Planning an international move: a checklist for minimalists

Making your move as a minimalist

When you’re getting ready to make a big move, the to-do list can start to feel overwhelming.
You can get caught up in minutiae that isn’t worth your time, and that can distract you from
fully being in the moment and really living those last few weeks or months before you start
the next chapter.

In my most recent international move, from the US to Ireland, I had fortunately been in the
process of decluttering and moving towards minimalism for about a year prior, so it was
about as stress-free as an international move can be. I realise not everyone making an
international move will have such a spartan amount of personal possessions. But I think anyone can encourage a shift of focus off of the physical possessions that can loom so large, and
onto some of the less obvious things that future-you will really thank you for getting figured
out.

Plus it’s just fun being a minimalist and making lists.

Various types of stuff and what to do With it:

Physical stuff:

General rule: Decide what you’re bringing, and then bring less. This is a good
time to get rid of old stuff: donate/give away most, sell some if you have time,
store an absolute minimum. I stored a box of sentimental stuff with my parents,
and got rid of the rest. Any clothes you have that you’re not bringing, you
probably don’t need. Donate, donate, donate. (Bonus tip for future-you: remember those trips to the charity shop before your re-accumulate more stuff.)

Kitchen stuff: I love to cook, and even as a minimalist, I briefly considered
whether I should try to bring some of my kitchen stuff with me to Ireland. NO! I
happened to mention this insane notion to my cousin who’s much smarter than
me, and her response was: “Um, no. Definitely don’t do that. I thought you’d done
this before?” Touche. Kitchen stuff was donated and zero fucks were given that
day.

Furniture: This is one of the worst categories of stuff. It’s big and heavy and hard
to get rid of. Get rid of as much as you can, ideally by selling it. I’ve had good luck
with Craigslist in Canada and the US, other countries have similar sites.

Clothing/personal effects: Keep these to one or two suitcases, max. Yes,
including shoes and accessories. You’ll replace a good bit of it once you settle
into your new location, anyways. I try to keep only what I’m currently using, plus
what I’ll definitely use in the next 3-6 months. Even doing this, and even with an already minimal wardrobe, I still got rid of yet more stuff within a few months of arriving in Ireland. Bring less than you think.

Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30, my ride or die

Bring like this amount of stuff, if you can

Money stuff:

Banking: This comes up surprisingly often on various expat subreddits etc., especially
given how simple the best approach is: Keep your bank account in your home
country, and open a new one in your new country. Done and done. There’s usually no downside to this and it will make your day to day life so much easier.

  • Americans will need to remember file an FBAR to report any non-US bank
    accounts, to the extent their total foreign accounts exceed $10,000 USD in a given
    year. Talk to an expat tax pro (such as yours truly!) about this if you don’t
    know how to file it!

Credit cards: If you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction
fees, and has a low (or no) annual fee, keep it. I’ve learned the hard way that
credit cards are expensive and sucky in some countries (hi, Ireland!), so I like having my
US credit card as a fallback for any time I’m in a country with a currency I don’t
normally deal with.

Retirement/savings: Consider what you’ll do with your retirement/long term
savings accounts in both your departure and destination locations. I rolled my old
401k into an IRA, and I’m planning on maintaining that for the time being. I have
some specific ideas on what to do with US retirement accounts when leaving the
US, both as a US citizen, and as someone who will become a US non-resident,
but that’s for a future tax-nerdy post.

Transferring money: I like Transferwise for quickly moving money between
currencies, for a good exchange rate and with low, easy to understand fees. Don’t do anything silly and complicated like old fashioned wire transfers, unless there’s really no way around it.

Taxes: Just adding this to the checklist, as you’ll want to consider your residency
status in both locations, as well as arrival and departure filing requirements.
These really vary a great deal depending on your personal circumstances, so,
again, find a friendly expat tax expert for all the countries you deal with!

Simplify: I got rid of any excess cards and accounts that I wasn’t using, and
continually re-examine this to see if there’s anything further I can minimise or
simplify. I like having as few accounts as possible to get the job done. Right now that tends to average two per country I deal in, one for everyday banking, and another for long term savings/investing.

 

Practical stuff:

Communication: Everywhere else in the world uses Whatsapp, but I had to get a
few of my American pals on board with it. Yes, you may be used to texting me.
Now you can text me on Whatsapp and then the evil empire (aka the cell phone
company) doesn’t triumph over the downtrodden.

Free your phone: I happened to own my phone outright, so I was able to ask my
previous phone company to unlock it before I left. This made getting a new SIM a
snap. I’d suggest this where possible. Using a foreign SIM sucks for a number of
reasons, not least being extortionate roaming charges, and not being able to easily give your number to cute people you meet. Trying to explain your weird foreign phone number with its country code and plus signs and leading zeroes will really kill your flirtation game. Kidding! Sort of! It’s good for giving your number to local services too. Just get on a local SIM as soon as you can, and start living your life.

Mailing address: This one doesn’t come with any easy, pithy answers. Physical,
paper mail is the sucks and there’s no really satisfactory way of transporting those
horrible bits of paper around the world. Minimise the amount of physical mail
you’ll need to the extent possible, and then ask a friend if they can forward you
the really essential stuff.

  • For me this basically amounted to my W-2, as my previous employer wouldn’t email
    it to an external email address. And even this managed to suck! They
    ended up sending it to my old apartment, despite my best attempts to update my forwarding address to my friend’s address before I left. Ugh, fine. Fortunately, I had set myself a reminder to follow up on the W-2 if it hadn’t arrived by a certain date, so they would have time to resend it to the correct forwarding address. Doing this one time was fine, but doing this monthly would be unpleasant. Avoid paper mail to the extent possible.

Passport: If it will be expiring anytime soon, you might want to renew before you
leave. I have a gorgeous 10 year passport and it’s my most prized physical
possession.

Driver’s licence: In my experience you really don’t need that “international driver’s
licence” thing people sometimes mention. But it will be handy if your current
driver’s licence has as much time left before it expires as possible. Fortunately, I had just renewed mine before I moved, so I’m using this
to buy time and decide if I want to get an Irish driver’s licence. They make you
take the test, so I’m leaning towards no. I haven’t had any difficulty renting a car here on my old licence.

Anything else?

I’ll be making another move soon, this time to become semi-nomadic and
location independent. I envision having a few mini-bases in a few important locations where
my most beloved people are. But I’ll still rely on the above concepts of minimising and
simplifying, as they have served me well. What would you add to this list?

Minimalism for Expats

Minimalism has become a full-blown cultural movement. The Minimalists have a hugely popular podcast, and film that has recently come to Netflix. When I encountered the concept a few years ago, it was immediately a good fit for my personality and preferences. I’ve been naturally inclined in that direction for most of my life, and I loved reading about how others interpreted the idea of living with less and reducing excess. I eagerly delved into accounts of capsule wardrobes, tiny houses, and living with 100 things or less. It makes for compelling reading.

However, for many people, it’s understandable how minimalism could remain a casual Pinterest fascination. They might sense that applying some of the ideas could benefit their lives, but lack that motivating factor. One group of people I think can benefit from minimalism in very real, tangible ways is the globally mobile: the expats, the digital nomads, those of us who try out new countries as readily as some people try out new neighbourhoods. I believe our ranks will only continue to increase, and that one of the best ways to prepare for a successful move is to embrace minimalism.

Here are some ways embracing minimalism will make your life easier, freer, and better, whether you are making an international move or not:

1. Travel light: Whether you are travelling for a weekend, a few weeks, indefinitely, or picking up and transplanting your life to a new location, the concept of travelling lightly will serve you well. “Stuff” weighs you down, physically, mentally, financially, spiritually. You’ll find you can make your move(s) so much easier and simpler if you can cut down your physical possessions to only the essentials.

This is an iterative process and it helps if you minimise early, and minimise often. If you only have a few pairs of shoes, because you’ve been diligently minimising for months prior to your move, it’s not hard to decide which to bring with you. And better yet, if you’re not that attached to any of them, it’s not hard to leave some behind. There will be shoes in your new country, trust and believe this.

I thought I had made a fairly minimal move, and even still I found myself donating various items a few months after I’d arrived in Ireland. Bring less than you think, it’s almost never a mistake.

still too much

What I brought with me to Ireland (aka all my worldly possessions).

2. Simplify your finances: When you move to a new country, or hop around the globe, it’s really helpful if you can keep your financial life as streamlined as possible. The last thing you need is to have 20 different passwords for 20 different financial institutions, and then to have to remember which card charges you foreign transaction fees, and which accounts you have linked, etc.

I suggest keeping a bank account open in your home country, and best yet if you have a no- foreign transaction fee credit card that’s with the same provider. Extra bonus points if you don’t pay an annual fee for either the account or the card. Banking is annoyingly expensive in Ireland, but from what I can tell there’s not much that can be done about that. I kept my US bank account, and a Visa associated with that account. For investments, I’m all Vanguard. I have a Paypal linked to my US bank, and another linked to my Irish bank.

I haven’t found anything like Mint or Personal Capital that works with non-US accounts, but at least I can log into Mint and it only needs to check two financial institutions to give me a snapshot of everything on the US side. I’ve been keeping the Irish side low key for now, so there’s only a few places I need to look there, too.

3. Minimalist home: Let’s assume you adhered to Minimalist Expat Commandment #1 and didn’t lug a bunch of heavy home furnishings and decor half way around the globe with you. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Now that you’re in your new country, for however long that may be, see if you can keep your home-related acquisitions to a minimum.

My flat when I moved in. (I added the Bay blanket. And the wine.)

To dress up my furnished flat, I purchased a few things to hang on the walls, a few throw pillows, a charity shop chair, and a storage ottoman/coffee table. Plus the necessary kitchen stuff. All of this will probably stay in the flat when I leave, or get donated. And I’m none to precious about any of it, which helps when I’m letting the place on Airbnb when I travel. I don’t mind if they break a plate or two (although this hasn’t happened, but it seems to be a concern for some people, who ask me: “What about your STUFF?” in anxious tones when I tell them I host Airbnb guests when I’m out of town).

4. Daily routines: By this I mean your day to day cooking and grooming and whatnot. Have you encountered people who feel as though they require a lot of complicated accessories just to get ready for a normal day? Simplifying this, to the extent possible, makes travel and relocation a lot easier. I don’t feel I need 15 different hair products to be a valuable member of society or to enjoy my life. And I really enjoy the ease of packing, since all my normal personal care products easily fit into the 1L bag limit. Being flexible and adaptable is something to continually practice, and is a skill that would serve any expat well.

I’ve come across expats who complained that the posh nail salon in our exclusive, wealthy suburb of northern Johannesburg (Sandton, just to name-drop for those in the know), didn’t stock the right kind of gel nail polish. I don’t know, but it seemed like they might have been missing the point? Try to make peace with an alternate brand of gel nail polish, is all I’m saying.

5. Technology and digital life: This is one area I’m working on. I sometimes bring more devices than is strictly necessary, but the setup I currently have is:

      • laptop

      • iPad

      • iPhone

      • Kindle Paperwhite

      • associated chargers

      • external battery pack

I don’t bring all my devices on every trip, but if I were moving longer term again, or if I were transitioning to full digital nomad, I think I’d keep more or less this roster. The iPad is a few years old and probably the most redundant, but I like it for reading free magazines from the library (shoutout to the Zinio app! Don’t buy expensive magazines, fam). In reality, I probably won’t replace it when it dies, especially now that my laptop is a lovely, lovely Macbook.

Technology setup, on the multi-use ottoman.

I also have a portable bluetooth speaker that sorts out my music needs, usually via Spotify. With Spotify and Netflix, I’m well covered from an entertainment perspective, and the only thing I need in a new country is wifi. No TV or stereo required, either in a shipping container, or in a rented flat.

So there you have it. There are surely countless more benefits to minimalism when you are undertaking something as major as moving countries, but with simple, streamlined, and thoughtful possessions, finances, homes, habits, and technology, you’ll be well ahead of the curve. Go forth and become location independent with intention!