a larger/newer (= more expensive) RV then I don’t personally feel it makes much sense. There are other options which are more economical and better suited to Europe travel. THAT however, my dear blog readers, is the topic for an entirely different blog post.
Got any questions about shipping an RV to Europe? Or want to share your personal experience With this? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
External Blogs On Taking An RV To Europe: