A story about a much-loved VW Kombi, a trip around Australia and shipping the old girl back to the UK

Shipping Ethel, our VW Kombi, from Australia to the UK

If you are considering shipping a VW Kombi - or any other vehicle - from Australia to the UK, and if you haven't done anything like it before, be prepared to make lots of notes! And be prepared to get confused.

Note: This is a bit detail heavy. I tried to make a note of all the strife I went through, so unless you are planning to do something similar, you might find this section a bit to detailed and generally nerdy. Oooh look! Pretty pictures! OK, that's the visual people filtered out. Nerds, read on.

Finding a Shipping Company for our Camper Van

My first step was to track down a shipping company. I had no idea where to start, so off to Google I trundled and tried searching for 'shipping car fremantle uk' (Fremantle being the port in Western Australia where I would send it from. I found a few decent search results that gave me a bit more information about the different types of shipping options (basically a toss-up between using a container or a roll-on, roll-off ship, otherwise known as a Ro-Ro); I also found the address and contact details of a shipping company in Perth. I gave these guys a call and discovered that while they usually deal with larger commercial shipments, they could help with shipping the Kombi back. I would need to confirm dimensions of the van to be sure that it would fit inside a container OK (no problem at all on that front) or if I decided to go down the Ro-Ro route the price would be affected by the size (and the vehicle would have to be under 81m3, again, no problem).

Ro-Ro vs Container

So, technically there was nothing stopping us shipping. The cost? In the end it was just over $AU 4,000 (approximately £1,600) for a container. Going Ro-Ro would have been cheaper by almost $1,000 but presented its own problems:

The Timing Problems

One of the biggest pains in shipping our Kombi, Ethel, back home was getting the timing right. We had planned to leave Australia from Perth in July, originally, but had pushed the flight back a few times until the end of August. Our round-the-world jaunt was not due to end until early December, still a good 3-and-a-bit months away. Now, the shipping took a decidedly shorter time from Australia to the UK: just 30-35 days, in fact. If I put Ethel on the boat in August then flew out to Thailand as planned, she would arrive back in Southampton (UK) by the end of September and I wouldn't be in a position to collect the van, see that any Customs & Excise questions are answered satisfactorily and get her on the road, legal for UK driving. I could ask a relative to do this for me but:

So, we decided to delay the shipping - by 11 weeks! We arranged for Ethel to stay at the shipping storage area, a highly secure facility (probably the most secure place she would ever stay!) that cost us just $30 AU per week (about £12/week). Given that we had been paying $24 AU per night for a pitch at a caravan park, this seemed like a good deal; heck, there was no advantage in dragging out our stay in Australia to avoid storage costs, it would be a total false economy. [This was proved totally true when we did get to Thailand and realised how much cheaper the cost of living was there.]

Calculating the UK Costs for Registering the Kombi

Of course, it's one thing finding out about the shipping costs, but what about import duties in the UK? What would DVLA require in terms of paperwork or fees?

My first concerns were regarding duties for Customs & Excise. The way they normally calculate duties is something like this.

  1. First you need to identify what the vehicle is classified as. This is a simple call to a hotline - they ask you questions about the value, age, year model etc and then give you a classification code. This code then relates to the import duty rate. I'm not sure how high they can get, but Ethel would get a 10% import duty (or would she? More on that soon!)
  2. You'll need to add up the cost of the vehicle (or rather the value that it would have in the UK in its current condition) and the cost of shipping, then add on the import duty, and then, finally, add a further 17.5% VAT on to that figure.
  3. You then get the wallet out.

Assuming a value of £2,000 in the UK, and shipping costs of £1,700 all in, that would add up to £3,700, then the 10% (£370) would get added giving £4,070. VAT on £4,070 would be £712.25, making a grand total of £4,782.25.

Jeez, that seems a lot! But have you seen the price of good condition Kombis in the UK recently? I'm not saying that our Ethel would fetch over £4,500 in her current state, however. This calculated figure is actually higher than it would work out as, as I shall explain ...

Being out of the EC (not the UK) for over 12 months (albeit by just one day!) and owning/driving the van outside of the EC for longer than 6 months meant that there would be no import duty and no VAT! So, that's a big saving on the figures above - a whole £1,000. And anyway, we didn't spend £2,000 on the van in Australia, and if I'm completely honest, that van was paid for long enough ago that it was a mere memory. Also, if we had considered renting a vehicle in Australia we would have spent a whole heap more money, so in many ways Ethel had paid her way several times over. In short, despite those nasty figures above, it really only felt like there was the shipping to pay for. The perceived market value of the van would also be irrelevent from a Customs point of view, because if there's no duty to pay, it makes no difference whether it's a £100 banger or a £100,000 limousine! So, some revised figures:

In other words, I was looking at a figure of around £2,000, rightly or wrongly. And if I hadn't convinced myself enough with the figures above, there were two other factors that tipped the balance:

  1. I would have to get a vehicle when I got back to the UK anyway, so this saves some hassle at least
  2. This is Ethel, not just any old vehicle! If I wanted to get a Kombi in the UK, wouldn't it be best to go with one that's already shared many adventures and miles with us?

The DVLA Paperwork

This would be the easy part, compared to everything else [or so I thought, early on]. To get the van registered in the UK, I would need to get it MoTd and insured (on the chassis number). Once the van had passed the MoT, proven itself to be road-worthy and with a genuine certificate to attest to that, I would then have to make my way to a DVLA local office to prove to them that I owned the van, that I could prove it had just been imported (by showing the foreign registration document) and pay the necessary fees.

The biggest problem with all of this was timing - the van was due to arrive in the docks on 17th December, just a week before everything shuts down for Christmas, and in that time I had to get it cleared through Customs, driven to a test centre, get any remedial works done, get the van insured, get the newly MoTd van to the DVLA and get the new plates done. It's always busy in the lead-up to Christmas, but this was likely to be my most hectic Christmas in a long time! So, how exactly did it pan out?