BEING AN EXPAT IN 2013 - A Financial Primer

Investors Offshore Editorial Team, January, 2013, 18 January, 2013

To believe the surveys, half the world is either already an expat, or planning to become one. Tens of millions of people work abroad, or have retired there, or have property in a foreign country.

Once upon a time, perhaps in the days of the British Raj, expatriates had a financially golden life style in recompense for the perceived horrors of a foreign posting involving endless travel, unpleasant insects and unpronounceable but deadly diseases. Once you had shaken the dust of London or Paris or Philadelphia from your feet, you could forget all about tax inspectors and set about hiring an extensive staff of punkah-wallahs and major-domos to run your immense colonial villa while you drank gin and tonic on the verandah (against malaria, of course).

After your 30 years in the sunshine, with wrinkled skin and full pockets, you could retire to a small country house in the Home Counties, New England or Normandy, to swap travellers' tales with your neighbours.

The reality nowadays is both more mundane and more challenging. Over-crowded airports, intrusive tax inspectors, the Internet and hyper-active investment advisers are just some of the features that are combining to form a new and very different landscape for expats.

But at least today's expat is not short of advice from financial advisers on the most appropriate offshore financial services on offer to suit their needs.

There are multiple reasons why a person may choose to expatriate. Better weather is often cited as a major reason for leaving home for those living in cold northern climates in Europe and North America. Other frequently given reasons include the more relaxed lifestyle, lower crime and slower pace of life in the destination country, particularly for retirees. Then there are those who may find themselves posted to a foreign city as part of their career, or because their business interests require their presence in a foreign country. Last, but certainly not least, many people choose to move abroad to improve their financial position and to take advantage of higher incomes and lower rates of tax.

Whatever one's reason for expatriating, this is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly however, and many pitfalls await the unwary expat.

As HSBC Bank International's Expat Experience Survey has observed, emotive worries can cause much greater concern for expats than practical issues.

The most common concern for expats ahead of moving to their new country according to the survey is re-establishing a social life, feeling lonely and missing friends and family, although experience in this regard varies widely from country to country.

Despite the many positives of expat life in Asia, both financially and in terms of quality of life, it appears that a move to the region does come with some difficulties. According to the 2012 Expat Explorer survey, expats living in Asia generally report finding it difficult to integrate into the local community. The numbers of expats who agreed strongly that they had integrated well in the local community in Asian countries including Malaysia (25%) Singapore (19%), Thailand (14%), and Hong Kong (11%) were much lower in comparison to many English-speaking countries such as Canada (44%), Australia (43%) and the UK (41%). The trend is highlighted when looking at the social activity of expats in these countries, with many expats in Hong Kong (50%), Thailand (48%) and Singapore (41%) in strong agreement that they tend to socialise with other expats rather than locals.

Learning the local language is a serious barrier to integration for expats living in Asia, with more than half of expats in Hong Kong (59%), and higher than average levels in Thailand (45%) and Malaysia (25%), finding learning a local language very difficult. As a result, while a third (33%) of expats across the world agreed strongly that they try to learn the local language of their new country; these levels are much lower in Thailand (24%), Singapore (15%), Malaysia (14%) and Hong Kong (9%).

Then there are the kids to worry about, as countries which provide expats with the greatest benefits in terms of salary and economic rewards don’t always provide the best quality of life for children and families, according to the 2012 Expat Explorer survey. The Raising Children Abroad league table ranks countries on three main factors important for expat parents: Childcare, Health and Wellbeing, and Integration. The findings revealed Canada (1st), the Netherlands (2nd) and Hong Kong (3rd) to be the top places for raising children abroad.

For expat parents, the safety and wellbeing of their children is at the forefront of their minds when looking to relocate abroad, and the survey highlights that parents appear to be united in their choice of the top locations in which to raise children abroad. When asked where they would consider relocating to after their current posting, expat parents selected only those countries that made it into the Raising Children Abroad league table - demonstrating a clear knowledge of those countries ideal for bringing up a child. Canada (1st) proved a popular choice among expat parents with one fifth (20%) of expat parents living in the country suggesting that of all of the expat locations, they would choose to relocate elsewhere within the country rather than choose a new location or move back to their home country. The country was also highly rated by expats in the USA (9%) and the UAE (12%). Similarly, Australia (4th) scored consistently well as a future expat posting with expat parents in the Netherlands (10%), UK (10%) and Hong Kong (10%) all choosing it as a possible future home. As with Canada, a high proportion of expat parents in Australia (17%) would choose to stay within the country if they were to move, rather than choose to move elsewhere.

Findings of the 2012 Expat Explorer survey reveal that the Middle East provides a more challenging environment in which to raise children, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE ranking in the bottom half of this year’s Raising Children Abroad league table. Social integration is one of the areas where expat parents in the Middle East reported their children had most difficulty. Six out of ten expat parents in Saudi Arabia reported that the social integration of their children had become worse since relocating, as did those in Kuwait (40%) and the UAE (34%), all of which is well above average (26%).

Perhaps it's the Internet which has made the biggest difference to the lives of expats in recent times, however. Indeed the worldwide web has revolutionised expats' everyday lives, with the instant communication that it offers helping to shorten the distance with friends and family back home, at least psychologically.

In 2010, HSBC found that expats are using the latest in social media and communications technology in particular in order to stay in touch with loved ones all over the world. While Facebook tops the list as expats’ social media channel of choice, expats across the globe would be lost without the latest technology such as Skype to keep in touch with their friends and family.

Across the globe, 84% of expats rely on internet voice and video software to stay in touch with friends and family, as traditional communication channels such as the landline telephone (63%) and letters (68%) are relegated in favour of newer forms of communication.

Lisa Wood, Head of Marketing at HSBC Expat, says: “Expats really rely on methods of communication that can easily keep them in touch with friends and family abroad. That’s why social media is a fantastic tool for expats and can be invaluable in keeping up-to-date with what is going on in their local community. It also offers expats additional support when they first relocate, allowing them to easily keep in touch with friends and family back home and find help and advice on settling in from others in their situation."

Optimizing Tax

Expatriate tax is one of the major financial issues to consider when moving abroad because, while expats - whether working or retired - may still regard their status as an escape from over-crowded, cold, northern cities, no longer does the tax inspector forget about them when they leave. Americans have it worse than anyone else, because they continue to be taxed as if they are resident, with a few minor concessions; but everyone else has to think about their residential situation and taxation of current income both while they are overseas and afterwards. Then there is inheritance tax to worry about; and the major problem of how to amass retirement savings that will not be pounced on by one tax authority or another.

Still, it is not all bad news. There are many countries in which expatriates receive complete or partial exemption from local taxation (some of them even with nice climates); and for most nationals it is possible to find sophisticated investment structures which do a good job of preserving wealth during and after expatriation.

If you are expecting to become or remain an expatriate in 2013, the time to consider your financial and tax situation is now. Don't leave it until you have made the move!

For most expats, offshore banking and investment offers opportunities for greater tax efficiency, confidentiality, and the ability to take advantage of an international investing perspective, free of the petty restrictions that often apply in high-tax countries. Continuing globalisation, and the increased use of electronic banking mean that for you as an expatriate, a multitude of opportunities have opened up which would not have been available a few years ago.

These freedoms do of course depend on your residential status and the tax rules in your home country. For many expats a period of non-residence can be just what the bank manager ordered; but for some nationalities, US citizens for instance, mere expatriation isn't enough to escape home taxes.

In this special feature, we will be looking at the different types of offshore investment suitable for expatriates and the business of choosing a place to live - for those that have a choice! But first, a warning: many high-tax countries have been tightening up on residence rules and most definitely have taken a far closer interest in offshore investment structures during the last few years.

Offshore Banking

In most offshore jurisdictions, interest earned on bank deposits is free of tax for non-residents. Also of great importance from an expat point of view is the convenience factor associated with offshore, for example the ability to receive and deposit funds remitted from your home country, or income earned from working overseas (for example fees, salary and expenses), in sterling, US dollars, or any one of a number of hard currencies.

Contrary to what most aspiring expats may think, banking in a foreign country is not as dangerous and risky as may first appear, and according to a survey released in January 2012, the majority of expats continue to have a high level of trust in foreign banks, despite the ongoing financial crisis.

The Expat Banking Poll survey sponsored by Lloyds TSB International and conducted by expat website Just Landed, suggests that expats aren't worried about keeping their money in foreign banks, and as many as 59% of the 1,184 respondents trust their banks abroad. 22% of respondents however do not trust their banks "at all".

"These figures should bring great comfort to expats," said Daniel Tschentscher, managing partner at Just Landed. "In the current climate, one would expect the level of trust to be lower, but that really doesn't seem to be the case at all."

However, the poll shows significant differences between popular expat destinations. Banks in the Middle East seem to enjoy some of the best reputations among expats. In the United Arab Emirates, 74% completely trust local banks, and in Kuwait this number is even higher at 83%.

In Europe, German banks receive a similar score, with 68% of expats completely trusting their services. UK banks are completely trusted by only 52% of respondents. And despite uncertainties over the British pound, 36% of expatriates claim they would invest in sterling over any other currency.

On the other extreme, expats in Spain are rapidly losing faith in the national banking system. In Spain, 64% of expatriates do not trust local banks at all, one of the highest levels of distrust worldwide. Some of the most common problems cited by those who distrust banks abroad include unfair charges, trouble with the language barrier and money that was deducted from their account without any explanation.

Tschentscher added: "While the poll demonstrated a lot of positivity, there are also some issues to be addressed. But in general, it seems expats feel quite safe banking abroad."

Many offshore banks offer a range of services and options, including:

Setting up an offshore bank account or investment portfolio should prove to be no problem once you have decided on the location and type of account. There is generally a minimum amount for offshore deposit accounts, and due to recent legislation designed to prevent money laundering, identification is usually required, despite the claims of some shady service providers to offer 'fully anonymous' offshore banking. Once the account has been established, and if you are depositing a significant sum, a relationship manager will usually be assigned to advise and assist you in the management of your assets.

You will almost certainly need to open a bank account in your country of residence for day to day transactions. If you are spending most of your time there, you will probably have to pay taxes on income paid locally, so it will often be best to have as much as possible of your income paid directly into your offshore account in hard currency. This incidentally protects you against any large fluctuations in the value of the local currency.

However, a recent fly to have taken up residence in the offshore banking ointment is the EU's Savings Tax Directive.

The European Union Savings Tax Directive (STD), which went into effect on 1st July, 2005, in fact forms merely one part of a major tax reform package launched by the European Commission in 1997. As originally drafted, the STD aimed at a uniform 'information exchange' regime to apply across the Union, with all countries agreeing to report interest on savings paid to the citizens of other Member States to those States' tax authorities.

Because of resistance from EU Member States with strong traditions of banking secrecy, the Commission had to allow Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium to apply a withholding tax (at 15%) until 2009, since when they have been applying the information-sharing model. Many of the UK's offshore financial centres have been forced to join the STD, along with the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba and some European centres (Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino). Most of these places took the withholding tax route, as did Switzerland, which was the hardest nut for the EU to crack; those countries which apply the withholding tax raised it to 20% in 2008, and to 35% in 2011.

The STD applies to many types of return on savings instruments, all loosely described as interest, when received by individuals, but does not affect interest paid to companies. Under the information exchange system, the identity of recipients will be known to their home tax authorities; when tax is withheld, the identity of the recipient will not be reported, thus preserving confidentiality.

In 2008, a Commission Review Group which had been working away for three years recommended a major extension of the Directive in the EU itself to close loopholes which have permitted many investors to escape the tax until now, for example by moving assets from bank accounts to vehicles such as companies and trusts - which weren't included in the legislation - or by shifting money to accounts based in territories out of the reach of the directive's information sharing provisions, such as Hong Kong or Singapore. However, in 2012, Austria and Luxembourg, two EU member states with strong traditions of banking secrecy, blocked the European Commission's plan to negotiate new and stronger savings tax agreements with third countries, and in early 2013, there are few signs of the deadlock being broken.

Furthermore, the US government has given US taxpayers with offshore bank accounts yet another thing to think in the form of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA for short. Enacted by the United States Congress in March 2010, FATCA is intended to ensure that the US tax authorities obtain information on financial accounts held by US taxpayers, or by foreign entities in which US taxpayers hold a substantial ownership interest, with foreign financial institutions (FFIs). Failure by an FFI to disclose information would result in a requirement to withhold 30% tax on US-source income.

To assist compliance by FFIs, the US Treasury Department has published a model inter-governmental agreement for implementing FATCA and announced the development of a second model agreement. It is intended that these models should serve as the basis for concluding bilateral agreements with interested jurisdictions.

In November 2012, the US Treasury disclosed that it was engaged with more than 50 countries and jurisdictions around the world to implement the information reporting and withholding tax provisions arising out of FATCA. The Treasury has already concluded a bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom. But additional jurisdictions with which the Treasury is in the process of finalizing an intergovernmental agreement include: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Mexico, the Netherlands and Norway.

In addition, jurisdictions with which the Treasury is actively engaged in a dialogue towards concluding an inter-governmental agreement include: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Israel, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Slovakia, Singapore and Sweden.

Jurisdictions with which the Treasury is working to explore options for inter-governmental engagement include: Bermuda, Brazil, the British Virgin Islands, Chile, the Czech Republic, Gibraltar, India, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Romania, Russia, the Seychelles, Sint Maarten, Slovenia and South Africa. This list of countries is likely to expand through 2013.

Under the current timetable, withholding agents, including participating FFIs and registered-deemed compliant FFIs, will be required to implement new account opening procedures by January 1, 2014. In addition, the final FATCA regulations will provide that a participating FFI will be required to file the information reports with respect to the 2013 and 2014 calendar years not later than March 31, 2015, while the withholdable payments of clients will now need to be reported from January 1, 2016, with respect to calendar year 2015.

Offshore Investment

Offshore banking is, of course, not the only option available to you; depending on your situation, financial status, and degree of openness to risk, there are a variety of offshore investment options open to you as well. Funds are the most straightforward and readily available option. These range in risk from low yielding bond funds to highly-geared hedge funds, so there is something for everyone.

Fund investment is especially suitable for the busy expat, because you can choose to invest in a certain class of assets without having to examine the characteristics of individual assets in detail. The tax efficiency of offshore funds often means that they have higher yields than equivalent onshore funds, so it may pay you to transfer existing onshore assets into offshore funds, although you have to be careful about the costs of transfer, and especially capital gains tax. You also have to consider what may happen when, and if, you go back.

As is the case onshore, there are two different types of investment fund available:

Offshore equity investment is another rapidly developing investment sector, which may also be of interest to you as an expatriate. Equity investment used to mean investing in securities listed on your local stock exchange to the exclusion of foreign stocks, but of recent years, all this has changed. There is a growing number of stocks that are listed offshore - dividends and capital gains will of course be tax-free and they can be bought through local brokerages. As long as you have a satisfactory non-resident tax situation, you can also buy onshore equities without risking capital gains tax, but you will find that dividends have usually been subject to withholding tax, which you may not be able to reclaim.

This is an area in which the Internet has opened up new possibilities for investors, as online brokerages and some investment sites and exchanges allow you to manage your portfolio quickly and easily wherever you are in the world. The physical barriers to international investing of a few years ago simply do not exist for today's expatriate investors. Expatriate investment is therefore not limited to funds and equities, but can also include other types of onshore investment activity such as derivatives trading (futures and options), and their cousins spread-betting and contracts for differences. But it must be said that risk doesn't diminish with distance: arguably, if you are away from a particular market-place, with even the best on-line information sources you are somehow missing knowledge you might have had if you were present. These more exotic types of investment are not for the faint-hearted!

Pensions Investment

Whilst you are thinking about offshore investment, it may be worth giving some thought to your pension. Although pensions investment is usually tax-privileged in high-tax countries, as an expat, you face additional problems, namely that while non-resident, you will probably not be able to continue taking advantage of the tax incentives 'at home', even if you want to retire there.

Pensions investment is a tricky area for expatriates, and more than ever you will need to consult with an independent professional. However, you can consider your basic options prior to doing so, and these will depend greatly on the circumstances surrounding your expatriation.

If you are employed by a company in your home country (and are part of an in-house pension scheme), and you are moving abroad to work for that same company, then in some countries you may be able to continue contributing to that plan; in the UK for instance you can continue to contribute for a maximum of 10 years.

If you are moving abroad to work for a company with no ties to your home country, then you may be allowed to join their local pension scheme. Only in a few cases will you be able to transfer the pension rights back to your country of residence when you return, unless you continue to work for the same company; and usually the terms of transfer are highly unattractive.

If you have been contributing to a personal pension scheme, however, the news is usually worse, as in certain countries, for example the UK, you are only allowed to contribute to your pension plan for as long as you are taxable there.

The right decision will obviously depend on your personal circumstances. If however you are going abroad for an extended period, and especially if there is a good chance that you will retire to some other part of the world, there may be an argument for transferring your home pension assets offshore straightaway, even though that may (probably will) entail a tax penalty if your contributions have been tax-privileged. On the other hand, the tax penalty of transfer taken together with the exit penalty from your scheme may combine to make a transfer very costly. If you are lucky, you may find that your pensions provider has an offshore branch, and you may be able to induce them to make the transfer on favourable terms in order to keep your business.

Some countries, including the UK, will only allow the transfer of an existing tax-privileged pension fund to another country if it applies similar rules, ie restricting investment options and limiting cash-outs to 25% of the fund. To some extent the QROPS mechanism (Qualified Recognized Offshore Pension Schemes) permits bona-fide long-term non-residents to bypass the restrictions, but you need highly qualified professional advice before undertaking this route.

Whatever you decide to do about your existing pensions arrangements, once you have established non-residence (and non-tax-paying) in your home country, you will have many options open to you to make retirement provision offshore, in order to take advantage of the peace of mind of knowing that your assets are secure however your circumstances change, and the greater flexibility over retirement date, payments, etc, which could be so important to you as an expat.

These options can't be examined in this brief primer; however, there are two broad categories of pensions provision to choose between:


Offshore companies

If you are going to work in a country which wants to tax your world-wide income, or are going to return to your home country to a world-wide taxation regime, then you may want to consider establishing an offshore company.

This is another complex area in which professional help is needed, but the interpolation of a company can sometimes distance you from your income sufficiently to avoid taxation. In some countries there are plenty of rules to prevent this; but not in all, by any means.

The following may be of especial interest if you are providing a personal service (for example in the finance or engineering industry), or if you have a substantial investment portfolio.

There are, of course, many other types of offshore company that can be formed to deal with the needs of large corporations, or expats with very specific needs, eg globetrotting entertainers or sportsmen.

Offshore Trusts

An offshore trust can be set up by an expat to serve the same basic purposes as an offshore company, namely confidentiality, tax minimisation, asset protection, and estate planning.

The principal difference between the two structures is that with an offshore company, ownership is maintained, whereas with an offshore trust, ownership is transferred. This has the effect of creating more distance between you and your wealth, so that it's harder for creditors, the taxman or your ex-spouse to get at it!

Trusts used to be primarily aimed at tax avoidance, but in recent years the tax authorities in many high-tax countries have passed 'anti-avoidance' legislation that lets them attack trust assets while you are alive, although they are still effective against inheritance taxes. Trust assets won't be taken into account during the probate process, so that the death of the settlor does not affect the administration of the trust, which still remains under the custodianship of the trustees. This also allows a settlor to maintain confidentiality over the size of the estate, and avoid the delays and possible publicity which would come as the result of a lengthy probate procedure, not to mention the saving on inheritance tax.

Trust assets will remain in the trust for as long as the original Trust Deed prescribed (in perpetuity, if necessary, or for lesser periods), or until the terms of the trust permit or require the Trustees to distribute them.

Another area in which the use of trusts is growing is asset protection, so if you have a fairly substantial liquid net worth that you would like to protect, before, during, and after your expatriation, an offshore trust may be the way to go.

A basic trust structure consists of three entities; the settlor, who sets up the trust, the trustee, who acts as custodian, and the beneficiary/ies, who can receive income from it.

Trusts originated in England, and most of the ex-British offshore islands have trust legislation. Civil law countries on the other hand tend not to have trust laws, although some of them have copied the concept of a trust in order to compete effectively, and some have 'foundations' which are a civil law alternative to trusts.

Choosing Your Jurisdiction

There are several factors to consider when choosing an offshore jurisdiction from which to bank, invest, or trade as an expatriate. The following are areas that you will need to look at in order to make a considered and profitable decision:

As you can see, even from this basic guide, the offshore options for you as an expatriate are many and varied, and there is something for any situation and pocket. However, it is always advisable to seek one-to-one financial advice before making a decision about the type of investment that is right for you.

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