Dispatches from the North: The Expat’s Guide to Gift Giving

This guide isn’t just for expats themselves, it is really a two way street and keeping up traditions takes a little planning on both sides of the pond. So really, this is a guide to gift giving for expats as well as their family and friends back home.

Living abroad is an amazing experience in so many ways, but clearly the one major downfall is that you are away from many of the people you love. It has honestly taken me a couple years to really get into a good rhythm of getting gifts out in time, so here are some of my lessons learned.

Greeting Cards

I like sending cards, but I have to admit I tend to think of them a bit too late. At home if I left things a little late, I could get a cute “Happy Belated Birthday Card” but that card is not nearly as cute when it arrives a couple weeks late. To be safe, I recommend mailing cards at least 2 weeks in advance. It takes a bit of planning to be sure to send them on time, so I try to set up alerts on my computer or mark my calendar for 3 weeks before someone’s birthday to ensure that I have plenty of time to purchase and send their card. Now with the internet I can sometimes cheat and send one of the many Hallmark eCards if I really forget.”

It is also important to plan out your year and make sure the kinds of cards you will need will be available at that time of the year. For example, Mother’s Day happens in March in the UK, so when May rolls around and you realize you’ve got to send your mom a greeting card it is pretty difficult to come by one. If you normally send someone a card at a certain time of the year it is a good idea to compare special dates in the UK against those in the US and make sure you take the opportunity to get what you need when it is available, like buying your Mother’s Day card in March and stashing it away until May.

The Holidays

Season's Greetings

Like most people you are probably annoyed at the Christmas trees and decorations popping up in stores at the beginning of October next to the Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations. However, for expats the planning for the holidays has to start in October and November. The Royal Mail has published the Christmas Delivery posting dates for 2010 and recommends all mail bound for the USA be posted by Friday, December 10th. I usually like to try to beat the cutoff date by at least a week and try to have all of my gifts and cards posted by the first week of December.

The key to making everything go smoothly is to plan ahead and be organized. If you are planning to purchase things at home and ship them through Royal Mail be sure to start your shopping in November to give yourself plenty of time to find what you’re looking for and pack it up.

When packing up gifts try to keep your boxes as close to 2 kilograms as possible. Royal Mail rates for packages over 2 kg jump up sharply in price, so it is much more cost effective to pack up your gifts in smaller boxes rather than one big one. If you don’t have a scale (I just use my digital kitchen scale) it is a good investment as you don’t want to be caught out at the Post Office trying to shift things between boxes and repackage them or end up paying more than you should. The best value for the Royal Mail are boxes that are as close to 2kg as possible without going over.

It is also a good idea to stop at the Post Office before you start packing boxes and pick up customs stickers. You will need to identify the contents of each box on a customs sticker and the easiest way is to put the stickers on the empty boxes and fill them out before sealing them. If you forget to stop by the Post Office you can also put a post-it on each box and write the contents on the post-it before you seal them so you can quickly fill out the customs stickers for each box when you go to the Post Office without having to try to visualize what is in each one of those sealed identical looking boxes.

I also try to get as many gifts as possible online, which I go into more detail about below. Although it is easier and usually cheaper, you also must pay attention to cut off dates for Christmas delivery on each website to make sure you aren’t shelling out more money for express delivery. I tend to designate one person to help me, usually my mom, and have gifts shipped to her and she makes sure the gifts get to their intended recipient.


International shipping is ex-pen-sive. It will often cost you as much or more as the value of the gift to ship something overseas. I tend to only make a couple boxes up a year to send home, sometimes packing up things for multiple occasions. Before purchasing something that you intend to package up and ship, consider the weight and the value of the item. I try to avoid anything of any great value because it will cost more to ship expensive items and be able to track the package to its destination. Royal Mail and the USPS are usually the cheapest, but it is almost impossible to track a package from door to door with this method so I keep my gifts as inexpensive as possible when using this option.

Online Shopping

Purchasing gifts at home and then packaging them up to ship is definitely not the only option. I’ve used e-commerce to do everything from sending flowers to my mom for Mother’s Day to having a gift wrapped present complete with a personal card delivered. You may not have realized that many US online retailers will allow you to order using your UK accounts so items are shipped directly from the retailer to the recipient just as if you were ordering from within the US.

The limiting factor here is whether the online store accepts credit/debit cards with international billing addresses. The only time I’ve ever really run into a problem with this was with Babies ‘R’ Us when I attempted to purchase a shower gift from a friend’s registry. I’m sure it is not the only retailer out there that doesn’t allow international billing addresses (and having retail stores in the country you live is no indication, as there are Babies ‘R’ Us stores in England) but more often than not the online retailer will accept international billing addresses. If you find that the store you are trying to order from won’t accept your billing address, search for the item on other sites as you can often find an item on multiple online stores.

A whole different and wonderful monster of online shopping is Amazon.com. Amazon has separate dedicated UK and US sites, and I have accounts on both. I use the UK account for my own personal use, and then when I need to send a gift to someone in the US I use my account on that site. Not only does it do all the wonderful stuff like save my billing info and the addresses of people I frequently ship to, it also allows me to pay in GBP which is what I love the most about it. No unexpected charges for foreign currency transactions, no exchange rate surprises or any of the other things that can go slightly awry when you’re charging your UK accounts in USD. Also, (for a price) Amazon will gift wrap your item for you and include a personal message you type out.

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  1. avatarDenise in London says

    I also like to order British food items/gifts from some of the wonderful British Shoppes that can be found in the U.S. – many of which have online shopping as well such as The British Shoppe in Orlando, FL. Do a bit of Googling and find the nearest British shop to your recipients so the shipping won’t be as much. It’s fun to send your family a box of your favourite Mr. Kipling cakes, for example, so they can vicariously share in your daily teatime!

    • avatar says

      I was thinking of doing something like this for Christmas this year since I won’t be going home and last year I brought home Cadbury’s chocolate biscuits and After Eight mints so it would be good to send along some English treats so I can be there “in spirit”.