Unfortunately we can’t just stop dealing with money and businesses when doing extended traveling. Issues with money and communications for travelers are different than those for vacationers who can ignore almost anything and deal with it when they return home. The best is to simplify as much as possible, but there will usually be at least a handful of businesses you have to stay in touch with including banks, retirement accounts, insurance providers, health providers, the government, and possibly credit companies.
We are just finishing a four month stay in the Bahamas and finding that many of the problems we solved for this trip will be useful for international cruising as well. Most of these Expat Life Hacks will apply to your trips of longer than a month in most moderately developed countries.
Money and Banks for Travelers
Our experience with money was both easier and more complex than it will be for many foreign travelers. On one hand it was easier because the Bahamas and US currency are always 1:1 so there is no need to exchange money. The locals take US money as readily as Bahamian. Banks will charge you an exchange fee so I suggest you do not change money when in the Bahamas.
However we also had a slightly more complex situation than most visitors because we spent thousands of dollars renovating a house while we were here, so money issues and exchange fees were a big deal.
Opening a Bahamian account in the Bahamas is surprisingly difficult for a US citizen. Of four banks I got four different stories – one bank in fact insisted that I needed a Bahamian Health Card, implying that I needed to be a permanent resident in order to open an account. This is clearly false, but the bank worker was adamant. In general it sounds like if you had paperwork such as bills, a rental or purchase agreement that were in your name this would not be difficult. In our case, waiting for probate to clear and no conveyance or rental paperwork, we were stymied by the regulations.
Opening a US account would have been easier. However since our primary purpose was paying local workers, a cash economy was better for them and easier for us. We were told by Bahamians that if they were paid by US check, even one drawn at a Bahamian bank, it could take as much as a week or two for them to get their money.
Credit and Debit Cards
US Bank charged me a 2% international processing fee on every debit purchase. Charles Schwab didn’t charge my anything for my debit card usage. I didn’t use any credit cards.
I ended up mostly paying in cash by using ATMs everywhere except large grocery stores, restaurants, bars, and touristy retail outlets, all of which readily accepted cards. Many of the stores serving local clientele, such as hardware stores gave a 10% to 25% discount for cash, making it really worth the additional trouble of procuring and carrying cash.
ATM Bank Fees
Some banks, such as US Bank, charged me an out-of-network ATM fee as well as the same 2% “international processing fee” that they charged for debit card use. Altogether there was a $5.38 fee by the original bank, an additional $2.50 by my own bank, and the processing fee of $20.10 for a combined cost of $27.98 on $1000. This is only 2.5%, but it adds up over time.
Luckily Charles Schwab again lived up to their reputation as a traveler’s bank. The same $1000 withdrawal cost me $0 in additional fees. They charged no fees themselves and reimbursed us for the charges from the ATM station.
Phones for Travelers
We had bought unlocked phones directly online from the manufacturer in the year or so preceding our trip as our old smart phones died. We chose Motorola as they have great Android phones at affordable prices and do not load them down with junk software. (The Moto G starts at $180 and is waterproof or nearly so!) In the US we ditched our expensive two year plans and got simple monthly plans with the lowest amount of data, figuring we mostly were in Wifi range but occasionally might need the non-wifi option. We paid about $45/ month for each phone for texting, 1MB of data, and unlimited calls. We stopped the monthly plans when we left the US. This means that we will not have the same phone numbers when we go back to the US, but saves us the monthly charge when we were not going to be in the US.
Once we arrived in the Bahamas we used those same unlocked phones, just bought new cards from Batelco, which they installed for us. We can add minutes on the phone by pressing a particular button pattern, or online from the Batelco site. We did NOT get data in the Bahamas as it is fairly expensive and we have Wifi at the house. The advantage of using our familiar phones was that all our apps still worked the same when we were on Wifi.
The Bahamas phones worked great. But not having a US phone number makes your banks and other ongoing business relationships difficult if not impossible. For most of these issues a Google Voice number that I can “answer” on my desktop or tablet works great. Generally I get a notice that somebody called and left a message. I listen to the message on my computer and decide whether I need to call back. If I do then it’s like Skype, but I leave the camera off. As far as the person on the other end knows I am on a phone. When the wifi falters, as it tends to do down here, it’s like going in a tunnel or losing cell connection for other reasons.
Strangely the one circumstance that Google Voice has not worked is when trying to acquire another Google email address. I needed one for some temporary purpose and signed up on GMail. Gmail requires a phone number so I supplied my Google Voice number. They didn’t accept it! It’s all google, but apparently Gmail wants a “real” phone number.
Mail for Travelers
Before we left I made sure that all significant ongoing business relationships were set to communicate online – this included monthly statements for banks, credit cards, memberships, health insurance, etc. I then set up a mail forwarding service for those things I needed to have a “real” address for. Many cruiser’s use St. Brendan’s Isle, but as a west coast sailor I did not want to have a Florida address. By using Traveling Mailbox I was able to keep a Washington state address (they have addresses available in 12 different states). Their website is more modern and clean than St. Brendan’s Isle and they offer similar services including scanning postal mail, depositing checks to your bank, and parcel/mail forwarding when required. We are using the lowest tier of service and although I have had to pay for extra scans a couple of months, I have never paid more than a couple of dollars for those. And of course it is all under my control. Up in the left corner I see the number of scans I am allowed and the number I have used so far this month. The lowest tier includes 40 envelopes, 35 page scans, and costs $15 per month. If you receive additional envelopes over the 40 allowed they will cost 25 cents and additional page scans you request are 50 cents. If you need a fax number or scanpaks the higher level service tiers provide those.
One of the features of Traveling Mailbox that I really like is the ability to tag items and put them in folders. I use the tagging more. For instance I get yet another envelope from my health insurance. All I can see is the outside of the envelope so I know who it’s from, but not what it is. I set my request to “Open and Scan”. In a few hours that task is complete and I can see the pages inside the envelope. I can see the pages, download them to Evernote or my computer. But after a few of these have shown up, it’s easy to get confused about which was which. I can use tagging to keep this clear. One is tagged “tax-form”, another “health-cards” which I also request to have mailed back home, another “request for reply – sent”, or whatever I want. This makes it much easier next time I go to my virtual email box to make sure I’ve dealt with everything.
I hope that answers a few of the questions you may have had about handling your business affairs while out of the country for extended periods. Please add comments about your experiences overseas handing business and money matters.
Has anyone used both St Brendan’s and Traveling Mailbox so they can tell us, in-depth, which they preferred?