Kate Bevan   21 December 2017

WorldRemit's own Franz Sindac and family show us how to pack a balikbayan box.

Tighter new rules for sending balikbayan boxes home to the Philippines announced in August have been suspended until March after protests and calls for an inquiry into whether the new rules would impose too much red tape.

Balikbayan boxes, a tax-free way of sending items home used by the 10 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in 170 countries around the world, are particularly important as Christmas approaches.

The boxes are an efficient and easy way of sending gifts, clothes and household items up to a value of 150,000 pesos ($2,918) (£2,210) back to families in the Philippines.

The empty flat-pack boxes are bought from a shipping agent such as LBC Express in the UK and for a single fee, OFWs can pack them full of all kinds of things to send to loved ones at home.

balikbayan boxes

Sending love home: a queue at the airport with balikbayan boxes packed full of gifts. Photo: drcw / Flickr

The empty flat-pack boxes are bought from a shipping agent such as LBC Express in the UK and for a single fee, OFWs can pack them full of all kinds of things to send to loved ones at home.

With no weight restrictions on the boxes when they're sent by sea, OFWs stuff every corner with tinned goods, sweets, clothing and pretty much anything you can think of before making sure the tough corrugated box is wrapped up in miles of packing tape and sent off via a specialist shipper.

So long as your box doesn’t contain anything from the list of prohibited items, you can put pretty much anything in it.

The only things you can’t send, according to Philippines Customs, are:

  • Alcohol
  • Car or motorcycle parts
  • Ceramic tableware
  • Cultural artefacts and pottery
  • Military items
  • Animal hide, including dog and cat fur
  • Drugs or drug paraphenalia – except for prescribed medicines
  • Firearms and explosives, or parts thereof
  • Cheese, meat, fruit or vegetables – unless they’re canned
  • Perishable foods
  • Pets, plants, seeds or soil
  • Commercial quantities of used clothes
  • Pornography
  • Fluids

Packing a balikbayan box is something of an art form, with the aim to make the most of the space by filling every nook and cranny and making sure not a cubic millimetre goes to waste.

Philippines sunset over Palawan

While many can fly home to the Philippines for the holidays, others send balikbayan boxes full of gifts. Photo: Benson Kua / Flickr

Filipinos pack up their boxes of treats and clothes to send home to their families in the Philippines very carefully: they’re determined to squeeze in as much as possible.

There’s lots of advice online about how to pack your box: tips include using a big plastic bag to line the box, and placing containers of liquids inside separate plastic bags, and making sure that lids are secured with tape.

Others suggest that you write your declaration list as you place each item in the box so that you don’t have to rack your brains to remember what you’ve packed after you’ve sealed it up.

Space-saving tips include putting tins inside shoes to make the most of the space, and using clothing as padding for fragile items.

Many advise that the whole box should be wrapped in plastic once it’s packed and ready to go.

With all the work that goes into preparing and sending a balikbayan box, it was something of a blessing that there hadn’t been much red tape associated with it: until the new rules came into force in August, all the sender had to do was include a list of the contents – handwritten was fine – and an estimate of the value.

The new rules, however, required users to fill out a form itemising everything in the box and to provide receipts for new things – clothes, shoes, household goods etc – as well as requiring the sender to provide a photocopy of their passport’s information page or, if they were dual nationals, a photocopy of their non-Filipino passport as well as proof of dual citizenship.

Those new regulations also tightened up on who could send and receive the boxes. Senders had to be a certified Qualified Filipino While Abroad (QFWA), while the recipient had to be related to the sender – sending a box to someone else such as a boyfriend meant it lost its tax-free status.

The aim of the new rules was to crack down on smuggling, but they had sparked concerns about delays as well as protests from OFWs about the increased bureaucracy. A stipulation that the boxes could be opened for inspection if something suspicious showed up on X-ray by Customs also caused protests from Filipinos around the world.

The new rules were suspended on October 3 by customs chief Isidro Lapeña – which meant that many OFWs hadsent their boxes home for Christmas: the last date for sending them from the UK was October 9.

If you sent yours home before the new rules were suspended, Customs officials said that those complying with the new rules will be processed first – so all that extra work won’t have been in vain.

The aim is to clamp down on smuggling and to make sure that the senders and recipients qualify for the tax-free status, and whatever happens in the new year, it's probably worth getting used to the stricter procedures.

What was in your balikbayan boxes? And what do you think of the new rules? We always love to hear your stories - tell us in the comments below, or on our Facebook page