A guide to Balikbayan boxes

A guide to balikbayan boxes

With around ten million Filipinos migrants worldwide, it’s no surprise that over 35 billion dollars were sent back home in 2020 alone. But, interestingly, that monumental figure doesn’t include the monetary (and emotional) value of balikbayan boxes. Continue reading to learn more about balikbayan boxes, including what they are and why they’re held in such high regard by Filipinos.  

What is a balikbayan box?

Pronounced ba-lik-ba-yan, the word means “returning to the country or nation”. Balikbayan boxes are gifts that Filipino expats send to loved ones back home. Similar to gift hampers, typical balikbayan boxes contain:

  • Body products and fragrances.
  • Canned goods.
  • Chocolates and sweets.
  • Stuffed toys and games for kids.
  • Vitamins and health supplements.

Electronic products are sometimes added to balikbayan boxes but are usually subject to heavy import taxes. 

In the early years of balikbayan boxes, many of them would include a stash of cash for the family. The boxes would have made perfect vessels for easy “currency exchange”, avoiding customs declarations and/or high transfer fees. 

Nowadays, thanks to low-cost digital remittance providers, there’s no longer any need to risk sending cash by “balikbayan express”. 

Why are balikbayan boxes important?

Balikbayan boxes are about more than just the items inside. They represent the hard work of every Filipino working abroad in countries like:

Many Filipinos (or Pinoys) have to overcome regular bouts of homesickness while providing for their families back home.

Another benefit of sending gifts via balikbayan box is the low transit costs. With airmail notoriously expensive, balikbayan boxes are cheaper because they’re shipped back to the Philippines. 

The balikbayan box is a modern expression of the Philippine custom of pasalubong. This Philippine concept is the custom of domestic or foreign travellers returning with gifts. Above all, balikbayan boxes provide a connection between families in the Philippines and those abroad.

As balikbayan boxes aren’t seasonal, Filipinos send them all year round. Despite this, they are prevalent around Filipino Independence day and National Heroes day celebrations. 

How did balikbayan boxes start?

What is a balikbayan box?

Officially recognised by the Philippine government as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), Filipino expats have been sending gift packages home for centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that balikbayan boxes became popular in America due to a growing Filipino population. 

And as a way of thanking OFWs for their hard work, balikbayan boxes were granted duty and tax-free status in 1987.

Fun fact: REN International (California) and Port Jersey Shipping International (New York) were among the first dedicated couriers of balikbayan boxes in the world.

Due to shipping requirements, there are three standard balikbayan box sizes:

  • Medium: 18 x 16 x 18 inches.
  • Large: 18 x 18 x 24 inches.
  • Extra-large: 24 x 18 x 24 inches.

Although many shipping companies don’t have weight restrictions on standard size boxes, it’s advised not to exceed 70 kg.

How to send a balikbayan box to the Philippines in 2021

What is a balikbayan box?

In the past, all balikbayan boxes were tax-free. And as a consequence, they were often used to send goods that would typically attract import duty or contraband items.

In August 2017, the government introduced new rules to ensure that the senders and recipients qualify for the tax-free status. The new regulations included requiring Filipinos to fill out a form with their ID and itemised receipts.

Who can send balikbayan boxes?

Those new regulations also clarified who could send and receive the boxes. To send a balikbayan box, you have to be either:

  • A qualified* OFW.
  • A Filipino living abroad with dual citizenship.
  • A Filipino with at least a temporary visa.

*qualified refers to Filipinos with an official employment contract.

To receive one, you need to be related to the sender. If you’re receiving a box from someone who isn’t, it will lose its tax-free status. Although your sender could avoid paying tax altogether by sending it to a relative instead.

Did you know? Over seven million balikbayan boxes are sent home every year.

How much can you put inside a balikbayan box? 

Items should not exceed a value of 150,000 PHP (roughly £2,200) per box. Interestingly, all qualified OFWs can send up to three balikbayan boxes per year. Balikbayan boxes with a value below PHP 10,000 (around £143) are automatically exempt from importation tax.

In the UK, some popular balikbayan services include: