By Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher, Next Avenue Contributors
Over the years, we’ve done a lot of moving. We moved ourselves from Nebraska to Ecuador in 2001, and since then, we’ve lived and worked in seven communities in four countries. Along the way, we’ve learned a few things about the basics of preparing for and making a move to another country and culture. We call these the “nuts and bolts” of becoming an expat. For the most part, they’re the same no matter where you relocate. Some of the details vary, of course — visa requirements, currencies, language considerations and other aspects of expat life will change with location and may change over time as well. But the basics remain the same. So, here’s a general checklist to help you start putting the pieces in place to begin your own move:
Before moving abroad it’s wise to be up to date with basic vaccinations like MMR (measles/mumps/rubella), DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus) and polio. Particular destinations can have particular recommendations as well.
For instance, it may be prudent to vaccinate for hepatitis A&B, typhoid, and yellow fever. You can search the Centers for Disease Control website for recommended vaccinations by destination.
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Have a Health Care Plan in Place
Before you leave the U.S., make a decision about your basic health care and insurance strategy. Will you keep your Medicare coverage? (We usually suggest keeping at least Medicare Part A paid up and active. It’s typically free, and you never know when your circumstances may change.) Once you move, what local health care options will you want and need? Will you immediately try to join an available national health care plan, sign up for a hospital-based plan, opt for a private insurance policy or pay for your medical care out of pocket as you go? In many countries, it’s possible to combine any or all of these options. Before you leave, be sure to assemble your personal medical history folder. You’ll want to include a complete medical history, including past treatments, chronic conditions, test results, a list of medications you take and so on. This will help your new medical professional wherever you move and can be invaluable to your expat friends should they need to assist you in case of an accident or sudden illness.
Now’s the time to take stock of your credit cards, bank accounts and more. Make sure the cards you use most often don’t charge foreign currency or transaction fees. American Express, Capital One, Discover, Chase and Citi are a few that don’t. Make sure to know about all the benefits and drawbacks of each of your cards and know your PINs and passwords, if need be. (Keep in mind that your credit card company will likely require you have a mailing address in your home country.) You’ll also need to keep a bank account at home for paying your credit cards, local bills, taxes and so on. Also, make sure you’re familiar with the online bill-paying money-transfer services. ATMs are a great way to access cash when needed and tend to offer the most favorable local currency exchange.
Choosing a Local Bank
Some people find it useful to have a local bank account in their new home country. Having one can help you qualify for a residence visa, by proving your financial solvency. And some banks conveniently allow you to automatically deduct recurring bills like utilities or rent instead of having to pay in person. It’s best to choose a bank with a branch in your neighborhood for easy access and to establish a personal relationship with the bank manager as soon as possible. It’s also wise to choose a bank that has been in business for many years and has a good credit rating. Ask if deposits are insured, and to what amount. You can do an internet search to find feedback — good or bad — about the bank. Be sure to ask about fees, minimum deposits and other requirements important to you, such as the availability of debit cards. The best advice, of course, will come from other expats. Ask about their experiences and see which banks most recommended. In recent years, the U.S. government has launched an initiative to thwart tax evaders hiding assets in overseas accounts — and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is serious about collecting any money owed. Because of these increased reporting requirements, some international banks will no longer open accounts for U.S. citizens. A good way to find the best banks in your new community overseas is to ask your fellow expats. Be sure you understand your filing and compliance requirements. You can learn more with a quick online search or at the IRS website. Typically, to open a foreign account, you’ll need your passport, Social Security number, sometimes a letter of reference, and/or a utility bill indicating your local address. While some banks won’t open a checking account unless you have a residence visa, others may open a savings account with just a passport.
Mail, Phone, Internet and TV
Foreign post offices aren’t known for their efficiency and getting mail delivered to your door abroad can be a challenge. We suggest moving online as much of your correspondence, finances and communication as possible. Whatever strategy you decide to use, implement it before leaving home to make sure it works to your satisfaction. As far as phones go, we’ve relied on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services for years now. VoIP services like Skype, magicJack, and Vonage let you make and receive calls for little or no charge wherever you have an internet connection. Even traditional phone companies are now providing plans with inexpensive or free calls to Mexico, Canada and the U.S. We, and most expats we know, primarily use WhatsApp for texting and voice calls, both local and international. Take these services for a test run before leaving home to ensure they work well for you. Once you get where you’re going, local cell service is usually not costly and easy to get. Either buy a phone locally with a calling plan that includes text and data or bring an unlocked phone with you and buy a local SIM card. We doubt you’ll ever be in a place so remote that you won’t be able to get some kind of TV programming. With a reasonably fast internet connection, you’ll have access to online movies and TV services. Apple Fire TV Stick, Roku, and Netflix all work abroad, but particularly with Netflix, some content might not be available due to licensing restrictions. If you really need exactly the same TV you have back home, attach the Slingbox device to a cable input back home and use it to stream your programming to wherever you happen to be.
Taxes and Legal Issues
Remember, moving out of the U.S. does not mean you don’t have to file taxes back home. You may not owe anything, but you do have to file. If your tax situation is at all complicated, we suggest you confer with a tax adviser who understands tax laws and regulations that apply to expats. If and when you apply for a residence visa, you will likely need:
A copy of your birth and marriage certificates
Police records if required by your destination country
Financial income or pension statements
You may also want to make sure your will is up to date before you move. It’s also a good idea to have a local will in the local language, especially if you have local assets, including real estate. In a foreign legal system, your existing will may not be applicable, and in the case of your death, your property will be disposed of according to local custom and procedure. Avoid this with a properly constructed local will. And be sure that if you acquire assets abroad, you add instructions for their disposition in your will in your home country.
Taking Your Pet Along
Paperwork and quarantine requirements for pets vary from country to country, so be sure you know what applies where you’re moving. In most cases, you will need full vaccinations and an International Health Certificate signed within 10 days of departure by a vet. In some countries, and for some breeds, a microchip implant is also required. Contact the nearest consulate of your new country for the latest information. And check with your airline for pet travel information as well.
What to Take and What to Leave Home
It’s your personal preference whether to ship a container of household goods. But keep in mind, your furniture may not be suitable for your new home. Overstuffed La-Z-Boys don’t do well in the tropics, as you might imagine. What you will want to take, though, at least until you find your local equivalents, are any prescription medications you need as well as lotions, potions, or cosmetics you can’t live without. Bring a few months’ supply with you to tide you over. Also, bring your personal electronics (iPods, iPads, Kindles, cameras and phones). Thanks to import duties, these items will likely cost more to replace in your destination country than you paid for them back home.
(This article is excerpted from the new book, Live Richer, Spend Less: International Living’s Ultimate Guide to Retiring Overseas.)
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