Home Living Abroad Cultural Integration Enjoy living abroad: tips for being an expat
Last update on July 30, 2020

Want to learn how to feel at home in a foreign country, whether you’re there for a weekend, a year, or a lifetime? Then this guide for living abroad is for you.

Spending time in a foreign country is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside of a witness protection program. It’s a fresh chance to build a new life that’s authentically yours in a country that isn’t. Before you hop on the plane, though, there’s a number of things you’ll want to consider. Here’s a few tips to consider before renew your life while living abroad.

Before you move abroad

Photo: Estée Janssens / Unsplash

Visit any place you’re considering before you move there – several times, if possible. Spend time exploring the area and getting to know the town. Just because you had a single, glorious weekend somewhere doesn’t mean it will be the same living abroad.

If you have a partner, agree in advance that either of you can veto a suggested destination. Dragging along a reluctant partner is no way to start out a new life overseas.

Consider your reasons for going. Is this the grand adventure you’ve always dreamed about? Are you moving for practical reasons, such as a job, lower cost of living, or a healthier culture? What are your expectations? What resources are you willing to commit to making the move a success?

Have a complete physical. You don’t want any health surprises when you’ve just arrived in a new country.

Bring a good supply of your medications if you need it. Find out if it’s possible to get refills sent to you by mail. Give yourself time to get settled, then check whether your meds are available over the counter; if not, you’ll want to schedule a visit to a local physician for a new prescription.

Arrange for someone to receive your mail, scan your bills and letters, and e-mail the scans to you. In some cases, you may want to have the originals mailed to you as well. Some companies provide this service, or you may want to ask a trusted friend or family member.

Lay out all your clothes and all your money, then take half the clothes and twice the money. You can re-stock your wardrobe, but only a good financial plan for a move can help you out in an unforeseen emergency. Make sure you put your money into on a new bank account that’s easy to use.

Learning the language

University student with books
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Take private classes if you can afford them. Your learning rate will skyrocket. A private teacher can work with subjects that interest you (e.g., local culture, hobbies, food). It’s also good to focus on the topics that you’ll need, such as vocabulary related to your job, the kids’ school, or that persistent plumbing issue in the downstairs bath. Pay special attention to your child’s learning progress, too; their language learning will outpace yours, but trying to keep up will help stave off feelings of culture shock.

Give it time. If you’re over 30, you’ll likely need months for the basics, years to become fluent, and a lifetime to work on your accent. Start with simple words and phrases that could come in handy in social situations. Keep your progress steady and gradual; the more you know of the language, the more enjoyable and comfortable your life will become.

Dealing with culture shock

Marrakesh market
Photo: Ben Ostrower / Unsplash

Try to see differences as just differences. They’re not a commentary on you, your decision for living abroad, the country in which you find yourself, or your ability to adapt. Don’t succumb to accepting cultural stereotypes as actual fact.

You’ll always stand out as a foreigner. This is especially the case in societies where most people spend their entire life socializing with their neighbors. You can never truly join that inner circle, but you can make a place for yourself in the community that’s uniquely your own and richly rewarding. Don’t assume that following your traditions from home will prevent you from adapting, either; on the contrary, celebrating the Lunar New Year or Ramadan while living abroad will help you bridge the cultural gap. You may encounter locals who are too uncomfortable with anything unfamiliar to befriend anyone new, but you’ll meet others who will go out of their way to help you because you’re different and interesting.

Don’t ignore feeling blue, alienated, or homesick. Accept it as natural and apply home remedies; maybe include a hot water bottle, dark-chocolate-covered almonds, a glass of wine, and a lighthearted movie. If symptoms persist, declare a few attitude adjustment days, during which you take walks in the park, watch more lighthearted movies, read cheerful books, and call friends to meet up at the bar in the evening. A few days of this usually goes a long way toward restoring emotional equilibrium. If you can’t shake the blues, consider therapy or determine whether it’s time to make some changes in your life.

Read the anthropological classic Return to Laughter by Eleanor Smith Bowen, a novel based on her field experience. Immersing herself in a remote West African village, she starts out romanticizing her neighbors as living more natural and strife-free lives. When she discovers their all-too-human faults (such as witch trials), she becomes harshly critical of them. In the end, she accepts the ethical and moral ambiguity inherent in all human communities and achieves enough perspective to return to laughter.

Making friends

Group dinner at a restaurant
Photo: Priscilla du Preez / Unsplash

When you’re living abroad, be open to all opportunities that may lead to social interactions. If someone suggests getting together to attend an art exhibit, sporting event, or even a bullfight, give it careful consideration, even if you aren’t wild about impressionist paintings, soccer, or watching animals be killed. You need to get out there and meet people; just say ‘yes’ whenever you can. Obviously, invitations to participate in crimes, skulduggery, and undesirable sexual liaisons should be politely declined.

Bear in mind that the locals don’t want to hear constant comparisons between your county and theirs. Making unfavorable comparisons will make them feel that you’re not making much of an effort to acclimatize to your new home. Instead, try learning about local places of interest. Ask for recommendations about monuments and restaurants you should visit.

Accept local attitudes towards punctuality and other social niceties. In some countries, being an hour late for a lunch date is normal and nothing to get upset about. Find out what the local customs are and plan your social life accordingly. For example, include a few punctual people among your lunch guests so you’ll have someone to talk to while you’re waiting for the others.

Be open to new friends of all ages, especially among people who speak your language. When you’re living abroad in a community with a small expat population, you can’t afford to limit your social life along strict generational lines. If someone shares your language, interests, and sense of humor, cultivate the friendship.

Consider joining a social club or engaging in communal activities. Some possibilities include a choir, painting class, or bicycling group. Even if you’re not normally much of a joiner, you’ll find this can be a great way to expand your circle of local friends. Search for social clubs in your area or consult your country’s consulate or embassy.

Don’t isolate yourself. Sometimes living abroad feels overwhelming. We all have days when we want to stay home and pull the covers over our heads. But the more you get out and interact with your new world, the sooner it will start feeling like home.

Business culture is not universal

Taking notes during a meeting
Photo: Dylan Gillis / Unsplash

Learn local business customs. Don’t assume that everyone has the same attitude toward, for instance, payment schedules. Spend time talking to others in your company and your field to find out what to expect.

Be prepared for resentment. Any foreigner who is hired, especially for a desirable management position, is likely to inspire jealousy and hostility. Try not to take it personally.

Eat and drink like a local

Spicy Chinese food
Photo: Jimmy Chang / Unsplash

Eat the local food. You don’t have to order the fried flies in Bangkok or the snake stew in Hanoi, but give the mainstream offerings a chance while living abroad. You may be delightfully surprised. Try to let go of old habits that can’t be indulged. Don’t despise your local café for turning up their nose at a complicated coffee order; indulge as the locals do without judgment.

If you’ll be out on the town, find out what the locals drink. You might just discover something new. Bartenders are usually happy to describe their offerings and identify what other people around you are ordering. This will also give you a chance to practice your linguistic skills and pick up useful vocabulary while living abroad. Besides, many people find talking in a foreign language becomes much easier after a few drinks.

Adapt to local eating schedules. If you show up at a Spanish restaurant for lunch before 12:00 or for dinner before 21:00, you’ll be eating alone and wondering why everyone told you this place was so jolly. On the other hand, if you show up to a German or Dutch restaurant too late, you’ll also find yourself eating alone.

Vegetarians have a difficult time abroad. It can be difficult to maintain a highly-regimented diet in the middle of moving abroad. If you can handle it, consider eating a bit more flexibly; eating a primarily vegetarian diet with occasional flirtations with meat will ease any concerns at a restaurant where you’re having trouble communicating with a waiter.

Throw a party. Even if you’re still struggling to understand all the nuances of entertaining in the local style, when you get people together in a room with food, a little wine or beer, music, and a festive attitude, good things tend to happen. The locals – or even just your neighbors – will appreciate the effort, even if you don’t do everything exactly the way they would.

Changing transport

Berlin U-Bahn train
Photo: Sorough Karimi / Unsplash

You don’t need a car to survive. Walking is the most practical form of transportation in many places, especially small cities and towns. It’s a great way to get around, enjoy some exercise, and become acquainted with your new community – to say nothing of the cost savings over other forms of transportation. If you live in a larger city, invest in a public transportation pass and learn how to use the bus, tram, and metro.

Bicycling is a great alternative, both for your health and for speed. An increasing number of cities all over the world have municipally-owned bicycles you can rent for a modest fee and leave in public lots; you’ll never have to worry about their security. It doesn’t mean they don’t get damaged or stolen; it just means that it’s not your problem.

Gadgets and electronics while living abroad

Watching a show on a laptop
Photo: Steinar Engeland / Unsplash

Many expats don’t bother with landlines; they just use mobile phones. If you have a factory-unlocked smartphone, you can keep the same phone wherever you are and simply change SIM cards when you move from one country to another. A lot of expats start with a pay-as-you-go SIM card, an inexpensive local option that lets you pay for calls without monthly or other fees. Once you have a feel for your calling pattern, an annual contract may prove more economical.

Is it possible to live without television? Yes! If your new country doesn’t offer the kind of programming you’re looking for, you may want to skip it in favor of the other options. Or you can look into getting satellite TV with channels in your language.

If you’re used to streaming shows online, you’ll be disappointed that it’s difficult to stream certain shows from other countries. Some expats won’t be able to use the libraries of Netflix that they’re used to, but there are exceptions, such as shows that upload clips to their YouTube channel. Downloading movies and television shows is illegal in most countries, although the degree of enforcement varies considerably.

If you love reading, e-books are a must. The supply of English language books is likely be slimmer in a country where English is not the lingua franca. Yes, it doesn’t have the comfy feel of a traditional book, but you get used to that very quickly. And there are huge advantages. You can often download sample chapters for free, to see if you like it. You can buy e-books in under a minute for half the price (or less) of the paperback, without having to hunt for it at a local store or wait a week or two for it to arrive by mail.

If you miss English-language radio, subscribe to podcasts. You just click and play, or download them for later. Podcasts are generally free from dozens of public broadcasters from all over the world; keep up with the latest shows from anyone from Canada’s CBC to Switzerland’s SRF. Many apps provide extensive libraries of podcasts, including iTunes, Soundcloud, Spotify, and Stitcher.