How to Move With Your Dog Abroad

One of the reasons Tim and I love road trips is because it gives us so much time to talk—to dissect current events, compare our childhoods, and make intricate plans for the future. On the road from the Great Karoo to Cape Town, we had such a planning talk and decided that it was time we adopted a rescue dog. We found that dog closer to home than we’d have imagined. After the death of a family member in California, we found out that one of his beloved Labradors was in need of a home, and agreed that she would come back to Berlin with us.

The good news? It was simpler than we anticipated. But that doesn’t mean it was simple.

Here’s what you need to know about moving your dog from the U.S. to Germany.

*Note, while some of this information (including forms and official customs processes are unique to Germany, other tips here apply for moving your dog elsewhere or abroad, or just traveling with your furbaby) 

Organize Your Timeline

Flying with dogs requires several key pieces of paperwork, deadlines, and timelines. Knowing about these ahead of time is really important so that nothing falls through the cracks. Taking cues from German efficiency, we took our travel dates and backed everything out from there—the 10 days for the veterinary and USDA paperwork, and at least 21 days for the rabies vaccination. With these deadlines earmarked, we could better plan our timings for our limited days in the U.S.

The basics of the paperwork you’ll need are:

  • Valid rabies vaccination
  • Microchip (required for all EU states)
  • USDA-endorsement
  • **Recommended but not required** Your pet’s official health record from your veterinarian

Booking your dog’s tickets

We’re operating here on the assumption that your pet will be flying with you. highly recommend calling the airline you wish to travel on before booking. We made the mistake of booking our travel first, and then trying to add Heidi. What we didn’t realize is that not all airports allow for animals to route through. It was only when I phoned Lufthansa to add an “animal in cargo” to our tickets that I learned that the Munich airport no longer allows animals to transfer through. That means our return flight from San Francisco > Munich > Berlin had to be rebooked through Frankfurt at an additional cost. Though it seems wildly old school to phone in your booking, talking to a human is a great asset in this case. You can ask important questions about the airline’s requirements for your pet, get reassurance, and arrange everything you need. And we found out that booking directly by phone got us a discount when it came to Heidi’s flight fees as well.

(Your pet can fly without you, too, but it involves a lot more paperwork and organization. If you plan to have your pet flown without you, I recommend checking into a service that can help with some of that coordination.)

Prepare Your Paperwork

Unlike in Europe, we don’t have actual pet passports. What you’ll need instead is a valid health certificate from a USDA-certified vet showing your pet is in good condition to fly (you need this for any flight, regardless of whether it’s international or not, by the way). You’ll need copies of current rabies certificate, proof of microchipping and most importantly (your vet should properly fill out) the Annex international form (links to follow). It’s really important that the vet you use has this USDA-certification, otherwise you might run into problems getting your forms endorsed.

This paperwork should be completed and the examination done no sooner than 10 days before your travel. And don’t worry, it’s pretty standard, and most vets know exactly what you’re talking about.

Have Your Forms Endorsed by the USDA

Yes, USDA as in United States Department of Agriculture. Most of the rest of this information I found online pretty easily. But this step I only heard about from a friend. It is the most crucial for passing your destination country’s customs, so make sure you factor it into your to-do list.

Basically, once you have the paperwork the USDA needs to sign off. You have two options: you can either Fedex your forms in with prepaid return shipping included, or you can make an in-person appointment, provided that there is a USDA office nearby. Either way, I highly advise calling or emailing your local office and giving them a head’s up to expect your paperwork. This also gives you a chance to double-check the price of the related fees; you don’t want your paperwork to be rejected because of an outdated website!

We chose to go in person to the local office in San Francisco. Once there, it was a fairly simple stamp and seal procedure. We were in and out in less than twenty minutes, BUT we had a very tight appointment slot. Make sure that you are on time for your appointment, and that all of your paperwork is organized. If we’d been late, we would have bumped to the next open slot, which was 4 days later (and remember, all of the paperwork needs to be completed in a 10-day timeframe).

This link has is the official USDA page, and contains all the information and forms you need based on your destination country, as well as a VERY helpful “How to Fill Out Our Forms” guide.

Get Ready to Fly

 Airlines have strict requirements about the types of carriers used for flying, especially in the cargo hold. If your larger dog is flying in the hold, make sure you have a crate that is big enough for him or her to turn around in. Water and food bowls need to be attached to the door, so that airline employees can fill them without opening the door, and a little baggie of food can be attached via tape or zip tie to the top or side of the crate. (We noted Heidi had been given water but not fed, so there’s no real guarantee the food bowl will be used). Blankets or bedding is allowed, but no toys or loose objects should be included—it might result in the airline or customs refusing to let your dog through. We made sure to put labels on all sides of the crate with our names, contact info, flight info, and final address in both English and German.

Make sure your dog is comfortable in their crate before you leave. For the five days preceding the flight, we put Heidi in her crate (open and closed) while we were at home and around her, so she understood that it was a safe place.

We did not sedate Heidi for the flight itself but used homeopathic calming drops that we bought at a German pharmacy. Lavender oil typically works really well for dog stress—you can spray it on their blankets and around their crate for a calming effect. If you do want to calm your dog further, a friend used liquid children’s Benadryl (dye free) at the advice of her vet. I’d suggest checking with your vet for their recommendations based on your specific animal.

At the Airport

I’m including this here because the airline employees seemed to think we knew exactly what was up, and in fact, we had no idea what to do with Heidi once we got to SFO. So, to spare you a similar experience, you should know to: arrive at the airport at least 3 hours ahead of your flight (this may depend on the airline, so verify in advance). Take your dog to the check-in desk. You ’ll be given an appointment time to come back, where a vet will quickly look over your paperwork and make sure everything is in order. Then, you’ll accompany your dog to a U.S. customs check. You’ll need to take your animal out of their crate while it is checked for explosives or contraband and then load them back in. At this point, the airline representative will take the crate (dog included) away for loading.

Keep in mind that bringing your pet to the airport 3 hours in advance of the flight means they won’t be allowed out for a bathroom break for 3 hours plus your flight time. Give them time to romp and play in the morning if you can, to make sure they have some stretching time. We routed through Frankfurt, which apparently has a very deluxe animal lounge, but our layover wasn’t long enough to allow for Heidi to get out. Next time, we’ll pay tighter attention to that in the booking process.

Getting through Customs

Customs on the German side was, as many things in this country, very streamlined. We made sure that the paperwork was very neatly organized (always a plus in Germany!). Most importantly, we had familiarized ourselves with the process beforehand, which came in handy for the purposes of calling bullsht*t. German bureaucracy has a tendency to get a little full of itself—I’ve found several times that official employees have made up extra rules (or perhaps simply not known them themselves), but unless you can logically prove them wrong, they stick to it. In our case, the customs officer wanted proof of all of Heidi’s rabies vaccinations, ever. Knowing that wasn’t required by law, we were able to politely talk him around—pounding hearts notwithstanding! So my advice is, be prepared for any curveballs that might come your way.

And with that, you and your pup are all set! Here’s the uber-helpful USDA link again—it has information for “exporting” your dog to every country. I recommend reading all pages for your new country in full.

Wishing you and your pup a safe journey!

A HUGE thank you to Sacramento-based non-profit 4 R Friends, who helped us with so much of the prep and paperwork. If you are in the Bay Area and want to foster or adopt a rescue dog, or are looking for a local organization where your support can make a big difference, please visit them here


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