TL;DR — Skip the saga, just tell me how
Make sure you’re moving to a country that’s okay with dogs. Most are. But research.
Got money? Lots of it? Pay someone to organize the rest for you. Google will introduce you to dozens of companies eager to take your money and do the job. It’ll cost you a few thousand. If you prefer to spend less — like hundreds instead of thousands — then read on.
If at all possible, begin planning no less than two months from the fly date. As you note the requirements from involved firms and agencies, construct a timeline. The timeline will vary from country to country. How recently must your dog have been vaccinated? How close to the fly date should you schedule the wellness check? If signatures and stamps are required, how long will it take to obtain them?
Don’t panic as you read through the next steps. They seem like an insurmountable series of challenges, but it’s all part of a process. Pet relocation can be accomplished with thoughtful, researched, organized planning and action. Repeat to yourself: It’s just a paper tiger.
1. Find an airline that will fly your dog to the destination. Call them, inform them of your plans, and book tickets with the understanding that you are only interested in flying if your pets are on board. Be sure to ask about costs, weight allowances, required documentation, and how they will see to the pet’s needs during the flight (think: food, water, potty).
2. Contact the Ministry of Health (or equivalent bureau) in new host country. Ask for specifics on what their government will require for your pet’s entrance to the country. Make sure you have a firm understanding of their quarantine policy, if any. To minimize miscommunication, ask the same question three different ways. Even still, be prepared for surprises at customs. The import requirements of many countries can be found at this USDA page, but I cannot vouch for its accuracy.
3. Contact your nearest USDA office. Ask if you’re speaking with the federal or state office. Ask what will be required for your pet to leave the airport, and what’s required when your pet returns to the US. Take names and ample notes. If you spoke with the federal office, contact the state, and ask the same questions. If you spoke with the state, contact the federal, and… you get the idea. The USDA attempts to explain all this on their website, but it reads like sanskrit, and isn’t totally accurate or up-to-date.
4. Contact the CDC. Their focus is pets returning to the US. What they say will likely parallel what you heard from the USDA, but policies change all the time.
5. Contact your vet. Make sure (s)he is certified by the state and USDA. The vet will need to complete the USDA’s APHIS 7001 form, as well as any health forms required by your state, and any international health certificates required by the host country. State forms your vet should have on hand, but you will likely need to provide the 7001 and international forms.
6. Assemble your pet passport. This is not necessarily required by the host country, but it makes everything easier, and provides peace of mind.
7. Make copies of everything. You may be surprised what customs requires when you arrive, and trying to find a copy machine at an airport in a foreign country after a long flight is no fun.
8. Start throwing money into a hole. Expect to spend at least $400 on the shipping fee (less, if airline allows you to bring dog into cabin with you). You will likely need to buy a travel-worthy kennel (different airlines have different size requirements). You will need other doggie accessories, such as a sip bottle (like the kind in a hamster cage), cold weather jacket if the climate demands it, and other things that you think might be unavailable in the host country. Amazon Prime is your friend; otherwise, PetCo and PetSmart offer lots of online shopping incentives and a generous return policy. Expect some previously undisclosed “duties” and “handling charges” along the way, especially in the host country.
9. Throw your hands in the air. At some point, with the flight just hours away, you’ll realize there’s nothing further you can do to prepare. There will be last minute fees, forms, and general unexpected hell. Do what you can. Take a deep breath, pour a stiff drink. You and your buddy will get there eventually.
10. Put the dog on the plane. If you’re carrying your pal onboard, life is much easier for everyone involved. The crew may or may not have procedures for potty time. If the dog is flying below deck, then your pet’s life will suck during the entire flight, but you can minimize that suckage. Provide plenty of blankets, food, and water. Make sure the captain is aware he has live animals down there, so he keeps the climate controlled appropriately, especially on the tarmac. Make sure the flight crew is aware of your situation. An able flight crew will make sure your pet is fed and watered, but sadly, you can’t count on that with every airline, so yeah, a trans-oceanic passage could be pretty awful. Sure you don’t want to leave Fido with your brother or something?
11. Walk the dog out of the airport. Customs will most definitely want to talk to you. If you landed in a fairly developed country with transparent government policies, you will probably have all your documents together, and you’ll breeze right through. If you landed in a somewhat backwards country, you might be stuck in customs for some time, while they sort out whether you’re allowed to enter the country with the dog or not. They won’t care if Mr. So-and-So at the Embassy of Backwardistan assured you all papers were in order. You’ll have to do as they say. Hopefully your employer knows a good fixer. Save all documentation. Your pet may need it later to leave the country, or to re-enter the USA.
Our mad tale of how it all came together
My hope is to make the pet relocation process a little less painful for whomever reads this. That said, the process is painful. Painful in the butt. But it’s doable. And worthwhile for anyone who doesn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a pet relocation service.
Let’s meet the dogs. Our big girl is Boo. She’s a lab-hound mix, 44 lbs of pure neurotic. About a year ago, we adopted her from a local shelter, where she’d lived for eight long months. Total sweetheart, lots of separation anxiety. Not exactly a prime candidate for a 25+ hour trans-Atlantic, trans-Asiatic flight.
Here is Floyd, whom a friend rescued from a truck stop over a year and a half ago. He’s also sort of cuckoo, but has become a pretty lovable little chihuahua-miniature greyhound mix. Very mellow, except when he’s barking at hallucinations.
We recently accepted new positions in Kathmandu, Nepal, and this is the story of our mission to relocate there with our dogs. My devoted readers will know that my wife and I are no strangers to relocation. Many times now we’ve shoved our lives into three cubic meters and boarded a plane. But never before have we attempted to board with any live animals, aside from ourselves.
Learn as much as possible about the new host country. Is it pet friendly? Are there places to walk the dog? Do local municipal laws allow dogs? Are there restrictions on size? Will your accommodation provide your best friend sufficient living space? What are the cultural attitudes towards dogs? Will your housekeeper get jealous because the dog’s food costs more than her salary? Will locals try to eat the dog? By the way, totally not kidding about any of these questions.
As it happens, Kathmandu is reportedly pet friendly. Indeed, Hindus honor dogs — specifically on Kukur Tihar, a part of the annual Diwali “Festival of Lights.”
A bedazzled pug on Kukur Tihar. Source: http://www.dogster.com
We connected with a few people who live or lived with their pets in KTM, and they were able to confirm that we’d be fine bringing dogs over. Our contacts all agreed that the hardest part is transporting the pets through the airport at home and then again in Nepal. So our most immediate question: what does the red tape look like?
Woo boy. Talk about a can of worms. We’ve dealt with bureaucracy at every level, from US and NZ immigration procedures, to the Qatari ministry of health, to getting a gym membership in Sweden (much tougher than it sounds). And I guess that got us toughened up for this research project — getting dogs out of the US, then into Nepal, then back again after the contract ends.
When booking flights in the past, I’d simply run a metasearch to find the cheapest flight with the least number of stops… maybe even a cool layover. With pets, you must carefully consider your flight plan. The plane cannot fly through certain countries if animals are on board. Certain countries may disallow animals for environmental reasons or reasons of health and safety. For example, New Zealand won’t let anyone enter the country with plant or animal products of any kind — fruit, dried shrimp, even wood-handled tools are forbidden. Dogs are cool, so long as you’re happy to let them sit in quarantine for a couple weeks. Because you know, that stuff could cause a chain reaction that wipes out the kiwi birds or something.
Countries like Abu Dhabi and Qatar won’t let animals fly through because it’s so damn hot. If you left Poochie on the tarmac for longer than 5 minutes in Doha, she’d be shawarma. For us, that meant no Etihad, no Qatar Air, and no Emirates — all airlines with otherwise convenient flight paths from our nearest airport to the final destination.
We contacted a number of local travel agents, but none of them wanted anything to do with a pet relocation. Too many hassles and too much liability, given that it’s a family member at stake. Thankfully, the AAA was happy to help, even though we aren’t members. They pointed us in the direction of probably the only major carrier that could do the job, Turkish Airlines.
Even if your AAA office recommends an airline for you, be sure to verify everything with that carrier. TA’s stateside customer service isn’t exactly spectacular, but after a half hour or so of broken English conversation, I was able to confirm they will transport dogs. But there would be surprises in store for us later.
While TA was happy to take our money in exchange for the transport of dogs, we found domestic carriers to be less accommodating. Few allow pets as checked cargo. Those that do, want lots of money, in addition to what the international carrier already demands. They have a handful of other sticky rules, and when we did the math, it made more sense to rent an SUV and drive the whole dang gang up to the international hub.
Doing this cost a little more, and obviously would take more time, but think about which would be more enjoyable: a leisurely, scenic road trip with stops for short hikes and maybe a camping trip, accompanied by two dogs who love riding in the car OR… tacking on an extra four hours fly time to what’s already going to be a 25+ hour flight, right after squeezing dogs, luggage, two humans, and a big ass dog kennel into and out of a Prius? I feel we made the most prudent decision.
Different countries require different things to import pets. Australia, as Johnny Depp famously learned, is among a handful of countries that quarantine newly arrived animals. Many countries, fortunately, require only a stack of documents thick enough to choke a horse. In the case of Nepal, I called their embassy in New York. The man who answered sounded like I had woken him from a nap.
“Uhh, is this the Nepalese embassy?”
“Yes yes what you need?”
I explained that we wished to bring our pets into Nepal, and needed to know the requirements.
“What you asking me for? That something the government handle.”
“Which is why I’m contacting you. At the embassy. Of Nepal.”
We got nowhere fast. I guess I should’ve pushed harder. Maybe made some more calls, asked for supervisors or something. Or tried to dig up a contact at their health ministry. But having now gone through the process, I’ll say it probably wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. More on that later.
Equally frustrating, our own blessed government employees. Try to find relevant information online, you’ll get stuck in a Möbius loop of digital insanity, or dead-end at a nonsensical paperwork dumping ground like this one. Calling the central USDA number proved just as useless, so I tried the state office. It so happens, one of their offices is near our house, so I dropped in. Thus began my trip down the rabbit hole of how the USDA works.
The USDA has a million offices in a million buildings, each office designated to one compartmentalized detail. The office I visited handles import-export, yes, but only of plants. They gave me a number for an office two hours away that handles animals. Called that number, talked to a real helpful fellow. Real knowledgeable. At least, that’s what I thought until later, when I realized he only worked with interstate import-export of animals, not international. I’ll come back to this point later.
What you need to know for now is this: most countries will require at minimum an APHIS 7001 form. You can thank me later for the link, because the USDA doesn’t make it easy to find on their website. The 7001 is a federal-level document (not to be confused with the state-level USDA form your vet may mistakingly suggest) that must be filled out by your USDA-certified veterinarian after (s)he performs a wellness check of the animal, then sent to a federal (not state) USDA federal office to be stamped for a $55 fee. I mention the fee because if you’re transporting more than one pet, you can list them all on one form, thus paying only one fee. The wellness check often needs to be within 10 days of arrival — check with your host country on this. The stamping itself is mercifully quick, but because it’s a time sensitive document, you may consider driving down to do it in person, which requires an appointment. If this is not an easy option, overnight a self-addressed express envelope to the office and hope for the best.
It’s important to also be mindful of what the US requires to bring a pet back home. At the time of this writing, the animal needs a recent statement of good health from a vet in the host country, as well as up-to-date shots records. I’d recommend also keeping on hand your pet’s entire medical history, in case it’s required later. You’ll want to contact the CDC a few months before you plan to fly home; the federal-level USDA guy tells me incoming pets are the CDC’s jurisdiction, not his. However, you will need to contact the state-level USDA office of whichever state is your final destination. They will likely have something like a “companion animal certificate” that needs filling out.
I cannot say the pet passport is money well spent. It’s sort of like when you turned in your high school essays in a plastic sleeve. It didn’t improve the quality of writing, but it looked prettier. The pet passport is something we found on a for-profit website. The company claims to have passports “customized” for every country. It will cost you $15, and for a little extra, you can have a handsome leather sleeve. See? My high school analogy isn’t far off.
How about I save you $15 right now? Here’s what you need on that pet passport:
- Photo of pet
- Name of pet
- Breed, sex, age, color
- Microchip number
- Owner(s) contact details (phone and email)
- Alternative contact details (such as friend or family member)
It looks something like this:
Notice we put in (sigh) a plastic sleeve, so it’s grouped with all the other required documents (APHIS 7001, rabies certificate, vaccinations, medical history).
Boom. Now go buy yourself something nice with that $15 you just saved.
With everything neatly assembled in one place, you should make copies of every single page. No telling what documents that customs guy will need to keep.
As for how to transport the dogs, every airline has different requirements, but as a general rule, if you lapdog is allowed to fly in cabin, Poopsie will need a carrier that meets the carry-on requirements (i.e. fits under the seat). If you’re checking your larger dog onto the plane, then Buster will need a kennel that allows him to stand up and turn around.
Here’s how our dog transports were organized in the end:
- We slid Boo’s pet passport into an envelope and attached it to the top of her kennel with clear packing tape. This way, cargo and air crew would have easy access to her details if needed. We also equipped her ride with a giant plastic hamster-style bottle and plenty of warm blankets. For an added touch of class, I slapped a bunch of brewery stickers all over the kennel. That step is optional.
- Floyd’s passport went into an envelope, and that went into my carry-on man-purse, along with the duplicates we’d made of 7001’s and vax records. His carrier was equipped with a mess of blankets too.
Final days. Here’s where things got tense, despite our best laid plans. Both dogs had their vaccinations updated 30 days before the flight, as most any country will require, no problems there. As required for Nepal, we took them to the vet for their “fitness to fly” check within a week or so of the flight. That’s when things went south real fast.
The vet filled out the APHIS 7001, as well as the interstate travel form. I was in the post office, ready to overnight the documents to the USDA for stamping, when I realized I didn’t have their address handy. Called the number, but got a different USDA guy. He was like, “Why are you using the 7001? Do you know if the Nepal government even accepts that? Most governments have their own form. Didn’t your vet know that? And why are you sending the interstate travel form? That’s only if you’re moving your pet to another state. I’m a federal guy, not a state guy. I don’t even stamp that.”
So basically, the “knowledgeable” USDA fellow we’d talked to a month previous had given us completely erroneous information. We’re days from our flight. If the government of Nepal requires additional documentation, we have no time to obtain it, much less get it stamped and sealed by the US authorities.
For about ten minutes, I lost my damn mind. Right in the middle of the post office. You know you’re a mess when postal workers are concerned about your mental health. Then I realized, “Hey. Nothing we can do. We’re just gonna put these dogs on a damn plane and hope for the best.”
I mailed the documents to the USDA, came home, made and sandwich, and drank a full ass glass of wine. A couple days later, we picked up the SUV, packed in four suitcases, one kennel, one carrier, and two dogs, and hit the road for the Grayson Highlands in the great state of Virginia, followed by a couple days with family in Washington, DC. That little adventure deserves its own blog, but it suffices to say the dogs got their ya-ya’s out before the big flight date.
Anyone who’s flown with even the most meager of luggage knows the heightened level of crazy that’s experienced at any airport drop-off point. You’ve got two lanes of cars all pushing in to the same tiny space directly at the airline’s front door. You have to jump out, madly flinging suitcases and god knows what else onto the curb while an angry motorcycle cop bleats his siren because you are taking too long. The PA is blasting off warnings about distressed security levels and how your really shouldn’t be parking your car for even a second and how if you take your eyes off your bag just once then a terrorist will plant a bomb in it. Horns are honking. Delayed jets scream away in the background.
Now, add two dogs to the situation. Also, pretend you drove a rental care and you have to return it which means you need to abandon your wife at the curb with two dogs while you take care of that, then hop the shuttle back, and hope that you can find her at departures.
This is why we have curbside porters. Bring cash. The rule of thumb is a $1 tip per bag, but given our extraordinary luggage, I was happy to sweeten the pot a bit. I didn’t feel great about leaving Fiona with the two dogs, but the porters were great in getting her out of the heat and into the departures lobby.
Pulling up to the rental car returns, I felt smug. We’d taken precautions to ensure no dog hair littered the vehicle, because no rental agency in their right mind would knowingly permit its customers to transport animals. The check-in guy performed the customary checks for dents and scratches, then stamped the car as A-OK. Only when he started to drive away did I notice the stash of dry dog food in the passenger side door handle, which Fiona had made into Floyd’s ad-hoc feeding tray. Not sure if I need to be worried about that or not. Ah well.
Turkish Air checked us in as promptly as could be expected. Both dogs were weighed on the luggage scale whilst in their carriers. Both dogs were within the weight allowances and TA charged us about $600, as agreed at the time of booking. The TA clerk asked if we wished to leave Boo now or formally check her in later. We felt sooner was better than later (Boo seemed to detect this betrayal almost immediately), so a TA porter wheeled Boo to a special TSA counter. This is the last moment when owners are officially allowed to touch their dogs. The inspector ran his anti-terror magic wand across the dog, then throughout her kennel and blankets. He bound up the kennel door with zip ties and slapped a TSA inspection tag on the side. Sadly, we had to leave Boo behind the TA ticket desk while we went to do our own security check-in.
Floyd had a decidedly easier time. A quick wave of the wand, and he pranced right through security, to the adoration of every TSA cop in the place. He sat underneath our table at the mediocre airport restaurant, where Fiona fed him bits of sausage. Meanwhile, Boo undoubtedly bemoaned her abandonment to a gang of Turkish dog traders.
The flight was long. The intended itinerary was DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Kathmandu. Before every takeoff and during each stop, we asked the flight crew to check on Boo. They always shot us a toothy grin and thumbs up, but failed to provide any substantial information. We came to learn the crew was not trained on any “procedure” for feeding, watering, or potty breaks as promised by the agent at the time of booking. This was bad for Floyd, who managed to hold it for the most part, but surely was worse for Boo, who wasn’t let out of her kennel during the entire flight.
What made matters worse was the diversion to Delhi, due to poor weather in Kathmandu. India is one of the “no pets” countries, so we had no idea how that would play out and neither did the crew. Fantastic. We sat on the tarmac for a couple hours, and we were assured the air conditioning in cargo was running that whole time, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the cabin, and by this time, we had no reason to believe anything Turkish Air had to say. We were pissed off, but the situation was entirely out of our hands at that point, so all we could do was wait it out, and hope they didn’t kill our dog.
When we finally landed, it was like the curbside at Dulles but in reverse. Long line for visas, mercifully short line for passport checks. No wait at all for baggage claim. A bit of a trial finding Boo… it’s not like anything at KTM airport is clearly labeled. Finally, we had all bags and all dogs in tow. Boo was practically turning backflips when she saw us. All we had to do was walk out that door, where a driver with a sign would await us. It goes without saying, we were thoroughly jet lagged, exhausted, and short tempered by this time, so I sure wasn’t in the mood for some customs official to tell me I needed to stand aside with our cart full of crap and two dogs.
Naturally, that is precisely what happened next. I pulled the puppy passports, sure that this would satiate his bureaucratic hunger, but no. He was merely a bottom feeding bureaucrat. I’d need to talk to their “quarantine” official. I sure didn’t like the sound of that word. Where, pray tell, would I find this official? The man pointed me to an unoccupied desk with the word ANIMAL QUARTINE scrawled across it. Taped to the desk was a piece of paper with two phone numbers. He was pretty sure the guy could be reached at one of those two numbers. I asked if he had a phone I could use. Of course not. I explained, having just arrived, my phone did not have a local SIM card. He suggested I go get one.
During this conversation, Fiona was busy rehydrating Boo. The ground crew had managed to break her water bottle, and she’d apparently not had a drop to drink for the entire journey.
With Fiona once again guarding our completely disoriented, dehydrated dogs, I set out on a quest. It involved finding three broken ATM’s, two crooked money changers, and one actually quite pleasant SIM card salesman. I must have walked back and forth through customs a hundred times, and each time a policeman told me I couldn’t go through, until I explained in exasperated, rapid fire English that my wife was with my dogs in customs and I had to call two phone numbers to talk to the quarantine man who works at a quarantine desk with no man at it. They let me through every time, which is very different from similar situations with the TSA.
Called the two numbers, they didn’t work. The bottom feeder scratched his mustache, thinking hard, staring at the still-vacant QUARTINE desk. He noticed a few more numbers, scribbled in pencil next to the white piece of paper. He said to call those numbers next. For all I know, they were numbers for hotels or massages or who knows what. Just then, my phone rang! It was the QUARTINE man! I guess he’d seen my phone ID pop up. He said he’d be there to meet me in fifteen minutes. The cacophony of barks and meows in the background suggested that his interpretation of 15 minutes was different from the one on my watch.
Forty minutes later, the QUARTINE man arrived. He wanted copies of my 7001 and rabies record, which I had on hand. He inexplicably wanted other, random pages from the passport, for which I (take note) did not have copies. New quest: find a copy machine. More heated exchanges with customs officials. Finally, QUARTINE man is happy and stamps some official looking piece of carbon paper. I pay another bureaucrat about $50 in “taxes” and at long last, we have arrived to the balmy free air of Kathmandu!
Incredibly enough, our driver was still waiting for us, seven hours after our projected arrival time. We arrived at the hotel, and as soon as I took the dogs out of the van, they proceeded to execute the Longest Pee Ever. How they held it for so long, I’ll never know.
We’ve been in Nepal for several days now. The dogs aren’t exactly crazy about life in a hotel room, but that will soon change, and more than anything, they’re happy not to be on a plane any longer. We go on walks every day, just as we did back home, but we need to be vigilant about the stray dogs in the street and strange food littering the sidewalk. As if they weren’t spoiled enough already, they drink only bottled water, but that’s because the tap water will poison them. There are plenty of rodents for Boo to chase, and Floyd continues to attract lovestruck glances from all passers-by. I think we’ll be fine.
Wherever you plan on taking your dogs, I hope our story helps. Despite the rough patches, we made it without paying anyone a substantial fortune and without losing our buddies to the great dog park in the sky. I’d say it was worth it to have our dogs with us on our newest adventure.