Considering leaving the US for good? Here’s what to think about before you move abroad

The seemingly endless stream of #expatlife content on social media — from digital nomads in Estonia to new owners of old houses in Italy to retirees in Mexico — can sometimes give the impression that everyone is abandoning the United States for life in another country.

While it is not a mass exodus, the number of Americans living outside the United States is significant. According to a 2020 State Department estimate, approximately 9 million US citizens may reside abroad. In 2022, about 15% of Americans polled by Gallup said they wanted to leave the country permanently.

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

Many experts advise potential emigrants to begin the process by asking tough questions about why they want to leave the United States. Do you want to improve your quality of life? Do you want to learn another language or raise bilingual children? Or are you simply looking for a new adventure (which, according to The Washington Post, is the primary 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 36 countries’ members. Speer advises thinking beyond a career: “It’s not just what you want to do, but who you want to be?””

As AARO president and a lawyer who grew up near Detroit and has lived and worked in Paris since 2004, Speer has seen dozens of Americans take the plunge. She believes that the most successful (and least stressful) outcomes occur when people take an honest look at their motivation for leaving the US as well as their personal and professional goals for life abroad – and then choose a destination that aligns well with that vision.

“[You must] do it for the right reasons and choose a location 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.”

Of course, that research can be overwhelming. There are entire books and magazines devoted to the subject and its various niches (for example, how to become a digital nomad or retire abroad), not to mention countless blogs, podcasts, and social media groups. However, such resources are also an excellent starting point for what can be one of the most exciting – and life-changing – decisions a person can make.

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

Getting a Job

One of the first questions prospective emigrants have is, “How can I make a living abroad?” The answer is nuanced in most countries, but it is closely related to the issue of obtaining a work permit or employment visa. Just researching this process gives you an idea of how much bureaucracy and paperwork there is (pro tip: the earlier you start looking for official documents like birth certificates, marriage licenses, and secondary education degrees, the better).

And if that doesn’t sound complicated enough, imagine navigating the process in person: visiting government offices in an unfamiliar location, most likely in a language you don’t (yet) speak. The tricky dance of obtaining official employment paperwork, like in the US, tends to follow a maddening chicken-or-the-egg routine – a common complaint among expats worldwide. “It’s circular: you often need the papers to get the job, and the job to get the papers,” Speer explains.

If you’re being transferred by your current employer, who usually handles all necessary paperwork and permits, the work visa conundrum becomes much less complicated. Another possibility is to be hired by a company based in your new country (or with a presence there).

Lauren Gumport took this path after visiting Tel Aviv in 2014 and deciding she wanted to live there one day. Gumport, who was living and working in New York at the time, was determined to find work before moving, despite the advice of several people.

“Everyone told me that I would never get a job until I was actually there, feet on the ground,” 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. “So I’d stay up every night connecting with people on LinkedIn, interviewing, and sending in my CVs until I got two job offers.”

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

“If you have a professional degree, 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. “Because qualifications aren’t always treated equally by all countries, you may find that you need to bring additional qualifications or certifications to the table in order to gain entry into a new country.”

Taxes, taxes, and more taxes

Moving out of the United States means you can say goodbye to the annual agony of filing your taxes, right? Wrong: The IRS’s long arm reaches across oceans and borders.

You’re tax liable as long as you’re a US citizen, which means you’ll have to file US taxes every year — as well as taxes in your new country of residence (double the fun!). Unfortunately, moving abroad complicates taxes even more; prepare to become intimately acquainted with terms like FBAR and FEIE (IRS reports you may be required to file).

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

Not surprisingly, taxes are a complex issue that can cause major problems (and costly fines) if not handled properly – which is why, if you can afford it, it’s best to delegate the task to a qualified expert. “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 with his family in Florence, Italy.

Another thing to look into is whether you are eligible for certain tax breaks available to foreigners. In the Netherlands, for example, highly skilled workers can apply for the 30% ruling, a tax break that grants them a tax-free 30% allowance of their gross salary for five years.

Overall, it’s critical to understand how your new country’s tax system affects your employment or revenue stream.

“It all comes down to taking a step back and looking at your personal situation and analyzing, ‘OK, where does my income come from?'” Is this my retirement, and will I be receiving Social Security? Is it true that I’m working? Is there a tax break available for my situation?’, and determining what your net income will be at the end of the day,” Ingrim says.

He adds that self-employment is another factor to consider when it comes to taxes, particularly in Europe, where Social Security taxes are much higher than in the United States. “If you’re self-employed or own a business, you must also understand your Social Security liability,” he says. “Those rates are also extremely high.” In many countries, you’re running at 25%.”

Golden Visas and Digital Nomads

For entrepreneurs looking for a well-established path to living and working abroad, digital nomad status appears to be following in the footsteps of the TEFL (teach English as a foreign language) certificate of yesteryear.

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

While digital nomad visas may be appealing, those interested in obtaining one should also consider their long-term plans, according to Ingrim. “That is the most important thing for me to understand when applying for a digital nomad visa – just [consider] ‘What is my path forward here if I like it?'”‘, and just to keep that in mind and understand what your options might be,” he says.

Ingrim says his company has seen an increase in recent interest among Americans in the topic of Golden Visas, which generally refer to a type of visa offered by several countries in Europe that is contingent on a certain level of investment. He advises that those, too, be carefully considered.

“The one thing I always ask clients is, ‘Have you considered the other options?'””There are several ways to move to Spain, Italy, or Greece because there are so many ways to move to Portugal,” Ingrim says. “It’s a very nuanced topic, and I’m not an immigration lawyer, but we get asked about it a lot.” And I frequently question why someone is taking that path.”

Perform a test run

You’ve probably visited the country where you want to relocate at least once, and if not, it’s time to do so. Relocation experts advise planning an extended visit – ideally, at least a few weeks, but up to a few months, depending on the time frame you’re allowed as a tourist or non-resident – in order to truly settle in and get a sense of daily life beyond tourist traps.

Ande Wanderer, a writer and consultant who relocated from Atlanta, Georgia, to Buenos Aires in 2003, refers to this step as “deliberate immersion,” which can lead to “indispensible 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 learning about visa requirements, the true cost of living, weighing healthcare and housing options, and beginning to understand linguistic and cultural nuances.”

Aside from assisting in the creation of that to-do list, a scouting trip provides an as authentic as possible test run of what life might be like in your potential new country.

Speer recalls a friend who realized she needed a “livelier” place to live after a month-and-a-half reconnaissance trip to Mexico.

“It was the best thing I could have done because at the end of six weeks, she said, ‘no, this is not the city for me,'” Speer says. “‘Mexico is the place, but this city is not for me.'”

Finally, Wanderer claims that taking a long trip before moving “can help counter one of the most common pitfalls: harboring overly idealistic notions of life beyond US borders.”

Organizing your finances

If you know where you’ll be living and have a rough idea of how much you’ll be earning abroad, it’s a good idea to start calculating your cost of living. You’ll also need a general idea of your major expenses, such as rent and groceries (another advantage of going on a scouting trip).

Other important costs to consider are healthcare and childcare. However, many US emigrants discover that, despite higher taxes in their new country, much lower healthcare and childcare costs are a significant benefit of living abroad.

Gumport, for example, pays for the most expensive insurance plan available, which she claims costs about 5.7% of what she’d pay if she lived in the United States. In some European countries, such as Germany, childcare is heavily subsidized by the government, which is a huge benefit to parents.

If you’re thinking about retiring abroad, many websites, including International Living, provide calculators to help you figure out how much money you’ll need, and some financial advisors provide a free initial consultation. These professionals can also advise you on how to manage your US retirement accounts and other financial assets.

While some countries allow foreigners to live solely on income from other countries, Speer reminds potential US emigrants that currencies fluctuate and the dollar isn’t always strong, so it’s important to plan your finances accordingly, especially if you’re living solely on savings.

Additional intangibles

A potential language barrier is one of the most significant aspects of moving abroad. Speer “really highly recommend[s]” having a basic understanding of the official language for anyone considering moving to a country where English isn’t widely spoken, 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 better than others at this, but don’t assume that everyone speaks English.” Even if they do, you’ll receive paperwork [in that official language].”

Another important factor that is sometimes overlooked in the excitement of a potential move is the weather in your new location.

Gumport made it a top priority: in addition to finding work, Israel’s abundant sunshine was a major motivator for relocating to Tel Aviv. She now lives near the beach and enjoys daily walks with her dog in the “summer weather [that] lasts through November.”

“When I was thinking about moving, I considered Dublin, where I studied abroad during my undergraduate studies, or Tel Aviv.” And it was primarily due to the weather that I arrived in Tel Aviv. It has a significant impact on quality of life.”

Indeed, a higher standard of living is a major motivator for many people considering leaving the United States. Although the prospect of uprooting your life may appear daunting, Speer believes it is entirely doable for anyone with the right mindset – and a sense of adventure. Taking the leap of faith, she says, will almost always pay off, whether you stay for a year or forever.

“It enriches you, it broadens your mind, broadens your perspective, it allows you to live a fuller life and have different and varied experiences that you would not have had if you hadn’t moved abroad,” she says. “If I hadn’t moved overseas, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

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