Barring a family emergency in December, I won’t be going to the US for the holidays. That makes 2017 the first year in my life in which I didn’t set foot in America. It’s strange to think of. And I just picked up my residency card for the next 2 years in The Netherlands.
When I mention this kind of thing to Americans, they often mention being jealous, or ask how it’s possible. And I completely understand, because I spent years trying to figure it out myself. While I have had this conversation in person quite a lot, I’ll go ahead and share some information here in case it’s useful to anyone. Of course I’ll primarily talk about Europe, because that’s my experience, but the basics are true almost everywhere.
Why can’t people just live where ever they want?
Governments spend lots of money developing their economy to create good jobs. That spending is not only on economic deals and infrastructure development, but it’s also spent on education so their citizens are qualified for the good jobs. Those jobs enable people to not only live independently, but pay taxes that support the government. When people reach retirement age, they tend to require more social services, that will have been paid for by their taxes during their working life. Governments want the jobs they create to go to their citizens, because that’s the goal of their development investment, and because unemployed people require more social services and cost governments money.
Why don’t people like immigrants?
A lot of anti-immigrant talk feels like thinly veiled racism to me, but when people are actually making a cogent anti-immigrant argument, it’s based on the above, and goes like this;
- Immigrants take jobs that would otherwise go to citizens
- Immigrants consume social welfare services without having paid taxes into the system that supports them
Then why do people like tourists?
Well, nobody really likes tourists, but tourists contribute a lot to the economy. Tourists not only consume goods and services that locals don’t use a lot (airports, taxis, hotels, etc) and support those industries, but tourists pay a lot of taxes (sales tax, hotel tax, VAT, etc) without consuming many government services. So most places want tourists to come and stay and spend, but then to go away again.
A visa is permission from a government to be in their country for a specific period of time. Different countries negotiate different agreements between each other. Sometimes you can get a visa just by showing up somewhere and they stamp it into your passport. Sometimes you have to apply for a visa before you travel, at the consulate of your destination country.
Visas between the US and Europe
Generally speaking, Americans enjoy a lot of freedom to travel around the world. The US has established good trade and diplomatic relationships with the rest of the world for a long time, and that opens a lot of doors for citizens to travel abroad.
Europe is a continent in the same way that North America is a continent. I know we think of “America” as being the United States, but North America has 23 different countries. Europe has 50 different countries.
- Not all European countries are in the European Union, which is a federation of European countries.
- Not all EU countries are in the Eurozone (countries that use the Euro as their currency).
- Not all EU countries are in the Schengen Zone.
- Not all European countries compete in the Eurovision song contest, but for some reason Australia does.
What is the Schengen Area and why does it matter?
The Schengen Zone is an agreement between member countries that their citizens can freely move around from country to country and work in those countries.
Why it matters
Most Americans traveling to Europe will land in a Schengen country. This means that they do not need a visa ahead of time – it will be issued to them when they land in their destination country and stamped into their passport. This visa allows Americans to:
- Travel freely in the Schengen zone without getting their passport checked in every country
- Remain in the Schengen zone for 90 days out of 180
So most Americans can just hop on a plane and go to Italy or Germany or Spain, have their passport stamped when they arrive, and travel around Europe by car or train or bus and not worry about it again. It’s fantastic for tourists.
It does NOT allow any American to work anywhere in Europe.
If you want to stay in Europe for longer than 90 days, or if you want to work while you are abroad, you will have visa issues.
Living without a visa
Because Europe has open borders, and I’m assuming you are a law-abiding person, it’s possible to go a long time without anyone checking your passport. You can stay longer than 90 days and nobody will come looking for you. However, at that point you are an illegal immigrant. There are a couple things you can’t do:
- Travel by air: your passport will be looked at when you travel by plane, and, although they may not always check your visa, they generally do. I’ve also had my visa checked once on a train, although that’s rare.
- Get a job: If your tourist visa prohibits working, an expired one is even worse.
Of course you can make it work without a visa. Illegal immigrants do it every day. However it does compound itself: if you are living somewhere illegally, you may also be working illegally, you may be evading taxes, etc. You run the risk of being caught and deported, and the longer you stay somewhere, the more financially and emotionally difficult it is to be deported.
The easiest solution to outstaying your visa is to do a visa run. Every 90 days, hop out of Schengen and then hop back in. While it technically isn’t supposed to work that way: you’re supposed to say for 90 days and then leave for 90 days, this rule is seldom enforced and many people get by on visa runs for years. In the north of Europe, you can go to the UK for a weekend, or, in the south, lots of people go to Croatia or Morocco and back. If you can afford to travel every few months, and don’t mind the stress of being technically an illegal resident and technically unable to work, or just want to exceed your visa for a little while, visa runs are the path of least resistance.
The risk you run is this: you’ve been living in Country A for a little while and your stuff is there and you have a place to stay, and you’ve just hopped to Country B for a weekend to get your passport stamped. On your way back to Country A with your little weekend bag, you discover that you have a very dutiful person at passport control, or, in the last 90 days there has been a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment or increased enforcement, and they won’t let you back in to Country A. You have to go somewhere else for a few months, even though all your stuff is in Country A.
It’s a small risk, because, as I said, this rule isn’t often enforced, but it can happen.
How to get a legitimate long-stay visa
So what about people who want to get out of America and don’t want to live the life of an illegal immigrant? Generally speaking, you have three options. Well, four, I guess, if you are rich.
Long term stay abroad, option 1: be rich. Rich people can hire immigration attorneys who will help them sort out visa issues. Generally you can get long-term residency in a country through buying property there or doing business there, or there are other ways to get visas if you can prove financial independence. In Budapest, I was always hearing about rich Chinese and Russian people who would buy low-priced property there, so their kids could go to a European university for free and the whole family can travel freely in Europe. Rich people can do what they want.
Long term stay abroad, option 2: get married. Getting married is the classic way to establish residency in a foreign country, since your spouse will sponsor you. Hot tip for Europe: marry someone who is a citizen of a Schengen country, but live with them in a different Schengen country. If you marry, say, a French person and go to live in France, the French government can scrutinize the relationship and question its validity and make the couple go through a lot of immigration hoops. But if you marry a French person and live with them in Spain, the Spanish government will simply accept a legal marriage certificate and Schengen rules apply.
Long term stay abroad, option 3: get a job abroad. Getting a job abroad is not easy, because, as stated above, governments want jobs to go to citizens. It means that the company that hires you has to do a lot of additional legal and financial paperwork; it’s time-consuming and expensive. If you apply for a job abroad, and the company wants to hire you, they have to prove that they have posted the job locally and considered all the citizens first. I know that in England and in The Netherlands, a government representative will speak to the company and literally ask them if they have tried to hire specific people for the job (“Have you considered X person? How about Y?”). If the company can prove that they have tried to hire qualified citizens and cannot, then they can sponsor you for a visa. And you will, in turn, have to demonstrate your unique qualifications for the job. You will need to have a lot of education and experience and a stellar resume to support that claim, and you will be much more expensive for that company than hiring locally.
So if you are highly qualified and the company wants you enough, they will go through the effort and expense to sponsor you for an employment visa and you can go live and work in your destination country for the length of your employment contract.
Long term stay abroad, option 3b: get a US job that will relocate you. I know this happens, and companies that do business in multiple countries have ways of relocating employees, but I’m not quite sure how this works. I tried to do this for a long time in the US, since I know a lot of people who moved abroad this way, so I targeted local companies with international offices, but was never able to make it work out for me personally.
Long term stay abroad, option 4a AND 4b: get a location-independent source of income AND find a country with relaxed visa requirements. There are countries that are pretty welcoming of long-term residents if they can prove that they won’t be competing with locals for a job, and won’t be using social welfare services. People who can demonstrate that they have independent investment or retirement income, a location-independent job, or some other means of supporting themselves, can apply for long-stay visas in a lot of countries that are open to them. These requirements are different from country to country, not governed by Schengen, and are typically easier in countries with worse economies than countries in better ones. For example, it is much easier to get a long-stay visa for Portugal than for Germany.
About long-stay visas
I have done a lot of research on these in case I need one. Generally speaking:
- In countries with a difficult process: you have to apply for a long-stay visa from the U.S. You will be in America, go to the US consulate for your destination country, apply with whatever they require, and wait for their determination. If you are approved, you will get the visa in your passport while still in America, and then you can go to that place for your approved length of stay. You have to research the requirements for your desired country, and hiring an immigration lawyer for that country will make it easier.
- In countries with an easy process: you go to that country, and then go to a local immigration office and tell them you love it so much you want to stay, and apply for a longer visa. Research the requirements ahead of time, or consult with an immigration lawyer. Many countries with a relaxed and easy process will just have you pay a fee and then extend your visa for some length of time. For example, in Cambodia I think you can get a 2 year visa for ~$150, and Georgia has a specific category of residence permit for freelancers.
Doing research on long-term visas and residency permits
You can do it two ways:
a) google “easiest countries for Americans to get long-stay visa” or some variation of that. Every year a bunch of people compile these lists and you can look at those countries.
b) think of a country that you want to live in and research their long-stay and residency requirements. Remember that countries with poor economies tend to be more generous. Visit that country. Your application for a long stay will be more favorable if you are there/have been there, and can talk about why you specifically love that country and want to live there.
Path to permanency
Generally speaking, the path to staying abroad permanently looks something like this:
- You are approved for a long-stay visa or residency permit based on the processes outlined above.
- Your permit is good for 6 months, or a year, or two years, and you renew it before it expires.
- If you are continually granted temporary stays and remain a resident for a period of time (it varies from country to country, but it’s usually 5-7 years), you may apply for permanent residency.
- If you are approved, you are a legal resident and don’t have to keep renewing anything.
- If you want to (not required), you can go the next step and apply for citizenship. Citizenship has a whole different level of requirements, but usually involves demonstrating knowledge of the country’s history and culture, and fluency in the language
- If you become a citizen, you will be a dual-citizen, with two passports for two countries. If you want to (not required), you could revoke your citizenship of your original country, and lose that passport, and the rights of citizenship of that country.
Many Americans do this because of American tax laws, where citizens must keep filing and paying (if applicable) US taxes no matter where they live. Americans have an obligation to file federal taxes everywhere in the world, even if they don’t earn any US money or live in any US territory.
Note that Americans living abroad can still vote in US elections, and revoking citizenship means revoking the right to vote. However, US expats don’t have any electoral votes; their votes go to the popular vote in the state they were from (I think – it’s not quite clear how they are counted). It also means that, should things get bad in your new country, you can’t appeal for help at the US Embassy.
Side note: what good is an immigration attorney?
Immigration attorneys are fantastic if you can afford one, particularly if you aren’t fluent in the language of your destination country. Almost without exception, legal processes, including immigration, are done in the national language. In The Netherlands, even if a form or contract is produced in Dutch and English, it’s explicitly stated that the Dutch one is legally binding. A lot of bureaucracies are difficult and complicated (in some countries MUCH more complicated), and an immigration lawyer will help you sort out what you’re applying for (long-term visa? residency permit? in what category? what documents do you need to provide for that category?) and what you need to do every step of the way.
You know how you’re in a government office and they don’t understand or question your documents, or say that you’ve filled out the wrong form or done the wrong thing? Yeah. It’s 100% worse if there is a language barrier. An immigration lawyer takes care of that stuff for you.
Also, an immigration lawyer knows things that are difficult to research for yourself online, like particular treaties between your government and theirs. For example, I can read all day long about residency requirements in The Netherlands, but my immigration lawyer (Patrick Rovers – I love him so much!) knows the terms of specific US/Dutch treaties and how they apply to me and work with Schengen agreements. It’s not easy for a lay person to know all these things and cite the chapter and verse to an immigration official.
So what’s a relocation professional then?
Rich people and people who are being relocated by their companies often use a relocation service. These places are good because they will not only help you find an (overpriced!!!) place to live, but will help you sort out moving and shipping, getting your utilities hooked up, recommend a tax person or a school district or all of the bajillion things you need to sort out when you are moving abroad. Super helpful if there is a language barrier, and if you can afford it. If you are buying property, a lot of times your realtor will help out with a lot of these things too (if you are moving to Budapest, the amazing guys at Clarke & White will go the extra mile to help you sort out all the details. Just throwing a plug to my friends here).
I think that’s everything I know at the moment about how to move abroad for longer than 90 days. This is based on my research and my experiences as an expat swapping stories with other expats. Let me know your story, though, or if I’ve gotten any of it wrong.
image courtesy of Alan Levine via flickr