For all the fun of travel, there’s nothing quite like living in another country to get a good sense of what defines it. When you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else—even if it’s just back home—you only get a taste of the people, their language, and culture. But when you live among them for a time, you can dig much deeper into their psyche simply by becoming part of their lives and making them part of yours.
If you are now, or are about to become, an expat, get ready to enjoy all the advantages of living in a new country. You don’t want to live like a tourist and miss out on all these benefits:
- A possible lower cost of living
- A new lifestyle
- Integration into the language and culture
- A multitude of new opportunities that are available to the well-connected foreigner
It’s particularly important, however, to study your new country before you move there to live. The more you know about the people, their language and their culture the easier you’ll acclimatize. If possible, learn about: the food & drink so that you can adapt more easily; about health issues and safety concerns so that you can take precautions; and a rudimentary knowledge of the bathroom facilities won’t hurt either.
For people just beginning their research on where to move to, the destination section will provide some food for thought as will those dealing with permissions issues (visas, passports) and activities. Accommodations play an enormous role in your happiness when living abroad, transportation can be an important issue, and knowing what to pack is crucial. The issues of time and money are also touched upon.
You can’t enjoy any of the advantages of your new country unless you start getting to know people. You may start with other expats through your school, work, or social connections, but don’t stop there. Find ways to meet local residents and service providers who can also help you.
In fact, you can start on this even before you leave your home country to make your adaptation that much quicker. Find out about clubs, groups, and associations you can join, and don’t restrict yourself to those from your nationality/culture if you want to get to know the people in your new country. Volunteer opportunities are usually a great way to get started in your new country as you’ll meet people from both your new land and from around the world.
Nothing will help you more in adapting to your new country than knowing a bit of the language. Take a few classes and don’t forget to bring phrase books and language dictionaries with you (don’t assume you can buy them there). Even if you don’t have the time to take classes, you should, at a minimum, learn to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.”
My advice is the same as for travelers: Create a cheat sheet with many of the words you’re likely to use every day. The difference is that when living somewhere you might need several lists of words (or a good phrase book). When shopping, you’ll want a list that highlights the products you can’t find easily, such as pharmaceuticals, which may be behind a counter and can only be accessed by asking the pharmacist or a clerk.
The great thing about living somewhere is that, once you know a few people and a bit of the local language, it’s easy to become informed about local cultural events you can attend and perhaps get involved in. These can be a great way to meet locals, learn cultural subtleties and the language, and become integrated into the community.
There are often cheap or free activities that take place year round. While some are limited to a particular neighborhood or city, others involve the whole country partaking in the celebration. Many focus on the home, and being invited by friends to join them is an honor that shouldn’t be passed up.
When you first move to your new country, you’ll probably be perturbed by how complicated the most simple, day-to-day things have become. Routine chores such as grocery shopping are anything but, as it may now involve going to five different shops or markets, pantomiming to explain the products you seek when you forget the words and wondering whether you’re paying too much (while at the same time having no idea of the value of the currency).
In modern, western, and developed countries, self-serve grocery stores are laid out more or less like those at home. I’m not saying you’re going to find a Piggy Wiggly or a Safeway, but the stores aren’t all that different. Markets tend to be organized the same—or close enough—the world over, with fruits and veggies together, meats together, household products together, etc. so it doesn’t take long to figure the lay of the land.
Your health while living abroad will depend on your general well-being, the location where you decide to live, whether or not you’re working (and exposed to more sick people), what you eat and drink, and a few variables outside your control, such as the colds and flu going around.
You can find good doctors, hospitals, and clinics almost everywhere, especially if you’re paying for it yourself. You’ll often find they’re better than what you’re used to and very often are a lot cheaper than what you usually pay back home. Locals and expats can help you locate good health care when you need it.
Your instincts as a mature adult are your best bet in preventing crime, accidents, and confrontations. As an expat, you’ll be particularly vulnerable during your initial honeymoon phase as you fall in love with your new surroundings, new friends, and the local people: pretty well everything around you. The danger is you may gloss over some of your usual caution as you’re enjoying all this wonderful hospitality, especially when compared with what you left (job, traffic, winter weather, higher crime rates, etc.).
When looking for an apartment or a long-stay hotel, you need to be aware of any threats to your safety, such as easily broken locks and windows, dark streets, bad neighborhoods, and lack of public transportation. Follow your instincts any time you’re walking down a street, through a park, near a crowded bar, and anywhere a crime or confrontation might take place.
When you’re living in a new country, you have no choice but to get used to whatever type of facilities they have. Often, modern buildings will have modern toilets, but you should still be aware that the not-so-modern city infrastructure may not be able to keep up.
In some taller apartment buildings, people living on the higher floors don’t have much water pressure, which affects the ability of the toilets to flush properly and the quality of the showers. Paper can’t be flushed down the toilet as it causes plumbing problems, which the landlord expects to be resolved and/or paid to be resolved by the tenants.
The Travel section covers many destination research resources, but there are a few of specific interest to expats and those considering moving abroad:
Expatriate websites: These deal with living abroad; some are specifically targeted to baby boomers, seniors, retirees, working people, etc. Most of these cover the entire world and have subgroups for the region of the globe you may want to live in.
Local media (internet sites, newspapers, magazine, television, and radio): Created by media in the region or country you plan to live in. Most of these are available only in the language of the country, but many also have English-language websites.
Expat groups abroad: Citizens from your own country who are living or who have lived in the country you’ll be moving to may have set up online expat groups to chat about issues.
Expat groups at home: Immigrants from the country you’re moving to have likely set up community groups or websites you may be able to visit in person or online.
Community forums: Yahoo!, Google, and other sites have a number of online forums that attract people from all nationalities.
Real estate sites: Many appear to be advice sites, but their main purpose is to sell you real estate or timeshare condos. There are enough good expat sites that have no monetary interests that you really don’t need to use real estate sites except when you want to buy property.
Not surprisingly, the permission process is more complicated when you move to another country than when just traveling through. Many people move abroad to live or retire (both without officially working there) on a visitor’s visa in order to avoid the employment or retirement visa processes. This usually means they must leave the country every three to six months to renew their visas.
Employment and retirement visas require more complex processes that can take four to six months. These always require filling out forms, showing your passport, and proving your credentials. Of course, there are fees to pay, and they may require a visit to the country’s consulate or embassy, and a physical examination (usually for employment visas).
Retirees are sometimes surprised that foreign nations don’t appear to welcome them with open arms. They often don’t realize the history of visa abuses that have taken place over the years as well as the need for countries to protect themselves. That’s why retirees are usually asked to prove a source of income, often with a minimum annual amount, proof of savings or investments, and health insurance for the applicant and companion or spouse.
As you meet people, you’ll start going out with them to do things and discover a depth of experience travelers rarely get. The local media, friends, and co-workers are the best sources of information to find out what’s going on around you. When you live there, you have more time to get involved in activities that take place over a longer period of time, such as lessons or festivals or personal coaching in sports, the arts, or whatever interests you.
When deciding to live abroad, one of the most important decisions you’ll make after deciding on a location is whether to rent or buy. If you intend to buy, you should first rent a place to determine whether the location is indeed someplace you can live for a long time. Staying in a hotel won’t give you a good sense of the challenges you’ll face living there, and the folly of buying before living somewhere foreign doesn’t bear discussing.
When renting abroad, you must realize that the lease will be in the language of the country in which you live in order for it to be legal. Make sure you understand all the terms as these will be binding and may be hard to get out of—bring your own interpreter (it need not be a lawyer).
Some landlords may need to see your passport and visa as proof you’re in the country legally. Foreigners are sometimes preferred tenants because landlords may charge more and require cash payment since they may not report the income for tax purposes.
When buying property abroad, expect to have to protect your interests by bringing along your own lawyer. You must ensure that she or he has no connection to the seller or the development company, receives no commission or fee from anyone but you, and is licensed to practice in the jurisdiction in question.
You may be pressured to sign and buy, especially if the property is in a development. The sales staff may tell you “It’s the last one of its kind. They don’t make these anymore. The price is going up tomorrow. My boss won’t let me keep the price this low.” Expect these or other such pressure tactics to get you to buy. If you’re uncomfortable, just get up and leave.
Learn to use the subway and buses in foreign countries as these are much cheaper than cabs and rental cars. Underground transportation is so much faster than any surface-street options that get caught up in traffic.
If you plan to drive, don’t assume the rules of the road are the same as at home. For example, you can’t turn right on a red light everywhere and your usual rolling stop could get you a huge fine. Parking fees, especially in the center of any city, usually make driving an expensive option when compared to public transit.
Before getting into a taxi, check whether the driver is licensed and registered; many are just individuals moonlighting. Just make sure that a license with picture identification and a meter are present in the car. In many countries, such as Costa Rica and Mexico, numerous crimes, including kidnapping and ATM withdrawals at gunpoint, have been committed by unlicensed taxi drivers. People are lured into these cabs by cheaper taxi fares.
If you think packing to travel is a challenge, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Packing to move is a whole new sport. Expats often regret not taking certain things along, and this list can grow very long in the first few months. The good news is that after adapting you find you can make do without most of the things you wondered how you’d ever do without.
Before you pack everything you own, think of the advantages of going with just a few suitcases or backpacks, including fewer baggage fees. You also won’t need to declare your belongings any more than with the usual custom forms asking about controlled substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, firearms, and currency.
If you’re moving with all your household goods, however, you’ll need to go through import procedures, and you’re better off using a service to help you with all the paperwork and shipping. Be aware you may have to pay import duties, although these are often waived for expats as it’s expected you’ll take all your things with you when you leave.
It won’t be too long after you’ve arrived in your new country that you’ll realize your tempo isn’t quite the same as the people around you. They may operate at a slower pace, forcing you to slow down or go crazy at the slow-motion lifestyle. Or the reverse could be true—a frenetic pace that may carry you along, or run you over. Of course, you’ll have to adapt as the people won’t speed up or slow down just to please you.
Budgeting for your new country is a tough undertaking, but there are some resources that will help. Online want ads for apartments and houses give you a good idea of how much that big expenditure will cost, and food store websites give you a sense of the cost of basic supplies. Relocation services—which are often used by corporations to move their executives—sometimes have websites with functions that help you compare the cost of living between two cities.