Expats Part II: 10 Tips for Moving Abroad

me and the boys selfshot

Me and the boys in Trieste

So you’re thinking about living abroad. Your workplace is considering sending you to Tokyo, or maybe you just want to see new places, experience different cultures. That’s great! My wife and I have been living in various countries since 1996, and we’ve learned a few things along the way. Gone are the days when we’d pack up a few suitcases and hop on a plane – moving with a family takes a lot of time, consideration, and planning.

There’s a wealth of material online about the nuts and bolts of moving abroad, so I won’t get into the technicalities too much here – the visas, the finances, the moving companies; all of the crap you have to consider. What I want to provide is some information on the little things, the tricks and tips that will make your transition somewhat smoother.

1. Pack a truckload of patience.

With D at the Danube bend, Hungary

With D at the Danube bend, Hungary

There are often bureaucratic hurdles that would reduce the most stoic of paper-pushers to tears of blubbery frustration. It’s going to take time to set up a new home in a foreign country, so expect roadblocks along the way and understand that everything won’t come into place immediately. A good rule of thumb that we learned in Mexico – try to get one thing done each day. If your day’s to-do list looks like this:

Go to post office
Do grocery shopping
Buy lamps
Hit the pharmacy
Sign up for language classes
Get diploma translated

you’re screwed. You’re setting yourself up for a lot of pain and frustration. If you got what you needed done at the post office that day, consider it a victory.

Enjoying our first visit to our new home.

Scouting out our new home.

2. Have your paperwork in order. Absolutely check the requirements of the particular country before you go and do anything that’s necessary while you’re still at home. At minimum bring:

  • photocopies of your passports and visas, if you have them
  • marriage certificate if applicable
  • birth certificates of everyone in the family
  • all your diplomas
  • vaccination records for the kids (your doctor might be able to put all of the family’s medical records on CD-rom)
  • at least 6 passport-sized photos of everyone

And each time you go to a government office for some document or stamp or whatnot, bring everything with you. You don’t want to have to go back.

Where we stayed on our scouting mission

Where we stayed on our scouting mission

3. If you can, do a scouting mission beforehand (if your company is sending you ask them for a pre-visit) to get the lay of the land and figure out exactly where you want to live. Before moving to our present home we came for an extended weekend, and just seeing where everything was in relation to everything else helped us find the perfect neighborhood for us. Are you going to be taking public transport to work? How close is it? Where will your kids be going to school? How long is the commute? That fifth-floor walk-up in the historic old building is gorgeous; consider how you’re going to get kids, stroller, and groceries up to that atmospheric flat without having a coronary.

Ulises, our helper, friend, and fellow fisherman

Ulises, our helper, friend, and fellow fisherman

4. Hire a local to help you out. There are often relocation agencies that will assist you with housing and other things, but they’re very expensive and generally quite short-term. I looked into one such agency in Barcelona, and for two days of assistance with house-hunting they charged 500 Euros. There’s a much better alternative, one that proved a Godsend and cost a fraction of a relocation agency. Long before we left I placed a free ad in the classifieds of several local websites that cater to expats. Within a few days I’d Skyped with and hired a fantastic young grad student who spent 4 hours a day with us for six weeks, getting our paperwork done, setting up phone and internet accounts, telling us which were the best stores to pick up things we needed and, most importantly, teaching us the local lingo. Which brings me to…

Torii at Shinto shrine, Shimoda, Japan

Torii at Shinto shrine, Shimoda, Japan

5. Learn the local lingo as quickly as possible, preferably at least a few words or phrases before you go. This may seem obvious, but you can’t believe how far a handful of simple phrases will take you in the beginning. There is a lot of online material available for most major languages, so there’s no excuse to not at least know please, thank you, how much does this cost?, excuse me, my hovercraft is full of eels, etc. Smile too, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. I’ve scampered about a Hungarian butcher shop while bleating ‘baaaa’ and repeating ‘barlang, barlang, barlang.’ Which means ‘cave.’ The word I’d wanted was ‘barany,’ which, of course, means ‘lamb.’ If you get things wrong, chances are the locals will love you just for trying.

Hiking in Austria

Hiking in Austria

6. DON’T try to bring too much from home. I carted around my massive copy of the complete (yes, complete) works of Shakespeare for nearly 20 years before I got smart and ditched the damn thing on our last move. DO NOT fill your luggage with a ton of stuff that you think you can’t possibly do without – you can – but do bring the little things that make you feel comfortable. With the international mega-chains that you find everywhere these days, you’ll end up finding most of what you want, but a few comforts from home go a long way. Here’s a short list of my own, all, of course, involving food: Lipton onion soup mix (for dip), Ranch dressing mix, Rice-a-Roni, beef jerky, dill pickles, Ghirardelli brownie mix, and sweet pepper relish.

first day of school 1

First day of school

7. Think long-term. If you’re going to be in a foreign country for a long time, you have to think about what you’ll be doing years down the line. You don’t want to be moving your kids from school to school, or having to pack up your house every year or so. With schooling, for example, even if they’re 7 years old you need to consider where your kids are most likely to go to university when you weigh whether to put them in local public schools or (usually) English language international ones.

Outdoor hot spring, Japan

Outdoor hot spring, Japan

8. Say ‘yes’ to everything. Some Japanese acquaintances want to take you to a traditional outdoor bath? Say yes. (And don’t worry that everyone’s naked.) A colleague in Mexico suggests you try the crispy fried grasshoppers? Say yes. (They’re delicious, by the way.) Some friends in Hungary want to go to some little village to slaughter a pig? Go along, for goodness’ sake. If you have a sense of wonder and curiosity about your new home you’re going to be a lot happier, and you’ll obviously have experiences that you would otherwise miss.

Noche de rábanos in Oaxaca, Mexico - night of the radishes

Noche de rábanos in Oaxaca, Mexico – night of the radishes

9. Get a car. We lived without a car in Korea, Mexico, and England, and wish we hadn’t. Having the freedom of a car allows you to see parts of your new country that are inaccessible (or at least really inconvenient) without one. We stayed at remote little inns and took day trips to swim in clear mountain streams in Japan, spent long weekends in the Austrian Alps, discovered little villages and fossil hunting hikes in Hungary – all of which (and so, so much more) would have been impossible without our own transport. Get a car.

Getting into the local culture. Ok, I was 19 years old, we were at Pompeii, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve censored the naughty bits- this is a family blog, after all.

Getting into the local culture. Ok, I was 19 years old, we were at Pompeii, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve censored the naughty bits- this is a family blog, after all.

10. Relax. Moving to a foreign country can be harrowing at first. Don’t expect things to be just like home (that’s why you left, remember?), and while you may be tempted at first to make unfavorable comparisons (Why do these morons drive on the left?), realize that just because they do something one way back home, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way. Relish the new food, the odd customs, the cultural quirks. It’s all good – or at least interesting – so roll with it, baby.

Being an expat is a little like being on a permanent vacation. Sure, there are the inconveniences and the adjustments, but the rewards can be astonishing.

Now I know that a goodly number of our readers are expats themselves – please share any of your own tips that you’ve learned along the way! I’d really, really appreciate your input on this. You know who you are.

14 thoughts on “Expats Part II: 10 Tips for Moving Abroad

  1. The one thing I would add is that you don’t leave your emotional baggage behind, I have seen numberous couples arrive in a new place and breakup 6 months later either because one of them didn’t want to move or they though it would solve their issues that they had where ever they came from.

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    • An excellent point. Yup, if you have problems, they’re not going to go away with a change of the scenery, and if you have relationship problems they’re probably going to be exacerbated. Moving is stressful – my wife and I were sniping at each other before, during, and immediately after the move, which is something we very rarely do. Thanks for weighing in, my good man, and thanks for the visit!

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  2. Great tips here! I have learned that it is also very important to sit down with your little ones and all of their toys and books, and carefully select those coveted few that will travel with them the whole way. Familiar toys and favorite stories can ease their minds a lot during the transition…besides you never know what will happen to that favorite stuffed Kung-Fu Panda after three months in shipping.

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  3. I have nothing to add to your list, MM, but I will very much endorse the ‘do everything’ advice. Volunteer, join groups, meet the neighbours etc. The latter is so much easier at the beginning than later when you must introduce yourself as the neighbour who moved in six months ago and didn’t bother dropping in to say hello.

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    • Agreed. We live in what I would call row houses, with 5 narrow homes cheek by jowl, and we met our neighbors pretty much immediately. The man on the end says that they’ll “have to have us over for coffee” one of these days, but so far it hasn’t been one of those days. And call me Matt, Cuttlefish. We’re old friends.

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    • Thanks! As mentioned, there is a ton of practical information out there, but what I was looking to do was give the kind of more personal stuff that might help folks on their travels. Thanks for visiting, and did you know that we’re having another photo contest? If you’re interested please send in your shots. Cheers!

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    • That pillar swayed all over the place, and as I considered the possibilities – crashing into and potentially toppling a 2000 year-old wall or tumbling naked into a thicket of thorny brambles, the pillar crashing down on top of me, I began to ponder that perhaps this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. It all worked out, though, which proves that fate favors the idiotic.

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  4. You all are so brave to transfer! I mean, for me its ok since I understand English, but to transfer to a non English speaking country. That is hard. By the way, this is very very helpful tips. THANK YOU..

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