Moving to a new country is no small feat. I admit, after living in 10+ different countries throughout my life, I am quite used to it at this point, but even so, the idea of leaving Colorado after seven years freaked me out.
After I announced our move, I had a lot of questions about moving to a new country, so I thought that it would be fun to put together a few tips and pointers on how to move internationally, from someone who’s done it both on her own and with her family.
Before I begin, however, I need to give a HUGE shout-out to my parents, and, in particular, my mom, without whom I would not have had such a unique experience growing up. My mom also grew up internationally, and I am so grateful that she decided to do the same with her family. And kudos to my dad for following her around the world and taking care of us (and working full-time) while my mom traveled for work. They’re pretty amazing, my parents. Bat-shit CRAZY some of the time (I’m certain they’d agree), but amazing nonetheless 🙂 They gave me and my siblings the courage to literally go wherever our lives take us. So, without further ado, here are my top tips for anyone thinking about making the decision to live in a new country!
Decide the Where, the Why, and the How (before you go)
It’s tempting to pack up a suitcase and go somewhere on impulse – and that does sometimes work out – but I highly suggest sitting down and outlining why you want to go somewhere else and where you want to go. Ask yourself why you are looking to live in a new country: Do you want to learn a new language? Move with your spouse to their home? Continue your education? Experience something totally different from your norm? Answering these questions will help you narrow down where you want to go, and it will help you figure out how to get there. For example, if you’ve always wanted to learn French, that will significantly narrow down your choices of where to move!
You might already know exactly where you want to go; now the question is how you are going to get there. Depending on the country, it’s not always so easy to move just like that. You need a visa, a work permit, a student permit, residency, etc., etc. If you have your heart set on Istanbul, for example, research ways that you can get there, such as through a university course, a job, an internship, etc. It’s virtually impossible to move to a new country and job search from there unless you are already a citizen or resident of the country, so rule that out right away. Instead, browse for jobs in your desired location and find out what you need to qualify for them. Which brings me to my next point…
Research, Research, Research
Sometimes, among all the McDonald’s and KFC’s around the globe, it’s easy to forget how differently things work in different countries. That may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised! However, you have a good brain in your head (my mom said this to us growing up and now I say it all the time…yikes), and you have a plethora of tools at your fingertips. Get online and see what other expats from your country have to say about moving to said country. Everywhere I’ve lived has had an expat community, and whether you choose to be a part of it or not once there (because some people move to get away from people from their own country!), these communities are always more than happy to answer questions or give advice to others trying to move there. Of course, you’ll be getting an expat’s view, not a local’s, but at this stage that can be incredibly useful. Look for forums where you can ask your own questions and maybe even make a few contacts before the move.
Similarly, if you know someone from that country or someone who has lived there or currently lives there, reach out! I can’t count the number of times I’ve been graciously hosted by friends of my mom or dad when I first arrived. These friends welcomed me with open arms, even ones I didn’t know personally! They helped me get around and figure out things like transportation, housing, and other necessities that you’d prefer not to learn through trial and error.
Give It A Year
In my experience, the first year of living abroad (or anywhere new) is kind of like the first year of marriage: hard. Even if you get the perfect job in the perfect place and everything works out, moving is not easy. Learning a new culture, a new language, a new job, etc., is always challenging, and it’s even harder to do when you’re away from your usual support group. It takes time to make real connections and even more time to feel ‘home’ in your new home. In that first year, there will be a moment where things are not terrible, but they’re also not great, and you start to wonder why the heck you left your home, friends, and family for this weird new place where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language. I’ve had that literally everywhere I’ve lived, even the places I truly loved. Just remind yourself that everyone goes through this and that it does pass. Reach out to people back home for support, remind yourself of why you went on this adventure in the first place, and ask yourself which you’ll regret more: staying, or leaving?
In addition, you should also accept the fact that you may end up not liking where you moved, even after a year…it happens! You live, you learn, and you return home stronger and smarter than before. The crappiest places that I lived in hold some of my fondest memories because, in the end, it was an experience! And, truth be told, that’s where all of your best stories are going to come from 😉
Like I said above, everywhere is different. I remember going on a group trip to Switzerland, and another friend on the trip began to drive everyone crazy because she couldn’t stop exclaiming how ‘weird!’ everything was. It’s not weird, it’s just different. Some things might be better, and some might not, but keep your comments to yourself, especially if you are with locals. It’s so tempting to keep a mental score sheet on how this country measures up to your own, but that’s not why you moved! You moved to experience something new. If you meet someone who is from your home country, it’s perfectly fine to ask them if they had the same reaction to or experience with XYZ (squat toilets, caviar in a tube, durian fruit, what have you), but keep judgement out of it. We wouldn’t want people to come to our home country and tell us how weird and stupid we are (no matter how weird or stupid we actually are!). It´s uncomfortable and you’ll only turn people off. Instead, change your perspective to be one of genuine curiosity and not one of judgement and comparison. Besides, if where you’re from is so darn perfect, why did you leave?
Be Prepared for Culture Shock in Both Directions
Obviously, when moving somewhere new, there will be quite a bit of culture shock. When I first moved to the US, I could barely go in a grocery store without having a panic attack because of ALL. THE. CHOICES. It was seriously overwhelming to me! Which one of those 2000 different tomato sauces in the tomato sauce aisle (A WHOLE AISLE DEDICATED TO TOMATO SAUCE) should I choose?! What is more surprising, however, is the culture shock you’ll experience when you go back home, either to visit or if you move back. Your experience abroad will likely have some sort of impact on you, and it can be hard to reconcile that when you get home. A friend of mine who returned to the US after living in Senegal for two years had an incredibly tough time reintegrating into her ‘old’ world. She went from a tiny village with mud huts and a three-mile walk to the nearest clean water source (talk about culture shock!) back to 6-lane super highways, a Walmart on every corner, and her family buying bottled water in bulk from Costco despite having clean drinking water pouring out of every faucet. She didn’t fit in her world anymore, and it was incredibly disconcerting. Also, WELCOME TO MY ENTIRE LIFE 🙂
It’s not easy to see all these different ways of living and try to figure out your place among all of them. My advice is to carry your experiences close to you, but also give your home a break. Your friends and family may not have had the same experiences as you just had, so it’s not entirely their fault that they just don’t know how lucky they are to have drinking water just a second away (or whatever the situation may be). Tell them about your experience, educate them as best as you can (again, without judgement), and forgive them for living the way they always have. Not everyone gets the chance to see how the rest of the world lives, so acknowledge your privilege and use it to shape your future decisions.
Finally, and this is actually the most important tip: YOU CAN DO THIS!
I think the number one reason people don’t attempt an international move, even if they really want to, is fear. Fear of failing, fear of danger, fear of the unknown, you name it. Of course, it’s completely understandable to be afraid (I am!), but whenever I hear this as an excuse for someone not taking a chance, I just want to shake them and say, ‘GET OVER IT!’. I don’t mean this in a condescending way…it’s just that sh*t can – and will – happen no matter where you are. You could get run over by a bus in your home town tomorrow! Although I really hope you don’t….but you get the idea. The world is dangerous, but it’s also safe. Use your head (as in, it’s probably not the best idea to move to Syria right now) and common sense (as in, don’t walk alone at night in neighborhoods you don’t know), and you’ll be just fine.
I hope these tips are helpful for anyone who’s contemplated an international move! Like I said, it’s not going to be easy and it’s not always going to be comfortable, but getting the chance to experience life from a completely different perspective is such an amazing opportunity and one I hope you know you can totally do. And like I tell everyone, if you need help booking flights give me a shout… and I’ll ask my mom! #shesthepro
(all images via)