Keeping American Domicile while living abroad

AirBnB today announced a revolutionary new remote work policy - one allowing their staff to work abroad from broad swaths of the world up to 90 days a year! There's a pretty important requirement however: "Everyone will still need a permanent address for tax and payroll purposes"

"Permanent Address" is a specific term that not all Americans will be familiar with. Not understanding this when I was abroad delayed our wedding for a month! It's more than just having a drivers licence with an address on it - it's an actual physical address that all your documents need to point at. If you're actually planning to spend some time abroad and not keeping a home in your name within USA, here are some steps to take, well before (at least 4 months) you plan to end your lease and travel.

Before you move

1. Choose somebodies address to use

You need to choose somebodies address to use when you're out of the country. It can be a friends or relatives. The most important thing is that it's a house you're confident they will be in for a while, not one they are leasing. You need the ability to recieve mail here, but it's not super important you get mail immediately (there's another service for that below). Make sure you trust the person whose address you're using as some of your new debit/credit cards will probably be mailed here.

Don't use a PO Box and don't use a virtual mailbox address for this permanent address - you'll end up in a situation where your banks will close your accounts and mail you a check.

2. Change the address at all your banks to that address

This is very important. Many banks use a system similiar to credit reporting companies to verify your address. The one I'm familiar with is Chex systems, but there are likely others. If you've already verified your address with these banks, they generally don't hassle you to prove proof of your new address. You won't have any (yet). Once several of your banks have this new address on file, the reporting system will put it on your record which will allow you to open new accounts online at that address in the future without having to prove address in person.

2-3 months after submitting this address check, request your record from Chex systems. Their website is clunky and the record will take a few weeks to mail. Once you recieve it, if you see your new address on the file, you are good to go.

3. Change the address on your phone bill

You'll need two pieces of address proof to change your address on state ID in California at least (I'm sure many states have similar rules). Cell phone bill is the easiest one to change after bank statement. Google Fi gave me a statement with a new address on it within days of me opening account in the past.

4. Change the address on your drivers licence or state ID

Use the new address on your bank/phone bill. Go in person to show your address proofs if necessary, preferrably at the branch closer to your new address. Because you're departing the home you're currently living in, this is more appropriate for giving the state a way to contact you than letting your current, soon-to-be-expired ID address lapse. It'll also prevent you having to re-establish residence in your state, which makes getting a future lease there again later a pain.

Once this step is complete, perform a USPS change of address to the new permanent address. A lot of businesses actually subscribe to these change of address requests to keep their records up to date. This will help update your old address to your new one behind the scenes. Beware: Banks also subscribe to these. If you do a USPS change of address to your virtual postbox or a PO box, they're going to be reaching out to you about your address being invalid. Only do this change to the new permanent address

5. Get a virtual postbox

Now that you have your "permanent address", it's time to get setup with a virtual one. There's a great company called Virtual Post Mail that will scan your mail, email you a PDF, forward the mail to you, shred it, and help forward packages. I highly recommend their service and have been a happy customer for almost 5 years now. You need to do this while within USA because you'll need to get permission for them to process your mail with a notarized stamp.

Once you have your mailbox address, you can start setting the "Mailing Address" on a lot of different services with it. Some banks support it too and will mail your cards there instead of the home/permanent address on file.

Be aware that virtual postboxs are technically considered CMRAs and some businesses won't mail things to them because of that. This is also why you shouldn't use the virtual postbox address as the home address for your bank - they know it's not a home address.

6. Figure out banking/Credit cards

Your experience living abroad is very much dependant on maintaining a positive relationship with your bank. Banks really don't want their customers living abroad for long periods of time, as they need to demonstate they have detailed and accurate profiles on all customers. Fraud prevention is another reason. I've read many horror stories online about banks closing down accounts for customers who don't maintain correct home addresses (for example, getting a PO box after moving out and not keeping a valid drivers licence). The worst part is that when they do that, they just mail a check with the account balance to the last known address on file, which hopefully you don't lose access to. If you follow the steps above about keeping your address in good shape, you should be fine, but banks keep track of the timezone you're logging in with, your IP, device details. Even if you're super good about VPN usage on your laptop, if you open the banks app on your phone, you've just put on your record that you're away from home again. Some banks are better than others at serving customers abroad. My relatives are veterans so I have access to Navy Federal who don't give their customers abroad too much trouble.

Credit cards on the other hand seem to be pretty ambivalent towards how much foreign usage they accrue. I'd recommend opening a travel card with a bank that you don't already have an account with. The travel cards don't have foreign transaction fees and their exchange rates match what you see on google when paying in local currency. When I was in India, American Express turned out to be the best choice for me.

Oh, and don't bother with HSBC. If they're even still in business around you, their international banking services are useless for anybody with a balance less than $250,000.

7. Other things to maintain

Keep your health insurance. If you get into health issues abroad, they won't be able to do much for you, but at least you're covered as soon as you arrive home.

Keep paying state taxes. This is strong evidence to foreign governments that your visit is short term.

8. Pack your bags

Now that your paperwork is in order, you're free to start the fun part, pack your bags!

While Abroad

Use your home timezone on your laptop

Websites can see the timezone you browse from. Having en-US as your locale with GMT+8:30 as a timezone puts a target on your head for web trackers, nobody else around you has that configuration. Keeping your home timezone on your laptop while using VPN makes your traffic much less conspicious.

Use a VPN

A good VPN doesn't change your security posture a ton, but at least you don't need to worry about your traffic being monitored locally and your traffic looks normal to the sites back home (the timezone thing helps with that too).

Use credit cards, never debit cards

Don't pull your debit card out abroad. You can't afford to have that stolen, banks don't have really great support for fraud compared to credit cards, and they'll probably charge you foreign transaction fees anyways.

If you need a card that behaves similarlly to a debit card abroad, try Wise.com's Borderless accounts. You can hold accounts in foreign currency, and they are specifically designed for travel.

Be a tourist

You can spend a long time somewhere as a tourist! Even years! But the important thing is you need to continually play that role. Don't sign contracts abroad in your name, don't tell people around that you live there, keep quiet about whatever your work is, don't try to open local bank accounts, don't speak the local language, don't try to make friends around, etc.

If your visa stipulates limits, adhere to whatever is written there and don't try to extend validities on it. This stands out to local authorities as you attempting to reside. Take regular visits back home to USA or third countries.

Vote!

You can vote while staying abroad! Make sure you're registered at your new permanant address. See fvap.gov for instructions on how to do it correctly. Voting is strong proof of keeping ties back home.