Iva Kubickova and Kate Bevan   22 October 2019

two balikbayan boxes on a purple background with yellow and red and orange decorations

There are more than 10.2 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in over 170 countries around the world. And yet, living a thousand miles away, they remained connected to their families back home. And that’s how a tradition of balikbayan boxes was born.

As the Christmas approaches, balikbayan boxes are particularly important. Why? During this festive season, Pinoys send boxes home to family and friends, full of valuable goods and, more importantly, love.

We visited a Filipino family living in the UK, who shared with us more about this tradition, and let us have a closer look into how they are packing their balikbayan box.

What is a balikbayan box?

Balikbayan boxes are a symbol of Filipino diaspora and a bridge between families separated by thousands of miles. Traditionally, Filipinos working overseas carefully pack and send a box full of gifts to their families back home. Marking special occasions, balikbayan boxes are being sent throughout the whole year, and peaking just before Christmas.

Unlike actual Christmas presents, Balikbayan boxes are full of everyday household items such as tinned goods, sweets, school supplies, clothing and pretty much anything you can think of.

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Why Filipinos love balikbayan boxes?

There are over sever million balikbayan boxes arriving to the Philippines each year!

Each box is prepared well in advance and contains items picked with love. It's a way that Filipinos living and working abroad can return home – at least in their heart. In translation, balikbayan means 'return to country' in Tagalog.

We asked our colleagues in the Philippines just what balikbayan boxes truly mean for them.

"It's not about the value of the stuff in the box; what matters is that we feel like our loved ones abroad care and think about us. What means the most is the thought behind it.”
 - Ruby Anlocotan, a Customer Service Team Manager

"It’s an amazing reminder that hard work pays off in the end, and that your family is always a priority – regardless of how far away they are.”
- Changmin Desu, a Customer Service Executive

"When I see how excited my kids are when we’re opening our balikbayan box, I can’t help but feel just as excited as them. Oh, and the way the balikbayan boxes smell! It’s like the country where it came from.”
- Erika Macachor, a Customer Service Executive

There’s a lot of joy when the family gathers to unpack their balikbayan box. What’s inside this year?

Sometimes, the box arrives late, or the clothes in them might not fit right.  But there is so much goodness to enjoy – for example a taste of food from countries thousand miles away that you’d normally never try.

a filipino woman with blond hair packing her balikbayan box“A

The new rules for sending a balikbayan box back home

In the past, balikbayan boxes were tax-free. And because they were also the cheapest way to ship to the Philippines, they were at times abused to avoid taxes.

In August 2017, the government introduced a new rules on balikbayan boxes, aiming to clamp down on smuggling and to make sure that the senders and recipients qualify for the tax-free status.

The new rules require Filipinos to fill out a form itemising everything in the box and to provide receipts for all valuable things (like watches or electronics). Plus, the sender has to provide a photocopy of their documents. Those new regulations also tightened up on who could send and receive the boxes.

However, a stipulation that boxes full of personal items could be randomly opened for inspection caused protests from Filipinos around the world. The government backed off from this idea and only inspect boxes if something suspicious shows up on X-ray.

These days, anyone can send a Balikbayan box to their loved ones in the Philippines. But you have to follow certain rules to ensure that it’s actually tax free.

Who can send a tax-free balikbayan box?

Those new regulations also tightened up on who could send and receive the boxes. 

  • Qualified Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW)
  • Filipinos living abroad with dual citizenship
  • Filipinos with temporary visa (such as students or temporary workers)

Who can receive a balikbayan box?

Recipients have to be related to the sender – sending a box to someone else, such as a boyfriend means it lost its tax-free status.

How much can you send?

All qualified Overseas Filipino Workers can send up to 3 balikbayan boxes per calendar year. The total value of the items in the shipments should not exceed a value of 150,000 PHP, which is an equivalent of approximately $2,918 or £2,210.

Balikbayan boxes with a value below PHP 10 000 will automatically be exempted to the duty and importation tax.

What to put in the balikbayan box?

As long as your box doesn’t contain anything from the list of prohibited items, you can put pretty much anything in it. You can’t send items in commercial quantity. This way, the government ensures that balikbayan boxes remain for personal use and not for resell.

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 a drug paraphernalia – 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 

Where to buy balikbayan boxes?

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

They come in many sizes, depending on your budget and preference from small (approx. 54 x 41 x 37 cm) to extra-large shipping boxes (approx. 80 x 53 x 57 cm).

Most companies shipping to Philippines don’t have any weight restrictions on the balikbayan boxes. Depending on the size of the box, some of them advise not to exceed 70 kg.

Here is a list of some popular shipping companies for balikbayan boxes:

Required documents

  • A copy of a Filipino passport
  • A copy of Oath of Allegiance (if dual citizen without a Philippine passport)
  • The Information sheet (declaration list) from the BOC
  • Receipt of the valuable items, if available.

For more information, please visit the offical website of the Filipino government, where you can find an information sheet for balikbayan boxes.

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How to pack a balikbayan box?

Packing a balikbayan box is something of an art form. 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. Here are some of the most-shared tips:

  • To use 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.

  • 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.

In a video below, you can see an example of how one family packs their balikbayan box.

Franz Sindac and family show us how to pack a balikbayan box.

The role of balikbayan boxes and remittances in the Filipino economy

Overseas Filipino Workers have always contributed to the Filipino economy by sending remittances to families and friends.  As a recognition of their hard work, balikbayan boxes were granted duty and tax-free rights in 1987.

At WorldRemit we’re also helping Filipinos living and working abroad to ease the process of sending money to their loved ones. They can use WorldRemit to send remittances as easily as sending an instant message, using our app or website.

We offer several services to the Philippines, including:

  • Cash pickup from various locations, including M’Lhuillier, Cebuana, Metrobank, BDO, LBC, PS bank, Palawan Pawnshop and many others.

  • Bank transfer to all Filipino bank accounts.

  • WorldRemit Wallet, allowing you to send money to the Philippines and store currency in a digital wallet.

  • Airtime top up

So, wherever you are in the world, we are working hard to get your hard-earned money to your loved ones in the Philippines – faster, safer and at lower-cost than traditional bricks and mortar agents.

Send money to the Philippines  

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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!