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Over The Network

USA by RV - guide for foreigners

Guide for Foreigners purchasing an RV to tour the USA

By George & Valerie Garner

Shortly after retirement, we decided to rent our house in England and undertake an extensive tour of the USA by motor home.  We purchased a 37 foot class A motor home and tow car, the latter being used for local sight seeing and shopping trips.  The tour which lasted nearly three years took us throughout the USA, extended visits were also made to Canada & Mexico.

While preparing for the tour we did a lot of research but could not find a guide covering the various issues which confront a foreigner visitor.  Initially the requirements for driving licences, insurance and registration etc. seemed complex, but with help from a number of sources, in particular the CompuServe RV Forum and the Escapee RV Club, we worked our way through the maze.  There are no doubt other ways and options available, however we hope this guide will make the task easier for others considering such a venture.  Please note this guide is not a legal statement in any form but simply our understanding based upon our experience.

Choosing an address

A US address is essential for insurance, vehicle registration, mail forwarding and the like.  Surprisingly, foreigners may have more freedom than US citizens when deciding which state to use for an address, since no state has prior claim on your assets.  It can pay to have several addresses for different reasons.  Sales tax varies by state, therefore choosing an address in a state with low or no sales tax, can literally save thousands of dollars when purchasing an RV or car.  An address in Oregon can be a big advantage for RV registration, since Oregon has no sales tax.  It is worth noting that you can probably buy the RV from any dealer in any state and by using an Oregon address, no sales tax is due.  In which case delivery normally has to be taken outside the purchasing state.  By the way, do not pay the dealers asking price for an RV!  Reductions of more than 20% are normal.

Addresses can be obtained in a number of ways.
Many mail box companies offer such a service, they are listed in yellow pages.
The dealer selling the RV will frequently help out.  The sales person is sometimes happy for you to use their personal address.
RV clubs are particularly useful and they frequently supply other useful services.

We initially used a PO Box address in North Carolina which we found in yellow pages, subsequently changing to the Escapee RV Club address in Texas.

Insurance

This is probably the most difficult area but surprisingly, it was easier to obtain insurance for the large motor home than our car!  While the fundamentals for insurance are the same throughout the USA, individual states can and do impose their own requirements.  Not all insurance companies can issue insurance for every state.  So it is important to obtain an address for insurance purposes in a state your chosen insurance company can issue cover for.  You must also decide what level of coverage to take out.  The coverage for each of the following main items can normally be set within reason, to almost any level:
  • Bodily Injury
  • Collision
  • Property Damage
  • Personal Injury
  • Medical
  • Work loss
  • Uninsured motorist bodily injury

The most costly items being bodily injury, collision and property damage. We heard on several occasions that perhaps half of the American drivers are not insured!  Do not forget to bring with you a letter from your previous insurance company.  In our case, it was more cost effective to insure the RV and car through different insurance companies.

Insure the RV with a RV insurance specialist, since an RV needs a combination of vehicle and home owners insurance.  A few of the most popular are:-

National General Insurance Company
Good Sam VIP, PO Box 66937 St Louis
MO 63166-9908
Tel 1 800 847 2886

Millers Insurance Agency
5805 SW Willow Lane, Lake Oswego
OR 97035-5342
Tel 1 800 622 6347
Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Internet http://www.millerrvinsurance.com

RV Alliance America (formally Alexander & Alexander)
11100 NE 8th Street
Suite 900 Bellevue
WA 98004-4441
Tel 1 800 521 294

We used RVIP, but they merged with Millers in late 1998 so things may of changed, however at the time RVIP was much cheaper than Millers for similar cover.

Strangely foreigners normally find it is more difficult to insure a car than an RV. Initially we insured the car with National General, however we transferred to AIG (see below) who have a special section for foreigners. AIG was not only much cheaper but provided more coverage and did not require a US driving licence. The only condition was having to pay a membership fee for the first year, but the total cost was still worked out far cheaper.

American International Cos
PO Box 15510, Wilmington
DE 19850-9252
Tel 1 800 841 7027

Driving licences

We found it unnecessary to obtain an American driving licence, using instead international driving permits.  Every state issues it's own driving licences.  Many insurance companies require a US driving licence to be held for three years, before they will remove the uplift, which is typically 30 to 50%.  This uplift seems to similar to that applied to holders of international driving permits, therefore there appears to be little advantage in obtaining a US driving licence.  We did investigate obtaining a licence but ran into a problem with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) insisting we must first obtain a US social security number.  After some months of communication with the Federal Government, we obtained written confirmation that a social security number is unnecessary for foreigners!  On occasions a driving licence would be handy for identification purposes but in practice any form of ID seems to work

Vehicle Registration

Having arranged insurance you then need to register the vehicle with the DMV in your chosen state.  Registration is a process similar to the British vehicle licensing system.  The DMV issue a "Title" which is your proof of ownership and will be required when selling the vehicle.  In addition the DMV issue tags (number plates) to display on the vehicle.

Not all states will allow registration by mail.  The initial and annual cost varies considerably from state to state.  Be careful since a few states levy a property tax based upon a percentage of the RV’s value, which can work out very expensive.  Some states also require the vehicle to pass a safety and/or emission test.

Our RV and car were registered in Texas, which is one of the cheaper, but not the cheapest state.

Visas

Without a visa, visits are limited to three months under the visa waver scheme.  Even with a ten year visa, stay is normally limited to six months. We heard one couple report they obtained a one year stay, but they had a pre booked return flight and had to prove financial sufficiency.  We found having a pre booked return flight restricted our travelling freedom.  It was relatively straight forward obtaining a 10 year visa from the US embassy in London.

The INS (US Immigration) is occasionally not too friendly and can be reluctant to grant a six months stay, but normally do so following questions about ones financial sufficiency etc.  After entry it is possible to apply for an extension, which we did on one occasion.  However the extension cost about $90 and took over 3 months to process.  We found it easier to plan our trip such that we either visited Canada or Mexico for a while and then upon return to the US, obtaining a further 6 months.

Banking

It was unnecessary to have a US bank account.  In fact, several reports have convinced us that there is no advantage and indeed it can possibly be more expensive.  No US bank has branches in every state, so even if one decides to open a US bank account, there will be times when a branch is not available locally.

Most of our expenditure was paid for using credit cards.  The statement going to our UK bank, who paid the bill out of the current account, who then forwarded the statement to us for checking. We have yet to find a mistake.

Cash can be obtained from ATM’s everywhere.  Some ATM's charge a fee of about $1 per transaction but as we could each draw up to $400 a time, we did not get too excited.  During the past three years we were given a few US cheques. We just sent them by post to our UK bank for payment into our account.  On the rare occasion when it was not possible to pay a bill by credit card e.g. vehicle registration, a money order from a local post office or convenience store solved the problem.

The only time it was necessary to make a special arrangement, was when purchasing the RV and car.  In this case we pre-arranged with our UK bank to transfer the money direct to the dealers bank, upon receipt of a fax from us.  For security reasons, we had previously agreed with the bank, code words to be included within the fax request.

Mail Forwarding

We found it essential to have a mail forwarding service located in the USA.  Not only have we been surprised by the amount of mail we received within the US, but it made it easier to have our UK mail held in the USA, until we are ready to call it off.  There are a lot of mail forwarding services, two of the most popular for RV’ers are FMCA and Escapees.  Both organisations bill you with the actual postage incurred.

FMCA only forward on a specific day of the week but the service is free to club members.
Escapees are the largest mail forwarding organisation in the US.  They are very flexible and will forward mail any day by any carrier.  There is a annual fee.

We used the Escapee service

Voice Message Service

Initially we opened a voice message service in case somebody needed to contact us in an emergency.  In practice we found the service to be a very useful way to keep us in touch with the many American friends we made.

Again there are many such services.  We used the FMCA service which is not only very effective, but is also used by many fellow RV’ers.  The service cost $5 a month.

RV Clubs

There are a number of RV clubs, three of which we found useful to join.

Good Sam (Trailer Life)
This club gives 10% discount at thousands of campgrounds.  They have an excellent campground directory with 50,000 listings.

2575 Vista Del Mar Drive, Ventura, CA 93001
Tel 805 667 4100
Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Internet www.godsamclub.com

Escapees RV Club
This club is very good for full timers.  They have the best magazine and own a number of campgrounds which provide good, cheap camping.  In addition they have an excellent mail forwarding service and a cheap calling card and itemised phone billing service.  They hold regular rallies and the biannual Escapades have excellent seminars and entertainment.  We use the Escapee mail forwarding address for vehicle insurance and registration purposes.

100 Rainbow Drive, Livingston, TX 77351
Tel 1 888 757 2582
Fax 409 327 4388
Internet http://www.escapees.com/

FMCA
The voice message is reason enough to join and they have an interesting magazine.

8291 Clough Pike, Cincinnati,
OH 45244 -2796
Tel 1 800 543 3622
Internet http://www.fmca.com/

Computers

Our notebook computer turned out to be almost indispensable.  We used it for :-

Email
We found Email to be an excellent way to keep in touch with the folk back home.  It's easy, quick and most of all cheap.  By using an acoustic coupler we could send and receive Email from many public pay phones.

Word processing
Letter writing etc. and keeping a daily log of our travels.

Route planning
The are several excellent and very cheap CD ROM mapping programmes, which we used to plan trips and provide information about attractions along the way.
GPS
Some mapping systems can be linked to a GPS receiver.  Using the notebook computer the co-pilot has throughout the journey a detailed road map, at the same time the GPS displays an arrow showing our exact location and direction of travel.  As one travels the programme also broadcasts the route directions, so it is much more difficult to get lost!  Take care since the co-pilot can also see what speed the RV is travelling at!

Finance monitoring
We used Quicken to shadow our accounts and online banking to transfer money etc. between accounts as necessary.

Income Tax

This may be a grey area, as it depends upon the legal definition of "Place of Residence" etc. Being UK residents we pay UK income tax, however, if you spend more that 186 days in the US, then you may become subject to US taxation.  Likewise you need to spend at least 186 days of each tax year within the UK. We believe that a double taxation agreement between the US and the UK prevents paying tax twice. We do not know if this has been put to the test.

Canada & Mexico

US vehicle insurance provides full coverage when travelling in Canada, however a special card issued by your US insurance company is required when driving in Canada.  This is usually supplied free of charge.  US insurance is not valid in Mexico.  Insurance for Mexico can only be issued by a Mexican insurance company, many such companies advertise in RV magazines.

Travel Insurance

Don't forget to take out travel insurance before you leave home, as medical treatment in the US can be very expensive.

Shipping the RV Home

At the end of our tour we decided to ship the motor home to England.  If you have lived at least 12 months outside the EC and owned a vehicle for more than six months, no import duty or tax is payable when shipping it into the UK.  There are numerous shipping agents and several ports to choose from.  Our best quote was from Wallenius, who ship from several ports including Jacksonville, FL which was the most convenient for us.  As luck would have it the port facilities and security arrangements were good.  Paperwork for exportation is straight forward and is mainly handled by the agent but the owner must provide notarised copies of the vehicle title.

It is possible to insure the RV against damage during shipment.  The cost varies between 1 and 1.5% of the vehicles  value.  We decided to take a chance which fortunately paid off.   All the shippers advised that personnel possessions cannot be shipped with the vehicle and therefore contents insurance is not an option.  However, the nod and wink was that people do ship possessions, but obviously it is at your own risk.  We left a lot of items within the RV which fortunately all arrived safely.

We learnt that Wallenius ship for Fleetwood and Winnibago.  Wallenius recommend if possible, boarding up the drivers compartment, so confining access to the driving area.  We did this, but the benefit is almost fully negated as all the keys must be left with the vehicle, in case the US customs decide to carry out an inspection.  The RV had to be at the port three working days prior to the sailing date. Shipping time was 11 days via a modern RORO ferry

The Jacksonville terminus office for Wallenius is:-

Coastal/Wallenius Terminal
9950 Blount Island Blvd
Blount Island
Jacksonville FL 32206
Tel 904 714 0220
Fax 904 714 0228

On reflection

What initially seemed to be a daunting task, turned to be relatively problem free once we learnt the ropes.  Car insurance was the most frustrating aspect but this was quickly resolve once we located a suitable company.  We had a wonderful time during our tour and would heartily recommend it to anybody considering touring the US in an RV.  We kept a travelogue throughout our travels which together with numerous photographs can be viewed on our web page at

http://homepages.tesco.net/~George_Garner/

If we can help in any way feel free to contact us by Email on

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Happy trails

George & Valerie Garner
July 1999