#Blaxit was last week’s Twitter reality check as folks explained the realities of what American culture would lose if African Americans, indeed, returned to “Africa.” (In quotes because most of us wouldn’t really know to which part of Africa to go.) But, beyond that, the conversation about moving out of the U.S. has surged over the past year.
We’ve read about the spike in searches about moving to Canada should Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. One report even claims that at one point, the tourism board’s website shut down temporarily because of it. But the truth is that each presidential election year, Americans threaten to leave the country, and literally no one ever does.
Whether it’s because their outrage dies or the fact that moving abroad is a process that takes at least a year, full of government paperwork (literal paper and work), the stats show that there is never a surge of people taking up the expatriate life after a (controversial) president takes office (i.e., Bush No. 43 and Obama). But folks still insist that this time it’s different because, well, Trump. So here’s the truth of what it really takes to pack your bags and take up residency in another country.
First—do you even have a passport? According to the U.S. State Department, only 46 percent of the American population have valid passports. So where are y’all going (or not going), really?
For those who pass round 1, you must next decide how you will route your exit strategy. There are generally four ways to do it: as a student, through a government assignment, as a private employee, or by simply packing your bags and going. Just note, when you're looking for a job overseas, while your degree may mean something to American companies, it doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight for others.
If you go without already locking down employment, finding work in a foreign country is more complicated than just applying for a job. Many well-paying corporate jobs are reserved for citizens, not immigrants. So all that would be available would be low-paying service jobs. (Sound familiar?) American journalist Kiratiana Freelon is currently a resident of Brazil on a correspondent’s visa. She says, “This visa allows me to stay in Brazil for up to four years, but it doesn’t allow me to work directly for a Brazilian company.”
Which brings up considerations of how much money you will need saved to move and live, including accounting for day-to-day expenses. Freelon recommends that you have at least a six-month plan of how to sustain yourself.
Choosing a Country
The easiest way to figure out if your passport will allow you to visit, let alone move to, another country is to check the U.S. Embassy’s website or download its mobile app. Search for the country you are considering, then check for required visas and recommended medical shots. Check if there are any disease outbreaks or threats, potential conflict uprisings and more. You also need to research your medical care options—will you have access to the country’s health care system as a resident or will you have to buy private insurance?
Oh, and you can’t really enter most countries if your passport expires in six months. The reason is that if something happens, like you get sick or arrested or go off the grid, that sovereign country can’t risk you being an undocumented immigrant. Most visas will allow you to stay in that foreign country for 180 days.
If you stay longer, you'll need residency. Overstaying may cost you jail time or even a lifetime ban. If you decide that you want to become a citizen, then you need to consider if you really want to give up your American citizenship. Some countries, like Germany, don’t allow dual citizenship, so you may have to forfeit your American passport. Despite all the embarrassment these political elections have caused us overseas, there is still value in that navy-blue booklet in many countries.
Please note that until you forfeit your citizenship for a new one in a new land, you are still an American and will owe taxes. That means Uncle Sam will have his hand out, waiting for you to pay him what you owe. As a U.S. citizen, you could be fined for failing to report a foreign bank account containing $10,000 or more.
Also, ask yourself if you are cool with a country's language. Don’t be that American … you know … that American. The one who demands, “Who speaks English here?” That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help using the language you know. But consider that you are moving to become part of a new community, and you should put your best foot forward in joining it. Whether you start language courses or bust out your Google translator for each conversation, use the manners your mama taught you and be polite. Also, try your best to pick up the language and meet the people where they are.
Next, consider the cost of living. Places like Oslo, Norway, Paris and even Rio de Janerio not only are fun but arguably offer a better quality of life for American people of color. (The American part is crucial here. Other foreign people of color do not have such good experiences to report.) But these destinations are expensive! You should research where there are clusters of expats living from all over the world, and make your decision based on the lifestyle you want to live. Then match that with how far you think your dollar can go. Southeast Asia and South America are very popular hubs for expats for a reason!
So now that you understand the considerations you’ll need to take to leave the country, here’s the reality of the process.
If you are rich and famous, it will be exponentially easier to move out of the country because you can simply pay someone to monitor and manage the tedious process. For the rest of us, it’s not only a time-consuming, at times confusing, and detailed checklist but also expensive. You’ll have to file a large amount of paperwork and submit it with fees. And those are just the tangible expenses and don't include the time it takes to go through the process.
Freelon says, “When I finally handed the consulate my materials, the person told me that I could not move to Brazil as a correspondent unless I worked for New York Times or Wall Street Journal. I visited the consulate three or four times until a Brazilian friend said she knew someone at the consulate. I set up a meeting with her friend, which was nothing more than telling her why I was moving to Brazil. After that, it was all smooth sailing. But this process involved 10 visits to the consulate and three months.”
There isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all checklist of what it takes to move to another country. It’s a tedious process full of paperwork and fees that you have to transfer and communicate between two sovereign countries. For some people, it can take several years. For American freelance journalists Lydia Schrandt and Biju Sukumaran, it took them one year. But that’s only because they were extremely organized.
“We didn't have any hiccups,” Schrandt says. “But I double and triple checked the requirements, consulted other expat blogs and kept a Google spreadsheet updated.”
She says to start by making a list of the exact requirements from the consulate to which you're applying.
“Add them all to some sort of spreadsheet or Google document, then rank them by how long they'll take (i.e., how many organizations or people they need to be mailed back and forth to),” says Schrandt, who recommends starting with the most complicated and then moving your way down the list.
Sukumaran adds that while in China, where the couple lived for three years before moving to Spain, they only had to get a tourist visa that needed to be renewed each year.
“You had to leave the country every 90 days,” Sukumaran adds, “so we'd just hop on the two-hour ferry, go to the closest Taiwanese island, get our stamp and come back.”
Some of the paperwork includes an FBI criminal-background check—you know, to make sure you are not a criminal; no country wants that. You will also need a particular kind of stamp, the apostille stamp, for your paperwork. Schrandt explains, “This is the stamp that ‘certifies’ the FBI background check required for residency visas. Basically, we had to get our fingerprints taken by a certified agency, wait for the results, then send the results to the State Department to get the apostille stamp—basically, a more complicated version of getting something notarized.”
But the apostille stamp step is usually what ties people up. This information isn’t on any government website. Most expats learn of this through trial and error. Sukumaran and Schrandt say they learned through their exhaustive research.
Freelon says that moving to Brazil was a little easier: “It involved getting a letter from an editor saying I would be working for them, getting FBI-fingerprinted and background-checked, and buying my ticket.”
If you're prepared and diligent, it’s a four-to-six-week process, and then the stamp is valid for three months. You can deliver it to Washington, D.C., in person, but that means you have to leave the country in which you are trying to be a resident. This can complicate things further, since some countries require you to remain in the country for a number of consecutive days in order to qualify for residency.
All of this adds up quickly. Sukumaran and Schrandt say the fees cost them around $1,000 for their move to Spain, and Freelon says for her to move to Brazil, it was around $750.
So if you plan on leaving the USA should there be a Trump presidency, just note that you’ll have to endure at least a year of it on domestic soil.
Dayvee Sutton is a two-time Emmy Award-winning sports journalist, entertainment and lifestyle reporter, social commentator and entrepreneur. You can learn more about her at her website.