Chances are if you are reading this blog, you have or will have the need for managing US finances from overseas. I did in the past 11 years. While I’ve discussed extensively about how to plan for your financial life on the go, I haven’t written specifically on the practical side of things – mainly how you maintain access to your various US financial accounts and information.
In a digital age, it doesn’t seem like our physical location should alter how we normally manage our finances. In general, it doesn’t; but as those who have lived overseas know, it comes with some caveats.
As Covid-19 reduces non-essential international travel, you may also find that you are not returning to the US for longer than you have originally planned to. I hope this post allows you to continue to tend to your US financial affairs from overseas if you had encountered trouble in the past.
For those moving overseas for the first time, you may want to add these 3 Essential Tools for managing US finances from overseas to your Moving Overseas Checklist.
3 Essential Tools for managing US finances from overseas
Tool #1: VPN
You may know Virtual Private Network as a tool to protect your online privacy, or even to help you access US video streaming services from abroad. You are probably not surprised that VPN is also essential for accessing certain financial institutions’ websites.
Wherever you connect to the internet, you are accessing the web through servers from a local internet provider. Each server has a unique IP address, which presents information on the country where the server is located.
Increasingly, US financial institutions and information providers prevent non-US IP address from accessing their servers. When this happens, you may see “403 Forbidden” errors. Sometimes the websites simply would not load. Sometimes you are able to access the websites, but your requests always return with authentication errors.
VPN allows you to mask your IP to any server in the world by rerouting to a server that is anywhere in the world. If you choose a US server, the websites you are trying to access will see that your request to access is from inside the US.
(I have encountered sites that recognizes VPN servers and refuse access of a VPN network. Fortunately their customer service through phone is acceptable.)
There are many VPN service providers. Personally I have used ExpressVPN and StrongVPN. Both providers got the job done. Depending on where you are in the world, some providers may give you more reliable access than others.
The only caution I give is do not use a free VPN software. By using a VPN service, you are voluntarily routing your information to a third party server first. I would want to be extra sure that such third party provider is secure and have my interest in heart when handling access to my financial accounts. I’d expect the service providers’ loyalty is to whoever pays them.
Many data security experts also recommend using VPN service as best practice. It shows that paying for VPN service is not a bad idea, especially when it only costs you a few dollars a month.
Tool #2: Virtual phone number
Another data security layer that becomes cumbersome is two-factor authentication using US mobile number. While it’s the most convenient method, without US phone number you are not able to set it up.
Certain financial institutions or government benefits website do not allow alternative methods, such as email or app authentication. Some even requires two-factor to be turned on with phone as the only option. In the past, I have even encountered text-only two-factor authentication; although recently I’ve seen more of them providing at least the robo-calling option (perhaps for people in the US still on the landline.)
How do you keep a US phone number that allows you to receive calls and text? The answer is through a virtual number provider. Skype and Google Voice are two popular ones that allow you to access calls and text directly through their mobile apps as long as you have internet. I use both and both work well.
(Skype didn’t allow receiving texts until recently, only sending them. Now it’s both ways.)
There are also various other Voice over IP systems providers that give you a US phone number, with various calling plans to receive from and make calls to US phone numbers.
Most likely when you try to sign up for these services, you will need to provide for a US billing address, and sometimes an existing US phone number. (Such as Google Voice, which likely requires you to enlist the help of a family member or a friend in the US, or do it before you leave.) This leads us to Tool #3.
Honorable Mention: Google Fi
For those who travels regularly in and out of the US (pre-Covid of course), Google Fi might be a better option than a virtual phone number. Google Fi gives you a US SIM and mobile number but connecting to other mobile providers’ networks inside or outside of the US at a reasonable price. Technically you’ll be “roaming” while overseas, but the charges are low enough it might make sense to not purchase a local SIM.
The downside is that if you don’t get a local SIM when you live overseas, you won’t get a local phone number, which might create its own problem. In addition, Project Fi is intended for US residents and not people who lives overseas. They have the right to cancel your service if they deem your use to not meet the Terms of Service.
Tool #3: Virtual Mailbox and Forwarding Service
For US citizens and Green Card holders, keeping an US address is one of the key things to consider when you move overseas temporarily. Many US financial institutions do not do business with US expats. Even if they do, depending on which country you go, they may restrict what you may or may not do with your account.
Of course, the easiest thing to do is using a family member’s address or even the address of a US property you still own and expect to return to. However, you may or may not want someone you know to have access to your financial information. This is when a virtual mailbox and forwarding service may be helpful.
Normally this type of service comes with a US street address to receive mail at the least. You can pay extra to have the service provider open your mail, scan them or forward them. Because it is a legitimate street address, you can usually use it as your billing and mailing address for various accounts or services you want to keep in the US.
Nevertheless, you will not be able to use virtual mailbox address for driver’s license or voting registration purpose. I’d also caution against using virtual mailbox address if any application asks you for a physical or residential address.
If you truly have no close connection in the US to keep an address but still expect to return to the US after a few years, you may want to look into renting a space in a residential address.
All of what I mentioned above are what expats learned through many trials and errors. You may find similar themes in various forums online. It’s a gray area where many are struggling to do the right thing but it is increasingly difficult to do. Countries exert more controls within its border without recognizing the growing globally mobile population. I hope one day this will change.