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  • Writer's pictureJill Reed, Ph.D.

International Relocation with Pets

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

From cargo to in-cabin flight, you can include your family pets in the big move

Making the decision to relocate internationally is full of logistical challenges, but bringing along the family pet can definitely be a part of the process. The two basic starting points are shipping your pet as cargo and bringing your pet with you in the cabin on your flight.

Our focus is on domestic dogs and cats. Other animals are certainly possible, but will likely incur the use of a pet shipping expert. More on that below.

Due to timing and logistics, you may decide that shipping your pet as cargo works best for you. Alternatively, you might rather fly with your pet on board in the cabin. Either is safe and easy to arrange if you know the facts and you are prepared.

The cargo option

Shipping your pet internationally as cargo is a tried and true method for getting safely to the destination. In fact, several airline hubs have dog hotels for layovers and experts on hand to take care of your pet during transit.

If you choose this route, you can additionally choose to either fly on the same flight as the pet or ship the pet on a different flight that better suits your plan. Of course, this will require making the arrangements ahead of time to be sure the airline offers pet shipping services and what their protocols are. Most airlines have restrictions during certain times of year because of heat or cold and breed restrictions are common.

Pet shipping specialists

Thankfully, there are a number of pet shipping experts that can help you navigate the process. Some can handle all aspects of travel, including transportation, overnight kennels, crates, and paperwork. In many cases, door to door service can be arranged.

Many of these companies handle not only dogs and cats, but other pets as well, including horses, exotic birds, goats, etc.

We spoke with Jose Seco, CEO of Pet Lounge Costa Rica, to help us better understand how this service works. Pet Lounge ships pets from Costa Rica to locations worldwide and from anywhere into Costa Rica.

He explained that airline websites contain an abundance of information about pet shipping and regulations, but weeding through the fine print can be confusing and trying to reach customer service, especially now, is tricky. The information can change from day to day.

“It can be stressful for an owner to see all the different details that are involved in pet shipping. Many embargos, restrictions and policies are hard to learn looking at the websites,” Seco says.

But, not to worry, with years of experience, Pet Lounge CR knows the intricacies involved and has the expertise to get your family pet delivered to you wherever you are. Seco’s team can suggest creative routes and include more pet friendly hubs.

They know exactly which airlines have the best pet care and the most optimal connections for time, and they are aware of health requirements all over the world. Pet Lounge CR has a veterinarian on staff responsible for health paperwork requirements. 

Every location has its challenges. Citing country-specific policies, Seco notes that pets are absolutely not allowed to enter the UK in the cabin of the airplane. They must fly as cargo.

Did you know there is a strict quarantine for pets entering Australia? He adds that long connection times can be stressful for any pet, but he can alleviate that stress simply by knowing the routes.

Pet Lounge can pick your pet up from your house and arrange for delivery to you on the other end. Prices vary based on location and destination, and on the size and breed of the pet.

Pet Lounge isn’t alone in the pet shipping business, but be sure to do your homework and ask around for recommendations. Check with your airline also, as more airlines have recently changed their policy and will only work with approved pet relocators.

Shipping your pet as checked baggage

If you booked your travel and would like to include your pet on the same flight, it is possible to call the airline and arrange for your pet to fly as checked baggage. You must check with each individual airline for its policy because the rules will vary from crate requirements to breed restrictions.

If you have all your paperwork in order and your pet is in the recommended crate, you will simply arrive at the airport with your pet ready to go. Likely you will be required to check in several hours earlier than usual and there may be a seperate drop off location for your pet.

Be sure you keep this in mind as it will mean longer times for your pet in the crate in a cargo facility. Airlines will also have restrictions regarding extreme heat and cold, so during some times of the year this will not be an option.

The in-flight option

Arguably, the safest way to bring your pet with you when you move internationally is on board. There are two ways to do this. First, most airlines allow small pets to travel in soft crates that can fit easily under the seat in front of you. 

The second option requires certifications. Airlines generally allow pets to travel in the cabin if they are accompanying someone as an approved Emotional Support Animal (ESA) or service dog. Requirements differ between airlines and in each of these situations.

Small pets in soft crates

If you have a small pet that can safely fit in a crate at your feet, most airlines will allow them on board in the cabin for an additional fee. You must check each individual airline for crate and paperwork requirements and you will need to let them know at the time of booking because each airline has a maximum number of animals allowed on board for each flight.

Check with your vet and your destination country’s health department website to be sure you arrange the necessary paperwork for importing your pet. The airline will also have paperwork for you to complete and they will check for it when you arrive for your flight. They will also weigh your pet so try to be accurate when you book.

The bonus in this scenario is that you can walk your pet outside right up to the moment you enter the airport. You aren’t required, in most cases, to be there any earlier than if you were traveling without a pet. This option is the least stressful for your pet.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Some pets have approved ESA status and are attached to a specific family member. These animals (typically dog or cat) have been certified by a licensed psychiatrist who is treating the family member. This pet has had some general training in behavior and does well in crowded areas.

If you have an emotional support animal and wish to travel with the pet on board, you will need to have the attending physician fill out the airline specific paperwork indicating why this is necessary.

As with any pet travelling on board, you will be required to fill out additional paperwork including a portion to be completed by your vet. In most cases, this paperwork will be uploaded to the airline and included in your reservation.

When you arrive at the airport, you will check in as usual, the agent will receive your standard and import paperwork to ensure the pet can arrive at the final destination without any issues. It’s always good to have at least three copies of the required paperwork.

woman in airport with dog

Photo by Pauline Andan for Unsplash

Tips for in flight pet travel

When booking flights for you and your pet, remember to keep layovers and flight times minimal. You may be traveling through airports with dog relief stations, but your dog might not be willing to use them if unfamiliar with that scenario.

In your carry-on please remember to include a collapsible bowl and a water bottle for your pet and some snacks. You will certainly want to limit the amount you give because of limited access to relief, but you will want to be prepared in case of delays.

Some flight crews will be more receptive to your pet than others. Be aware of your surroundings and try to be courteous. Your behavior and that of your pet’s can have an effect on policy. Keep the path open for others to come after you.

Preparing for transport – paperwork, crate and training

There are many items to check off the list when preparing your pet for transport regardless of the method you choose. You will need to consider paperwork, crate, accessories, vet visits, medications, preventatives, and airline specific requirements.

You will want to work with your pet to familiarize him with any new things like a crate or walking on lead in crowded areas. You will want to reinforce any prior training.


Each country has specific health requirements. This will include paperwork to be filled out and signed by your vet. If you are coming from the United States, this paperwork is then sent to the USDA for final approval and signature. Be sure to plan accordingly because the timeline requirements will also vary.

If you are taking a pet to a country that requires quarantine or rabies titer testing, you will want to start the vet process well ahead of your scheduled departure. This can mean, in some cases, 3-6 months in advance. Titer testing is not required by Costa Rica.

For Costa Rica specifically, you will need the vet forms verifying the pet’s health and up to date vaccinations. Your pet must be vaccinated against rabies, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, and parvovirus. Your vet should also treat for parasite control.

Airlines will have additional paperwork whether you are flying the pet as baggage or with you on board. If you are flying with a certified emotional support animal or a service dog, you will submit paperwork verifying their certifications and training. Airlines also require a vet form to be submitted. Delta allows for uploading all paperwork online weeks prior to your flight. Our experience transporting our dogs on Delta from the US to Costa Rica was very smooth.

Always have three copies of the necessary paperwork so you will have extra in case an airline or customs official needs to keep documents. Hot tip: customs will always keep documents.


Purchase the crate far ahead of time, especially if your pet has never been crated. Be sure you follow airline instructions completely. You don’t want to risk being turned away on travel day.

When you order the crate, include any additional items that your pet may need like special food and water containers, a soft resting pad, and identifiers for the outside of the crate. If you are heading to Costa Rica buy a few extra collars and leashes. Quality leashes are difficult to find.

Put the crate together and help your pet get used to it by placing some familiar things inside. Don’t force it, but leave the door open so your pet can come and go when you are home. The more the crate becomes familiar the more comfortable your pet will be on travel day.

Preparing your pet with training, vet visits, and medications

If this is the first time your pet has traveled either in a crate or on a plane in general, you will want to prepare them. Advance training will help your pet feel less stressed on travel day. Go for plenty of leash walks outdoors and in crowded areas. Crowded airports can be stressful on animals.

Keep your pet up to date on vaccinations and medications. Obtain a 3-6 month supply of medications and preventatives from your vet before you travel. You can get most common preventatives from a vet in your destination country, but not all medications are the same.

Additionally, ask your vet if your pet would benefit from any kind of holistic or pharmaceutical sedative on the trip. We don’t recommend this for pets checked as excess baggage or cargo. 

For Costa Rica specifically, you can pack into your checked bags some of your pets favorite treats and foods. You can even include toys. These items can be difficult to find.

Cost of moving my pet internationally

Whether you are shipping as cargo or bringing your pet with you on your flight, there are myriad costs involved in the international move. Expenses include the following: airline fees, specialty pet transport, crate, vet, medications, paperwork filing, import fees, ESA paperwork, and any training associated with preparing your pet for travel.

Airline rates vary wildly and change day to day. Fees will differ between in fight travel and checked baggage.

Specialty pet transport companies will provide individual quotes and base their rate on fluctuating airline fees and any expenses involved in providing paperwork and transport on their end. Some companies will procure your crate for you and can kennel your pet comfortably for a day or two depending on the trip.

Our friends at Pet Lounge CR say it can cost between $500-1500 to ship between the United States and Costa Rica. Shipping the same animal to Australia can cost as much as $11,000. Everything depends on the destination and the breed.

A quality crate can cost several hundred dollars. Do not be tempted to get something cheap or inadequate because if you don’t follow the airline recommendations exactly you can be denied travel. Small crates start around $35, but large cargo carriers run up to $500 or more.

Paperwork at the vet is based on their rates, but you can expect to spend an additional $100 for the USDA approval. Medication expenses will vary. If your dog is an ESA, you will need to budget for the expense of your psychiatrist’s time in filling out airline paperwork. Getting that particular form completed in Costa Rica can cost up to $400.

dog leaping over water

Photo by Bruce Galpin for Unsplash

Destination: Costa Rica

Once you arrive in Costa Rica with your pet you will be ushered into a separate lane at immigration. Customs will pull you aside for a brief interview and to collect your paperwork.

If your pet has arrived on your flight in cargo ask the airline for direction and assistance in retrieving the crate and getting through customs. This can often cause delay so be sure your ride from the airport is flexible.

If you are shipping your pet as cargo you can arrange to have the relocation company deliver directly to you in your destination town or you can pick up directly from the company. They will handle all customs paperwork and details.

When you are settled in your new location, ask other pet owners for vet recommendations. Ask about local trails and local dog etiquette and rules. There are many beautiful places to discover with your pet, but you should be respectful. 

Many facebook groups exist to help you navigate your new surroundings. Take advantage of the information and network offered by such groups.

There are also locations you might need to avoid. For example, nearby estuaries can be dangerous during crocodile mating season. Gently introduce your pet to the new environment and slowly familiarize him with the new walking routine and locations.

Relocating with your pet is possible!

International relocation with your pet is possible and there are many different ways to make it happen. Do your homework, be prepared and follow directions. Try to make the best transportation decision for your family and your pet.

You and your furry family member will be enjoying paradise together before you know it.

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