Nearly 9 million Americans live outside the U.S. full or part time, according to the State Department. And that number may well increase.
Thanks to technology that makes it easier to work remotely and stay connected to family and friends, decamping for another country has never been easier.
However, setting up shop abroad can require a good deal of advance preparation—on matters ranging from banking and taxes to health care and estate planning.
"I advise clients to get the ball rolling as early as possible, as there are several big items you'll need to check off your list to ensure a smooth transition," says George Lee, director at Schwab Asset Management Solutions.
When planning your move abroad, first make sure your U.S. travel documents are in order. "As a general rule, passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the date the traveler exits the United States," says Susan Poss, a Schwab Private Client advisor in Orlando, Florida. "So, if your passport is nearing expiration, be sure to get it renewed before you even apply for a visa."
To check the visa requirements for your new home country, contact its embassy.
Most nations require a long-stay visa for visits longer than 90 days. However, some countries, like Greece, Portugal, and St. Lucia, offer residency, multiyear visas, and even citizenship to foreigners who invest a minimum amount in real estate or the local economy. Similarly, many countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, offer special visas for retirees—typically those ages 50 or above—who meet specific income requirements.
Next, gather and submit all the necessary documents, which typically will include not just a valid passport and the completed visa application but also proof of accommodation, health insurance, and that you have enough money to support yourself during your stay. (That's assuming you aren't seeking official employment or looking to start a business in your new home country, which carries other implications—see "Taxes," below.)
Then prepare to be patient. Some embassies are more efficient than others, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made the process any easier. In some cases, such as when a short-term trip turns into an extended stay, you may want to consult with an immigration lawyer, who can help with everything from renewing visas to establishing permanent residency.
Many expatriates maintain dual bank accounts: one in their home country to handle ongoing payments or transfers, and another in their destination country.
Overseas accounts can take time to set up, sometimes requiring a local address that's not a hotel or P.O. box. In the meantime, maintain sufficient funds in a bank that operates globally or that offers reliable access to ATM networks abroad and can process transfers quickly. Some offerings—such as Charles Schwab Bank’s High Yield Investor Checking® account—even eliminate foreign transaction fees.
Here, too, advance planning can help. Notify your U.S. financial institutions that you're leaving and for how long, so when you tap your assets abroad it won’t be flagged as fraud. You may also need to report overseas bank and investment accounts annually to the IRS—especially those with balances topping $10,000—or face stiff penalties.
And don't overlook the currency fluctuations that can affect your purchasing power abroad. "How far will your U.S. dollar go in a different currency—and how might currency fluctuations affect your wealth?" George asks. "I've seen such fluctuations negatively impact a client's wealth—but they can also be used to your advantage." For instance, if the dollar is currently strong against the local currency but you're concerned it will weaken, you may wish to transfer more of your U.S. dollars to your local bank account to capture the advantageous exchange rate.
Moving abroad invokes the risk of double taxation since the U.S. is one of the few countries that taxes by citizenship, not residence.
This means in addition to paying taxes to their country of residence, American expats must also pay taxes to the U.S., including on all capital gains, interest, rental, and ordinary income. An IRS provision, the Foreign Tax Credit, can help reduce one's tax exposure in the U.S. There are also dozens of tax treaties between the U.S. and other countries that can further limit the potential for double taxation.
For longer-term expatriates, the IRS also offers the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which allows U.S. citizens who can demonstrate they were abroad for 330 days in a 12-month period to exclude up to $108,700 in foreign earnings from U.S. taxes for the 2021 tax year.
Also check to see if your state requires you to file taxes. Some states can be aggressive in collecting tax revenues no matter how much of the year you spend away, so it may be worth establishing residence in one of the seven states that have no personal income tax—Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, or Wyoming—prior to moving overseas.
Given the potential pitfalls, it’s advisable to consult with a qualified tax expert. "Be sure to find a tax attorney who is versed in both domestic and international tax laws—and the potential conflicts between the two," says Lisa Chen, a senior private client advisor with Schwab Private Client's Global Advice Team in San Francisco. The U.S. distinguishes between filing as single versus married, for example, and between short- and long-term capital gains, whereas other countries may not honor these distinctions. Tax years, too, may not align, with some countries following the calendar year while others do not.
"It's worth your time to hire a cross-border CPA, because there are a lot of nuances," Susan says. "Not all accountants understand this."
For those who are nearing or in retirement, be aware that Medicare generally won't cover medical expenses incurred outside the U.S. That said, you should generally still sign up for Medicare and any Medicare supplements as soon as you're eligible—typically at age 65—or potentially face stiff penalties. (If you're abroad when you turn 65, you have three months after you return to sign up for Medicare Part B.) If you fail to immediately sign up for Part B, your premiums will increase 10% for every 12-month period during which you were eligible but not enrolled.
Depending on your country of residence, you could qualify for its national health care plan, which could provide wide-ranging coverage for affordable monthly premiums. If so, consider keeping Medicare Part A (covering hospital care) if you don't have to pay a premium, while forgoing Medicare Advantage and prescription-drug plans. Enrolling in Part B depends in part on whether you anticipate seeing doctors in the U.S. often enough to justify the monthly premiums.
Whatever your coverage in the U.S., you will likely require separate coverage for your time abroad. Many major insurers, including Aetna, Blue Shield, and Cigna, offer private insurance plans tailored to expats.
In any event, make sure you remain current with any local immunization mandates, and ask your doctor for electronic copies of medical records you can store in a secure cloud service.
Updating your estate plan may be necessary to accommodate foreign laws regarding the distribution of assets, inheritance and gift taxes, probate, and succession. "Inadequate planning can lead to assets passing to the wrong beneficiaries or unnecessarily high taxes," Lisa says.
Twenty U.S. states and the District of Columbia—plus 20 foreign countries1—recognize a uniform international will. For states and countries that do not, you may need to create a multijurisdictional will or supplement your primary will with a so-called situs will tailored to your adopted country. For example, if you have assets in Delaware, Florida, Spain, and the U.K., an international will would cover assets in Delaware and the U.K., but you may need separate wills for Florida and Spain.
Be clear in all your wills and documents about how assets should be distributed in both countries and keep your trustees up to date with instructions on how to act if anything happens to you. Some countries require your executor to be a local resident. In any case, it's important to find an attorney familiar with estate laws in your destination country.
"If you own real estate or hold or transfer other assets abroad, make sure you understand the estate laws in your adopted country," Susan says. "For example, how should assets be titled to ensure a smooth transition to your intended heirs? Will your assets abroad be subject to probate and/or inheritance taxes? A local estate attorney should be able to provide you with all the necessary information."
As you prepare to navigate the financial hurdles of moving abroad, don't discount the potential emotional challenges. "Living in another country is a dream for many people, but the reality is that it can be emotionally isolating if you don’t have a support system in place," Susan says.
Before you commit, consider taking a few extended trips to your desired location during different seasons to get a feel for daily living and begin building a community. "You can always come home, of course," George adds, "but it's better to know what you're getting into before you put in the time—and money—that a move abroad requires."
1The 20 U.S. states that recognize a uniform international will are Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The 20 countries that recognize a uniform international will are Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, France, the Holy See, Iran, Italy, Laos, Libya, Niger, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.