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How to Navigate Bureaucracy When Traveling Perpetually and Living Abroad Pt.1

A simple tip with wide ranging implications on how to fall between the cracks of the system.

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There’s the real world and then there’s the paper world. Things may not always work out in the real world but they are always perfect in the paper world.

I learned this lesson early on as an archaeologist, and it’s stuck with me though all facets of life that require the blending of the reality with the official — i.e. filling out and filing of any type of official document. When I’m in such a situation I read the questions on the form and I ask myself:

What is the simplest, most ordinary way that I can fill this out and still maintain a fleck of truth?

I fill out all documents like I do immigration arrival forms.

When I pull up to an immigration booth and take that little form my aim isn’t to answer those questions as truthfully as possible, my aim is to answer them as simply as possible and truthful enough.

Now is it simpler to say that I’m an independent journalist who blogs and works on books who’s going to spend my time asking people a lot of prying questions and taking photos of strange things, or is it simpler to say that I’m a webmaster who’s going to be an ordinary tourist who just wants to see the sites like every other ordinary tourist?

I’m not going to say that I know anybody in the country, I’m not going to say that I’m going to be staying at a friend’s house, I’m not going to say that I’m going to some far flung place that no tourist has ever gone before. No, I’m going to fill the profile of what I’m claiming to be.

This methodology changes little regardless of the type of official paperwork I’m filling out. I have an official narrative, an official profile and I stick with it.

The fact of the matter is that you need to be classifiable, you need to be easy to rank and file. If you fall through the cracks you’re going to cog the gears of the machine. Don’t try to be unique, don’t try to prove that you tread un-stomped trails, that you’ve hacked life and live like no other. That’s too interesting, and interesting is the last thing you want to be when standing before officialdom. Figure out how to look as run of the mill as possible, construct an official narrative, and go with it. The best way to truly fall through the cracks of bureaucracy is to look like you fit right in.

The real world of the perpetual traveler is often complex, but the paper world can often be as simple as you make it.

When I was a university student some questions arose about where I actually lived. I lived nowhere, I’d been traveling for years and years. So like bonehead I tried to explain this. I compiled a list of 50 or so places that I have stayed over the previous few years and submitted it. It apparently made whoever received it go cross-eyed. It wouldn’t fly, I couldn’t be categorized, and I almost lost a good deal of financial aid. So I backtracked, said I misunderstood the question, and submitted a single address from NY State. “I live here and always have.” Simple. I never had a reason to alter this strategy since.

I recently received two travel questions from readers who’ve found themselves stuck between the cracks of the system.

The first came from an Australian who’s has been married to a Dutch woman for 18 years and apparently never bothered to go through the process of gaining EU citizenship — which is, admittedly, a rather arduous thing to do. He said that they’ve been working on yachts around the world since 2006, and technically didn’t have any country of residence as they haven’t stayed anywhere long enough. Now they want to cauterize their traveling life and set up a base in France. The problem: his visa is running out.

The French authorities tell him that he needs to return to Australia to apply for a D visa — which is something there’s no getting around — but he refuses to do so because he says that he’s no longer an Australian resident as he’s been away from the country for 18 years. The guy’s stuck in a Catch-22 of perpetual travel: if you don’t stay anywhere long enough during the span of a year you’re technically a resident of nowhere. Residency and citizenship are two different things, your citizenship always stays valid unless you denounce or change it, but residency can expire, and it’s requirements are different depending on whatever political entity you’re dealing with.

While this guy’s case truly doesn’t have anything to do with residency, he is still a good example of how not to approach officialdom when traveling and living abroad.

The reality of the life of a perpetual traveler doesn’t naturally fit within the bounds of the paper world, so simplify, simplify, simplify it until it does.

I received another question from a reader who’s from the USA but has been living in Europe doing an art project or something like that. Her visa was set to run out just as she moved from Austria to France. She petitioned the French authorities for a visa extension, and they just set her spinning in circles — like they tend to do. Coming to her aid was an organization in Germany who specializes in getting longer term visas for artists. The caveat: she needs to provide a German address.

The solution appeared too simple. I replied:

“There is the real world and there is the paper world. Your official address does not have to be the one you actually live at, and as immigration checks between Schengen countries are random and informal there is no telling how long you actually stay any country. Germany, by all accounts, is your best bet.”

Officialdom tends to care about what we put down on the documents we submit to them, and just so they check out and are consistent, 99% of the time that’s it. We’re the rabble, the men in black are not going to go door to door looking for us. But there is this mental ridgy, this stubbornness, or fear that many people seem to have when approaching officialdom. They seem to want to make the system bend or make exceptions for their particular, unique cases, or they are scared into being overly specific. Though I’ve learned that it’s far easier to morph and appear to fit within the contours of the system than it is to bend its iron mold. In other words, it’s way easier to fall between the cracks if you appear to fit right in.

There’s the real world and then there’s the paper world. Things may not always work out in the real world but they are always perfect in the paper world.


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Filed under: Perpetual Travel, Travel Documents, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

7 comments… add one

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  • Spaceship Dmitri March 7, 2014, 5:10 am

    Great article, Mr. Shepard!

    “don’t try to prove that…you’ve hacked life and live
    like no other.” you know, I actually thought about writing personal
    letters to accompany visa documents to the embassy, when asking for a visa. And
    that’s exactly what I wanted to do in there, tell them how great it is that I
    get to travel and how spiritual the experience in their country would be for
    me, my mother and the universe. Your advice sounds much more plausible. I will
    keep that in mind – build a stereotypical profile that is easy for people to classify
    and process without thinking too much about it.

    Can I donate to your site with bitcoin? I think there’s a
    lot of people who would donate easily if there was simply a donate-to address
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    • VagabondJourney March 8, 2014, 5:47 am

      For sure, man, sticking out is rarely good when dealing with official proceedings where you’re truly nothing more but some words on a piece of paper that’s going to be categorized one way or another. Get through these situations as fast and easy as possible 🙂

      Yes, we do need a new donation button. We used to have Paypal buttons, but they haven’t made it back on yet after the redesign. It would be good to have it be able to process bitcoin as well. Please email me your suggestions. Thanks!

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  • David Jacobs March 7, 2014, 5:23 am

    Another pragmatic gem, courtesy Wade. 😉

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  • Andy Lee Graham March 7, 2014, 11:09 pm

    Adapting to life means we negotiate the terms of each day, giving any information to other humans opens the door for discussion, dispute, and dialog. For example, saying one word to a beggar is stupid, make a choice, give money, or nothing but to allow the beggar to waste your time is poor negotiation skills.

    Most people want to hear themselves talk, it is a form of mental masturbation, they should turn the music up louder, same thing, just different.

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    • VagabondJourney March 8, 2014, 5:38 am

      Exactly. Part of the art of life is observing the inflexible parameters that are set up around us and figuring out the best way to act within them. The question shouldn’t be how things should or shouldn’t be, but how can I make the best of this situation. Idealism is shattered fast in travel.

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  • Jack Woods March 10, 2014, 12:05 am

    Great advice, Wade. It never ceases to amaze me how much people try to complicate their life. I’m pretty certain that there will be those reading this who are still unable to take the plunge and be free. A friend of mine who works for the Border Patrol was telling me about the agents who man the internal US checkpoints. He told me that they are bored and if you give them anything that is even the least bit interesting, they will have “fun” with you. I think that applies to immigration officials around the world.

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    • VagabondJourney March 10, 2014, 1:15 am

      Definitely, give them one little thing out of the ordinary and they’re often all over it. I once showed up on foot (hitchhiking) at a border crossing between Croatia and Montenegro that’s generally only crossed by car, and I forgot the name of the hotel I stayed at the night before. Seems like not that big of a deal, but this little incongruity lead to an all out security check and a big annoyance.

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