In the past two days, I’ve received two messages from people seeking information about moving abroad. One was looking for general information, while the second was specifically seeking tips for those considering a move to Nicaragua. Neither are missionaries, but rather U.S. citizens seeking to relocate overseas.
So, I figured it was a good time for a general “tips for ex-pats” series of posts, in case there are others with similar questions (or for anyone who is just curious). As I write these, however, it’s important to remember I only have experience living in Nicaragua. As such, my tips are slanted toward life in this developing country. If you’re moving abroad, definitely research how your specific destination is affected by these topics.
This first post focuses on handling money abroad.
Access Your Money From Abroad
Many countries require you to be a resident before you can open a local bank account, so having convenient, fee-free access to your funds while you’re traveling is critical. Before you leave the U.S., open an account with a bank that does not charge for use of its services outside of the U.S., and allows you to manage your account online. For example, Charles Schwab not only offers fee-free access abroad, but also reimburses for all ATM charges incurred anywhere in the world, and offers a mobile app to make deposits (simply take a photo of the check!), check balances, and pay bills.
Close all your credit cards except for two that don’t have international fees for usage, such as the Chase Sapphire card. (Chase has a promotion where you get 40,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months you have the card.) Two or three percent doesn’t sound like much, in terms of a foreign transaction fee, but when you try to avoid carrying cash (which could get stolen) credit cards become a lifeline for purchases and those fees add up quickly. Another option to consider is the AMEX Platinum card, which has a higher annual fee, but offers free travel insurance, medical evacuation services, and many other benefits for international travelers. Note: in Latin America, the Costco-owned Price Smart (which is the best, and often only, place to buy many American favorites) only accepts AMEX or cash. Yet another reason why we brought our American Express card with us.
Finally, you might consider a bank like Citibank, which does operate in many other countries. We figured if we had a Citibank account in the U.S., then we could easily access that same account at the Citibank in Nicaragua, right? Wrong. Turns out our Citibank U.S. account is good only in the U.S. and in order to have an account in Nicaragua we had to actually open a Citibank Nicaragua account… which we couldn’t do without being official residents (more on that in another post). Now, if you are able to open a local Citibank account, you can transfer between the local and U.S. account free of charge — which is a huge bonus — but we haven’t gotten to that point yet since residency is such a long process.
NOTE: Be sure to alert all account holders of your travel plans, so they don’t shut down your account for potential fraud!
Trust Someone Back Home
Next, give a trusted friend or family member (who is remaining in the US) access to said accounts (go to your bank and officially put them on your accounts). Consider having a rubber stamp version of your signature created, so this trusted person can legally sign documents and make deposits on your behalf.
If you have a business — even a small one like we do — give that trusted person an official role in your business to ease your transition. My mom graciously accepted the oh-so-high-paying job of Treasurer for my “company,” so she could accept checks from clients, sign papers from the accountant, and deal with tax issues. This is a huge help to me and makes it possible or me to live and work abroad without frequent trips back home.
If you own property in the US, appoint someone to act on behalf of you in regards to that property. Have a legal power of attorney drawn up before leaving, and give that person all the necessary keys and access to care for the property in your absence. You may not anticipate needing to do anything legal with the property while you’re gone, but you never know! And getting documents notarized overseas is challenging and expensive, given the only place to do so is a US Embassy, which typically charges $50 per signed page. (Note that a general power of attorney will not give someone permission to act on your behalf in real estate transactions. For that, you need a custom power of attorney that is drawn up for a specific piece of property. You might guess we found this out the hard way… )
Trust Someone Here
Again, when you’re not a legal resident of the foreign country in which you are living, you don’t have a lot of rights — particularly when it comes to owning stuff. For example, you can spend tons of money but you probably can’t own property (including cars), open bank accounts, sign contracts (including leases on homes or apartments), or even get a monthly phone plan (here, you must pre-pay if you aren’t a resident)… at least not officially.
Having said that… most of these problems can be addressed by enlisting the help of someone you trust who is a resident (especially if your foreign language skills aren’t quite up to par yet). For example, you can buy a car in Nicaragua without being a resident, but you can’t have it legally put into your name. This is addressed by hiring a lawyer to draw up a legal document stating the previous owner has sold it to you and given you the legal right to drive it. Such a document is held in the glove-box of the car and will get you out of a potentially sticky situation should you have an accident or find your vehicle impounded (as if that would ever happen… wink wink).
The point is that you definitely need to surround yourself with people you can trust, as soon as possible. But if you get swindled or taken advantage of along the way, don’t spend too much time stressing about it because we’ve all been there. Just consider it a great life lesson (perhaps you’ve contributed to the local economy by paying your gringo tax? 😉 ) and get back to work on finding people you can truly trust.
Have Cash, Will Travel
The other obvious point is that having cash really does open doors. We were turned down by several landlords simply because we were here on 90-day tourist visas. “You could leave at any point, and then I’d be left with an empty rental,” one owner told us.
True. But eventually we found someone willing to accept our cash each month, provided we gave an additional two months up front. The key here is that without a local bank account, we must pay for services and rent in cash. The U.S. dollar is freely accepted here (as long as the bills are clean and unmarked), but making multiple trips to the ATM to retrieve cash is not only time-consuming, it’s potentially dangerous (this is when you appreciate the armed guards at the bank).
Living abroad means we operate in more of a cash-based manner than we did in the States, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It cuts down on impulse buys and prevents us from living too much beyond our means. This is also why we’ve been borrowing or renting vehicles for 16 months, saving the cash to purchase a car since we can’t get a loan here.
So in summary, here are the take-aways from this post for anyone considering a move outside of the U.S.:
- Come with access to as much cash as possible to help with vehicle purchasing, lease signing, and set-up costs. For reference: many organizations require missionaries to raise around $50k to get started in their destination location. While you can probably do it for less if you aren’t relocating with kids, that number is much more realistic than we thought before we moved abroad ourselves.
- Bring credit cards geared toward international travelers.
- Trust someone back in the U.S. to handle all of your affairs while you’re gone.
- Find people you can trust in your new home.
* Photo courtesy of Flikr.