Itching to leave your life in the US behind? Here's how to move abroad

Laurie Larsh
Charlotte Observer

Charlotte, N.C. —  Armchair travel was all the rage as the COVID-19 pandemic set in last year — virtual museum and walking tours, Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, virtual reality games and apps. But what if instead of daydreaming about being abroad, you actually picked up and moved there? 

The U.S. Department of State estimates that about 9 million U.S. citizens are living abroad. As borders began to close because of COVID-19, some people returned back to the perceived safety of home in the U.S., while for others it was the push they needed to fulfill a lifelong dream. 

If you’ve got the itch for an international move, here are some important steps to get started. 

A good general rule is to have at least six months’ worth of savings before taking the plunge to relocate to a new country.

Step 1: What’s the cost? 

Research the cost of living. Maybe you have a place in mind that you’ve always wanted to live, or maybe you’re open to possibilities. Regardless, the first step in any international move should be researching the exchange rate and cost of living. Countries like Portugal, Costa Rica and Malaysia have some of the lowest costs of living, while cities like Zurich and Hong Kong have a reputation for being expensive. 

Save up. A good general rule is to have at least six months’ worth of savings before taking the plunge to relocate to a new country. It’s important to budget in extra costs for things like visa application costs, international shipments of goods and plane tickets. 

Understand the tax implications. U.S. citizens abroad are subject to income tax, whether they live in Caracas or Charlotte. Many other countries will also require that taxes be paid there, as well. Understanding tax laws, foreign tax credits, exclusions and requirements is a complicated task best understood by consulting an expert. 

Step 2: Which documents do you need? 

Secure a valid passport. Passports must be valid for at least six months past your expected return. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant backups in passport processing times. The State Department currently estimates at least 16 weeks for processing routine passports and 12 weeks for expedited ones. Pro tip: Make copies of your passport, driver’s license and birth certificate; take one with you and leave one with a trusted loved one in the U.S. 

Before you leave for the airport to leave the country for any length of time, make sure your documents are in order.

Research visa and work permit requirements. Many countries require visas and or work permits. These come in all shapes and sizes, restrictions and lengths of stay. The best way to find out what is required in the country you are looking to move to is to contact the consulate or embassy of that country. Don’t forget to make note of any renewal requirements. For those lucky enough to be relocating with a company, much of this process may be taken care of for you.

Step 3. Do you have medical coverage? 

Determine vaccinations requirements. Vaccination requirements are especially important to understand during this time of COVID-19. For a full list of required immunizations, including COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the CDC website is a good resource. Pro tip: Make photo copies of your immunization records and COVID-19 vaccine card, and take one with you and leave one in the U.S. 

Understand medical insurance. Secure international travel insurance. Many medical insurance plans — including Medicare and Medicaid — do not include international coverage. It is important to contact your insurance provider prior to leaving the U.S. to determine what coverage is available to you. If you do not have coverage, there are companies that specifically provide travel medical insurance, including Cigna Global Health Insurance, Aetna International Health Insurance and GeoBlue Health Insurance Xplorer Plans. Another great resource is the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers.

Know how to find a doctor. While the U.S. embassy and consulate provides a list of doctors and hospitals by country (look under the American Citizens Services tab under the desired country), finding a doctor that speaks English can be its own challenge. Companies like Air Doctor help connect U.S. citizens with doctors who speak the same language around the globe. 

Have a plan for your prescriptions. One last step on the medical front — talk to your doctor and pharmacist about your prescription medications. Find out if they can be filled abroad and what alternatives may be available. Get a written note about pre-existing conditions, as well as a written prescription with dosage from your doctor before you go. While pharmacies abroad will not honor this, it can be helpful to show an in-country doctor who can write you a fillable prescription. 

Step 4. Have you told everyone you’ll be gone? 

Contact financial institutions. Banks and credit card companies can cause your adventure to come to a screeching financial halt if they do not know that you will be abroad. Contacting these institutions is important to keeping the cash flow going. It is also valuable to research which credit cards do not charge a foreign transaction fee, as most will charge between 1-3% per transaction — a fee that can add up over time. 

Let the government know. Any time you leave the U.S., it is a good idea to register with the government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP is a free service that ensures that you will receive important updates from the embassy on safety conditions, helps authorities contact you in an emergency and ensures that your family and friends in the States can get in touch with you in an emergency. 

Step 5. What happens to your stuff? 

Examine the cost of shipping large items. While you may be hesitant to leave your favorite comfy chair behind in the U.S., it is generally expensive (and can take a long time) to ship furniture and large items abroad. For those must-take items, shipping via sea freight is the most economical option, with door-to-door service demanding higher rates than door-to-port options. There is a lot to consider (and budget for) when you consider customs duties, fees and taxes. 

Evaluate how to transport your clothing. When it comes to clothing, it can often be easier and less expensive to ship a few boxes than to lug extra suitcases through the airport. The USPS even allows you to print international shipping labels and customs forms, order boxes and estimate your shipment costs online. 

Understand the process for taking pets. Perhaps the most important things to take with you when you move abroad are your furry friends. If you are hoping to move with a cat, dog or other pet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture site provides country-specific rules and guidelines. 

Ready to go? 

While the adventure of moving abroad sounds alluring, it is important to weigh the complications of moving during the time of COVID-19. Constantly changing restrictions can limit your movement and ability to get back to the U.S. In addition, lockdowns and social distancing requirements can make it more difficult to acclimate to a new community and make friends. Consider joining online groups in the local area to find out more about what life looks like in your potential new community.