Essential tools for living abroad

Posted: August 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I left BetDash and Paddy Power earlier this summer and returned to the US after three years abroad in Ireland.  Over my time abroad, there were a number of services that make living outside the US considerably easier and cheaper today than it must have been even a few years ago.  Here’s a quick summary of some of the most essential services and tools to setup if you’re heading abroad as an expat.

CurrencyFair is a Dublin-based startup that’s making foreign currency transfers much cheaper.  You need a bank account in the foreign currency, so this isn’t a tool for the week long vacation to Europe, but for expats abroad that are regularly transferring funds back home, this is a big deal.  The standard wire transfers that you send through your bank actually cost you more than it may seem, even if they’re “commission free”.  The bank might quote you 1.2861 to exchange Euros into Dollars while the interbank (benchmark) rate might be 1.32607.  With this example, CurrencyFair’s Fx rate might be around 1.3257.  The fees for a typical bank transfer are 15-25 EUR, vs $3 for CurrencyFair.  Transferring €1000 at these rates through CurrencyFair saves you about $67 over a conventional bank.  Over a series of regular transfers over years, you can see how the savings really stack up.  Unfortunately, it took us a while before we found CurrencyFair – when we did, it was painful to see how much we could have been saving.  TransferWise is another similar service.


Related to CurrencyFair, I found my accounts at Charles Schwab extremely well suited to traveling the globe.  A Schwab checking account allows free ATM withdrawals from any ATM in the world (fees are refunded to your account) and a Schwab One account allows free inbound wire transfers.  Combined with excellent online banking (one of the only US brokerages to offer a second factor security token) and free online bill pay, these services made it fairly easy to deal with the increased complexity of managing US finances from abroad.

No FTF Credit Cards – Foreign Transaction Fees on your credit card transactions really add up if you’re traveling for an extended period of time.  There has been a significant increase in the number of credit cards that are now available with no foreign transaction fee.  I used several cards while abroad – Capital One issues a number of no FTF cards with no annual fee, though I found their anti-fraud blocks overzealous even with regular calls to inform them of my travel patterns.  Citi is one of the banks now starting to introduce US cards with chips, which makes them easier for global acceptance – however, these are still not true Chip and PIN cards, meaning that they still may not work in kiosks and other locations where a signature isn’t possible.  In general, it was very interesting how cash-centric Europe is – you can use a credit card for pretty much any purchase in the US of any value and very few people care.  In Europe, it’s often a big production to pay via credit card, unless you’re in a large chain / retailer. - One of the things that you take for granted in the US is access to pretty much any video content you try to view online. Step outside the US and you quickly learn how much is blocked based on location.  (This was one of the really interesting things about being abroad – to see how much of the internet is still very US-centric.)  Playmo is a DNS-based service that allows you to access this content, including Netflix and many of the network sites.  Playmo isn’t a full proxy, it integrates only via DNS, which is nice because you’re not reliant on the bandwidth of the proxy provider (just that of your internet connection) and it’s easy to configure for all of your devices.  Unblock-Us is another competing service that I didn’t test.  In addition to Playmo, I also had a Slingbox HD in the US, which I also used.  I found the Slingbox iPad app finicky but streaming to a laptop worked extremely well.  Sling is nice to keep around for travel, since you only pay for the box and don’t pay a monthly service fee.

Google Voice – Google Voice’s free calls to US phones was a hugely useful tool.  I found the availability of free calls to the US from within Google Voice varied around Europe, particularly in some Eastern European countries, however, it was available in Ireland and the UK, which allowed me to make nearly 1000 calls to US numbers at no cost while I was abroad.  I found the quality of Google Voice’s calls more reliable than a SkypeOut subscription, which I also tested while abroad.

A good accountant - perhaps one of the most complicated aspects of living abroad for an extended period of time were the US tax implications.  The tax rates abroad are often higher than the US rates that you’re used to, so there are foreign income tax credits to apply on your US filings.  However, the options vary based on how long you’re abroad and how long you’re in specific locations.  Find someone who you trust to walk you through the options and make sure you’re filing the right forms (like the FBAR).  Late in my stay in Ireland, I came across this specialized expat tax service - - but never had an opportunity to try.

Global Entry - If you’re traveling in and out of the US with any frequency, Global Entry speeds you through US immigration lines.  You can even use it in Ireland, which is one of the locations which does US CBP pre-clearance.  By enrolling in Global Entry, you also are admitted into TSA PreCheck, which speeds you through TSA lines at select airports within the US.  Until recently, TSA PreCheck only applied to fully domestic itineraries, but this has been expanded to cover international itineraries, so this will speed you through TSA lines to get on your flights abroad now, as well.