My husband and I were expats in Mexico for five years, and we thought we might stay for the rest of our lives. We came back to the US for personal and family reasons that wouldn’t be true for everyone. Here I’ll describe some of the complexities and choices of the expatriate lifestyle and tell a bit about our years as expats. I’ll also list some resources for finding out more about being expats in general and about any particular country that interests you. There was much that we loved about that time and we sometimes chat about going somewhere else as expats. This article emphasizes how making a living online opens the door to living wherever there is a good internet connection. Did you know that a lot of places have faster and more reliable internet than we do here in the United States? You can enjoy location-independent living in so many regions. And you don’t have to pick just one!
Why do people become expats? Adventure. Fun. Loving to connect with people from different countries.Not being fond of some aspects of their own country. Lower costs of living are a big appeal.
Roam or A Home?
There are two ways to live abroad:
- By being a perpetual roamer
- By renting or buying a home and putting down roots
Of course, these ways can overlap but it’s worth thinking about which idea appeals more to you. When we lived in Mexico from 2005 to 2010, we bought a little house.That put us squarely the second camp. If we went abroad again, I think I might be more of a roamer, keeping our home here in the US, renting it out perhaps.
Here are two reasons to be a roamer:
- Cost of living where you would go: you might be able to afford a couple of weeks in, say, the heart of Paris, but living there permanently might wipe out your funds.
- Visa requirements can be tough in quite a few countries. You might not have enough money or a high enough income or other qualifications to move to Canada, New Zealand, or many European countries, to name a few. But you could go there as a visitor for a while and then go back again later.
Some factors to consider about a place:
Internet! A good place to find out how good it really is: expat forums with people who live in the places. When we lived by Lake Chapala in Mexico, the quality of internet was a hotly discussed topic and could vary from one town to another in the chain of towns along the lake that were (and are) popular with expats.You can use google to find such forums for anywhere in the world.
Medical and dental quality and access: again using my own experience as an example, my favorite dentist was trained in the US, though the younger dentists who worked for him were not. My husband’s dentist was Mexican-trained and also very good. Also, as Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, we often had excellent access to the best doctors of all specialties in Guadalajara, an hour away. This is another topic where local word of mouth among the expats can be invaluable, though you do have to sift through it.
In places with a low cost of living, how comfortable would you be living with the poverty that often exists? When we were beginning to think of leaving Mexico, a fact that caught my eye was that Uruguay had roughly the same average income as Mexico, but it was much more equitably distributed. (That was one of several factors that got me curious about Uruguay. Haven’t been there. Yet.)
In other parts of the world, how welcome are people of your nationality and religion? (I’m writing this for Americans, since that is who mostly reads this blog.)
What about climate and earthquake risks? One of the most prominent expat websites that I used to read a lot would go on and on in glowing terms about how tranquil life was in various places that I knew had significant earthquake activity! I’m not naming it because this was several years ago and could have changed.
Ease and cost of travel to and from your home country, specially if you have family or business reasons to go home a lot or in a crisis. I read some advice the other day that you should plan on several trips a year back to your home. Ha. We didn’t even go every year. Several times a year might be possible and it might not. But then I do know a couple of expats from my years in Mexico who returned to the US to be closer to grandchildren.
How much of a community of expats is there? I found online communities to be very helpful for Mexico, and some of the expats we met in person through them became very good friends. (Some of these people are, like us, back in the US, and most are still where they were in Mexico. Thanks mainly to Facebook, I stay in close connection with about half a dozen friends from that era of my life.)
What television is available there, if you care? We had access to Canadian and American channels through a satellite setup we got when we lived in Mexico, as we lived in a region with a lot of Canadians.
What language is spoken where you are thinking of going, and do you speak any of it? “You’ll pick up what you need when you get there” is terrible advice in my opinion. But even a modest skill at another language can serve you well. I have a terrible accent in Spanish, I often don’t remember if things take the masculine or feminine form, and what I can do to the past tenses of verbs is embarrassing. BUT with all that, I had numerous great conversations with people who only spoke Spanish. They were very forgiving.
Here’s a link to Travel Books at Amazon
For more resources about any country, of course there is google and here is a link to Country info from US Dept of State.
Earning Money Online
If you are going to need to have an online income, get started ASAP. There can be a learning curve to making money online, and don’t believe everything you read either. You weren’t born yesterday right? It’s quite possible, though… we do it!
I have friends who moved away from where they used to live and still kept their jobs, doing them online. Some people have counseling or other skills that they can do in person or online. Probably most expats earning money online are like my husband and me, doing it through our own business.
In our case, we had a publishing company even before the internet, and we were early adopters of the web. You can see a list of our products and websites at our flagship site, Hartworks.com. We had created books and videos over the years… 25 years of taking packages to the post office, wherever we lived in the US! The summer before we moved to Mexico, we evaluated which videos to keep going and Kelly transferred them to digital format, so people could order online from a business called Createspace, which is now part of Amazon. All we had to do was be sure Createspace knew where to send the money! Createspace also does paperback books, and we both have several there and thus on Amazon. Someone orders an item from Amazon or from our websites, Createspace manufactures it on demand, charges the customer’s credit card, and ships it. Eventually our share gets put in our business checking account. We kept that in the US.
We also hired a friend in our town in Colorado to pick up and handle our mail, fill orders from our remaining stock of paperbacks and videos, and do other odds and ends that came up. There wasn’t that much to do, so it wasn’t that expensive.
So we’ve been making money (umm… not always a LOT but really it all adds up) from various information products we created, from affiliate income, from online ads, and even from a trilogy of cozy mystery novels I wrote. In Mexico, we worked on essentially the same projects we had been doing in the US. Kelly did have to check his email pretty much every day for customer orders and questions, but there are internet cafes all over Mexico and he used quite a few of them when we were traveling. Other than that we could set our own schedules, as we have always done… and still do.
Other ways to make money online include being a coach, a virtual assistant, a transcriber if you type fast and accurately, and a ghostwriter. All you need is your laptop, maybe a headset, and of course the internet connection. Find out more about these via google.
Some Things to Plan Before You Leave
Once you decide to go, if you are thinking of going to a particular area, a preliminary trip there is highly recommended. Do you have a current passport? Here’s a link to the US online Passport application and renewals as well.
Plan how you will stay in touch with loved ones back here. You might want to help elderly relatives get set up on Skype, for example.
Get your medical and dental ducks in a row, whatever that means for you! Medications crossing international boundaries may need prescriptions. (Last time we drove back to the US, I had to throw out some anti-anxiety controlled substances at the US border even though I had Mexican prescriptions right there.)
What are you going to do about your US home, possessions, vehicles,etc.? This is a good time to go more minimalist. You may need to rent a storage unit.
Also, it may be a good time to get a scanner and scan in family photos and letters, financial records, medical records, and other documents. Don’t underestimate how long this can take. (I’m still not finished.)
Handling Money When You’re Elsewhere
Well, for a start, don’t trust international mails. There was the time we got a Christmas card in Mexico from a family member… just in time for Easter! Maybe some countries are better than Mexico.
Our local Colorado bank was great. We kept our personal and business accounts going with them, and we paid most bills online. The few we couldn’t were handled by our friend who was handling our paperwork.
In Mexico, we usually used our debit cards to get cash out from the ATMs. We were cautious about who was standing nearby, of course.
We did open an account at a Mexican bank and we used that for cash and also to pay our electric and some other bills for our Mexican house.
Our business remained based in Colorado, where we kept our residence and drivers’ licenses, and we filed both personal and corporate taxes there. If you actually leave the US and don’t go back for more than about a month a year, and if your income is not based in the US as ours was, then there are some US tax breaks. You will see mention of this online in expat forums and you can research it at the IRS. But if you think you qualify, get a good accountant, ideally one who knows the laws of your host country as well as of your home country.
Our Expat Years
We have been traveling in Mexico off and on for many years. I first went to Mexico as a child, and Kelly and I have made several long road trips, including one where we also spent a month in Guatemala. We made a couple of trips to Mexico that got us thinking seriously about living in Mexico, in 2002 and 2003. We both speak enough Spanish to have interesting conversations with people and we made good trips those years.
So in 2005, we sold our house in Colorado, put things in a storage unit, found friends to take care of our cats, and headed to Mexico. We thought we would go back to the town of Bernal, in the state of Queretaro, where we had a house lined up to rent. But we ended up staying by Lake Chapala, where friends from our town in Colorado were in the process of adopting a baby. When we found a charming little house with a great yard and a swimming pool, we were hooked. Here is a video I made that shows us at the weekly street market in Ajijic, the next town to where we lived:
You can see some of Kelly’s photos at his Flickr area, and here are three of his albums from there:
- Mexican architecture
- Festival in the town where we lived, San Juan Cosala, Jalisco
- Our Lady of Guadalupe festival, also in our town
People have asked us if we would leave the country again because of the political situation and increased violence. Those wouldn’t be our reasons because just about everywhere in the world you can run into those problems.
This photo isn’t one of Kelly’s but it does help with the question of why be an expat…