How To Prepare For Expat Life Abroad
Living abroad as an expat is a life changing experience that is exciting and challenging at the same time.
The opportunity to relocate and live abroad is one that’s difficult to resist, for not everyone can necessarily commit or have the resources to make it a reality. Once you’re there, a whole new experience awaits you – meeting the locals, learning their language, exploring other cities, and trying out the local food.
While living the expat life could liberate and feed your adventurous soul in such ways, it could also be challenging at times.
But it doesn’t have to be as stressful as you think, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into and make the necessary preparations for this next stage in your life!
So here’s my top tips for moving abroad as an expat.
1. Do your research before leaving
By research, I mean things such as cost of living, accommodation, weather, public transportation, and culture.
You wouldn’t want to be shocked by the drastic drop in funds reflected in your bank account statements, or by the huge bill within your first few months.
Check out online cost comparison tools Expatistan and Numbeo – they give a comprehensive comparison of expenses between cities based on many factors, including grocery shopping, eating out, entertainment, rent, and public transportation.
Having at least some basic information about your new home country beforehand is also a huge bonus, especially when it comes to conversing with local friends, neighbors or co-workers. This way they are likely to find a sense of familiarity and rapport with you, and be endeared to you.
2. Be open to short-term accommodation upon arrival
If you haven’t managed to secure long-term accommodation yet, don’t fret!
There are a lot of short-term and vacation rental websites such as AirBnB, VRBO, and HomeAway to consider for settling in for at least the first month or two before you manage to find an ideal and longer-term housing.
If you’re in Asia, Agoda would be an excellent website to start from. While waiting for some Japanese friends to get back to me on their availability to host for August, I scoured through alternative accommodation options and found a shared hostel room for only $415 for almost a month! This is honestly a great deal based on its convenient location and the season.
3. Get a comprehensive medical check-up before leaving (if possible)
Medical check-ups in your new home country can be very expensive if you don’t have the necessary health coverage or need to go through one while being unfamiliar with the procedures.
Things would be much easier at first if you get your medical records transferred before moving over. How?
Book an appointment with a family doctor to check if you need to undergo any further medical examination or injection that might be necessary, and collect new prescriptions for your medication.
Also, ask for a copy of all medical records, since you would likely need them for any medical check-ups and examination in your new home country!
4. Make, keep, and translate copies of important documents
Aside from medical documents, make sure to make a photocopy of your passport, visa, bank statements, birth records, resumes, university degree certificates, and references. In case any of them gets stolen or lost, there’s a backup copy.
Whether your country has visa-exempt access to your new home country or not, there’s a possibility of immigration officers questioning you in detail at the border for some reasons. Even if you might have obtained a work or resident visa beforehand, having other important documents would be essential.
I’m not saying that this will happen at the border, but if it does, having those documents handy would prove your case to the officers.
Also, having your documents translated into the local language would make it much easier for you when you arrive. It will minimize misunderstandings in dealings with people, like your landlord, customer service agents, or salespeople, and expedite the process of all paperwork that need to be completed.
5. Cancel your subscriptions and contracts
Don’t forget to cancel all your existing plans, whether it’s your mobile plan subscription, residential line and cable services, or gym membership.
You won’t want to incur unnecessary high phone bills because of the need to call back to cancel these services and wait over the phone for a long time.
6. Sell and donate unwanted items
Before vacating your property at home, consider selling or donating belongings that you no longer need.
Not only would that free up space in your baggage but you also help needy people and use that extra cash for other needs (especially traveling). 🙂
7. Get an International Driving Permit
If you plan to drive after relocating, consider getting an International Driving Permit (IDP). It’s a driver’s license that lets you drive in other countries without undergoing further applications and tests. This is based on the validity of your license, which is issued by a recognized authority in your country.
That way, you can easily convert your driver’s license into one that is recognized and valid for use in your new home country by applying for the permit after arrival.
The IDP is currently recognized in regions such as North America (except Mexico), Europe (except Germany), Australia, and some Asian and South American countries.
8. Learn the language
Moving to a country with a different language?
One of the best ways to know the local culture is to know the language. Start with the basics first, and try to learn more elements of it as you progress.
While it could be challenging, you might find it to be fun, especially when there’s opportunities to converse with local friends.
Above all, if you do end up mastering the language (or almost there), there’s nothing to stop you from getting around anywhere, ordering food and drinks, running errands, and initiating conversations and meet ups with local friends all by yourself!
What an accomplishing feat that would be!
9. Obtain international insurance
Even if you have always had good health or a strong immune system, you could get sick once in your new home country (for reasons such as food and weather).
Depending on where you’re based, medical expenses can be steep. To avoid this, look up on international health insurance options that suit your needs the best. Nothing’s better than being worry-free once you arrive.
10. Pack appropriately
Although you will probably be gone for an extensive amount of time, it would be a headache to deal with luggage overload, incur hefty baggage fees at the airport, and to have to stress over how best to move all of them into your new house, which may not be very close to the airport or city centre.
This wouldn’t be a great start to your life abroad.
Moreover, you need to take some factors into consideration. What’s the weather like? Do I really need my thick sweaters in a place with a temperate climate all year round?
If it’s cheaper to move all your items over, freight shipping would probably be your best option (especially by ocean for those who have a budget and are not in a hurry to receive everything).
Another thing to consider: if prices in your new home country are comparable or even lower than back home, leave non-essential items at home and buy essentials in your new destination.
11. Be prepared for culture shock
Culture shock is something that every expat (and long-term traveler) will experience no matter how prepared they are. Once you get past the honeymoon period (when you first arrive and are still excited by the new things and experiences), routine sets in and you start to see those differences and your comfort zone challenged.
Very often, the reality of life in another country differs from the expectation that you might have from social and print media, or stories of people and friends who have traveled there.
But the good news is, we’re capable of overcoming culture shock.
Everyone who moves overseas, not just you, is trying to get used to it. So you’re not alone! Just hang on and be open-minded.
If you are open to meeting people (especially the locals), exploring new places in your new home country, picking up a new hobby, learning the language, trying the local food, and attending local events, you’re one step closer to integration!
12. Start connecting with people and friends in your new home country
It’s always comforting to know that you already have a friend or an acquaintance in your new destination. Whether you guys are on close terms or not, your shared experiences as expats in the same foreign land could very well be an icebreaker and lead to potential lifelong friendships.
Your friend could also give you tips, such as where to go, what to do, and where to live, and introduce their network of friends to you.
But what if you don’t know anyone there? Fret not !
One of the best social network resources to start with is Couchsurfing (CS). A British entrepreneur hosted me in Birmingham for a few days before my exchange program officially started, and gave me some tips on what to do and where to eat and drink there, which really helped me in settling in! Depending on where you are based, there might be CS events and meet ups in your area.
Another platform InterNations would be perfect if you’re looking to connect with like-minded expats and professionals in your location. You would need to pay some fees to upgrade to the Premium plans but they grant you access to most benefits including lower admission fees to events. In the long term, being a full-fledged InterNations member could be worthwhile.
13. Meet the locals whenever possible
Living abroad is the easiest way to know the local people better. Apart from the interesting and unique aspects of their culture, you will be working in the same company, taking the same bus, and living in the same apartment building as them.
Of course, being fluent in the language is key to integrating in their society. But having local friends and connections (especially in group settings where you’re the only foreigner) could encourage you to learn to speak their language as well as the dos and don’ts in their culture!
14. Give yourself time to adapt
Nobody said settling in is easy. Even after more than three years, you could still feel like a foreigner in your new home country.
It’s perfectly normal to feel homesick and lost especially within your first year. But don’t let such feelings be in control for long.
Oftentimes, expats decide to give up on the move abroad based on impulse. I have met some people who stayed in Canada for only a few months just to return home but others persisted and are still here. A couple who went back to Europe told me that they regretted not staying longer to see if things would eventually work out for them in Canada.
Unlike many people, you’re lucky to have the opportunity to relocate elsewhere, and start a new life or move on to better things. Something that your friends or family members might have wished they have as well. Since you have already come this far, would you really want to simply give up on your dreams?
I’m not telling you what you should or should not do. But my point is, settling in at your new homeland takes time, so you should give yourself some time to see if staying abroad continues to work out well for you first (which I hope it is).
I found that following my train of thoughts on why I moved to Canada in the first place really helps me to better understand why I’m here. Through this self-reflection process, I learned to trust my gut instincts, which tells me that staying here is the right decision.
If you think that you’ve already given a serious thought about your stay abroad and decide to return home, that’s okay too! At least you’ve really tried.
15. Keep in touch with family and friends
Moving overseas (and having a new life, new friends or with your new significant other) doesn’t mean that you need to cut loose your ties with loved ones back home.
Keep them updated of your life abroad, as they would know if you’re doing well and could help you out in any way possible.
Depending on where you are based, there’s always the option of downloading free instant messaging applications on your computer and phone.
Facebook Messenger, Facetime (for Apple users), Skype, and WhatsApp have been the traditional choice of staying connected globally. In case you didn’t know, Skype launched its Unlimited World Calling plan – it allows you to make calls to mobile numbers in 8 countries and to landlines in over 50 countries (at no cost for the first month, and for a low subscription fee for subsequent months).
16. Travel while you can
Got nothing planned yet for the weekends? Have some vacation days to clear before the year ends?
What better way to spend those days than traveling to other places!
One of the best parts about moving abroad is that you can take your time to travel (depending on your schedule and budget). Currently living in Berlin? You can go on a trip to Munich this weekend, then to Vienna the next! Maybe next month you could start thinking about visiting the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre in Italy. 😉
Ever relocated abroad as an expat? Any tips you’d like to share with potential expats who plan to relocate as well?
Share your comments and questions below!