Guide to Establishing Florida Domicile and Residency

A perennial hot topic in the nomad community is how to establish residency when you have no permanent address. By the nature of this lifestyle, we’re always on the move. Some people do have a place they call home, even if it’s just a piece of undeveloped land somewhere. Others, like us, have no fixed abode. How does that work for legal purposes? For your ID? Vehicle registration? How do you get your mail? These are all things we take for granted in “normal” life but become a real issue when you’re on the road. Here’s how we successfully navigated this obstacle course of red tape and logistical difficulties.

Domicile vs. Residence

People tend to throw the words “domicile” and “residence” around interchangeably, but they are not one and the same.

residence: the act or fact of dwelling in a place for some time

Merriam-Webster

Your residence can be anywhere you park yourself. Many people live in New England during the summer and in Florida during the winter. They have two homes, and both qualify as a residence. They may even register a car in Florida and leave it there year-round, even with a New Hampshire driver’s license. That’s not the same as a domicile, though.

domicile: a person’s fixed, permanent, and principal home for legal purposes

Merriam-Webster

The difference is subtle, but important. Anywhere you live for a while can be a residence. Legally, though, you must have one “fixed, permanent, and principal home.” This doesn’t work when you’re on the road full-time, yet you’re still required to have one. And a mailbox doesn’t qualify. Especially since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, the requirements for proving you are a legal resident in a particular place have become more and more stringent. It specifically excludes the mailbox at the UPS Store that used to work well for full-time nomads, because it would be too easy for the “bad guys” to use one to establish a false identity.

So what’s a nomad to do? Some states make establishing domicile a difficult process, while others make it relatively easy. There are countless articles and videos around the internet about which states are best for us. I recommend CheapRVLiving’s videos describing in detail which states are best and why, particularly the one embedded above. What I’m going to describe here is what we did, and why we did it.

Why Florida?

Even among the top four states Bob Wells recommends — Texas, South Dakota, Nevada, and Florida — there are advantages and disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage of Florida is expensive car insurance. You’ll pay more here than many other places, mainly due to the high number of uninsured, unlicensed drivers. Other states have other issues, like higher taxes, or a poor state-run health insurance system. Do your research, and choose a state that’s the best compromise of circumstances for you.

Location is quite important, and was a major deciding factor for us. We’re based on the east coast. Of these four states, Florida is the only one on the east coast. I’m a life-long New Englander until now, and I still have ties and connections up there. Trisha grew up in Florida, so she’s already familiar with the lay of the land. Her son lives in Massachusetts. We have good reason to stay on the east coast, and Florida winters are mild enough to hunker down here for a few months to avoid the cold.

Florida makes it fairly easy for travelers to establish domicile here, compared to other states. For the first time, I finally have a Real ID driver’s license. (I never bothered with one before because I have a passport.) There are no pesky car inspections to ground your pride and joy until a shop can extort way too much money out of you for “repairs” to send you on your way. If you don’t intend to spend much time in Florida, your driver’s license is valid for eight years before you have to renew it. Registration is every two years.

Finally, Florida is one of three states that the Escapees RV Club offers domicile services in. For an extra fee in addition to mail forwarding, Escapees will let you use Sumter Oaks RV Park in Bushnell as your legal domicile. They supply all the paperwork you need to prove that you “live” there. This is 100% legitimate. There is no legal grey area. The Sumter County tax collector’s office sees Escapees members doing this all the time. Everyone involved has a system, and it works. All you need to do is follow instructions, and it will work. It worked for us.

Establishing Mail Forwarding

Ironically, the most difficult part of this process for us was not with the government, but with Escapees mail forwarding, which is required whether you’re using them for domicile or not. It’s not even Escapees themselves that are the problem, but the process the U.S. Postal Service requires to allow mail forwarding. Honestly, you’ll probably have to go through this for any mail forwarding service, not just Escapees.

As part of the signup process, you’ll be required to complete Postal Form 1583, Application for Delivery of Mail through Agent. When you join Escapees, they supply this form along with their own paperwork to fill out and return to them before they can assign you an address. They also give you instructions to help you fill it out. For instance, there is a section on the form asking for your home address. We don’t have one — we’re submitting this form in order to get one, a classic Catch-22. According to Escapees, our vehicle is our home, so we fill in the vehicle information in this section.

The other fun part is you have to sign this form before a notary to be accepted by Escapees and the USPS. What the Escapees paperwork doesn’t tell you, but a representative told us on the phone, is that there are two ways to do this. One is the traditional method — print out the form, visit a notary, sign it, they stamp it, and then mail it to Escapees. The other, which at the time I’m writing this is not documented anywhere (except here), is to do it all electronically. There are online notary services that will handle the transaction entirely over the internet. This is a much faster way to do it, and time was of the essence in our situation where were effectively homeless. We used Notarize.com. We uploaded the form, filled it out online, then had a video conference with a notary. She verified our identification (we used our old New Hampshire IDs), the information on the form, and attached her electronic stamp of approval. In fact, she was so captivated by our story that she even subscribed to our YouTube channel (hi, Crystal)! Then you can email all of the information to Escapees, and you’ll have your new address within a day, likely the SAME day.

The only issue with this is whether the notary you choose will accept the way Escapees wants you to do this. They may want a genuine street address, not your vehicle. Ours was willing to roll with it, but others may not be, even though this is the way Escapees has done it for thousands of travelers over the years.

Establishing Florida Domicile

The Sumter County tax collector’s office has an excellent website that clearly spells out what forms of documentation you need to bring with you to transfer your license and registration to Florida. (We’ll get back to registration later.) Having been through the process, I can verify that this is not a stereotypical DMV situation where the website says you need one thing, but the clerk says you need something completely different and turns you away, only for another clerk to tell you something different than that when you come back with what the first clerk wanted. If anything, in the real world, they make it even easier than they say on the website. I’ll get back to that.

Escapees provided us with a letter to the Sumter County tax collector’s office, validating that we may use Sumter Oaks as our legal address, as well as the agreement for mail forwarding that we signed. Escapees told us that these would be the two forms of proof required for legal residency. In addition, we needed to prove our identities with either a birth certificate (which Trisha used) or a passport (which I used), and proof of our Social Security numbers. According to the instructions from Escapees and the tax collector’s website, these would be adequate to establish domicile in the state of Florida.

COVID ruins everything. Even in May 2021, we couldn’t just walk into the tax collector’s office with all of our paperwork and get our licenses and registrations transferred. We had to set up appointments through the website. I’d booked us a one-week stay at Sumter Oaks. The first available license appointment was for right around our checkout time one week later. Because there were two of us, we needed two appointments, and the second wasn’t available until the following Monday. We had to extend our Sumter Oaks stay to two weeks because of this. I wish I’d known about this before arriving in Florida, or we would’ve booked appointments soon after our arrival and only stayed the one week. We didn’t, so live and learn, and pass the information along to you.

Note that you are NOT legally required to spend ANY time at your domicile address. We chose to because it was the most convenient place to stay close to the tax collector’s office, and as Escapees members we get a discounted rate.

Finally, a week and a half after we arrived, Trisha and I went to our appointments at two consecutive times. The woman at the front desk verified our appointments, as well as that we had all of the required paperwork. If we didn’t, she would’ve punted us before we wasted anymore time, which is actually a good thing.

I did not have my original social security card. One of the other acceptable documents, according to the website, is a W-2 form with my social security number on it, which I had and brought with me. It turns out I didn’t need it. They had me fill out an affidavit stating that this really is my number, and that was it. This is one of those cases where the actual process was even easier than they said it would be. I have no regrets about bringing the W-2 with me anyway, though.

Finally, it was our turn for processing. It was very straightforward. The clerk requested all of the documents I was told to bring, and that the front desk verified that I had. I read the eye chart. I verified that I wear glasses to drive, and that I have and want to keep my motorcycle endorsement. I paid the fee (check the website for current rates). And then got my Florida driver’s license. Unlike some experiences I had in the past, this was no temporary paper license until they could mail me the real one. No, they printed the actual license on the spot and handed it to me. It’s valid until the end of 2029, which means that technically I don’t ever need to return to Florida until then.

Registering Your Vehicle(s) in Florida

Here’s a twist. I actually registered the van and bike in Florida BEFORE getting my Florida license. They had appointments available in the middle of the first week of our stay, so I took one to at least give it a try. I figured that worst case, they’d tell me I needed my Florida license first, and I’d make another appointment after completing that. As it turns out, you CAN register a vehicle in Florida with an out-of-state license. The clerk who did this for me told me that when I returned to get my Florida license, have them merge the records of my Florida license and my registrations associated with my old New Hampshire license.

This is where they get you. In many ways, this is more complicated than even the license, and it’s definitely much more expensive. Be aware going in that Florida charges a $225 initial registration fee for private automobiles, motor homes, and trucks less than 5,000 pounds. (It does NOT apply to motorcycles, thank goodness.) This is on top of all the other fees, taxes, and whatever else they charge. All in all, it cost me more than $700 to register my van and bike in Florida. Fortunately, much of that was a one-time expense. From here, I can simply transfer my plate from this van to another vehicle from now on.

What to Bring

As far as what you need, that’s a bit tricky too. From the tax collector’s website:

  • All registered owners.
  • Photo ID (again, a Florida license is NOT required).
  • Vehicle title.
  • Proof of Florida insurance through a Florida agent.
  • The vehicle itself for VIN verification (weather permitting), OR a form HSMV 82042 for VIN verification completed by a law enforcement officer.
  • Bill of sale if the vehicle has been purchased in the last six months.

Wow. I’m lucky I bought the van for cash and had no lien on the title. If you do, don’t bother making an appointment. Instead, fill out this form to provide the tax collector’s office all of the information about the lienholder. They will contact the lienholder to collect the information they need, then schedule an appointment with you to complete the registration. Don’t call them, they’ll call you.

I already had insurance on the van, but I had to get a whole new policy for Florida. (Florida doesn’t require it for motorcycles but I have it anyway.) Naturally, it cost a lot more — the big disadvantage of doing this in Florida.

It was a bright sunny day, so weather was not a factor for the VIN verification. I loaded the bike up on the back of the van, then brought both to the tax collector’s office. The clerk verified both VINs on the spot. Some people fly in and get this done without bringing the vehicle with them. That’s who the form HSMV 82042 is for. My neighbors at Sumter Oaks told me that a Sumter County Sheriff would also come to the park to do the VIN verification. This would be extremely useful for large motorhomes, since parking at the tax collector’s office is limited and would not accommodate such a large vehicle.

I was fortunate enough to have accidentally grabbed the crappy handwritten bill of sale for my purchase of the van when we panic cleared out the apartment after the fire. I brought it. The clerk looked at it. I don’t think I got charged sales tax on the transaction because it all happened months ago far away from Florida. Though she did ask how much I paid in sales tax in New Hampshire, and had to answer “nothing” because New Hampshire doesn’t charge it. (It’s the town excise tax that’ll get you.)

But again, I brought all of the documentation the website told me to. And do you know what? It went through without a problem. I even got a Space Shuttle license plate, because I’m a space nerd and space is cool. The only issue was how much of a beating my bank account took that day.

Since I was already modifying the title by transferring it from New Hampshire to Florida, I took the opportunity to also change the vehicle type from a van to a motorhome. Florida makes this extremely easy to do on home conversions. Here’s how.

Conclusion

Establishing a domicile address when on the road full-time isn’t the simplest task in the world. It’s also not impossible. We took the easy way and followed the well-traveled path that Escapees has established. We did it in Florida because that’s what made sense for us. This might not be the right way for you to do it. Do your own research, and choose the place that makes the most sense for you and your situation.

We did a few things we didn’t have to do. We never had to actually stay at our domicile address. We didn’t have to convert the van’s title into a motorhome. But we did, and everything worked out in the end. We also don’t need to come back to Florida this winter, but we probably will to hide from the cold. While we’re back, I do some more extra credit work, apply for an amateur radio license plate. I couldn’t do it this time because we weren’t sticking around the area long enough to have a custom license plate (my callsign) mailed to us. I also wasn’t yet a Florida resident, which is also required for this type of plate. Those cards will fall into place when we return, so I’ll tackle it then.

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