We’ve seen it happen in movies and even on a few popular TV shows: for a variety of reasons, the main character decides to “disappear” and make a fresh start under a completely new identity. But is it even possible to totally vanish in the real world?
It might surprise you to learn that ordinary people successfully complete these disappearing acts every day—but not without significant effort, months of planning, and a fair share of personal sacrifice. Keep reading to learn how to erase all traces of your current existence in both the virtual and physical realms.
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How To Disappear Completely: Is it Legal?
Under current law, it’s only illegal to disappear or conceal one’s identity if someone has committed a crime or attempting to evade financial obligations. However, in some cases, state and federal governments will actually assist individuals in their attempts to disappear. The most common scenarios for trading in one’s existing identity for a fresh one include:
How To Disappear: Beginning Your Disappearing Act
Given the widespread use of CCTV cameras in the U.S., which totaled roughly 85 million according to one 2017 report, as well as the millions of digital breadcrumbs each of us leaves behind during the activities of everyday life, determining how to disappear completely is a daunting—but not impossible—task. The following steps will get you on the path toward replacing your existing identity with a brand-new one that will allow you to make a fresh start in life.
Step 1: Erasing Your Online Identity
Everything you do online—including shopping, banking, sending email and using social media—leaves a digital trail that’s almost impossible to erase. Virtually every website and social media platform is designed to capture as much personal information as possible from each online interaction, which they then sell to third parties or use to more effectively market goods and services to you.
It’s the reason you start seeing ads for specific vehicles soon after browsing used car sites or suddenly get unsolicited emails from cruise lines after looking at friends’ vacation photos on Facebook. If you truly wish to disappear, your first move has to be dissolving your online entanglements. So, let’s learn how to disappear completely from the internet.
Deactivate all social media accounts
Even if you’re not actively engaging with your social media accounts, many of these platforms gather information from you anytime you use your smartphone or other devices. Most social media apps design their default settings to allow them to collect details about your physical location (geotagging), even if you’re not using the app at the time.
In some cases, these accounts may also be linked to other websites and functions on your phone, so the only way to be confident that they’re not tracking you is to deactivate all social accounts and delete related apps from all of your devices.
Delete online photos
If you’ve posted individual photos or photo albums to social media or any other online sites like Flickr or Shutterfly, you’ll need to search for them and delete them to prevent anyone searching for the “old you” from saving or printing them. You can’t disappear without a trace if photos from your previous life are still accessible online.
Eliminate your email account
Even if you think your private email account is secure, no free service is completely immune to hacking or other data breaches. This is especially true of Google’s Gmail service, which shares information across its various platforms, including Google Maps, Google Photos and Google Drive. If someone is looking for you, they can leverage your email address to see your recent online search history as well as information about your physical location.
Your best bet is to learn how to survive without email, but if you simply must have an email address for essential communication, consider using an encrypted email service for sending messages and other purposes.
Invest in a new phone
Your old smartphone is packed with personal data, contacts, and other points of vulnerability, so, unfortunately, it needs to be physically destroyed to prevent hackers and other bad actors from accessing active and deleted files from the device. Replace it with a basic flip phone (not another smartphone) and use it for making essential calls only.
You should also be sure to make calls from a variety of randomly chosen locations to make it harder to track your whereabouts using cell tower history.
Partner with a professional
Even if you’ve conducted a Google search to identify and erase all traces of your online existence, it can be difficult to find every mention of your name without some specific expertise. Hiring a company like Removaly, which offers powerful resources and search tools that the average person doesn’t have access to, can help you sweep every nook and cranny of the internet to ensure all evidence of your former identity has been eliminated.
Step 2: Establishing a New Legal Identity
Undergoing a legal name change is actually relatively easy; in most states, it simply requires completing a basic form and filing it with your local circuit court. You will likely need to provide proof of the identity you’re shedding, and the court will then conduct background checks to ensure that you don’t have any outstanding debts obligations or open criminal charges. Barring any complications in these areas, your new identity should become official within a matter of weeks.
Obtain a new Social Security number
After your legal name change is officially completed, you will need to apply for a new Social Security number, which must be done in person at your local Social Security office. The agency may request to see documentation of your recent name change, but once you’ve filled out the necessary paperwork, your new number and card will be issued to you after several weeks.
Develop and learn your new personal history
To prevent any new acquaintances from connecting you to your old life, you’ll want to develop a new personal history to go with your new name. Keep your story simple enough for you to remember easily, and make sure it includes an explanation for your lack of employment and rental history, since it can be challenging to get a job and housing without references.
If asked why you chose to relocate, simply explain that your previous town offered few opportunities for work and personal development, and don’t disclose which state you actually lived in previously. In general, the fewer specific personal details you share with others, the better.
Step 3: Preparing to Physically Vanish
Since you will continue to exist in the physical world—albeit under a new identity—taking steps to disappear in this realm is even more challenging than disappearing digitally. At minimum, plan to complete the following checklist to achieve your “invisibility cloak.”
Compile all essential documents
There’s no way around the fact that certain activities will require you to supply personal identification, including withdrawing money from the bank, traveling outside the country, making hotel reservations and driving (legally, anyway). Once you have established your new name and identity, you’ll need to get a passport and ID to match.
Sell your vehicle
Significant personal possessions like vehicles come with a paper trail that can enable others to track your whereabouts. If possible, consider relocating to a large city with a variety of public transit options; this will eliminate the need to own a vehicle altogether.
If you simply must own your method of transportation, sell your old car under your previous identity and purchase your new one once you have your new legal name secured. Cash transactions are essential to prevent creating new opportunities for you to be traced.
Keep your plan a secret
The best way to prevent anyone from attempting to find you is to keep your plan to yourself, telling no one about your intention to disappear. If you are disappearing to escape physical danger, telling loved ones about your plans could put them in danger as well. The less they know, the safer they are, and the less likely they are to unintentionally reveal your new identity or location.
Release social and emotional ties
Saying goodbye to friends and family may be the most challenging aspect of disappearing in the modern world. As humans, we are hard-wired to seek companionship and belonging in a larger community, and intentionally severing those ties goes against everything in our nature.
For some people, it may be easier to gradually pull away from friend groups and family circles over a period of weeks or months by declining invitations and decreasing communications; for others, an abrupt exit may be the best way to make a clean break.
Develop a budget for essentials
After you’ve arrived in your new location, you will need to have a nest egg to cover essential expenses like food, shelter, clothing and transportation until you are able to establish a new income stream. You will probably have to stay in a hotel or other short-term residence until you can secure a more permanent place to live, which typically requires proof of employment as well as credit history or personal references.
Establish a detailed budget for expenses and follow it religiously to keep your finances in check; financial stress can force you to make sloppy decisions that could derail your efforts to avoid being found.
Create a clean slate with your finances
Before you make your escape, ensure that all of your financial obligations have been settled and all bank and credit accounts have been closed. Creditors, financial institutions and debt collectors are among the most persistent entities on the planet, and they will stop at nothing to locate anyone who owes them money.
Alter your appearance
You don’t necessarily need to restructure your face with cosmetic surgery—although it doesn’t hurt—but anything you can feasibly do to change your physical appearance will help you avoid being associated with your previous identity. Dramatically changing the cut and color of your hair are the easiest steps to take; getting eyeglasses (or replacing them with contact lenses) can also help alter your appearance.
Gaining or losing weight can help, as can wearing loose clothing that hides your true body shape. You should also implement drastic shift in your personal style of dress to match your new identity and backstory, but the clothes you wear should also blend in with your new environment to keep you from sticking out like a sore thumb.
Leave a trail of misleading breadcrumbs
If you have time, leaving deceptive clues about where you might be going can send anyone who might be looking for you on a wild goose chase. Consider making fake airline and hotel reservations, telling friends and family about events you have no intention of attending and collecting informational brochures about places you’ll never visit. These steps can buy you additional time as you relocate and begin establishing your new life.
Learn how to defend yourself
With no social safety net to rely on in your new city, you will need to become completely self-sufficient, even when it comes to securing your physical safety. This is especially important if you are fleeing threats to your life or your person.
Enrolling in a self-defense course, learning martial arts and studying defensive techniques can give you additional confidence as you relaunch your life. Consider carrying pepper spray, a Taser or another defensive device that you can use to escape from an attacker; most states do not require you to obtain a permit or license for these items.
Carry and use cash exclusively
Debit and credit cards are one of the easiest ways to track a person’s physical location and activities, so using cash in all financial transactions can help you remain virtually untraceable. Store your cash in multiple locations so you don’t lose it all if one location is targeted by thieves.
Additionally, you should avoid spending too much time in stores, most of which are recording customers’ presence with security cameras. Buy what you need and get out as quickly as possible.
Step 4: Setting Yourself Up for Long-Term Success
Starting a new life from scratch typically means leaving behind any financial resources you had access to in your previous life. Additionally, obtaining a new identity and relocating to a place where you don’t know anyone typically involves significant up-front expenses.
Managing these challenges will require extensive financial planning and strict adherence to a budget. The following tips can help you be successful in managing your money until you get established in your new city.
Move to a place with a modest cost of living and good job opportunities
Large metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles have several advantages for anyone hoping to disappear. It’s easy to get lost in a city with millions of people, and large cities often have robust public transportation systems and social safety nets. However, they also have extremely high costs of living, which can exacerbate the challenge of getting on your feet when starting from zero.
As you research options for relocation, look for larger cities that also offer relatively inexpensive housing and other living expenses, such as Cincinnati, Detroit, San Antonio and Phoenix. Be sure to check the job market in these areas as well, since it won’t do you much good to have a low cost of living if you can’t find a job.
Make a plan for making money
Before relocating to a new city, research possible job opportunities for which you may qualify. Due to a lack of employment history related to your new identity, you may have trouble finding work immediately, or you may need to take on several low-wage or part-time jobs to make ends meet in the short term. You may also wish to consider training for a new career path once you get settled in your new location.
Monitor expenses closely
Given the typical financial limitations associated with relocation under a brand-new identity, it’s important to keep expenses to a minimum and eliminate non-essential expenditures wherever possible. Cooking most or all of your meals at home and bulk shopping for groceries at discount and warehouse stores can significantly reduce food costs.
Using public transportation, walking or riding a bicycle is substantially cheaper than paying for the fuel and maintenance costs associated with owning a vehicle. Be sure to track all of your spending and ensure you stay within the budget you’ve set for yourself.
Build a new social circle
As you leave your old life—including former friends, family members and even pets—behind, loneliness and feelings of isolation can weigh heavily on you. Once you feel comfortable in your new situation, it’s important to begin establishing social ties with your new neighbors, coworkers and other members of your community.
Though you may be worried about accidentally revealing details about your past, living an isolated existence not only increases your stress levels, but also makes it more difficult for you to fit into your new environment. Having a new social circle will provide critical support and personal fulfillment that will ultimately enable you to succeed in your fresh start.
It can be tempting to believe that once you begin your new life under your new identity, all of the problems of your past will disappear overnight. However, starting over comes with its own set of challenges, and you can expect the tasks of daily life to feel surprisingly difficult at first. This is completely normal.
Give yourself a break and remind yourself that things won’t always be this hard, and that every day brings you closer to feeling comfortable in your new routine. Take time for self-care activities you enjoy, such as spending time in nature or engaging in spiritual practices.
It may also help to make a list of reasons you decided to pursue this journey or write down specific goals for the future and the steps you will need to take to accomplish them. Focusing on the future as much as possible can help you stay positive on tough days.
Additional Considerations for Relocating to a Foreign Country
If you truly wish to disappear from the radar of everyone you know, relocating to a different country can make it exponentially more difficult for you to be found, but it can also pose its own challenges, such as obtaining the required documentation from that country’s immigration system. If you’re considering making a leap overseas, the following guidance can help make your relocation as smooth as possible.
Choose an unpredictable destination
If your friends and family know you’ve always dreamed of living in Paris, you probably don’t want to attempt your fresh start in France. Choosing a relatively obscure country that you’ve never visited or expressed interest in visiting can make it more challenging for searchers to locate you.
That said, it’s best to consider politically stable countries where the risk to your life or personal safety won’t be greater than it is in your current location. If possible, your destination of choice should also offer a favorable exchange rate to help you stretch your savings.
Research employment opportunities before making the leap
As with domestic relocations, one of the main challenges of relocating overseas is securing employment that pays well enough to cover essential expenses. Conducting research ahead of your move can increase the likelihood of you finding a good job soon after you arrive in-country.
Look for countries with favorable job markets and try to identify industries or even specific companies that match your existing experience and skill set. You may even be able to reach out to multinational companies with U.S. branches before you leave and establish connections that will assist you in being hired once you make your move.
Minimize the effects of language barriers
Moving to a new country can feel completely overwhelming if you don’t speak the language, and it can make finding housing, employment and transportation incredibly difficult. Being unable to converse with the people in your new community could also result in unscrupulous businesspeople overcharging you at restaurants, shops and even on your rent or other major expenditures.
To prevent language from becoming a stumbling block in your transition, learn as much of the native language of your new land prior to arriving. There are dozens of inexpensive resources to help you pick up critical phrases, from books and audio lessons to smartphone apps, and spending a few hours each day practicing will pay off in the long run. The more fluent you can become in the language, the less conspicuous you will seem in your adopted country and the easier it will be to integrate into the culture.
Expect culture shock
No matter where you choose to relocate, you should anticipate a period of adjusting to the customs, traditions and language of your new home—even if you’re relocating to an English-speaking country like Great Britain or Australia. At first, you may feel like you’ll never fit in and may even regret your choice to move, but rest assured that your new environment will become more familiar within a few months.
Take the time to explore your surroundings, immersing yourself in the region by trying local foods and visiting key landmarks. Above all, be patient with yourself and trust in your decision to relaunch your life from this particular platform.
How To Disappear: Our Final Thoughts
It can take months of careful preparation and rigorous attention to thousands of tiny details, but it is possible to disappear completely, even in our highly interconnected modern world. Even after you’ve completed the necessary steps to delete all evidence of your previous physical and digital identity and replace it with a new one, you will need to maintain an unwavering commitment to your plan when challenges inevitably arise.
As long as you can resist the temptation to look back and reach for connections to the life you worked so hard to leave behind, you can successfully begin again with a clean slate.