Seven Indispensable Pieces of Advice for Moving Abroad

If your New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to become an expat, you’ll join thousands of countrymen leaving the country (or, if you’re American, fleeing Obamacare). While expat life is uncertain, fulfilling, thrilling and, at times, mundane, it’s often a day-to-day challenge.

Information and preparation are really your best tools.

Making sure you’ve got everything in order before boarding the plane will help make your transition to expat life a bit smoother, even past the euphoria period of your first few months. Take advantage of the free resources you have around you, from your local library to websites devoted to expats. HiFX, a great resource for all those hoping to move abroad, has asked me to contribute to their Expat Tip Page to help make the transition into life overseas for future expats as easy as possible. After agreeing to contribute to the expat page in a couple of weeks, I realized that I actually have lots of tips for people looking to move abroad, so here are some invaluable tips I think all future expats should know.

Don’t start packing until you’ve considered the following:

Got a Passport?

No? Get one.

Yes? Is it still valid?

You passport will serve dozens of purposes when you first move away, so it should be up-to-date, valid for at least six months from departure and in good condition. In Spain, I had to use my passport to sign up for my residency card, prove I could rent an apartment, open a bank account, and travel outside of the EU. It’s one of my most important belongings, and has even had to get new pages put into it.

Visas

If you’re planning on a long-term move, you’ll more than likely need a visa. Some tourist visas are good for six months or even a year, but if you’re planning to work, buy property or study, a tourist visa won’t cut it. Contact your nearest consulate for the requirements necessary, and work to get them together as hastily as possible. Some visas can be sent away for, while still other require multiple trips to the consulate to present and pick up your visa in person.

It’s all good practice, really – in Spain’s case, the waiting will become part of everyday life!

Live the Language

Language can be an Anglo expat’s biggest nightmare if English is not the commonly spoken language. Thankfully, the web is home to countless resources, including podcasts, practice exams and videos and songs. I always suggest to my students that they read or watch something that they’re interested in in English, and doing the same helped me learn Spanish. Check out Notes from Spain and Note in Spanish if you’re into Spanish – it’s a great resource for not just words, but also images and culture in España.

Many big cities also have free language courses or refugee centers, and chances are there’s a native speaker you could invite for a coffee. I checked out books and films from my local library to pick up a few extra words and phrases, which sparked an interest in reading travel memoirs. If you’re creative and willing, the possibilities will come.

Once you’re in your new country, consider signing up for a language course, as well – they’re more than worth their while!

Money Matters

Dealing with money is more than just learning to translate your dollars into foreign currency – let your bank and credit card companies know you’ll be away long before you go, research foreign accounts, and if you’re making money abroad, considering opening a separate account in your home country for card payments, student loans or miscellaneous costs that may come up while away. Again, knowledge is power.

In addition, I always make sure to have a small amount of local currency on me when traveling back to the US or Spain, as well as traveling outside the Euro Zone. This way, you can get public transportation to your city or buy a coffee on a long layover without the hassle of changing money.

Making Contact

Your home country will likely have an embassy and one or more consulates in your new country. Be sure to register with them, particularly if you’ll be settling in a place prone to political unrest or natural disasters – it the event that evacuation is needed, you will be registered and given help.

Americans can sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows constant contact with US embassies abroad. I’d venture to guess that many ambassadors and their staff are also on hand for visa processing, passport renewal,

On that note, be sure to email other expats in your preferred destination to establish a pre-departure network for both information and the almighty rant session when you can’t figure out to unlock your phone/don’t get anywhere with bureaucracy/aren’t sure if you can get your favorite products from home. Expat circles can help you through tough times and get you on track when you first arrive.

Staying in Contact

On my first trip to Spain, Skype hadn’t been invented and many Spaniards didn’t have computers at home – I’d have to use phone cards or local Internet cafes to call home! Nowadays, technology has brought the world together through smartphones and broadband, and there are countless mobile apps for keeping in touch.

Consider unlocking your mobile phone for use abroad, study up on plans in your destination country and set up a listserv or email to let your loved ones back home know what you’re up to. Expats will often list missing friends and family as one of their biggest complaints, so making a conscious effort to stay in touch will help ease homesickness tremendously.

Attitude is Everything

As someone who constantly sees the glass as half full (and has already ordered another one), I think my attitude and grit has allowed me to deal with the frustration, disappointment and headaches that can come from living across the pond. Realize that not every day will be new, or exciting, or even fun. Know that it’s normal. Be open to new opportunities and learning from others. Enjoy it.

All tips listed here are my own because, well, I’ve been through them!

Are you considering becoming and expat, or have you lived or worked abroad? I’d love to hear your tips, as I sometimes deal with expat angst – even after six years!

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. I can’t second the “information and preparation” tips enough; I would have been a walking hot mess had I not scoured All The Blogs (like yours!) and read several books before coming to Spain 2 years ago. The cultural insight and practical how-tos really helped make my transition from the U.S. to Spain so much smoother.
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..The Food I Miss From Jaén Province, SpainMy Profile

    • Why thank you! There weren’t many expats in Spain blog when I came here, so it’s always great to know that what’s on my site is helpful. But really, reading and researching can get you everywhere!!

  2. I agree in full sista! These are some great tips here. Also I love love love that last photo. Those are my fav colors too! Where was it taken?
    Jessica Wray recently posted..14 Feelings Only Auxiliares in Spain Will UnderstandMy Profile

  3. On the money matters, getting a no foreign transaction fees US credit card has been a life saverrrrrrrrr!
    Alex @ ifs ands & butts recently posted..pub christmas party.My Profile

  4. Great post, Cat! It was almost a bit romantic and sure felt easier when I moved to France in the 90s. Less technology, more contact, no one even concerned themselves with how fast things could be done and there was nothing to compare it to.

    It felt 1000x more insane when we moved to Germany a few years ago.

    Either way, we spent 6 months prepping our lives and our papers from the time we decided to move there to the time we actually got on a plane. Preparation is key, but I also think it’s extremely important for anyone who *wants* to move abroad to know that there will be tons of headaches, annoyances, delays, etc. and that they just have to be considered speed bumps to drive over or roadblocks to break through. If you really want it, then you’ve gotta put up with that nonsense.

    For those doing it for the love and not the necessity, it’s all about “don’t talk about it, be about it.” I can’t stress that enough. Over the years we’ve heard countless friends, acquaintances, blog readers, whatever, go on and on about how they want to or will do something, and 99.9% of them never will or do. What’s the point of rambling on about it if you’re not going to do anything about it.

    I personally think that’s the absolute number one tip for moving abroad, before the practical shit. Which is obviously very important. :)
    Ryan from Jets Like Taxis recently posted..Day Trip: A Visit to Playa del Carmen, MexicoMy Profile

  5. Hi Cat. I’ve been reading your blog regularly to prep for my move to Spain later this year! I have been living in Thailand for the last 1.5 years, which is quite a culture shock, but many of these tips work for that transition as well.

    My biggest tip is to think long and hard about what you’re doing/what your move actually means for you. I studied in Spain for 4 months and went for the total wrong reasons…and was dying to go home by the end. Now that I’m older and wiser (heh, yeah right!) I’ve realized that you should never make a big move just for an adventure or to escape whatever you’re leaving back home. If you don’t have a love for travel, don’t do well with new environments, lack the motivation to make the best of your situation, etc., you won’t enjoy your life in another country. So make sure it’s something you really want to do!

    Thanks for the tips, I’ll use them for my next transition for sure :)
    Blayne recently posted..The Chiang Mai BasicsMy Profile

    • Hey Blayne, thanks very much for your two cents. Making the right decisions for you is absolutely necessary. I have friends who have gone home halfway through the school year because they feel like they made a precipitation decision. The other important factor is that many feel like they can’t go home – it’s not giving up, in my opinion, it’s making the decision that it isn’t for you.

  6. Interesting piece – glad you reminded people to get a passport! :-)
    Greetings from the south…
    Andrew Forbes recently posted..Malaga’s Urban Street Art in SoHo – Barrio de las ArtesMy Profile

  7. I would add another one: make sure you have a way to sustain yourself once there. I strongly advice against the move without a job awaiting you in your new country as you never know how long it will take to find a decent one. A regular income will give you the tranquility to enjoy the experience to its fullest.
    Arabella recently posted..SocializandoMy Profile

    • You make a good point, Arabella, but I think that coming without a job can be doable. Of course, you must have some money earned up and the idea of what salaries are like. I think it’s also important to put a time limit on it – if you haven’t found a job within X months, then it’s time to move on.

  8. This is great advice. I’m already dreading going through the visa process all over again since I’ll be switching programs, and will be in Argentina for most of the summer. The joys of living abroad…but your tips definitely make it just that much easier!
    Julia recently posted..Granada: This Must be the PlaceMy Profile

  9. Great tips, Cat! These are very useful and will undoubtedly come in handy as I prepare to head to Spain in September…even though I was all prepared about a year ago. I believe that attitude is everything, as it is with everything in life, so I’m glad you mentioned it!
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..Learning Spanish Before Going to SpainMy Profile

  10. Some really nice and informative tips i must say!! Thank you so much for such an informative post.. I will be travelling south africa in coming week and these tips will really help me in my journey :)
    vito recently posted..Domestic Removals – Activities to do afterwardsMy Profile

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