16 Tips to Control the Cost of Moving Abroad
By Volker Poelzl
Resources updated 7/7/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|Shipping your possessions overseas is the most obvious cost in a major move, but there are many other considerations.
I have written extensively about the financial aspects of moving abroad, such as the cost of living, banking, housing, etc. Here I would like to focus on an important, but often overlooked financial issue: the actual cost of moving to another country and the many unexpected expenditures associated with such a move. Below I have listed likely expenses for those planning a move overseas.
Most people who have chosen an overseas destination have already traveled there at least once. But if you have not yet experienced time in your country of interest, you probably want to go on a fact-finding trip to find out if you actually like the feel of what will be your new home. Two to three weeks is probably long enough to get a basic idea of the country, but no matter if you drive to Mexico or fly to Thailand, you will have to spend at least a couple thousand dollars to travel around the country to get a deep sense of the place.
Passport and visa fees can add up quickly. A U.S. passport costs $145 for adults and $115 for children 16 and younger. Depending on the type of visa needed to stay in your host country, your application fee could cost several hundred dollars. In addition, you may have to provide translated and authenticated documents, a health certificate, and a copy of your police record from your home state, which adds to your expenses before you even leave the country on your move.
If few people in your chosen host country speak English, you might want to consider taking a language course 6-12 months before your planned departure. A self-study course can cost between $20-$300+, depending on the type of course (web subscriptions such as Babbel, a book, or other media). A language course at a school can cost anywhere from $50 to $300+ dollars a month, or more, depending on the number of classes, and the number of students in each class (one-on-one classes are often available or even cheaper language exchange arrangements, which you can find through classifieds). Of course, there are apps for your tablet, smartphone, and other devices that you may find useful as you take a daily commute or while you actually travel abroad. Meetup groups where the host language is practiced via total immersion are often the best way to prepare.
Even after leaving your home country you will most likely have expenses at home that you must manage. Perhaps you have a bank account with a monthly fee or a credit card account that needs to be paid, or you have a storage unit for your belongings and/or vehicle with monthly charges. If you move overseas for part of the year, you will probably have to hire someone to look after your property or check on your storage unit from time to time. There may be bills that need to be paid, such as insurance policies, or you might have a mail-forwarding service with a monthly fee.
When I moved to Brazil for a year, I shipped about 100 pounds of books to Brazil by surface mail with the U.S. Postal Service. It took a few months for my books to arrive, but it was relatively cheap. Unfortunately the M-bag option the USPS offers today which is limited to 66 pounds max is by airmail only, which is quite costly. Besides renting a shipping container (or part of one) to ship your belongings, your only other option is to ship your items as freight on an airline or as excess baggage, which is quite expensive.
If you are moving overseas, you probably want to research the web for articles, guides, and books that provide useful information about your destination. I would probably spend about $100 on five or six books about your chosen destination and/or really do your research on the web via forums and social media. Since books are often quickly outdated in terms of cost of living, research on the web and information acquired via social media and expatriate website forums can be very useful. Crowdsourced websites such as Numbeo.com can be a useful guide for the cost of traveling and living abroad.
No matter where you decide to move, it is a good idea to update all common vaccinations (such as Tetanus) and get additional vaccinations recommended for your host country. You may also want to a medical checkup, and get a prescription or over-the counter-drugs to take with you. In addition, getting travel health insurance is wise, as not all countries offer cheap health care and you never know if an emergency may occur anywhere.
If you live in North America, you have the option of driving as far south as Panama (only recommended for adventurous spirits), but for all other expatriate destinations, flying is your only option. Expect to spend up to a thousand dollars to get to South America and Europe, and quite a bit more to get to Asia or the Pacific. Transportation to, from, and within a country is a key consideration in any move.
If you would like to take your pet with you, you will most likely have to go through a lengthy and costly quarantine process. You will need a health certificate for your pet from your local vet, get the required vaccinations and you might have to pay for your pet to be quarantined in your host country for up to several weeks or months. As a general rule, it is fairly easy to take a dog or cat, but it is very difficult to take a bird across borders due to the concern about the spread of Avian influenza and the like. Of course, more exotic animals are a whole other matter...
Each country has different customs regulations for tourists and long-term residents. If you have a residency permit, you can usually import household goods and even a vehicle without paying import duties. However, if you move many of your belongings overseas before you establish residency in your host country, you will most likely be charged import duties, which can be quite high. Make sure you find out the details before you start shipping your belongings.
Unless you have already bought a house/condo/apartment or have made previous rental agreements, you will probably spend the first few weeks or months at your new destination in a hotel. This is often more expensive than short- or long-term renting or owning a place, especially since you won’t be able to prepare your own meals in most cases. Airbnb and other such options are often the best in this scenario since you will likely want more space and amenities.
After arriving at their destination most foreigners are often required to either register with the local immigration office or federal police. Sometimes fingerprints and passport photographs are required, and some countries will issue you a national I.D. card. If you are importing a vehicle, you will need to have an import permit and then register the car with the local authorities. In most cases, you are also required to get a local driver’s license within a few months after your arrival. Fees for these registrations and I.D. cards vary drastically from country to country, and you should find out beforehand to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Unless you are a diplomat who has their belongings shipped overseas by the government, or unless you work for a multinational company that will ship all your household items free of charge, you will probably end up leaving most of your household items behind. This means that you may have to buy a new refrigerator, stove, furniture, TV, etc. once you settle in your host country, depending up whether your chosen accommodations are furnished. Find out what items you can easily and cheaply purchase overseas and what items you would rather bring with you.
If you still own property at home or have family and friends, you will probably want to come home from time to time. This is probably one of the reasons why Mexico is a popular destination for U.S. expatriates: It is close to home and cheap to return back home. There is a huge difference between spending a few hundred dollars for each home visit or a few thousand dollars. Choose a close expat destination if regular home visits are important to you.
I previously covered Health Insurance Options Abroad, but I would like to talk a little bit more about cost. The cheapest option is no doubt to join the national health coverage in your host country, which is possible if you have permanent residency (as a foreign employee, retiree, investor, etc.). Otherwise, you can either get a long-term travelers’ health insurance policy, or you could keep your insurance policy at home if it includes international coverage. As a general rule, the higher the deductible (out-of-pocket expense), the lower the cost of the coverage will be, and vice versa. If the cost of comprehensive travel health insurance is too high and you are in good health, you should consider just a basic emergency health plan that covers only hospitalization. This can help you keep costs down, especially if you get travelers’ health insurance for an extended period of time. Check out your health insurance options carefully.
If you use your U.S. credit cards abroad you will be charged an additional percentage for overseas transactions, anywhere from 1.5-3%. A few credit cards waive foreign transaction fees and you may wish to check them out. In my experience, using a U.S. credit card overseas is only practical for short stays. If using a check or debit card, inquire at your bank at home how much you are charged for ATM withdrawals or purchases overseas. Keep abreast of exchange rate fluctuations to avoid unpleasant surprises. If the dollar shows signs of weakness, take out more money each time you withdraw funds from your U.S. dollar account. In all cases, being aware of all options relating to money matters is a big part of moving abroad successfully.
When all is said and done, the value of your experience abroad will likely outweigh the financial costs, and the cost of living in many countries compensates for the expense of moving abroad.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over 40 countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.