Voting Whilst Abroad

Ask anyone who has traveled abroad for any length of time, and you will quickly learn that relocating to a foreign country requires a colossal amount of preparation.

What will your new living quarters be like? Where will your children attend school? How’s the local food? Are there any security concerns? What are the passport and visa requirements? These questions represent a mere fraction of top-level concerns for expatriates; however, one question that often gets overlooked is: How do I vote while abroad?

The answer is simple: absentee ballots…..

Most countries have some form of absentee ballot system that allows voters who are unable or unwilling to attend physical elections the opportunity to vote by other means. Voters may use absentee ballots for a wide variety of reasons such as illness or disability, overseas military duty, study abroad, or business relocation. In some countries, all voters are eligible to request absentee ballots for no stated reason whatsoever, while others are tightly regulated and only use absentee ballots in specific circumstances.

Postal voting is the most common procedure for requesting and submitting absentee ballots.

Typically, ballots are requested by writing a letter to an election office, town clerk, or other election official; many countries also use request forms that may be obtained online, printed out, and mailed to the appropriate office. Once the request has been received, processed, and approved, an election official will send an absentee ballot. The voter must then fill out the ballot and mail it back to cast their vote.

It is important to keep in mind that submitting an absentee ballot may add a considerable amount of time to the voting process, and therefore it is crucial to plan how you will return your ballot ahead of time. In some cases, submitting your vote is as simple as uploading, emailing, or faxing your completed ballot to your election officials. Other ballots – such as those for the US presidential election – must be submitted by mail.

You may use a local mail service if it has a reliable delivery to your home country, or you may use a professional courier service. A third option is to place your completed ballot in a postage paid envelope and bring it to your nearest embassy or consulate, which typically be able to forward it to your home country. The process of requesting and submitting absentee ballots varies by country.

The following are a few examples of how the procedure works in various countries worldwide:


India has an absentee voting system that is tightly regulated and generally restricted to government employees—typically military members or state officials—who are stationed overseas or in remote areas. These individuals, termed, “service voters” by the government, must apply for an absentee ballot via the National Voter’s Services Portal. Once the Election Commission of India has approved the application, service voters may request a postal ballot.

Recently, the government has also permitted the use of e-postal ballots. These forms are simply blank ballots that may be downloaded and printed out by registered service voters, who cast their vote by completing the ballot and mailing it to the appropriate returning officer via the post office.

South Africa

As of 2013, all South African citizens who will be either living or traveling out of the country during national elections may apply to vote abroad. Compared to other countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and India, absentee ballots work a bit differently in South Africa. Rather than sending voters a postal ballot, the South African government instead sets up physical polling stations in South African diplomatic missions worldwide.

To apply to vote abroad, registered voters must first submit a form stating their intention to vote abroad; this form may be completed either online or downloaded, printed, and mailed to the election office in Pretoria. Forms must be received at least 15 days prior to the election date. Once the forms have been received and approved, voters may then cast their vote at the mission indicated on their confirmation letter. It is important to note that polls in South African missions are typically only open on a single date, and it is not possible to vote on any other date.

United States

In the United States, the procedure for requesting absentee ballots varies depending on the type of election in which you are voting, as well as your home state. Registered voters may submit a request for an absentee ballot by writing to their local election officials—typically their town clerk. Increasingly, email, online forms, and even mobile applications are being used to request and submit ballots.

Ballots for the November general elections are delivered electronically or by mail forty-five days prior to Election Day. For other elections such as primary, run-off, and special elections, ballots are typically sent out thirty days prior. Some states allow voters to request a ballot either for a specific election, or for all the elections that year.

Once the ballot has been received and completed, it must then be sent to the appropriate US election official—either via email or online form for electronic ballots, or by mail or courier service for physical ballots. US citizens may also drop off completed ballots at their nearest embassy or consulate.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, absentee ballots take the form of postal ballots. Registered voters may choose to vote via post whether they are at home or abroad, and applicants are not required to state the reason why they wish to use an absentee ballot.

To apply for postal voting, UK residents must download an application form and mail the completed document to their local electoral registration office. Registered voters must send in their applications eleven working days prior to the poll. Residents of the UK may apply for a postal vote either for a single election or permanently, and voters from England Scotland, and Wales have the additional option to receive postal ballots for all elections during a specified time period.

In addition to postal voting, the UK also allows citizens to apply for proxy voting. Using this method, voters may appoint a close relative—defined as a spouse, civil partner, parent, grandparent, brother, sister, child, or grandchild—to cast their vote at a polling station in their stead. Proxy voters must be registered to vote for the election in which they will be casting a proxy vote. To apply for proxy voting, voters must submit an application and explain why they are not able to go to their polling station on polling day.

It is important to note that the regulations and procedures for postal and proxy voting in Northern Ireland differ from those of the UK. Consult the local Electoral Office for a comprehensive overview of election procedures there.

How to find information for your country

Whether at home or traveling abroad, it is crucial to voice your opinion and exercise your right to vote if you are able. If you reside in a country other than those mentioned above, a good first step to determining your country’s voting procedure is to contact your local embassy. To find your nearest embassy, consult: For further information regarding absentee ballots in the countries discussed above, visit:

Election Commission of India
Register and Vote abroad – South Africa
UK Postal Vote
Electoral Office of Northern Ireland
USA Federal Voting Assistance Program

James Cafferty, Living Abroad, LLC