Thinking of becoming an expat? Consider these things before you make the move

Sep 9, 2023 | 0 comments

By Blane Bachelor

While it’s not quite a mass exodus, the number of Americans who live outside the US is not insignificant. About 9 million US citizens may live overseas, according to a 2020 State Department estimate. And about 15% of Americans polled by Gallup in 2022 said they wanted to leave the US permanently.

Portugal, with its capital city Lisbon pictured, has been a magnet for ex-pats. – Starcevic/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

According to those who have done it, the often-gushy accounts of expats’ new lives overseas obscure an important part of the story: that, as enchanting and exciting as living abroad can be, making it happen requires vast amounts of perseverance, preparation and soul-searching.

The best way for potential emigrants to start the process, many recommend, is by asking some hard questions about why you want to leave the US. Are you looking for a better quality of life? Do you want to learn another language, or raise your kids multilingual? Or are you just craving a new adventure (which, according to research by The Washington Post, is the main reason Americans move abroad)?

“The big overarching thing is to know why you’re doing it,” says Doris Speer, president of the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, a Paris-based organization with members in 36 countries. Think beyond a career, too, Speer says: “It’s not just what do you want to do, but who do you want to be?”

A lawyer who grew up near Detroit and has lived and worked in Paris since 2004, Speer has watched dozens of Americans take the plunge, both as AARO president and in her personal life. The most successful (and least stressful) outcomes, she says, happen when people take an honest look at their motivation for leaving the US and their personal and professional goals with respect to life abroad – and choose a destination that syncs well with that vision.

“[You need to] do it for the right reasons, and pick the place that fits those reasons,” Speer says. “Don’t go with a romanticized notion of what the country is – you really need to do your research.”

That research can be overwhelming, of course. Entire books and magazines are dedicated to the subject and its various niches (like how to become a digital nomad or retire abroad, for example), not to mention countless blogs, podcasts and social media groups. But such resources also are a great jumping off point for what can be one of the most exciting – and life-changing – decisions one can make.

Who wouldn’t want to live in the charming town of Caltagirone in Sicily? – Flavio Vallenari/iStockphoto/Getty Images

For more insider tips and insights on whether moving abroad is the right move for you, CNN Travel spoke to relocation experts, financial advisors, and emigrants themselves.

Earning a living
One of the first questions hopeful emigrants ask: How can I earn a living abroad? In most countries, the answer is nuanced but closely tied to the issue of obtaining a work permit or employment visa. Just researching this process provides a good indication of the dizzying amount of bureaucracy and paperwork (pro tip: the earlier you get started tracking down official documents like birth certificates, marriage licenses and secondary education degrees, the better).

And if it already sounds complicated, imagine actually navigating the process on the ground: visiting government offices in person, in an unfamiliar destination, and more than likely, in a language you don’t (yet) speak. Just like in the US, the tricky dance of obtaining official employment paperwork also tends to follow a maddening chicken-or-the-egg routine – a shared gripe among expats across the globe. “It’s circular: Often you need the papers to get the job, and you need the job to get the papers,” Speer says.

The work visa dilemma becomes significantly less complex if you’re being transferred by your current employer, which typically handles necessary paperwork and permits. Another option is being hired by a company that’s based in your new country (or has a presence there).

That’s the route taken by Lauren Gumport, who after visiting Tel Aviv in 2014, had her heart set on one day living there. Gumport, who was at the time living and working in New York, was determined to find a job before her move – despite several naysayers, she says.

Cuenca, Ecuador is considered one of the top destinations for expats in South America.

“Everybody told me that I would never get a job in advance until I was actually there, feet on the ground, and I didn’t like that everybody said that,” says Gumport, who moved to Tel Aviv in 2015 and is now vice president of communications at Faye, an Israel-based provider of travel insurance. “And so I would stay up every single night connecting with people on LinkedIn, interviewing, sending in my CVs, and eventually I got two job offers.”

But even if, like Gumport’s new employer, your company handles the necessary paperwork, there are other important factors to be aware of during the job-seeking process, experts advise.

“If you have a professional degree, especially if a job offer is dependent on this, make sure that your qualifications are recognized in the country you’re moving to,” says Karoli Hindriks, co-founder and CEO of Jobbatical, an Estonia-based technology platform that specializes in employee relocation. “Often, qualifications aren’t viewed equally by all countries, so you may find that you have to bring additional qualifications or certifications to the table in order to be granted entry into a new country.”

Taxes, taxes, taxes
Moving out of the US means you can bid good riddance to the annual agony of doing your taxes, right? Wrong: The long arm of the IRS stretches far across oceans and borders.

As long as you’re a US citizen, you’re tax liable, which means you’ll have to file US taxes every year — along with taxes in your new country of residence (double the fun!). Alas, moving abroad means taxes become even more complicated – get ready to be closely acquainted with terms like FBAR and FEIE (IRS reports you may need to file).

An important early question to ask is whether the country you want to move to has a double taxation treaty with the US, says Alex Ingrim, a licensed financial advisor with global wealth management firm Chase Buchanan. Such agreements essentially allow for offsets of certain taxes between countries, such as income tax, meaning that you won’t have to pay twice.

Not surprisingly, taxes are a complex issue that can cause major problems (and incur costly fines) if not handled properly – which is why it’s advisable to hand the task over to a qualified expert if you can afford it. “In most countries you have to get a tax lawyer who gives you a strategy and understands how the local tax system interacts with the American tax system and the double taxation agreements,” says Ingrim, a US citizen who lives in Florence, Italy, with his family.

The cost of healthcare in any destination, including Berlin, should factor into your calculations. – ElOjoTorpe/Moment RF/Getty Images

Another important aspect to research: whether you can take advantage of certain tax treatments foreigners are eligible for. For example, in the Netherlands, highly skilled workers can apply for what’s known as the 30% ruling, a tax advantage in which they’re granted a tax-free 30% allowance of their gross salary for five years.

Overall, it’s critical to have a solid understanding of how your employment or revenue stream plays into the tax system of your new country.

“It’s all about taking a step back and looking at your personal situation and analyzing, ‘okay, where does my income come from? Am I retiring, is it going to be Social Security? Am I working? Is there a special tax treatment for my situation?’, and coming to terms with what your net income is going to be at the end of the day,” Ingrim says.

He adds that self-employment is another consideration to keep in mind regarding taxes, especially in Europe, where Social Security taxes are much higher than in the US. “If you’re self-employed or you run your own business, you also have to understand what your Social Security liability is,” he says. “Those rates are really high as well. You’re running at 25% in a lot of countries.”

Digital nomads and Golden Visas
For entrepreneurial types seeking an established avenue to living and working abroad, digital nomad status seems to be following in the footsteps of yesteryear’s TEFL (teach English as a foreign language) certificate.

Indeed, thanks to the recent explosion of remote work opportunities, and as some countries aim to boost their economies via latte-sipping, laptop-toting workers, more countries have rolled out digital nomad visas. The specifics vary based on factors like income and duration, but some of the most popular programs are in Portugal, Croatia and Bali, according to Nomad List, a crowd-sourced site that ranks destinations based on criteria including cost of living, healthcare and internet speed.

While digital nomad visas may be an appealing option, those interested in pursuing one should also try to play out a longer-term view regarding their plans, Ingrim advises. “That, to me, is the most important thing to understand when applying for a digital nomad visa – just [consider] ‘What is my path forward here if I like it?’, and just to have that in the back of your mind and understand what your options might be,” he says.

Scenes like this one in Amsterdam are part of what drives US citizens to consider a life abroad. – Yasonya/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Like digital nomad visas, Ingrim says his company has seen growing recent interest among Americans around the topic of Golden Visas, which generally refer to a type of visa offered by several countries in Europe that’s dependent on a certain investment level. Those, too, should be carefully considered, he advises.

“The one thing that I always say to clients is, ‘Have you looked at the other options?’, because there are so many ways to move to Portugal, there are several ways to move to Spain or Italy or Greece,” Ingrim says. “So it’s a very nuanced topic, and obviously I’m not an immigration lawyer, but we get the question a lot. And I quite often push back on why someone’s going that route.”

Do a test run
You’ve presumably visited the country you’re looking to move to at least once – and if not, it’s time for a deep dive. Relocation experts recommend scheduling an extended visit – ideally, at least a few weeks, all the way up to a few months, depending on the time frame you’re allowed as a tourist or non-resident – in order to really settle in and get a true feel for daily life beyond tourist track hotspots.

Ande Wanderer, a writer and consultant who moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to Buenos Aires in 2003, calls this step “deliberate immersion,” which can result in uncovering “indispensable insights” about your potential new home.

“While preliminary information can be gleaned from online platforms like blogs and social media, there’s no substitute for immersing oneself in the culture,” Wanderer says. “This includes getting a handle on visa prerequisites, the real cost of living, evaluating healthcare and housing options, and beginning to understand linguistic and cultural intricacies.”

In addition to helping establish that to-do list, a scouting trip also offers an authentic-as-possible test run of what life might feel like in your potential new country.

Speer recalls a friend who, on a month-and-a-half reconnaissance visit to Mexico, realized that she needed a “livelier” place for her full-time home.

“It was the smartest thing, because at the end of the six weeks, she said, ‘no, this is not the city for me,’” Speer says. “‘Mexico is the place, but this is not the city for me’.”

Finally, according to Wanderer, an extended trip ahead of moving also “can help counter one of the most common pitfalls: harboring overly idealistic notions of life beyond US borders.”

Figuring out your finances
If you know where you’ll likely be living and have a rough idea of what you might be earning abroad, it’s a smart idea to start generating a rough estimate of your cost of living. You’ll also need to have a basic idea of your major expenses, including rent and groceries (another benefit of doing a scouting trip).

Healthcare and childcare are other important expenses to figure in. However, many emigrants from the US find that even with higher taxes in their new country, much lower healthcare and childcare costs are a huge benefit of living abroad.

Gumport, for example, pays for the highest plan available for her insurance – which she says costs about 5.7% of what she’d pay if she lived in the US. And in some European countries like Germany, childcare is heavily subsidized by the government – a huge bonus for parents.

If you’re considering retiring abroad, many websites, including International Living, offer calculation tools to figure out how much you need, while some financial advisors offer a free initial consultation. These experts can also provide insight on how to handle your US retirement accounts and other financial assets.

And while some places allow foreigners to live off income sources solely from other countries, Speer reminds potential US emigrants that currencies fluctuate, and the dollar may not always be strong, so it’s wise to plan your finances accordingly, especially if you’re living solely off savings.

Other intangibles
One of the most impactful aspects of moving abroad is a potential language barrier. For anyone considering moving to a country where English isn’t widely spoken, Speer “really highly recommend[s]” having a basic grasp of the official language, and if not, being honest with yourself about whether you’ll actually make the effort to learn it.

“And if you are never going to be able to speak another language, then focus on countries where Anglophones can get by very easily,” she says. “[Many] countries are more or less good at that, but do not think that everybody speaks English. Because even if they do, you’re gonna get paperwork [in that official language].”

Another important factor that, amid the anticipation of a possible move, is sometimes easy to gloss over is the weather in your new destination.

For Gumport, it was a huge priority: In addition to finding a job, Israel’s abundant sunshine was the other main driver for relocating to Tel Aviv. She now lives very close to the beach and loves daily walks with her dog in “summer weather [that] lasts through November.”

“When I was thinking about moving, I was considering Dublin, where I studied abroad in university, or Tel Aviv. And mainly because of the weather I landed on Tel Aviv. It’s huge when it comes to the quality of life.”

Indeed, a better quality of life is a huge driver for many people considering a move out of the US. Speer says that although the prospect of uprooting your life can seem daunting, it’s also entirely doable for anyone with the right mindset – and a sense of adventure. And whether you decide to stay for a year or forever, taking the leap of faith will almost always pay off somehow, she says.

“It’s enriching, it opens your mind, it opens your perspective, it permits you to live a fuller life and to have different and varied experiences that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t moved abroad,” she says. “I would not be who I am today if I didn’t move overseas.”
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Credit: CNN

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