Dateline: Blackpool, United Kingdom After thirty years as an expatriate (with twenty years in one country) I’ve discovered there are basically three types of expats living in every corner of the world. The fact is, there is no right or wrong way to be an expat. It’s about freedom, and freedom is about living the way you see fit, rather than the way you are forced to live. If a certain flavor of expat life makes you happy, then it’s the right choice for you, even though another expat else might reasonably choose something different. Freedom means a ‘one size fits all’ lifestyle is a thing of the past.
One and done
Some people know with certainty where they would like to live if they could. I know a guy in Amsterdam who has been vacationing every year in Turkey for a long time. He loves it there and when he retires he already knows exactly where he’s going to move. He’ll make one move from the Netherlands to Turkey and that will be the end of the matter. A good friend of mine visited a Caribbean country to scuba dive. She loved it so much she went back to Florida, sold all her stuff and moved onto a small island with about 1,000 people. That was thirty years ago and she’s never left. She’s as much a part of that island – and its 10,000 people today – as any native-born resident is. Everybody knows her and she knows them. She’s the picture of happiness. Some people do careful, detailed research before making what they hope is their only move as an expat. Others just feel it in their hearts. Either way, the goal is to find a new home away from home and to dig in and make it an enduring lifestyle that offers new opportunities, relationships and comforts. This option is best suited to those with either the ability to legally work or operate a business in the new country, or those with an existing pension or investment income that makes them financially independent.
For some of us, travel has a way of getting into our blood. Travelers often use the metaphor of being ‘bitten by the bug’ because they enjoy travel for its own sake and not necessarily as a means to an end. Many expats consider themselves to be perpetual travelers, always entering a country as a tourist then moving on when the limits of a tourist visa are reached. An American tourist can spend six months in the UK, move over to Ireland for 90 days then spend another 90 days in any of 25 other European Union countries, thus never leaving Europe year after year. For the tourist, Europe has a lot to offer. (For a business owner, it has much less to offer, however.) If Asia is preferred, a westerner could also spend three months in Hong Kong, then three months in Malaysia, then move on to any one of many wonderful countries in the region. Brits can spend six months at a time in Hong Kong; no one really cares. Asia is a big winner in the category of low living expenses. A person can live very nicely on a relative pittance in South East Asia. My wife and I have lived for months in a beautiful hotel suite with daily maid service and nothing but fantastic restaurant meals for around two grand a month. A couple of our kids in their twenties have done it for less than half that. The same principle applies all over the world. With any top-tier passport, a person could legally travel for the rest of his life by moving from country to country as a tourist. Most countries treat tourists quite well; better than their own citizens in most cases. The police are less likely to hassle you, you aren’t expected to register with tax agencies, and in the areas that live on tourist income you usually get treated as a welcome and preferred customer. A perpetual traveler has the ability to pick the cherries and visit places at a time of year that suits him. He can pick the best weather, or during a big festival, or in the off season when he gets the beaches and hiking trails to himself. And instead of seeing it for a few days vacation before going back to his office cubicle, he can live like a local for months at a time. This option is best suited to someone who is either already financially independent or has what I call a nano-economy of his own so he can make money from any place in the world that has an internet connection. The internet has enabled an explosion of expats all over the world, particularly in the category of perpetual traveler. Websites like AirBnB and Zilyo make booking a place to stay for a month or two as easy as booking a flight to get there.
Selecting a home base
Speaking as a person who has tried both of the above options, there comes a time when an expat might be inclined to seek a sort of happy medium between them. One move to only one country seemed like a good idea but the reality was that ‘travel bug’ never went away and that meant moving on. But after six or seven years of perpetual travel there are certain realities, like standing in another hotel lobby check-in line, packing a suitcase with no more than 20 kilos of belongings, or being searched by another low-IQ goon before getting on a plane, that can begin to take their toll. This is the point where many expats begin to craft a hybrid option. I call this option Home Base, and the way it works is to pick a favorite spot somewhere in the world and either purchase or long-term rent a home there. This is the place where you can accumulate a few more belongings beyond that which mere luggage permit. You can make certain you have access to all the amenities you’ve been missing. Things like 100MB broadband, a shower than can maintain water temperature for the entire operation, that 32-inch retina computer monitor that won’t fit in a suitcase, and sumptuous furniture can be very welcome relief after years of making do with hotels, rental condos, serviced apartments and guest houses all over the world. Even as a tourist, it is easily feasible to stay in one of many countries for six months of the year as a home base. By having one location that you own or control, it’s possible to make a comfortable home you want and still enjoy frequent travel to other favored places in the world. Even with this added stability, a person still qualifies as a full-time tourist and an expat. It’s a nice mix: comfy home when you want it, rewarding travel on tap.
Being an expat is about having freedom and choices not available to other people. There is great flexibility in being an expat, ranging from never leaving a new country, to constantly traveling to new and interesting places, and even blending those two options. While this lifestyle has been available for centuries to the very wealthy, it is now available to the average person.