Becoming an Expat Part III—Applying for Residency

Author's Note: This is the third article in a series on becoming an expat. See also, Check your Passport, and Selecting a Destination


You have decided to move abroad. You have spent time in your new potential home and want to make it more permanent. Now your country of choice will decide if it wants you as a resident. As a citizen with a valid passport you are in general free to travel to many countries, but only for limited periods. Some countries require permission to enter. You need to apply for a visa. Residency is much more complicated. It requires a formal application and much paperwork and documentation. The requirements are set by the country you are entering, and there are as many paths to residency as there are countries. I can’t give you specific advice, but I can tell you some general patterns. I will use our application (as US citizens) for residency in Spain as an example.

Please note that residency is not the same as citizenship. We have retained our US citizenship but have permanent residency in Spain. To apply for Spanish residency we had to be residing in the US—not already in Spain.

Your first stop should be the embassy or consulate for the country to which you are applying. In our case, we contacted the Spanish Consulate in Houston, Texas, and made our application there. That was because we were living in New Mexico and our state was in the Houston “catchment area.” Search online for a list of relevant embassies or consulates in your country. You must work with the consulate appropriate to your area throughout the process of application and acceptance.

When we applied for Spanish residency, the documentation for a retired couple included proof of health, proof of income, proof of marriage, proof of a clear police record, proof that we had an address in Spain where we would live, and proof of health insurance. We had to have valid passports and photographs that met the Spanish Consulate requirements. We obtained our residency in 2008. We have learned from recent US expats in Spain that the requirements have become more complex.

There are usually different requirements for people who bring their own income and those who need to work. People whose recent ancestors were citizens of the country are often treated preferentially. There are sometimes different treatments for people who are considered “valuable” or “noteworthy” (famous) and those who are just ordinary folks. Sometimes having a specific and unique skill will smooth the way to residency. And, of course, marriage to a citizen of the new country is often helpful. However, there has been widespread abuse of “marriages of convenience,” so marriage is now looked at with considerable skepticism.

Go to the website for the country’s embassy or consulate that serves your area and download the requirements for various types of residency. See what you might be eligible for and start the application process. You can expect to travel to the consulate one or more times during the application process. Some consulates require that you turn in your application in person and then return for another visit to affix the visa to your passport. Our application at the Spanish consulate in Houston, Texas, took approximately three months to be processed but the process can take much longer. This gave us permission to go to Spain and apply for our national identity card. “Permanent” is a bit of a misnomer, since our residency permit still has to be periodically renewed.


Remember the bureaucrats behind the counter will evaluate not only your paperwork but your attitude. They have every right to approve or disapprove your application and place restrictions on your residency. I urge you to be polite and understanding in dealing with the officials of the country in which you are a guest and to give the citizens your appreciation as well. That attitude will get your farther than you can imagine.


Words to keep clear in your mind: passport, visa, residency, citizenship. Many difficulties ensue if you confuse these terms.

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Becoming an Expat I—Check Your Passport

Author's Note:This is the first of a planned 4-part series of articles on the them of becoming an expat that will appear on the site from time to time.


You are going to need a valid passport to travel, so take your passport out now and look at the expiration date. These documents expire and, if you are like me, you haven’t looked at the expiration date recently. If it is close to expiring or already expired you will need to get it renewed.


Or perhaps you are one of the 66% of US citizens who don’t have a passport (43% of Canadians and 30% of Brits don’t either). In that case, you will need to make application and pay the necessary fees. Don’t know how? CLICK HERE if you are a US citizen, CLICK HERE if you are Canadian, or CLICK HERE if you are British. Getting a passport or getting your passport renewed can take months, so don’t put it off until the last minute before you plan a trip abroad.

By the way, there are services that advertise that they can get your passport more rapidly or with greater ease. I don’t recommend such services. The process is relatively straight forward and, unless you have a complicated situation, you are probably better off doing it yourself. In most cases it can be accomplished entirely by mail, but in some cases you may need to appear in person. In those cases you might need to appear even if you were using a service.

(Note: A passport is NOT the same as a visa. Passports are granted by your own country, while a visa is granted by the country you want to travel to.)

An option that some people may find attractive is the possibility of dual citizenship. That means you have two valid passports and can choose to use the one that is most convenient as you travel. A short anecdote will illustrate the point.

We have a friend who is a Canadian citizen but had a grandmother who was an Irish citizen. She was able to get an Irish passport while still maintaining her Canadian citizenship and passport. When she decided to seek residency in Spain she used her Irish passport and got residency in a few days. That is because Ireland and Spain are both part of the European Union and there are reciprocal agreements that allow EU citizens freedom to travel and live within the EU. In contrast, our Spanish residency took several months, many forms, and two trips to Houston, Texas because we are US citizens.

If you want to look into this complex topic CLICK HERE.

With a valid passport (or passports) in hand, you are ready to take the next steps toward becoming an expat. Stay tuned.

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