Leaving the USA? Here’s What You Need to Know First

Leaving the USA for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, CanadaDuring the primary season and the runup to the US Presidential election, lots of people, on both sides, were saying, “if X wins, I’m moving to (pick a country).”

Some countries actually got in on the act. Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia (that’s Canada), advertised itself as the place to go after a Trump victory. It’s seen tourism surge…

Whether or not your overseas move is politically motivated, there are some things you need to know before you pack your bags and hop on a plane, train, or automobile.

Americans are spoiled, because we live in an enormous country, and we can get in a car and go anywhere in that country. No borders, no checkpoints, no restrictions. If I live in New York, I can drive to California and settle there.

That doesn’t work outside the US.

You can’t just enter another country, find a job, buy a house, etc. You need to have some sort of legal standing.

It’s called a Residence Visa. They come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some very basic requirements that every country insists on, no matter where you’re from.

Here’s what you need before you can even think about settling down in another country.

#1. A US Passport

According to the US State Department, only a measly 36% of US citizens hold a valid passport. If you’re one of that number, great.

If not, that’s your first step. You can find complete instructions, required fees, etc. on the official State Department website here.

#2. A Clean Criminal Record

You know all those headlines you saw a few months back when Candidate Trump declared that all Mexicans are criminals and rapists?  (They’re not, of course, but that’s another story.) Well, no country (including the US) allows criminals to just enter their borders to start a new life.

Before you can get permission to reside in another country, they want to be sure you won’t be a threat to their citizens. That means, an FBI background check.

It’s a fairly straightforward process. Complete instructions are here, on the official FBI website.

#3. Proof You Can Support Yourself

All the talk in the US about “illegals” collecting welfare and generally sucking at the public teat? Well, guess what. . . other countries don’t want Americans coming along and taking advantage of their safety nets either. So before you can obtain a residence visa, you’ll need to satisfy your adoptive country that you have the means to support yourself.

Details vary from country to country, but generally you’ll need to prove you have:

  • a job (you’ll need an offer and documentation to prove it, and the appropriate work permit!)
  • self-employment income
  • a pension (including Social Security)
  • substantial investment in the country

If you’re retired, some countries have special residence visas specifically for retirees. Income requirements vary hugely, from a low of $600/month (Nicaragua) to $2,000/month (Malaysia) and more.

A Residence Visa

Once you have a passport, proof of financial ability, and a clean background check, you’ll be able to apply for a residence visa. Every country’s requirements are different. Some, like Portugal, insist you apply before you leave the US. Others let you enter the country on a tourist or temporary visa, then apply for residency once you’re there.

In many countries, you’ll need the services of an attorney or professional expediter.

You’ll find details of a country’s requirements on its Immigration website — just search for the country and the word “consulate” to find it. Or check out my book — Getting Out of the USA: Easy First Steps for Moving Abroad.

Not sure where you want to go yet? Here’s some help in choosing the best country for you.


  1. Doug Banks says:

    Susanna it’s great to hear that you are on the mend health wise. It is good to see you on line again. We live in Australia and still want to move to Panama.We are going to Panama in April for a month to look at where we would like live, so any advise you can give us would be much appreciated.
    Doug & Mary Banks

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks, Doug & Mary.

      My best advice about Panama is already on the website – most important single piece of advice I have? Talk to everyone you come in contact with. It’s the best way to find a place to live, the best places to eat, visit, etc. And it’s never too soon to start making friends in your new home town.

      • Well put! I’d add put-up a positive attitude towards most everything you can; become astute! Attitude means a lot in life, every place you go.

        Thanks Susanna,
        Mjc Oregon

  2. Gerald Zgodinski says:

    Does anyone know if a negative FBI background check needs to be apostilled as part of the documents necessary to live in Panama?

    • FutureExpat says:

      By “negative” do you mean clean? Or do you mean there’s something not good on it. If the former, then there’s a process for how your documents are handled. If the latter, they’re unlikely to grant residency. . .

      If you’re going for a pensionado visa, you must have a lawyer, so get advice from him/her about translation/apostille questions.

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