Thinking of Being an Expat?
Connie and I have been digital nomads for nearly ten years. In that time we have met hundreds of people all over the world. One of the most common questions we hear is, “How do you do it?”
Obviously, there is no short answer, and the truth is that it takes careful consideration and planning to make the shift from being a resident and financial captive of one State (usually the one we were born into), to having the freedom to live where we choose and to earn and keep our money where we choose.
So the advice we offer to our global friends is to sample the nomad lifestyle by taking an intentional vacation.
And by “intentional” I mean visiting one of the locations you are considering with the specific intention of investigating elements of the expat lifestyle there. Think of it as a reconnaissance mission.
From the outset, this rules out a Carnival Cruise where passengers visit a port of call between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm, or a package vacation where tourists remain on the property of a mega resort unless escorted on a dune buggy or Segway tour to the beachfront shopping district.
Forget visiting as a tourist. Visit as a future resident.
Go Where the Expats Are
Large countries like Mexico have dozens of great cities to visit. However, there are higher concentrations of visible expats in a handful of these places.
To give an example with which I have some familiarity, Belize has about a half dozen towns where you’ll find American, Canadian, and British expats. However, the town with the highest concentration is San Pedro. If you were interested in investigating Belize through the eyes of expats, San Pedro would give you the most bang for your investigative buck.
Socialize Where Expats Socialize
For the most part, you’ll find expats to be outgoing, helpful people. Expats know they live “outside the box,” and they are usually eager to tell you all the reasons they think it’s the right way to go.
A walk down a main street or along a busy stretch of beach will always reveal small business (especially bars) that are owned or operated by expats. For the price of a round of drinks, you can acquire more first-hand information and detailed advice than you could get from a dozen books or websites.
Visit a Bank
Drop into a bank and ask to speak to the manager. Tell him you are considering moving there, and ask what is involved in opening an account and perhaps establishing a business. You’ll probably find that you can open an account on the spot. This is getting harder for Americans but is still possible in some places.
If you’re an American, don’t expect any real financial privacy, as the U.S. government has co-opted most countries into spying for them. But, at the very least, some money in a foreign account won’t be the low-hanging fruit your local bureaucrats back home will grab when they need some extra boondoggle money.
Look for Real Estate Rentals
If you decide to return to your chosen location, you’ll want to find a place to rent for your first year or so. Renting is the safe way to take the full measure of a location before you commit to owning property. Many people are shocked to discover that they can live in paradise for a fraction of what they pay to maintain a less desirable life in the rat race. Make some face to face contacts so later when you’re dealing with them over the Internet, they will remember you. This can go a long way in making future arrangements go smoothly.
Rent a Car or Motorbike
In the case of San Pedro, Belize, I could add “rent a golf cart,” since that is the principal means of transportation on the island. The key is to get away from the tourist locations. Find the grocery stores and bars where the locals go, and buy something from them.
Do the same things you did at the places owned by expats. Be friendly, buy a round and ask some questions. Take note of how you are received. Here’s where you might get a shock – and not for the reasons you might think.
A lot of great expat enclaves around the world are there for a very good reason. The local people are warm and welcoming. On a first meeting you might even get invited to a wedding or other family celebration. Even if you decline, several days later the same people will remember you and call you by name.
When this first happened to me, I wondered if they had some hidden motive. Were they going to try to sell me something, or trick me in some way? Surely, people in Belize, Mexico, and Thailand aren’t this friendly to strangers. Yes, they are. And this is the reason these communities draw people from all over the world. It’s life the way it should be. Most of us have forgotten or never experienced this.
Respect is the Universal Currency
The locals in expat communities aren’t impressed by a Rolex watch or the 5-star hotel you’re staying in. They’ve seen it all anyway, and they aren’t interested in living that way. Usually, they already live in a paradise that you’re just hoping you can join.
Like people anywhere else, they will judge you based upon how you treat them and the people around them. And in small communities, word travels at the speed of sound. Get gruff with the girl at the cash register in the morning and you’ll wonder why that afternoon the bartender is annoyed at the way you spoke to his neighbor’s niece.
But if you treat people with respect and show your humility as a newcomer who appreciates their help, you might be very pleasantly shocked at how well you are received and how quickly you make new friends.
Don’t Buy Anything Expensive
If everything goes well, you might get “the fever.”
You meet with expats that a year or ten ago were in the exact situation you are in now. They say, “Make the jump and never look back, and you’ll be glad you did.” You see how people live in a place you consider to be paradise – they have great friends, laugh every day, and enjoy a healthy, stress-free lifestyle. They feel sorry for the folks still stuck back home.
The joy of realizing that your dream is within reach can be intoxicating. Many a person has gotten “the fever” at this point and impulsively bought an overpriced condo or building lot or small business as a way to get started on the dream immediately.
My advice is: don’t do that. Remember that real-estate rental place you visited? Renting is a great way to get to know a place on a deeper level. Renting lets you live like a local. It lets you try before you buy. And performing due diligence on a business purchase is best done after the fever has broken and you can look at the numbers with a cool, rational head.
There is a better reality and a better life waiting for those bold enough to discover it. Do a little reconnaissance and discover yours.
There is a risk-free way to get a taste of expat life in any country. Pay a vacation visit and talk to the locals and the resident expats about living there full-time or part of the year. You’ll be amazed at what you learn once people know you’re not just another tourist from the cruise ship or mega resort.
Pete Sisco is a digital nomad, author, lifetime entrepreneur, and an expat with a passion for individual freedom. He and his wife have lived in a dozen countries. For Pete’s advice on building durable online income as a path to independence and freedom, visit his site: http://www.resilientpersonalfreedom.me/about-us/