Shipping a vehicle from Houston, Texas to Cartagena, Colombia

We shipped our beloved birdmobile in a 40 ft high cube (shipping container) from Houston, Texas to Cartagena, Colombia. We stuffed the van into a container in Texas at a warehouse and anxiously awaited its arrival at the port in Cartagena.

It took us a day and a half to get the van out of the port in Cartagena. The second day was a bit maddening as we waited and waited for a customs inspection. When the customs inspector finally came and inspected the vehicle we thought we were all set, but we needed to have our form signed by the boss. No big deal we thought, we’ll catch the boss after lunch and we’ll have plenty of time to get the van out of the port and on our way. Ha! The boss was in a meeting and no one could reach her. The inspector told us that we will probably have to wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow! What! How is it possible that only one person can sign a piece of paper? Well, the boss’s boss could sign too, but that person was in the same meeting, an all day port tour with government folks or some such. After some polite nagging, our very kind and very helpful inspector offered to chase the boss down. The phone rang after about 30 minutes, the boss has been found! The inspector told us to meet him at the port and the boss will be there to sign the paper. Awesome! We walked as fast as we could to the port. This is it we thought, we are going to get the van out. We waited a very long 30 minutes only to find out that the boss was not going to be at the port but would instead meet us at customs office. Back to customs we went and waited very anxiously for the boss to show up. The time was 4:45 and customs closed at 5:00, the bank closed at 5:30 and the port closed at 6:00. We had very little time. At the very last minute the boss ran into the building and we rushed toward her and got the paper signed in a flash (she didn’t even look at it). We ran out of the building to catch a taxi. Every taxi that went by was full! Seriously! We need to get to the port. Finally some nice folks let us share their taxi and we scurried to the port. We finished paying our port fees at about 5:20, got a few more papers signed and stamped and Josh ran to get the van.

We left the port at 5:55, just in the nick of time to head into Cartagena and figure out how to negotiate traffic with all of the crazy taxi drivers. Thankfully we have good mapping software and we arrived at a little place just outside of old town to spend our first night in the van in Colombia! Ah home sweet home!

Shipping details and logistics:

If you have items in your vehicle you will need to ship in a container otherwise don’t expect your belongings to be inside when it arrives on the other side. If your vehicle has a separate living and driving area you can ship Roll On Roll Off (RORO), which is much cheaper. To ship a vehicle from the United States in a container you first need to find a Freight Forwarder/Shipping agent. Due to port restrictions and homeland security you are not allowed to enter the port area nor are you allowed to load your vehicle directly at the port as you can in many other countries. Hence you need to hire a Freight Forwarder. A Freight Forwarder will arrange the shipping process, fill out paperwork at U.S. customs, arrange for a truck to pick up an empty container at the port, arrange for loading of your vehicle at a warehouse loading facility, and return the full container to the port. It is possible to arrange these things yourself, but you need an escort and have to arrange with a trucking company to get a container, etc. We thought about doing this but it just didn’t seem worthwhile, especially since we would have to drive to Houston and then run around all the logistics, we decided it was easier to use an agency. There are numerous freight forwarders out there (just google freight forwarder and the port). We got quotes from several companies including RW Smith, Sales and Exports Worldwide, Direct Express, and SamericaXplorer. Many of these companies are not really interested in dealing with you as a cumbersome one off customer who doesn’t fully understand the system, so you need to be proactive and call companies again and again to get a quote. You may also want to inquire which shipper each Freight Forwarder company uses. We wanted to ship with Seaboard Marine because they have offices in the United States and in Colombia (inside the port no less, which helped immensely). This can make things easier for you. Seaboard Marine also works from the smaller port in Cartagena and all of the offices you need to go to are nearby (except DIAN), it seems that overall it’s easier to use Seaboard and the smaller port (Muelle de Bosque), which is decided by using Seaboard.

We used Horizon Auto Shipping to help with the logistics on the U.S. side. Although they were not the cheapest Freight Forwarder out there, they were by far the most responsive and were able to answer all of our questions and in general we felt more comfortable with them.

We arrived in Houston a week before the sail date and met with Javier at Horizon Auto Shipping. He took our title and sent it to customs for verification and clearance. The title was then overnighted back to us where we were staying in Houston. Javier and Horizon also arranged to have our van loaded at a warehouse nearby. He told us that all containers need to be at the port one week before sailing. Hence we made arrangements to load the van on Friday so it would be ready and at the port on Monday for a sail date on Friday. We showed up at the assigned date and time and the container was there and ready for us.  Josh drove the van into the container and the guys at the warehouse secured, chocked and braced the van in the container. Josh had to disconnect the battery system and all of our house electronics for shipping. In theory you also need to have under ¼ tank fuel, which we did, but no one checked, and we also shipped with a full propane container, though it was not obviously visible. We probably could have left the batteries connected too, they didn’t seem too concerned at the warehouse. After the van was secured, the container was sealed and we were given a paper with the container number and seal number. Be sure to watch the container get sealed and get the information from the warehouse attendants. We took photos of the seal on the container.

With the van in the container all we had to do was wait for the title to show up and look for tickets to Cartagena. We did not feel comfortable leaving the U.S. until the sail date just in case anything went wrong or we were one of the unlucky few to have a US customs inspection. The boat was to sail on the 27th so we bought tickets for the 28th. The boat was delayed about a day and sailed the 28th, but everything was fine. When the van was loaded onto the boat we received a copy of the Bill of Landing via email from Javier at Horizon Auto Shipping. This is a key piece of paper and one that you will want to print out and have with you in Cartagena as every person you deal with at the port will want to see this piece of paper.

Once we arrived in Cartagena we waited until we got word via email from Seaboard that the container had arrived. You can also track your container number on Seaboard’s website, but we received a pre-arrival notice before their website updated. Once you get the email the fun begins. There are two ports in Cartagena. Seaboard is located at the Muelle de Bosque Port. Seaboard Marine is super helpful and everyone at the Cartagena office was really nice. In fact they even gave us a list of steps (in English and Spanish) and a map to get the van out of the port. Their checklist (see below) was extremely helpful! Here are the steps we went through to get our vehicle out of the port.

These instructions are specific to Seaboard Marine, obviously, and are from our experience in April, 2015.

STEP 1:  Seaboard’s office is located at the Muelle de Bosque port (10.39512, -75.52339). The building is not signed (See photo). It seems like a dead-end street in a warehouse district, but actually you are in the right place. Head into the tiny white office and show them the Bill of Landing you received via email. They will give you the original Bill of Landing and a copy of the front page of the Bill of Landing with an embossed stamp on it, the English and Spanish instruction sheets and send you on to the next step.

Step 2:  Next you need to go to DIAN (customs office) in Manga (the neighborhood near the main port, 10.40963, -75.53403) to fill out the temporary vehicle permit and arrange for a vehicle inspection. Take a taxi to DIAN. The fares should be 8,000 COP, as there is a toll on the way to DIAN. To get into DIAN you need to show your passport and are then given a visitor pass. Tell them you are headed to Aduana and they will give you the correct badges. Head down the sidewalk to the main building on the right. Walk through the passageway, across the courtyard and straight ahead into the second building. Inside, ask the folks in the windows or on the left for the exterior commerce division (Division de Comercio Exterior), be clear you are IMPORTING a vehicle (Importación temporal de vehículo). We were sent to 4 different people and finally got the correct person and the temporary vehicle permit paperwork. Fill this out and then head back out of DIAN and across the street to the copy shop and make 2 copies. You will also need to provide 1 copy of the title, 1 copy of the owner’s passport, 1 copy of the passport page containing the owner’s entry stamp into Colombia, and 1 copy of the Bill of Landing you received during step one. Once you have all your copies go back to DIAN and they will enter the information into the computer and give you one copy of the temporary import permit (this is not the official permit, just a copy). They will also arrange to have your vehicle inspection. It is a good idea to ask for the phone number of the agent that helped you so you can call them if there are problems finding the inspector later in the process. DIAN offices are closed from 12 to 2 so plan accordingly.

Because our container had not yet been unloaded from the boat we completed the remaining steps the next day.

Step 3:  Head to the COMPAS office (10.396139, -75.523166) located a few doors down from Seaboard Marine Office. COMPAS is the port authority at the Bosque de Muelle. As an aside, it’s confusing at first to hear everyone slurring and pronouncing quickly “compa” and “seebor,” so it helps to remember what a compa is, beyond your friend. Go into the COMPAS office and tell them that you need to go to Centro de Documentos to request a customs inspection and pay port fees. You need to leave your driver’s license with them to get a security pass to enter Centro de Documentos at COMPAS. At the Centro de Documentos, you will show your Bill of Landing, they will do some computer work, and you can get the first of two invoices for the port fees, or perhaps both invoices if the container is unloaded, we ended up needing to come back for the second invoice after getting the vehicle out of the container.

Step 4 and 5:  Next go to the Seaboard Marine office inside the port. You will have to go through the second security checkpoint and you can ask the guard to show you to the office. The office is the same one where you first visited Seaboard, but now you can go in the main doors and there is a little reception area and there are restrooms. Ask Seaboard to lend you a hardhat (casco) and reflective jacket (chaleco). The driver of the vehicle will also need close toed shoes and pants. Seaboard will tell you where your container is, and someone will go with the driver to unload the vehicle. Josh inspected the container seal and the yard workers cut the seal off and Josh reconnected the batteries and drove the van out of the container with everything intact.

Step 6:  Next find an inspector. This step takes the most time. Josh inquired around the yard for the DIAN inspector but he was not to be found. Josh headed back to Seaboard’s office and the very helpful receptionist at Seaboard made some a call back to the DIAN agent we had worked with to start the Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (also called the “Acta” in COMPAS/port speak). This is where we were VERY happy to have gotten the phone number of the DIAN agent. We waited for over an hour for the inspector. The Seaboard receptionist ended up calling him several times on our behalf to find out where the inspector was. He could not find the inspector and ended up coming to the port to do the inspection himself. The inspection did not take long, he and Josh walked back to the vehicle and all he did was verify the VIN, make, model, year and color. He didn’t look inside, we should have packed more good whiskey.

Step 7:  The inspector filled out and gave us our Levante form, which is essentially just the confirmation of inspection, which you will need back at the COMPAS Centro de Documents. However, we needed to have our temporary vehicle import permit signed by the boss. However, the boss was at a meeting and no one knew when she would return. The inspector told us to return to DIAN in Manga at 2:00. We arrived at 2:00 and waited and waited. After a bit of inquiring and some gentle pressure, our inspector said he would track down the boss for the signature. The inspector headed to the port, where the boss purportedly was. He shortly called us and said he found the boss and that we should me him at the other port to get the signature. We hurried over to the other port and waited for the boss to show up. We waited for nearly an hour only to find out that she wasn’t going to the port but was going to be back at DIAN. Our DIAN agent needed to stay at the port so he gave us our original Vehicle Import Permit to take back to DIAN with us. We headed back to DIAN and waited for the boss to show up but time was ticking as it was nearing closing time. At the very last minute the boss ran into the building, asked “Dónde están los turistas?,”signed our paper without looking, and we ran out the door to get back to the port before they closed.

Step 8:  Back to the COMPAS office, head back to the Centro de Documentos. If you don’t have your second port invoice yet, get it. Paying the port fees is easy. There is a bank inside the Centro de Documentos but you must pay in cash in Colombian Pesos, and there is not ATM at the bank window. Make sure you have plenty of cash (There is an ATM nearby at 10.39862, -75.52121). Our port fees ended up being higher than originally stated on the checklist provided by Seaboard. For our 40’ cube we ended up paying a bit over 1,400,000 COP (about $550). The bank will give you a couple copies of a receipt.

Step 9:  Take the paid receipt back to the port invoice window and they will do a bit more paperwork and keep a copy. Ask which window to go to next for your Planilla de Salida, and take the signed temporary vehicle import permit, levante, and original Bill of Landing to the specified window (window 5 in our case). The official will enter some things into the computer, and stamp some of your documents and give you a Planilla. Now you can go get your vehicle. Head back through the secondary security check and to the Seaboard office. Get a hardhat and jacket again and go back to the vehicle. At the port warehouse where you unloaded your vehicle, they will want to see your passport, ask you to fill in some information on the Planilla, then make copies of things. They will give you back your original Planilla and two copies. Next step is getting weighed. Get in your vehicle and drive aimlessly if you feel like it, or head back towards the traffic directors near the exits, and ask them to point you to the scales (bascula). Get weighed (you need to stand on the scale or stay in the vehicle for the actual weighing) and get a weight stamp on your Planilla. The scales will keep on copy of the Planilla. Now you can head to the exit (we were directed to the exit closer to the COMPAS office rather than closer to the Seaboard office) and the guard will review your paperwork, make some calls, and once again and you are free. For this part, Kathi stayed inside the port and when Josh came to the exit he gave her the hardhat and jacket and his port visitor pass. She ran the hardhat and jacket back to Seaboard and then turned in her pass and Josh’s for driver’s licenses at the COMPAS entry office and we were out of the port!

Step 10:  Purchase mandatory insurance (SOAT). Unfortunately you have to purchase SOAT in old town, and you will need your Temporary Vehicle Import Permit in order to do so. Although SOAT is available at most gas stations they will probably not sell you the temporary insurance for tourists but instead will only sell SOAT on an annual basis. The insurance office is located in old town (10.42522, -75.54792). The HBL Seguros office was out of the paperwork needed for SOAT, so we had to go to the Bank of Bogota to buy the insurance. HBL Seguros will direct you to the bank, you head up to the 8th floor and it was straightforward and the woman who helped us was kind and quick. We paid in cash, our 6 months of SOAT for our full size van was about $135.

Shipping Costs:
$3,350 for shipping and loading the van into a container plus ~$500 for port fees in Cartagena.


Step by step procedures for port and customs office in Colombia – Tourists (replication of the form provided to us by Seaboard)

Step Place Detail Check
1 Seaboard’s Window Retrieve original bill of landings from Seaboard Colombia offices located at Barrio Bosque Avenida Pedro Velez #48-14 – COMPAS
2 DIAN office at Manga With the original bill of landings in hand, please head over to customs offices (DIAN) located at Barrio Manga, inside DIAN office, you must go over to exterior commerce division and fill out the temporary import form (Formulario de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos). Here DIAN will assign a Inspector for your vehicle at COMPAS, in order to do the physical inspection
3 Centro de Documentos COMPAS Go back to COMPAS, then head over to document centro (Centro de Documentos), request a customs inspections (Inspeccion aduanera) and the port fee invoice (Instalations use, Inspection service), which range between $200 and $500 USD.
4 Centro de Operaciones COMPAS Head over to Operations Center (Centro de Operaciones) to verify the exact location of your vehicle. This is necessary for the physical inspection by DIAN inspector.
5 DIAN office at COMPAS Go to customs office (DIAN) at the COMPAS in order to find the inspector that was previously assigned for your vehicle at the Manga office.
6 COMPAS yard Go with DIAN inspector to your Vehicle location at COMPAS in order to do the actual physical inspection
7 DIAN office at COMPAS or Manga Once the inspection is over, the form must be signed by DIAN inspector, with that you can request the release of your vehicle (Levante). This is the permit to nationalize your vehicle.
8 Centro de Documentos COMPAS Head back to COMPAS directly to the document center (Centro de Documentos). Head over to the bank cashier and pay the invoice in Colombian Pesos.
9 Centro de Operaciones COMPAS With the invoice paid, the original Bill of Landing and the customs permit (Levante), ask COMPAS for the vehicle exit form (Planilla de Salida del Vehiculo). With the vehicle exit form, go to the operations center (Centro de Operaciones) and claim the vehicle keys. The vehicle also needs to be weighed.
Finally pick up the vehicle Ready

This is a step by step list of the procedures in Colombia, you may handle this by yourself or you may hire a customs broker to handle all of this for you, meaning extra money.

10 Comments on Shipping a vehicle from Houston, Texas to Cartagena, Colombia

  1. gborgmann // April 15, 2015 at 6:16 pm //

    very good details and glad you two did you research or you would still be there.
    happy trails!!!!


  2. Woohoo!!! No damage I hope? TIme to start charging those –l-a-s-e-r-s–….err, I mean LiFePos!


  3. Janet Gawthrop // April 17, 2015 at 6:55 pm //

    Whew! I could not stop reading until I finished the account of your travails in customs. What a relief that you were able to get your van. I have known of folks shipping vehicles who did not fare as well as you did. I did not want to mention it before because I figured that would just make you feel worse. Your very detailed account of shipping and customs is a public service and a reality check to others planning travel.


  4. Kathi Borgmann // April 17, 2015 at 8:21 pm //

    Thanks Janet! I’ve heard plenty of horror stories too, so we were pretty lucky that all went so smooth, it just took time and patience.


  5. Would you mind telling me…..How long was the shipping after sail date? And do you have an idea how often the sail dates occur from Houston to Cartegena?
    Your post gave us an out-of-the-box idea. We are in Yucatan now. For a variety of reasons, instead of driving the rest of central america we could drive back up to Houston and ship directly to Cartegena. I think it theoretically could cost us less money this way as we don’t travel very fast.
    By the way we have the same vehicle! Ours is a 2003.



  6. Kathi Borgmann // April 23, 2015 at 7:17 pm //

    HI Karie,
    Boats leave from Houston to Cartagena every Friday. Our boat was set to leave on Friday but was delayed one day (which is apparently fairly common). They estimate a 8-10 day sail time. Our boat left on the 28th and arrived on the 5th, although it was not available for pickup until the 6th. If you have any other questions feel free to email us at

    Liked by 1 person

  7. After checking out a number of the blog articles on your web site,
    I truly like your technique of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my web site as well and tell me how you feel.


  8. Hi Birds of Passage, what a great article! We are about to embark on the same shipping adventure in a couple of weeks, shipping Houston-Cartagena using Horizon Auto Shipping. Quick question: did you use a customs agent in Colombia to help you with receiving? If yes, would you recommend your agent?


  9. Thank you SO much for writing this article! It has been very helpful in navigating this process for us as we’re headed to Cartagena in June. Did you guys use paper maps at all? Any recommendations on any that you actually found helpful?


  10. Great details


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: