Almost Fearless

Want to Move to Europe, What’s an American to Do?


So we’re looking for a home base… somewhere to settle down, and I came up with a long list of requirements and I knew, even before I wrote that post that it would probably be Europe (although I got so many recommendations for Sydney it gave me a short pause). Beyond my second language requirements (I want somewhere that doesn’t speak English primarily) the second big factor came down to climate — we want good weather. Lots of it. Or you know, at least half the year.

This gives us this short list:

  • Spain
  • France
  • Italy
  • Portugal

All four of these countries are in the schengen zone, which means I can spend 90 days in an 180 day period there on a tourist visa but after that, it gets more complicated.

We aren’t students.

We don’t have intentions of getting jobs in the country or finding a sponsor.

We’re not wildly wealthy.

But we are self-employed, with a regular income that can be documented via our tax records and bank statements. Can we get a non-working residency visa in these countries? YES. In theory.

How do you do it?

It’s complicated. The first major hurdle is finding out good advice from anyone who has done this before. But essentially the process is somewhat similar (I looked up expat forums, consultate websites and talked to an Italian immigration lawyer about this, so while this is my best stab at how it works, I am not an expert and things are constantly changing — even some individual embassies in the US have different rules, Miami might approve you but LA might reject. Yeah, it’s a pain. So even as I write this, I know people will jump in to tell me different things, and I appreciate that, but this is in no way a comprehensive guide to immigrating to Europe.)

Here is essentially what you will need:

2 copies of your visa application

2 passport photos

1 year left on your passport

A police certificate (usually translated into their language) that says you’ve never committed a crime, they may also want it notarized or from the FBI.

A medical certificate from your doctor saying you are free of illness.

Bank and financial records proving you have “enough income to support yourself” a phrase that is hard to define but ranges from 5,000 euros a year to at least a million euros in assets (seriously).

Medical insurance with a letter from the provider stating you’re covered up to a specific amount for medical costs in that country (varies by country)

(Plus like a ton of extra copies of all these things, and if you haven’t watched this youtube video, you may also need a stapler.)

How to choose?

Well if you decide on a country, I think the best way to go is to just dive in and commit to it, because it is impossible, really, trust me, to get some kind of reassurance that going through all this hassle will actually work. It might take more than one try. You can also hire an immigration lawyer, many who will work on a flat fee and help you. Here’s how I decided:

I loved the idea of Italy, but the income requirements are quite high. We would probably have to have at least 50,000 euros a year to even consider it, which we do, but people with five times as much have been declined. They really seem to view the non-working residency visa for the very rich, or the retired, which we are neither.

I had even found a French/Italian/English trilingual school for Cole in Florence, Italy that has activities like horseback riding and museum trips, but the stories of expats struggling with the visa were pervasive. When I told the immigration lawyer my yearly salary, he stopped responding to my emails.

So I crossed Italy off the list.

Portugal wasn’t really exciting me, so off it went too.

That left me with France and Spain. Drew and I are split on this. I love the idea of France, and he doesn’t. We both love Spain, but I wondered about job prospects for our kids.

Two things settled it for us. The path to citizenship and the monthly income requirement.

First, let me explain how it works after you get that non-working residency visa. You go to the country, you rent a place, then you register with the local police station or agency and get your temporary residency visa.

Eventually, if you live there long enough (legally) you are eligible to become a naturalized citizen.

In Spain, it takes ten years. After five years in Spain, you are eligible for permanent residency. You can legally work. That lasts for five years more years, then you can become a naturalized citizen. What does that mean? EU passport, your children can go to university, you pay taxes, you are a citizen. You can use the free healthcare. You can vote. You’re IN baby! (And continuous residency doesn’t mean you can’t travel, it just means you stay officially a resident there, you can come and go as you please).

In France it takes five years. But, there are two caveats, you must be employed in France and you must pass a fluency exam in French.

Between Drew’s hesitation on France and the fluency requirement (would we pass it?) France is off the list.

The final reason sealed the deal. Spain’s income requirement is quite low, I’ve heard recent stories of just needing 5,000 euros per person, per year, to get the non-working residency visa.

So that’s it. We’re moving to SPAIN. In 10 years our kids will be European and American citizens (UPDATE actually Spain requires you to renounce your US citizenship) (and Stella will still technically have her Mexican citizenship but we’re not pursuing that). Our kids will speak Castilian Spanish and correct us on our terrible accents. They will eat olive oil poured over crunchy baguettes for breakfast and jamón ibérico will be treated with a reverence that can only equal an American child’s lust for hotdogs.

It’s a good fit for us, I think, I hope, although I know culture swapping is difficult and it’s never as rosy as you imagine. But I don’t feel like I could fit in back home, in the States, and the prospect of giving my children some extra options in life seems like a good investment. Plus it’s so easy to travel around Europe, North Africa, the Middle East. It seems, well, perfect. We get to settle down and travel at the same time.

The only question now is, which city to pick? Keep in mind that each region of Spain speaks with a different accent and there are several places that have a second local language (like in Barcelona, they speak Catalán). So instead of learning one language, we could be looking at learning two (all the areas below that are not a shade of purple are bilingual with a regional dialect on top of Spanish):


So many options… Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Seville, Valencia, Cadiz, Cordoba (is the north, like San Sebastian too rainy?)… back to the research. Your opinions much appreciated!

But for now, we know one thing: We’re moving to SPAIN!


Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”