Christmas is a time for giving, and for many Filipino expats, that means putting together a balikbayan box to send back to loved ones in the Philippines.
Although not strictly a Christmas tradition, the balikbayan box — also known as a balik bayan box — is often associated with the holidays, as many people send one to coincide with the season.
In this post, we’ll unbox the history and traditions of the balikbayan box and share tips for sending one.
What is a balikbayan box?
In North America, many people send care packages to loved ones in college or military service. Often, these boxes contain food and personal care products that the person might not be able to easily get while they’re away from home.
Think of the balikbayan box as a sort of care package, only the recipient isn’t the person who is away. In the case of these unique gift boxes, an ex-pat who’s moved away from the Philippines sends the box back home to give their loved ones a special treat.
In Tagalog, the national language of the Phillippines, balikbayan is a combination of two words: balik, which means to return, and bayan, which means homeland. The term refers to a Filipino who was living abroad and is now returning to the Philippines.
Sending a balikbayan box is an incredibly popular tradition. More than 7 million boxes travel to the Philippines every year, and the balikbayan box industry is estimated to be as large as $1 billion.
What’s the history of the balikbayan box?
The history of the balikbayan box dates back to the 1970s. At that time, staggering unemployment rates led many Filipinos to search for work outside the Philippines.
In the late 1980s, the Philippine government introduced an initiative that lowered the cost of airfare, provided discounts for hotel stays, and significantly boosted baggage allowances.
Many Filipinos took advantage of the cheap cost of travel and began returning home for visits more frequently, especially during the Christmas season. Because they could bring so much luggage, they stopped carrying suitcases and began toting huge boxes full of gifts for their families.
Thus, the balikbayan box was born.
During the 1990s, the cost of shipping freight from the U.S. fell dramatically. Suddenly, sending a balikbayan box home to family and friends became affordable, and many Filipino ex-pats seized the opportunity.
Those who couldn’t make it home for Christmas shipped a box, and people slowly began mailing the balikbayan boxes at other times of the year.
What do you put in a balikbayan box?
So just what goes into a balikbayan box? Typically, people pack items that are commonplace in the U.S. and Canada but are tricky to find in the Philippines.
Some popular gifts include:
- Chocolates and candies
- Spam, tuna, corned beef, and other canned goods
- Dry goods like oatmeal, pasta, and instant coffee
- Personal care items like toilet paper, deodorant, toothbrushes, body lotion, and bar soap
- Cosmetics and beauty product samples
- Collectible items
- Vitamins and supplements
- T-shirts, especially ones that bear Western brand logos or souvenir shirts printed with names of places
- Underwear for men, women, and kids
- Magazines, even outdated ones
- Small kitchen appliances, both new and gently used
- Gifts for kids like Barbie dolls and LEGO sets
- Happy Meal toys from McDonald’s
- Shoes, specifically athletic shoes from big brands like Nike and Adidas
Often, senders decide what to include in a balikbayan box based on discussions they have with their families, and it’s common to include items that loved ones have requested.
Although this removes the element of surprise, it ensures recipients get the things they need and want.
Is there anything that you can’t include in a balikbayan box?
Most shipping companies won’t allow you to send hazardous things like firearms, lighter fluids, and cleaning products containing certain chemicals.
Depending on the carrier, some flammable products like perfume and nail polish require special handling and may increase the cost of shipping your box.
In addition, laws in the Philippines prohibit including items related to gambling, prescription medications, illicit drugs, or obscene items like pornographic magazines.
It’s also important to consider the number of items you ship. It may be considered a commercial quantity if you send too much of a single item, such as a case of Spam.
In this case, the Bureau of Customs may assess duties and importation taxes that your family members would be responsible for. Rules change frequently, so it’s best to check customs regulations before you send your box.
What’s the best way to pack a balikbayan box?
Balikbayan boxes contain plenty of special goodies, and you’ll want to pack your box carefully to prevent those items from being damaged.
To pack a balikbayan box properly, follow these tips:
- Choose the right box: Balikbayan boxes tend to be heavy, so you need a box that’s strong enough to hold everything without breaking. As a result, it’s best to buy a new box in the size you need rather than reusing an old box. Some people like to place one box inside another to increase strength and provide an extra layer of insulation that guards against breakage.
- Use fabrics as cushioning: Place soft items like clothing and linens on the bottom of the box and along the sides, and place softer items on top. Padding the box this way creates a cushion that reduces the risk of breakage.
- Put heavier objects on the bottom: Put the heaviest items on top of clothing and fabric items. Keep lighter things that are more likely to break, like pasta or cereal, on the top to avoid crushing.
- Place items that might leak in bags: Place liquids, creams, gels, and lotions in plastic sandwich bags with zip closures to prevent messes if anything leaks. Wrap ceramic, porcelain, and glass items in old newspapers to protect them from breakage.
- Include a packing list: Compose a list of everything in the box. Print two copies and place one on top of the items inside before you seal it, and keep the other copy for yourself in case anything goes missing during transit.
- Use quality packing tape: Purchase packing tape designed for boxes rather than duct tape or masking tape, which may come loose while in transit. Seal the top and bottom central seams, cut the tape long enough to wrap over the sides, and anchor the tape in place. Run your fingertips over the tape to seal it.
Do you wrap the items inside a balikbayan box?
Presentation is an essential part of gift-giving in the Philippines. While there are no etiquette rules about wrapping paper colors for Christmas presents, it’s customary to wrap gifts you’re handing to someone in person.
However, wrapping is less important for a balikbayan box, and people generally don’t expect things shipped overseas to be gift-wrapped.
But that’s not to say you can’t wrap your balikbayan gifts. Consider wrapping the individual items inside if you send a balikbayan box as a holiday gift, or if you’re double-boxing, you could gift-wrap the inner box.
Keep in mind that customs officials might open your box during transit. It isn’t a common practice to open every box, but the Bureau of Customs has the right to do so.
Normally, customs officials will only unseal a balikbayan box if they see something suspicious when x-raying the shipment.
How do you ship a balikbayan box?
If you’re in the U.S., you could send a balikbayan box through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). That said, the USPS maximum size and weight limits for international mail.
The weight limit to ship items to the Philippines is 40 to 70 pounds, depending on the service used, and rates tend to be very expensive.
A more affordable option is to use a freight company that specializes in delivering balikbayan boxes to the Philippines. There are three major providers:
- Forex: Based in the U.S. and ships from all 50 states
- Atlas: Based in the U.S. and ships from all 50 states
- Infinity Balikbayan Cargo (IBC): Based in Austria and ships from Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovenia
All three of these shipping companies offer pick-up services, so you don’t even need to leave home to get your balikbayan box on its way.
In some cases, an additional fee for pickup services might apply.
How long does it take for a balikbayan box to get to the Philippines?
The time it takes for a balikbayan box to reach the Philippines varies by carrier and whether you send it by ocean or air.
Forex advertises that it takes 35 days for a balikbayan box to get from Los Angeles to Manila by ocean and nine days to make the trip by air. It may take more time to arrive if you arrange a pickup service from your home.
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