Are you considering a life-changing leap to greener pastures? This is an overview of some legal issues you’ll need to understand before you squeeze into an economy-class A380 seat and hurtle toward your new life. We’ll look at visas, tax, pensions, and divorce laws.
Disclaimer: I’m not a legal professional. My qualification is endless, exhilarating hours waiting in the crowded immigration offices of various foreign lands, negotiating bureaucracies, and checking out the multicultural talent. I’ve spent even longer hours boozing with grizzled veterans of the expat life, boasting or wailing of their experiences at the hands of the omnipotent authorities.
Unlike the West, plenty of foreign countries are pretty fussy about who they let in. And why shouldn’t they be? It’s their country. Remember, you don’t argue with the nightclub bouncer whose job is to keep out the riffraff. You put on a tie, or you take your business elsewhere.
There are four main categories of visas for living overseas long term:
Working Or Business Visas
These are visas that allow you to work or do business legally in another country. Unless you’re independently wealthy or planning on moving to a corrupt, third world country where such requirements can easily be flouted, you’ll probably need one of these bad boys. Yeah, I know Mexicans get away with doing cheeky illegal work in the US. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get away with it in Singapore.
Different countries vary widely in their requirements for a working visa. Some demand a university degree or need you to have a job lined up. Most people who take this path are recruited in their home country and the employer then helps with the visa paperwork. You can sometimes sponsor your own visa, say, if you’re a businessman.
There is often a medical test involved. For my most recent visa I had to get certified as HIV and syphilis free! All clear, thank you very much.
These visas might last anywhere from one to five years and you’ll have to keep renewing them – that usually means demonstrating that you still have a job or business to justify your continued presence in someone else’s country.
If you get into any trouble (unpaid taxes, a pub brawl, nexting the immigration minister’s daughter, etc.) then you may well get kicked out of the country. So if you have this visa class, try to behave yourself. I’m mostly talking to the Australians here.
I know a divorced idiot who got drunk, scratched a female stranger in the face for no reason, did three months in prison, and was not deported! Although that may have been a case of the Immigration Dept. left hand not knowing what the Justice Dept. right hand was doing, most countries take a dim view of foreigners scratching up their ladyfolk.
Permanent Residency And Citizenship
If you live long enough in another country you may become eligible to apply for permanent residency or even citizenship. Permanent residency is usually a good deal. You don’t need to go through the biannual renewal hoop-jumping with the constant stress of being refused and having your life turned upside down. If you decide to stay long term this is a sensible option to look into. Different countries have different requirements.
Citizenship will also save you the hassle of visa renewal. However, be careful. Some countries do not allow dual citizenship. They require you to renounce your previous citizenship before obtaining your new passport. Do you really want to lose your Medicare, pension, right to residency and other benefits in your home country? How do you feel about your kids being ineligible for obtaining your previous nationality? Check this one out thoroughly before you jump. If both countries allow dual citizenship, no worries.
If you marry a foreigner you are often (but not always) allowed to live in her country by default. This is usually a very convenient, stable visa that does not require constant renewal paperwork or the risk of arbitrary deportation.
There are some obvious risks to consider before you rush off to trawl for Estonian e-brides. In some countries you could get thrown out if you get divorced. Imagine the wonders that legal framework would do for your relationship. Other countries will let you stay if you’ve been married long enough or if you have local kids.
You can live almost permanently in some countries by constantly renewing tourist visas. In some places this works well. In others it is a big hassle, requiring a twice-yearly “visa run” to a third country in order to reapply, as they won’t let you do it from inside their borders. In some countries they won’t let you renew at all.
You see, some countries just don’t want your unemployed ass taking up beach space that would be better occupied by a local or by a more productive foreigner. Check out the situation before you go. You can sometimes get a tourist visa, find a job while you’re there, and then change over to a working visa. Other countries don’t allow this.
A tourist visa usually does not allow you to work. It may suit the retired, the idle rich, or the person who has an under-the-radar, online business (ahem).
Whichever visa path you choose to take, keep abreast of new developments. Just because a country lets you painlessly renew tourist visas ad nauseam now doesn’t mean they’ll still let you do that ten years from now. Rapidly industrializing countries are likely to get stricter as time goes on.
Remember, being a foreigner means not having the same rights as a citizen. The most important right you miss out on is the basic right to live in that country. Having said that, you won’t normally be uprooted unless you get caught breaking the rules.
One of life’s two comforting certainties is tax. You’ve got to pay it, somewhere. The only thing worse than being taxed is being taxed twice.
A lot countries have Double Tax Agreements. These are bilateral agreements on tax that mean if you reside in country A, you don’t also have to pay income tax back in country B. Check this detail before you start working abroad. And remember: just because a country has never before enforced a rule doesn’t mean they won’t one day suddenly start.
If your financial affairs are in any way complicated you should consider getting independent advice.
Have you been contributing to a pension system in your home country? If so, you’ll probably be wanting to get some of that money back once you’re old and decrepit, right? Hold on there, gramps. Many countries don’t let you receive the pension unless you live there most of the year because they want the spending to stimulate their own economy, not someone else’s. Check your country’s rules before you make a decision if this is a part of your retirement plan.
Also, be aware that the legislation can change with dizzying rapidity. You might want to look into transferring the money—some countries have agreements on how to do this.
What about 401(k)s, superannuation, and the like? You’d think, if it’s your own money, that the government wouldn’t be able to set any conditions on it. Personally I would trust my baby with a viper before I would trust my money with the government. At the moment they won’t touch it. In the future, as Western societies continue to decline and the money starts to run out, it’s possible the government might go all Greek on your ass. Seek your own advice but I would suggest not putting all your eggs in one, easily socialized basket.
Many ROK readers are interested in emigrating specifically to escape toxic family laws and to start a robust, traditional family abroad. If this is you, do not assume “foreign law” equals “fair law.” There are plenty of jurisdictions that have divorce laws comparable to those of, say, California. You might be surprised by the situation in places like Russia and Iran.
If you are going overseas in order to marry and live the domestic dream, read up on local laws and how they are interpreted. Even if you don’t get divorced (you’re obviously not planning to), the presence of unfair laws can disrupt otherwise healthy relationships and can poison families. If the laws are rough on men, you can either go elsewhere or take the risk. Just make sure you’re going into it with your eyes open.
Of the countless (non-state sanctioned) scams international marriage may entail, one is so common it merits a brief mention. This is how it works: Country A bans foreigners from owning property. Newlyweds buy a nice house and put it into the wife’s name because she is a citizen of Country A. The couple divorces shortly thereafter and the hapless husband, from Country B, loses all of his investment. The ex-wife sets herself up in the house with her local boyfriend and lives happily ever after.
Of course, only a tiny minority of international marriages are outright scams. Just keep your wits about you.
We have briefly considered visa, tax, pension and divorce law issues that could influence your decision to expat or your choice of destination.
This article is far too short to outline specific policies in every country. Rather, it gives you a guide to some topics you’ll need to research before taking off into the big, wide world. Don’t be put off if it sounds complicated—expatriating can actually make work, finance, love and life much simpler and more enjoyable than staying at home.