If you’re like me, wanderlust has led you to contemplate living abroad. Before you pull the trigger, there are several things you need to do before you go.
Maybe your company has international offices. Or maybe you want to volunteer with a nonprofit or religious organization. Maybe you just want to travel. Whatever the reason, living abroad is a fantastic opportunity not just to visit other places and experience their cultures, but to learn more about yourself. (But that’s an entirely different post.)
If you’re heading abroad to work in another office or volunteer with an established organization, many of these things will be arranged for you. At the very least, you’ll get some assistance.
Unlike my then-fiancée, I had to take care of everything when we moved to the tiny southern African country of Swaziland in 2012. She was joining the Peace Corps and I was just hoping to find a job, which I did as an English teacher.
The Peace Corps made her travel plans, arranged her visa, helped her open an in-country bank account, provided her with evacuation and health insurance and paid for her vaccinations. But even it didn’t take care of everything before we left.
If you’re heading off on your own, here’s a list of the things you’ll need to consider before your adventure begins.
Your 6-point checklist for moving abroad
Before getting your finances in order, it’s imperative to review the vaccinations necessary for your destination country—some countries won't even let you enter without the required shots.
If you’re traveling to a developing country in parts of Africa or South America, for example, you’ll likely need time to get the vaccines you need. The CDC recommends starting 4-6 weeks before you leave. I had to get so many that I started making arrangements about three months out. Certain vaccines require multiple doses and some can’t be taken with others. Plus, they take time to work.
Developed countries may not require much more than being up to date on routine vaccinations. It’s a different story in developing countries. Before leaving for Swaziland, I got vaccinated for Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B, rabies and got a prescription for malaria prophylaxis, in addition to getting current on routine vaccinations and finding a free flu shot. That sounds like a lot, but I didn’t come down with anything worse than 24-hour bug in two years living in southern Africa. I also took a prescription for traveler’s diarrhea and two Z-paks, neither of which I used.
Getting vaccines in the U.S. is expensive. Rabies alone is a three-shot series that can cost more than $250 per dose (but isn’t really necessary unless you plan to spend a lot of time in a rural area). Try to avoid expensive travel clinics that often charge a consultation fee then separate fees for the vaccine itself and a nurse to administer it. Check with your local county health department. They provide many if not all of the vaccines as travel clinics at a fraction of the cost. If your health department doesn’t have a vaccine you need, negotiate with a travel clinic to have the shot fee waived or the price reduced to what you could get elsewhere.
It’s also worth checking to see if your insurance will cover any of the vaccines.
Don’t forget to have whoever administers your vaccines to stamp your yellow card. Mine was always tucked inside of my passport and it came with me any time I traveled just in case a border official wanted to review it. Whoever administers your vaccines should be able to give you a yellow card.
Let’s transition to finances. If you don’t already have a checking account at a bank in the eGlobal ATM Alliance, get one. Otherwise, you’ll be paying as much as $5 every time you make a withdrawal at an ATM. And you’ll want to use ATMs. ATM exchange rates are much more favorable than Currency Exchange centers, even if they’re advertised as not having fees.
Having cash is really important, especially if you’re in developing countries where many retailers and restaurants don’t take credit cards. Even cities in developed countries may not take credit cards.
Most U.S banks offer online access to checking accounts, which you’ll need to pay any bills while living abroad. You should be able to access the internet just about anywhere, even developing countries, though it’s harder to find and less reliable. In Swaziland, few people had internet at their homes. Internet was only accessible in a handful of shopping mall internet cafes, restaurants and bars in more populated cities ranging in price from free with a purchase to $6 per hour (that may not sound like a lot, but I was living on about $600 a month). And not all hotels provided internet access. So schedule those payments.
Let your bank know what your destination country will be. And if you can, let them know what countries you may visit while living abroad. Banks don’t do email and online communication well because of concerns about fraud, and calling a bank from another country can be expensive. To do this for me, I named put my dad in charge of my bank accounts, which I’ll discuss in No. 4.
3. Credit cards
Like checking accounts, finding a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transactions fees is key. Credit cards charge up to 3 percent per transaction, but fee-free cards are much more common. And like with your bank account, let the credit card companies know where you’ll be living and traveling.
However, you may not need it as much if you’re traveling to a developing country. Only chain stores and restaurants and large hotels in the bigger cities in Swaziland accepted credit cards.
If you don’t have life insurance, you should anyway. But it’s even more important if you’re preparing to live abroad. Check out our Guide to Life Insurance.
I’d also recommend having property insurance. Chances are you’re taking a camera at the very least. And you’re probably taking a phone (take an unlocked smartphone and buy a sim card from a local carrier), iPod and laptop, especially if you plan to document the experience. I used Clements Worldwide, which the Peace Corps recommended its volunteers use.
And if you plan to do any traveling, especially for you extreme sports junkies, invest in travel insurance. Some travel insurance providers also cover personal property.
Many U.S. health plans don’t work outside of the country. Most hospitals and clinics abroad take cash and charge less for services than what you’d pay in the U.S. You can also research local health care options when you get to wherever you’ll be living.
5. Power of attorney
Since you won’t have direct access to your money, you might want to put a family member in charge of your money by signing a power of attorney. Each state provides a form by statute; you just have to Google it (sometimes, you’ll need to search "durable power of attorney" with the state name). And you don’t need a lawyer, but will need to get it notarized by a notary public. A lawyer could broaden the language, but that’s not likely necessary.
As my designated agent, my dad handled all of my banking. When I bought a car, he contacted the bank to raise my daily withdrawal limit and had it restored after I had enough cash. I also had a local bank account so I didn’t need to access my U.S. account very often.
Whoever you designate as your power of attorney could also provide assistance if you died while living abroad, if you include that language in the document. This person doesn’t have to be the same one named as beneficiary on your life insurance policy, but you should make him or her aware of the policy.
6. A few more things
Know the entrance and visa requirements for wherever you’re going. You may need to check the U.S. embassy website for the country where you’re moving or that country’s immigration website for more detailed requirements.
Some countries charge entrance fees and only take U.S. currency (Tanzania). Others require your passport to be at least six months from expiration (Mozambique). And others require that passports have a certain number of blank pages (South Africa). Those are just a few examples. Requirements in some countries are far more extreme.
Some restrict travelers with HIV.
Just because you’re living outside the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re exempt from income taxes. If you’re gone long enough, however, you may be eligible for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.