Over 6 million Americans, not including military and government personnel, live abroad in more than 160 different countries. Americans who live outside the U.S. are not counted in the U.S. census, so this is an estimate based on limited data; however what is known is that the number of American citizens who choose to live in another country is rising steadily.
Reasons for making such a move vary, including job opportunities, lower costs of living in some countries, government-provided benefits in others, and simply the chance to experience a different way of life. Whatever the motivation, all Americans living abroad face certain challenges. Even after the job, place to live, and work visas are sorted out, making a life in one country and remaining a citizen of another can make life complicated at times.
Voter turnout by Americans living overseas has increased steadily in recent years, and overseas Americans have historically had higher election participation rates than their stateside counterparts. This has been facilitated by recent legislation, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) of 2009, which made the voting process easier for American citizens in other countries. MOVE allows for voting materials to be transmitted electronically, which cut the time voters needed to return their ballots in half. It also legislates that states send out ballots in a timely fashion, at least 45 days before the election, and prohibits states from rejecting a marked ballot solely on the basis of a missing notary signature, paper size, and other restrictions.
Just because you are making a living elsewhere, don’t assume Uncle Sam doesn’t want his cut. The U.S. is the only country that subjects its citizens to double taxation if they are living and working outside of the country. Americans working overseas are allowed to exclude the first $91,400 of foreign-earned income, which is sufficient for many, but for those earning over that amount, they will find themselves paying taxes on their income in both their country of residence and the U.S.
In fact, tax and banking regulations for Americans living abroad can be so complex that some are choosing to give up their American citizenship rather than deal with the system.
Regulations governing driver’s licenses can be a problem for Americans abroad. The ability to buy or rent a vehicle, and where and when a U.S. state driver’s license is valid for driving, differs by country and with that country’s agreement (or lack of it) with the U.S. state that issued the license. An International Driving Permit may be sufficient, or American citizens may have to apply for a license to drive in their country of residence.
Having a Baby
Many people assume that if a child is born overseas to an American parent, the baby automatically has American citizenship. This is actually only true in certain circumstances, depending on where they live, their employer, and whether on not they are married. If both parents are married and are U.S. citizens, the child is considered a citizen at birth. Otherwise, various residency requirements come into effect. The State Department recommends as soon as possible after the birth, the U.S. citizen parent should contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate to verify their child’s citizenship status and fill out the necessary forms.
Marriage, Divorce, and Death
Marriages abroad are subject to the residency requirements of the country in which the marriage is to be performed. There is almost always a lengthy waiting period. In general, marriages which are legally performed and valid abroad are also legally valid in the United States.
The validity of divorces obtained overseas will vary according to the requirements of an individual’s state of residence. There is no treaty in force between the United States and any country on enforcement of judgments, including recognition of foreign divorces.
When an American dies abroad, the Bureau of Consular Affairs must locate and inform the next-of-kin. The Bureau of Consular Affairs provides guidance on how to make arrangements for local burial or return of the remains to the U.S., and issues a Consular Report of Death of a U.S. Citizen Abroad once the foreign death certificate has been issued. Since foreign death certificates may not be recognized in the U.S. for estate and insurance settlement issues, the official Consular Report is necessary.
Who Can Help?
The State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) can help the State Department and U.S. Consulates in foreign countries to to better assist American residents in foreign countries, in cases of emergencies such as lost passports, injuries or death, natural disasters, and civil unrest. Registering with STEP also makes it easier for consular officers in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to contact Americans abroad during an emergency–including situations where family or friends in the U.S. are trying to get in touch with important news.
STEP simply allows the State Department to keep track of where an American abroad is living, and how best to contact someone. Registration is not required, but if you’re thinking about moving overseas it can’t hurt to make sure your government knows where you are… just in case.