Ok, ok, a deliberately provocative title I know, but really, the expat experience today compared to even twenty years ago is so easy and don’t even talk about trekking to far off lands without so much as the promise of regular mail.
When I left my home country, twenty-three years ago, there was no Internet through which to book flights, cars, hotels etc. My sparkly, new husband rented an apartment for us without any input from me; you can imagine how the scene would have played out today. Photos back and forth, weeks and weeks of decision-making…. Sigh.
One thing that did bug me back then, was the trouble I had to get money when visiting the UK. Although there were obviously cash machines/ATMs, very few banks’ machines were actually connected the way they are now.I couldn’t just put in my Chase debit card into any old ATM and get money straight out of my account. Most of the time I would have to enter a bank and use a Visa card to get funds; when the ATMs finally became an option, if I attempted to withdraw money at a time when my American bank wasn’t physically open, the message on the screen would simply tell me to come back later. I literally had to time when I ran out of money!
Thinking about it however, the biggest hassle I have these days is the lack of Chip and Pin on American cards. Many places in the UK are now fine about it, but the amount of times I’ve had to leave a trolley/cart of food items to get cash out of the hole-in-the-wall is unbelievable. Particularly in very small, off-the-beaten-track shops, I always ask first whether they can take chip-and-pinless cards; last year saw a particularly hilarious scene somewhere near Hampton Court Palace, with the vendor on the phone to her boss, and me on my phone Internet, trying to figure out how to make such a sale. In several incidents, the sales assistant has had to hunt under the counter and bring out the old manual credit card processor-cum-dinosaur.
Even obtaining visas is easier these days now that we can track progress (or lack of) on the Internet. In 1990, when applying for my spousal visa, the paperwork got “lost” and no one seemed to know what had happened, nor what to do. My father-in-law had to get his local Senator involved, and I had to trail round to the American Embassy almost every lunch time from work, which was very luckily, just round the corner. The only other way of communicating with the American Embassy in London was by phone – and good luck getting through. A stressful time indeed. Nowadays, embassy web sites around the world have all the necessary forms available for on-line submission, guidelines about the documentation you’ll need to provide, tips on what to expect and a means of tracking your application form together with an estimate of the time it will take to complete. Although it hasn’t completely eradicated the stress of dealing with immigration authorities, at least applicants have an idea about what’s going wrong.
Similarly, last year I was able to share information about British driving licenses after I was given incorrect advice by a car rental employee. (Long story short, I presented my old, pink, paper British driving license and he promptly told me I should not be in possession of it and should have relinquished it to the DVLA (Driving & Vehicle Licensing Agency) some time ago. – Gulp.) Fortunately, I was a little skeptical of his grasp of the facts and sought Internet assistance immediately. The DVLA web site was fairly helpful but a little vague on expat details; however, in less than 24 hours I e-mailed the support center and received a comprehensive answer, which I shared on my blog.
When you move country these days, no matter where you go there’s an expat group whether real or virtual, if that’s your thing. When I first moved to Dallas in 1990, someone put me in touch with a lovely group of British ladies collectively known as the Daughters of the British Empire. Most of them had been in the States so long they barely remembered England, but they took me under their wings anyway. Today, you can make contact with them and many other organizations before you even arrive. Members can give you information about locations in which to live, schools for your children, whether or not to bring your appliances with you – the list is endless. (Obviously, Expat Focus, is THE place for expat info-sharing.)
At the risk of sounding like an old fogey – it really is easier now.
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.