Moving to a foreign country is exciting. Expatriates have an amazing life.
For many people, living as an expat in a foreign land is a dream – but it’s possible to turn that dream into a reality. In fact, millions of people become expatriates every year.
Some expatriates relocate for job opportunities, for a cultural change, or for an entirely new way of life. Some are in search of better schools. Some are looking for better healthcare. Others just want to retire to a tropical island and drink cocktails on the beach.
Regardless of your motives, there are many things to consider before leaving your native country and moving across the world.
If you’re thinking about embracing the expat lifestyle, keep reading for our definitive guide to being an expat.
Finding the Right Place to Live as an Expat
Thinking about moving far, far away? Packing, moving, and securing your visa can be overwhelming tasks, but the first thing you need to do is decide where you want to live.
Be broad in your initial search. Start with a region, then nail down the country, then do some in-depth research to pinpoint the exact city or town.
Visit the city and surrounding area during an extended vacation to determine if it’s the right place for you. It’s not a good idea to pick up and move to a country you haven’t been to before. You could be in for a serious culture shock, or worse.
Consider things like weather, culture, job opportunities, and language when deciding on a place to live.
If you’re retired, consider things such as healthcare and access to doctors and medicine.
It’s also important to think about local laws and the overall quality of life.
Once you decide which country you want to move to, research that region to see if they have a large expatriate community. Expats tend to feel more comfortable in an area where other expatriates exist.
When in doubt, seek advice from other expats and international citizens.
Research Expatriate Work Permits and Visas
Every country has unique expat laws, including visa and entry requirements. Not all countries make the visa process easy.
The visa you need depends upon what you plan to do when you move. Are you planning to work? Are you starting your retirement? Is your plan to go to school?
Your purpose for moving will determine what type of visa you need for legal entry into the country of your choice. If you only want to vacation for an extended period of time, you’ll need a different visa than if you’re moving there for business or to pursue an education.
It’s easy to gain entry into certain countries, such as Mexico and Canada. These North American countries make it easy to secure skilled work visas as well as temporary resident visas.
In some European countries, you can enjoy citizenship if your parents or grandparents were born there. There are even some places where you can live and work forever (like Svalbard) without ever having to obtain a visa at all.
Things to Consider As an Expat with Children
For expats planning to move with children, education is an essential factor. There are a variety of education systems around the world, and some are far better than others.
Research the school system and education standards before you move. Know what you’re getting into so that you’re not shocked when you arrive. As an expat parent with a child, it’s important to make sure that you’re not putting your child at a disadvantage when it comes to learning.
Depending on the country, you can enroll your child in a local school, a private school, or an international school.
If you plan to enroll your child in a public school, make sure they speak the local language. If you’re interested in sending your child to a private school, be prepared to face some strict admission requirements. In some cases, your child may not qualify for entry.
For British and American expatriates, international schools are often the best choice for expatriate families. This is because most international schools are English speaking (regardless of the host country’s national language), and credits transfer from school to school.
International schools often use the same syllabus as your home country, making the transition easy for students of all ages. International schools also have a diverse mix of students from around the world. This creates a unique learning environment that allows students to get acclimated with ease.
Before you select a school for your child, read our guide on choosing an international school.
Job Opportunities for Expats
Some countries have thriving, booming economies. Some do not. If you’re planning to work when you move, make sure you choose a country with job opportunities.
Think about the type of work that you’re skilled to do and the type of job you qualify for. Then look for countries that need workers with your specific skill set.
For example, if you’re a professional engineer, New Zealand, Germany, and India can use you. If you want to work in the medical field, Canada may be your best choice. If you’re skilled in technology or digital marketing, Western Europe may be your best bet.
Every country has its own industries and needs for workers. Some countries, like Spain, have very few job opportunities. So don’t pack your bags and head to Barcelona without doing your research.
The biggest mistake you can make is to move without knowing if your new home needs your specific skills.
If you don’t want to find a job in your new country, working remotely is also a possibility. Check out this list of the best work from anywhere jobs that you can do from any country in the world (as long as there’s internet).
Why International Citizens Should Think About the Cost of Living
For many expats, the cost of living is one of the most significant factors in deciding where to move. After all, if your dream destination is unaffordable, it won’t be much of a dream.
For expats looking to retire overseas, the cost of living is even more critical. There are a lot of countries in which you can stretch your dollar farther. But there are also many places that can drain your wallet faster than you could imagine.
Has it always been your dream to move to China or somewhere else in Asia? Unfortunately for your bank account, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, and Shanghai rank among the most expensive places to live.
The Switzerland cities of Zurich and Bern also make the top 10 most expensive list. Living in Zurich will cost you nearly the same as living in expensive cities like London, New York City or Paris, France.
If you’re not rich, look for somewhere with a lower cost of living, such as Malaysia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Thailand. For example, compared to the United States, the cost of living in Costa Rica is 32% less. In countries like Thailand, expect to spend about half of what you would in the United States.
In general, Latin American countries are more affordable than places in Western Europe, which is great news for Spanish speakers.
Expatriates Should Always Consider Safety
Wherever you decide to move, safety should be a top concern. Beautiful weather and a low cost of living cannot be your only criteria for choosing a place to live.
As an expat, it’s important to know that not all countries are friendly to foreigners. And within each country, there are always neighborhoods and cities that are not safe.
It’s important to remember that in some cases, a low cost of living may be due, in part, to the fact that the country is unsafe or has a high crime rate. Think about your own town in which you currently live. It’s always cheaper to live in a “bad” neighborhood than a good one. Apply that same logic when it comes time to move to another country.
This article from Forbes ranks Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Peru, and Turkey as some of the most dangerous places for expatriates to live. Other countries to make the list include India, Argentina, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.
Women need to be especially cautious about these countries and others. Colombia, Myanmar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia make the list of the top 15 most dangerous places for women.
Healthcare for Expatriates
Just because a country has universal healthcare or national healthcare doesn’t mean you’ll receive coverage as an expatriate.
In some countries, you can access a national healthcare system if you work and pay taxes. In other countries, you’ll need to establish permanent residency. When in doubt, you can always get international health insurance.
In countries that have a large population of expats, some doctors only treat locals or only treat international citizens. Oftentimes, the doctors who can see depend upon the type of insurance you have.
Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, and New Zealand all have some of the best healthcare systems in the world. But living there is not a guarantee of benefits. Do your research before you go to know if you can enjoy the same healthcare costs as citizens.
Healthcare is a major factor for expats, especially for aging adults in retirement. For retirees looking for affordable medical care, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Thailand are great choices. Depending on where you want to move, it’s wise to factor the cost of private health insurance into your budget.
Want a better idea of how much medical care costs around the globe? Check out this study for a breakdown of what it will cost you to have various surgical procedures in various parts of the world.
Becoming an Expat (Summary)
Moving far away is an exciting idea, but there are a lot of things to consider before packing and jetting off to a foreign land.
The first thing to do is narrow down a list of places. Start broad and narrow it down based on your wants and needs.
If you plan to work when you move, make sure your country of choice has job opportunities for foreign workers with your skill set.
It’s also important to think about the cost of living. Don’t just pick up and move to your dream city if you can’t afford it. Research the cost of rent, transportation, food, and other essentials to make sure that you’ve got the budget to live the type of lifestyle you desire.
Don’t forget to consider the cost of healthcare, especially if you are a retiree. In many cases, you’ll need to take out an international health insurance policy to make sure you’re covered.
Figure out the type of visa or work permit you’ll need. Research schools and education systems if you’re traveling with children.
And, perhaps most importantly, make sure that the country you’re moving to is safe for you and your family.
Don’t pick up and move without doing your research first. Also, consider taking an extended vacation in the country before making any final decisions.