Monday, November 1, 2010

Expat Tips

The decision to move abroad can be daunting. It's probably not for everyone, although I do personally believe everyone has something to gain from seeing the world from another vantage point.

It's incredible how many different ways there are to do things and there isn't a 'right' way to do them, despite what many tell you, which is why I left the questions open ended. In my experience those who never have ventured out of their comfort zone tend to be the loudest in letting you know their way is the best. Some things work for certain people and not for others.

I've frequently been asked about considerations and for tips on starting a life in another country. Many of these things apply to living anywhere in the world when moving internationally. I'm not an immigration lawyer or expert, so I don't have the answers to all of those questions, but this list may help in putting things into perspective.

If you're trying to immigrate to the United States check out Visa Journey or enter the green card lottery.

- Missing family, friends, foods, and certain aspects of 'home' is difficult on the emotional end. People say the will visit and don't, they may not understand your life, and they may fall off the face of the earth. Dealing with a substantial time change makes contacting people difficult and it's not uncommon to be the last to know the latest news among family and friends. Thankfully there is skype, instant messaging, emails, and snail mail. You'll quickly find out who remembers you. At times it can be disappointing, but make the effort to keep in touch with those you care about.

- Be prepared to never feel fully 'home' again. You'll most likely always miss someone or some thing once you've moved. This is probably true in moving city to city, but more noticeable when dealing with other cultures as well. There are high highs and low lows, so just prepare yourself for that. Or at least make yourself think you're prepared for that.

- It's not vacation every day. Sometimes things become common place and the excitement can wear off once the everyday life sets in. Believe it or not there are still chores to be done and bills to pay, occasionally the seemingly easy (hello, washing machine) has suddenly become difficult.

- Some people are sent abroad for jobs, some fall in love, and some simply find a city that they dream of living in. These considerations will apply to everyone, although some circumstances make things much easier:

Visas + Permits

• What will you need to do to apply for a visa (x-rays, police records, translated official documents, etc)? How long will it take to process? What are the benefits and limitations of specific types of visa, and can you choose from different visa options? [If moving to Germany read this]

• Is there a possibility to obtain dual-citizenship? How long does it take?

• Are your passport, driver's license, job certifications, other forms of ID, shots/vaccinations, etc are all up to date before you apply for a visa and especially before you move? Applying for renewals from abroad is a big hassle. Sometimes it must be done in person.

• Is there are reciprocity for exchanging a driver's license to the locals license? Will you have to pay money or take courses?

• Do you have copies of important papers including notorized or apostilled copies of marriage licenses or transcripts?

• Does the country have any particular rules pertaining to expats, ie. having to hire a certain number of local employees (cook, gardener, maid, etc)?

Work Life

• Do you need a work visa before entering the country or can you get one after you arrive?

• If moving for your job or transferring with the company what issues will be important to you to negotiate?

• If married, will both partners be allowed to work? Are there job perspectives for both partners? If one partner can't work, what are their other options?

• Are spouses or partners invited to workplace functions?

• If you lose your job is there a distinct amount of time before you are forced to leave the country?

Health Care

• Will you have access to the (public) healthcare system? If not, what can you expect to pay in insurance, and what will this insurance cover, and when?

• What types of medications difficult to find or illegal to bring?

• What kind of immunizations / vaccinations will you need before going?

Food + Water

• Is it okay to drink tap water or from a distilled bottle even though it doesn't look clear?

• Are there cooking ingredients that are not available that should be brought?

• What type of measuring system do they use for foods? Should you bring measuring cups or a cook book of their ethnic dishes in your local language?

Everyday Life

• Are you able to drive in your new country? Rent a car?

• Is it pedestrian / bike friendly?

• Is there a subway / public transport system? How expensive is it?

• Can/should you ship your car? If so what are the additional safety/enviromental regulations? Are there road taxes?

• For the city/region, how's telecom (generally)? Is it typical to have your house phone/internet up and running within a week or two or is the wait more like 6-8 weeks, in which case are wireless cards/keys worth it?

• Will your electronics work there or will you have to buy tons of adapters + convertors?

• Is there a book store with publications in your native language?

• Are your DVD's or games going to work over there (region free, etc. )? Does your DVD player have a 'cracking' code?

• What are the area's religious views? Will this change the way you practice your own faith? Will you need to wear special clothing to blend in with others?


• Do you want to potentially have children there? What is pregnancy and childbirth like in this country?

• Would the child / children have the ability to gain a second citizenship? How do you register births with your homeland(s)?

• What kind of educational system is there for children?

• What kind of activities/after-school programs are offered?

• How will the school communicate with you (for those who don't yet speak the language)?

• What is expected of you as a parent (as in contributing volunteer hours, etc)?

• What holidays do children celebrate? And how do they celebrate them?

• Which medications are over-the-counter and which will you need to obtain from a medical professional?

• Will your child be able to get medical care the day you arrive? What about dental care? Eye-care and glasses?


• Can you transfer pets to this country? If you get a pet in your new country, and want to move it to another country later, what would you need to do?

• Is the country/city pet-friendly? Will it make renting a home or apartment more difficult?

• Is there an option to board pets when you want to travel?

• Does the country quarantine - how long is mandatory and how expensive is it?


• How easy is it for you to travel home from there?

• Is there an expat community present?

• Are there organizations to get involved with for volunteer opportunities?

• Is this a country where you can meet and interact with locals, or will you mostly need to rely on other expats?

• Are there lots of other expats in the area, and is there an active network?

• Are special programs available to foreigners to learn the language?

• What are different areas known for and what areas are most desirable to live in?

• What is the crime rate and some of the local laws?

• Are there local customs that you should be aware of, including holidays?

Moving & Accommodations

• Can you bring your things? How much would this cost? Are there customs restrictions? How long would it take (approximately) for your things to arrive at your new house?

• What type of living arrangements will you have access to?

• Can you choose your own accomodation, or does the company choose for you?

• What can you expect to spend on accommodation?

• Is it safer to live in an expat neighborhood/compound?

• Can you buy, or do you need to rent?

• Can temporary residents get a mortgage?

• If you own a home what will you do with it?

Finances, Taxes, and Banking

• What will you be expected to pay in terms of taxes? Will you receive any government benefits?

• Are you paying for things you won't have access to, or can you get a rebate?

• Are there any partner banks that offer benefits in the new country?

• How often will you be paid and in which currency?

• What about retirement savings? If you can/must put money into company/government pension schemes, can you take that money with you if you leave the country?

• Will you be eligible to get the country's social security?

• Will you have to pay taxes in your home land even while you are abroad?

• Will you/can you transfer money to your "home" bank if necessary?

Useful sites:
Expatistan - cost comparison between cities
If it were my Home - very interesting country by country comparisons
Expat blog - a directory of various locations from an ex-pat perspective
Internations - a community of expats with local chapters around the world
Spotted by Locals - tips from locals around European cities

If I forgot anything please leave a comment and I will add it to the list!


Reez said...

Thanks for the time and effort in putting this list together. It is certainly helpful. While I know to ask some of these questions, there are more on your list that I haven't considered so I need to get planning/thinking about all these other questions.

I can't thank you enough since I am one of those people who posed a long, open-ended question re all of this!

Emily said...

Glad that I can help. I know moving far away can feel scary and paralyzing, but it's also full of rewards!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to this list I've been prompted to learn about how to obtain a German driver's license and now know how cumbersome the process is for states w/o reciprocity agreements! Argh!

Might try to get a license in another state that has this agreement in place. So, here's a call to anyone out there who has done that: thoughts? experiences?

Emily said...

You are certainly right! I had a friend that did just that when she recently moved from California. If you have family in another state it may be easiest to register your address with them and get a new license before moving.

The good news is German licenses are for life (at least for now).

Anonymous said...

Emily, thank you for the post. I came across it today, and found it very true. We live in Nuremberg, so only a few hours away from where you are. So while I'm no longer considering a decision about becoming an expat, I just wanted to attest to a well-thought out post. I am one of those "spouses" whose husband is employed here (through a company transfer) and is fluent in German. Well, and I am not. I am now struggling with every day a lot less than before, yet the challenge of finding a job remains. I appreciate your straightforwardness in describing it to those yet to arrive. Nataliia

Emily said...

Nataliia - I can certainly sympathize. It's not always easy, but hopefully you can find your place and focus on things you enjoy in the meantime.

Nürnberg is gorgeous and I love stopping at the Düll Lebkuchen shop. I'll have to get back there to replenish my stock!

Nicola said...

Do you have any advice on banking? My husband is being sent to Crailsheim Germany for 6 months, and we are trying to figure out the best way to avoid hundreds of dollars in transfer fees and exchange rate fees. Any insight? (we still have to be able to pay US bills on our house and other items, so need money in both US dollars and Euros)

Emily said...

I've always heard getting a German bank account is a massive pain, however if you have that part taken care of you might want to look into transferring money through I've also heard of people doing it through paypal, but I don't have experience with that.