The contingencies of expat life are myriad, fluid, unique, and occasionally blessed with exception. While contending with a mind-boggling number of challenges in your new home, the life you’ve “left behind” doesn’t end as much as it lingers in the distant background. Today’s digital nomad may be free to roam the planet, but somewhere, someplace, everybody needs a point of return – a reference, if nothing more than to gauge how far you’ve traveled.
The Expat “Death and Taxes”
Out of all the potential outcomes and scenarios, there is one thing I know about expat life with absolute certainty. This is the expat “death and taxes”:
No matter where you are now, no matter where you plan to be next year, as far as your personal paper trail is concerned, the mail keeps coming. The mail doesn’t care. And this is not a dig at the U.S. Postal Service, either. The onus is on you, the expat, to make sure the mail finds you, not the other way around. Unfortunately, this is something many of my expat associates failed to consider, and ultimately, learned the hardest way possible.
One of the greatest challenges of my expat life was dealing with all my stuff – 40 years’ worth of personal possessions – back in California. Prior to departing for Asia, I sold or donated the extraneous items like TVs, appliances, and sundry household items. The “keeper” items were put in a U-Haul storage space, which, at $100 a month wasn’t cheap, but I didn’t have any other option. It took over seven years and $10,000 for me to finally say “enough is enough” and just got rid of everything.
Now, in order to rent the storage space, you sign a contract, and for that, you need a credit card to set-up automatic monthly payments; a credit card ostensibly requires some kind of bank, too. Obviously, getting right to the point, you can’t manage any kind of home-based financial situation without a mailing address. Even PayPal.
Though it may manifest in a number of situations, the brutal, undeniable truth is: an expat needs a physical address back home for exactly this type of correspondence. Fortunately, U-Haul has a fairly user-friendly website and you can manage your account online with a minimum of paper. But it couldn’t have happened without an address.
For you, it may not be a storage space; it might be a legal document; it could be something you bought on Amazon that doesn’t ship to your new home country; or… The point is: an address is more than mail. Much more.
The Need for Hard Copies
We’re at the point in the digital age where a healthy chunk of life can be transacted online. The potential of the Internet may be close to infinite, but there are some things it cannot do, yet, and one of them is to create matter that exists in the physical universe. As long as there is a need for official, authenticated paper documentation, i.e. hard copies, as well as plastic-based consumer financial tools used in person-to-person transactions, there will be a need for mail service.*
* I imagine that sometime in the not-so-distant future, every home will be equipped with a 3D-printer and you’ll be able to print credit cards and identification directly from the appropriate organization’s website.
In some cases, the need for a legitimate address is absolute. For instance, Americans, when applying for or renewing a passport, you must list a permanent address* within the U.S. (Line 19, Form DS-11, U.S. Passport Application), and P.O. boxes are not acceptable.
* P.S. The permanent address is different from the mailing address; so, don’t panic. You can still have your new passport mailed to you in a foreign country.
Meanwhile, if you have a driver’s license, you’re probably going to want to keep that active. In some states, the renewal process can be done via internet and regular mail. And this is what I meant about ‘making matter that exists in the physical universe’; that driver’s license has to get into your possession in some way, shape, or form. Until there’s a way to print it out from the comfort of your desktop computer, mail is the only viable delivery option.
Several years ago, while applying for my son’s Consular Registry of Birth Abroad (Form D-2029), I needed hard copies of my college transcripts to bolster my documentation for Proof of Physical Presence in the U.S.
Coincidentally, I had recently exhausted my supply of original transcripts*, so, I first went to the university website, which wouldn’t allow me to use a foreign address for delivery. Then I spoke with a clerk in the bursar’s office who said the school doesn’t mail the transcripts to overseas addresses. (And she refused to explain why.) Thus, if I didn’t have a U.S. address, I would have had to do the whole thing in-person.
* For the professional expat, official notarized copies of college transcripts are like ice cubes and rolls of toilet paper – you can never have too many of them.
The list of physical presence, mail, and hard copy contingencies could go on.
Ideally, you have a friend or family member who’s willing to: (A) let you use their address; (B) collect your mail; (C) sift through the riff-raff for “important stuff”; and (D) depending upon the urgency of said mail, once a month or so, forward it to your foreign address.
Or, you could just pay $40 bucks a month to a mail-forwarding service like my provider, USAtome.com, which also gives you a legitimate home address in the U.S., while sparing your friends and family the burden of being your personal mail carrier.
You Have Mail, Trust Me
In a perfect world, you could simply call up every institution in your life, financial and/or otherwise, and assign every account to the foreign address. Go ahead and try that route; you’ll quickly find obstacles in your way. For one thing, many computer databases don’t handle non-U.S. zip codes. Additionally, some foreign addresses read like 16th century map coordinates. From personal experience, out of nearly a dozen home-based accounts (banking, insurance, etc.) only two companies, Citibank and Wells Fargo, have managed to successfully integrate my foreign address with my mail.
One of my friends back home said, “Yeah, well, I’ve gone paperless on all my [accounts], so I don’t see why you’d need a mail-forwarding service.”
I replied, “Paperless is great until your main debit card expires and the bank tries to send you a new card.”
Furthermore, you can’t apply for a credit card and myriad other programs from outside the U.S. The only way around it is… I think you get the point. And in closing, I’d like to note that the I.R.S. is probably the only major institution in the U.S. that doesn’t care where you are. All paper-based tax forms are designed to accommodate foreign addresses. Go figure.