Thanks to leaps in technology, social media and the expanded mobile economy, more people are leaving home for good. Here’s how they do it.
Three years ago, Chuck Burgess and Kerstin Michaelsen were comfortably set up in New York City with good careers, a home in Manhattan and another in the Hamptons. But they yearned for something more. Not more in the sense of material things, but in the satisfaction derived from new adventures and new lands. They fantasized about moving abroad — an idea that seemed more attractive as the couple, both 50, settled into midlife.
Ultimately it was a “heightened sense of our mortality,” Mr. Burgess said, that gave them the prod they needed, after three of their parents died within three years. “We didn’t want to miss our chance to live life as fully as possible.”
After a year of planning and divesting themselves of properties, their car and all but the bare necessities, they boarded a plane in May 2018 for six months of travel. In December they landed in Barcelona, without speaking a word of Spanish.
Then they stayed.
Mr. Burgess said the couple had grown eager “to put down roots and focus on how to spend the second half of our adult lives.” Spain’s lower cost of living has helped them make the transition, but so has the technology that enables them to conduct borderless business — he as a communications strategist, she as a graphic designer.
“We tried out a few options and have discovered the ones that work best for us,” Mr. Burgess said, noting that it was important to convey a local presence and availability for both their U.S. and Spanish clients.
In the past decade, quantum leaps in technology, social media and the mobile economy have combined to the benefit of expatriates like Mr. Burgess and Ms. Michaelsen. To conduct their international lives, the couple use Google Voice for seamless transferring of their U.S. and Spanish phone numbers. They use TransferWise and Xoom to move funds between their banks in both countries. And they use video conferencing for intercontinental business meetings. Their ability to stay was helped by Ms. Michaelsen having a passport through her parents, who were German citizens; Mr. Burgess has applied for residency as the spouse of a European Union citizen.
More Americans of all ages and stations are leaving the country for a multitude of reasons, be they political, economic, professional, romantic. “The whole field has changed dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Dan Prescher, senior editor at International Living magazine, which has covered the expatriate experience for 40 years. “The Internet has changed everything for everybody, and it’s made being an expat a lot easier.”
According to the U.S. State Department, an estimated 9 million U.S. citizens live overseas, with 20,690,491 U.S. passports issued in fiscal year 2019 — a 47 percent spike from five years earlier.
“It used to be just retirees living off of fixed income and Social Security, so you moved to the cheapest possible place,” Mr. Prescher said. “But now almost any career is transportable in some way, shape or form. You can move to a place with great weather, where the cost of living is half of where you are now and you can still do your job. The synergies are obvious and very compelling for younger people.” With dedicated services dispensing practical information, social media platforms providing virtual support villages, and remote live-work communities catering to globe-trotters, anyone can pack up and leave in 2020.
Rise in Online Resources More than 8.5 million unique Facebook users are now part of at least one of the 8,000 active English-language groups devoted to expats. One group, Girl Gone International, evolved into a stand-alone resource for women travelers, with 300,000 members. The site is entirely run by 600 volunteers in more than 200 cities. Anne Scott founded the group in 2010 when, after 10 moves in 10 years, she found herself “in a bad place in a new city.”
“I knew the solution was community, but none existed,” she said. “I really felt like I was all alone in the world, and I knew it wasn’t just me living like this.”
Ms. Scott, 39, said that in a 2019 survey of the group’s members under 27, 40 percent of respondents said they were settling abroad for two or more years, and more than 46 percent said they felt lonely at multiple points overseas. Now her volunteer-led communities are “spreading friendship far and wide, so no woman has to ever feel alone.”
On the expanding landscape of resources dedicated to expatriates, perhaps the most comprehensive is InterNations, which was founded in 2007 by two German entrepreneurs and now counts 3.7 million members in 168 countries. A founder, Malte Zeeck, 43, said Americans make up about 10 percent of the group’s total membership, the largest national contingency. The platform provides advice on locations and a portfolio of relocation tools, from visa assistance and housing searches to settling-in services including advice on local banking, insurance and tax registration.
“Our vision is really to be every expat’s best friend and accompany them on every step of the journey,” Mr. Zeeck said.
Each year, the company conducts an Expat Insider Survey, ranking the best and worst cities for emigrants based on categories like quality of life, settling in, health care and family life. The 2019 survey, with more than 20,000 respondents, found that Taiwan was the most popular location. Justin Shields, 39, an engineer for a semiconductor manufacturer from Northern Virginia, worked in the country on assignment twice before moving there full-time in 2018. He cited friendliness, the food, health care and recreation options as the reasons he enjoyed living in Taipei, the capital city. “Living here has definitely exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I would be completely happy to stay here forever.”
Love and Family Mr. Zeeck said data from InterNations’s 2019 survey showed that love was the most common reason for people to move to another country. That was the case for Ebony Buehler, an American management consultant, and Marcel Buehler, a German visual artist. They met in Germany while Ms. Buehler was on a business fellowship, and ended up spending time in both New York and Germany before settling in Berlin.
Though it was his dream to live among artists in Manhattan, Mr. Buehler, 50, said, “I was starting to lose my contacts and was not building them at the same rate in New York.” After a year and a half there, Ms. Buehler, 38, was able to transfer back to Germany with her husband, and now works in an office for Ernst & Young.
The Buehlers now have a 2-year-old daughter, Luna, who was born in Germany, and are mindful of rearing a multilingual, multicultural child when choosing schools and activities. On the internet, there are groups that can help, like Families in Global Transition, a nonprofit that supports families through conferences and online resources.
Mr. Buehler’s mother is Argentine and he has Polish and Russian heritage, and Ms. Buehler grew up in a Cajun region of Louisiana and the border city of El Paso, Texas. She said being African-American adds another layer to her expat experience.
“Marcel has always seen himself as coming from many cultures, but my only culture is this one of being a person of color from the United States,” she said. “I realize Luna’s going to have a very different life growing up here and her background, even as a German, will be very different from ours. She will be my port to a deeper level of German culture.”
Millennials Make Tracks Today’s digital nomads are dominated by 20- and 30-somethings who are “exposed to other cultures much more than previous generations were, so it’s natural for them to want to travel as a natural part of their career trajectory,” said Katia Vlachos, an expat transition coach and author of “A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment.”
Taking the digital nomad concept a step further are those who live out of a suitcase full-time, having experiences as diverse as apprenticing with Peruvian shamans (such as Nora Dunn, a Canadian known as the “Professional Hobo,” who has been on the road for 12 years), or documenting European vineyards, as Matthew Horkey, 37, and Charine Tan, 33, do for their website, ExoticWineTravel.com.
The couple met in Ms. Tan’s native Singapore while Mr. Horkey, Korean-born but raised in Michigan, was setting up a local chiropractor office. In 2015, they took a travel sabbatical to pursue their mutual interest in wine. That turned into a business of promoting lesser-known wine regions through writing and consulting. In their five years of travel, they have covered vineyards in more than 30 countries, published books and traveled to speaking engagements.
“Our aim is to build a Lonely Planet-like platform for wine lovers,” Mr. Horkey said. He and Ms. Tan use Airbnb and other online rental sources as they travel. They also registered as verified pet- and house sitters, exchanging those services for free housing.
They each travel with two bags, plus their equipment. “You have limited options and you just have to make combinations to look like you have different stuff,” Mr. Horkey said. “It’s actually quite liberating.”
If trekking abroad for long stretches was once was considered the domain of the retired and the pre-professional, the modern expat machinery has opened the door to everyone in between. The average age of InterNations’s members is 41, up from 38 in 2015, a company spokeswoman said.
For Heather Markel, a divorce in her late 40s helped spur her dream of traveling the world. A former telecom manager turned life coach in New York, she asked herself, “Why am I waiting until retirement to live? There was no career on the map that made joy.”
In early 2018, Ms. Markel assessed her savings, sold some stock and left for Costa Rica for what she thought would be a few months. Realizing it was cheaper to travel than to maintain a New York apartment, she did the ultimate Marie Kondo and gave up everything that didn’t spark joy, including the apartment.
She is now 100 percent location independent, living in a variety of housing, from Airbnb rentals to hostels and budget hotels she books online. She house-sits and stays with friends. Along the way, she consults expat groups on Facebook for advice and community, as well as government sites for practical information on visas and vaccinations.
“I am supporting myself by a very firm per diem budget to make my money last as long as possible,” Ms. Markel said. “I work hard to make it keep going.”
She writes and provides business- and life-coaching services through her company, BullBuster Business Coaching. She also uses her Twitter account to help fellow expats navigate foreign locales, and founded the Expat Coach Association and Directory to help other location-transition coaches like herself market their businesses.
“This is not a life for those who are running away,” she said. “It’s for those who are running toward something.”
That was the goal for Marybeth Bentwood, who relocated from New York to Las Condes, Chile, with her Chilean partner in July 2019, wanting to connect their 6-year-daughter, Elisa, to her father’s culture. She also wanted to remove her from a society where school shootings were “becoming normalized.”
Ms. Bentwood, 50, focuses on showing her daughter her new world, building her relationships with Chilean relatives and working on her own business. A former public-relations executive in New York with expertise in the Chilean hospitality industry, Ms. Bentwood established a lifestyle brand-strategy agency in Santiago, tapping a network she created through previous visits. She’s able to traverse virtual business borders with ease, with most of her clients focused on the U.S. market.
“I don’t need to be in the U.S. on a day-to-day basis,” she said. Ms. Bentwood travels stateside four times a year (she is still on a tourist visa while she awaits her work visa) to reconnect with peers and have business meetings, but otherwise conducts her business online via video platforms like Zoom and FaceTime.
“It’s increased the quality of my life exponentially and I didn’t even realize I was lacking that while living in New York,” she said.
“There’s a rare retiree — even 20 years ago — who would just move to a place and lie in a hammock,” said Mr. Prescher of International Living. “It’s not just a paradise where you spend the rest of your life buried in the sand, it’s a movement of people who retire and have at least another one, two or possibly three life stages to go through.”
Lee Duberman and Richard Fink, former restaurateurs in Vermont — Ms. Duberman, 64, is a chef and Mr. Fink, 65, a sommelier — had spent several winters in the colonial-era city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, while their restaurant was closed. The idea of relocating came one season when they helped a local restaurant owner one night a week and found a receptive crowd.
Though the seed was planted, “We knew we would have to figure out a way to make some money, and didn’t really have a strong idea of how to do that,” Mr. Fink said. Meanwhile, Vermont was becoming more expensive, and Mr. Fink said they “saw the writing on the wall” after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“We were sitting in one of our favorite cafes the night after the election and started looking through a local bilingual newspaper. We saw a place for sale and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this now,’” he recalled. With local mortgages difficult to obtain, Ms. Duberman’s father helped them finance the purchase; he lives with them part of the year.
They divested themselves of their Vermont property and moved to San Miguel with their 16-year-old son, who finished high school online (their older son is married and lives in the U.S.). The family has temporary residence that will roll over into permanent in three years. Ms. Duberman has a work permit that allows them to operate as Casa Papaya San Miguel, a bed-and-breakfast and dinner club. The couple still has time for leisure and getting to know their community.
“We can do theater, travel a bit, volunteer, really fill our lives with a variety of interests that we weren’t able to pursue when we worked full time while raising kids and struggling to pay the higher bills in the U.S.,” Mr. Fink said. The lower cost of living, coupled with their savings, made it possible to start the business.
“We are not saving anything, but we’re healthy and I am confident that I can work until I can retire in six years,” Ms. Duberman said.
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