It can be easy to overcomplicate the idea of retiring overseas, but, the truth is, in many ways, it's not much different than making a move within the States. In some respects, you could say it's easier. What makes it difficult is that you're working from a blank slate.
I moved a number of times in the United States before moving overseas 17 years ago. However, back in the States, I was moving for specific practical reasons. I got married and moved in with my new husband. I was pregnant, so we moved to a bigger house. The commute to my office was too long so we moved to a more convenient neighborhood. Etc.
You don't retire to a new country for practical purposes (well, other than to reduce your cost of living). You retire overseas for fun and adventure, a real life change. With that as your agenda, you could go anywhere, and choosing a specific place to move to when you're operating without any restrictions whatsoever can seem overwhelming.
Here, therefore, is a 9-step program for thinking this through and making a plan:
Step #1: Examine Your Underlying Reasons For Wanting To Move Abroad
The most important step in the process should precede any consideration for where to move overseas. Before you start thinking about countries or locations, think about why you're considering moving to a new country and what you want your new life there to look like.
There are a dozen good reasons, at least, to think about living or retiring overseas. Your challenge is to make sure you're moving for your reasons. Be honest with yourself and with your significant other if you'll be making the move together. What's most important? Cost of living? The weather? Accessibility to your home country so you can visit your grandkids on holidays? A reliable Internet connection so you can manage your stock portfolio? Health care (if you have an ongoing health concern)? The local school system (if you're moving with children)? The language (are you willing to learn a new one?).
What are you looking for? And, critically, what are you willing to give up and to live without?
Step #2: Take Out A Map
Once you've taken inventory of your priorities and agendas, you're ready to consider the geographic possibilities.
There are about 200 countries in the world. Some are cheap...many are beautiful...some have sandy coastlines...others boast interesting histories...but not all of them are places you'd want to live. The trick is to connect the dots.
Make a list of what's most important to you and see where that leads. Good health care...affordable cost of living...lots of sunshine...and favorable tax legislation for foreign residents, for example, leads you...where?
Step #3: Research Residency Options
They're different for every country. A local attorney can detail them for you. The critical thing is to understand them before you get too far into your relocation plans.
Most user-friendly in this regard are Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
You can avoid the "establish residency" step by choosing not to retire to any one place full time. Divide your time in retirement between two or more locations, and you can come and go as a tourist, meaning no investment required in qualifying for a residency visa.
Step #4: Decide What You Want To Do About Health Insurance
If you're an American, Medicare won't follow you outside the States (although your Social Security will) and neither, probably, will your U.S. health insurance. Moving overseas, therefore, you must decide whether you want to invest in international insurance, purchase local insurance in the country where you're retiring, or go without insurance. This last can seem frightening, but, many places around the world, medical care is so low cost that paying for it out of pocket can make more sense than insuring against it. Keep your Medicare in the States as a backup plan.
Step #5: Get Good Tax Advice
You don't want to organize your life according to tax code, but you don't want to ignore it either. Once you've settled on two or three Dream Havens, research the tax implications of becoming a resident of each one, given your country of citizenship and other personal circumstances, including and especially your sources of income in retirement, before you make your final determination and certainly before you make a move.
If you're an American, you need two tax advisors, one in the States (where you never lose your obligation to Uncle Sam) and one in the country where you're considering establishing residency.
Again, do this work before you have an address in your chosen haven. Certain opportunities for mitigating your tax burden can be taken off the table once you've made your move.
Step #6: Set Up a Virtual Office
When I began writing about the idea of living and retiring abroad nearly three decades ago, the would-be expat had his work cut out for him when it came to paying bills, receiving his mail, managing his investments, and staying in touch with the folks back home. Today, these things are ever-easier.
Here's what you need:
- An e-mail address (Ah ha! You've already got this.)
- Online banking access (You probably already have this, too.)
- An online brokerage account to manage your investment portfolios (Again, I bet you're covered.)
- VOIP (So you can phone home free via your laptop or PC.)
- A mail-forwarding service (We've used the UPS Store. If you're moving to Latin America, choose a service out of Miami.)
- A U.S. address (This makes dealing with credit card companies and shopping online and through catalogs extraordinarily easier than it would be otherwise. You can arrange a U.S. address through your mail-forwarding service.)
- A driver's license (If possible, renew your license just before leaving your home country. You'll want it for renting cars and as a secondary form of ID abroad.)
- An international cell phone or a cell phone that allows you to swap local SIM cards.
- A laptop (This isn't absolutely necessary. You probably could get by using PCs in Internet cafés, etc. But the more self-sufficiently mobile you are, the better.)
Step #7: Figure Out What To Do With All Your Stuff
Perpetual traveler friends have downsized completely. They travel the world continuously with but a few suitcases and a couple of laptops. They worry not at all about shipping furniture or storing heirlooms.
I admire their freedom, but I can't bring myself to follow their lead. I shipped a container load of antique furniture and household goods from Baltimore, Maryland, to Waterford, Ireland, when I made my initial move overseas 17 years ago, and I've shipped stuff around the world with me since, too. This has meant that, as we've wandered, we've had to factor in storage and shipping costs. Unless you're ready to part with all your worldly possessions, you will, too.
My recommendation is to give away or sell as much as possible. Get rid of stuff until you reach your getting-rid-of-stuff limit. Then figure out what to do with what's left. You could ship to your new home or put into storage. Both these things are far more easily accomplished today than when I made my move to Waterford years ago. Here's a great resource that can help: www.intlmovers.com.
Step #8: Get On A Plane
No amount of Internet research (alas, not even careful reading of my posts!) can substitute for spending time in a country that interests you. A place can make sense on paper but appeal not at all in person. Pay attention to your gut. Often, you'll know within 24 hours of arriving in a new country if it's a possible match...or not. It will feel right...or it won't.
Do your research, make your plans, then take the leap. Over the years, I've met people who've been thinking about living or retiring overseas for years. They can tell you how to get a visa, where to open a bank account, how much to budget for rent, and the per-square-meter price of buying a home in a dozen different countries. Still, they're deliberating...weighing the options...not quite sure the time is right...
To everyone who's been planning or even considering a new life overseas, I say now: Just do it.
Pack your bags and go for it.
What's the worst thing that could happen? See Step #9...
Step #9: Prepare For Panic
What were you thinking? You must have taken leave of your senses. Paradise? This place is no paradise. This place is a nightmare.
Take my word for it. No matter how much due diligence you've done, no matter how ready you are for the move, at some point you'll wonder what in the world ever possessed you to think this leaving home thing was a good idea. My best advice is to wait out the panic. It will pass.
In Ireland, we questioned the sense of what we'd done starting mid-February of our first year in the country. By April, when the sun finally came out, we realized Ireland really wasn't so bad. Irish winters on the other hand... Every year thereafter we planned to spend January and February in sunnier climes.
In Paris, we wondered about our sanity from the start, during our first few months, the four of us crammed into the 55-square-meter one-bedroom apartment rental we stayed in while the apartment we'd purchased was being renovated. Kaitlin and Jack slept on cots in a tiny mezzanine. I stored clothes in the china hutch. Lief and I shared a single Internet connection at the single desk in the corner of the single bedroom...
In Panama City, we continue to struggle in the face of the ever-present noise and mess of the never-ending construction in this boom town.
No place is perfect, and nowhere is going to check every one of your boxes.
That's where Perpetual Retirement can come in. Move around with the seasons, for example...winter in the tropics...then springtime on the Continent...