The idea of living abroad is a fantasy for many, but it’s important to remember that expat life isn’t all parties and weekend trips. What’s expat life really like after the initial sparkle fades away?
Like many first-time expats, you’ll want more out of life than what you had at home. People often consider moving abroad because they’re unhappy with their lives back home; maybe you’re bothered by your career trajectory, romantic prospects, or a lack of international travel. Maybe you just feel an inexplicable void, an indescribable need for new scenery, new people, new everything. There are plenty of things to consider before you move abroad, but you need to be prepared to start all over again, which is the single most important part of the adventure that is the expat life. You have to be willing to start again from the beginning.
Some of you might say, “that’s okay with me, I just want something different.” And that’s great; it’s commendable to seek out adventure and widen your comfort zone, especially when the end result is getting to live somewhere new and exciting. Whether you’re moving abroad temporarily because your employer transferred you abroad for a fixed period or you’re setting out to live in a new country without a job at all, you’ll find the expat life both challenging and immensely rewarding.
You’ll feel like you’re starting again
If you move to a new country, particularly one where you don’t know the language, you’ll feel as if you’re starting life over from the beginning of adulthood. You might need to bolster your academic credentials to get a step ahead.
At the very least, you’ll have to learn the local language. Even if you don’t plan to use it as your primary language of communication or work, familiarity with a local language will help immeasurably when it comes to practical matters. Whether it’s sorting out matters with the municipality or telling the cashier how you want to pay for your groceries, laying a foundation of a new language makes living in a new city a whole lot easier. Trying to speak the local language demonstrates respect and understanding of the society that you’re slowly becoming a part of.
Sorting out a visa before arrival
Since you quit your job back home and you don’t know the language of your new home country, if you aren’t enrolled as a student when you arrive, you won’t be able to obtain a working visa – unless, of course, you come over with a company.
If you’re a student, you may be permitted to work, but likely only limited hours; regulations vary by country. The most common part-time jobs available for those that don’t speak the local language well are bars, restaurants, babysitting, or teaching English.
Working out practical things in advance
Depending on how powerful your passport is, a tourism visa will last three months at most. In many countries, looking for work in the country or attending interviews is a violation of the terms of a tourist visa, so try to find work in advance.
There are a few things you should have lined up before you step on the airplane and begin your expat life:
- Have work lined up, acceptance to a university program, or another plan for being an entrepreneur or digital nomad. Be aware of the visa requirements. Acclimatize yourself to the local business culture.
- Have a place to stay arranged before you jump on the plane. If you have family or friends there, stay with them if you can; it will make your first few days feel a bit more comfortable.
- Arrive with about five month’s worth of savings just in case. That amount will differ based on your situation and the cost of living in the country you’re moving to, of course, but be prepared for all costs. When you don’t know anyone in a new place, you’ll go out all time to meet people; this is not an inexpensive endeavor.
- Learn some of the language in advance, if necessary. A good level of familiarity with the local tongue will greatly improve your job prospects and stave off some of the negative effects of culture shock in your professional and personal lives.
Be realistic about your prospects
Your new job prospects might not be ideal in a new country, especially following the global financial crisis. Try not to trick yourself into thinking that you hate your work and that moving abroad will somehow change everything. The reality is that other countries also have offices with jobs that you dislike; the difference in your expat life lies in how you approach your career prospects.
The other great misconception: that you’ll walk right into the same standard of living that you enjoyed back home. In reality, you’ll probably revert to a decade earlier and plant your roots in the soil of a younger you. You’ll regain your standard of living in due course, but it takes time and patience.
Social isolation is normal
If you come to a country where you don’t speak the language, prepare yourself that you won’t only be going back to the beginning in your expat life, but you’ll might also have no friends or family. Periods of extreme loneliness are inevitable. Times around holidays that you would observe at home (like Ramadan or Chinese New Year) can be especially isolating.
The key is to get yourself out of your apartment and just keep going: get up each day and get outside, no matter how intimidating it is to walk into a confusing new world. If you move with children, they’ll probably immerse themselves quicker than you, owing to the fact that children learn languages with greater ease. You might not become fluent in the language or completely understand all of the cultural nuances; if you arm yourself well enough, you’ll eventually have a social life. Take baby steps, but just keep taking them.
Moving for the right reasons
Know why you’re making this move. Once the excitement and fear of starting the expat life and being free from your old one have worn off, you’ll still wake up with yourself every single day.
There are plenty of things you might be running from: a broken relationship, a tedious job, a dead-end career, your family. These things don’t magically disappear. You’ll replace your current job with another one; you still have to pay the bills each month; you’ll find another relationship that will, at times, break your heart; and your family will eventually track you down.
It might seem logical on the surface to be cautious about moving to another country for someone that isn’t a spouse. Unfortunately, everyone’s made a few foolish decisions driven by the heart. Imagine crossing an ocean to move in with a romantic interest only to discover that they’re actually married; bizarre, but it’s definitely not an uncommon story. Expat relationships are a journey, but make sure you’re not diving straight into the deep end.
This is important: no matter where you call home, you still have to wake up with yourself and life’s problems. Keep that in mind.
Take time to understand the new culture
Don’t underestimate cultural differences, even if they seem quaint to you. At a certain point, you will experience a certain degree of culture shock or even racism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve moved into a new culture; it’s your responsibility to adapt and immerse yourself as best you can.
Starting over at at any age is as much about discovering yourself as it is about new adventures. You have to let go of your former self and allow change to happen, all while holding on to what is essentially you. It’s easy to get lost thousands of kilometers from everyone you’ve ever known. And you will get homesick, even if it’s your family from whom you’ve run away.
With time you’ll build a new family, meet new friends, find a job, and live a life. But you still have to clean the bathroom every once in a while, take out the garbage in the morning, and pay the bills no matter where you live; hiring an au pair won’t solve all of life’s problems. Life, at some basic level, is the same everywhere; and that includes the expat life.
What you might be giving up in progression and stability, you are gaining in life experience and adventure. That’s the reality of it. And time heals all wounds.