Thinking about heading overseas? Not sure how it all works? Looking for advice? Need answers to some awkward questions? We’d be surprised if you didn’t.
Moving abroad is one heck of a commitment and there are a lot of things to worry about. Anyone doing their research will quickly find the answers to practical questions, you’ll know how much work permits cost and exactly what’s covered by health insurance.There are, however, a whole host of questions that just can’t be answered with search engines. Questions with various answers which may or may not appear on the ceiling above your bed as you stare at in the small hours of the morning.
Don’t be alarmed; everyone facing a life abroad has moments of self-doubt and their own catalogue of worries unique to them. Every potential expat worries about being the new kid on the block, about fitting in at work and whether they can cope abroad, but many of these worries manifest themselves in different ways.
Some people will panic and become flustered at the thought of their first visit to a foreign post office, others will blithely carry on and do their best to ignore niggling worries. Rest assured, every concern that is weighing on your mind has plagued another expat who has conquered their fears and gone on to great things.
To avoid future expats from suffering in silence, we’ve looked at the questions expats have been too afraid to ask. The questions might not be the exact words of worry that have circulated around your mind, but the answers should do a lot to smooth your stress.
Will I miss my family?
The short answer is yes.
You will be separated from friends and relatives in a very real way. Even if you didn’t regularly pop round to a cup of tea and a chat, you’ll suddenly become very aware that this is not possible.
This sense of isolation will become magnified when you realise that you aren’t just separated by distance but also time. Any conversation over webcam will have to be timed to take into account differences in time zones. You may be able to grab a quick chat with Granny as you rush out the door to work and she gets ready for bed. As great as it is to catch up with your nearest and dearest, a rushed wave at your laptop is no substitute for a hug and sitting physically next to them.
You’ll also realise you are separated by culture. You’ll no longer be able to keep up to date on pop culture at home, leaving you unable to join in with renditions of hit songs or gossip about the philanderings of the nation’s favourite soap characters.
Equally, your family will not be able to understand many of the references to make to your newly adopted culture. When you try to explain the local festivals or national holidays, as interested as they may be in your experiences, they can’t imagine being there themselves.
You will miss birthdays, you will miss weddings and you may not be there to say your last goodbyes to relatives who pass away.
For some expats these wrenching separations are just too much to conquer and will be the reason why they come home again after their contract is complete. For the majority of expats, the shock of homesickness and the yearning for family is rapidly conquered by the excitement of immersion in another culture.
There’s no way to tell in advance which category you are likely to fall into, but those who make the most effort to settle in and enjoy their new home are the ones who conquer separation anxiety the quickest.
Do I need to plan it all out?
Planning can be stressful; for every task that you begin to tackle another dozen are created. There is a temptation to procrastinate when it comes to complex and intimidating paperwork. Instead, give yourself time to tackle each task, start early and spread out the workload to help you cope.
Also look into agencies who are experts at helping expats get their arrangements in order, everything from visas to accommodation and school places. Larger companies with experience of international staffing may also have support programmes in place to help resettle employees.
Every country has different requirements, so may let you turn up without a job and start seeking interviews whilst others won’t let you in unless a job is waiting for you. Do the research and make sure you have at least covered off these minimum requirements in order to avoid any awkward conversations with immigration officials.
Much of the detail of your life can be left until you have arrived and settled in. Decorating your new home will help it feel like a nice, cosy place to live, but local furniture can often be found cheaply, especially if expats are selling off items they don’t want to ship out. Leave the details of wallpaper colour and interior décor until you’ve arrived; instead make sure you cover off the big stuff.
See if you can make contact with expats who have travelled from your home country to your destination and see if they have tips for staying on top of administrative worries. They may have found shortcuts that can save you stress.
There are essentials that need to be planned, signed off and rubber stamped before you arrive, but there are a great many other things which can be left until later. Balance these tasks and don’t attempt to take on too many tasks at any one time.
Will I become rich from living abroad?
This is a relative question. Your income overseas may be a fortune compared to local salaries, but it may be mere peanuts compared to home.
Study your remuneration package before you leave, remembering to account for any costs you may incur. There’s no point accepting a rate of pay that doesn’t keep pace with the cost of rental accommodation.
The reality for many expats is that their time abroad is valued in experience rather than hard cash. Coming back to your home country with a year’s experience working abroad instantly makes you an expert in that nation, which may open doors that were previously closed.
What if I don’t fit in there?
Culture shock strikes everyone when they first land. Living in a new country can be an overwhelming experience at first.
Manage your expectations; you will always be a foreigner living in someone else’s country. That doesn’t mean you will always be a stranger rather than a welcome neighbour. Make the effort to explore the culture and interact with coworkers and neighbours in order to start settling in.
It’s important to meet the locals as well as other expats. Whilst other foreigners can share their experiences and provide a welcome dose of the familiar, failing to adapt to your new home will keep the country as a strange, unfamiliar beast.
Am I being unpatriotic?
As well as dose of homesickness, some expats have reported a sense of guilt at leaving their homeland. Americans in particular have found their government to be less than supportive when it comes to taxation, leaving them feeling like they are paying a financial penalty for living abroad.
In reality you living overseas will not have an adverse effect on your country’s status. You are acting as an informal ambassador for your nation, probably increasing its business presence overseas and likely paying some form of tax on income earned abroad.
You are also saving your home country from spending taxpayers’ money on your upkeep, education and healthcare. You may actually be boosting the economy back home.
Don’t stress that you are doing your country a disservice; just do your best to present it in a good light abroad. Share your traditions and festivals with the locals whilst respecting theirs.
Do I really need to learn the language?
Many companies overseas adopt English as a lingua franca, using it as a universal language across all international offices. Some countries may also be well-versed in English as a second language, or even as an official first language.
Do the research ahead of time; proficiency in English may divide parts of the country or be a class boundary. Whilst your colleagues may be fluent, workmen in your apartment building may not. Picking up even a few words of the local language can help smooth over difficult interactions.
Learning the language also signals to your employer that you are invested in the country and would be a good candidate for a renewed contract or even promotion.
Is it fair to take the kids?
Uprooting kids and shipping them around the world may seem like a cruel side effect of advancing your career. In actual fact expat kids can benefit from improved schools, language learning opportunities and adventure.
Whilst they may miss their friends and family, children are often quick to adapt to new culture. For them everything can be framed as a new and exciting adventure, rather than a departure from the familiar.
Youngsters will take their cue from the grown-ups in their lives, echoing their confidence or fears. Talk to them about their concerns and mitigate their fears. They may be concerned about issues that simply do not apply to their situation.
Teenagers may find it more difficult to adapt, so talk to them about the possibility of a move. It may be possible for them to study at home and join the family overseas between terms, or to live with relatives.
Many employers offer financial support for expat kids to attend the best international schools in the country or to study at national universities.
Communicate with your kids and make sure they understand both the ups and downs of a move abroad. Keep the dialogue open once the move is complete and support them as they adjust to their new habitat.
What will expat life do to my relationship?
Setting up a new life with a loved one in tow may be the most difficult thing you do together. It may also be the most rewarding. There will be stresses and strains, but also opportunities to explore an exciting new country together.
Long distance relationships are tough to manage, with many an expat struggling to keep the spark alive over webcam.
In both scenarios, communication is the key. Cooperate on tasks and understand that you may both be experiencing life overseas in different ways, especially if one of you is working and the other is not.
Different countries approach the importance of marital status in different ways, many expecting women to give up work after marriage or for both genders to be paired off before 30. Accept that you may be asked a few awkward questions but don’t let them become an issue.
There is also a great variation in how cultures approach homosexual relationships. Research your destination thoroughly; gay expats may find themselves needing to be careful on the dating scene or enjoying a greater level of freedom than at home.
I’m worried for my mental health
There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues, and expats are more likely than others to suffer. This is partly due to being disconnected from support networks and partly due to the stress involved in adapting to a new lifestyle.
If you are worried about prior conditions flaring up, talk to a professional before you go. Getting medication abroad can be difficult, so see what the score is with getting a referral to a clinic near your new home. Alternatively, some medical insurance companies will be able to source local prescriptions.
Many employers offer health insurance to expats, but double check to see if it covers mental health issues and provides for the counselling or therapy you may need. If not, look out for a private policy that does.
Remember, you may be in a part of the world that does not have a sympathetic attitude to mental health issues, so have a plan for what to do if things go wrong. Family living with you may be the first to notice symptoms of trouble, so be sure to include them in your plan. Sometimes a few days off work and a call home can settle you down; other instances may require more long-term support.
The most important thing to do is to carefully manage your work-life balance, keeping time aside to enjoy pastimes and staying fit. Make the effort to de-stress and spend time with loved ones.
Am I making the right move?
This is the big overriding question that haunts everybody making a change. Is this the right thing? What if it goes wrong? Am I going to miss out on something even better?
Ultimately only time will tell you the answer to this one. You may be able to look back on your time overseas and appreciate it for an entirely different set of reasons than what you expected. You may be hoping for big promotions and career advancement, but what you may find is a fun-loving and laidback lifestyle that changes your priorities and sets you up for a happier future.
The best advice for anyone asking this question is to stop entertaining ‘what if’ scenarios. There are a million possible outcomes from any decision, but the most likely are the straightforward simple ones and not the horrific ‘worst cases’ your stressed mind can invent. Limit your imaginings to ‘most likely’ and ‘most dangerous’ outcomes, the first being grounded in reality and the second in outrageous misfortune.
If you can plan for both of these scenarios, you’ll be able to cope with anything in between and be pleasantly surprised if things get even better.
That’s not to say you are a passenger in your own destiny; remember you are firmly in the driving seat. If the unexpected does crop up, remember that you will be in a position to make decisions there and then about what happens next. The smallest hiccup may seem like a huge disaster to the panicking mind, but taking a deep breath and thinking through your options can help break a problem down into simple tasks.
Ultimately you have the final say in whether or not this move is for you, so seize opportunities and make them work for you. Don’t be afraid to confront things that don’t suit you, but also be prepared to adapt to local ways of doing things and to enjoy the excitement of the new.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer