Being a solo female expat is relatively rare. Many people move abroad with families, but there is a lot to be said for heading to a new country and setting up a whole new life regardless of whether or not you have other people around you.
While all expats have their own unique challenges to deal with, the situation of a solo woman expat is arguably the most challenging.One advantage that these women have over people who move with families or spouses is that they don’t need to compromise on their careers; a frequent refrain of expat partners. Solo women typically move abroad specifically because they find career options that they feel are an improvement over those in their home country, or because they feel drawn to a specific area. However, in addition to dealing with the usual expat challenges ranging from mundane annoyances like the weather and the bureaucracy to larger problems like language barrier, loneliness, and culture shock, solo expat women often also worry about things like safety and differing cultural expectations in their new countries.
If you’re a solo woman moving abroad, here are a few tips that will hopefully make your life as an expat easier.
Learn the language
Any expat anywhere in the world should ideally be able to both understand and speak the local language. However, for single women in particular, this is absolutely essential – you should to be able to navigate your way around your new city and country without needing to rely entirely on a mish-mash of facial expressions, confused sign language, and garbled translations from random strangers. This isn’t only a question of safety, although that is of course an important aspect – being able to understand what people around you are saying will of course help you to stay safe. However, knowing the local language will also help you to settle into your new home better.
A language barrier is guaranteed to make you feel lost and disconnected from everything around you. The more fluent you are in the local language, the easier it will be to communicate with people and form friendships, including the usually superficial but important relationships with people like neighbors and shopkeepers. If nothing else, you should at least begin your expat life with a handful of essential local words and phrases to see you through the first few months, and then sign up for a regular class as soon as you can.
Make at least one long trip before you actually move
Again, this is general expat advice that becomes more important when you’re a solo expat. The experiences and interactions you have as a tourist or traveler are no guarantee that you will like or even be able to tolerate a place as a long-term resident. Merely reading about the place will arguably prepare you for life there even less. Instead, if possible, you should try living there for a few months, renting (or sharing) an apartment, buying groceries, paying bills, getting used to local transport, perhaps dealing with local police and bureaucracy, figuring out the general atmosphere in terms of culture, safety, and infrastructure, and forming a few relationships with locals and expats.
A long preliminary trip is particularly important if you’re moving to be with a romantic partner from another country. Taking a relationship to the next level, especially starting to live together, is difficult enough when you’re in the same country and share a language and culture. When you’re in a new place without the immediate support of friends and family, and simultaneously dealing with a hundred other issues, the sudden change and intimacy can be even more difficult to deal with. Feeling trapped and unable to return home can make the situation worse. It’s better to make a long trip where you have the option of going back home; if that goes well, you can go ahead and move more permanently.
Work out your healthcare situation thoroughly
Figure out in advance what healthcare will be like in your new home: costs, access, standards of care, the involvement of your employer, common infectious diseases, precautions you need to take, and so on. In addition, have a complete health check-up before you leave, and have everything you need in place, including immunizations and medications that may not be easily available in your new country. In particular, find out about access to birth control and family planning. In some places, abortion and even emergency contraception may not be legal. Access to regular contraceptives may be limited or complicated in some countries, and local cultural attitudes may mean that men are reluctant or even opposed to taking any contraceptive measures. You should also make sure you always have all the necessary emergency information available on you, including ID, health insurance cards, emergency contacts, and anything else you may need.
Work out your employment contract thoroughly
A new job may not always work out the way it’s supposed to, and sometimes it may entirely go to pieces. As a solo woman in a strange country, it’s particularly important to thoroughly make sure that your employment contract has no loose ends that could cause trouble later. And in case things do go wrong, you should have a plan and the financial resources in place to either get back home or find new job opportunities.
Understand the local culture
In general, it is important for all expats to understand and respect local culture and local norms of behavior, but for single women especially, there are the additional aspects of gender roles, dress codes, and safe areas to consider. Local perceptions of women from your country are also worth keeping in mind – in some parts of the world, “western” women are considered “easy”, and even dressing conservatively may not completely dispel such misconceptions.
Interactions between men and women may also be restricted to varying degrees, and it’s best to respect these norms unless you’re in company where you’re sure that your behavior won’t be misunderstood as rudeness or encouragement. Also remember that in some places, turning down advances – even explicitly – may not be taken very seriously: the only thing that will achieve this is saying that you’re already married. Some women wear a fake wedding ring to ward off unwanted attention without needing to say a word. While you may not be happy about lying instead of challenging questionable behavior and norms, when you’re in a foreign country it’s probably best to take the easy way out and use your energy more selectively. Needless to say, avoid doing things you wouldn’t do back home in terms of dealing with strangers, sharing your address and contact information, or anything else.
Remember that dating will probably work very differently
Expats who are single usually look forward to dating new people in their new home country. Unfortunately, for women things can get a bit tricky here because of the inherent biases in gender roles in many cultures. If you stick to the expat community, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect, but you will obviously have a smaller pool of people to choose from. If you’re interested in dating locals, you may find that local men aren’t interested in dating foreign women, and if they are, it’s only a short-term thing – they still prefer local women for long-term relationships and marriage. In some parts of the world, public displays of affection – even simply walking hand in hand – may be frowned upon or even illegal. In some countries, being circumspect in public may not be enough; what you do in the privacy of your own house may also be illegal. Same-sex relationships and any consensual sexual relations outside marriage may be seriously frowned upon and may even be illegal, sometimes with severe penalties for offenders.
Maintain contact with friends and family back home
Don’t make the mistake of losing touch with people from your old life. There is of course the fact that they’re concerned about you and want to know how you’re doing, but in addition, life as a solo expat can be extremely lonely, especially in the first year. It’s easy to sink into depression and regret, or make friends with the wrong people out of desperation. Keeping in touch with old friends and family will allow you to take your time forming new friendships, give you a sense of balance and perspective, and bolster you when you’re feeling low. Old friends are also always great for a rant, which every expat needs every now and then, without offending anyone or being judged for it. And today it’s easier than ever before to stay in touch – a few phone messages through the week and a weekly Skype call are all you need to stay in touch.
Build relationships with other single expats
Having said that, friends and family thousands of miles away aren’t enough. Having friends around you in your new home is also extremely important, and of course making new friends is one of the pleasures of being an expat. Finding other expats to talk to, people who share or at least understand your joys and frustrations at living away from home, will certainly make you feel less alone. Expats who are solo will have an even better understanding of exactly what you’re talking about, and will know how to help with any difficulties you may be having.
Build relationships with locals
It is also important to connect with the locals. Making friends can be quite easy if you understand the local language and culture, but even if you don’t, it’s still possible as long as you’re willing to be open and to stretch yourself a bit. In addition, when you’re in a tight spot, a local will be the best person to help you navigate the systems and bureaucracy. If nothing else, try to develop a relationship with your neighbors!
Join a club or hobby group
Admittedly, making friends can be difficult, in some countries and cultures more than in others. People from some cultures tend to take a long time to open up, and sometimes the cultural gap may just be too wide. In some places, it may be difficult to meet new people at all, apart from your colleagues and neighbors. In such a situation, a club or a hobby group can be a great way to meet new people and make new friends, giving you some initial common ground on which to connect and possibly build a relationship. With a little searching both online and in the real world, you’ll find groups that revolve around any number of activities from chess and golf to home brewing and whiskey appreciation, from baking to motorcycle riding.
“Maker spaces” are also growing in popularity around the world, and an important element that’s common to all of them, apart from the access to tools and expertise, is the community. At many of these groups, you’re likely to find a good mix of people, sometimes even a few expats. A shared interest often becomes the basis of a deep, long-lasting friendship. If you have no hobbies, now may be the time to find and develop one!
What tips do you have for single expat women? Let us know in the comments!