3 February 2015

Life on the road: where do I start?

To go to a foreign country, buy a vehicle and travel can be a bit daunting and finding information on how to do it, can be difficult. So how do you do it?

The first year we bought a Dodge van, fitted it out and travelled for six months, we loved it so much we decided that we wanted to do it more, but the Dodge was too small and we couldn't face it again.

US Travel Visa

A normal ESTA travel visa is only for three months, which is not long enough if you want to buy a vehicle and travel. Go to the US consulate in your country and apply for a five year visa, you will need bank and investment details to show you can support yourself and have an idea where you want to travel. A five year visa only cost us $50 more than a six month one and saves you going back each year. On a travel visa, not only can you not do any paid work,  you cannot do any volunteer work either such as being a camp host.

How long can I stay in the country at a time?

Okay, you have your five year visa that allows you to stay in the country for six months at a time. You've been here six months, go out for a few weeks and want to come back for another six months, right? no. Technically you only need to go out for a day, once every six months, but the border control staff will tell you that you have to be out of the country for as long as you have been in. Been in for six months, you need to leave for six months. We managed to get a second six months after some negotiating but he said we couldn't do it again. Not wanting to have to leave for a full six months during spring and summer, we decided to go into Canada for four months in winter.

Travel Insurance

If you only come to the USA from Australia for six months at time, then you can use the travel insurance that comes free with your credit card. Most of the banks use Zurich which I have used once for medical treatment and they were fantastic. The insurance only lasts a maximum of six months (depending on your card) and you must pay for your tickets with that card and leave from an Australian air or sea port.

Most other travel insurance companies will not insure you if you have not left from an Australian port for the trip you are wanting to be covered for ie recently. So you need to find one that will. I am currently using TID - travel insurance direct. As long as we intend to return to Australia at a later date and agree to be sent home for treatment if they ask, contact them before any treatment; then we are covered.

You can suspend your private health insurance in Australia for a maximum of 12 months only. I did it twice - 2 x 6 mths, you need to send them copies of your boarding passes (outgoing and incoming) along with a form to resume it. If you cancel your private health insurance longer than that you will be up for a levy increase on your premiums for the next ten years. We now pay for private health insurance in Australia that we will only be using if something horrible happens. I don't mind if we never need to use it.

Where do I buy a vehicle?

It doesn't really matter where you buy the vehicle, trailer, motorhome etc. as you can organise for "an out of state delivery". Why would you want to do this? Because each state has different taxes and laws for buying vehicles. There are hundreds of RV dealers in all the states. We ended up buying our truck in California (had to drive it to Arizona to take possession) and then registered it in South Dakota. We bought our 5th Wheel in Utah and registered it in South Dakota.

You can buy second hand or new vehicles and trailers for a fraction of the cost that you would pay in other countries. It's a bit daunting looking online, it is better to come over, hire a car and go and look.

What sort of rig do I buy?

There is always personal preference of course, but here are some things to think about when making a decision.
  • class B motorhome is a bit like our Dodge Van, but larger. Pros: can park in small spots, can take on a ferry without costing a fortune. Cons: not much room, depending on size may not have a bathroom.
  • a Travel Trailer is like a caravan that hooks onto a car or truck. Pros: no need for an extra car, roomier than a class B, usually have a bathroom.
  • a Fifth Wheel is like a caravan but hooks onto a truck via a hitch, making manoeuvrability a lot easier than a travel trailer. Pros: no need for an extra car, roomier than a caravan, bathroom.
  • class A motorhome - this is like a bus. Pros: a house on wheels, they are large and roomy, even  luxurious Cons: they are big and you can't always fit into all spaces, they cost a lot to service, tyres are huge and therefore expensive, use a lot of fuel, will need to tow another vehicle.
  • Buy the vehicle in the name of the person who is going to be driving it. We bought ours in joint names which became a problem as I didn't go for my SD licence.

How to pay for a vehicle with foreign currency

When we first went to look at our truck, they didn't want to know us. As an international buyer, they thought we were just wasting their time. We have found a number of times that people will say that they can't do something, just because they haven't done it before and therefore don't know how. It's just easier to say it can't be done. Pay the deposit in cash or your credit card. The balance will have to be done by electronic transfer. To do an international transfer you need the sellers bank name and address, the name of the account and the swift number. A swift number is like a BSB. If the seller doesn't know the swift number you might have to ring their bank. I made the transfer online in the payees currency and then wondered why it didn't go through. When you make an international transfer Citibank's transfer team in India rings you to confirm the transfer and the rate. My contact number was my Australian mobile which of course I have turned off! Unfortunately they won't give you a number to ring the back, even the customer service centre in the Philippines doesn't have the number and can only email them - unbelievable. I gave them our friends landline number and asked that they call between certain hours, but of course they rang in the middle of the night. When we finally hooked up, he asked me if I was happy with the rate, I said "no" but that didn't give me a better rate, it's was a rhetorical question! I have to say, it was a bit of a nightmare.

Registering your vehicle

You need to decide on a home base. Somewhere where you can have mail sent to such as registration, and insurance. Somewhere you can set up "residency" (no you don't become a US citizen) so that you can register your vehicles.

Oregon may have no sales tax but you have to produce evidence such as rental agreement and utility bills to show you have lived there for at least six months before you can buy a vehicle. So not practical.

Montana (MT) - you need to set up a limited liability company which then buys the vehicles. This sounded too difficult to us but apparently it's not and doesn't cost that much. They have no sales tax. This is probably the one I would recommend looking at first. You need to go to a lawyer to set up the LLC, but I'm not sure what else is involved as we didn't go down this path.

South Dakota (SD) - you need to contact one of the mail forwarding companies and they can tell you what to do. We stayed in an RV park for one night to establish residency, then organised to take a licence test - written and practical. It pays to find out their road laws beforehand and you can take practice tests online to get you in the groove and see how they ask the questions. The licence test only costs $20 but only lasts six months, why? because as a non US citizen, that is how long your visa (assuming you have a five year visa) allows you in the country for any one period. Theoretically, you then need to renew your licence every six months, but you have to do this in person. It would be difficult to go to SD every six months as we are usually no where near the state. So now we travel on our Australian licence and an International Driving licence. The insurance company is okay with this. Truck and RV insurance is cheaper in SD than MT. Sales tax on vehicles is 3%.

Other states that people register their vehicles in are Texas and Florida.

We sent the registration papers and sales tax (money order) to our mail forwarding company who organised the registration for us. The plates were then posted to us. I think we had 60 days to register the vehicles. Even though we registered the vehicles in June, both have renewal dates in March for some odd reason. You get a coloured sticker with the number of the month which you stick onto your registration plate.

Mail Redirection

You will need to sign up with a mail redirection company. They usually forward mail to you on a monthly basis but of course you have to be somewhere they can send it. For an additional cost, some will send you an email whenever you get mail and can then scan and send it to you via email.


The cost of insuring our Dodge van for damage to others only in California cost nearly as much as insuring our brand new Ford F-250 diesel 4WD for fully comprehensive in South Dakota. Not all insurance companies will insure non US citizens, is there a pattern here? Yes, life is a lot more difficult if you are not a US citizen. We also took out Good Sam Roadside Assistance and Good Sam Travel Assist. Which is the equivalent of RACV total care which includes getting the trailer back home too, so we registered our friends address in California with them so that the trailer goes there and not South Dakota!

Setting Up, Where do I go?

You will find most of what you need to set up your camper at Camping World, Walmart and Target. Other outdoor things can be bought at REI.

They don't understand me!

We all speak English, except when we don't!
  • LPG is called Propane and you buy it at gas stations (service stations) either by the bottle or by the gallon (1 US gallon = 3.7 litres)
  • Propane also comes in little green cylinders that run out very quickly, it pays to buy a small bottle at Camping World and refill it.
  • Shellite is called white gas
  • Dry camping is any camping that you are not hooked up to any services. Being hooked up to water, electric and sewer is called full hook up. Being hooked up to electric and water is partial hook up
  • Pull through or back in - they are referring to whether you can drive right through your campsite to go out the other side or whether you have to back in and go out the way you came in.
  • A double adapter is called a connector. We brought a power board from home and changed the plug on the end of the cord to a US one, that way we don't need as many electrical plug adaptors.
  • The outback or bush is called back country
  • Boondocking is camping in the middle of nowhere

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