Being an expat is something that I recommend everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. Living abroad gives you a different perspective on the world, allows you to have unique experiences, meet amazing people and learn about other cultures in-depth, in a way that you wouldn’t if you were just visiting.
However, for all that it’s an amazing thing to do, living internationally can be tough. You’re in a foreign land, far away from home, things may be extremely strange, you’ll probably feel homesick at some point and it can be a struggle just to navigate normal life. Navigating these challenges can be tough, but doing so can show you just how strong and smart you really are.
I’ve lived abroad six times now (twice in Lanzarote, Spain; once in Tunisia; twice in Korea and now in Pamplona, Spain). I’ve also worked internationally many times. Each time I have moved has been a unique experience, with it’s own unique issues, but I have picked up some good tips and advice.
1. Be kind to yourself.
No matter how cool and tough you are, moving abroad can be hard. You can spend a lot of time feeling lost and making basic mistakes. There can also be a lot of guilt: why do I not know enough of the local language? Why haven’t I got a bank account/gym membership/ friends yet? Should I even be here?
The best way, I’ve found, to take care of yourself is to stay in touch with your friends back home, to take time out to read and relax and to go explore your new country. You moved there for a reason – and sometimes it’s good to be reminded what that reason is.
2. Find your third place.
This is good advice for everyone, but especially so for expats. We have work/ university and we have home; but just sticking to those two places can be incredibly claustrophobic and isolating – so it’s good to find your third place, whether this be a local bar, a coffee shop, the library, a gym or a park – find other places where you feel comfy and are happy to spend time.
3. Find other expats.
Need to know where to get a good haircut? Need help navigating the pension system? Want to know what events are taking place? You need to ask another expat. Nearly every place we have lived has had a local expat group on Facebook. If you can find that, you can find friends and information. If there is no group for your area – start one. If you build it, they shall come and all that.
4. Don’t let yourself become isolated.
It’s so easy to just go to work and then come home. Outside is scary and foreign; inside you can play around online and hide. But you need to get out. Do not isolate yourself, otherwise there is no point in being there. You need to be out experiencing this country, meeting people, discovering things. Yes, there are times when you want to hide and that is okay (J and I used to have We Hate Korea weekends, when we would shut the curtains and not leave the apartment) but if you’re hiding and staying in all the time, then you’ve got a problem. Don’t isolate yourself: go out with colleagues; take yourself out for dinner; just go for a walk; call friends back home – don’t be alone.
5. It’s going to cost you more than you think it will.
I still do it: think that moving abroad is not going to cost ‘that’ much. It’s not just a flight you need to pay for though; there’s set up costs for new houses; even if you have a house with your new job you often need to buy things for that house; there’s immigration costs; baggage costs; new gym fees; travel pass fees; sim cards etc etc. It always costs more than you expect it will.
There are ways you can cut costs: if you can find the local expat group, ask them what are the things you should bring with you that are expensive locally (sheets in Korea; mirrors and mobiles in Tunisia). You may also be lucky and find someone who is moving on and looking to sell their stuff.
6. You are going to become a legal expert.
Being an expat, you are going to learn about parts of the legal system that you never even knew existed. You’ll learn the difference between notarised and apostilled and leagalised; how to get this done to all of your documents; when to get things stamped; where the embassies are. You’re also going to learn about international treaties that impact on your expat life (for example whether you can claim back your pension) – and you’ll learn about exchange rates and fees and how world events impact these.
7. Be patient.
Although you probably just want to get up and go, it usually takes time to become an expat and you just have to be patient while the systems do their things. If you’re waiting for a visa, why not spend this time making the most of where you are – go explore if somewhere new or go say goodbye to your favourite haunts if you’re leaving. Take some time to rest before the craziness of the move.
8. When you arrive – ride the buses.
The easiest way to get to know a new area is to just ride the buses. Get a travel card or lots of change and then just jump on buses to see where they go. This is how you get to know a city really quickly – and it’s unlikely you’ll get lost, as you can just get the same bus back. It’s a lazy thing you can do on any day, in any weather, and a good way to get to know your new city or district.
9. Find your local Tesco style supermarket.
Find the supermarket that sells all of the random things you are going to need and which also has an international food section.
10. Find your local random crap store.
Every country has them: those stores that sell the most random things, but things that one day you will need. Find this shop.
11. Visit the tourist office or find their website.
Yes, you’re an expat, not a tourist, but the easiest way to get maps and find out what is going on in your area is to visit the local tourist office. More often than not, they will also speak your language. I pop into the tourist office in Pamplona quite often to get up to date leaflets, maps for visitors or to just ask them questions about the city.
12. Be a little careful at first.
Whilst you’re navigating a new country, it pays to be a little careful whilst you find your feet. What I mean by this is don’t drink too much, get completely wasted, get lost and get into trouble; or bungee jump and end up in hospital.
Whilst you’re getting to know the country and getting to know friends, it’s worth while keeping yourself safe. Wait till you are settled before you have to navigate the emergency services. It also pays to get to know local culture before you completely let free – so that you know how locals will expect you to behave. In Korea, it’s fine to be publicly drunk and unconscious in the street (if you’re male); in Tunisia, not so much.
13. Don’t judge.
It’s very easy to judge the country you’re living in and think that you know better. There will be things that local people do that you think are wrong and don’t agree with – and maybe over time, as you get to know local beliefs and ideas you can start to challenge some of these ideas gently – but you shouldn’t start judging people when you’re straight off the plane.
I have been guilty of doing this myself (sorry Korea); but then as I have got to know these countries I discovered that some of my initial perceptions and impressions were not quite right. I’ve also discovered, through living in other countries, that perhaps some of my deep-rooted ideas need to be challenged – the west is not always right.
14. Learn the emergency service numbers.
Put them on a post-it note somewhere you can find it if you need them quickly.
15. Plan your evacuation route.
Another top tip is to plan your evacuation route for your new house. Sometimes, unfortunately, you may discover that there is no evacuation route – but at least think through what you would do if there were to be a fire or an emergency and you had to get out quick.
16. Be proud of yourself.
Going to the post-office to post a letter, in another country, is such an achievement. Joining a gym, finding your way around, making friends, setting up a new bank account, perhaps for the first time in 20 years – each one of these things is a major achievement and you should be really proud of yourself.
So these are just some of my top tips. If I think of any more, as I am an expat right now, I will add them to the list. If you have any suggestions, why not pop them in the comments section below.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.