If you want to travel long-term, work as a digital nomad, or move abroad, you probably can’t just grab your passport and go. There are some details you have to take care of first to make sure you don’t leave a trail of errands, financial fiascos, and stress.
Some people look at the idea of moving abroad as an impossible goal, mostly because they’re so tied down to where they are now. They’ve got so many possessions, obligations, and bills that they can’t fathom the thought of being free. If this is your situation, then it is probably going to take you a long time—maybe years—to unwind the prison of your own making. I’ve heard of people selling the house, the cars, and most of their possessions in three months and taking off. But that’s a monumental project. You probably want to proceed more slowly.
If you’re in your 20’s and don’t own much, however, or have any kids, it’s a whole lot easier. You may be able to rent a storage locker, toss everything in after stuffing the backpack, and you’re good to go. Still, you’re going to have a to-do list to deal with.
Consider the list you would have for moving to another state or province in your own country, then double it. If you’re a couple and one of you is more organized than the other, designate that person as the checklist maker and paper gatherer. Otherwise you may never get on that plane.
Here are the broad categories of steps you’ll need to take to prepare.
Mail When You Live Abroad
Yes, we can do most of what we need to do online, like paying credit card bills, getting back statements, and even paying quarterly taxes if you’re a self-employed American. You’ll almost surely still need to maintain an address in your own country though, both to have a place for lingering mail to go and to maintain accounts with your financial institutions. You can have a mail address that forwards to you overseas, but a more practical approach is to use a relative’s address so they can alert you when something fishy or urgent comes in.
There are also services that will receive your mail for you and some will scan it so you can see what you got online. You can then have them trash or forward the physical copies. I have some friends who have set up residency in South Dakota, for example, using a service there specifically meant for people roaming the USA in a recreational vehicle or roaming the world without a fixed address. A lot of people where I live in Mexico use a service where they have a United States mailing address in Laredo, Texas and a guy actually drives up there twice a week to bring everyone’s mail down to San Miguel de Allende.
Don’t forget to alert everyone you get mail from of the new address as your forwarding order will only last 6-12 months depending on the items. This is especially essential for tax documents since those are still mostly sent by mail. You’ll need to update your address for credit cards, banks, online subscription services, business services, and on and on. Keep a running list before it’s time.
Banking and Finances When Traveling or Living Abroad
There are things you need that you probably haven’t even thought about when it comes to financial instruments. Do you have a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee? You’ll pay a lot more if you don’t. Do you have a bank account that will allow you to withdraw your money without getting dinged for $4-$5 every time? Over a year, this can make a huge difference. (In general, credit unions and the cash accounts of brokerage companies are the best bet for this.) Don’t forget bank alliances that can save you money: your current bank may be connected to another one in your destination country that will allow you to withdraw money at no cost.
Don’t wait until you’re halfway across the world to figure this out. If you need to open a new bank account, you usually can’t do it without signing something.
You want financial backup plans too. If one debit card gets eaten by a machine or lost, you will be glad you had a second one, preferably to a different account. If one credit card gets denied, which happens all the time for no good reason, you want to be able to pull out a second one. In some places Visa is not common but MasterCard is, so you want both.
Ideally you want to have several bank accounts (easier if you’re with a spouse) and you want to be able to transfer money between them. Unless you have six figures sitting around in cash accounts, you’re probably going to need to move money around now and then. You could open a local bank account, but sometimes you’re not allowed to do that until you have official residency and other times there’s just no real incentive to put money in a local bank.
Naturally you want to be able to access your account online and pay bills with it. I highly recommend having a Paypal account as well if you’ll be doing any kind of regular transactions with people in other countries. You can connect this to a bank account to transfer in and out. There are also services like TransferWise and PopMoney with lower fees, but both of you need to have an account.
Keeping in Touch
The expatriate life is far easier than it used to be. By paying a few bucks to Skype, MagicJack, Vonage, or Google Voice, you can talk for hours with your relatives via any internet connection. You can set up a phone number in your own country that will ring to your laptop or smart phone abroad. Some phone plans offer free Wi-Fi calling without a 3rd party. You can do video conferences for free via Skype, Facetime or Google Hangouts. You can log into conference calls with GoToMeeting or Zoom.us. You can share files by Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive and share photos on social media.
None of these services costs much or is difficult. But it’s one more thing to put on your to-do list. You need to get the number and you need to send it out.
Your local mobile service might work abroad as well at little or no extra cost. T-Mobile lets you talk to people in Mexico for free, for example, and the two main Mexican cell carriers have the same deal back in the other direction. In most cases you’ll want to get a new SIM card in the local country, but then that means you’ve got a new number to give out or to hook up to something like WhatsApp.
If you want to stream video or audio, you might want to set up a proxy service/ VPN as well. This allows you to tap into an ISP in your home country so it still looks like you’re there. You may not be able to access subscription services otherwise. None of the proxy services are perfect, but the Hotspot Shield one I’ve been using the past few years works well enough and gets a bit less buggy the longer I use it.
The political climate where you live now may be a big reason you’re moving abroad, but you still care what happens where you came from, right? You don’t have to stop voting just because you’re not living where you grew up. If you are registered to vote, you can keep doing it by absentee ballot. You will want to re-register where your mailing address is though. Then proactively keep up with election dates: there are mid-terms, special ballots, and local elections that may have a big impact on your friends and relatives back home.
Travel or Medical Insurance
One of the huge advantages of moving to a cheaper country is that your medical costs will probably plummet. Unless you’re from a country with truly free medical care for all, you’ll find doctor and dentist bills that present a very minor hit to your household budget. It’s always going to be a different story though if you have a major accident or need open-heart surgery. One expat I interviewed in Nicaragua held up his credit card and said, “This is my insurance policy,” but most of us want some kind of policy for a major catastrophe.
There are several companies that specialize in medical insurance for expats. The one I have used is the generic-sounding HealthCareInternational.com, but compare policies with Seven Corners, Aetna, Cigna, and Allianz Worldwide Care too. If you leave out the USA it’s far cheaper, but if you are going to travel back to the USA regularly, you need to be covered while you are there. Even a sprained ankle could set you back thousands otherwise!
The other option is to just get worldwide travel insurance if you’re going to be on the move. I’m going to go into that more soon in a post about annual policies, but meanwhile you can check out two of the most popular: Allianz and WorldNomads.
Storing Your Things
If you can get rid of most of what you have, you will make a cleaner break. I always advise people to buy big and heavy things locally after arrival, as well as anything that’s not special you’ll need around the house. Only bring the things that are truly unique or have an emotional attraction. Going shopping locally is always a fun cultural activity anyway, plus in cheap countries you can get custom furniture made by a craftsman for less than you’d pay for what comes from a factory. Or you may rent a place that’s already furnished, at least at first.
For whatever is left at home, sell or give away what you can. Then store the rest at a relative’s house or in a public storage facility. You might need a climate-controlled one, depending on what you have to store. I just have one recommendation on this: avoid the conglomerate Public Storage at all costs. They have a terrible reputation for gouging and poor customer service. Unfortunately I saw that first hand when my private storage facility sold out to them halfway through our last stint of living abroad.
Anything you neglected to take care of beforehand that came back to bite you later while moving or circling the globe?
Parts of this article were excerpted from the moving abroad book A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. Flickr cc photo at top by Kenneth Hagemeyer