Managing Your Life to Handle the Transition Abroad
Planning a move overseas is easier than ever before. Thanks to technology, you can search for apartments, connect with new friends, and start a job search with the click of a button. But that doesn’t mean that significant preparation isn’t required before you start your new life as an expatriate abroad. Here are some of the cultural, organizational, and logistical road bumps you might not have thought about.
Feeling The Weight
For better or worse, when you move abroad, you aren’t just representing yourself. You’re carrying the weight of your entire country! Just ask any Irish citizen who’s expected to be musical, a Canadian who’s expected to be mild-mannered, or an Australian who’s expected to love beer, surfing, and kangaroos. While stereotypes can be funny, they also come with pressure, stress, and communication difficulties. Connecting with an expat group after you move overseas is a positive way to vent frustrations. As well, expats can consider writing a blog, a newspaper op-ed, or giving presentations to service clubs to share information on their home country which goes beyond the stereotypes.
Riding The Wave
Is expat life emotional? You bet it is! But it’s not always because of homesickness. Guilt is a huge part of the expat experience. There’s guilt for leaving family and friends beyond, guilt for living with privilege in another country, guilt for abandoning a certain career path. Volunteering with an organization whose goals you believe in will help combat culture shock and negative emotions. Purchasing a membership at a museum or art gallery will help you feel more grounded and connected to your new home. And keeping a diary where you record your daily high and low points will help you focus on both the good and bad of your new life.
Few things prove to be such an adjustment as coming to terms with the cost of living in your new country. From costs which border on the outrageous – like a Starbucks latte in Switzerland – to those so low it feels like you’re stealing – such as the cost of mango juice in Thailand – there’s a lot to take in. Things which you might consider necessities at home are luxuries in your new country and priced accordingly. And things you never thought about purchasing before, like bottled water, are now everyday essentials.
Two tools to help you anticipate the cost of living in your new country are the Big Mac Index, which tracks the cost of MacDonald’s Big Macs around the world, and the Club Sandwich Index, which tracks the cost of this popular room service menu item at different global hotels.
Is Your Budget Ready?
Expats tend to underestimate the cost of living in their new country and overestimate their ability to quickly get a job. Even if you’re arriving with employment already arranged, there are still plenty of unexpected expenses you will encounter. Having a detailed budget plus an emergency fund for surprise costs is a smart plan. And there are great apps which help you manage your money abroad. As well, finding an accountant in your new country can help you keep your budget on track as you know there is someone you must be accountable to.
Setting Up A Bank Account
Choosing a bank account in a new country can be tremendously simple or very cumbersome. Asking a local contact, such as a colleague, a language instructor, or a friend, for their recommendations on how to best set up an account is invaluable. If they’re able to go with you to the bank, even better. They can help you with any translation, if needed, and help you sort through all the paperwork. Remember, you might need to prove you have a bank account in order to lease an apartment or a car. Prioritize this task.
Don’t Forget About Property Taxes
Property taxes are one of the world’s universal aggravations. Also known as city taxes or municipal fees, sometimes they apply just to homeowners while other times all residents are affected. In some jurisdictions, residents pay property tax on a monthly basis. However, in some locations payment happen once a year or twice a year. Be prepared for your landlord or real estate lawyer to present a large bill so you can ‘payback’ the previous resident who pre-paid your house or apartment fees.
Start Honing Your Language Skills
Learning a new language is an essential component of integrating into your new country. It may even be key to finding a job or connecting with a doctor. If possible, start your language training before you depart. Connecting with an international student at a nearby university is a great way to find a fun, personable conversation partner at a very affordable rate. And they might be able to recommend a language tutor abroad to continue your efforts after you move. There are also a wide variety of language apps available to make learning fun.
Not only do most countries have a long waiting period before you are considered a permanent resident and thus eligible for participation in their public healthcare system, some actually require you to prove you have your own interim coverage in the meantime. It is much, much easier to apply for international health insurance before you leave home than it is to arrange coverage after your move.
Organize Your Visa Early
Never assume you can get a last-minute appointment at an embassy or that your employer-to-be will magically take care of everything for you. If your visa isn’t properly organized well in advance, you’re in for a world of trouble. A trusted immigration lawyer in your home country can help. And remember that there can be subtle differences in procedure between countries that seem very similar. For instance, Canadians and Americans often face different sets of international immigration rules, thanks to Canada being a part of the British Commonwealth. As well, some European countries have rules of reciprocation with Australia, while others have no special agreement. Never assume and do thorough research.
Protect Your Documents
It’s good advice to short term travelers, and it still applies to expats. Send yourself a secure digital copy of your passport, credit card information, drivers license, and other key pieces of paperwork. Leave copies with a trusted friend back home as well. The last thing you need is for something to get lost in the shuffle or to worry about international identity theft.
Packing and Personal Belongings
Setting up your household in a new country can be a logistical and financial challenge. Things you assume will be easy to find, like your favorite brand of laundry detergent, can prove impossible. Meanwhile, things you assumed could only be found at home and suddenly easy to locate. Where do you start and what do you bring?
Imagine your first week in your new country. Break it down into different steps. What will you be doing and what do you need to bring to make that happen? Do you have bowls and spoons for breakfast? Do you have sponges and soap and towels to wash and dry the dishes afterward? Imagine a week’s worth of minute tasks and their required supplies. Can you whittle them down to fit into one crate? Maybe one suitcase? For some would-be expats, this will be relatively easy. For others, especially expats with families, one or two boxes of supplies won’t cut it. But for everyone involved, focusing on the short term, every day, routine tasks will provide you with most of what you need to get yourself up and running.
Use the same exercise when determining what to store for your eventual return. What would you really need to take care of your family’s most pressing tasks? What will help you muddle through the first week before you can get yourself more thoroughly set up?
Develop A Return-Home Plan
In many ways, preparing to move overseas and live as an expat is easy. Sure, the amount of preparation and logistics is daunting but it’s also fueled by excitement. On the flip side, planning to return back to your home country is much more emotional, even messy. Returning home may be a choice that’s out of your control. You could be forced home due to visa issues or a family crisis or sudden employment. Or it could be less dramatic but similarly exhausting, like realizing that you’re unhappy and you need to make a change. In any case, you have to go through the steps of finding a home, a job, and a community – and just like before, that takes time, effort, and money.
Keep in touch with “your people” after you leave- your favorite landlord or real estate agent, your trusted tax accountant, even your favorite cafe. Follow them on Facebook and drop them a postcard from time to time. Even if you don’t move back to the same city, they can still provide you with encouragement and references for resources you might need. And consider leaving a small stash of “mad money” to help you out upon your return. It might be a low-risk investment which you have the option of cashing in every 12 months or it could be as simple as $500 secured in your parents’ safe. Every little bit will help make your transition a smooth one.