There are few experiences that can change someone as thoroughly as living in a different country. Whether you are looking for adventure or considering an overseas job offer, weigh your options carefully. While another country will always provide pleasant and unpleasant surprises, you can make your transition as comfortable as possible with preparation beforehand.
Considering a Move to a Foreign Country
Follow these steps whether or not you have chosen a destination. You may already know exactly where you want to move: perhaps you are deciding whether to accept an overseas job, or you have previously visited a country and fallen in love with it. Or you may want more international experiences without having decided on a particular place. Either way, these steps will help you evaluate the possibilities and pitfalls associated with each destination, preparing you for the challenges and excitement ahead.
Find contacts living abroad. If you have friends or family in a foreign country, that can make the transition much easier. Try asking your family members or friends who have traveled or hosted foreign guests whether they know anyone in the regions you are considering. Keep in mind Does your family have a cultural attachment to a certain region? Even if you are not in contact with any family overseas, you may decide to narrow down your options to your ancestors’ region of origin to learn more about family history and traditions.
Decide how important the language barrier is. Are you up to the difficult and possibly isolating task of living in a country where you don’t speak the language? Find out how many people speak English (or another language you understand) in the locations you are considering. Even if you have taken classes in a foreign language, be aware that regional accents, faster everyday conversation, and slang can make it tougher to understand than you expect.
Keep in mind that the language situation may vary within a country. For example, rural areas are more likely to be monolingual than cities.
Take language lessons from a book, recording, or teacher before you leave if possible, or practice your language skills in conversation.
Think about how often you’ll be visiting home. Some expats live just a train ride away from their home country, while other are on the other side of the globe. If you travel to another continent, realize you’ll probably need to pay large sums of money and spend many hours on an airplane in order to visit home. If you are departing from or heading to an area with no airport, that trip could require days or weeks instead. How likely is it that you’ll return home for a visit, and what kind of expense in time or money will you be willing to spend for that trip?
Consider costs of living. If you are traveling to a city, you may find your destination in the annual Mercer expense ranking. However, you may need to search for online expat forums to get a more detailed understanding of a specific area. The cost of housing, food, electricity, heating, and transportation are all important to know, and one may be more expensive than you’re used to even if the others are cheap. Relatively low costs of living may not help you if your new salary is low to match, or if your country’s currency is weak.
Always translate costs and wages into the currency you are familiar with and keep your money in. Use an online exchange calculator to get the most up to date information, and to see whether the exchange rate is changing rapidly.
Learn about climate and culture at the local level. Consider the weather at your destination carefully before you commit to a long term stay, especially if you enjoy outdoor activities. If you have hobbies or interests, find out how easy it would be to keep them while you’re abroad. Geography, city size, crime levels, and ease of contact with the outside world may also influence your decision.
If you wish to use specialized job skills abroad but do not yet have a job, finding a region where your job skills are in demand is especially important. Find an international professional organization if possible to find contacts who have worked abroad in your field, and ask them for advice about relocation.
Reading tourists’ guides to individual cities or regions can be a good way to narrow down your search from a country down to the local level, where weather, attractions, and culture can vary greatly.
Get your family on board. If you have a family traveling with you, make sure they will be comfortable as well. Are there schools where your children will feel welcome and have their language use accommodated? Are there any concerns your spouse has about his or her own job prospects, comfort, or safety? Other members of your family can use this same step-by-step guide to identify possible challenges.
Go on a fact-finding trip. If you are still not sure where you want to live, and you have the time and money, you could travel to your possible destinations and see firsthand whether you would like to live there. Try to spend at least three or four weeks in each destination to get a more accurate idea of what life there is like. Also consider what standard of living you’d be able to maintain on a permanent basis: a stay in a hotel may not tell you much if you would actually be moving in with a local family. Try to interact with locals and see how they live their lives, and where they spend their time.
Finding a Way to Get There
Investigate study abroad options if you are a student. This option is only available to students, or possibly to recent graduates. Study abroad programs are among the easiest ways to visit another country long-term, since your lodging will be arranged for you and you will meet people through enrollment in a foreign university. While the visit typically lasts a semester or an academic year, it can give you a thorough introduction to another country, and may teach you more about whether you want to become a permanent expatriate.
Study abroad options may be available through your university, secondary school or high school, or through third-party organizations. Financial aid may also be available. Ask a school counselor for more information.
If you are currently applying to universities, consider applying to foreign universities as well. Make sure they offer classes in a language you speak before applying.
Learn about programs through the military or government. If you work for the military or a government institution, your nation may pay you for overseas assignments. If your country’s diplomatic office is hiring, you could even enter a new overseas career – but be aware that this requires extensive training.
If you are a member of the U.S. military or a U.S. government employee, find more information through the the United States federal travel website.
Enroll in a teach abroad program. Most overseas teaching organizations require an undergraduate degree. However, this does not necessarily have to be in education. If you speak English fluently, that alone could make you high-demand without any foreign language experience required. Search for teaching abroad programs online, and ask them which teaching certification they require. Some programs may pay for your certification over the course of a few weeks or months, and then assist you in your travel plans.
Volunteer in a foreign country. Many humanitarian organizations are constantly on the lookout for volunteers who are willing to travel and assist in all kinds of programs, from building schools to providing medical assistance. Many programs require physical labor and/or travel to dangerous areas, so be sure you know exactly what you are getting into before you apply. It’s always a good idea to research this type of program thoroughly, since some of them may not offer the travel assistance or emergency medical help you need.
If you are passionate about an issue, do your research thoroughly to determine how best you can contribute. Ask the volunteer organization questions about its practices: does it support local economies, or does it only use imported labor and materials? What percentage of their funds go to the humanitarian project versus administration and other costs?
Find a job abroad. If you work for a company with international ties, it’s possible you can talk to Human Resources about applying for an overseas position. More commonly, you will need to start a job search from abroad, which can be difficult if you are not in a high-demand field. A contact at your destination who can vouch for you may make a tremendous difference.
Travel without set plans. This option is not recommended for families, as there is no guarantee you will find a stable living place or employment in another country. However, if you want to travel for a while rather than settle in one place, this may be the option for you. Be aware that you risk running out of money or getting into dangerous situations. If possible, keep enough money in your bank account to transport yourself back home or to a location where you have friends or family who can support you in case of disaster.
Note that you will most likely have a tourist visa, which could make it illegal for you to work abroad, as well as limit the amount of time you can stay in a country to a few weeks or months (depending on the visa).
Planning the Logistics
Make sure your passport or travel documents are up to date. For most trips outside of your country, especially long-term or permanent moves, you will need a passport issued by your country of citizenship. Check the expiration date and renew your passport if necessary. Begin the application or renewal process before you make travel plans, as the process may take several weeks or months.
If it is not possible to receive a passport from your country of citizenship, you may need to apply for a non-citizen travel document from the country you reside in. Contact a passport office for more information.
You may wish to renew your passport even if it will be valid on the date of your departure. Many expats return or visit their home country eventually, and it is usually easiest to renew your passport from within the country that issued it.
Acquire a visa if necessary. Almost every country requires long-term visitors (and often short-term visitors as well) to apply and pay for a visa, or authorization document. The process involves varies greatly depending on your destination, your country of citizenship, and your purpose for traveling. Research which visa application fits your requirements best online, or contact the nearest embassy of the country you are traveling to. If your application for a long-term visa is rejected, consider applying for a shorter-term visa instead. Once you are in the country, you may be able to find a job and apply for a work visa.
Research the relevant visa regulations carefully to discover all your options. Some countries may allow you to stay indefinitely as long as you briefly exit the country every once in a while and pay for a new visitor’s visa.
Research health concerns, and vaccinate if necessary. Research disease and health concerns at your destination. Serious health concerns can be avoided or mitigated by safety practices, often as simple as boiling water before drinking it. Protect yourself from other diseases found at your destination by getting vaccinated before your departure. If you don’t have health insurance, look for walk-in clinics in your area that provide vaccination services.
Understand tax laws. If you plan to earn money while living overseas, understand how you will be taxed by your country of citizenship and/or your country of residency. You may wish to consult a tax preparer or lawyer for advice, or ask your new employers whether they provide tax assistance for foreign employees.
If you are a citizen of the United States, you could be fined for failing to report a foreign bank account containing $10,000 or more. You must also file tax forms, although you may be able to use this form on the irs website to declare your income un-taxable.
Seek out additional advice on logistics. If you know someone in your destination country, or if you can find traveler’s advice forums online, have a long conversation about life there and how to prepare for it. If you can’t find anyone to talk to in person, research your destination thoroughly from up to date online and printed sources (preferably published no more than five years ago). It is impossible to cover every situation worldwide, but here are a few things to consider before you travel:
How easy is it to get around by public transportation, versus by car? If renting or buying a car is a good idea, will your current driver’s license be valid in that country, or will you need to take a test?
Does your bank have branches in your destination country, or a “sister bank” you can access your account from? If you decide to open a new bank account overseas, what documents will you need to do so?
In case of a medical emergency, where can you receive medical treatment from professional doctors? Will you share a language with them, and if not, where can you find an interpreter on short notice?
Make your travel plans. Once you’ve made your decision and have all the logistics worked out, book your travel. Keep in mind that tickets tend to be cheaper the earlier you book them. A return ticket may be a wise investment and back up plan, and may be reasonably priced even compared to one-way tickets. One-way plane tickets can have strange pricing depending on the airline, so use several ticket-finder websites to avoid getting charged four times as much as you should.
Dealing with Possessions and Housing
Keep your old property if possible. Having a backup plan is a good idea, even if you think you’ll be away permanently. Ideally, you could rent out your old house or apartment, and have a family member or friend act as a local property manager on your behalf.
Find a short-term rental if possible. Unless you are already familiar with the area you’re moving to, it’s not a good idea to purchase a property or sign a year-long lease without seeing the building or neighborhood. A much safer plan is to find a location you can rent on a month to month basis while you investigate long term options.
For an even more comfortable transition, although an expensive one, stay in a hotel for the first week or two after you move while you investigate the rental options in person. It is still a good idea to research possibilities beforehand and let the landlords know when you’ll make a decision.
Pack clothes to match the destination. When packing clothes, consider what the weather is like at your destination, and find out what locals wear if possible. It’s a good idea to pack some non-flashy, conservative clothing, since foreign countries may have more formal dress requirements than your own.
If you are moving from an area with mild winters to an area with severe winters, the winter clothing at your destination may be more suitable than what you can purchase in your area. However, if you are traveling in winter, remember to pack one set of winter clothes to wear on arrival.
Pack a large supply of any medical supplies you require. Regulations and availability can make acquiring medical supplies difficult in foreign countries. If you have any medical issues that require medicine, emergency inhalers, or other products, pack several months’ worth if possible. This gives you a comfortable stretch of time before you have to find another source.
Note that you may be required to pack medicine in a clear plastic bag if traveling by plane, or pack non-vital medicine in your shipped luggage. Exact regulations vary by country.
Pack a few familiar objects. Even if you tend to pack light, a long term or permanent move could call for more packing than you’re used to. Favorite books in your native language, a sentimental object, or some other reminder of home may make it easier to fight off homesickness.
Bring enough money to live off for at least a month. Even if you have a job waiting for you at your new location, have enough money in your bank account to support you for at least a month of meager living. Ideally, save enough money for three or more months by creating a budget, cutting expenses, and cancelling your credit card.
Make sure you have cancelled any recurring bills, or had them redirected to your new address.
Purchase plug adapters if necessary. Different countries may have different outlets, and your electric and electronic equipment may not work on them. Find out which outlets are used at your destination and buy several connectors that will fit your gadgets to the foreign outlets.
Ship only as much as you need. Get rid of as much stuff as you can, or have friends and family members store your excess possessions. International shipping can be expensive, especially if you are moving overseas. In many cases, it may be cheaper to purchase a new item at your destination. Pack a few boxes or pieces of furniture that you are unsure about, and store them in a rented storage space or at a friend’s. Label them clearly and ask a friend to ship these boxes once you’ve settled in, if you decide you need the contents of a particular box after all.
Adjusting to Life as an Expat
Understand what culture shock is. When you first arrive in a foreign country, you might feel hypersensitive to every difference. Even something you’ve never thought about might be called into question, such as the time of day people eat meals, or the tone of voice that is considered polite when talking to a stranger. All of this can cause you to feel extra tired, react irritably in conversation, cry unexpectedly, or even make you feel physically ill. If you’re honest about your reaction and do your best to think about and come to terms with these differences, you will have a better chance at recovering quickly.
Culture shock can happen even in a country where people speak your native language. Be prepared for it even if you think you’ll be in a similar country to your own.
Try to understand, not to judge. Whenever you experience something that makes you feel disgust, anger, or confusion, try to figure out why. Do locals react the same way, and if not, why is this considered more “normal” here? You don’t need to throw away your moral compass, but you will be happier if you spend less time judging other people and more time trying to understand their motivations and cultural pressures.
Learn the language. If you intend to stay in a country long term, putting in the effort to learn the language of everyday activity is worth it. This can feel slow and painful, even if you’ve studied the language before, but it is also an exciting opportunity. You are surrounded by fluent speakers, and while language lessons, books, and recordings are still excellent resources, you can also practice your language by going shopping, attending a concert, or introducing yourself to your neighbors.
Make local friends. There’s only so much you can figure out on your own. Making friends with people who grew up in the area and have lived there many years can help greatly. If you accidentally offend someone, or if you go through a confusing experience, a local friend can explain the situation and teach you how to deal with it in future. Talk openly and honestly once you have gotten to know someone, and he or she will be able to make your transition to this culture smoother.
Make friends with other foreigners. Living abroad can be a difficult balance between immersing yourself in a new language and culture, and maintaining your ties with home. Making friends with other expats and visitors can be an excellent way to vent about your frustrations, bond over shared experiences, and reminisce about your times back home. Just be sure to balance this out with time spent among locals as well, or you might find it tempting to stay in an expat “bubble” and stop interacting with the local culture.
Treat your homesickness. Maintain contact with friends and family back home with regular phone conversations, letters, or emails. Have a few mementos from home, such as goodbye cards or a favorite book, and look at them when you’re feeling down. If you can’t shake the homesickness, or you are shutting yourself in your room at every opportunity, you may wish to seek counseling, or ask a friend to pull you out of your rut and take you to a hike, dance, or other activity you would enjoy.
Ask for care packages from home. If you have family or friends back home, ask them to ship you snacks, a new book that just came out in your country, or other treats you aren’t able to purchase in your adopted country. If you do not, order yourself these treats online, saving up for international shipping if you need to. These can be a great way to cheer up after feeling homesick or overwhelmed.
Acquire a daily routine. Ideally, this routine should include exercise, sleep, and an adequate, healthy diet, but while most of us know this reduces stress, it isn’t always easy to follow a rigorous plan like this. Finding a stable habit you can return to each day can be enough to make a difference, even if it’s as simple as eating the same, comforting breakfast or walking through a park after your workday.
Realize it’s okay to be upset. After fighting homesickness, dealing with culture shock, or grappling with bureaucracies to get your visa renewed, it’s understandable to feel strong emotions. You will probably feel intense anger or sadness at different points in your life abroad. You might feel that you hate your adopted country or regret traveling, but in most situations, these feeling will pass. If they don’t, and you end up bitter or sad on a daily basis, it may be time to move back home.
If you are a citizen of multiple countries, consider applying for a passport from each of them. Depending on where you end up traveling, you may find that customs officers and bureaucracies treat you differently when you show them different passports.
Be aware that each country has its own laws and regulations. Don’t let ignorance ruin your life. Strive at all times to be a ‘good will ambassador’ of your country of origin.
Don’t burn bridges with the people you leave behind. You may find you need contacts back home to support you, even if that seems ridiculous now.
Avoid regions neighboring areas of open conflict. War zones or areas of severe crime can spread across national borders.
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Sources and Citations
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