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 residence 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.