Domicile for Nomads: Establishing a Legal Residence on the Road

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If you’re a vanlifer, RVer, or backpacker, you live out on the open road, free from the restrictions of a fixed location. But when you live wherever you choose, that also means that you don’t actually live anywhere – or at least, not how society wants you to.

Unfortunately for people like us, the legal system is organized around its peons having a fixed location, a permanent address to call home. You need a legal address to do all sorts of required and not-required things, such as:

  • Get driver’s licenses, passports, and other identification
  • Obtain health insurance, auto insurance, and other forms of insurance
  • Sign up for bank accounts and other financial accounts
  • Register vehicles
  • File and pay taxes
  • Register to vote
  • Start a business

That’s just a brief list of things that you need a legal address to do, but there are certainly more. Just about anything of a legal nature requires you to have a legal residence, or domicile.

So what’s a nomad to do? Fortunately, it’s entirely possible for vagabonds of all kinds to establish and maintain a legal residence without actually living in a fixed location. In this post, we go over the basics of establishing domicile as a full time traveller – so you can hit the road and have one less thing to worry about!

Disclaimer

The decision to establish domicile in a certain place can be very complex, and there are many things that you need to consider before doing so. This post is based on our own best research and experience, but we are not attorneys and you should not take what we’ve written here as legal advice. Do your own research before making this type of decision, and seek out qualified professional advice if you feel like you don’t fully understand what you’re getting into.

What Does it Mean to be Domiciled in a State?

Jayme sitting in the grass in front of the van, on the phone, typing at a computer, looking busy.

What is a domicile? Domicile is a legal term that refers to the place you intend to make your permanent home, and the place you intend to return to after temporary absences. Your domicile is the state where you “live,” pay taxes, have a driver’s license, obtain health insurance, register your vehicles, and conduct your banking. It is different from your residence – because while you may have multiple residences, you can only have one domicile.

The intent part is particularly important here, especially if you’re thinking about changing your domicile state. If you just get a mailing address in a new state but still maintain bank accounts, a driver’s license, and voter registration in your old state, it will be tough to prove that you actually intend to switch your domicile.

In order to make a solid case of your domicile intent, you need to do much more – obtain a driver’s license, register your vehicle, register to vote, switch your banking over, get insurance, and set up as many personal and professional ties as possible. You also need to do everything you can to break any such ties to your old state.

Shouldn’t I just Stay Domiciled in My “Home” State?

You already have domicile established in the state where you currently (or most recently) lived. Why would you want to switch to another state?

Well, you might not want to. The easiest option is to maintain domicile in your current state. Your vehicle is probably already registered there, you probably already have a driver’s license, you’re (hopefully) already registered to vote, and you probably have a network of friends and family that might be willing to let you use their place as your “address,” collect your mail, and forward it on to you.

Many nomads end up just sticking with their original state. This is what we did for our first 18 months on the road – we kept our domicile in Missouri, and used John’s parents’ address as our mailing and legal address.

But this option may not work out forever, and the longer you’re on the road the less attractive this becomes. Your friend/family member may get tired of dealing with your mail. Your state may have vehicle inspection or license renewal requirements that mean you need to go back there more often than you’d like. And there may be higher tax burdens in your state (because why pay taxes somewhere you don’t actually live?).

Considering all of this, it might make sense to shop around for a new state that’s more friendly to your situation.

What Steps Do You Need to Take to Switch Your Domicile?

Van parked outside of a post office

There are a few logistical steps that you’ll need to take to get the ball rolling on switching your domicile:

  • Get a mailing address in your new state. If you don’t actually have a fixed dwelling, you can usually accomplish this by signing up with a mail-forwarding service.
  • Switch your addresses over and file a change of address form with Post Office.
  • Obtain auto insurance, health insurance, and other insurance in your new state.
  • Get a driver’s license and register your vehicle(s). Doing this usually requires you to travel to your new state.
  • Register to vote in your new state, and unregister in your old state.

While these are the basics for setting yourself up in a new state, it’s also a good idea to set up as many legal, professional, and personal ties within your new state as possible to help reinforce your domicile intent if it ever comes into question. You will also want to sever any such ties in your old state to help remove any claim that your former state may have on you.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Domicile State

Van parked in a valley, looking out on some beautiful mountains

There are many things to think about when making this decision. To give you a starting point, here are some questions to ask when considering a state for your legal domicile:

  • How easy is it to establish domicile? Are there a lot of hoops to jump through?
  • Are there available mail forwarding services that you can use as your legal address? Or, do you know someone who will let you use their address?
  • How are the taxes? Are there state income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes?
  • How easy is it to register vehicles? Can you do this remotely?
  • Are there required state vehicle inspections that force you to return to the state more often than you would prefer?
  • How much are license and registration fees? Will you be able to register your van as a non-commercial vehicle (commercial vehicles have much higher insurance costs)? If you drive a bus or large RV, do you need to get a special license?
  • How are auto insurance premiums compared to other states?
  • Are there health insurance options that work for you? These days it’s tough to find ACA-compliant health insurance with a national network in any state. If you need regular medical care, consider choosing a state that’s close to where you spend most of your time.
  • Where is the state located? Is it convenient for you to get back there if you need to?
  • How easy is it to register to vote and to vote absentee?
  • If you have kids, what are the homeschooling laws like?

Those are some of the most common questions you should be asking, but there may be others depending on your situation.

Potential Risks

While changing your domicile as a nomad is perfectly legal, there are some risks and wrinkles to be aware of:

  • Many auto insurance companies want you to have a “garageable” address for your vehicle – so that either cuts down your options or forces you to fudge the fact that you are using a mail forwarding address. Some mail forwarding services (like America’s Mailbox in South Dakota and Escapees in Texas) operate their own campgrounds, and you may be able to argue that these are “garageable” addresses.
  • The Patriot Act requires banks and other financial institutions to have a physical address on file that is not a mail forwarding address. This is a security measure to combat fraud and money laundering. You can still use your mail forwarding address as your mailing address, but it’s a good idea to have the address of a friend or family member to use for your physical address. If you use a mail forwarding address and they find out, you could wake up one day to find that your accounts are frozen.
  • Note on the above: If you use a physical address that is not in the state where you are claiming domicile, this could cause other issues for you and potentially open you up for a domicile challenge. As we said, there are a lot of factors in play here.

The “Big Three” Domicile States for Nomads

So what is the best state for nomads to establish domicile? There’s no one right answer for everybody, and there are a lot of things to think about – so do your research and choose wisely.

That said, there are three states that tend to be common choices for full time travelers looking to establish a legal residence: South Dakota, Texas, and Florida. These states all have a killer combination of low/no taxes, available mail forwarding services, and nomad-friendly policies. Let’s take a quick look at what each state offers!

South Dakota

The road leading to South Dakot's Badlands Rock Formations

South Dakota makes it easy for people living a vagabond lifestyle to become residents, obtain driver’s licenses, and register vehicles. As a result, this awesome state has attracted traveling residents of all kinds, from retired RVers to young vanlifers to full time backpackers – even diplomats who live overseas.

What makes South Dakota so great? Aside from the beautiful landscapes and amazing people (seriously, visit South Dakota if you get the chance), SD has many benefits for full time travellers, including:

  • No state income tax!
  • No personal property tax!
  • Only a 4% excise tax on vehicle purchases
  • No state vehicle inspections
  • Easy to establish. You only need to stay in SD for one night to get a driver’s license.
  • You do not need to be in state to register vehicles. Most mail forwarding companies will take care of this for you for a small fee.
  • Inexpensive driver’s license fees ($20 for a regular license)
  • Some of the lowest auto insurance rates in the country.
  • Driver’s licenses are good for 5 years – so that means you only need to be in SD for 24 hours every 5 years to maintain a valid license!

While those are some pretty awesome benefits, there are some drawbacks depending on your situation:

  • South Dakota is a bit out of the way from where most nomads hang around, which can make it inconvenient to go back there when you need to (although, it is smack dab in the middle of the country, so if you do a lot of coast-to-coast driving it shouldn’t be too difficult to route your travels there as needed).
  • RV registration fees are calculated by weight, which adds up if you have a large rig (not applicable to non-RV vans). Most counties in SD also assess a “wheel tax,” where they charge you a few dollars for each wheel on your vehicle. Seriously.
  • South Dakota has fewer ACA-compliant health insurance options than many other states, and none with a national network. If you need regular medical care, it’s probably a good idea to domicile in a state that’s close to where you spend most of your time, or one that has a wider range of health insurance options.

Mail Forwarding Services: The most popular mail forwarding services in South Dakota are Your Best Address, Dakota Post, Escapees, and America’s Mailbox.

Getting a Driver’s License: South Dakota makes this very painless. You need a mail forwarding address, and a receipt for one night in a campground, RV park, hotel, or motel. Make sure the receipt lists your name(s) and mail forwarding address. You will also need to sign a “nomad affidavit,” which states that South Dakota is your home and that you intend to return there whenever you’re done traveling full time.

Vehicle Registration: Registering vehicles is also fairly simple. You do not even have to be in the state – most mail forwarding companies will take care of this for you and mail you your new plates (this usually takes about 4-6 weeks).

Voting: While you can get your driver’s license anywhere in the state, to register to vote you’ll need to visit the County Auditor’s office for the county where your mail forwarding address is located. You will also need to provide them with a campground receipt from the same county. So if you want to take care of your license and voter registration all at the same time, make sure to plan your travels accordingly. You can apply for an absentee ballot by mail.

Read more: Our Adventure Becoming South Dakota Residents

For more information, check out these resources on setting up legal residency in South Dakota:

Texas

Winding road in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Texas offers a slew of benefits that are attractive to full time travelers. And, Texas is home to the awesome Escapees RV Club, which is also the prime mail forwarding service in the state for RV and van travelers. Escapees operates their own campground in Livingston, TX, and county officials there are very used to Escapees members doing their domicile business.

Here are some awesome reasons to choose Texas as your domicile state:

  • No state income tax!
  • No taxes on vehicle transfers.
  • Voter registration and obtaining absentee ballots can all be done by mail.
  • Although there is a required annual vehicle inspection, if you can’t get back to Texas right away this can be deferred until you actually return to the state. Once you enter Texas you will need to have your vehicle inspected within 30 days.
  • Licenses are good for 6 years, and can be renewed online.
  • Home to Escapees, which has a great reputation in the RV community.

Here are some downsides to domiciling in Texas:

  • Annual vehicle inspections (thought this can be deferred if you are out of state)
  • 6% sales tax on new vehicle purchases.
  • May need a non-commercial Class A or B driver’s license for bigger RVs and buses, which means additional costs and requirements over a standard license.

Mail Forwarding Services: The most popular by far is Escapees. Texas Home Base is another option.

Getting a Driver’s License: Texas is a little more complicated than South Dakota. You’ll need a mail forwarding service, of course. You also need to provide two documents proving residency – and since your vehicle registration and vehicle insurance count for this, it usually makes sense to register your vehicle and switch your insurance first.

Vehicle Registration: You can register vehicles online or in person, but you must get your vehicle inspected at a certified inspection station in Texas first. If you are registering a new vehicle, you may be able to defer the inspection until you enter Texas.

Voting: Once you have your driver’s license, you can easily register to vote by mail. You can also apply for absentee ballots by mail.

For more information on domiciling in Texas check out these resources:

Becoming Texas Residents: Stephen and Meghan of Ubu the Van

stephen and meghan ubu the van

When we were looking for our domicile address, we narrowed it down to the states that don’t have personal State Income Tax. From here, we looked for a state that met the following criteria: we might actually have a reason to visit in case we ever needed to, friendly to RVers, and easy to utilize a mail forwarding company. The hardest part was deciding which state to pick. We ended up choosing Texas because it met all our criteria:

  • We had researched and learned that it had a reputation for being very friendly toward RVers (deferred state vehicle inspection, online vehicle registration, no ancillary taxes when transferring vehicle to Texas).
  • Since we needed a mail forwarding service, we learned that Escapees has a large branch in Texas, and came with a solid reputation for price and service. (In keeping with this reputation, they have often gone above and beyond for us in terms of personal service and checking on mail arrival.)
  • We have dear friends who live in San Antonio and so have a cool place to visit when we go “home.” bahahahaha

We joined Escapees online and now have an address on Rainbow Drive. With the unicorns and leprechauns. Easy peasy.

When we bought Ubu in Illinois, it was super easy to register it by phone in Texas. After a phone call to our county of residence in Texas, our plates arrived within weeks. We were told by the county assessor that since it was an empty cargo van, it would be registered as a “passenger van” and that we simply needed to change its registration when we arrived in Texas in person. Additionally, we could easily re-register it yearly online and they would waive the required state inspection until we physically entered the State. Thank you Texas; we love you, even though we secretly wish that we didn’t have  TX plates.

When we were in Texas recently, we trekked on up to Polk County and got Ubu re-registered as an RV. They asked for pictures of the inside to ensure that it had, indeed, become a livable space, and we took care of this paperwork and State inspection in an afternoon. The only kind of sad bit was that we did have to go to Polk County, Texas. In person. But all was not lost as it gave us the chance to meet the unicorns and get library cards – yay for online ebook borrowing again!

Florida

A beach in Florida

Florida is another state that is popular with travellers. Since it has such a large population of retired snowbirds (many of whom choose to live and travel in RVs), the state does a lot to cater to the needs of full time RVers. If you spend most of your time on the East coast, Florida could be a good option.

Here are the benefits of being domiciled in Florida:

  • No state income tax!
  • No property tax for RVs!
  • Wider range of health insurance options than SD or Texas.
  • Driver’s license is valid for 8 years, and can be renewed once online.
  • Relatively inexpensive vehicle registration fees.
  • No state vehicle inspections.
  • Convenient for nomads who spend a lot of time on the East Coast.

But there are some downsides:

  • Takes some pre-planning. Most people who have done this recommend getting the process started a month in advance to make sure all your paperwork is squared away.
  • Florida has some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country.
  • No remote vehicle registration.

Mail Forwarding Services: The two most popular are Escapees (again!) and St. Brendan’s Isle.

Getting a Driver’s License: Like Texas, Florida requires that you present two documents proving your residential address. You’ll want to sign up for mail forwarding and switch address on your insurance and banking ahead of time, so you  can provide statements with your Florida address.

Vehicle Registration: You must be physically present to register a new vehicle in Florida. However, you can renew your registration online.

Voting: Once you have a Florida driver’s license, you can register to vote online. You can request absentee ballots via mail, email, fax, or phone.

For more information, here are some helpful resources for domiciling in Florida:

Nevada is Another Option!

A road through red rock formations in Nevada

If you spend most of your time out West, Nevada may be worth a look as a potential domicile state. It’s a bit tougher to get established than the other states on this list, but once you’re set up it offers many of the same benefits. Nevada has no state income tax and no state vehicle inspections. There are plenty of mail forwarding services available, and it is very central to the Western states where many nomads spend their time.

But, Nevada does have some drawbacks. In order to establish residency, you must stay in a campground or RV park for 30 days (way longer than South Dakota’s 24 hours). They have higher auto insurance rates than many other states (but this varies widely by county). If you have a newer vehicle, registration fees are much higher than the other states on this list (fees are based on new MSRP value of the vehicle minus depreciation. This is much less of an issue for older vehicles).

Check out this article for more information on domiciling in Nevada.

No Permanent Address, No Problem!

Just because you don’t live in a fixed dwelling doesn’t mean you can’t have a legal address – which you need to do many basic things in today’s society. Luckily, there are several forward-thinking states that are accommodating the needs of nomads and travelers everywhere.  If you’re a full-timer, establishing one of these states can be a great option that can save you a lot of money and hassle.

Again, this can be a complex legal decision, and you should do your own research before taking the plunge. But even if you don’t live anywhere in the traditional sense, it is entirely possible to get yourself set up legally in a way that works with your lifestyle!

For more vanlife tips and build guides, be sure to follow us on Instagram @gnomad_home and on Facebook. Cheers!

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imhv

Hi Gnomads! Great Article! I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of taking up residency in another state until reading this. The tax implications could be of great benefit to van dwelling. Every little bit counts. I’ve had the issues you mention with banks specifically needing a home address and not allowing UPS Store box numbers and such. One thing I’ve been able to do with some of my bank and credit card companies is to provide two addresses. One that is a residence address (family or friend) and one that is a mailing address (UPS Store Address). This at… Read more »

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