Domestic and International Shipping Info

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Notes from Techkriti

4 SWARMies went to Techkriti in Kanpur, India in February 2010.

Notes in no particular order

Find more notes on our trip here

If you need to send or receive money internationally, go to your local bank and do a "SWIFT money transfer". This is the same as "wiring" the money. The system is legitimate but I can't tell you if the people you are sending the money to are scamming you or not. Don't send and receive checks! It takes weeks to months for international checks to clear in either direction.

We worked with a shipper, Brian Closs from MMI Logistics in Compton CA. They were great. I don't know how much it cost because shipping was paid for by Techkriti.

It's good to get spending money from your local bank before leaving. It may take a week for the cash to arrive but you won't pay any crazy fees (in Kanpur, each ATM transaction cost me $10), you'll get good rates, and it's good to know you have cash in your pocket when you hit the ground. ASK THE BANK FOR SMALL BILLS! If you get the equivalent of $100 bills, changing them could be a bother.

We set the value of each orb at $100 for customs purposes. Because really, we're not selling them, they are coming back so what is the resale value of the parts? If this value was high, we might have to pay duties, tariffs & grease money in both directions along the way.

If you are carrying the items with you, make sure you have the right paperwork on the way out of the US and get some paperwork saying that they will be brought back to the US. I don't know the exact paperwork needed since we shipped the robots and didn't carry them.

We put on the commercial invoice "Not for sale or resale. For demo purposes only. All items to be returned to the USA after demonstration"

Lee put photocopies on the outside of each box: a photo of the box opened, a photo of the robots in motion with children around it so they know what they are, the invitation letter from Techkriti. All I know is, the 3 200lb crates arrived unmolested.

From David Calkins

Don't ship batteries, buy them there. It will be much cheaper/easier. Seriously. (He didn't ship his bots, he and his crew took them on the plane.) Airport officials are corrupt. They will tell you that they believe you are going to sell your bots no matter what you say or what documentation you have. Get letters from IIT and Teckritti, maybe even from the Indian Consulate and make many copies. Have a set of copies in the box w/ the robot, post them on the outside, each member should have a set. Have letters in both US and Indian (A4) sizes. Make up some letter head and write official letters (they wont call or look them up). Letters = evidence that you are a legit artist group, not importing/selling and are then exempt from the import duties. Make sure your letters have the return date on them. In the end, you will need to give a bribe. Keep cash on hand for bribes (US$) and different amounts in different pockets so that you aren't pulling out a wad or showing them how much you have in your wallet w/ each bribe 'cuz the official down the line will know how much to charge you.

Traffic is very bad, averaging 5 mph. Bring a pillow for the car ride.

They have pretty good power but check w/ Niladri about the plug situation.

Bring small gifts for your handlers. They will be students assigned to you by their prof. T-shirts or sweaters with SF logo on them will be fine. Bring 5-10.

Get your immunizations. Lee took Doxycycline for malaria with no side effects. Lee strongly recommends you not take any any antimalarials that could induce psychosis; my anecdotal evidence says this happens waaay more than people lead on. If I recall correctly, that would be Chloroquine, Malarone, and Mefloquine

Start the visa paperwork now. It doesn't matter if they say it will only take a week or a couple of days. It would suck to miss the plane 'cuz of paperwork.

Very important: don't look the monkeys in the eye. They will feel threatened and attack.

Oh, yeah, and bring the Swarm trading cards and some RoboGames shwag.

Approximate FINAL Logistics costs from the Techkriti trip

  • $300 crating 3 orbs in international friendly boxes
  • $1500 Box Shop to Delhi (air freight, security surcharge fee, domestic transport, warehouse fee, export fee)
  • $1125 Delhi to destination in Kanpur
  • $2400 Kanpur to SFO
  • $500 SFO to Box Shop (US Bond, courier, warehouse storage, delivery, air import documentation, customs entry...)

A very helpful primer by Dawn

1) I'd recommend contacting a freight forwarding company for shipping internationally, especially by air. First off, they are usually much less expensive than other options. Secondly, they are considered as "known shippers." This means they have an established relationship as a shipper and therefore are able to ship on a commercial flight. Since 9/11, air shipping, especially of electronic-type things, has been curtailed and commercial air carriers won't accept items for shipping unless you are a "known shipper." It's a convoluted process to become a known shipper, so it's better to find someone who is already known.

The freight forwarder I found for Toronto has not been responsive for further shipping, and he is also located in Georgia (I found them through UPS as a possible customs broker). It's too bad, because although he sometimes needed a prod here and there, he did put together a good package for us. Pouneh suggested Debra at Hoyt Shepson in S. SF: (650) 952-6930. I never contacted her because I didn't need to by the time I got her info, but Pouneh said she was really helpful.

Another benefit to a freight forwarder is that they have relationships with customs brokers already, and it's better to have them all coordinate their stuff, since they know it. UPS and FedEx may be able to help with this, but they also might tell you that you need to find your own since Chassis is coming back home after and not staying there. (I have no idea why they do it that way, it seems silly.)

2) You will either need a CARNET or a Pro-Forma Invoice. The customs broker should be able to tell you which one you need. I think you need a Carnet since Vienna is overseas. Basically, a Carnet is like a passport for Chassis, it explains what it is, where it's going, and that it's coming back. The cost is usually based on the value of the item. You can easily do one online here:

A Pro-Forma Invoice is sort of the same thing, but it is a document sent to the receiver with a copy traveling with the shipment. It also spells out exactly what is going where, for how long, and when it's coming back, that it is not being sold. It's when it's not clear that the item is returning that they want to start charging taxes. The Carnet site has some good info.

3) US Customs can be your friend, believe it or not. They might be able to tell you if you need a Carnet or Pro-Forma Invoice. The local office was very helpful sorting some of this out. They suggested that once you have your paperwork (carnet or proforma) that you call the airport office, make an appointment, then bring your item in its box (not sealed) so that they can have a look at it and tell you what you need to send it clearly through customs on both ends. Unfortunately, I have 2 different numbers written down for them, so I am not sure which is which, but here they are: 415-782-9200 and 782-9210. The are available from 8:30a-5p. They might also be able to tell you if there is any funky stuff about the crate your items are sent in, like with the orbs they needed to be treated for insects, but for Vienna, you may or may not need to deal with that.

4) Ship early so there's plenty of time to clear customs. Document EVERYTHING clearly for customs. Don't send batteries in the item, that's just asking for trouble, and customs might want to pull the item apart to check it out. I personally didn't want them pulling an orb apart, I bet you feel the same about Chassis. You can ship batteries by as long as they meet IATA regulations and are shipped properly.

5) You will need a customs broker in Vienna, hopefully your shipper will know one. A customs broker will require you to sign a power of attorney to act on your behalf with customs. This is standard operating procedure.

6) Another option is Masterpiece International. They ship art, that's what they do. However, they are quite expensive and will need you to do a credit check and want to do a site survey of your business, which I thought was a bit much. Anyway, here's their info: Josh Carmichael Masterpiece International Limited 400 Oyster Point Blvd #410 South San Francisco, CA 94080 650.244.0632 ­ direct 415.378.0077 ­ mobile 650.244.0640 ­ fax That's all I can think of off the top of my head and digging quickly through my pages of notes from Toronto. If you have any other questions or something is not clear, feel free to ask. I have a ton more info I can probably relay, this is just the highlights.  :) Dawn

More bits

email from Dawn to Lee 11-8-09

Hi Lee,

I have so many bookmarks on my laptop that I can't easily find all the info on shipping internationally. However, here's some info:

Wood crates need to meet the import/export regulations for country we ship to *and* the US as they will have to come back here at some point. Each country has it's own regulations (like Canada did) but there are also International agreements for shipping. So basically, if you get crates that are certified and marked with the internationally regulated mark to prove they don't have bad bugs in them, we should be ok. Here's a link that has more info:
and to cover everyone:

Your best bet is to contact US Customs and ask them about shipping. They will not only provide the info you need, they will even look at the packed crates to make sure they will pass customs. You just need to bring the crate to them at the airport in SF. As far as shipping batteries, I'd ask them about that too.

I'm attaching the info I had in my SWARM Toronto folder about shipping, plus one thing I just found today. Lots of info to dig through, but I think it can be summed up as: meet the regs for all countries, label everything clearly. I'm also attaching the dangerous goods certificate for batteries that I think needs to be signed by a DG certified person, and the Yausa sheet on the batteries we have now.

Best of luck sorting it out! I'd love to go to India, but I just don't think it's feasible right now. :(


Excellent Dorkbot Post About International Shipping

written by

Whenever I see the words "TSA siezed", I am compelled to respond. I write from my experience frequently travelling to foreign lands with custom and one-off electronics gear. I'm not with the government.

Like it or not, Customs, Border Patrol, and TSA must be dealt with on their terms. No point complaining about it to me: write your senator or representative.

Anyone who does not study and comply with exit and entry documentation requirements (and allowed items restrictions) will always face the _risk_ of seizure of their goods or creations at any point in the process of travelling to/from a foreign country. Several artists I know suffered goods held at customs, or seized by TSA; these could have been avoided with decent documentation and preparation.

Why do consumer goods pass through with relative ease? Because they are packaged and certified with compliance stickers and serial numbers on the bottom. The manufacturer or importer has done the work of "going legit" in order to get the product out of his country and into yours. Customs, border patrol, and TSA agents recognize this branding, and respect it when conducting an inspection.

Your homegrown mechatronic gizmo requires similar care in documentation for travel. It's rather easy and cheap, compared to the consequences.

Think of travel documentation as oil for the engine of commerce: like oil, it's the cheapest part of the engine. Without it, the engine will certainly sieze.

Get a Carnet.

Carnets are your friend when transporting objects of definite value which must travel smoothly through customs, border patrol, and TSA. They prove that you have submitted your articles for Inspection and Sealing to Customs before your trip. This can be luggage! Carnets have several documentation requirements, such as those listed below.
A Carnet represents a promise NOT to sell your goods in the destination country.
Carnets are designed to smooth passage through the very thing you face: a phalanx of Byzantine guards who do not and will not understand your gizmo, or your explanation, if it's not documented.

If you can't afford a Carnet:

Create a Commercial Invoice. Print a few.
This represents a sale or rental of your goods to a "customer"(patron, organizer) in your destination country. For artists, the best category of goods is Used Exhibition Goods or Materials(not for sale). This puts you on an equal footing with corporations sending tradeshow booths and demo gear to, say, CeBit. You may be required to pay duty, as you are declaring a value of goods without a Carnet. A zero-value Commercial Invoice is generally frowned upon, unless the goods are labeled "scrap", "sample" or "demonstration only". Art objects are expected to have a value, on which duty is likely to be charged.

Write a concise Description paragraph, and a Technical Description paragraph. Print a few.

Include a List of Components and Serial Numbers where applicable, with clear photos. You can leave a set with any nervous inspectors. They will thank you.
This is proof that you are willing to disclose everything inside your scary snarl of wires and metal. Include datasheet 1st pages.
Be smart. Write "motor" or "servo motor", not "radio control servo motor". Write "network", not "wireless network." Write "data port", not "remote access control port". Write "battery", not "ballistic electron source." I'm just saying don't use scary language. You're not trying to sell it to the Pentagon, you're trying to unsell it to the TSA.

Write a Letter of Introduction on letterhead. Print a few.

This is written by you or a native sponsor, such as a gallery, a school, or collective. This could simply be printouts of your own website and others' about you and your thing(s). This establishes who you are, links you to the work, and helps you get out of, then back in, to the US.

Write or get a Formal Invitation on letterhead. Print a few.

This is by the organization you're going to: college, gallery, museum, event. This is good for getting you into, then out of, your destination country. It helps if it's written in the native language AND in English on the same page. Japan routinely requires such a document upon entry, and this was the only thing the Customs officer cared about when I went there.

Put one full set of docs inside the luggage for the TSA to see.

Ship as checked baggage, never as carry-on.

Do not pack bad things.

Anything which can be purchased locally - powdered paints, liquids, solvents, glue, matches, lighter fluid, etc.
Pack only pristine power supplies. No cracked or hacked-open cases. Better yet, just buy wall warts at your destination.
Don't even joke about mercury switches.

De-power and "safe" everything.

Unplug and tape over batteries or battery packs, disconnect/insulate piezoelectric sparkers, short out big capacitors with wire, remove all antennas, power-off phones, PDAs & laptops. Disconnect anything automatic or clockwork; let all springs wind completely down: no ticking allowed.

Make access and understanding easy.

Use tape, not screws, to hold computer chassis doors closed.
Use velcro to strap things together, not zip-ties.
Label anything clearly that's not obvious: "battery pack - test here", "power supply - 110VAC-12VDC"
Put all loose parts in clear ziplock bags, labeled "spares."

At the checkin counter, volunteer for a detailed inspection, and offer your paperwork in the order listed above. This instantly puts you in the "cooperative" category - a nice place to be.

All of this preparation ends up being worth it when the fates finally (and they always eventually do) decide to test you and your preparedness.

How to Pack Electronics Parts for International Travel, Part 1

This wisdom gained from a discussion the SFMicrocontrollers mailing list August 15-18 2008

Jenn asked: My question is this: how does one pack and travel with harmless circuitry that could look threatening to someone, say a security officer, who didn't know better?

CTP: Put it in your checked luggage, make it easy to get at and look at. Include any instruction books or original packaging that you can.

Jack: I would suggest FedEX or UPS overnight. I don't take my tools or electronics with me on buisness trips any more. The airlines WILL steal random things from your tool kit or confiscate your electronics.

Even if they are in your checked luggage. It is never the same item twice either. I always ship stuff now after taking a last minute trip to Washington and having tools that I needed stolen. I had to run around town to several different places to buy new ones. I have had other experiences too but that was the worst. The other times it wasn't as important

Short of that, if you have it assembled as a professional-looking circuit board with no wires, it should go through fine. If you have wires coming out of it and it looks homemade, it will usually but not always cause you problems. The best solution is if you can fit it into a commercial-looking enclosure. That would be the least suspect because everyone knows that terrorists leave everything exposed, use big thick wire, and always have a red one and a green one, one of which will cause the device to explode right away and the other renders it harmless.

Lenore: Experience says that it is better to FedEx it to yourself than to take it on an airplane. Checking it is troublesome--I know folks who have lost their lovingly created electronics pieces due to lost luggage. Carry-on is more troublesome--you might never get on the plane. If you must fly with it, beg, borrow or buy a gun (a starter pistol will do) and a gun case so that you can use weapons check as it is just about the only reliable way to check luggage. That said, I've flown with slightly suspicious looking things in checked luggage and I've been lucky so far.

Mitch: Wow, I guess I've been lucky.

I've flown with tons (well, hundreds) of pounds of weird-ass electronic stuff in my checked baggage zillions (well, maybe 50) times, and have never had any problems at all. Though, frequently I open my suitcase upon arrival to see a printed card inside saying that TSA has opened my bags to check things out.

I usually try to fly without doing checked bags, since it's such a pain to stand in long lines to check them in on one end, and on the other end having to wait 30 to 45 minutes for them. But for the last couple of years I've been flying all over the world giving workshops showing people how to build my projects. That involves transporting lots of electronic parts, tools, and very homemade-looking projects all around the world. So, lately, I haven't flown with too much stuff as carry on (and never with tools), but always fly with several TV-B-Gones (in various states of exposure and experimentation), and often with some other very homemade looking electronics projects in my carry on bag. And my checked baggage always has lots and lots and lots of very homemade looking electronics projects, and lots of tools, including 20 solder irons and solder iron stands.

This last trip, however, is a two-month tour of workshops and presentations, with way too much stuff to carry, so I sent most of everything ahead of me via UPS. It was way easier than lugging huge suitcases of parts and heavy tools all over town wherever I go. I think that if I have enough advanced warning to send stuff ahead of me via UPS Ground (so I don't have to pay the incredibly expensive rates for UPS or FedEx Next Day, 2nd Day, or 3rd Day), I'll consider doing that again. On the other hand, if stuff isn't too big or heavy, before reading these postings, I would probably have been fine doing a checked bag again. But after reading Jack's posting, I don't know... It would really suck to show up somewhere and have some of my required tools missing. Sheesh, can't you complain to someone and have someone fired for stealing your stuff?

Jason: If you can put it in your carry on baggage, do so. If you check it, TSA will try to dismantle or steal random parts from it to "disable" it in case it's a bomb or something dangerous.

By putting it in your carry on baggage, you at least get a chance to explain yourself. In my experience, usually what happens is this:

  1. Bag goes through xray
  2. TSA drone at xray makes a strange face and calls over a handler 3. Handler takes my bag to a table where they have the sniffer machines.
  3. Handler swabs my bag and puts it in the sniffer.
  4. Sniffer is happy and I'm on my way

The only time I've had a different experience at step 4 was at London's T5. The handlers there go through your back piece by piece putting the questionable items in one tray and the safe ones in another. This trip, I had a breadboard with a basic stamp and three solid state gyros. When the handler asked about the breadboard I just told him it was a gyroscope to which he promptly replied "I don't even know what that is" and put it in the safe box. They did take a 15mm wrench I always forget about.

That being said, it's always best to FedEx things if you can.

CTP: I too have never had a problem. And every time I send things Fedex I end up forgetting something anyway and have to bring it along anyway.

I have also done carry-on of raw electronics, and weird art with weird circuits, and never had any issue with the security check.

The last big TSA destruction debacle I know of in our community involved a crate that was constructed for shipping, not with the TSA in mind (and they really did a number on it) So far, for me, as long as they can get to it without trouble I've had no trouble.

CTP: Whenever possible I will pack the stuff back in its original packaging. I also keep small Olimex and Parallax boxes around to put projects in anyway. For whatever reason when the TSA guys spot a box that looks commercial they don't ask any further usually. I guess terrorists always throw away the packaging. Typical.


ps - ya know, come to think of it, on the way back from Sketching08 a few weeks ago I had some random Sparkfun stuff just tossed into my laptop bag and they didn't even blink at the Xray of it.

Rachel: There is no consistency whatsoever in the handling of uncommon things. Nor are all X-ray screeners equally well trained, or equally alert, or equally kindly or sensible. I have accidentally brought penknives in my carry-ons and had them go through 4 or 5 flights without incident; I brought a palette knife to Alaska once but was not permitted to bring it back to SF, despite demonstrating on my own wrist that it was not capable of injuring anyone.

Jeff: I travel with electronics all the time, even International. TSA doesn't care. Bring them in your carry on or they will get broken in luggage, just pack them safely in a commercial looking container (as CTP points out), don't wrap them in cardboard and tape. Also, don't pack large lithium batteries in you carry on. There is a limit to that. It would have to be a lithium pack larger than a laptop battery to be of concern though.

I have only been stopped once though, when I tried to take a manual typewriter wired up as a midi keyboard. That's when TSA said "What the fuck is that!" and pulled me aside. Turns out they were freaked out by the typewriter and never even saw the circuitry.

Mark: I just traveled from SF to NJ with 2 El costumes with custom electronics. One was a wedding dress with 108 bright white LEDs and tons of internal wiring. No problem. I think if you pack it in checked luggage, no one will care. I would take the batteries out though.

I've also carried multimeters and soldering irons in my carry on. The only thing the TSA cares about are things that they understand. They would not let me take my small screwdriver on board.

Daniela: I also traveled with 1 huge suitcase full of electronics, and everything you need for it, and one carry on full as well and I had no problem.

I checked in before with SFSU airport and they said that as long as it is "electronics" and no liquids it is fine. I was very afraid about my carry on. At the end they did not even opened it.

Jack: Once I brought a oscilliscope that connects to a computer for its display. The security guards wanted to take away my probes because they have a 1/4" long sharp part. I convinced them not to though. I have traveled with it since but put plastic pieces over the ends so that they couldn't see the sharp parts. Problem solved but still the fact is that I would doubt that many of the TSA goons even have a college degree. They are probably decent people but are lower on the intelligence scale and are taught that they should be afraid of things that they don't understand. If it doesn't look like a hair drier or laptop computer, be suspicious of it.

Jenn: Hi everyone, Thank you all for sharing so much information on this topic. I ended up taking tools in my checked luggage and then shipped the rest in a flat rate Priority Mail box. The flat rate box cost me $9 plus $4 for insurance. I sent it out Friday afternoon and it arrived in this morning's mail.

Thanks again!

How to Pack Electronics Parts for International Travel, Part 2

This issue was brought up again on the SFMicrocontrollers mailing list December 2010. Here are some tidbits

Mitch: An American at one of my workshops in Netherlands last year built a Brain Machine, and they took it away from him at a small airport in Scottland. They didn't arrest him, though. And they held up the plane for 45 minutes while they questioned him. But then they let him on the plane.

He never got his Brain Machine back. Similar thing happened to another American who made a Brain Machine at a workshop in Berlin last year. However, he argued with the authorities in Berlin, and they told him that he had a choice of not flying, or leaving his Brain Machine behind. He opted not to fly.

yes_this_is_really_my_email_address: I built an LED power supply for one of Michael Christian's art projects and they arrested him over it. Insane, but to their eyes anything that has wires and looks home-made is probably dangerous. He missed his flight and they confiscated the "device".

For better effect, I recommend you take the cases off the battery packs and wrap all your wiring around pencils so they have that curly wild look. =)

How to Pack Electronics Parts for International Travel, Part 3

Dorkbot October 2011

Jim Mason i agree there is not much problem here. i regularly check hydrocarbon goo covered strange metal vessels with tubes and gizmos that dont' take much imagination to get worried about. i often add to the problem by packing them in standard black oil drums. they always go through just fine. usually there is a tsa inspected note on the other end and all is in order.

when checking large things, know that different airlines have very different rules about oversized baggage. some limit at 60 lbs, some 70lbs, and some 100lbs. some charge you both an excess bag fee and an oversized bag fee. if you have several large ones, things get ridiculous in cost quickly.

southwest has the most generous large bag policies. at OAK they also have a nice downward slopping oversize bag ramp which is fun to roll barrels down and hear the *thunk* somewhere down in the mysterious realms below.

CTP When I took the Breathalyzer Genie over to Vienna, I got there and found the TSA love note on his face. I did wonder what went through their heads as they opened the crate and saw the huge face, and those hideous teeth, and big bloodshot eyeballs and all. :) I forgot to mention that I also lock my crate latches with lockpins, not locks - such as Although TSA approved locks might make the more worrisome out there fell better. I just assume that if the TSA can get into them then anyone else can too, so why bother.

Karen Marcelo As far as suspicious particulates on one's clothing I was detained in Melbourne once wearing the same jacket I wore at a SRL show the night before. In my experience Its better to blame such things as passive gunk picked up at *burning man* than to explain SRL to authorities... It took 3 hours before I was let go.

How to Pack Electronics Parts for International Travel, Part 4

On the subject of using a gun in a locked box to help avoid the TSA trashing your tech art, here is some info. M. (a friend of Lee) packed a gun in his luggage for a plane and it went well. But read on...

"Since the firearm was in a small locked case within a bag they had to check the entire bag. It wasn't as bad as it could have been. The security person put everything back and was incredibly efficient not even commenting the porn she found. After the bag was checked and carefully repacked the EXTREMELY polite ticket agent who waited with me the entire time in security took my bag and bid me farewell ensuring me that my bag and contents were safe with him. I half expected him to show up on the baggage carousel on the other end hand cuffed to my bag ensuring that I be the one to receive it."

When asked if this would be a good way to transport technology art, M said, "... not sure if that would work. I have no idea if my experience is consistent with the norm. Another agent could have dumped my shit on the floor and opened my sealed garment bags and required me to repack. who is to say they wouldn't disassemble an art project looking for anything suspicious."

Recommended International Shippers

  • Brian Closs at MMI Logistics 310-679-4018. Shipping and custom crating. The company has several locations. Lee worked with Brian in Compton, CA for Techkriti in February 2010. He was great and "on our side" the whole time.
  • Erik Landfather of eepac 510-614-0600. Shipping and custom crating. Recommended by Andrew Christie from the Box Shop
  • FLG has gotten quotes to move containerized art from SF to Amsterdam from Mary Lusher of Dartrans, Inc., 6610 Tributary Street Ste 101, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, Ph: 410-633-4450


  • Airlift Global in Kanpur and Delhi India. It took 65 days of CONSTANT prodding to get the orbs shipped back to the US. The crew there includes Reshu Saxena, Mukesh Saxena, and Karthik. They're at