The Expat Option, by Sandy X.

I am a 65-year old male expatriate (“expat”) from the US. I have lived in Costa Rica, Singapore and now Panama. I am thinking of moving to Chile, but I would go anyplace for the right opportunity. I have traveled extensively and love the expat lifestyle. It is definitely not for everyone, but if you are considering it, here are some things you should know.

What Is Expatriation?

The word just means the act of leave your native land. (Unless otherwise noted, I will be limiting my comments to Americans.) It is important to note that expatriation does not require you to renounce your American citizenship or seek citizenship in another country, though these are options. Many expats continue to participate in America’s political process and economy. They vote, pay taxes, receive social security benefits, etc. 

Why Do It?

This is one question you will have to answer for yourself. Here are some reasons why some people leave the US:

  • To prepare for TEOTWAWKI
  • Fear of homegrown totalitarianism
  • To avoid hyper-inflation, social breakdown, food shortages, etc.
  • To fine better work/business opportunities abroad
  • The desire for a change of scenery
  • Fill in the blank

One Place, Two Places or More?

Expatriation is only about leaving the US. The next issue is where you are going and why. One extreme is moving to a specific country and putting down roots. The other extreme is adopting a fully nomadic lifestyle. Of course there are intermediate options as well.

Residency/Citizenship—This is not as cut and dried as you might think. You can seek residency, you can seek residency and eventual citizenship or you can remain a tourist, indefinitely. (See next.) If you want to be a permanent resident or citizen of a country, its embassy or a consular office in the US will  have printed and digital information they will be happy to send you.

Virtual Residency—Various countries give tourists visa lasting anywhere from 30 to 180 days. Before your visa expires, you can leave the country for a certain number of hours or days—three days is common, then return and get a new tourist visa for another three months or whatever the tourist period is. So it is possible to be a permanent resident in practice, while only being a tourist, technically. This can go on for years.

Semi-Nomadic—If you have a motor home, sailboat or just frequent flyer miles, you can rotate among two, three or more countries you like. Follow the sun or follow the calendar. A few months in Rio for Carnival, winter in Costa del Sol, spring in Buenos Aires, and so on.

Full-On Nomadic—Never stop traveling and see the world. You will need a bankroll or income, but the cost of living is usually much cheaper than in the States.

Buy, Rent, Couch Surf?

Buy/Rent—Obviously, your choice of housing will depend on your choice of lifestyle. Most countries will allow foreigners to buy or rent homes. If you are a permanent resident, your choice of buying or renting will depend on economic factors unique to you. Even if you have to make periodic “visa runs,” you can still rent or own a home. You just have to arrange for alternative housing while on your visa run. This could be an inexpensive hotel, a friend’s house or you could couch surf.

Couch Surfing—The internet has made it easy to find alternative housing arrangements. whether you are traveling as a tourist, are on a visa run or are a full-time nomad. There are scores of couch surfing matchmaker sites, with different business models. They can also be used as temporary housing while you look for a place to rent or buy. To discover such services, Google [couch surfing], [home stay], [alternative travel], etc. Here are three examples with which I have had personal experience:

  • Airbed and Breakfast (http://www.airbnb.com/). This service matches up people with rooms for rent, with alternative travelers. It protects both the travelers and the hosts, by escrowing rental payment. They also have mutual ratings/comments.
  • Couch Surfing (http://www.couchsurfing.org/). This service lists free hosting. Hosts may ask for some contribution, but mostly they do it because the like meeting new folks. As with Airbed, travelers can rate hosts and vise-versa.
  • Craig’s List (http://craigslist.org/). Started in San Francisco, Craig’s List now circles the globe. Go to the main page, click on the country/city where you want to stay, then click on whatever you are looking for under the “Housing” section. You can also search for jobs, companionship and everything else in your target city.

My experience with all three services has been extraordinary. I have met the most interesting people. Alternative travel appeals to the adventurous. It’s also way less expensive, and much more “homey,” than sterile hotels.

Language

Most US expats will probably have to deal with a new language. Yes, you can get by in most parts of the world with English a a few courtesy words in the local tongue. However, not having a working command of the local language, can lead to miscommunications at best, and serious danger, at worst. On the up side, even the mere attempt to communicate in the local language, can go a long way toward ingratiating you with the local people you meet. For starters, learn these words and phrases, please, thank you, you’re welcome, yes, no, how much? how do you say…? and of course the ever important where is the bathroom? The locals will appreciate your effort and usually go out of their way to assist you. The phrase, “how do you say…?” will especially show that you are trying to adapt to their language instead of trying to get them to speak English. You will be rewarded. A wise investment is one of the many language translation options that exist today. You can get apps for your smart phone, tablet, etc., as well as dedicated language translators. Companies that sell translation devices include:

However, even a “low-tech” pocket dictionary can do the trick.

Cross-Cultural Sensitivity

Be aware that there are social expectations and taboos in every culture. You will make mistakes, but if you project respect and a willingness to learn, most people will cut you some slack. You may already know that throughout the Americas, many Latinos are offended when people from the United States, refer to themselves as “Americans.” Some will go so far as to say, “¡Yo soy un Americano, también!” (“I am an American too!”). But did you know that if you hold a drink with your left hand in Nigeria, you are signaling that you are a homosexual? The point is, you have to realize that you’re “not in Kansas anymore.” How do you find out what is going to offend the locals? The good news is that many travel books, such as the Lonely Planet books will list some of the most common cultural faux pas in the various countries and cultures. Also, you can find an extensive list of cross-cultural do’s and don’ts here.

One suggestion: Avoid the “tourist look,” sandals (often with socks), baggy, khaki cargo shorts, aloha shirt (men) or sleeveless tank top (women) and a boonie hat (men) or wide-brimmed straw hat (women). Just add a camera hanging around your neck and a map or guidebook in your hand and you become the official poster boy for lame tourists. Yes, even without the cliché costume, the locals know you are a foreigner. They probably know you are an American. But with the uniform, you look like a tourist, not a traveler, and thus, ripe for the picking or at least their disdain.

Women

These observations—for both men and women— are a special case of cross-cultural sensitivity.

Men: Unless you are familiar with local customs, refrain from flirting, touching and in some cases, even looking at, or speaking to, local women. There is a wide range of taboo around the world and until you know which ones apply, play it safe.

Women: In much of the world, you have two strikes against you. First you are a woman in what is often a “man’s world.” Second, you are an American. In many cultures, American women are seen as sexually loose, and they are (mis)treated accordingly. Until you know what the local gender roles are, modest clothing and demeanor, will save you a lot of hassle or even danger.

Money

Of course, you need sufficient money to live. However, you don’t have to be a trust fund baby or a self-made millionaire to be an expat. If you don’t have a lot of money saved up, you will need to have some sort of income. This means you will either have to work remotely or locally.

Remote Income—I am a writer. It doesn’t much matter where I live as long as I have reasonable internet access. If you can support yourself by writing, programming, accounting, making art or doing various forms of consulting, you too, can live anywhere. Some countries may claim that—for tax purposes—you are working locally, if you provide these service from their country. As a practical matter, though, the question never comes up, unless you bring it up. So don’t bring it up.

Local Income—Work performed, and paid for, locally falls into three broad categories of legality: white, gray and black.

White Income: In most countries, you can legally derive income from a business you own and manage—as long as it creates jobs for local people. However, in most cases, you are not allowed to do actual work in your own business. What does this mean? If you own a cafe, for example, you may manage your employees, but you may not bus tables. If you do, you could get in big trouble with immigration. Local employees must do the actual work in the cafe. 

Other legal sources of local income exist where the local government recognizes specific exemptions for needed skills, volunteer work (which may include room and board, or even an “honorarium”), temporary/seasonal agricultural work, etc.

Gray Income: The most common work done by expats is teaching English. Conversational English is very popular among the well-to-do in every country. Also, it is the key to advancement for professionals, technology workers and people in the tourist industry. So governments usually look the other way. The same principle applies to expats who help funnel tourists to local businesses.

Also largely tolerated, are expat artisans who sell handmade jewelry, apparel and small pieces of art. Many a backpacker has extended or even paid for, his or her travels by selling trinkets.

Black Income: While illegal, there are certain sorts of work that are invisible and where the clients will actually cover for you. The most common is work for other expats. Within the expat community, there is a big preference for expats who will perform personal services such as computer maintenance, auto repair and such. “Yachties” are a particularly lucrative source of work for expats with skills such as diesel and sail repair, boat painting, bright work, carpentry, 12V and 24V electrical systems, navigation electronics, alternative energy and marine plumbing. However, many land-based expats also prefer to hire expats because they speak English and have a shared culture.

The point is, there is almost always a way for expats to make money.

Communications

On of the things that makes life so much easier as an expat, is robust communications with the folks back home. In today’s world, that means internet, internet, internet. In addition to email and chat (Yahoo, Google, MSM, etc.), there is internet intermediated video and voice calls. Companies that provide these services include:

Do a web search on “voip” for more Internet phone and video phone services.

So as long as you have broadband Internet, no matter where you are, you can always talk to the grandkids whenever you want.

Final Thoughts

The key to successful expatriation is realizing that every place in the world has good and bad points. If you start out with stars in your eyes, your unrealistic optimism will lead to unrealistic pessimism. But if your eyes are open to the good and the bad, you can be one of the many successful expats who see the world and see it as it is. Good luck.

JWR Adds: Americans, unless they have renounced their citizenship, are taxed on their worldwide income, regardless of source. But in many cases if you live abroad, then the first $92,900 of foreign earnings is tax exempt. This exemption does not apply if you maintain a residence inside the United States. You must have both “absolute residence” outside of the United States and a “principal place of business” outside of the United States. You must also be physically outside of the United States for 330 days out of every 12 consecutive months. (The IRS rules on this are a bit complicated, so do your homework before you consider expatriating.) There is also a foreign housing costs exclusion of up to 16% of $92,900. So that is $14,864, or $40.72 per day that can be deducted from your gross income.

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