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Ultimate checklist for returning U.S. expats
From tax tactics to TV shows to gay ice cream, this primer will ease your transition home
Depending on how long you've been abroad, your transition back to the United States could be as stressful -- perhaps even more so -- as your initial expatriation.
When you arrived in your foreign home, you likely had to undergo an understandable period of culture adjustment.
What you may not expect is the inverse upon your return; the expectation of the familiar derailed by the degree to which things have changed.
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Change isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something you’ll want to prepare for. After consulting with a number of repats, here’s our checklist for re-Americanization.
Setting up the basics
You’ll have to satisfy fundamental necessities quickly in order to function as an adult. Here are the major items to take care of.
For many, the era of the BlackBerry is over. Analysts claim the company can no longer compete with its chief rivals, the iPhone and Android-based handsets, and it doesn’t even do well anymore what it used to; a new BlackBerry works worse than one from two years ago.
Three of the four major carriers -- Sprint, Verizon, AT&T -- carry the iPhone, and all service providers offer some form of Android-based phone. Check BillShrink for the plan that best suits you.
You may be able to use your existing phone on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, which operate on the GSM standard.
There are four major U.S. banks now: Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citi. And they’re looking for any and every way to disgorge you of the money you keep with them, including a recent failed attempt to charge monthly for debit card use.
So you might want to check the Internet for places to store your war chest, find where rates are most favorable and fees are fewer.
High-yield savings, which, before the financial collapse, reached annual rates upwards of five percent, is now defined as anything above zero.
But check Fat Wallet.com for the best of what still passes for interest.
Housing: Buy or rent?
Interest rates are at their lowest in modern history. Couple that with a weakened housing market and, if you're returning permanently, you have good credit and anything together for a down payment, this is a good time to consider purchasing a new property.
Especially since the paradoxically crowded housing market is driving up rents in many major cities.
“Even though in many cities there are very fewer (housing) listings now than in previous years, it’s still a buyer’s market,” says Brian Brink of Brink Appraisal in Portland, Ore.
“Although some people still believe we haven’t seen the bottom of the real estate market, there are signs nationally that the market is stabilizing and has seen its low point.”
Everyone has less money now, but everything costs more
Economic experts insist that inflationary pressure in the United States is low, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the prices of some of the most common items.
Since 2008 …
Was: $1.62 a gallon
Is: $3.69 a gallon (average, in places above $4) and rising. Fast.
Were: $95.66 a month
Are: $110.55 a month
J. Crew swimsuit
Xbox Live membership
College tuition, public
Was: $6,585 a year
Is: $8,244 a year
Median household income
Was: $52,029 a year
Is: $49,445 a year
The IRS? Yep, still there
According to everyone’s least-favorite government office, if you meet certain requirements, you may qualify for the foreign earned income and foreign housing exclusions, or even the foreign housing deduction.
U.S. citizens or resident aliens abroad are taxed on their worldwide income. However, you may qualify to exclude from income up to an amount of your foreign earnings that is now adjusted for inflation ($91,400 for 2009, $91,500 for 2010, $92,900 for 2011, $95,100 for 2012).
In addition, you can exclude or deduct certain foreign housing amounts.
Your best financial friend, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) allows you to except income earned abroad only if you’ve filed a tax return each year you’ve been away.
The IRS may allow you to file past tax returns without penalty.
The straight dope from the feds can be found at the FEIE page on the IRS website.
Don’t forget state taxes
States are reluctant to lose you as a benefactor. Regardless of whether it’s been years since you last lived there, states can use an arsenal of criteria to continue considering you a resident/host body, including your driver’s license, voter registration, local bank accounts, bills and of course any properties owned or rented.
Be sure to check with your state's department of revenue or tax office before declaring yourself free and clear of tax burdens.
Report everything that’s not stuffed in a mattress
You’re also obligated to disclose any financial accounts held overseas that total $10,000 at any point during a given tax year, so you’ll want to fill out a federal TD F 90-22.1 form. Enjoy!
Catch up on the culture
Having likely adopted the ticks and trends of your adopted country, you’ll want to get up to speed on what’s en vogue in the United States so as to hasten your assimilation/lessen your happy hour humiliation.
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The culture has thankfully dispensed with the $100 Ed Hardy skulls-and-roses rhinestone-studded T-shirt, so if you missed that trend entirely, count your blessings.
Still prevalent are indoor scarves, high-waisted jeans, pork pie hats, DayGlo basketball sneakers and skinny pants that inexplicably sag, making the wearer look like a Dr. Seuss character.
Leave the house swaddled in the 1980s and you'll blend right in.
Depending on when you left, it was either all about "True Blood," "The Sopranos" or Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater."
Now, it’s shows like FX’s creepy "American Horror Story" and quirky "Wilfred," Showtime’s psychologically gripping "Homeland" and HBO’s gruesome "Game of Thrones" and historically meticulous "Boardwalk Empire."
Apple is finally starting to dent Windows’ market share, while Firefox and Google Chrome are quickly killing Internet Explorer.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire presented the first real competition to the iPad in November 2011, while 3DTV and connectivity among all devices (TVs that connect directly to Netflix, refrigerators that notify your cell phone when a tomato is about to spoil) are slowly catching on.
Charlie Sheen = the new Amy Winehouse
The Kardashians = the new Osbournes
Ron Paul = the new Ross Perot
People are increasingly eating out of the back of a truck now. Articles, phone apps and whole web sites are dedicated to tracking a rapidly metastasizing strain of rolling restaurant -- food trucks -- that, in some cases, serve food fit for a star-rated eatery.
Experimentation and novelty abound, the most notable examples being Korean tacos, Cuban crepes and gay ice cream.
Everybody in the United States is crazy now
If you previously identified yourself as conservative, it's likely that you now qualify as a moderate on the updated partisan slide rule. If you identified as liberal before your expatriation, it's likely you're returning home to a tent city of organic patchouli smoke and protest signs.
Also, politicians tweet pics of their Weiners to constituents now. But you knew that. See, you're feeling more at home already.
Reverse culture shock
The United States you remember has been replaced by its cinematic evil twin.
It’s really just the same old country with a mustache, but that’ll be enough to cause what is widely regarded among the expat community as reverse culture shock: the unexpected difficulty of adjusting to life back home.
According to Mobility magazine, “For many, it takes a full 12-month-cycle of holidays and work-related events before [returning expats] feel fully re-established back home.” Here’s what to expect …
Regardless of what your routine was while abroad, every day brought discovery. Now, discovery means waiting with anticipation for what the new Hess holiday toy truck will look like.
Tip: Dive back into the culture. There has been a panoply of acclaimed movies, television shows, music and books since you left.
Missing your second home
The homeland has always been there waiting for you, so coming back to your country of origin actually makes you more homesick for the foreign land.
Tip: As a foreigner, you were more willing to adapt. Now that you're “home,” you may feel out of place, only without the willingness to conform. Identify what you miss about home before you return then focus on those things once you do.
Nobody cares where you’ve been
People outside the United States often like to hear what life is like there. Americans, owing to either a sense of superiority or disinterest, aren’t all that curious about what’s going on in Malalikibootoostan. (Which is a close approximation to how they might pronounce the name of your most recent home. Ha ha, your high school friends are funny!)
Tip: Keep your remembrances brief unless someone takes an active interest in your experience. Any phrase containing "when I was in..." is a no go zone. No one likes a Carmen Sandiego.
Your new job may not allow you to capitalize on the multi-cultural skills you cultivated during your time abroad (“Just input the data from this form into that one and start the next pile as soon as you’re done, Ferguson!”) and/or you may not enjoy as senior a position upon your return.
Tip: Don’t let this engender a sense of lost career momentum. Nobody in America likes their job, so this will give you something to bond over!
Where have all my holidays gone?
Working in the United States brings with it a remarkable lack of public holidays and vacation leave. No more easy long weekends in Phuket or the coast of Spain on generous expat leave.
Tip: Ask not what your company can do for you, ask what you can do for your company. Get cracking.
No one understands you
Your difficulty reintegrating into American society is as foreign a concept to others there as the place you just left.
Tip: Get over it.