How to Establish a Legal State Residency (Domicile) as a Nomad

One of the challenges that almost every nomad faces is where to call home. Of course, most vandwellers and travelers are happy to call wherever they happen to be home. After all, if you are a perpetual traveler and are set up somewhere in your car, van or RV, or if you are a backpacker and have all of your stuff with you, then anywhere can be considered home. Government agencies, however, tend to disagree with this perspective.

There are many nomads, including those who are new on the road and those who have been traveling for many years, who think that the only way to establish or maintain a “legal” address (domicile) is to break the law. Fortunately, this is not the case. In fact, not only is it possible to keep your residency status legal as a nomad, it can also save you considerable expense and trouble in the future.

The situation is complicated because our legal system has been developed around an assumption that people live in a house at a fixed location. People who travel perpetually do not fit into this legal model. As a result, many people resort to either breaking the law or choosing a new state that is more friendly to travelers.

You will ultimately need to do a lot of research on your own to decide which state will best meet your needs. There is not a specific state that is ideal for all nomads, though there is a short list of states that attract many full-timers. It is also not uncommon to find nomads who started with their residency in one state, but later switched to another as their needs changed over time.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and do not claim to be an expert on legal questions. Please consult a licensed attorney if you are not confident that you understand the legal requirements or complications of establishing or maintaining domicile in a particular state. The information presented on this page is designed to serve as a starting point in deciding which state to choose as a domicile, and is based on my personal, extensive research.

Residency vs. domicile

Residency and domicile are actually two distinct terms, but “residency” is often used interchangeably for both terms. This unfortunately adds to the confusion when trying to decide if you are (or are not) legally a “resident” of a state.

The first concept to understand when considering domicile and residency is that a person may be a resident of multiple states, but is usually only domiciled in one state. For example, a person may own homes in several states and spend time in each of those homes during the year, but only one state will be their domicile.

As a general rule, the state where you are domiciled will be the state where you live (at least part of the year), work, receive mail, obtain health care, vote, conduct banking, register and insure your vehicles, etc. Of course, some people will do these things in several different states, but once you begin establishing a nexus (that is, a connection) with multiple states you also run a very real risk of having multiple states attempt to claim you as a resident for income tax or vehicle registration purposes. The best way to avoid this unpleasantness is to be careful to maintain a nexus with only one state, and to make a clean break when you move your domicile to another state.

The second concept that is essential to understand when considering domicile and residency is that receiving mail in a state does not mean that you are considered to be domiciled in the state. Mail receiving and forwarding services make it convenient to receive mail while you are on the road, but a mail forwarding address will generally not be accepted as a “street address” when applying for a driver license, for example.

The third concept that is important to any discussion about domicile and residency is intent. As a legal matter, you establish domicile when you are a resident of a state and intend to make that state your home. The best way, and often the only way, to prove that intent is through actions. While you may not have a mortgage or lease in the state that you choose as a domicile, you can and should register and insure your vehicles, conduct your banking, vote, and have medical insurance in that state. In other words, the more of a nexus or connection that you have with a particular state – and the less of a nexus that you maintain with any other state – the more likely it is that your claims to be domiciled there will hold up if ever called into question.

The issue of establishing domicile is further complicated by the fact that each state has its own rules about when it considers a person to be a legal resident. Worse, the rules often vary between state agencies.

Why choose one state over another?

Since as a nomad you are able to choose any state as your “home state,” why choose one state over another? The reason is that some states will better meet your needs than others.

Income taxes are a fact of life in most states, but several states do not have an income tax. Those who are still working can see an instant “pay raise” of hundreds or thousands of dollars just by “moving” to a state that does not have income tax. Similarly, states have different rules on taxation of pensions, investment income, and retirement income.

Sales tax is also collected in most states, but can vary considerably. While it is easy to think of the annoyance of paying sales tax on small purchases, it can add up to thousands of dollars if you need to pay sales tax on a new vehicle. This is particularly concerning to RVers who plan to buy an expensive vehicle in the future.

Vehicle registrations, inspections, and insurance are things that nearly all nomads will deal with each year. The cost of vehicle registrations and insurance varies considerably between states, so it is possible to save a lot of money each year by choosing a state with inexpensive registration fees and insurance. Auto insurance rates can also vary widely between zip codes, so it worth considering this as well when choosing an address. Vehicle inspections are not required by all states, and a few states like Arizona and Nevada have only select counties that require annual emissions or safety inspections. While safety inspections are only an annoyance if your vehicle is in good condition, they do require annual trips back to your home state. Emissions inspections, however, can turn out to be quite expensive. These inspections, and the related vehicle repairs, may be good for the environment, but they can be a financial disaster for the vehicle owner when the vehicle does not pass inspection.

Medical insurance options vary widely between states and even between counties. This is true even if you are purchasing insurance through the government health insurance exchanges. Research medical insurance options if you plan to purchase insurance, and particularly if you have certain conditions or treatments that you will need covered. Another consideration that many nomads face is the difficulty of finding nationwide medical insurance plans. Most plans currently available only cover medical services within a limited network in your home state. This makes these plans nearly useless other than for emergency room care if you seldom return to your home state.

It is also worth considering any current or anticipated need for social services or public assistance. It is no secret that some states are more generous with public assistance than others. Nomads who have limited income, for example, may find it better to choose a state with an income tax that offers more generous public assistance.

Finally, it is important to consider how much time you plan to spend in a state. How often do you plan to return once you establish your domicile in the state? The most popular states for nomads are all on the edges of the country. Despite the fact that you are on the road full-time, you may not want to make a special trip across the country just to renew a driver license or to obtain health care.

It is likely that, for most people, any one of these considerations will not be enough itself to make a decision. However, a combination of these considerations will usually make one state a much better deal.

Choosing a state

The easiest way to legally solve the “home state” problem is to maintain domicile in the state where you already live. Many nomads at least start off with this approach. You will still need both a street address and mailing address though. It is fairly common for nomads to switch everything from their former address to the address of a friend or relative when they are ready to get on the road. As long as your friend or relative is agreeable, trustworthy, and reliable this can be a good and simple solution. Staying at this address whenever you are in your home state, even if you sleep in the driveway, may further reinforce your legal argument that it is indeed your domicile. It is worth considering though whether your friend or relative may tire of managing your mail or may move while you are on the road. Many people who start off by using the address of a friend or relative eventually end up choosing a different option.

A similar option would be to move your domicile to a new state where a willing friend or relative lives. This may be more complicated because of the documentation that is required for obtaining a driver license, but with some time and care you should be able to collect enough mail or bank statements to satisfy the documentation requirements. Still, there remains the possibility of your friend or relative tiring of handling your mail or moving.

Homeless service agencies in either an existing or new state will also sometimes assist with establishing domicile. Nomads generally do not consider themselves to be homeless and may be offended by this idea, but the government generally does consider full-time nomads to be homeless if they do not have a fixed, permanent address. This may be a last resort for many people, and the rules and services vary between states, but it is an option that can be considered if necessary.

The final option for establishing or maintaining a legal domicile is to choose a state that is friendly to full-time travelers. Satisfying the legal requirements for domicile has become increasingly difficult over the years, and particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Still, several states are much more welcoming to full-time nomads than the others.

Popular states for nomads

Even though there are 50 states to choose from for domicile, most nomads quickly narrow the options down to several states. This is because these states have regulations that are at least somewhat friendly to nomads.

South Dakota

South Dakota is by far the most nomad-friendly state in the country. In fact, while most states enact rules that make it difficult for nomads, South Dakota has specifically adopted rules to make it easy for full-time travelers to become residents of the state. South Dakota requires only a one-day stay in a campground, RV park, or motel, an address with a mail forwarding service, and an affidavit of intent to establish residency to obtain a driver license. It also has no state income tax or vehicle inspections. Probably the only significant drawback to choosing South Dakota as a domicile is that it is so far away from the areas where a lot of nomads spend their time. The overall nomad-friendly nature of this state, however, makes it the clear winner if you are willing to return periodically as needed.

Texas

Texas is another popular state for full-time travelers. Texas is also home to the Escapees RV Club which operates both a mail forwarding service and the popular ESCAPEES:HOME program that allows nomads to use the campground address as a legal street address. This combination of services is one reason why Texas is popular with nomads, though Escapees also now offers the same service in Florida and South Dakota. Texas has no state income tax, but does require annual vehicle inspections. The process of obtaining a driver license in Texas is also somewhat more complicated than in South Dakota.

Florida

Florida is the third state that is popular with nomads. Aside from the promise of warm weather and sunshine, Florida also has many mail forwarding services. Proof of your street address will be required in Florida, but Escapees members are able to use documentation from the club to satisfy this requirement. Many nomads report that vehicle registrations and insurance are expensive in Florida, but medical insurance options are reportedly better.

Nevada

Nevada is less popular as a domicile than South Dakota, Texas, or Florida, yet it is still worth considering if you spend a lot of time in the desert like many nomads. Nevada will accept a receipt from a motel or RV park that shows you have been in the state for 30 days as proof of a street address. You will also need a mailing address. Like the other “big three” states, Nevada does not have an income tax.

Wyoming and Montana

Wyoming and Montana are popular states for businesses seeking a domicile for a shell corporation. They are less popular though for individuals. (I previously lived in Montana for several years, and currently am domiciled in Wyoming.) In both states you will have the typical challenges for establishing a street address to obtain a driver license. This makes it difficult to use either of these states if you want to do everything legally. Wyoming offers the benefit of having no state income tax, while Montana has no sales tax.

Which state should I choose?

There really is no perfect state for every nomad. Important considerations like vehicle registration and insurance costs, vehicle inspections, taxes (income and sales), and more vary between each state.

Most nomads end up choosing between one of several states because overall those states have regulations and costs that are friendly to nomads. South Dakota, Florida, and Texas are almost always the top three states for nomads, with Nevada also being worth considering. Still, because each person’s situation is unique, there may be occasions where it makes more sense to be domiciled in a different state (for example, location or access to public assistance)

Regardless of which state you choose as your domicile, it is important to do things legally. There can be significant legal complications that arise from trying to take a shortcut and skirt around state laws. It is worth considering one of the nomad-friendly states for your domicile, even if that means staying for a day (or month) in an RV park or joining a club like Escapees to have access to a legal street address.

The legal system in most states may be structured in ways that are not friendly to nomads, but there are still options that allow full-time travelers to do things legally. Be very careful about long-term ramifications for overtly, willfully and knowingly breaking the law – especially when it isn’t necessary.

17 Replies to “How to Establish a Legal State Residency (Domicile) as a Nomad”

  1. If someone is on regular SS at the age of 62 with out medical coverage , which state would hold the most promise? Limited part time work would not affect SS income.

    1. Ernie, I’m not sure that I can recommend a specific state. As a general rule, the states that are generally most friendly for nomads also tend to be politically conservative – and thus less likely to be generous with public/subsidized health care programs. I have heard that Nevada adopted the expanded Medicaid program so that might be an option as they are fairly friendly towards nomads.

      I am a bit younger, but am still weighing my long-term state residency options in part because of the need for affordable/accessibly medical insurance. Hopefully in time this is something that will become easier, but for now it leaves plenty of us in a difficult situation. I do hope that you are able to find a solution that meets your needs.

  2. Great article, Robert! I’ve heard a lot of this before in a couple of videos, but this is way more convenient to have as a reference. Thank you very much! Hope your travel has been good. You guys rock!

    1. Thank you, Edie! We will probably make a video about this topic eventually, but this is something that I wrote last year in an effort to provide a reference resource for people – and based on my research for my own situation. I am glad that you found it useful.

  3. Thank you for the good article, well done!
    To clarify, if I have family in Florida and Texas, and I pick one of those states to register to vote, get drivers license and car insurance, get health insurance, open bank account, and use their address to receive mail… can I claim their address/state for domicile even if I don’t live there 6 or more months, or at all?
    I’m interested for state income tax reasons.
    I’m in California, high tax, and plan to semi-retire soon, so taxable wage income will come down anyway, and maybe it’s not such a big deal to stay in CA if most of my earnings end up from investment income?

    1. Nancy, you raise some excellent questions. I will do my best to address them to the best of my ability – with the disclaimer that while I have researched this topic extensively, I am not an attorney or tax professional.

      Rules concerning domicile vary between states – and even within states vary for different programs. For example, rules for obtaining a driver’s license may be different than rules for obtaining a hunting/fishing license or qualifying for in-state tuition rates at a state college. All of that being said, as a general rule you would probably be considered to be a resident of a state if you maintain all of your activity there – including driver’s license, voter registration, income tax filings, etc. The time when people usually run into trouble is when they start having a “nexus” with multiple different states to take advantage of lower vehicle registration/insurance costs in one state, lower income taxes in another state, etc. As a legal matter, a person may have “residency” in multiple states, but may only be “domiciled” in one state. In all likelihood you would be fine if you moved everything to that new state as you mentioned in your example.

      As far as income taxes for retirees in a particular state, it again (unfortunately) varies between states. There are a couple of ways that you could potentially gauge the tax impact that California would have on your retirement finances. One option would be to pay for a consultation with a tax professional. This is probably the safest option and, despite the up front expense, could be money well spent. Another option would be to run your expected numbers through an online tax program. This would give you a ballpark idea, but would not necessarily alert you to potential pitfalls if your income assumptions were incorrect. Yet another consideration is that tax laws can and do change from year to year so there is no guarantee that you would not have more or less tax liability in a future year. It all makes for complicated planning in many cases.

      While it is often not a simple decision, my hope with this article was to demonstrate that it is possible for full-time travelers/nomads to at least do things legally. I have encountered many people who are mixing their affairs between multiple states or engaging in deceptive practices to obtain a vehicle registration or to lower their tax liability. I do not judge anyone who takes that approach because the regulations are discriminatory against those without a permanent address, but I prefer to keep it as legal and legitimate as possible to avoid potential legal or financial problems in the future.

      I hope this helps – and I wish that I could provide a simple answer for your situation.

  4. Great article Robert. I notice that most nomads stay in and around Arizona, why is it that no one uses it as their home state?

    1. Peggy, that is a great question! I do know of a couple that use Arizona as their home state, but that is it. Definitely a tiny percentage. The only reason that I can imagine (and this is conjecture on my part) is that Arizona does have a state income tax where the other more popular states for nomads do not. I doubt this would be a huge issue to those on limited, fixed incomes though, and their DMV seems reasonably easy to deal with compared to some other states as well. It is actually one of several that I am considering moving my residence to in the future since I spend a good bit of time there each year.

  5. Car insurance is my biggest concern. All insurance companies I have dealt with won’t you to sign an affidavit saying the car is principally parked at the address you are using as your domicile.
    How do you get around that and not have to worry that a claim will be denied because of a fraudulent application.

    1. That is a great question, Ed! As you probably already noted from the article, I always encourage people to keep things completely legal and legitimate if at all possible. The concern that you raise is a valid issue should the insurance company have any suspicions following a claim.

      Bob Well recently published a couple of videos on his Cheap RV Living channel that feature an interview with Joe Burkley. Joe is a full-time RVer and a licensed insurance agent. The videos, Insurance for Nomads Part 1 & 2 address some of these issues for nomads, as well as the benefits of having a vehicle that is registered as an RV when it comes to insurance. Joe is able to work with customers in several states, including all of the popular nomad domiciles. He explains in the videos how it is essential that full-timers declare their status to insurance companies to prevent problems after a claim (including denied claims and cancellations), but also acknowledges that not all insurance companies will write policies for full-timers. Joe is familiar with those that will cover full-timers though. I can send you his contact information if you are interested. Just shoot us an e-mail or send a message using the form on our contact page.

  6. I’m on a time crunch to get domiciled in another state — tax reasons — as I move from sticks & bricks to the nomad life. My first choice is Wyoming (close to family in N. UT), but I’m running into the problem of WY being the least populated state in the USA, with comparatively little housing available — and I’m not going to rent in Jackson (beautiful but WAY too expensive), and Wyoming also experiencing a decline in economy and population, I’m having a hard time finding temporary housing there while I get settled! I did not expect this, since so many other states have a million housing options. So I’m looking at possibly domiciling to South Dakota until I can get settled as a resident in Wyoming — I would actually plan on staying in Wyoming for a fair portion of the year as I travel, but I want my temp housing to be as cheap as possible, including when I return periodically. Since YOU are domiciled in Wyoming, can you share how you got started with that process?

  7. R.F., Wyoming does offer some benefits to nomads – no state income tax, inexpensive auto insurance, nice summer weather in the mountains, etc. On the other hand, I have found housing there to be more limited and expensive than in some other areas (though obviously better than some states too). The Jackson and Gillette areas are the most expensive based on what I have read and experienced. Wyoming is also more picky than some “nomad friendly” states when it comes to proving residency for driver license, etc. Still, once you overcome that hurdle it is pretty easy to maintain residency there as a nomad. I moved to Wyoming several years ago to watch two of my grandchildren so I was actually living there in a house for about six months before hitting the road.

    South Dakota is a very friendly option for nomads, and one that I am debating switching to myself. The biggest problem I have with Wyoming now as a nomad is the limited mail forwarding options.

  8. I’m a US citizen, but have no official state residency. I live out of my backpack, and have no car. no driver’s license, no rent, no mortgage, no health insurance, no credit/debit cards, no bank account, etc etc. I survive primarily on volunteering through informal food/housing based work trade. I have a passport as my only ID, used only domestically, and no longer have any connection with any of the addresses associated with the passport. My question – Is wandering around the country doing projects for friends without any state residency technically considered illegal?

  9. I’m not sure if anyone else has added this, so sorry for any duplications, but I recently changed residency to Nevada and you should add that some pit falls of this state are extremely high vehicle registration fees (1.5% of new vehicle MSRP until the vehicle passes 6 or 7 years of age). They determine what the new vehicle MSRP is even if you bought it used. Coming from CA, my registration went up over $150 annually on a 5 year old car that I bought used. Annual inspections are required and not sure if inspections from outside of the state are honored. Car insurance is very expensive here because of the high instance of litigation over accidents, high rate of theft, and DUIs (my premium went up $1200 annually when I moved to Vegas from LA). My mail forwarding box that gave me a street address was also pricey compared to the services in SD and TX. Sure there is no state income tax, but this is definitely not the most affordable option as far as that goes.

    1. Jenny, thanks for sharing your experiences with Nevada! We had considered it ourselves as we have several friends that use Nevada as a domicile. This is all good info for people to be aware of in order to make an informed decision.

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