Start now. If you’re going to buy locally and then ship, give yourself plenty of time. I’ve had intercontinental gifts take multiple months to get to their final destination—so for end-of-year celebrations, I try to get things in the mail by early November. If you’re buying online, you might be able to save time and ship internationally directly from the seller, which can save you the hassle of filling out complicated paperwork. If you do it yourself, be extremely careful about the customs declarations: Depending on the country, your recipient may be on the hook for various taxes at the point of arrival.
Weigh the costs—and the package. It’s hard to guess if a store’s shipping rates are any better or worse than if you take the item to your local post office, so I use tools like ShipGooder to estimate how much it will set me back. Sometimes shipping yourself can be cheaper, as Wirecutter staff writer Sarah Witman told me. When Sarah sent presents to a friend with the Peace Corps in Malawi, she was able to combine multiple presents into one package rather than having each one shipped independently by the seller.
Shop local (to you). One thing a number of Wirecutter staff members agreed on is that people living overseas, especially expats, really enjoy local snacks. So anything made nearby, or anything at all from Trader Joe’s, will be a treat.
Shop local (to them). When possible, I buy from the destination country (or at least the same continent, for Europe) from a local seller. You can sign in to Amazon UK and Amazon Australia using your US Amazon login information and easily purchase and ship domestically from there. If I’m looking for a gift in a country that doesn’t have Amazon (or something roughly equivalent), or if I’m trying to shop at smaller businesses, I use Google’s search modifiers to force results only from a single country. The best way I’ve found to do that so far is to use “site:*.co.nz” as part of my search terms, which forces Google to pull results only from a specific country (swap .co.nz for .co.uk, .com.au, or whatever the top-level domain is for the country in question). Wirecutter staff writer Sarah Bogdan also points out that you can use Etsy’s search filter to see results from only the country your recipient lives in.
Using these tricks, I was able to find a shop that sells one of my favorite ceramic mugs in the Netherlands. The whole purchase ended up costing me around $40—if I had bought it locally, I would have paid $25 for the mug and then probably more than that to ship it (and it would have taken over a month to get there).
Double-check model numbers. If you’re hunting for a specific model of something, especially for an appliance, you may discover that the one you’re looking for doesn’t exist where your giftee lives. This is sometimes the case for practical reasons—such as the different voltage requirements between the US and the UK, which means the Instant Pot sold here, for instance, is the IP-DUO60, but it’s the IP-DUO60-220 over there.
Sometimes, the lack of models is without rhyme or reason (for instance, only two particular versions of the Instant Pot are available in New Zealand, in contrast to the 11 versions available in the US). In those cases, I often try to get the thing that’s as similar as possible from the same manufacturer, guessing that even if it’s not as great, it’ll probably be pretty good. You can pull up the official product listing of what you want to buy and then try to match the specifications from that to the local equivalent: Does it have the same features? Is it the same size (or at least pretty close)? Does it have the same number of blades, attachments, and speed settings? All of those factors combined will generally get you pretty close. So although I’m not able to get the Wirecutter pick for the best immersion blender in New Zealand, I can instead get one from the same company with the same number of speeds, the same-size blending jug, and a similar-size motor—a model that’s probably pretty close to the Wirecutter pick, just without some of the nice add-ons.
Gift cards are always a last-minute winner. As a last resort when I’m inevitably running short on time, a local digital gift card always arrives in my giftee’s email very quickly. I was able to get my parents a gift card to their favorite local coffee supplier, sent with plenty of time to spare, and one for a neat design store in the UK for my brother, both of which were a hit.
But whatever you send, and however long your gift takes to reach your giftee, they’ll appreciate the time and effort you put into giving it to them. The fact that you made the effort will make them feel loved, even 5,000 miles away.