You have decided to become an expat. Or, in some cases, someone else, like your employer or spouse, has decided that you should become an expat. In either case, congratulations! You are in for, at the worst, a great adventure in which you learn a lot of things about yourself and the world, and at the best, the most amazing time of your life. But once the decision has been made, now what? Where do you even begin to start with preparations for the big move abroad?
First Things First My advice from personal experience is to do nothing until you buy yourself a heavy duty pair of earplugs. Once you make the announcement about moving abroad, oh how the naysayers seem to come out of the woodwork. And funny they are always the ones who have never once traveled outside the country….But they will come like attack dogs, telling you how it is not the right time with the markets, the economy, international security, your kids, the kids you haven’t even had yet, (but whose lives you will somehow screw up by making this move abroad), blah blah blah.
Make Contacts in Your New Country Which brings us to the second thing that I would advise you to do – make some new friends. Quickly. Preferably in your new country or hometown. Get online, join chat groups, read expat blogs, search Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, and do not be shy about introducing yourself and asking many questions. Expats, in general, stick together and love to help other expats. Plus it is a great feeling to get on a plane knowing that you at least have some contacts in your new place.
Find out the real scoop from people living there about the cost of living, things like safety, the job and housing market, schools, etc. Make sure that the people giving you the information have no vested interest other than helping another expat. I have seen too many people get told by the Realtor, who speaks English and who had an amazingly helpful website, that the prices he is quoting them are normal, going rate. But for example, the house that I rented in Patagonia for 800 pesos directly from the owner was at the same time listed with a Realtor in town for 2500 pesos a month. No one pays 2500 pesos in this particular town for anything, except naïve gringos who provide countless entertainment for the locals. So ask around to many people to try to get a feel for the real story of what you might be getting yourself into.
The Stuff, The Dreaded Stuff Then comes the reality of having to deal with your possessions at home. Do you sell, rent, give things away? The biggest factor to consider is if you are planning on returning, and if so, in how long. If you are moving abroad for work for a one year stint, then it probably makes sense to try to rent your house or line up a caretaker for that short time. If you foresee being gone for at least a few years, that’s a different story. From personal experience, I can tell you that no one in the world was as in love with their house as I was with the one I had in the US. I cried the day I found it because it was so perfect for me and it was the place I envisioned, at the time, raising my kids. It was one of the hardest things to walk away from when we moved. Now, only a year and a half later, I could care less. If I moved back to the US, I am such a different person through this expat experience, that I would never want to live in that house again. It is way too big, way too inefficient, way too expensive. Travel has changed me, and I am very happy to not have to be dealing with that house still. I can be completely here in Argentina, physically and mentally.
Cars? My opinion is to sell them at home and use the money to buy a new one abroad. You may even find that you do not even need a car, especially if you will be living in the city. The cost to ship a car is hefty, and in many cases you will have a hard time finding parts for your car if something happens to break on it abroad.
As for household stuff. Yuck. That huge house I had? Full of things. I was lucky enough to have parents who had some space in their pole barn, and we constructed a small area inside to hold just the super important basics in case of dire emergency that we needed to move back and set up house. All of which could totally catch on fire now and I wouldn’t even care, in fact I would probably smile and feel liberated. It’s laughable to me now the things that were so important to me just less than two years ago. The rest of our stuff I dealt with by having an estate sale, and set the money aside to buy things once I got to South America. It was a heck of a lot easier than shipping stuff, and I found that the things that I had in the US just wouldn’t fit my new lifestyle here anyways. Kids items got donated to a women’s shelter. Tools and house supplies got donated to Habitat for Humanity. Girlfriends got clothing. And I think I singlehandedly supported Goodwill’s inventory for the next year for them. What you will find in more cases than not living abroad is that your new home will probably be much smaller than what you may be used to, and your new place will fill up quickly.
One of the biggest changes for me moving abroad with packing things is that none of my clothes I brought ever seemed to be appropriate. I first lived in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia, in which case I lived in one old, baggy, torn pair of jeans, a wool sweater, and my hiking boots almost every day. For over a year I never touched anything else I brought. From there I moved to Mendoza province, where the ladies sport high heels and super tight (I’m talking SUPERTIGHT) jeans to go grocery shopping. So again, I still had a bunch of stuff that didn’t quite work with the vibe of the place. You are much better off packing some basics, and planning on picking up a few things in your new town that you will feel comfortable in.
Paperwork and Records The one thing that you cannot move without is all of your paperwork and records in order. It is also a good idea to leave copies of everything with a trusted friend or family member. Another tip is to make sure everything comes with as many stamps and official looking things on it as possible. So many times just showing a piece of paper to someone has been enough to get whatever I needed done, even though it was not applicable or had anything to do with what the person actually needed. If it looks fancy, even if they can’t read a word of it, it gets you far in certain circumstances.
- Birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, originals and copies.
- Passports and copies of photo page
- School records and any transcripts or university degrees. Many elementary and secondary schools will require records from the kid’s old school.
- Vaccination records. Check to make sure which new vaccinations you may need to enter your new country.
- Medical and Pharmacy records (may be helpful to get them translated ahead of time, if your new country speaks a different language). I just got woken up one day last week with a phone call from the hospital, as my expat friend was having difficulties with some prescriptions and they were asking me to translate and fill in the gaps of his medical records. No thanks! I did not want to be responsible for translating something that important half asleep!
- Insurance paperwork
- Copies of wills
- Police records. You may not think about this, but some countries ask for a police clearance before you can rent something.
You will also want to keep a notebook or list of all of your important phone numbers and addresses, such as for your bank, old neighbors, embassy, credit cards companies, etc. It will be so much easier to have these on hand then to try to dig them up when you really need them.
You will also want to make sure to have your mail forwarded or stopped. It is also a good idea to set up your bills so that you can pay everything online, or have things direct debited. Make sure if you plan to continue using your same bank, that you notify them that you will be abroad so they do not think that it is suspicious activity that your card is being used in a different country. Try to get as many copies of debit and credit cards that you can. ATM’s abroad are notorious for easting them up.
Getting the Kids Ready If you have kids, you should give them a chance to have some sort of going-away party. Share with the parents of their friends how to use skype, and help them fill up an address book with all of their friend’s information of how they can stay in touch. Set up some sort of pen pal program with their old school. Do a presentation at their old school about the culture in the new country. Make it so that others take a positive interest in your child’s move, and that your child feels proud of their new country.
You should also let your kids, no matter how young they may be, have a say in what they want to bring. Trust me, it can’t be worse than what I had to deal with. When we moved from Patagonia to 15 hours more north, I gave each of my kids one suitcase and one backpack. I explained that everything they wanted to bring had to fit in there, and everything else would be donated to neighbors or charities. My eight year old daughter informed me a short time later that she was ready. I looked at what she packed. The entire backpack and half of the suitcase was full with special rocks, sticks, and feathers from the area. The other half of the suitcase held three books, some markers, and her stuffed animal. No clothes whatsoever. She explained that she wanted to bring a little piece of this home with her to her new home. We compromised and I ended up personally carrying a 40 kilogram backpack full to the brim with rocks. But you know what? She is so proud of how she has decorated our new patio, and for each birthday party she goes to, the special person gets a Patagonian rock. These stupid rocks have made her more happy than any extra outfit ever would have. It was a small price to pay, and she knew that her needs were being considered.
Mental Preparation Try to learn as much about your new culture, and as much of the local language that you can before you go. And after you do that, drop any and all preconceptions that you may have about what the move will be like. It may be better than what you thought, it may be disastrous, but chances are you will never be able to visualize or plan out every detail flawlessly. That is part of the why moving abroad is such a great opportunity. It demands that stay open and flexible, as you will be encountering and maneuvering your way through new issues every day, things that you could never have foreseen or planned for. If you can remember that these moments are opportunities and all part of the grand adventure, you will be just fine! Good luck and enjoy!!
About the author: Cathy Brown is a mother, writer, artist, teacher, traveller and explorer originally from Michigan. She has a serious case of wanderlust and currently lives in Argentina with her three amazing children, ages nine, seven, and five. She writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – South America and Expat Daily News – Central America