Personal Finance

Five things you must do before you pack your bags for an overseas retirement

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To all those who make the big decision to retire abroad, Cynthia and Edd Staton say, "Congratulations!"

In 2009, a look at their battered retirement accounts made the Statons think hard about what their retirement might look like. They could stay in the U.S. where they'd lived all their lives, or they could find a foreign country with a far lower cost of living and set out on a great adventure.

They chose adventure and haven't looked back. The couple has written books about their experiences and plans to create more projects about how to retire abroad.

Retiring overseas is a journey with a lot of moving parts. "The list goes on and on," Edd Staton said. "And that's just for closing up shop at home."

Get ready to put your organizational skills on steroids, because you'll need at least three months of planning and organizing. Expat Info Desk has a 90-day checklist of tasks to help orchestrate your move.

Before you go

A typical pre-move to-do list will include some of the following:

• Sell house. Contact realtors.

• Pare down all that stuff. Hold an estate sale.

• Cancel subscriptions.

• Renew driver's license and passport.

• Figure out a plan for your mail.

You're also going to need to prepare for the other end, and online is a good place to start. The U.S. State Department has information on retiring abroad, including links to resources on visas, medical insurance, paying taxes and voting while overseas.

The website International Living likes to use local correspondents in many countries to detail their personal experiences and share helpful tips. Escape Artist is a somewhat more money-focused site with info for expats. Expatistan and Numbeo are two sites that give cost comparisons and prices for living in hundreds of countries.

Here are five key topics to focus on.

1. Learning a new language

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You may not need fluency to relocate. "Becoming functional is a more realistic goal," Edd Staton said. "Locals appreciate your sometimes-awkward attempts to communicate and will go out of their way to be helpful."

At the very least, you need some basic skills so you don't remain an outsider. The Statons recommend as much study and practice as you can cram in before you leave. Take classes or learn online.

Another good idea: Load up on apps such as Duolingo or Memrise. The free versions may be limited but they keep you on track. Every little bit helps. Read articles online for more tips, such as partnering up and using flashcards.

When diplomats have to learn a language, here's how they do it.

If you show up without any skills, find a class and enroll ASAP. "At the very least, it can be a chance to make new friends," Edd Staton said.

2. Money talk

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If you don't use online banking, the Statons recommend getting comfortable with it. First, put your financial accounts online and notify the bank you'd like all statements and correspondence sent to your email address.

You might want to keep a bank account open in your home country to take care of credit card payments and receiving Social Security checks. You can claim your Social Security benefits no matter where in the world you live, says Suzan Haskins, an International Living editor, so don't worry about losing eligibility.

"You do not need to return to the States every few months, and the government does not require that you keep a U.S. address, although there are probably other very good reasons to do that," Haskins said.

Many overseas banks will accept direct deposit of Social Security checks. The SSA website has a list of countries that have overseas direct deposit, and the percentage of banks in each country that do this.

The Statons also recommend having a local checking or savings account. But be careful. You will need to file the appropriate documents, such as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, also known as FATCA, to let the U.S. government know you have assets in an overseas financial institution. You will still have to file a U.S. tax return.

Don't forget about foreign transaction fees. The Statons recommend finding this out before you go, since some of the larger banks can charge 3 percent for debit card purchases or ATM withdrawals abroad plus a flat $5 fee per transaction. Those fees can add up.

3. Residency visa

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Once you step off the plane, you are basically a tourist and you'll have to go through a formal process to apply for residency.

Different countries have different requirements and opportunities. In the Netherlands, for example, you can get a permit to work and live if you're self-employed using a Dutch residence permit. There's no maximum age, and you can sponsor your spouse and minor children. They require a minimum business investment of 4,500 euros (at press time, about $5,087), and the permit is good for two years.

Check websites such as AARP, Retired Brains, Transitions Abroad and Expat Info Desk for general visa information as well as specific retirement visas that some countries offer.

The Statons recommend gathering and completing paperwork before you leave, such as marriage licenses, birth certificates and proof of income. Some may have to be authenticated.

Scan and email your completed docs to a qualified visa attorney for review. Showing up with incomplete or incorrect paperwork will cost you lots of extra money and delay the process.

4. Medical matters

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You'll need health insurance, and requirements and access vary from country to country.

France, for instance, has made it easier for all residents, including foreigners and expats, to access health services. The website Cuenca High Life outlines costs for buying health insurance in Ecuador.

International Living has lots of anecdotal experiences about buying health insurance and the cost of medical services in other countries.

Many countries require proof of health insurance to enter as a visitor. This requirement may also be part of the application process for your residency visa. Check with your visa attorney regarding this matter.

Some expats may join a public plan or pay out of pocket for health care. As an alternative, countries often offer private health insurance at premiums well below what you are accustomed to paying. Consider bridging the gap with a travel insurance policy while you evaluate your options, say the Statons.

Also, it's a good idea to have a checkup before you leave. That way you can head off a health emergency that might have been detected.

5. Home, sweet home

Senior couple jumping on the bed and having fun in hotel room.
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It's best to rent first, say the Statons, even if you plan to buy a house or apartment eventually. Adjusting to new surroundings takes time, and what you thought you wanted at first might well change once you're more acclimated.

"But don't jump the gun and buy or even rent your permanent residence over the internet," Edd Staton said. "You don't know enough to make an intelligent decision from afar."

Don't put down any money without seeing the place for yourself. Instead, stay in a hotel to start, if you must, and move up to a short-term, furnished rental. You'll need some time to learn what documentation is needed to rent a place and how bills will be paid.

You may find after a few weeks or a few months that the place you've chosen isn't your dream retirement place after all. In that case, it's much easier to move without having to sell a property.