At some point in their life, nearly everyone has dreamed of moving to a foreign country. For me, that time would come towards the end of a holiday, with a return to work beckoning. I would look around and wonder what it would be like to stay here rather than return to England and the daily grind. For some, it was reading books or seeing films and documentaries showing faraway places with different architecture, people, and animals. Some people are passionate about a hobby which they can better pursue overseas and leave to follow that dream. Others move to maximize their retirement pension and live a better life than they could otherwise afford.
There are other people who never considered leaving their comfortable life at home, but who had the decision to move overseas taken out of their hands with a new job or change in situation.
Whatever reasons you have for moving abroad, once you get there you will have challenges to overcome. Although everybody’s experience will be different, to a lesser or greater degree, there are challenges which everyone must go through. In this article I will explore what it is actually to leave home and start a life in a new country.
The first thing that needs mentioning is a condition called Culture Shock. Studies on this phenomenon have noticed that most people go through a very similar pattern of events when moving abroad.
This is something everyone goes through and if you are not aware of what’s going on it can threaten to derail your new life before it has even really begun. Psychologists have divided the culture shock you experience when moving abroad into four stages;
- Honeymoon. This lasts for the first few weeks. Typically you will be excited to be in your new country where everything seems strange and wonderful. You could well put on the rose colored glasses and refuse to see any negative. In short, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Which leads to the second stage…
- Culture Shock. This is where you start to make unfavorable comparisons with how things are back home. The reality of your new situation hits you and leaves you disorientated. Perhaps you complain that the food is not what you are used to or the TV doesn’t show the big game. Maybe the internet isn’t fast enough or some other basically trivial complaint. This self-pity is a dangerous stage and one that you must move on from as quickly as possible if you are to succeed in your new life abroad.
- Adjustment. In this stage you start to become more comfortable with your new life. You get used to ways and customs of your surrounding culture. You try new things and start to look on the bright side again. You appreciate things which you might have missed before and start to feel at home.
- Mastery. This is where you are able to build bridges from your own life to the new culture you find yourself in. You can take the best of your own heritage and allow it to be influenced by your new situation. You feel comfortable and adapted in day to day life and are able to perform competently in most situations.
- There is a last stage of culture which is known as Re-entry Shock. This is where you go back to your previous country and find out that it’s not how you remember. In the years you have been away both you and your former home have changed, sometimes almost beyond recognition. If you have to go back home and go through the stages of culture shock again, take comfort in the fact you know what to expect this time.
So now you know what to expect from your mind and emotions in the coming weeks and years it is time to move onto some more practical considerations.
Other Considerations When Moving Abroad
There are a million-and-one things to consider when moving to a new country, but here are some of the more important topics that come up during those first months:
Finding/Buying Real Estate
If you are renting remember that you will need at least 1 month’s rent, possibly 2 or 3, due to your lack of local references. In addition you are likely to be asked for a security deposit to be paid in cash.
If you don’t have a bank account set up in your new country then you need to find out how easy it is to transfer money and whether your bank will allow you to withdraw all of the necessary funds at once. Lastly, be sure to check the rental situation online before you leave, and exercise due caution when dealing with real estate agents overseas.
If you are looking to buy a property once you arrive in your new country then renting first can give you an excellent idea of what areas you would like to live in and the standard of housing. You will also be able to accurately gauge your future budgets for things like bills and day to day living.
Buying property in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. can be stressful enough, but going through this process in unfamiliar surroundings has the potential to make things much worse. The pace of major business transactions moves very slowly in some parts of the world, particularly Latin America, and this can lead to a lot of wasted energy and frustration.
Fortunately, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, so be prepared for paperwork and the buying time to move more slowly than back home, especially in Latin America. Your calls to speed things along won’t help matters, so you will have to sit back and wait for things to take their course. Also, the real estate agents overseas can be even more unreliable than at home. It’s highly recommended that you build up a good rapport so they are happy to work with you.
Property scams and scammers exist everywhere in the world. Small things like checking the credentials of real estate agents and talking to people in the local area for references can save you a lot of trouble down the line. It’s also important that you find an attorney you can trust to go through the documents, and on no account use an attorney with links to the real estate agent.
If property is you main concern, have a look at the some of the world’s best places to buy property.
Missing Life Back Home
Home food and cooking is also something that you will have to get used to being without. You might be moving to one of the cooking capitals of the world, but there will still be certain foods you long for and which your new country cannot provide.
Missing the comforts of home is inevitable. The regular fixtures in your life, such as friends and family, will not be there for a cup of tea or couple of beers on the weekend like before. You can stay in touch easily via smartphone and internet, but it won’t be the same. Friends may also become fed up with those tropical pictures from your new country while they are dealing with icy winds and snow back home. Exercise restraint and be careful not to rub it in too much. This can leave you feeling isolated once they’ve stopped liking all of your Facebook and Instagram posts.
Making New Friends
Possibly the most important point to pay attention to when moving to a new country is that of friendship. Maintaining a good relationship with your friends back home is important and must on no account be neglected. The best way to make friends in your new country is to join a club or team. This could be football, tennis, swimming, yoga, poetry, or cooking classes. Basically anything you have a passion for and are happy to do once or twice a week. If you can’t join a team, consider taking a class. Not only will you learn a new skill, but you will get to meet like-minded individuals.
Mobile apps like Tinder and Instagram are also good ways of meeting local people and you should also search Facebook for events which you might like to participate in. (Note: Tinder is more of a dating app, but friendships can often ensue.)
Here are some apps I recommend downloading to get you started.
Learning A New language
There are a number of things to consider before moving to a country where you don’t speak the language.
The first is, how many people will speak English? If nobody speaks English, it is not the end of the world, but you need to make sure you are prepared. Ensure you have your address written down so you can get a taxi to wherever you are staying. Download apps like Google Translate and Google Maps which can help you out if you get stuck.
Moving further ahead you will need to consider how you plan to learn the language. Learning by osmosis has a low success rate so watching cartoons and listening to the radio might not be as effective as you would like (or as I was hoping). Immersive programs are the best way to learn, but if you are moving for work then this isn’t going to be an option. Language exchanges can be a good idea. Place an advert online and offer to provide English lessons in exchange for lessons in your new country’s language. YouTube has a number of online lessons you can use and apps like Duolingo can also help you to become fluent in your new language.
One last bit, be prepared for awkward or uncomfortable conversations, ones where you don’t totally know what’s going, where you have to piece together what you’ve learned and learn new words/ideas/concepts. Remember, you don’t learn through being comfortable, you learn because the situation requires you to.
Getting Medical Insurance
While some recommend “going naked,” that is going without health care while overseas, I personally prefer not to. I find that i’m a little more clumsy and courageous (for better or worse) than I used to be back home. In my opinion, you will want to get health insurance when you go abroad, if only for peace of mind. One thing to consider is getting holiday insurance for the first few months until you have been accepted for medical insurance in your new country. If you are American and moving to Europe be sure to check your family history and see if you are eligible for a European passport. If you are, it means you can receive European healthcare. Depending on which country you move to this can be a very decent perk indeed.
Also, while on the subject of healthcare, it is important to check whether you need any vaccinations before you move to a new country. Lastly, check to see whether you should bring any medicines with you and if you’re legally available to transport them. In Italy, for example, headache tablets are about 3 times more expensive than in the U.S. and expats recommend bringing a big supply with you when you arrive. Of course, a glass of Italian wine might often do the trick.
Finding a Job
One option to explore is teaching English as a foreign language. If you are moving to South America or Asia your skills will be in demand and you should find some work fairly easily. If you are moving to Europe a job in a school may not be possible but you may be able to get tuition work. Other expats find paid work helping with homework or coursework and by advertising online and in university campuses.
When applying for jobs use the same tactics that you would employ at home. If you only speak English, then go the local job site and type in “English speaking” or “English speaker” and see what that brings up.
Don’t worry if you have to accept a job which is worse than what you were doing in your home country. Once you are fluent in the new language you will have better opportunities in your new country. In addition, if you ever return home your experience abroad will be of assistance in getting a better job than before. In my experience, workers who return home after successfully working abroad get better jobs and are better paid those who do not leave. In this increasingly global age many employers are actively looking for staff with overseas experience.
Your other option is to exorcise your entrepreneurial talents and start a business of your own. Here are some ideas of businesses you could start.
Read up on the area you are going to and find any areas to stay away from, as every city has certain areas which are best avoided. Also, be sure to find out if there are any parts of the country which you should avoid? In Panama, for example, the border with Colombia is still scarcely patrolled by guerrillas (Farc), but the rest of the country is safe and friendly.
Make copies of all your important documents. It is recommended to have a photocopy of your passport with you at all times. Be sure people know how to contact you in case of an emergency. I recommend buying a local pay-as-you-go sim card and share the number with everyone who will need it.
Once in your new country try to blend in and avoid any overt displays of wealth. If you have to walk the streets at night, keep to well-lit areas. Be conscious of how the locals are dressed and take note and make do your best not to draw unwanted attention.
Getting Out and About
The first thing I’d suggest you do is download the maps of the various public transport you will be using. Find out how you pay for the transport system before you use it. Often there can be separate locations where you need to buy the card or refill them.
Here in Panama, for example, you have to buy a card for the metro in advance from a store not located at the actual station. You then need to add credit onto it using one of the machines at the station.
To use the bus you can often pay cash when you get on. If you are paying cash on the bus try to have correct change, or at the very least a low denomination bill. If you try to pay with a US$20 (or equivalent) you might find that they don’t let you on!
If you get a ticket stub or other receipt, keep hold of it, and make sure it’s easily accessible, as you might need it for random ticket checks. Also, always pay the fare, the last thing you want abroad is a fine and in some countries it is not unknown for tourists to be shaken down for more money than a local would be.
Beware of pickpockets especially in crowded areas. Use a padlock on your bag if possible and make sure you don’t keep any valuables in your pockets. I won’t go as far as to recommend a fanny pack, but I will say that they are an effective way of keeping your valuables safe.
Here are some of the safest places to live or travel to, if safety is your main concern.
Buying A Car
In a lot of countries vehicle owners don’t keep full service histories, so I recommend making sure you thoroughly inspect any car you intend to purchase. Modified cars with skirts and spoilers are best avoided and take note of the cars which most of the local people are driving. For example, in Panama, Japanese cars are very popular so spare parts and repairs are fairly inexpensive. You might get a bargain on a European car, but if something goes wrong you could be waiting 3 months for the part to be shipped out to you (and for a much higher price).
If you are buying a used car, always take it for a test drive first and do some research online before you view. Find a qualified local mechanic to assist you and one that is looking out for your best interest. In hot and humid countries be sure to check the air conditioning, but also the basics, such as brake lights, headlights, and turn signals. Compare prices with different sellers to make sure you are not paying over the odds. If you are buying a used car try to avoid paying cash if possible. A check or credit card means there is a paper trail and will be helpful in case something goes wrong later on.
Lastly, don’t be in a rush to buy! Often sellers can tell you need (or really want) the vehicle and can be unwilling to negotiate on price, inspection, etc.
Residency and Visas
Some countries will require that you have residency sorted before you arrive. Others are more relaxed. In Thailand, it is possible to stay indefinitely by crossing over the border and returning a few days later. With each return entry you get a stamp in the passport enabling you to stay for the allotted tourist duration.
In most cases this is not a recommended way of staying and some countries, such as Panama, are cracking down on this. If you are serious about staying in your new country you will want to apply for a visa or residency as soon as possible. If the chance to get residency easily presents itself, I recommend you don’t dawdle. New governments can change the restrictions on who is eligible for a visa and often great opportunities do not last forever.
And there you have it, a thorough round-up of what I consider to be important aspects of moving to another country.
If you guys have some more tips, or any really good stories, on your experiences relocating overseas, please feel free to share them in the comments.