SAO PAULO–Moving to Brazil or already living there? Get ready for high prices and, for some local goods, so-so quality. Here are tips for a favorite Brazilian pastime: shopping in the U.S. to fill up the two 70-pound suitcases the country’s regulations permit travelers to check for no extra charge. For Brazilians paid in the local currency, this practice gained more urgency in the past few years as the real lost significant value against the dollar and made imported goods even more expensive. But even for expats paid in, say, U.S. dollars, toting large quantities of foreign goods back to Brazil is still de rigeur. FYI, Brazilian law allows people to bring $500 worth of goods into the country tax free, including up to 12 liters of alcohol. Customs officials don’t seem to enforce the rule closely, at least for foreigners. In the dozen or so times I’ve flown into Brazil, I’ve never had my suitcase opened.
- Food–A lot of U.S. food favorites are available in Brazil, but some items are hard to find or really expensive, or both. Peanut butter, which you can get in bulk (2 48-ounce jars for about $12) at any warehouse store in the U.S., will set you back about $7.50 (20 reais) for a 16-ounce jar of Skippy Creamy in a Sao Paulo supermarket, if they stock it. Some things are very difficult, if not impossible, to find, such as baked beans, sweet relish, horseradish or good cheddar cheese. And be sure to bring your own booze, unless all you plan to drink in Brazil is beer, cachaca or vodka. A 1.75 liter bottle of run-of-the-mill gin is typically less than $20 in the U.S. In Brazil expect to pay about $40 (112 reais) for a fifth (0.75 liter) of gin. Whiskies can also be much more expensive here, especially single malts. Wines and champagnes will set you back more, with a $55 bottle of Veuve Clicquot, for example, costing about $120 (320 reais) in a Sao Paulo supermarket. Be prepared to pay more for imported wines or get used to the local hooch (full disclosure: I’m not a fan), unless you travel in and out of the country often enough to keep yourself stocked. And if you like to bake, bring vanilla extract (it’s pricey here) and chocolate chips (generally unavailable).
- Appliances–Brazil has different voltages in different cities, so check beforehand. If you’re going to Sao Paulo or Rio, you can bring appliances from the U.S. If you’re going to Brasilia, you can use European appliances. I brought a blender and an ice cream maker when I moved from Portugal to Brasilia. When I moved to Sao Paulo, I brought an electric fan, a toaster, an electric kettle and a waffle maker from the U.S. (not all on the same trip). For me, it’s more a matter of quality or availability than price. I burned out the motor of a locally-made stand mixer I bought in Brasilia the first time I used it; then I read the instructions, which said not to run it for more than five minutes at a time. I returned it, bought the best local model, and when I got home discovered that I couldn’t use it for more than 10 minutes at a time. I bought an electric kettle and a fan made in Brazil; both stopped working after less than six months. The large appliances I’ve purchased — a refrigerator, stove/oven and clothes washer — all work well enough, although I have small complaints about all of them. I’m not sure how you’d fit them in an overhead bin, anyway.
- Clothes–Be sure to go to your local big-box store, warehouse store, outlet mall, shoe outlet, whatever, and buy what you think you’ll need before your next trip back to the U.S. Anything made outside Brazil, not just clothes, gets hit with a big import tax and other costs are higher too. That means much higher prices for high-end sneakers (999.90 reais, or about $380, for a pair of Mizuno Wave Prophecy 4 men’s tennis shoes from the company’s Brazilian web site vs. $209.99 from its U.S. web site) and designer clothing. If you have kids, plan ahead and think about what they’ll need. An American colleague here in Brazil says he orders children’s clothes online before heading to the U.S., picks up his purchases there and avoids going to stores as much as possible.
- Electronics–Brazilians like to buy computers, tablets and smartphones when they go to the U.S. and you should too. (Although I wouldn’t recommend checking a 50-inch television on the plane, as I saw some Brazilians do on a Newark-to-Sao Paulo flight.) For an extreme example, an iPhone 6 Plus with 16 GB of memory and no service contract goes for $1,350 (3599 reais) in Brazil vs. $750 in the U.S.
- Health and beauty aids–Is there a shampoo or skin cream you can’t do without? Certain cosmetics you prefer? Or a vitamin or other supplement you don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for? Stock up. Shaving cartridges are cheaper at warehouse stores in the U.S. than in any other country where I’ve lived, and a can of Gillette shaving gel that costs about $4-$5 in the U.S. goes for the real equivalent of about $11 in Sao Paulo. I once paid $15 in the U.S. for a bottle of salon shampoo (for a friend) that cost the real equivalent of about $60 in Brazil. Really.
- And a final word on packing. To take full advantage of Brazilian regulations, get two enormous suitcases and try to fill them both to the 70-pound limit. When I travel back to the U.S., I pack as lightly as possible, usually stowing a carry-on bag inside one otherwise-empty suitcase, and use about half the space in the other suitcase for clothes and other items. I once followed two Brazilian friends around a U.S. outlet mall for seven hours; each had to buy a new suitcase to carry home their abundant purchases. And of course suitcases also tend to be cheaper in the U.S.
Jeff Lewis, a U.S. citizen, is a reporter with The Wall Street Journal based in Sao Paulo.