Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why "If So-and-So Becomes President, I'm Moving Abroad" Isn't All That Easy


Every four years, the US holds a presidential election. And almost like clockwork, the phrase "if so and so wins the election, then I'm moving to Canada/Europe/Australia/Somewhere outside of the US," enters the fray.  Perhaps this maxim pops up due to general fatigue in what seems like ever-longer election cycles.  Maybe it manifests from a deep distrust of the opposing candidate.   Whatever the case is, it's all too common to hear this slogan repeated in the run up to the first Tuesday in November.  

As a long-time US expat, though, I've learned first-hand what it's like to move abroad and the logistics and realities that come with it.  Since we're less than three short weeks away from the general election, I want to share my views on what leaving the US is really like, and explain why packing up and moving isn't as easy as it seems.  

Papers, visas, and getting permission to stay somewhere

First, you can't just book a one-way flight to a foreign land and expect to settle.  Bureaucracy isn't a uniquely American phenomenon; war-torn nations aside, each country on the planet has some form of government.  These bodies provide varying degrees of protection and services to their citizens and societies and, as such, need to have some way of knowing who is in their territory.   

So instead of waltzing in with your azure, eagle-adorned passport and expecting to settle, you'll need to receive prior permission from your desired host country to book that one-way ticket.  Seriously; you'll get denied boarding at the airport if you have a one-way ticket out of the country and can't prove permission to reside abroad.   So how do you get permission?  Well, you need a reason.  These could be any of the following: 
  1. Student visa to study
  2. Invitation from a company/organization in that country to work for them 
  3. You have enough money to invest in the local economy or sufficiently support yourself. 

To get a student visa, you need to be accepted by a locally-accredited academic institution. You'll need to prove that you have the financial means to support yourself (i.e. you won't become a burden on their social security system).  Your work options will be limited as well meaning your savings/scholarship will have to fund most of your activities.  

If you don't want to study but instead prefer to work, you'll need either an invitation from an employer or prove that you have a unique, specialized skill that is in high demand and short supply.  Governments don't want foreigners just showing up, without any means to support themselves (social services aren't free, after all).  

Employers must also prove why you, as a foreigner, should have a job over a local citizen.  Exhibiting this proof is an additional administrative and financial burden on the employer, and while more senior professionals can make a convincing case, entry-level workers more often cannot.  

Going back to the last point, completing a degree at a school abroad does not give you the right to work.  Ten years ago, I learned this lesson the hard way.   Right after finishing my undergraduate in Brussels, I went out into the job market, eager to put my education to use.  I quickly learned that, despite holding a degree from a well-known local university, I needed a work permit to get a job.  However, to get a job, I needed a work permit.  It was a textbook case of a catch-22.  

In the end, I applied to change my status in Belgium so that my relationship with Nathalie was recognized as 'durable,' in turn giving me the right to work.  The process took 14 months, and during that time, I couldn't leave Belgium nor look for work or study.  To put it bluntly: it sucked - hard.  Practically all the Americans I went to college with were in the same boat.  In fact, if they didn't get married or find an EU citizen to 'partner' with, they were more or less forced to return to the US.   Don't expect just to waltz in and get a job; it just doesn't work that way.  

Finally, if you're wealthy enough, you can get a visa by investing in the local economy.  While it varies from country to country, count on having at least one million USD ready to spend.   Of course, if you're this well off, you're living in some of the top echelons of the US socio-economic hierarchy.  Maybe you're better off buying some land up in Montana and toughing it out for the next four to eight years.   

That being said, the access to each country varies wildly.  Getting residency/visas in the developing world is much easier than in the developed.  However, access to healthcare, social services, and even security will be well below what you'll find in the US.

The culture and language gap

Assuming that you've figured out a way to get residency in a foreign nation, you've only just begun the journey.  Each country has its distinct culture and language.  Even Canada, being America's closest cousin, is distinctly different than their southern neighbor.  Learning to speak a new language properly requires grand dedication (although it's incredibly rewarding).  This obstacle is doubly-true for native English speakers since we a) speak the global lingua franca and b) have no linguistic cousins close enough to make learning a new language relatively easier. 

You'll need to learn the local cultural customs.  It won't always be easy.   Here in Spain, for example,  I've had to adapt to Spanish working and living hours.  My lunch break is from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. and I don't finish until 7:00 p.m. that evening.  While this might seem late, restaurants don't even open until 8:30 p.m. with most people dining around 10:00 p.m.  I'm used to it now, but it took some weeks to adjust.  

Every country, region and city have their individual history, often with a checkered past rife with old rivalries.  Learning what to say, or maybe more importantly, what NOT to say does not come quickly.  On that note: if you move to Belgium avoid the Flemish/Francophone fight; in Spain, don't immediately take sides in the Catalan independence movement, and for the love of everything holy, unless it personally touches you, stay out of the perpetual Israeli/Arab debate.

Finally, you'll have to learn what it's like to be an immigrant.   During this journey, you'll become quickly acquainted with government agencies that locals don't even know that exist.  You won't enjoy the same rights that you have back at home such as voting or being able to complete administrative tasks easily.  Lastly, and perhaps the hardest part:  dealing with the discrimination that comes with being a foreigner.  

Unfortunately, xenophobia isn't confined to American soil.  Closed-minded and ignorant people the world over love blaming their country's shortcomings on outsiders.  Whether through overtly racist actions or giving citizens preferential treatment, foreigners are victims to varying degrees of discrimination.  Learning how to accept and manage this nasty aspect of humanity takes exceptional patience.  It's not for the faint of heart - or those leaving America because of "lax border controls and immigration policies."

Banking and FATCA

As an American citizen, the US government doesn't want you cheating your taxes.   What better place to keep Uncle Sam and his cronies at the IRS away from your money than on an offshore bank account? To combat the "uber wealthy" from sheltering themselves in Switzerland, Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in 2010.  

This overreaching and questionably unconstitutional law requires that all foreign banks wishing to do business in the United States comply with US tax code and disclose any accounts held by US citizens.  Failure to comply results in the withholding of 30% of the institution's US-based funds and the bank subsequently becoming a defacto pariah in the global financial markets.  

Discarding the fact that the US is itself a major global tax haven and states such as Delaware, South Dakota, and Nevada has bank secrecy laws so tight that the Swiss are jealous, FATCA's implementation is akin to doing surgery with a baseball bat.  Instead of getting the wealthy tax dodgers from paying up, this heinous law has mostly locked regular, middle-class American expats out of their local financial system.  

American expats across the globe are having their bank accounts closed, mortgages canceled, and financial activities severely restricted.  Earlier last week, I got notification from my Belgian investment bank that they were closing my securities and investment account because I'm American (even though I also have Belgian citizenship).  

For any American considering moving abroad because they want to escape the next administration's tax policy, don't bother.  The IRS has made it clear that US expats are on their radar, and FATCA is their missile.

There is no such place as utopia

I've seen it all too many times:  "I want to move to Europe, because life is so great over there," or "Canada must be great because they take care of their citizens."   While these places have different priorities when it comes to work-life balance and social responsibility, it doesn't make them perfect.    Europe is a vast, diverse continent and as we've seen over the past year, is struggling with an identity crisis coupled with slow growth and a lack of concrete direction.  

Canada , well, they have to contend with the fact that despite having the greatest ice hockey talent in the world, they still can't ice a club team worth a bag of pucks (okay, I'm sure Canada has other problems, but a) I'm not familiar with them and b) I watch way too much ice hockey).  

If you want to leave home to find paradise, unfortunately, you won't find it.  Why? Because it doesn't exist.  Every country has their problems, some relatively worse than others.  The more time you spend in one place, the more the glitz wears off and the reality sinks in.  Political asylum isn't a joke. You'll look mighty pompous claiming to be a refugee if you're coming from one of the most prosperous and stable countries on the planet.

However, instead of exiling yourself because the man or woman you want in the White House didn't win the election, focus on what you can do to make your community better.  Despite the nefarious noise from whichever party is out of power, the American president isn't a dictator, and we as Americans should be extremely thankful for that.  The real power lies in local, state and national legislatures, and in us: the citizens.  So instead of running away, start where you can make an impact.  

Why You Should Go Abroad

With all this said, I believe everyone should see the world.  Visiting foreign countries and living aboard are some of the most eye-opening, educational and humbling experiences we as humans can undertake. 

 When I moved to Belgium in 2002, I began what has been undoubtedly the biggest adventure of my life.  I've learned things and met people from all around the planet, and I have no uncertainty that I'm a richer person for it.   My wish is that everyone can have a similar experience; humanity would be infinitely better to see their home from the outside and walk in another person's shoes.  

However, if you're going to leave, make it for the right reasons.  When I left, I did so because I was young and was in love (and still am...well, at least for the love part).  Others I have met did it for the adventure.  I have yet to meet a 'political exile' from a stable, western democracy; if I did, I doubt they'd make it abroad for very long.

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