Living overseas, whether temporarily or permanently, is many a writer's dream. Imagine the travel articles you could sell if you had time to explore those out-of-the-way locations so coveted by travel magazines! Imagine the local color you could pack into your features! Imagine the seasonal topics you could generate based on local crafts, customs, or cooking!
Now imagine the hassle of handling telephone communications, mail, and finances from thousands of miles away...
As any overseas writer can tell you, living abroad has its downside. Communicating by telephone across multiple time-zones is complicated, and you're bound to get a call from your editor at 4 a.m. You may find that your host country has fewer Internet services, slower connections, and no "flat fees," which means you pay for your connection by the minute. Most of all, the costs of cashing a check in another currency can be staggering. However, there are steps you can take to smooth out some of these difficulties in advance.
Your best asset when living overseas is a friend or relative "back home" who can receive, sort, and forward your mail, and deposit your checks. A relative may even be able to give you a "home address" for business or personal use. S/he can presort your mail, dumping catalogs and junk and forwarding only the important stuff. Or, s/he might even open your mail, faxing you items of immediate importance such as assignment letters or contracts, and collecting your checks to take to the bank.
It can be important to maintain an address in your "home" country, especially if you plan to continue writing for publications in that country. Otherwise, you'll have to send an IRC with every surface-mail query or submission. Worse, you'll no longer seem "local" -- and editors may be reluctant to contact you for quick-turnaround assignments or assignments that involve telephone interviews. If you can't find someone to give you such an address, however, don't despair; just go to Step Two.
The next best thing to a trusted friend is a commercial mailbox account. For a monthly fee, you can arrange for a "local" address (though Post Office regulations now require that this address include a line that specifies that it belongs to a commercial mailbox facility).
The advantage of a commercial mailbox firm over Post Office boxes is the range of additional services such firms provide, including mail forwarding, package shipping, and faxing. You can also ask the company to screen your mail for catalogs and obvious junk before forwarding. The disadvantage is that if you wish to change your address later, the Post Office will not provide forwarding services from commercial mailbox addresses; you will have to pay the mailbox service a monthly fee to forward to your new address.
By keeping an account "back home," you can deposit checks in your home country's currency without incurring extra fees. Then, when you need to transfer funds, you can do so in a single large sum. Whether you have someone to deposit your checks for you, or you plan to mail them to your bank, consider investing in an endorsement stamp. This is a legal substitute for a signature, and contains all the necessary information (your name, your bank's name, your account number) to deposit checks. Banks charge around $35 to $45 for such stamps; you may be able to obtain one more cheaply through a commercial stamp company. Stamped checks are safer than signed checks if you're sending them through the mail.
If your friend or relative deposits your checks, ask that person to make photocopies of the checks and a copy of each deposit slip. If you plan to mail in your checks, ask your bank for special "by mail" deposit slips (which provide duplicates) and envelopes. Many banks offer online banking services, which can come in handy when you're paying business-related bills. By using a credit card to make business purchases abroad, you can use your online banking service to pay those bills without having to transfer funds to your overseas account.
You may also find that some of your editors (at home and abroad) are willing to transfer your payments directly to your account, rather than sending you a check. In the case of overseas payments, this can reduce the amount you have to pay for foreign currency deposits.
Update: It is now easier to find banks that do business in more than one country, or that offer "dollar" accounts. Since it takes time to have a check forwarded to your international address and then mail it back to your US bank, look into such options first! Also, more and more businesses are offering the option of PayPal payments; if you don't already have a PayPal account, it's wise to set up one before you leave the country, and then link it to your non-US bank account later.
By using a credit card for overseas business purchases (including travel expenses), you can then use your online banking services to pay your bills. Be sure, however, to choose a card that is widely accepted abroad. American Express is one such card; another is an international VISA. Check with the consulate of your host country to find out what the preferred credit cards are in that area. Also note that as of 2006, most American credit card services have begun to charge an extra fee (often 2% of your transaction) for all non-U.S. charges, so you may wish to obtain a credit card in your country of residence. (This charge applies to US debit cards as well.)
Faxing material abroad can be frustrating. Many international publications have combination fax/phone lines, which can make it difficult to connect. Poor line quality can interrupt fax transmissions -- and, of course, such faxes are expensive.
You can forestall many of these problems by subscribing to an online fax service. This will give you a number in your home country to which editors and others can fax material. You then download your "faxes" from the Internet (or even receive them as e-mail). To send a fax, simply upload it and transmit it through the service. (You may want to invest in a simple scanner so that you can create electronic files of materials you want to fax.)
International calls are expensive. In addition, many overseas telephone services do not itemize bills, which can make it difficult for you to determine your business expenses (especially if you need to bill an editor for those costs). One solution to both problems is a "call-back card." Call-back companies assign you a local number in your host company; when you dial this number, you're connected to a computerized network that sends the call to its destination as if it were being dialed from the U.S. (or in the country you're actually calling). Some companies have you dial the number and then hang up; you are then "called back" when the computer makes the connection. You may also have the option of making several calls at once, or having a "travel" number that you can use from different locations. Rates vary, but are typically far lower than you'd pay by dialing direct; with Kallback, for example, you pay only 15 cents a minute for a call from the U.K. to the U.S.
Update: Another option is a Pennytalk (http://www.pennytalk.com/) card. This company uses "voice over IP" technology, which means that calls are transmitted over the Internet. You can use your card to call from the US to another country, or to call the US from abroad, for just pennies a minute. You can even program a shortcut to an international number, which is a handy tool for family members who want to call you without dialing an endless string of digits. You can also set up your account to "top up" automatically when it falls below a certain amount, by linking it to your PayPal account. The only downside we've noticed to the Pennytalk card is that it does have some "hidden" fees, like a charge to initiate a call, and extra charges when calling to or from mobile phones. However, it's still an excellent deal.
If you expect to have to send queries or submissions to the U.S. by surface mail and need to pay for return postage, buy postage online from the US Post Office website (http://www.usps.gov). For a flat shipping fee of $5, you can have U.S. stamps shipped anywhere in the world. Most denominations have minimum order quantities; for example, you'll need to order a minimum of 20 $1 stamps (the amount needed for a letter-size SASE).UPDATE (September 2010): The U.S. Post Office is no longer accepting international orders "at this time." This appears to be a relatively recent change, and there is no indication as to whether it is a permanent one. So for the moment, go back to Step 1: Find a Friend... The best and perhaps only way to order US postage from abroad is to have a friend purchase it or order it for you and ship it. However, this has problems of its own -- as, believe it or not, uncancelled stamps are one of the things the US post office claims it is not legal to ship! But as a sheet of stamps will fit within an ordinary letter, no customs declaration is required.
You can also find postage rates for most other countries online (see below). Unfortunately, it's not so easy to order other countries' stamps on the Internet. Another alternative, however, is to develop a "stamp exchange" network with other writers in other countries.
If you're a U.S. citizen living abroad, you may be eligible for a significant tax exemption, provided that the US has a tax treaty with that country. If your primary income comes from outside your host country, you may also be exempt from that country's taxes (though don't count on this without making sure!). The rules can be tricky, however, so it's best to find an accountant who understands these issues. A good place to look is on or near a U.S. military base, where you'll find accountants experienced not only in the laws of the host country and the U.S. federal tax code, but with the tax laws of most states.
Moving overseas is exciting, but can also be stressful. While writers can help you cope with the ups and downs of the writing business, you may also want to find a support system that can help you deal with the challenges of living in another country -- including language, customs, regulations, and where to buy basic supplies.
One good place to locate fellow "expatriates" is around a U.S. military base. Here, you'll find people who speak your language and understand your concerns. You'll also find businesses that are accustomed to the needs and preferences of your culture (and whose owners are likely to speak your language). Churches that cater to military personnel are a good place to meet people and make friends; even if you're not interested in attending services, such churches may host social activities (including excursions) that can help you get to know people who can help you adjust to your new surroundings. You may also make good contacts for articles at the same time!
Today's electronic environment has created a sense of haste. Since so many things can be done immediately, many editors (and writers) have begun to expect such immediacy. Overseas, however, such immediacy is often far less important, and in some cases impossible. Try to remember what life was like when articles had to be typed by hand and mailed in an envelope -- and relax! Sometimes it doesn't absolutely positively have to get there in the next nanosecond. While the Internet makes it easier than ever to run your writing business from abroad, don't let it ruin the joy of living in the country of your dreams!