Frustrated American voters are always threatening to move to another country. Most of them don’t realize just how difficult such a move would be.
By Gabriela Barkho
A sign marks the border between Canada and the U.S. near Beecher Falls, Vermont. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
“That’s it,” your friend writes on Facebook as the primaries get nasty. “I’m moving to X if so-and-so gets elected.” What Americans tend not to realize is that permanent citizenship in foreign countries is not guaranteed to United States nationals — in fact, it’s a lot harder than most people will admit.
Election-year threats of expatriation aren’t entirely new in America, as leading immigration lawyer Cyrus Mehta recalls: “This has happened before in the past, during the George W. Bush era, but back then it never really seemed to materialize.” Corporate brands are even trying to monetize this exodus-fantasy — just look to Spotify’s movinguptocanada.com campaign for your “moving” playlist needs. “Some of you might choose Canada this November…. Here’s the perfect soundtrack — with songs handpicked from 100s of moving playlists.”
After George W. Bush’s election, some Americans actually followed through on the threat, relocating to Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north. But even moving to Canada requires tons of effort, research, and money — all without a guarantee of permanent residency. Post as many angry status updates as you like; the reality is that leaving the U.S., like immigrating to it, isn’t as simple as packing up and boarding a flight.
To put it simply, if your desire to move abroad is based primarily on lifelong dreams and ambitions, it might be worth a shot. But if the only goal is to flee the results of a democratic election, the time and money are almost certainly not worth it.
Yet the impulse to flee is so strong. “I think the reason why people say that is due to the frustration they’re feeling, so there’s an element of frustration,” explains Cherry R. Short, associate dean at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work’s Global & Community Initiatives. Short, who’s worked in politics in the United Kingdom and is an expert on British and European immigration laws, says she understands why Americans are feeling helpless during this circus of an election cycle, and why they’re threatening to flee — “because in reality you feel there isn’t anything else you can do.”
Among other factors, countries with a less toxic political climate certainly represent a draw for many Americans flirting with expatriation. And since the most desirable destinations for U.S. citizens remain Anglophone countries with similar cultures to our own — like Canada or the U.K. — here’s a look into the various ways you can go about reaching these countries.
One American who’s adopted Canada as her permanent home is Jennifer Chesney, who currently works at the University of Alberta’s Digital Strategy department. Chesney left her Wall Street job and headed north—shortly into Bush’s second term—to give her newborn son a better life under a more stable and social political system (his dad’s a Canadian citizen). Avoiding the U.S.’s rising cost of education and childcare, for example, is what drove her away from this country’s current policies. Still, the process of obtaining permanent residency in Canada isn’t as easy as Facebook makes it sound, and so Chesney offers cautionary advice to anyone considering the move.
“Plan, plan, plan,” Chesney stresses. “Regarding Canada specifically, ask yourself as you read our mutual trade agreements: What experience and skills do you have that can be of benefit to Canada? You need to be OK with paying taxes in two countries and to disclose all aspects of your life.”
Chesney, who moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, by securing a job using her business technology skills, says she feels lucky to have been placed on British Columbia’s fast track for permanent residence, which has allowed her to move jobs and live and raise her son in the beautiful Edmonton, Alberta.
Luckily for Americans, and anyone looking to immigrate to Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new policy reforms could make it increasingly easy to move there — assuming you have skills that are marketable in Canada. You’ll just need to qualify for residency under the points system established under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
For those looking to cross the pond, though — where U.K. and the European Union border controls differ vastly from those in North America — obtaining permanent residency is tightly controlled, and for some Americans virtually impossible. England, for example, appeals to many American expats with hopes of maintaining a similar culture and the language they grew up with back home.
Katharine Roat, originally from Dallas, Texas, has been been living in London for over two years and works now as a business intelligence analyst. While she first lived in the U.K. on a student visa, she gained permanent residence after falling in love and eloping with a U.K. national — an immense stroke of luck in Britain with its strict borders. But even marrying into the country didn’t make for a cakewalk.
“The marriage didn’t allow me to stay automatically,” Roat says. “I went home to Dallas and had to wait a painful three months after they lost my application for a spousal visa.”
While she sees the appeal of the romance of moving abroad, Roat admits, “I definitely have a newfound respect for those who have the courage to immigrate. Not only is it emotionally taxing, but it’s also very expensive with no guarantee that your application will be accepted.”
While a quick wedding can be the British immigration golden ticket, most American immigrants, like 23-year-old Rachel Almeida, must resort to other means. Almeida, a Miami native, also moved to London to study on a student visa, and has found that staying long-term is virtually impossible.
“My immigration lawyer told me there is basically no way to stay — legally, of course — unless I get a visa extension from my long-term partner here in the U.K.,” Almeida explains. “The thought of having to depend on a man to be able to stay in a country infuriates me, I want to be self-sufficient. Luckily I’m in a position where I’m in a committed relationship with a British person, but a lot of people aren’t.”
While she sympathizes with the genuine desire of Americans to start a new life elsewhere — admitting she doesn’t miss “the casual racism of the South and the expensive health care” and has no plans to return to the U.S. if Donald Trump is elected — she knows that not everyone can afford the opportunity to do what she has done.
Need further proof that escaping say, Trump, won’t solve your problems? Kelli Korducki, a writer and editor in New York, said she was part of the wave of Americans who moved to Canada in September 2004, partly as a smug, “I don’t want to be around when Bush gets re-elected” move, and mostly to attend college. After years of extending her stay through a domestic partner’s sponsorship, she realized that staying in Toronto on her own is virtually impossible.
“The relationship that facilitated my immigration disintegrated in the fall of 2014 and I got a job offer a year later in New York — and despite the tremendous challenges and legal hoops I’d had to jump to be allowed to stay in Canada, I was ready for a new adventure,” Korducki says.
It’s a self-evident irony that amid a strained political climate, in which many immigrants and refugees are literally dying for a chance to arrive in America, politically dissatisfied Americans are rejecting the privilege of legally living here. Every person or family who immigrated to the U.S. in recent memory knows just how historically difficult it is to earn that privilege.
To put it simply, if your desire to move abroad is based primarily on lifelong dreams and ambitions, it might be worth a shot. But if the only goal is to flee the results of a democratic election, the time and money are almost certainly not worth it. After all, the elected candidate you so loathe could already be well into his or her term by the time your visa is approved and moving accommodations are in order.