10 Steps to Successful Integration When You Retire Abroad

abroad and become an active part of your local community

Increasingly people are making the decision to move abroad in retirement in order to enjoy a better standard of living in a safer environment where their social security income will go far further.  The decision to move is perhaps easier to make nowadays, thanks to the Internet’s ability to deliver all the information you could possibly require about a given nation before you even visit it.

However, no matter how much research you do into a country’s viability and suitability as a desirable retirement haven, you cannot prepare yourself in advance for integration solely by reading about what others think of living abroad in your chosen nation.

One person’s experience of life living in a given country may be a million miles away from the next person’s – with differences created and exacerbated by everything from one’s financial position to whether you speak the local language or not.  So, whilst it can be useful to use forums and even social networking websites to connect with other foreign residents in your chosen nation, you cannot base your thoughts about what life will be like for you when you retire abroad solely on others’ experiences.

Making the decision to retire abroad requires a great deal of confidence – and whilst the advantages, benefits and positive gains you will undoubtedly enjoy as a result of committing to the relocation will be great, it’s also a fact of life that elements of your journey towards integration may be hard.

Therefore, with the understanding that the path towards complete integration is a personal one which no amount of research in advance can necessarily prepare you for, and accepting that integration can also be difficult at times, is there anything a would-be overseas retiree can do to really be ready for the entire process?

The good news is that yes, you can actually benefit from others’ experiences – albeit indirectly – and you can prepare yourself so that you have the best chance of smooth integration success.  We have compiled a 10-stage plan towards integration abroad for retired persons, basing our guidance on personal experience and commonsense so that it is realistic, accessible and achievable.

1.  Learn the Local Language – you may believe that everyone in the world speaks at least some degree of English; you may even have been told that the people in the country you’re moving to all speak English.  Well, unless you’re moving to Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Ireland or Australia (i.e., nations where English is the national language), you need to get to grips with the local language if you want to get the most out of your new life abroad.

Not being able to openly communicate with your neighbours will prevent you from making deep and lasting friendships…and the one thing all expats need is friends.  What’s more, if you cannot comfortably communicate in any situation, you will be vulnerable if ever you need help, support or advice.  Think about how you would deal with an emergency dentist visit, or how you would cope in the event that your house flooded?  If you couldn’t communicate, and you couldn’t understand others who were trying to help you in a stressful situation, how on earth would you cope?

Therefore, make your life much easier and learn the local language when you retire abroad.

2.  Take Your Family Too – research from the British Institute of Public Policy Research shows that the expatriate citizens who are happiest living abroad have family within reach.  So, if you’re thinking about relocating overseas, do you have family members already living abroad, close to whom you could perhaps live in retirement?  Or, if you want to retire abroad do your children and grandchildren want to emigrate too?

Of course, for many people relocating their entire family abroad is just not possible, practical, feasible or even perhaps advantageous – but it is worth knowing that extensive research has been done into how expatriates successfully integrate.  The research shows that the happiest expats don’t move abroad alone.

3.  Make Making Friends Your Top Priority – no man is an island, i.e., we cannot thrive alone.  Everyone needs social contact with friendly, like-minded people on a regular basis, but when you retire abroad you can inadvertently cut yourself off from such contact initially – which is why it is essential that you make making friends a priority once you relocate.

Whether you go to the local drinking hole and look for friends, or you join a sports or social club, whether you use an expatriate network like EscapeArtist.com to find local friends, or you just make the effort to speak to and befriend your neighbours, you must make the effort to make friends.

Shy people can find it very hard to reach out and make social contact – but if you want to retire abroad and be happy living your new life you will need friends.  What this means is that you need to prepare yourself in advance for the effort it will take to get out there and make friends.  There are no short cuts…

4.  Become an Active Member of the Local Community – the aforementioned research by the Institute of Public Policy Research in Britain also highlighted the fact that happy immigrants are an active and integral part of their local community.

We’ve all heard tales of expat ghettos overseas where foreign residents all stick together and make their small environment into a replica of their old home environment, but anyone who wants to retire abroad and properly integrate to get the most out of their new life will become an active part of their new local community.

What this means in reality is anything and everything from shopping locally and using local services and facilities, to attending local community events like fairs and celebrations.

Some expats who really integrate take it to another level and get involved with organising local events – or even participating in local politics!

5.  Learn to Love the Challenge – elements of your life abroad will invariably challenge you…and no matter how much you prepare yourself there will always be the unexpected that will pop up and surprise you!  From suddenly discovering a problem with your home, or getting a puncture when out driving in the middle of nowhere, to discovering you can’t actually acquire that one essential item you need locally, or learning that something you believed to be true about your new county is completely false – all are possible elements of expat life.

Whilst you cannot ever prepare for the unexpected, you can adapt your mindset so that when a challenge presents itself you see it as something to be embraced rather than avoided, and you understand that it’s just one of those things, rather than another hurdle in your way.

6.  Be Prepared to Adapt Your Way of Thinking – not everything abroad will be done in the way you’re used to.  Shops may open and close at different hours, customer service may leave a little to be desired, residency rules may be bizarre, and the red tape you may encounter could be inexplicable.  You need to know that you will not change a nation and its people, and that if something challenges your way of thinking you need to be prepared to adapt your way of thinking!

If you’re the sort of person who sweats the small stuff, you may not thrive and survive abroad – you will need to learn to let go and go with the flow if you want an easy life.  And let’s face it, who doesn’t want an easy life!

7.  Be Positive as Well as Flexible – not everything about your new life will be perfect; quite possibly, not everything about your new life will be as you planned, expected or dreamed.  Sometimes you may feel homesick, sometimes too many things will challenge you in one day and you may wonder why you made the move…however, you need to stay positive!

Those expats with a positive, can-do mental attitude will find a way around issues, they will take off their rose-coloured glasses about what life used to be like back home, they will see the reality around them – i.e., that they are actually living many people’s dream – and they will find a way to get their life back on track.

No matter where you live in the world life can sometimes bite you, but if you stay positive as well as adaptable you will succeed.

8.  Don’t be Naïve – newly arrived immigrants in any nation can be vulnerable because they don’t know the lay of the land – this can leave some open to the less-scrupulous elements of society that exist in every nation across the seven continents.  As a retired expat you need to be particularly astute when it comes to sizing people up as friend or foe!

Anyone who goes out of their way to be overly friendly, overly helpful and basically over-bearing very early on in your relocation should possibly be avoided, or at least you need to be wary of their intentions.

It may just be that someone is lonely, or someone recognises that they went through the same period of confusion when they first arrived overseas and they want to help you out genuinely.  But be aware that it is 100% a fact that newly arrived expats can be vulnerable – and so be cautious and a little reticent about making best-friends-forever with the first people you meet.

9.  Money Matters – even if you have extensively researched the cost of living abroad in your new nation in advance of your relocation and you have a budget in mind on which you will live each month, life can sometimes throw up the odd expensive surprise.  If you want to be sure of a secure and successful relocation ensure you have an emergency fund for just such a happening.

Back home if you encountered a financial bump in the road perhaps you could have called on family to help out, or used an already agreed overdraft facility.  You would maybe have had easier access to finance or credit to get you past a hiccup – but abroad you may not be in such a position.

It can take a long time to build up a credit rating abroad, and even then credit and finance facilities may not be available.  What’s more, you don’t want to be vulnerable financially speaking when you’re in a foreign environment.  So, get your money matters absolutely right before you go.

10.  Accept That Change is Inevitable – by making the decision to retire abroad you must want to change something quite significant about your life!  If you are under the misapprehension that you can retire overseas and continue living in exactly the same way as you are now, then perhaps a new life abroad is not actually right for you!  Change is inevitable when you move overseas…

What’s more, changes will continue to occur in your life.  New people will enter your life, new experiences will become possible, you will make new friends, you will see new things and you will experience new emotions.  Following the initial big change in terms of your country of residence and the home you live in, you need to accept that as an expat, elements of your life will continue to change perhaps forever!  This is a positive aspect of life abroad as an immigrant – but you need to desire it and accept it to be 100% happy as an expat.

About the author: Susan Beverley is a writer and editor for Escape From America Magazine and also writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – the expat news blog for EscapeArtist.com.  She traveled extensively before becoming an expat herself having found a place to call home in South America where she has lived since 2005.  She understands the concerns, needs and difficulties that expats face from first-hand experience and is dedicated to supporting and encouraging anyone who is looking for a new nation to call home. [ send her an email ]

If you are considering retiring overseas check out the section on  EscapeArtist.com dedicated to helping you to decide which overseas retirement destination is right for you.

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  1. Lee June 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Very good and insightfull article


  2. Bill June 6, 2011 at 9:24 am

    retire to where ? i new a man spent seven years fighting the war in Rhodesia/zimbabwe after he went to live on a tiny island where there would never be a conflict. Guess where he went ?? the Falklands !! 30 years on the world is a very unstable place and better to retire to the ground you know than that you don’t.

  3. whatsupelsal June 10, 2011 at 12:28 am

    Susan you knocked it out of the park again! well written article NOT just for retirees but any expat LIVING in a new home country rather than just an extended stay. Another one on Expatdailynews.com talks about avoiding the isolation trap. This one has some awesome good points.

  4. John Scherber October 30, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    A thoughtful and useful piece. My own experience of 6 years in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, bears it out.
    My book on the expat experience tells a broader story. It’s not for everyone, but most people love it here.

    San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart


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