20 Tips For Moving Abroad, Because Being An Expat Is Harder Than It Looks
I have a hilarious habit of moving countries to live abroad, either for a month or two or several years. I can't help it. The world is amazing, and filled with tasty foods and Adventures To Be Had. However, the first time I did it — at 19, for a student exchange to England for six months — I was utterly unprepared, got a lung infection within the first week, knew nobody, and was confused by everything. This was not optimal, but at least the experience has brought me wisdom that might make your own move easier, and less filled with infectious phlegm.
People who move with a guaranteed job or university course waiting for them have a slightly easier time of it — socially, if nothing else — but everybody still has to go through the hoops of visas, bank accounts, picking which of your stuffed animals you love most and which to leave behind, and other difficulties. Buying yourself a one-way plane ticket is a highly romantic idea, but if you don't do the groundwork and behave at least a little like a sensible adult, you're going to spend your first few weeks confused, angry, and covered in red tape.
Here are 20 bits of essential advice for moving overseas, beyond the obvious steps of "having a passport," "knowing where you're going," and "learning the language." Think the last one's not obvious? If you're moving to a non-English speaking country, even if you've heard "everybody speaks English anyway," do yourself a favor and learn to read and say essential words. Because just because people can speak English doesn't mean the street signs will be in English too.
1. Get your vaccinations and records sorted before you leave.
Regardless of where you've moving in the world, get all your adult vaccines up to date. People mistakenly think that if it's not a third-world country it doesn't matter, but in some places you can't get a visa unless you're fully vaccinated.
Records are useful for this purpose, particularly if you've got allergies or are on medications. A document of all the vaccines you've got will be helpful, and you will likely have to go through the rigmarole of applying for all your meds again in your new country. Evidence of previous prescriptions will be your best bet to smooth the process — but you do need to look up whether your specific meds are available there, and how to get them.
2. Be prepared for questions at the border.
A blithe "oh, I'm coming here to live!" at a border official is a great way to get taken off for questioning in a small stinky room. Mostly, they'll be probing to see if you're a legitimate immigrant and if you'll need state support while you're there, so carry your fully stamped and legitimate visa (which you have of course sorted out before you left), evidence of any job offers, the address of a place where you're planning to stay, a copy of a bank statement to prove you're not destitute, and knowledge in your head of your next steps. Some places won't care, but don't just assume it won't happen.
3. Always carry evidence of your identity.
Your passport is basically your only way to prove your ID and age in another country. Bouncers are usually rightly suspicious of foreign drivers' licenses or student IDs. If you've got some kind of ID issued by your new country, carry that around, but otherwise keep your passport on you.
4. Find a place to stay, a doctor, and a bank account first.
Finding friends and a great club around the corner can wait. Get the basic stuff sorted first: a place to crash, a local bank account, and a doctor's number. The bank account bit might take a hilarious amount of doing double-dutch through red tape, but it's often necessary if you want to rent a flat or do other financial stuff. Look for offers for overseas students or recent arrivals, and ask your home country's bank how they can help.
5. Take only the essentials and have other items shipped.
Travel light. I mean, take underpants and required paperwork and your toothbrush, but an entire suitcase filled with books and trinkets from home is not necessary. Be ruthless, put everything in storage, and have just enough to make a new place feel like home. There are a lot of international shipping companies these days who can send over stuff you can't take on a plane with you, but focus on paring down and keep it simple.
(If there's an appliance you can't live without, and you're absolutely sure you can't get it where you're going, that's a different matter. Also, remember to take electrical adaptors.)
6. Use contacts on the ground to help you scout things out before you arrive.
Know somebody there already? Great! Pester them to help you out and buy them dinner and gifts as a thank-you when you arrive. Laying the groundwork can be awesome: I rented an apartment in England before I even arrived the second time around, because some mates were willing to go scope out potential places for me. People who are there already can keep an eye out for jobs, recommend good banks and places to shop cheaply, and generally fill you up with Local Knowledge. Milk them.
7. Have the right amount of money for your up-front expenses.
If you're going to rent a place (I'm assuming you're not just turning up overseas somewhere and buying a house), you'll often need the first two months' rent and a deposit. And you'll require this money up-front.
Know how expensive stuff is likely to be, and have enough to cover it until you start earning some cash. A local rental service might be your best bet for negotiating the rental market if you don't have experience or anybody on the ground to help you.
8. Have at least the first step planned before you jump.
Don't like looking before you leap? Great! But if you're moving somewhere, at least have the very first step planned — like the city you'll stay in while you're looking for work, and perhaps what kind of work you'll be doing. You can go with a whole lot of things undecided, but a few basics will make your life easier.
There's an exception to this skin-of-your-teeth rule: Don't head overseas if you're not qualified for anything and have no job experience; your winning smile and exotic ways will not be enough. Build up some working time and some qualifications (teaching English as a second language is a popular one for people heading overseas, if they don't have a set career path otherwise or want a back-up plan), and then make the leap.
9. Don't change who you are as soon as you get there.
If I meet one more person who moves to New York and instantly morphs into an edgy hipster type who goes to underground gigs and sneers at other peoples' brunch choices, I am going to scream. Personal development is great! Be the caterpillar who becomes the butterfly! But don't jump headlong into a stereotype, because your old mates will think you're ridiculous.
10. Get an International Driving Permit.
The International Driving Permit is an internationally recognized document that allows you to drive for 12 months provided you have a full drivers' license in your home country. It's usually issued by your local AA authority before you leave — after 12 months you'll need to convert your driver's license or apply for a local one. (It isn't the same as an international driver's license, which isn't a legal document at all.)
11. Read up on local peculiarities.
If you literally know next to nothing about the place you're going, doing your research will help you out. Geography is a good start — knowing where things are is always a good way to avoid getting hopelessly stranded somewhere problematic — but another excellent thing to know is store opening and closing times, and the dates of local holidays. That way you'll avoid going hungry because things have shut at 3 p.m. on an obscure saint's day.
12. Tell your government sayonara.
Before you go anywhere you do actually have to tell your home government you're going. Anywhere that handles money — taxes, benefits, pensions — needs to know, both state and federal, and the electoral office should know too, so you can still vote when you're off being a foreign sophisticate somewhere. (If you're going overseas to start a new job, you may qualify for a tax deduction on your moving expenses, too.) Registering with your embassy overseas is also a good idea in case things go seriously belly-up.
13. Skype and cheap international calling cards are your best friend.
My parents travelled a lot in the days before Skype, and we communicated almost entirely by letters via fax machine. Do not let this happen to you. Get Skype immediately, and also do your research on the best local deals on international phone cards for mobiles and landlines: if you're the chatty type, this shit adds up. (Watch out for hidden catches like only being able to top up with a local credit card, though.)
14. Don't just hang out with expats.
Hearing your local accent can be a haven away from home, but I promise you will not learn anything new about human experience if you just hang out with people who grew up down the road. They're a lovely resource and will be able to give lots of tips, but make sure you make local mates, too. Chances are they'll be the best bit of the whole trip.
15. Get your local etiquette right.
Making sure you don't offend people is one of your big cultural duties as a new immigrant. It's your job to figure out what's uniquely offensive; don't get pissed off if you do it accidentally because nobody's told you. Work out how to eat politely, the etiquette in government offices and on public transport, what to do when you meet a new person or visit their house, and the correct modes of address in business situations. Politeness goes a long way.
16. Know your tax situation.
U.S. citizens residing and working in a foreign country have to file U.S. taxes regardless. Sorry. (You may not have to pay any; the U.S. has tax treaties with many countries that mean you pay little or zero to the U.S. government if you've already been taxed in your new country.) But if you're employed overseas, figure out exactly who you owe your taxes to, when, and how. Trust me, you don't want your employers sorting this one out for you.
17. Establish a care package network.
You will miss peculiar, esoteric things. I have a frequent hankering for particular Australian cereals and biscuits, and, obviously, Vegemite. Chances are there'll be a local online retailer that can supply you with imports of your favorites, but consider putting together a collection of care package networks — you send back exciting things from your new country, they send over stuff you miss.
18. Join local groups, hang out in coffee shops, and Make New Friends.
If you don't have a ready-made social group waiting for you in the form of a workplace or university colleagues, get extroverted. Find local stuff you like to do, from exercise to random pastimes like falconry, and join up. Go to hang-outs and strike up conversations with people. I am so introverted I once went for two months in Berlin without speaking to a soul beside supermarket cashiers, but I've managed over six years in England to find a horde of mates, a husband, and at least one mortal enemy. You can do it too.
19. Start a blog.
Living in a new place and discovering new stuff is probably going to crowd your brain with information and anecdotes you can barely contain. Write 'em down for the delectation of people back home. This is particularly good as a way to keep in touch with mates when you can't physically be there. Stay on top of your relationships in your home town; no matter how important your new place is to you, they still need to have your attention.
20. Don't always go on about how stuff is better at home.
I guarantee that if you're the expat moaning about how the coffee/weather/eggs/dress sense/bureaucracy/public transport are better where you came from, somebody will tell you to go back there. Rudely. This is Bad Expat Manners 101 — even if it's true, and even if locals actually agree with you, they won't like you stomping all over their home. Keep the complaints to yourself and focus on the positives.
You're in a new place! Enjoy it! And when you've been there long enough to be a Legitimate Resident, you'll be able to feel indignant when somebody insults your adopted home, too.
Images: ~He Shoots He Scores~/Flickr; Getty; Giphy.