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How to move abroad: Practical advice for anxious Americans

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A totally non-partisan guide to taking a four- to eight-year trip

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An estimated 3 to 9 million U.S. citizens live abroad, according to wildly varying estimates. But based on the anxiety and angst surrounding this year’s presidential election, where polls show Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump neck-and-neck, those estimates may soon rise after November. 

It’s common for political partisans to say a particular electoral outcome may force them to make a dramatic move and head to another country. While nobody is advocating any post-election exit, if it’s a move you’re seriously considering, it’s worth doing right. After all, there’s a rich tradition of Americans living as expats, from the literary journeys of prominent authors to post-collegiate explorations of life on the other side of the globe.

Curbed spoke to three experts with experience moving overseas—Marylouise Serrato, Executive Director of American Citizens Abroad; Alexandra Talty, a writer and world-traveler who has lived in Beirut and the Dominican Republic; and Ben Tyrrell, head of MoveHub, an international moving service—to pick up tips and advice about relocating to another country. Here’s some timely advice on the exigencies of becoming an expat. (And, if you decide the election has left you no choice but to bail, make sure you register to vote the next time around).

Figure out where you want to go

Seems pretty basic, but a little research can go a long way towards picking the right country. Community sites and resources such as InterNations and TransitionsAbroad are filled with engaged members and useful articles. While numerous travel blogs, such as Nomadic Matt, paint a rosy picture of life overseas and the world of digital nomads, but they do give you a sense of culture and the real issues that come with adopting to a new country. Talty suggests that, once you’ve narrowed down choices, consult Numbeo, a site that provides information on cost of living across the world, to help figure out a more realistic budget.

Start building your network now

After choosing a country and consulting local resources, make sure to start building up contacts. As soon as Talty knew that she wanted to move to Beirut and become a journalist, she started reaching out to anybody with even a passing connection to Lebanon and the Middle East, and networked with any one with a connection in Lebanon. By the time she left for what would become a two-year stay, she had dozens of contacts on the ground in Beirut as well as apartment leads through the expat network. "You have no idea how big your network is," she says. "It’s a great way to start reaching out and make sure you arrive with lots of friends and contacts."

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Get your visas in place

MoveHub head Ben Tyrrell, whose company has helped thousands move to new countries, is always surprised by the number of people who don’t have their visa situation figured out before arrival. Do due diligence on your own legal situation, as well as your spouse’s or partner’s, since different countries may not accept legal status granted by your home country.

Don’t underestimate the complexities of moving your digital life

While digital technology can make moving and staying in touch with home that much easier, security breaches can also expose travelers and expats to serious problems. Talty recommends setting up a Google Voice number, since many security and backup procedures now include a call or text. Future expats should also make sure their digital security is up to par—no overlapping passwords, and two-step verification whenever possible—since expats often find themselves using public Wi-Fi or shared computers more often when they arrive in a new city, something hackers often try to exploit.

Banking is key

Talty suggested contacting your financial institutions with plenty of lead time, and make sure you have a backup card and/or an emergency stash of cash, in case you have banking issues or lose your card. Also, be sure to photocopy all your banking information and leave it with a trusted friend or family member back home. Don’t underestimate the complications that can come from relocating your financial life overseas.

Do your homework if you may have a more complicated move

Taking pets or moving with kids alters the degree of difficulty during the search for a new home. MoveHub has guides, but other resources and services, such as Expat Child or Happy Tails Travel, can help you iron out tricky aspect of a big move.

Sign up for STEP

The State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) provides up-to-date travel alert and information to U.S. nationals abroad, and makes sure travelers and expats are on the radar of the local embassy. Following the social media accounts of local embassies and ambassadors can also provide a wealth of information.

Test out your new home before settling

It’s impossible to get a real feel for a new city without being there. Tyrrell suggests that expats start by renting spaces via services such as Airbnb, to make sure any potential neighborhood is a good fit. "Where you decide to sleep at night is the biggest thing," he says.

Get a handle on your taxes

You can leave some things behind when moving abroad, but if you’re spending significant time overseas or out of the country, U.S. taxes aren’t one of them. According to Marylouise Serrato, "understanding how US taxation will affect an American while they are living overseas is one of the biggest issue they will face." American Citizens Abroad has a few suggestions. Start by speaking with a tax professional, so they understand how they should file and any additional banking report documents they may need to provide to the IRS or Treasury. U.S. banking institutions will also want proof expats are still U.S. residents in order to keep banks and investment accounts open; the ACA recommends setting up a State Department Federal Credit Union account. Double taxation can become an issue; the ACA suggests reading up on ways to mitigate double payment and understand the differences in U.S. and foreign tax codes.