How to Emigrate and Move to Another Country – Costs & Procedure
In the 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing explore the reasons behind the United States’ deepening political, economic, and cultural divisions along racial, class, and geographic lines.
Despite vast improvements in communication technology and the explosive growth of available content and information, explain Bishop and Cushing, like-minded people continue to self-segregate into discrete, often insular communities. There’s a good chance your neighbors look, think, and vote like you – and, perhaps more importantly, that you’re rarely forced to confront facts or opinions that challenge your worldview.
Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that many Americans feel threatened by political movements and leaders that threaten their deeply held beliefs.
According to Google Trends data collected and analyzed by CNBC, search queries for “How to move to Canada” briefly spiked when President George W. Bush won reelection, in late 2004. They again rose dramatically after then-candidate Donald Trump won a series of state primaries and caucuses during the 2016 presidential campaign, cementing his status as front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination.
Repulsed by Trump’s vitriolic statements about various religious, ethnic, and cultural minorities, and shocked that he’d become the odds-on favorite to become a major party’s standard-bearer, a not-insignificant number of Americans apparently began thinking seriously about packing up and heading somewhere else. Across the pond, The Telegraph observed a similar spike among Britons following the United Kingdom’s shock vote, in June 2016, to leave the European Union.
Political frustration isn’t the only force driving Americans to relocate abroad. Leery of rising education costs in their home country, many young U.S. citizens go to university abroad. Others take their job searches overseas, seeking out high-growth economies with relatively low living costs. Some seek low-cost countries in which they can stretch their savings further without compromising their laid-back lifestyles. And some move for personal or family reasons, such as reuniting with a foreign-born spouse or parent.
While some countries (such as Canada and Singapore) welcome outsiders, others require aspiring immigrants to submit to grueling tests and numbing bureaucracies. Many (such as Japan) more or less ban permanent immigration. It’s not always easy to tell which is which.
If you’re thinking seriously about making a long-term or permanent move to another country, you must consider the following:
In the following sections, we’ll cover each of these considerations.
There is clearly a big difference between visiting a new country as a tourist for a few days and living and working there for years at a time. Many countries, particularly those with which the United States has close relationships (such as Canada), do not require American short-term visitors to obtain special permission to enter or travel internally. For trips that stretch to several weeks or months, and for permanent or semi-permanent moves, formal entry or residence credentials are almost always required.
A visa is a government-issued document that allows the foreign national bearer to remain in the issuing country for a specified period and purpose. Visas cover many different purposes: leisure tourism, cultural exchange, medical travel, media/journalism, studying/research, family reunification, fiance/marriage, entrepreneurship/investment, employment, and many more.
Countries considered to be newly industrialized (such as Brazil), or with which the United States has a cool or arm’s-length relationship (such as Russia), generally require Americans to obtain visas prior to any visit, no matter how short. Countries with which the United States is friendlier (such as Canada or the United Kingdom) typically require visas for Americans who intend to stay for longer than 30 to 90 days, depending on the country.
The type of visa required reflects the bearer’s purpose. For instance, a student studying abroad needs a student visa, while someone seeking employment needs a worker visa (which can take many forms, based on qualifications and industry). A visa’s expiration period typically depends on its purpose. Tourism visas typically expire after a matter of days or weeks, student visas can remain in force for several months, and worker visas can last several years. Depending on the nature of the visa, the bearer may be eligible to apply for renewal as the expiration date approaches.
Permanent resident status, typically denoted by a special identification card, is given to individuals authorized to live and work indefinitely within the issuing country. To qualify for permanent residency, you generally need to have a clean criminal record; continuous residence (on a temporary visa) for at least a year, though certain immigrant classes (such as investors) can sometimes avoid this requirement; and a demonstrated means of support (a job, business, or supporting family member). You may also need to pass a language or culture exam.
Though permanent resident cards have fixed expiration dates (just as passports do), permanent resident status is not automatically lost at expiration. However, if you leave and re-enter the country as a permanent resident, you may need to obtain special re-entry documents.
Permanent residents are not citizens. They do not receive passports, frequently cannot vote or hold public office, and may be barred from certain public-sector jobs that require high security clearances. However, they can usually take advantage of most or all government social support programs, such as publicly funded healthcare. Permanent resident status can be revoked for a number of reasons, including a serious criminal conviction, failure to pay taxes, or a long-term relocation (often two or more years) outside the country.
Once you’ve been a permanent resident for several years (typically no more than five), you can apply for citizenship (naturalization). Citizenship entitles you to most or all of the benefits and rights given to natural-born citizens, including (in most cases) the ability to vote and hold office. Naturalized citizens also receive passports that allow them to enter and exit the country at will, and enjoy the protection and services of their adopted countries’ local embassies when traveling abroad.
Naturalization requirements vary from country to country, but generally include:
Many countries, including most developed countries, recognize dual citizenship (also known as dual nationality) for naturalized citizens. If you obtain citizenship in one of these countries, you don’t necessarily have to renounce your American citizenship, as is generally the case when you obtain citizenship in a country that doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. Notable countries that do not recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens include Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Japan, Norway, and Singapore.
As a dual citizen of the U.S. and another country, you can carry passports from both countries, enjoying all the rights and privileges afforded to single-nationality citizens. Of course, you need to abide by each country’s laws and obligations, including (in certain cases) compulsory military conscription or public service. Unlike the United States, some countries require young people to join the military after high school or participate in an equivalent service program for a set period of time.
National immigration policies are highly complex, vary widely from country to country, and are subject to frequent change. That said, a number of politically stable countries have developed reputations for consistently liberal and straightforward immigration policies.
These countries all traditionally welcome immigrants in large numbers (proportionate to national populations), set clear, straightforward rules and expectations for prospective immigrants who wish to live and work there on a long-term or permanent basis, and make it possible (though not always cheap or easy) for non-native-born individuals to become naturalized citizens.
Due to its proximity and political stability, Canada is a popular destination for American expats. Canadian immigration policy favors three broad classes of people: business owners and investors who invest in the local economy, such as in job-creating ventures and real estate developments (business/entrepreneur class); working-age adults with college degrees or sought-after technical and professional skills (independent class); and family members of Canadian citizens or permanent residents (family class).
It is far more difficult for retirees and unskilled workers without family ties to immigrate to Canada. Also, many immigrants are subject to English and/or French language requirements, though non-fluent immigrants are not always disqualified.
To be eligible for permanent resident status, you must spend at least two years of any rolling five-year period in Canada. Canadian permanent residents can apply for citizenship after three years. Canada does recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens.
Distance-wise, Australia is about as far from the United States as one can get, but its high standard of living, shared language, and stunning landscapes make it an attractive destination.
Like Canada, Australia favors skilled workers, business owners (including people who wish to start businesses after arriving in Australia), investors who don’t manage the day-to-day operations of the companies or projects in which they invest, and family members of Australian citizens and visa-holders. The Australian government’s special immigration initiatives include a “regional migration” program that expedites entry for immigrants willing to move to small towns and rural regions in Australia’s remote interior, and a “work holidays” program that eases skills requirements for 18-to-30-year-old immigrants who wish to live and work in Australia for up to a year at a time.
Depending on your visa type (for example, a sponsored work visa), you may be able to apply for permanent resident status as soon as you arrive legally in Australia. You can apply for Australian citizenship if you’ve lived in Australia as a non-permanent resident for four consecutive years (so work holidays participants aren’t eligible) and have held permanent resident status for at least 12 months. Australia does recognize dual citizenship.
If you’re enticed by the idea of an exchange program that lets you stay and play in an exotic locale for up to a year, but aren’t jazzed about the whole “work” requirement, consider taking a semester abroad during college. Check out our post on the benefits and challenges of studying abroad for more.
New Zealand is even more remote than Australia, which lies approximately 1,000 miles to its northwest. Its amazing landscapes and famously laid-back lifestyle make it a prime destination for immigrants seeking an ideal work-life balance. New Zealand’s immigration system favors skilled workers, family members, and investors. Most workers need a formal job offer from a New Zealand employer to qualify for entry.
Like Australia, New Zealand has a working holiday visa program that allows younger people to stay in the country for up to 12 months at a time. It’s very hard for retirees to relocate to New Zealand, except under special circumstances, such as reuniting with a family member.
To apply for permanent resident status, you must hold a non-resident visa continuously for at least two years. You can apply for citizenship after five years as a permanent resident. New Zealand does recognize dual citizenship.
Singapore is a tiny nation-state at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. Its favorable location at the intersection of several busy trade routes has contributed to its breakneck growth (and comfortable status as one of the world’s richest countries). And, due to its status as an international business hub, English is widely spoken here. But its limited supply of human capital makes Singapore quite dependent on foreign workers. According to the Singaporean Government, approximately 2 million of the country’s 5.26 million inhabitants were foreign-born as of 2011.
Singapore’s immigration policy has changed several times over the years, but the current iteration heavily favors skilled, high-earning workers. In fact, visa classes are awarded on the basis of income. Only relatively high-earning workers, those earning more than approximately $3,000 in U.S. currency per month, can sponsor their families.
You can apply for permanent residency after working legally in Singapore for at least six months. Male citizens must commit to two years of military service, and Singapore does not recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens, so many permanent residents choose to forgo citizenship.
Brazil is South America’s largest country by population and area. Though it’s not traditionally known as a magnet for immigrants, Brazil does have a history of welcoming outsiders. It has the largest population of ethnic Japanese outside Japan itself, for instance.
In recent years, resource-dependent Brazil has stepped up programs to attract skilled immigrants in an effort to address persistent workforce talent deficiencies and boost its service economy’s competitiveness. Retirees with a monthly income of at least $2,000 (U.S. currency) are welcome as well. However, it’s very difficult or impossible for unskilled workers to immigrate to Brazil.
Some newcomers, including investors and business owners, can apply for permanent residence as soon as they obtain their initial entry visa. Permanent residents can apply for citizenship after four years of continuous residency in Brazil, but that time-frame is shorter for certain classes of immigrants, including investors and business owners. Brazil does recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens.
One important note: English isn’t widely spoken outside middle- and upper-class areas of major Brazilian cities, so immigrants almost invariably need to learn Portuguese to assimilate fully.
If you’re spooked by some countries’ income requirements for new immigrants, these passive income ideas could give your balance sheet a much-needed boost in retirement (or before).
Germany is the European Union’s largest and most dynamic economy, so it’s no wonder that the country is a magnet for skilled (and unskilled) immigrants. The E.U.’s Schengen Agreement allows E.U. residents and visitors to travel uninhibited across national borders, giving German immigrants access to most of the European continent. E.U. rules also allow German permanent residents and citizens to live and work in other E.U. countries, with some restrictions.
You can apply for permanent residency in Germany following five consecutive years of temporary residency, and for citizenship following eight total, consecutive years of residency. Keep in mind that, as Germany does not currently recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens, Americans who wish to obtain German citizenship must renounce their American citizenship. If you plan to live in the U.S. at some point in the future, it’s often better to forgo the German citizenship application.
Also, though many Germans are fluent in English, particularly in major cities, communication is easier (and locals friendlier) in German. Also, the German government requires most immigrants to demonstrate basic command of the native language before entering the country.
As you compile your list of potential destinations, consider each country’s defining characteristics and attributes. Even if they don’t directly affect your ability to move to and remain in your chosen destination, these factors are certain to influence your experience in a multitude of ways: your personal finances, your career track, your freedom of movement and expression, and your overall mental health, to name but several.
Factors to consider include language, political scene and general government policies, legal framework, public safety, economic health and policy, relationship with the United States, climate, and more:
In many immigrant-friendly countries, including Canada and Australia, English is the official or dominant language. In some others, such as Singapore, it’s spoken widely enough that you may not need to become fluent in other local languages. However, countries such as Brazil (Portuguese) and Argentina (Spanish) aren’t as amenable to English speakers, as many locals can’t communicate well in English.
In less English-friendly countries, local language fluency (or at least strong familiarity) is practically necessary. And many countries require immigrants to demonstrate familiarity or fluency with a dominant local language prior to entering or receiving permanent residence or citizenship status.
Your list of possible destinations is unlikely to include authoritarian, corrupt, or overly illiberal countries. However, policy and politics can vary widely even in democratic, economically liberal countries. In turn, these factors affect the cost and availability of critical services, such as state benefits, healthcare, and education – with major financial and quality-of-life implications for long-term residents with families. These factors are particularly important for members of certain classes or group, such as same-sex couples whose unions may not be legally recognized (or confer financial or social benefits) in their adopted countries.
While religious tolerance is a hallmark of most liberal democracies, not every country has its own equivalent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects religious expression in expansive fashion and prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. For instance, while Israel is a multicultural democracy with a large Muslim minority, it was founded as a Jewish state, and the national government makes immigration quite difficult (though not impossible) for non-Jews without Israeli family members.
If you’re a person of faith planning to move to a country in which your religion is not widely practiced, or in which the law favors members of another religion, do some research to determine whether you’ll be allowed to apply for permanent residence or citizenship – or, alternatively, be expected to make compromises or life changes that you find unacceptable.
The last thing you want after establishing residency in a new country is to be kicked out for breaking the law. Since non-citizen residents are generally subjected to higher levels of scrutiny and closer monitoring, it’s especially important for them to stay on the straight and narrow.
Spend time – lots of it – reviewing and familiarizing yourself with the laws of any country to which you’re thinking seriously about moving. Pay special attention to practices that may not be illegal (or, if illegal, not typically enforced) in the U.S. For example, in Singapore, connecting to another user’s WiFi network is punishable by a $10,000 fine, per Business Insider, and walking nude in your home with the shades open is punishable by a $2,000 fine.
Separately, spend time learning local customs that may ease the integration process. The New York Times jokingly quoted a Canadian immigration expert advising American newcomers to learn to say “sorry” after bumping into someone on the sidewalk, but this underscores a legitimate point: Canadians expect their neighbors to be polite, even in big cities.
Even if you follow your adopted country’s laws, you can’t rely on your new compatriots to do the same. The local crime rate is therefore an important consideration, particularly if you plan to travel extensively in your new country.
Pay special attention to violent crime (such as murder) and property crime (such as auto theft) rates. Crime distribution is important as well. For instance, Brazil has a reputation for rampant criminality, but much of its crime is concentrated in poor urban neighborhoods, where gang activity is rampant. If you remain in affluent, well-policed areas, you may rarely or never see evidence of the country’s crime problem.
Cost of living is another huge consideration, especially if you plan to live on a tight personal budget in your new home (perhaps because you’re supporting children or a non-working spouse/partner).
According to Numbeo, the United States ranks 21st on the 2016 global cost of living index – meaning 20 countries are actually more expensive, on average, to live in. Many popular immigration destinations rank higher: Norway is 4th, Denmark 6th, Singapore 7th, the United Kingdom 12th, Australia 13th, New Zealand 14th, Ireland 15th, and Sweden 17th. By contrast, Germany (29th) and Canada (30th) rank lower.
In countries with lower cost of living rankings, true financial independence is within reach – or at least realistic to aspire to – even for migrants of relatively modest means. If stretching your dollars further is a top concern, consider stable, middle-income countries such as Belize (37th), Costa Rica (38th), and Panama (50th). However, keep in mind that the farther you move down the cost of living index, the more likely you are to face trade-offs such as poor infrastructure and spotty government services.
It’s common for prospective immigrants to use debt to cover moving costs and address day-to-day expenses until they’ve established reliable sources of income abroad. Typical sources of unsecured financing include low APR credit cards and personal loans, which may offer higher borrowing limits and lower interest rates than traditional credit cards.
Most liberal democracies allow certain types of immigrants, including recent arrivals, to work in their territories. However, many countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, make it very difficult for immigrants without advanced degrees or special skills to work legally.
In many cases, immigration agencies favor workers sponsored by local companies – either because they’ve been transferred by an existing employer, or have successfully secured jobs prior to arrival – and may not extend work permits to workers without such sponsorship. By the same token, immigrants allowed to enter on student, family, or visitor visas may be subject to employment restrictions or prohibited from working altogether. If you intend to work in your destination country, confirm that you’ll be permitted to do so without unreasonable restriction, and double-check that you’re applying for the correct entry documents.
According to the State Department, the United States Government maintains extradition treaties with most nation-states. If you flee to one of these countries to avoid criminal prosecution in the United States, or violate U.S. law while living abroad (perhaps by failing to pay U.S. federal taxes), you can be sent back to the U.S. for trial.
According to WSFA-12, just over 70 countries lack extradition treaties with the U.S. Most aren’t prime destinations for immigrants, due to authoritarian governments or poor standards of living, but some (such as Indonesia) are politically stable, have relatively liberal laws, and afford comfortable lifestyles for Western expats.
Compared with the prospect of being unable to work or the risk of deportation, adjusting to an unfamiliar climate seems like no big deal. Moving from Texas to Sweden? Buy a winter coat. From California to Singapore? Get used to oppressive humidity.
But climate is more than just weather. If you’re moving to a high-latitude country, such as Scotland or Norway, you must prepare for wide seasonal variations in sunshine and daylight hours. According to ClimaTemps, Oslo, Norway’s longest day is 18 hours 28 minutes. Its shortest day is 5 hours 31 minutes. And in December, Oslo receives just 48 minutes of sunshine on an average day, due to short daylight hours and persistent cloud cover. By contrast, Miami‘s shortest day is approximately 10 hours 32 minutes, and its longest approximately 13 hours 45 minutes. Short, dark days can negatively affect mood and contribute to serious medical conditions, such as depression and seasonal affective disorder.
The decision to make a long-term move to another country is highly personal, and certainly isn’t made lightly. Moreover, an international move’s justification and destination play huge roles in dictating how it unfolds – an unattached eco-entrepreneur’s move to New Zealand is likely to look very different from a middle-aged couple’s move to reunite with family members in Brazil. With that in mind, these general procedures and costs for moving to another country can vary considerably in practice.
Any international move needs to start with thorough research. Use credible resources, including the shortlist provided here, to identify a handful of possible destinations. (If you’re moving to be closer to family, or are being relocated for work, your destination list is likely to be much shorter – possibly containing just one candidate country.)
Familiarize yourself with each destination’s economy, history, politics, and culture. Once you’ve narrowed your list to one or two choices, visit each place for at least a few weeks – ideally, as long as you can afford to do so financially and with respect to any other important obligations in your current community. Stay in a residential neighborhood, not a touristy area, and try to get a sense (to the extent possible) of the place’s day-to-day rhythms.
Try to contact American expats who currently live in your preferred or probable destination (or have in the past) to get a sense of what life is like for outsiders and how smooth the adjustment process is likely to be. Direct, personal connections that allow for frank, substantive discussions (as opposed to generic guidance or rosy platitudes) are best.
If your personal network doesn’t include people who’ve moved to your preferred destination country (or abroad at all, for that matter), seek out expats online. Millions of Americans live overseas, and many thousands earn livings or indulge hobbies by producing expat blogs, travelogues, how-to guides, and other content for Americans looking to follow in their footsteps.
To find people whose lives abroad most closely resemble what you hope yours will be, and other sources of detailed, personalized information about life in other countries, try these resources:
It also never hurts to simply search Google (or your favorite search engine) for “American blogs in [destination]” and other terms relevant to this topic.
Start looking for work, applying to universities, or building out your business plan as early as possible. If your existing employer isn’t willing to sponsor you, contact an international recruiter or international recruiting network (such as NPAworldwide) with knowledge of and access to the local job market. Many international recruiters don’t charge job seekers for placement, relying instead on fees paid by client employers. However, these fees can reduce employee wages and salaries somewhat, especially if assessed on an ongoing basis.
If you work as an independent contractor or consultant, or run a business that doesn’t require you to remain in a fixed location, contact your destination country’s immigration authorities to determine their policies on foreign nationals working remotely in-country. Many countries allow this type of activity, provided the remote workers maintain appropriate entry credentials and pay their fair share of local taxes.
However, you could be at risk of deportation – complicating or destroying your chances of securing permanent residency or citizenship – if you work remotely without authorization. Also, keep in mind that you may need to pay U.S. taxes on income earned abroad (subject to the IRS’s Foreign Earned Income Exclusion) unless and until you renounce your U.S. citizenship.
Once you’ve selected your destination country, start addressing major logistical issues related to the move:
Before (or, in some cases, shortly after) arriving in your destination country, you need to apply for a visa that allows you to stay on a temporary basis. Your occupation – student, investor/business owner, skilled worker, working holiday participant, family member, and so on – determines the appropriate visa option.
If you plan to look for work while living abroad, make sure your chosen visa allows you do so do. Some visa types – including certain visitor, student, and family visas – do not allow their holders to seek employment. Pay attention to any special requirements that affect your eligibility for a particular visa. For example, the United Kingdom’s standard visitor visa allows holders to conduct academic research and seek funding for potential business ventures while in-country, but not actually enter into a formal employment relationship with a local university lab or start a new business in the U.K.
Visa costs vary by country, but are typically manageable. For instance, most German visas cost 60 euros (approximately $70 in U.S. dollars, per German Missions in the United States), while Canadian work permits cost $155 Canadian per person (approximately $120 U.S.), per the Canadian Government. However, some entry credentials require additional funds or resources. Investor visas typically require holders to make six-figure business investments in a local company or project, such as a real estate development.
If you wish to remain in your adopted country on a long-term or permanent basis, you’ll need to renew your chosen visa or apply for a new one at multiple junctures. Student visas typically remain valid for a year or less, while work permits typically expire within two to five years. Renewal or change costs are typically in line with original visa costs.
Under some circumstances, you may be required to leave your adopted country, apply for a new or renewed visa, and return after securing approval. To avoid the costs and logistical headaches of doing so, consider applying for permanent resident status as soon as you’re allowed to do so.
Also, it goes without saying that you need to remain compliant with your adopted country’s laws. Failure to do so puts you at risk of deportation and can ruin your chances of securing permanent residence or citizenship. Likewise, if your local income exceeds the amount (just over $100,000 U.S.) allowed by the inflation-indexed IRS Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, or you don’t qualify for the exclusion for some other reason (for instance, because you earned income as an employee or contractor for a U.S. government agency), you need to remain current on your U.S. taxes or risk criminal penalties.
After living and working in your adopted country for a year or two, you’ll probably know whether you’d like to make your home there for the long haul. If that’s the case, you can apply for permanent residency.
Applying for permanent resident status is usually more costly than applying for a temporary visa. For instance, per the Canadian Government, Canada charges $325 to $1,050 Canadian ($260 to $830 U.S., as of late 2017) per adult depending on their class (investors and business owners pay more, while regular work visa holders pay less), plus a $490 Canadian (approximately $390 U.S.) “right of permanent residence” fee, per adult. Certain exceptions may apply for refugees seeking asylum, minor dependents, and other protected groups.
If you wish to remain in your adopted country forever, or at least enjoy unfettered access to it, you can apply for citizenship once you’ve been a permanent resident for the requisite amount of time. Unless you’re content with renouncing your United States citizenship, make sure your adopted country recognizes dual citizenship prior to taking the plunge. If you do wish to renounce, you’ll need to pay a sizable fee ($2,350, according to Movehub – the highest in the world by a substantial margin) to the U.S. State Department.
The cost of applying for citizenship varies by country. For instance, Germany charges 255 euros per adult (approximately $300 U.S.), while Canada charges $630 (approximately $500 U.S.) per adult.
One of the greatest potential benefits of leaving the United States and making a new life in another country is also one of the most difficult to quantify: the possibility of personal growth and development. For many months (and probably years) after your arrival, living in a new country is an immersive, nonstop educational experience.
This is particularly true in countries that don’t share a common language, history, or culture with the United States. Learning a new language to communicate with your neighbors down the hall, new customs for interacting or solving problems with workplace colleagues, and new methods of sourcing and preparing your food are all potentially transformational experiences. And, in due time, your personal development journey could become fertile fodder for an autobiography or memoir that supports your expatriate lifestyle.
Many people, particularly younger folks without children or dependents, seek long-term or permanent foreign homes with easy access to exotic attractions that simply don’t exist in the United States. Active expats gravitate to outdoor adventure destinations such as New Zealand, whose biggest cities lie within a day’s drive (or hour’s flight) of the otherworldly landscapes popularized in the “Lord of the Rings” films. Classic history buffs seek places like Italy or Israel, which have a wealth of well-preserved ancient structures and sites.
Expats seeking exotic cultures prefer countries like Brazil or Singapore, which either have a multitude of distinct ethnicities and cultural groups within their borders or lie close to places that do. After all, the United States is a culturally diverse, physically beautiful country, but it’s not a complete microcosm of the wider world.
If you plan to work in your adopted country, you may be surprised to find that your professional skills are in high demand with local employers, perhaps due to a dearth of similarly skilled locals. Likewise, if you’re willing to do the work necessary to start your own business, you may find that few if any local companies operate in the same niche or have the same capabilities. These deficiencies are more likely to occur in countries with poor higher education systems, inadequate workforce training, or undiversified economies reliant on a few big industries.
In a similar vein, many countries have economic opportunities that transplants are uniquely qualified to address. For instance, upon arrival, you might discover that your new city has no English-language news outlet, or lacks interpreters fluent in both English and the local language.
Not everyone is an extrovert. However, for expats who are willing and able to put themselves out there, the experience of integrating into a new country (and society) can be immensely rewarding.
If you’re planning to work in a traditional office environment, you’ll find a ready-made pool of potential friends and acquaintances. Depending on where you move, you may also find a vibrant community of American (or English-speaking) expats with whom you can network, swap stories, and provide companionship. You won’t simply learn from this network – you can also tap it to further your career, and lean on it for support during difficult periods in your life.
Every country’s social safety net is different, and the availability of social benefits often turns on one’s residency/citizenship status, household income, and other factors. However, many countries – particularly liberal Western democracies, such as Canada and most European Union member states – have more robust, less costly (to individuals) social services.
For instance, per the Canadian Government, Canadian residents (and some longer-term visitors) don’t have to pay out of pocket for basic healthcare services, which are instead funded through public taxation. Likewise, many countries’ public universities charge permanent residents and citizens very little (by U.S. standards), though workers without permanent residency and foreign students staying on student visas often have to pay more.
Though Skype, email, cell phones, and other means of electronic communication make it easier than ever to reach out to people on the other side of the world, they can’t force us to keep in touch. On the other side of the world – say, in Australia or New Zealand – you’ll find it very difficult to communicate in real time with your friends and family back home. Given the time and money necessary to travel between those countries and North America, it’s unlikely that you’ll visit home (or welcome out-of-country visitors) often either.
If you’re very close with your hometown network, the possibility of losing touch – perhaps for good – could complicate your plans to leave, or convince you to consider a closer destination such as Canada or Belize.
If you plan to work in your adopted country, you need to make sure you apply for the proper entry certification and pay any taxes to which you’re subject. If you initially enter the country on a non-work visa, perhaps as a student or tourist, don’t start working before you’re legally permitted to do so. Doing so could put you at odds with the law and reduce your chances of securing work clearance, permanent residency, or citizenship in the future.
Moreover, your skills and experience aren’t guaranteed to translate to your adopted country. Some skills, such as fluency in particular programming languages, are in demand pretty much everywhere. But others, such as expertise in American building codes, aren’t sought after beyond the United States’ borders. Unless you’re able to work remotely for an American employer, which isn’t always practical, you might have to put your career plans on hold and go back to school.
Every country is different, but some are more different than others. For example, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share many broad cultural similarities – including a common language and (to an extent) historical trajectory from British colony to liberal democracy – with the United States. Though your experience as an immigrant to one of those countries won’t be identical to your current life as an American citizen or permanent resident, you’re not likely to experience serious cultural dislocation. In turn, you’re likely to assimilate faster into mainstream society.
If you’re not properly prepared, such dislocation is much more likely in a country where you don’t know the language, customs, or norms. Such places require more effort to assimilate, and factors beyond your control could stand in the way – for example, there’s no guarantee that locals, even colleagues and social acquaintances, will ever stop viewing you as an outsider.
If you’re plotting your escape from a low-cost American real estate market, you’re liable to be shocked by the cost of real estate in many desirable countries, such as Canada. According to the CBC, the average Toronto home sold for approximately $780,000 Canadian ($616,200 U.S.) in October 2017. The average Vancouver home sold for $1.1 million Canadian ($836,000 U.S.), per Zolo.
In nearby, comparably sized U.S. cities, real estate is much cheaper: per Zillow, the average Chicago home sold for approximately $285,000 in late 2017, while the average Portland (Oregon) home sold for about $393,000 during the same timeframe.
Another consideration: legal restrictions on your ability to purchase real estate. This isn’t necessarily the case in all attractive immigration destinations, particularly developing and middle-income countries. For instance, the Costa Rican government imposes few restrictions on foreign property buyers outside well-delineated beachfront areas, allows outsiders to purchase property while in-country on tourist visas, and generally makes no legal distinction between foreign and local property owners.
However, in some developed countries, real estate purchase restrictions are problematic. According to Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board, “foreign persons” are discouraged from purchasing existing housing units there. It is much easier for non-residents and non-citizens to purchase real estate with the aim of creating additional housing units – in other words, building new construction homes or multi-unit developments, which isn’t always financially or practically feasible for newly arrived individuals. Though permanent residents and citizens aren’t subject to these restrictions, this is a big drawback for immigrants who wish to purchase Australian real estate (and begin building equity) shortly after arriving.
Many immigrants underestimate the extent of the lifestyle and routine changes that their moves entail. Living space and commuting patterns are prime examples.
Anyone who’s watched House Hunters International is familiar with a common complaint of American buyers of international real estate: “It’s too small!” According to Elle Decor, the average American house is nearly twice the size of the average German house, and nearly three times the size of the average British house. If you want more living space, move to Canada or Australia, whose average home sizes are comparable to America’s.
Likewise, commuting patterns and routines are different in other parts of the world. In densely populated European cities with little parking space and great transit systems, it’s difficult (and often not necessary) to own a car. If you live in London, Amsterdam, or Berlin, you’re much more likely to commute by bike, foot, bus, or train – each of which has its own advantages and drawbacks.
Life doesn’t always work out as planned. If you’re upset about the state of politics, stuck in a relationship rut, struggling to make ends meet financially, or just feeling under-stimulated by your current routine, a change of scenery probably seems like a simple, seductive solution to your problems. Who hasn’t fantasized about loading up the car or buying a one-way ticket and heading off to make a new life somewhere exotic and new?
But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Many ostensibly liberal democracies, such as France and Germany, face serious political threats from increasingly bold (and popular) nationalist parties, whose members believe religious and ethnic minorities have no place in Western Europe. Others, such as Canada and Australia, struggle with economic problems brought about by falling commodity prices. And some, such as Japan, throw up virtually insurmountable barriers to immigration in misguided efforts to protect their economies and traditional cultures.
You can live in such places for a time, but you might not ever find comfort or prosperity. You may find that sticking around is a better idea after all.
Have you ever thought about relocating to another country?
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.
How to Emigrate and Move to Another Country – Costs & Procedure
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