Shipping Motorcycles from SFO to Ulanbaatar

Right now our motorcycles are on a ship somewhere in the Pacific. Actually, thanks to satellites we can be more specific. The ship carrying our bikes is right here:

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Shipping our motorcycles from San Francisco, California, USA to Ulanbaatar, Mongolia, wasn’t exactly hard but it did take some logistics and lots of emails. Lots of emails. To give some context, this is the ship among all of the other ships tracked in the Pacific right now:


So, how did we get our bikes on a ship in this sea of ships? I'll try to summarize that in this post.

If you prefer listening, we went over the process of shipping our bikes in the first episode of our podcast: here.

Two years before departure: Initial route planning and research

Yes. We did start planning this trip two years in advance. I don’t think you have to do that. But to line everything up, logistics, finances, employment, housing, etc. it does help to have some time. Andrew and I started throwing around the idea of an extended leave in 2016. We realized 2018 marked the ten year anniversary of when we had a semester abroad in New Delhi, India. That seemed like a good enough reason to mark 2018 as the year to go. That gave us two years to plan.

Our route planning involved considerations of budget, visas, carnet, weather, and logistics. Shipping accounted for both budget and logistics. We spent time on websites, primarily to gauge feasibility and prices of shipping. If you are thinking of doing a trip like this, bookmark Horizons now.

Horizons Unlimited has a great post on considerations for shipping. Although I don’t agree with all the advice they give, it’s a great starting point. Some things we noted—if you’re shipping more than one bike it was cheaper for us to go by sea than by air. We also were able to ship out of USA, and didn’t have to go to Canada. Read more. 

Another fantastic page is this one, cataloging actual shipments by motorcyclists, including price and contact information. We used this to gauge the feasibility of different shipping options, for example should we start in Europe and go to Mongolia? Does the opposite route work? Etc. Once we (I hope) pick up our bikes in Ulanbaatar with no issue, then we’ll add our shipment to this site.

In addition to internet forums like Horizons I also picked up a copy of Adventure Motorcycling Handbook.

This is a great resource in your planning phase to get more information on regions, suggested routes, and great detail on carnets and import taxes.

One year before departure: Getting the bikes ready for the trip

We spent a lot of this time working on the bikes themselves and getting them ready for the trip—not much related to shipping. I did email a couple of the freight forwarders mentioned on Horizons and the Handbook just to get a feel for the feasibility of shipment. They mostly responded saying the shipment was possible, but they can’t possibly forecast that far in advance.

Six months before departure: Finding someone to accept the bikes in Mongolia

Six months before we wanted to start the trip is when I started to prioritize shipping. I’m sure professionals don’t need this much time, but we didn’t want to have to pay for an agent.

My first step was to get as many quotes and options as possible. I went back to my original emails from earlier in the year and followed up. Then I went on this website that is essentially contact list for freight forwarders around the world: Cargo Yellow Pages.

My second step was to copy contact information for all of the freight companies based in Mongolia into a spreadsheet, use a google sheet add on for mail merge, and send an email to all of them with the following information:

  • Departure Location
  • Destination Location
  • Motorcycle make and model
  • Weight of bikes
  • Willingness to crate and empty fluids
  • Desired arrival date

Then I kept track of quotes in my spreadsheet. All in all I emailed around 50 companies. One of them mentioned that Mongolia shipping industry is a kind of small, and word had gotten around about my email blast. Kind of embarrassing. But also kind of cool that it's such a small community. Keep that in mind before you think about doing anything shady in this small word.

After a couple weeks of back and forth, the most responsive and willing to answer all of my questions was Gonnie:

D. Gonchigsumlaa / Import Manager
MonEx - Mongolian Express Company Ltd.
6/F, Vista Office Bldg., Chinggis Avenue 17, 14251 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
M: +976.9911.0195

Having never done this before, I had a lot of questions about the difference between sea and air, time to travel, and associated fees. Gonnie managed all of my random questions like a pro and responded every time within 24 hours.

Five months before departure: Carnets v. Import Tax

We had lots of questions around carnets and import taxes. My understanding is that a carnet is a third party company that interfaces between people temporarily importing and countries’ import tax. Instead of having to pay a heavy import tax, you pay a carnet company an amount equal to an import tax, plus a fee. That lets you bring the vehicle into the country for a specified time. If you leave within the specified time, the carnet company will refund your import tax.  If you don’t leave the country with the vehicle, the carnet company keeps the money.

Carnets are designed to be able to be used around the world. You can find a list of all countries accepting a carnet here. Some countries require a carnet to bring a vehicle across the border, so do your research in your route planning.

We learned that Mongolia accepts carnets, but does not require it. The alternative to a carnet is to pay the import tax directly to the government, and then get a refund when you leave the country. Or, get someone else to do it. In our case, Gonnie and MonEx has agreed to pay the import tax on our behalf, for a fee, and then he will be repaid when we leave the country. Basically, a Mongolia specific carnet. The fees to have MonEx do this on our behalf are much cheaper than the carnet fees, so that's the option we went with.

Two to four months before departure: Getting the bikes on the ship

Once I had sorted out who was going to receive the motorcycles, we needed to find someone to accept them at a port here in the US. We had many questions about shipping by sea or by air. The best option for us was by sea. The factors for us was that by air, you pay per bike, which added up really quickly. There aren’t any direct flights from US airports to Ulanbaatar, which probably increased air costs significantly. Also, for air travel we would need to crate the bikes. The cost to crate one motorcycle seemed was around $1,000 each, plus the time to assemble and disassemble.

Back of the napkin math made sea a much more appealing option:

Cost by sea:
Total container rental: $ 4,850

Cost by air:
Freight: $4,200 each
Crates: $1,000 each
Total for three bikes: $15,600

Gonnie shopped around and gave us two departure options, one in Oakland, California, and one in Long Beach, California. The Oakland option was $2,000 more expensive, so we opted to rent a Budget rental truck for around $300, put the bikes in the back and drive the bikes down to Long Beach.

Gonnie found the persons who would accept the motorcycles in Long Beach. That ended up being Sue Chung:

Sue Chung
U.S. LINKS WORLDWIDE, INC. (Int’l Freight Forwarder)
T. 718.244.0768

Sue was great at answering all of our questions around preparing the bikes for shipping, including:

  • The palates designed for motorcycle shipping. Basically metal palates designed for motorcycle tires to be blocked. This allows them to be standing up right with minimal straps needed to keep them down, and less stress on the forks.
  • Only needing to disconnect the batteries and have less than a ¼ tank of gas in the bikes. Other than that, everything stayed put on the bikes: no draining oil, brake fluid, or transmission. Convenient!
How our bikes are being shipped

How our bikes are being shipped

We dropped the motorcycles off at the US Links warehouse in Compton about on April 13, with our plans to arrive in Mongolia on June 5th. We had to include buffer times on either side for loading and unloading. April 13th was about a week before the ship was scheduled to depart from Long Beach. Included with the bikes were:

  • A signed declaration that the batteries were disconnected and gas tank only ¼ full.
  • A Power of Attorney from us to Sue to allow her to get the bikes passed through customs on our behalf
  • We left the titles with Sue to get through customs, after which, she mailed them back to us.
  • Pictures of the motorcycles from all angles
  • A list of all items in the panniers being shipped with the bikes
Andrew and I dropping off the bikes in Compton with Sue.

Andrew and I dropping off the bikes in Compton with Sue.

And that’s a pretty comprehensive view of how we set up shipping our motorcycles across the sea! I’m going to keep my list of contacts for when we are on the road. We’re not sure where we will end up, but once we decide it, I’m sure we’ll be reaching out to some of those same people I emailed originally and getting some quotes to get the motorcycles back to SFO.