For most people, a driver’s license or ID card is the most straightforward thing in the world. Here’s who I am, and this is where I live. But what if you live in an RV? What if you don’t have an address? And what if you’re an expatriate who hasn’t had a fixed address in your home country in years? Allow me to share with you the bureaucratic nightmare that came with my “moving” from Texas to New Mexico.
Strictly speaking, I don’t live in my “recreational vehicle” or a vehicle of any kind, nor do I live in Texas or New Mexico. I live in Japan. But as an American citizen, I am still required to be domiciled in a U.S. state. And like many RVers and avid travelers, this means I lack a house or apartment.
For U.S. expatriates, the United States, and one of its states specifically, isn’t really home. My home is not the United States, so in the conceptualisation we have of “home is where the heart is,” everyone knows that Japan is my home.
That doesn’t, however, exempt me from having and maintaining a domicile in the United States. The only way to do that is to relinquish U.S. citizenship, because as a natural-born American, I am a “citizen of the United States and of the state in which (I) reside.”
So, being honest that really, my home is an hour outside of Tokyo doesn’t change the fact that I must reside somewhere in the United States, and if I want to do certain things, Japan will insist I do it in the country of origin — and that means in the state in which I am legally domiciled.
I had some documentation issues I had to sort out in Japan, but my home state of Texas wasn’t allowing me to do what I wanted to do. And while I didn’t care, Japan did. And in order to go through necessary procedures for naturalisation to Japan, I needed to change or obtain documents only available through the state level because of “dual-sovereignty” (or the concept that in the United States political system, some powers are the federal government’s and some powers are retained by the states). So I “moved” to New Mexico instead.
This process isn’t just for people seeking to emigrate. Other people choose to move their domicile for tax reasons or estate planning or marriage (such as same-sex marriage) or divorce proceedings. There’s nothing illegal about this as long as you are really doing it. Where people run into problems is when they think they can move a domicile for some reason and then continue to operate in their previous state as if it was still a legal domicile.
Sounds confusing, right? I know. Try having to actually do it.
For me, moving to New Mexico was a no-brainer. Not only were the documentation processes considerably easier and simpler, and the political situation more to my liking (protection of sexual orientation in public employment since 1985, LGBT anti-discrimination laws since 2003, and same-sex marriage since 2013), I have family there and went to school there for a time. In a legal action contesting my residency, this would be strong evidence in my favor. I’m no stranger to New Mexico. But even if I was, the process would have been the same.
I should point out that while “residence” and “domicile” are often conflated, they are not always legally the same. Rule of thumb is that you can have many physical residences (like Mitt Romney!), but you may only have one “domicile.” Your domicile is where you claim that you have established permanent residency. It is where you maintain “intent to return.” It is home. You are allowed to change your “domicile” but you need to establish a pattern of proof (we’ll get to that).
All other residences are temporary, ephemeral, or the like. Vacation homes (again, like Mitt Romney, it’s pretty to good to be Mitt Romney) if you want to think of it that way. As an expatriate, this can be complicated, because a true expatriate’s home isn’t in their nation of origin.
Here’s how you do it. Let’s assume that you, like myself, did not have access to an apartment or house and that for reasons generally outside of your control, or that you did not have anyone willing to allow you to use an address. If you are an RVer or avid traveler and live out of your vehicle or are an expat, you wouldn’t need nor want to purchase property or sign a lease agreement.
So how do you get an address? Mailbox services. Not P.O. Boxes, those don’t count. I mean a mailbox which can exist at a verifiable physical address. There are many companies that do this. It’s the same for if you have a small business and incorporating laws require you have a physical address. I chose a UPS location within walking distance of my mother’s residence. All you need is a valid current ID. I used my passport.
These mailbox companies can forward the mail for a small fee to anywhere you know you are going to be, even internationally, if you just pick up the phone or email them and tell them what you need sent, where, and when.
Now you have a legal physical address. This will appear like a suite or apartment number, and may be listed as such by various institutions or agencies, but never tell anyone to do that, say number or # to be completely accurate and honest about the address. You don’t need to volunteer that it is a mailbox, but it doesn’t legally matter that it is.
From here you can acquire other proofs of residency because you will need to surrender your old driver’s license and obtain a new one from your new state. You will need to update your address with your financial institutions, brokerages, cell phone, health insurance, auto insurance, etc, etc.
Once you do that, you can look up the necessary document lists, and collect the required documents (for New Mexico it was proof of social security number, either the card or a signed letter from the field manager of the local Social Security Administration office, one form of identity which is your former license, and two proofs of residency).
It’s up to you to make sure that you are operating within the laws of both the state in which your formerly resided and the state in which you are trying to establish residency.
For New Mexico, and indeed many states, you can register your motor vehicle in the state before obtaining a driver’s license. This is great, because then you can use your motor vehicle registration and your auto insurance policy as proof of your residency with your new address. I didn’t have a car (my car is in Japan!), so I used my life insurance policy and a statement from my retirement account. I also registered to vote in New Mexico at the same time my temporary license was approved, which further cements my position that New Mexico is my domicile.
The more time you have to gather the documentation, the easier this process is. I ended up spending two days from dawn to dusk running around from agency to agency to agency, because often in order to get one document you need one of the other documents. So for me, trying to get this all done within one week before I fly back to Japan, I didn’t always know I needed one document for another document until I showed up and was told, leaving empty handed. But if you do have a couple of weeks to spend on the process, and can spend time finding out the document order, the process is actually simple.
I should add a disclaimer, while from all of my research, I believe what I have done is both legal and accurate, I am not a lawyer. And residency requirements from state to state (not to mention nation to nation) do differ. Sometimes considerably.
Enjoy your new domicile — wherever and whatever it is, no matter what the reason you chose it!
Image via Shutterstock, modified.