How to Become a Global Citizen

It is absolutely the most bizarre thing we encountered while preparing for a life on the road. We intended to live nowhere; flitting from place to place according to whim. We’d be residents of the world with no fixed address to call home. There was only one small problem. As American citizens we needed a physical domicile even if we never planned to live there.

It isn’t a requirement listed in specific law as much as it is a byproduct of our decentralized government. If we want to vote, get a driver’s license, a bank account, register a car, even obtain health insurance, it isn’t enough to be a U.S. citizen, we need a local address too. Even if we desired none of those things, a local government somewhere is going to claim us as taxpayers. We can’t avoid paying by saying we don’t really live anywhere; at least as long as we value our freedom.

So what is a vagabond to do? The place we call “home” changes zip code every couple of days or weeks. To whom do we owe taxes? Where do we renew our driver’s license?

How do vagabonds like us get state driver’s licenses?

Fortunately, we’re not the first people in the world to become perpetual nomads. A number of companies exist to give the fulltime traveler a fixed address. They operate as basic mail forwarding services but, unlike P.O. box addresses which can’t be used to open bank accounts, the unique street addresses these services provide can be legitimate legal “domiciles.” You essentially become a resident of the same state and county as your mail forwarding address.

Companies that cater to fulltime travelers often provide additional services as well. Help in efficiently navigating through the DMV or registering to vote can be a godsend for out-of-towners who don’t have the luxury of simply returning to the proper government office if their documentation isn’t in perfect order.

Access to a knowledgeable contact person is also invaluable in dealing with quirky local rules. In South Dakota applicants for new driver’s licenses must prove they stayed at least one night in the state. (Handy tip: bring your hotel or campground receipt to the DMV to prove you’ve been in town for more than 24 hours.) We also learned the sequencing of things is different from state to state. In Texas you need to register your vehicle and have it locally insured before you can apply for a driver’s license, in other states you need your license to register your vehicle. It sure helps to have someone on the ground who knows all the local rules.

Not all domiciles are created equally

Many companies claim to provide legal street addresses with all the benefits of a physical address, but be sure to do your own due diligence. Our plans to use a South Dakota service were upended when three different independent brokers told us we couldn’t use the mail forwarding address to obtain health insurance in the state. That discovery cost us two airline tickets we had already purchased to fly to South Dakota to set up residency there. (Turning lemons into lemonade, we took the flight anyway and ended up with a surprisingly fun weekend in Omaha, NE.)

After the South Dakota mishap, we retooled our plans and signed up with the Escapees RV Club in Livingston, Texas. We take some comfort from the fact that Texas courts have twice supported the legal residency status of Escapees. A lawsuit in 2000 had sought to strip club members of their voting rights because they didn’t physically live at the address. A county court and an appeals court ruled in Escapees favor. These rulings don’t guarantee we’ll never have issues with the legality of our chosen “domicile” but we do feel better knowing the addresses have thus far resisted challenge. 

Home is where your heart intent is

The concept of legal domicile is a tricky one, and is something every perpetual traveler should familiarize themselves with. For people like us, where we live is as much a state of mind as a matter of fact. That fuzziness opens the door to issues “normal” people never have to deal with. The least concerning is the possibility that another cash strapped state or local government will claim us as one of their own, with all the associated past due taxes, fees and penalties owed. More troubling is the possibility that our health insurance provider could use our vagabonding as an excuse to drop coverage, claiming that we misrepresented our state of residency on our insurance application. Fear of losing our health insurance in this way, after one of us became chronically ill, is the primary reason we changed plans and became Texas residents.

Our only defense against these potential challenges is to consolidate all of our affairs under one address in attempt to demonstrate our intention to “live” in a specific state and county. Folks who use multiple addresses to cherry pick low insurance rates in one state, low taxes in another, and low vehicle registration fees in yet another may save a couple of bucks in the short-run, but open themselves up to some potentially nasty legal challenges. That is not our practice, or our recommendation.

Why “Mom and Dad’s” House Doesn’t Work (for us)

A common question we get is why we just don’t use a relative’s address? The answer is that we see several problems, ranging in severity from mild to fatal, with tying our residency to someone else.

Our first concern is that our travels are open ended. We really don’t want to burden our family and friends with the chore of operating as our mail forwarding service in perpetuity. We’d probably feel differently if we were planning to return in several months or a year, but we don’t.

A second concern is that not all states are equally beneficial to full-time travelers. Simply choosing a state because that is where Mom lives could mean paying far more in taxes, insurance, and fees than you need to. It could also mean not really being considered a legal state resident, which might have some unfortunate consequences.

Using Mom’s address also means that you technically move if she moves. If she changes states, you’ll have to reapply for health insurance with no guarantee you can get a policy. The disaster scenario here is that you’ve developed a non-insurable health condition. Now what? Go without health insurance? Trade in your vagabonding lifestyle to live in Mom’s old house? No thanks.

(Update: The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” effects many of the healthcare related issues discussed in this article. This link leads to our discussion of how this healthcare law impacts pereptual travelers like us.)

Places to set up residency

Here is a short list of mail forwarding services we’ve discovered in our research. Most of these cater to fulltime RVers, but they should work equally well for the global nomad. Of these, we only have personal experience with Escapees. The others are listed for informational purposes only.

Escapees RV Club – Texas
Alternative Resources – South Dakota
America’s Mailbox – South Dakota

MyRVmail – Florida
Earth Class Mail – Multiple locations

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57 Comments on “How to Become a Global Citizen”

  1. Alexandra November 14, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Yes that does sound serious and sometimes difficult but it also sounds quite possible and I would want to congratulate you on leading the life that you like.

    That’s one beautiful planet and sometimes it feels so obscene that people can’t just live where they want, even ( and especially) if they want to live in many different places.

  2. binnotes November 14, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Great photo of the Louvres!

    • Brian November 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      Thank you . . . and good eye identifying the location.

  3. Rev. Paul McKay November 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Will have to remember this if and when I ever pull up stakes and go full-fledged free spirit. This blog has been a most interesting find, BTW. Good stuff..

  4. travelingmad November 14, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    This is great information. Congratulations on your travels.
    I will keep this in mind for probably 10 years from now when I’m ready to travel like you two!
    Thanks for sharing! Bonne courage!

  5. Tin Roof Press November 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    I hate paperwork and bureaucracy so much I try and avoid going to places that has reams of it.

    But then, i’m not much of a traveler. I hate commuting. I wish I could teleport somewhere instead.

    • Brian November 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

      I agree. In this case, though, it is mostly the same bureaucracy you have to deal with at home, it’s just made a little bit more complicated by the fact that we’re trying to do something different. One thing we’ve learned is that life is easier when you do things the way everyone else does. Everything is set up to accommodate the majority. Those of us who deliberately put themselves in the minority have to be prepared for slightly tougher sledding.

  6. Kristina November 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    It is lots to consider before taking off :D Beautiful picture!! :)

    • Brian November 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

      It’s true. There is more to consider than we originally realized. But it is so worth it.

  7. Carol Deminski November 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Hi Brian and Shannon,

    I hope you’re doing well. I liked this post because you share some important considerations for those about to take the plunge. I was also surprised there are several companies catering to these particular needs – it made me wonder how many people are leading similar lives to yours. It’s nice to think it’s more than just a small handful.

    Interestingly, when I read your title “How to Become a Global Citizen” and I read the first three sentences of your post:

    “It is absolutely the most bizarre thing we encountered while preparing for a life on the road. We intended to live nowhere; flitting from place to place according to whim. We’d be residents of the world with no fixed address to call home.”

    I thought you were going to write about what it’s like to come in contact with a variety of people and communities while you are on the road. You may not reside in one place long, but invariably you are meeting people and finding out about those folks and their towns.

    I’m still relatively new to reading your blog, but do you talk about that too? Just curious!

    Carol

    • Alexandra November 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

      I’d second that! :)

    • Brian November 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

      Hi Carol,
      We haven’t written much about the people we’ve met. I think part of that is due to the fact that since we started writing the blog we’ve only traveled in the U.S. And although we have noticed some regional cultural differences, they really aren’t that large. I suspect we may end up writing a bit more about people and culture when we dip into Central America this winter, but who knows? I guess you’re just going to have to follow along and find out when we do. ;-)

  8. hswinson November 15, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    Wow, I guess I’d never considered the logistics of being a permanent traveler with no official address! Good to know there is a solution to that problem, though. Glad you guys got it sorted out :)

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 8:18 am #

      I think this reflects one of the differences between us and the usual “gap year” traveler we usually see writing a travel blog. If you’re traveling for a year, you can get away with having mail sent to your parents address and never need to worry about things like where to get your license renewed. But when you plan to do this for a bit longer, those things need to be addressed.

  9. Tracey November 15, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    We gave up good careers and traveled for 18 months in 2006/2007. It makes you let go of all the stuff that doesn’t matter. We’re currently working expat in Australia ( I blog at http://www.oz-factor.com ) but it’s not a substitute for the freedom of the road. Enjoy the trip.

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 9:14 am #

      We’re big believers in the idea that experiences are more important than things. Looking back on our “good careers” they were were extremely useful in getting us someplace better. I don’t see them as an end, but a means.

  10. john November 15, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    One thing on my wish list as a nomad is the desire that the USA would create a fishing license for retired nomads to use in all fifty states… I either have to purchase an out of state license or do something illegal and hope to not get caught… it is tough being a nomad in the USA…

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 9:05 am #

      Yep, all kinds of things you never have to think about when you live a “normal” life. I guess this is just the price we have to pay for doing things differently. I can’t complain, really. ;-)

  11. Natalie November 15, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    Very interesting and informative — I learned a lot from your post. I still don’t quite understand how you get your mail… maybe mail is a thing of the past for you….mostly just bills and junk anyway here at my house.

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      We still get snail mail. Plenty of things (car registration stickers, credit cards, certain tax documents, etc) can only be gotten through good old fashioned, regular, mail. I mentioned that all of these companies are “mail forwarding services” but I guess i didn’t touch upon the mechanics. It’s pretty simple, they get our mail and hold it for us. Every so often we tell them where to send it to and they forward it to us.

  12. cperigen November 15, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Something I hadn’t technically thought about as we plan for our global citizenship to begin in 2015. I am still at an age where I assume my parents will always have a permanent address I can mooch off of for things I really need…but at some point that will no longer be the case – and what if becoming a “global citizen” and utilizing one of the resources you listed is a better bet?? Thanks for the brain food…

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

      I think that is the situation for many travel bloggers – they have temporary fixes for a lot of things. I haven’t really seen anyone discuss health insurance, which is such a huge, huge thing in my opinion. I guess folks are either going without or are maybe still on their parent’s insurance.

      • Tracey November 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

        My husband and I both have chronic conditions so health Insurance was a big consideration for us when we went on our global trip in 2006/2007. We got global cover with Aviva Healthcare in the UK.It was expensive but worth it It. There are always barriers to overcome, you just gotta jump them get around them or kick em down!

        • Brian November 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

          I like your attitude!

  13. customtripplanning November 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks! Good info!!

  14. Ron Thompson (@Ron_Travel) November 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    I must say, that list of potential legal ramifications sounds pretty scary. I guess that it really does pay to do one’s homework first before setting up residency in a couple different locations.

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

      We like trying to do things correctly and having all of our bases covered as much as possible. At the same time, I wouldn’t let things like this stop us from doing what we wanted to do. You do the best you can to mitigate the risks you have some influence over and for the rest you just gotta let ‘er ride.

  15. Lisa November 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    Hi, great post! My husband and I are planning on fulltiming in an RV next year and South Dakota was our current top choice for domicile. Can you elaborate a bit more on the insurance brokers view regarding the mail forwarding address? Were you looking at insurance plans that had out of area/state coverage? I am curious because SD has so many fulltimers using the state as their domicile it seems there should be health plans that work for these types of folks too. Though it could be that many SD domiciled FTers have military or Medicare insurance, instead of an average plan for a younger, non military-type couple (which is our situation). There sure is a LOT to consider when making this big move!!! Enjoy reading your blog! Lisa

    • Brian November 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

      Hi Lisa,
      I’ve gotten more than one question on this and it might warrant an entire blog post on its own. It’s tough to cover all of the details in the comments section here. Health insurance in the US is a complicated thing, and I’d urge everyone to do their own research because this stuff will be different from state to state and person to person.

      In our case, we talked to four different health insurance brokers in the state of SD, three independent ones and one affiliated with a mail forwarding company. The three independent brokers told me I needed proof of a physical address (like a utility bill) to complete the application. The broker affiliated with the mail forwarding service said I was OK with the forwarding address. When I asked him if I could get a note from the insurance company confirming that they were OK with me using a mail forwarding address to get insurance he said “no.”

      So we talked to four brokers, three told us flat out “no” and the one who said “yes” couldn’t get us anything in writing saying we’d be ok. So we decided to go with another state.

      I know plenty of fulltime RVers use South Dakota for their domicile. You’ll have to ask them how they got comfortable with the health insurance situation. We couldn’t get there. YMMV.

      Good luck,
      Brian

  16. Lisa November 16, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    Brian, Thanks for sharing more detail, I appreciate it! Lots of food for thought. Lisa

    • Brian November 16, 2011 at 9:02 am #

      No problem – thanks for following!

  17. Bob November 19, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    Brian , This is the best explanation residency and domicile that I have seen written. I had the Soldier and Sailors Relief act to protect me for 20 Years in the Navy. Now I have to be careful not to stay to long in one place or risk having to become a resident.
    I cross posted this on the Workamper News Forum.

    Bob and Sharon

    • Brian November 19, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Bob,
      Thanks for the comment and the free publicity! “Domicile” issues are a strange thing – something I don’t really see mentioned on the travel related sites I visit. It’s good to know that this is helpful.
      Brian

  18. tetroberts November 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Cool posts! Are you also planning to go global outside the States?

    • Brian November 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Absolutely. We’re going to be backpacking through Central America this winter/spring. Stay tuned!

  19. Katiee November 23, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    Wow, I had horrible flashbacks to law school while reading this post! :)

    But seriously, great information. I am oddly fascinated by Texas’ requirement that you register your car before getting a drivers’ license. I haven’t owned a car in 13 years – would I not be able to get a Texas’ drivers’ license if I moved to Texas? Strange…

    • Brian November 23, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

      Too funny. Your question gave me a horrible flashback of my own. :-)

      In TX, and most other states, you have to either pay sales tax on your newly registered vehicle or prove that you already paid them. At the time we got our TX drivers’ license we owned a car, but hadn’t yet bought our RV. Meanwhile, the TX address we were using for our drivers’ license is pretty much only used by RVers. The DMV worker who reviewed our documentation basically accused us of tax evasion for not registering our motor home. She didn’t believe us when we told her we didn’t own one yet.

      They did issue us a license, but not without a little verbal abuse first.

  20. Suzy November 26, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Interesting information. There is far too much red tape in the US. I usually just put my parents address down for anything. Luckily they will pick up my mail when I am traveling. My apartment doesn’t have the most reliable of mail men. I guess that is another option for travelers looking to live no where. I have never done that completely, but I wonder if you just have an address of a family member you could use that.

    • Brian November 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

      Hi Suzy,
      I think using a relative’s address is a fine temporary solution for someone who’s planning to return at some point. As a permanent solution for a perpetual traveler it has some problems; not least of which is burdening a relative with managing your mail in perpetuity.

      Another potential problem is that by adopting a relative’s address, you’re also adopting their state – along with its taxes, fees, and regulations. Those may not be your best solution. I know our health insurance costs would be about four times higher in NJ than they are in Texas. That’s real money.

      And speaking of health insurance, if your relative decides to move to another state, you’ll have to re-apply for new insurance in that state. If you’ve since developed a medical condition, you could be denied coverage.

      Again, temporary solutions are fine for temporary excursions. If you’re planning to be on the road permanently, a permanent solution is probably best.

      Brian

  21. RandomLadyThoughts May 26, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    I love this post. Interesting information!

    • Brian May 26, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Why thank you. Going through the process was a real eye-opener for us, so I figure it’s probably useful to other people as well.

  22. Fae's Twist & Tango June 25, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    What do I think? I think you are a very interesting person. I read a few of your posts and liked every one of them. Very informative! Your photo with a monkey is a delightful one too. Thanks for ‘liking’ my Machu Picchu post. It gave me an opportunity to discover your blog. I will definitively visit your blog again!

    • Brian June 25, 2012 at 10:43 am #

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. We’re delighted you like our blog.

  23. Shantaya July 28, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Thanks for the like at Girl and Her Pink Backpack…there’s some useful advice here

  24. jack March 9, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

    Is there a way to get a UK address ? my house is in the UK (rented out) and I’ve been travelling for 3 years.

    • Brian March 10, 2014 at 9:18 am #

      Sorry, we haven’t researched anything similar for the U.K. How have you managed the last three years?

  25. Kristina Evans July 11, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    How would this work if we are traveling for work? We “live” in California and the company that my husband works for is in California, but we are traveling at least 9 months out of the year (hopefully). I want to set up a permanent address that’s not in California because California is ridiculously expensive, but how would that work with his income tax etc? I don’t want to have to pay taxes in ca because that’s where he technically works and then pay taxes in another state because that’s where our permanent address is…

    • Brian July 11, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

      Tax law is tricky, and we’re not tax advisers, so my first suggestion would be to contact a tax lawyer and get some professional advice. Having said that, the general rule – as I understand it – is that you owe taxes in the jurisdiction where you earn income. If you earn in California, you’ll probably owe taxes in California. If you live somewhere else you may, or may not, owe taxes in that jurisdiction as well. And you may, or may not, be able to offset the taxes you pay to one jurisdiction against the taxes you owe to the other.

      Like I said, this is all complicated stuff and highly dependent on the specific details of your situation. A professional tax adviser would be best able to help you with your specific situation.

  26. Deirdra Duncan October 8, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    I’m private need to bond my private trust and all my trailers ?

  27. mattdboston December 3, 2014 at 4:45 am #

    Great post. Did you pick Texas because it is one of the few states that does not have an income tax? I assume you must be comfortable with the Texas health care system

    Thanks-Matt

    • Brian December 3, 2014 at 5:17 am #

      Hi Matt,
      We picked Texas for a whole host of reasons. That it lacks an income tax is nice, but wasn’t decisive. At the time we chose our domicile, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) had not passed and getting health insurance that was secure and couldn’t be rescinded because we didn’t have a fixed residence in the state was the big reason we ended up in Texas. With health reform now the law of the land, health insurance is less of a worry for us and we’d be open to a bunch of different options that may not have made sense in 2010.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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