The pandemic-forced global experiment with remote work has everyone rethinking the borders of their office. For some, it’s remote work a few days a week. For others, it’s a home office in the suburbs or countryside. For an intrepid few, it’s the far-flung corners of the map.
Digital nomadism paradoxically took a hit during the pandemic. With borders closed, remote workers without a permanent address found themselves adrift. This accelerated an extant trend: the deceleration of nomadism from frequent country-hopping, to slower travel, to medium- and long-term settlement.
With residency permits and long-term visas, remote workers can keep the flexibility of location independence but add the stability of a fixed address and state support. Longer stays in a foreign country offer more security at the cost of more complexity. But for many remote workers, that complexity is part of the flavor and sustenance of living and working abroad.
Working remotely from abroad is a highly contextual situation: you, your job, and your new country all present a wide array of different variables. The first choice will be between doing it all yourself or seeking the help of professionals. It’s generally always better to have someone assist you, but that is also an individual choice, dependent upon budget and circumstance. When deciding whether and how to work remotely from abroad, the first step is to try and assess what you do and do not know. For the latter in particular, the list is long.
Americans enjoy visa-free travel to 187 countries and territories. As a result, many would-be travelers may need to learn the bureaucratic delight of applying for a visa. But visa-free travel is intended for short-term visits, and those seeking longer stays that allow for the freedom to leave and return will likely need to apply for official documentation.
A visa is an endorsement that grants a holder the right to enter, leave, and remain in a country for a specific period. The physical version often comes in the form of a large, charming sticker affixed to one’s passport; digital versions are increasingly common. Some can be applied for online in a couple of clicks, while others necessitate an informative trip to the host country’s embassy. Visas can be for business, for tourism, or for the intention to immigrate either permanently or temporarily.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to be working for a company that is based in a new country, or you want to start a business serving clients in a new county, then you may need a business visa for that country, and your employers or partners will likely have referrals for you. But if you’re simply relocating while continuing to work for an American company, or are self-employed and serving American clients, you probably don’t need a business visa. You probably don’t want a tourist visa, either, which is short-term and onerous to renew. What you may want is a residency permit.
Residency permits allow you to live in a foreign country, providing you with many of the same rights as a citizen when it comes to leaving and returning. Residency permits can be issued temporarily or permanently and for various reasons. Some countries are strict in who they allow to reside within their borders, and others are lax. You may be able to apply as a prospective student, artist, or entrepreneur; your heritage, spouse, or partner may also be a factor. You also may not be able to apply at all: the bordered world is not yet amenable to the globalist ideals of unfettered movement.
The process can seem almost purposefully intimidating and overcomplicated, but a professional service can help you discern your options. It’s best to choose a service specializing in your desired country or city, like Expats in Wonderland does for Berlin.
Professional consultants can help you navigate the relocation process from start to finish, which often includes several very long lines at government offices where you may be expected to speak a foreign language.
Depending on your budget and personal threshold for discomfort, you may attempt all this on your own. Consider at least a consultation with a professional service ahead of time. Many offer the initial visit free of charge and can supply you with critical information to help plan your arrival and collect the necessary documentation.
Speaking of necessary documentation, living abroad means getting acquainted with a second, more confusing version of the IRS. America abides by citizenship-based taxation, which taxes citizens regardless of their residency status. While many other countries have experimented with such systems in the past, all have abandoned it, except for an exclusive and exotic club of three: the United States, Eritrea, and North Korea.
As an American, you must file taxes with Uncle Sam no matter where you move, and you probably also owe taxes in the country to which you’ve moved. Fortunately, the US has income tax treaties with many countries, which are meant to reduce the burden of double taxation. The burden of complexity, however, is only increased.
If you’re self-employed, expect to write checks to both the IRS and your new country’s tax system. If you’re smart, you’ll probably also be writing a check to some very specialized accountants: one who focuses on American tax issues, and one who focuses on taxes in your host country. An expat-focused tax firm, like Greenback Tax Services, can connect you with both.
Standard tools like TurboTax don’t cater to the nuanced positions of expats working remotely from abroad. Furthermore, opening bank accounts in a foreign country may result in reporting requirements back in the US, and failure to comply with those requirements carries a steep penalty. Don’t center your understanding of complex tax conditions on articles on the internet! Tax-based Facebook posts in expat groups contain their own double-knotted misconceptions.
Speak to a professional about your individual circumstances. They won’t just help you with the complications you know about; they’ll also identify the complications you don’t know about, and help you with those. The latter alone is worth the investment of an initial consultation.
Picking a destination from which to work remotely is one of the most fun and most difficult parts of moving abroad. The needs and desires of a working resident, versus a visiting tourist, are vast: the charms of a tourist-centric town can quickly become maddening, as if one had found themselves trapped in an amusement park. While scenic beauty and convenience are powerful attractors, would-be remote workers must pay equal attention to currency rates, internet speeds, transportation options, and office space.
Moving to a foreign country, rather than visiting as a nomad, brings many new considerations. Securing phone contracts, bank accounts, housing, and health insurance can all range from easy to convoluted, depending on the country. You may be required to take language lessons or integration classes. Many countries require residents to have local health insurance, but involve complications in their private versus public options. Other countries snag newcomers in chicken-and-egg logic puzzles: you can’t get a phone contract without a bank account, can’t apply for a bank account without being registered at an address, can’t be registered at an address without signing a lease for housing, and can’t get housing without a local phone number and a local bank account. Professional consultations will save you time and gray hair.
Unless your goal is to renounce your American citizenship, you likely need to maintain connections back in the US. Logistically, this means knowing how to handle things like two-factor authentication for your American bank accounts, scanning and forwarding your American mail, scheduling and receiving replacement debit and credit cards, and responding to things like jury duty. The gears of governments are not yet ready for the global citizen, and you’ll be expected to forge your own exceptions, often with processes held together with gum and tape.
Working remotely from abroad, you’ll have one foot in a new country, and one foot back home. It helps to do a little pre-planning so you can maintain important logistical connections at home. That involves: securing a US phone number that can be accessed cheaply while abroad (so you can respond to two-factor authentication requests); setting up a mail scanning and forwarding service; ordering replacement debit and credit cards; and speaking to your banks about making regular transactions from abroad.
Small steps add up to a lot. Obtaining a debit card with no ATM fees, like the one at Charles Schwab, is practically impossible abroad but easy while still in the US. That is a fact you will be reminded of repeatedly by your fellow expats, all of whom are divided into two categories: those somber fellows who do not have a feeless debit card, and the buoyant ones who do. The latter often withdraws money for the former, as a favor.
Colonialism’s star is fading, but its effects are still widely felt. The outpouring of remote workers, who generally travel from economically richer countries to less rich ones, has reopened old wounds. Digital nomad hubs like Mexico City and Lisbon started welcoming the economic stimulus those workers brought with them; today, locals are beginning to lament the rising prices and cultural decay those workers leave in their wake. As a form of international gentrification, remote workers may be unable to mitigate their economic impact fully. But a mixture of integration and respect can help mitigate cultural decay.
Some expats—a term that draws its own animosity—initially mistake the value of their currency or their passport for their value as a resident of a new country. Fortunately, that notion often doesn’t last long. Working remotely from abroad as a guest in a foreign nation can be a jarring reminder of one’s own privilege and ignorance. It can, at the same time, be radically empowering. Attitude counts for a lot while one juggles between being both part of, and separate from, certain aspects of their new home.
So while it’s easy to get frustrated with the bureaucratic maze of a new country, try to nurture a sense of amused humility towards the system, and a respectful curiosity towards the locals. Both will serve you well in the end.