Guide to Voting as a US Citizen Abroad in 2024

Guide to Voting as a US Citizen Abroad in 2024

Major elections are around every corner in the United States, so if you live abroad and want to exercise your legal right to participate in American democracy, it’s crucial to know how to vote absentee. 

While many countries streamline the voting process for expats, the U.S. is not one of them. Unfortunately, the voting system for U.S. expats is quite complex and confusing to navigate. 

By the end of this guide, you’ll find out how to vote as an U.S. citizen living abroad, from requesting your ballot to filling it in and successfully submitting your vote.

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Keys Takeaways

  • You can use an absentee ballot to vote from abroad as a U.S. citizen.
  • The state you “vote from” while living abroad depends on where you last resided in the U.S.
  • You can vote from abroad as a U.S. citizen even if you never lived in the U.S.
  • Applying for an absentee ballot through email is always easier than applying through standard mail.
  • You should start your absentee voting ballot process at least 45 days before elections deadlines.

What Is an Absentee Ballot?

An absentee ballot is the system of voting for U.S. citizens who are not present in their home state on election day. The absentee ballot can also be used by citizens who are out of the country. The ballot is designed for U.S. military stationed abroad, expats, and essentially any other U.S. citizen who isn’t physically in their home state or in the U.S. on election day. 

an absentee ballot request
A sample FCPA, also known as an absentee ballot request.

All U.S. states have absentee ballot systems, but the rules for voting absentee can vary depending on the state you are from. So, the requirements and processes for requesting and submitting your ballot can also differ from one state to another. 

In total, 28 states have a “no excuses absentee ballot” system, meaning you don’t need to provide a reason for voting absentee. The systems for acquiring a ballot in these states are also generally easier.

When Should You Begin the Absentee Voting Process?

Because every state has different voting deadlines, it’s best to go to FVAP.gov, select your state from the dropdown list, and look at the state’s specific deadlines.

Federal election deadlines
A sample of New Jersey’s election deadlines.

In general, you must register to vote around 45 days before election deadlines. Then you must request your ballot a week before election deadlines. Finally, your absentee ballot must be postmarked by the state’s deadline date (the Return Balltor date).

Considering this, if you want to vote in this year’s general elections in November, you should start the process by at least mid-October.

Can US Expats Vote From Abroad?

While the difficulty of the voting process depends on your home state, Americans living abroad still have the right to vote. But the types of elections you’re allowed to participate in depend on the rules of your home state.

US citizens vote from anywhere in the world
As a U.S. citizen, you can vote from anywhere in the world.

What State Should You Vote From?

Now that you know you can vote from abroad, how do you know which state to register to vote in? Most of the time, determining this is simple, as it’s likely the last state you voted in the U.S. But this can be a bit difficult to pin down if you have moved around often or never registered to vote.

When applying for your Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), you’ll be asked to submit your “voting residence.” This address must be in the U.S., as it is used to determine which electorates and regions you’re eligible to vote in.

If you’ve lived in the U.S. before, put the last address you lived at. You can still use the address on your FPCA if you no longer live at this address, the address is no longer a residential building, and/or you don’t plan on returning to the state.

Working out your voter residency gets a bit more complicated if you’re a U.S. citizen who has never lived in the U.S. I will discuss the entire voting process as a U.S. citizen born overseas in detail below.

Can US Expats Vote in State Elections?

All American Citizens have the right to vote in federal elections, for instance presidential, senate, house of representatives, and so on. But some states don’t allow expats to vote in some state elections. The federal government only requires states to allow citizens to vote in all federal elections, so some states restrict this. Generally, in states that restrict overseas voters to federal elections, you can’t vote in state elections if: 

  • You have no intention of returning to the state
  • You have never lived in the U.S.
  • You have never registered to vote in the state
  • You most recently were registered to vote in a different state

US Expat Voting Process: How to Vote Absentee

The process of voting absentee may seem like rocket science at first, but if you’re equipped with the right resources, it really isn’t as complicated as you might think. In this section, I’ll walk you through the entire step-by-step process of voting as a U.S. citizen who lives abroad.

Vote Absentee as a us citizen
You have to select which state you want to “vote from.” This depends on where you last lived in the U.S. 

Voting From Abroad

  • Step 1: Head to the Federal Voting Assistance Program website. The FVAP.gov website is where you’ll need to head to get started on your application for an absentee ballot. This site manages all absentee ballot applications across the U.S. and walks you through the process from start to finish.
  • Step 2: Click on “Request your Ballot Now” to start the FPCA. When you get to the homepage of the site, click the big red “Request your Ballot Now” button. This then takes you to a page with some information about the process and the privacy policy, which you should read through and accept.
  • Step 3: Select your home state. After accepting the privacy policy, a map of the U.S. will pop up. Select the state you’re registered to vote in or the state you plan to register to vote in. For example, if the last state you lived in the U.S. was Texas, choose Texas.
  • Step 4: Complete the application. There will be some differences in the application process for different states, but most states ask about your jurisdiction, your reason for voting absentee (U.S. citizen living outside the country), your current foreign address, and other relevant voting information.
  • Step 5: Choose how to receive your ballot. After filling out all the necessary information, you’ll then choose to receive your ballot by email or by mail.
  • Step 6: Print and sign your application. Once you complete the application and have reviewed it to ensure all the information is correct, print it out and sign the form. Make sure your signature is your standard signature, as it will be compared with the signature you have used in the past.
  • Step 7: Submit your application. Now that the form is signed and completed, you’ll need to send the FPCA to your state voting office. Depending on the state you’re from, you may be able to submit the form by fax or email, though some states can only submit it by mail.

Once you’ve submitted your FPCA to your state voting office and been approved, you’re only halfway done with the process of voting absentee. But don’t worry, this is where things get exciting. Let’s take a look at what you need to do to submit your absentee ballot from abroad.

  • Step 8: Receive your absentee ballot. States generally send out absentee ballots at least 45 days before the election. You can check with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) for the updated timeframes. Some states also send out absentee ballots by email. If you live abroad and your state allows the ballot to be sent by email, I highly suggest choosing this option as it can significantly cut down on the time it takes to receive your ballot.
  • Step 9: Fill out your absentee ballot. Make sure to always use a blue or black ink pen to fill out your absentee ballot. There are three options when completing your absentee ballot:
  1. Straight Party Ticket: This means you vote for a specific party in all races. For example, if you want to vote for all democratic party candidates, you can check the “Straight Party” box.
  2. Split Ticket: For a split ticket vote, you will fill out the “Straight Party” box, but you can also vote for some different candidates in different parties. For example, if you want to vote for republican party candidates in most races but there is an independent candidate you want to vote for in a specific race, you can opt for split ticket voting.
  3. Mixed Ticket: If you want to vote for several different candidates in various parties, you can choose to vote mixed ticket. In this case, leave the “Straight Party Ticket” section blank.

You may also have the option to write in a name for a ballot or vote for multiple candidates for a race. This will be indicated in the instructions for each section of the absentee ballot.

  • Step 10: Submit your absentee ballot. Once you’ve filled out and voted your ballot, place it inside the envelope (it should have been sent to you with the ballot), and fill out the outside of the envelope with your address, name, and the address of your local voting office. Some states allow you to submit the ballot by email or fax, but most require you to submit the physical ballot by mail.

Voting as a US Citizen Who Has Never Resided in the US

If you’re an American citizen who was born overseas and has never lived in the U.S., voting in U.S. elections can be a bit of a headache. In some states such as Texas, you simply cannot vote if you’re a U.S. citizen who has never resided in the U.S. That said, many states allow you to vote in certain circumstances.

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States such as California, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and others allow citizens who’ve never lived in the U.S. to vote if their parents or legal guardians are eligible to vote in the state. Colorado, Michigan, and a few other states take this further and also allow you to vote in elections if your spouse or domestic partner is eligible to vote in the state.

Voting as a Student Studying Abroad?

American students living and studying abroad can vote in federal elections (and some state elections, depending on the state). The process for voting when studying abroad is essentially the same as if you’re living and working in another country. For example, you must file a request for an absentee ballot, receive the ballot, fill out (vote) the ballot, and send the ballot to your local election office.

Timeframe for Voting Abroad as an Expat

How far in advance should you request your absentee ballot? And when will your ballot arrive after submitting your FPCA form?

timesframe for voting as a us citizen

If you don’t receive your absentee ballot in time, you have to fill out a FWAB on FVAP.gov.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) recommends that you submit your ballot request at least 90 days before the election you plan to participate in. For example, if the presidential election is on November 5, you should send in your FPCA by August 7.

All election offices send out your absentee ballot by mail at least 45 days before the election. Depending on where you live, it can take between a few days to a couple of weeks for the ballot to arrive. If you request your ballot by email, it’ll arrive in your inbox immediately after being sent.

How Does Voting Abroad Differ from State to State?

As you probably know by now, your eligibility and requirements for voting absentee in U.S. elections are determined by the state you last lived in. 

Each state has different rules on who can vote absentee, what elections absentee voters can participate in, and how to submit the absentee ballot. To say the least, this makes things confusing for voters, and finding reliable information on how to vote from abroad in your state can sometimes be impossible. 

Let’s go over some tips for ensuring your vote counts and that you submit your absentee ballot currently in your state.

  • Check the FVAP Voting Assistance Guide: As government websites go, the FVAP site is actually pretty intuitive and easy to navigate. One of the best features for voters is the Voting Assistance Page, which has resources on voting from your state and even gives you timeframes and deadlines for submitting your ballot.
  • Call your local election office: Of course, getting on the phone with government officials is often easier said than done, but this is the best way to get specific and updated information about the voting processes in your state.
  • Read through the handy resources and tools from Vote.org: Vote.org is the biggest voting website in the U.S. and has tons of resources, information, and tools that make registering to vote and navigating the complex processes so much easier. 

Can You Vote at a US Embassy or Consulate?

Unfortunately, no. Since elections are carried out and votes are collected by the state you’re from (not the federal government), you must submit your vote directly to your state election office. That said, your embassy or consulate can help you to submit your ballot by mail and some may even have absentee ballot drop off stations. I recommend calling your local U.S. embassy before the election to ask for advice on submitting your ballot.

Now, on to You

Voting is your right as a U.S. citizen, and that right is extended to you no matter where in the world you currently live. Be sure to follow the steps in this guide depending on the category you fit into, and you’ll soon see that voting from abroad is not as challenging as it first seems.  

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Lev is a writer passionate about inspiring more people to travel and explore the world. He left his Texas home in 2016 to see the world. He has been to over 30 countries and is currently a digital nomad, hopping from country to country every few months. Channeling his knowledge of travel, immigration, and international tax into his writing he started The Nomad Almanac which is geared towards digital nomads and those curious about living a remote lifestyle.

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