Ever dream about ditching your American life and taking your family to live in a foreign land? My husband’s nephew, Andrew Weinstein, and his wife, Christina Berkemeyer, did just that, moving their two children (ages 2 and 4) and two Rhodesian ridgebacks to the beachside jungle in northwest Costa Rica. For less than the price of renting out their Washington, D.C., townhouse for a year, they are ensconced in a five-bedroom villa overlooking the Pacific in Nosara, a surfing and yoga mecca.
Making your dream a reality is indeed possible, though it takes a lot of research and planning. Of course, the expat life is easier to achieve if you work for yourself, or your company allows you to work remotely, as Weinstein and Berkemeyer both do. On a recent visit, they offered insight into why they have taken this journey, and what it takes to make it happen.
“We wanted an adventure. We wanted the kids to know life out of D.C. and the United States. Friends in Guatemala have kids similar ages to ours, and they made it look desirable. We’re aiming for quality of life change,’’ said Berkemeyer.
“Choosing a place to relocate is a combination brain and heart. We started with the brain part — logistics — and then visited a number of different places until we fell in love,’’ said Weinstein.
Make a list of what you want
In order to zero in on the perfect location for your expat life, it’s helpful to know exactly what it is you want. Weinstein and Berkemeyer made a list including that the destination be Spanish-speaking; a five-hour-or-less flight from home; safe; a warm climate; near a beach; have a strong expat community; affordable childcare; and good telecom infrastructure. Once you define your own requirements, you can narrow your search to specific locations.
Take scouting trips
No matter how much you research places online, you still should check them out in person before making a commitment. Like a dating service, destinations that look good “on paper’’ may disappoint in ways you can’t predict.
“You need to see if a place speaks to you,’’ said Berkemeyer.
Scouting trips are the perfect opportunity to check out schools, real estate, medical facilities, and the general ambiance of a place. When kids are young, good schools are not as critical a consideration, though they are a great resource for finding and making friends in the community. While on the trip, it’s also helpful to seek out and talk to other expats. Social media is another good option for finding answers to specific questions you may have. Try searching Facebook for local expat groups in towns you may want to go. They are often a good place to find advice on everything from where to get cheap gas to reliable plumbers and childcare services. They are better than general ex-pat websites that Weinstein describes as “99-percent useless.’’
Real estate rentals
When starting your research from home, look for US rental company brands located in the town you hope to reside. They might not do year-round rentals, but you can use pricing information for research purposes. Also, look at Airbnb to calculate year-round rentals based on high and low season averaged prices. On your scouting trip, it’s best to find and work with a local agent.
Check with the US Department of State to ensure your time abroad is both enjoyable and safe. Their travel website offers a checklist of things to consider before going, such as safety and security information, and the risks of visiting a particular country or region. Some US citizens with special considerations, such as students, women, and LGBTI travelers, may face additional challenges. It can also help plan for what to do in a potential crisis situation. travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel.html
Investigate whether your health insurance has global arm, and make sure you determine whether your specific symptoms are covered in the country you plan to reside. On your scouting visit, check out local medical facilities and doctors to make sure they meet your needs. Do they have ambulance services? A pediatrician? In addition, search out private organizations that provide insurance for international travelers, including services such as general travel insurance (for lost baggage, canceled flights); and medical insurance including air ambulance, medical evacuation and escort service coverage. travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/your-health-abroad/insurance-providers-overseas.html
Again, the State Department website is a great resource for visa information specific to individual countries. Some expats make “tourist runs,’’ and check back into the United States every 90 days, or whatever is the host country’s authorized travel limit. Some apply for a longer term residency, usually though the host country’s embassy.
Search out expat tax service companies to figure out accounting and tax implications when living abroad. Questions to consider: Will you be subject to double taxation and foreign filings? Will your visa or immigration status affect your taxes? If you’re on a work visa, you may think you’re not a resident but the tax agency of your new home country may disagree.
Moving your pets can be a logistical challenge, both traveling to and, in particular, returning home from your destination. Animal health export requirements are determined by each country, and can change frequently. The USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service website covers all requirements for all countries. Once you know your destination, it is recommended that you contact your local veterinarian to assist with the process, such time frames for obtaining a health certificate, updating vaccinations, diagnostic testing, or administration of medications and treatments. www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel
Once your pet’s medical needs are met, you will need to consider transport. Large pets can be problematic because some airlines don’t have appropriate crate sizes, and, depending on the destination, they won’t take pets in cargo if the temperatures are too high when landing. There are pet shipping companies that can be used as a fallback option.
The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Some other issues that need to be addressed include forwarding mail, putting belongings in storage, renting out your home, buying the things you’ll need for living in a new place, arranging travel for your family and pets, and the transportation you will need once you arrive, such as buying a car. The most important thing is to do your homework well in advance of the move.
“Try to make the transition seamless. The more you do before you get to your destination, the more you can enjoy it when you arrive,’’ said Weinstein.