What Do These Expats Wish They’d Known Before Moving Abroad? Their Answers May Surprise You

A wise man once said that clever people learn from their mistakes, but the cleverest learn from the mistakes of others. And as Groucho Marx pointed out; “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.”So when considering a massive life change like moving abroad, then it is even more valuable to listen to the experiences of others. Even for the most remote destinations, there will be a traveller who has trod the same paths you are about to tramp. That pioneer won’t have all the answers for every surprise that waylays you, but they will have a few. And by the time you have reached your destination, you can add to the collective wisdom and pass this on to those who follow in your footsteps.

Expat Focus articles tend to focus on specific problems in specific locations, giving those bound for that destination a technical guide to beating bureaucracy, rescuing lost luggage and getting their kids into the best schools. But that does mean that we sometimes miss the smaller, but still valuable, nuggets of wisdom. These priceless pearls of hard-won knowledge can save you from the heartache of minor misdemeanours and maladies.

We’ve thrown open the floor to our readership, collecting the top tips our expat readership has picked up on their travels. These are the tricks that will keep you out of trouble, save you money and make your new life overseas more comfortable. These are the tips which expats wish they’d been told before they jetted off for foreign climes, and you can benefit from their wisdom.

A hair-raising experience – Barbados– Angela Coleby

That the humidity would mean my hair extensions would all drop out within a week of arriving!

Furious about furniture – Barbados – Angela Coleby

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I regret not shipping over my furniture as the quality of the furniture here is either not great or it’s very expensive. It was a waste of money to rent an unfurnished place. We had a couple of cheap sofas, dining table and chairs from Tesco which would have been a lot better than what we ended up buying here. I still kick myself.

The sofa we bought here is now in the dog’s room. There are a few bargains to be found on the second-hand market (where we purchased our current sofa) but it’s a bit of a gamble. Perhaps ship the basics and add gradually?

Kicking up a stink – China – Kristen Larson

Bring lots of deodorant, it’s not like what you thought. Also, the people are amazing; learn Mandarin.

Take your time – China – Regina Kreig

Our first expat location was China. We didn’t have much time to prepare and looking back I liked that, as I was aware that I didn’t know much about the new culture and was simply sensitive.

Other expats had been ‘trained’ for months and thought they’d know everything … sometimes less preparation is better.

Cell phone woes – Costa Rica – Bobby Chelmis

Bring extra unlocked phones, they’re overpriced here and you can always sell them for a little profit. Get your friends and family to download Whatsapp so you can keep in touch. Go ahead and pack a magic jack. You can call 1-800 numbers and receive calls like you’re in the states.

I find Whatsapp operates better when the signal isn’t the greatest and you can share videos and music. Plus, if it stops loading during bad reception, it will automatically pick up where you left off when the signal is better. Another plus is that it’s very commonly used with Costa Ricans.

Use Waze for navigation. Google maps will bring you crazy places here and Waze is always updated. It also routes you through traffic and around accidents. Works great and uses less data too.

Another piece of advice, if you’re traveling around, I’d go with Kolbi for your cellular company. Any little store can recharge your account on a prepaid SIM. 10 mil ($18) gets me close to a month of service by using Whatsapp to make calls on a WiFi connection and using Waze when needed.

Managing money – Costa Rica – Bobby Chelmis

Set up an account here from the start, then write yourself a check. The money comes in around ten days. Use that and don’t waste a bunch on international fees with an American bank account using ATMs.
If you’re here a short time, get a Charles Shwab bank account to avoid ATM fees.

Start smiling – Costa Rica – Sara Ford

Patience. Learn to smile and accept the slow pace. It’s healthier anyway!

Learn the lingo – Croatia – Anastasia Kingsley

Definitely learn Croatian first. Like any new language, children’s books are a good place to start. I also bought a Croatian language course on CD. American TV programs with Croatian subtitles are also super helpful for building vocabulary. Be creative, and keep going.

Learn the local lingo – Cyprus – Anne Smith

Greek Greek and Cyprus Greek does differ. As one of our friends says; ‘We don’t speak Queens Greek in Cyprus’, so get local lessons.

Feeling the heat – Cyprus – Wendy Fitzpatrick

We have been here 8 years and love it.

It gets hot, but you work around it. We would advise you to rent the first year and then decide if you like the town or village life.

SOS! (Save on shipping) – Ireland – Candice McMurray

That after shipping all my stuff half way across the world I would barely need any of it. Don’t waste money shipping material items. Take bare essentials and items of sentimental value only.

Confused from start to Finnish – Finland – Shalyn Lapke

That not everyone in Finland speaks English, despite all that I read stating they did. And nothing is written in English anywhere.

Wanting to work – Italy – Martin Shaw

Despite having visited Italy for 20 years (1986-2009) I realised I really knew nothing when I got here. I didn’t realise it was not a meritocracy, that work was scarce and remuneration not even guaranteed.

It was surprising that I only ever encountered brusque dismissiveness from the [people] employed in our embassies and that my CV would count for nothing here.

When in Rome…- Italy- Maria Portillo

Patience is a virtue… Remember that when you’re waiting at the post office, town hall, doctors office, or any other public office you may need.

Secondly, remember that the first answer you get from any public office person sitting at the window/desk may change if he/she has already had his/her morning coffee. Always ask for information from more than one source!

Lots of local lingos – Italy- Geoffrey Watson

I was lucky to have a (very basic) notion of Italian, having lived in Libya in pre-Gaddafi times, but totally overestimated my own ability to communicate. I also took a while to learn that there isn’t an “Italy” – just a grouping of regions that don’t communicate with one another. I don’t blame the locals for not speaking my language, but myself for not speaking theirs: your roof, your rules. I think the most important element is to make sure you have an adequate grasp of the language even before you move in.

Laid back in line – Italy- Geoffrey Watson

When I first arrived in Italy I was frustrated by queue-jumpers and fought hard to defend my place in line. But I always had a bad conscience about tripping up the little old ladies trying surreptitiously to overtake.

Then I learned that you don’t have to be aggressive, you have to be assertive. It changed my life. I still do the same thing, but now call it “being assertive”, and that makes me feel virtuous.

Never too late to leave – Italy- Dawn Brosh

It is one thing to be 20 and carefree with no one relying on you, and even in that case you still need to have some plan and work hard to learn the local language and customs.

If it turns out you don’t like Italy (bureaucracy, graffiti, fast driving etc.), then leave. No one is twisting anyone’s arm. The best advice: go in with an open, friendly and respectful attitude and be prepared to change course if you are really miserable with your new living situation.

Balance your budget – Malaysia- Daan Duijm

Really look into the costs of living. Do a proper analysis on what you would most likely spend on, and what not.

If your standard of living stays the same, would you save or lose money? Keep in mind that you would most likely spend more money on entertainment in any country abroad.

Watch and learn – Mexico – Michelle Rene

Don’t volunteer with a non-profit right away. Same with social cliques. Take your time, observe, meet people, then chose how to spend your time and who with.

Go with the flow – Mexico – Michael Valdez

Check all expectations at the border, this is a new chapter in your life and there is absolutely no blueprint.

A visa is easier than you think – New Zealand – Claire Bissex

Not to waste money on an immigration agent when visas can be done yourself quite easily. Plan and research as much as possible before you emigrate if you have time.

Be ready for bureaucracy – Philippines – Rick Levy

I knew in theory but not in practice how difficult it is to deal with various government offices here. I have since found out.

Motor madness – Spain – Bobbie Drever

I wouldn’t buy a car as you will only have to register it in Spain after a maximum of 6 months. It can be quite expensive to do so and the paperwork is difficult unless you pay even more to have a firm do it for you.

You can actually send boxes of any smaller goods and personal items very reasonably by courier or look on the website as vans go back and forth to Spain on a regular basis. Buy a car once you are here.

Bring a book (or two) – Sweden – Gina O’Dowd

I would make sure I took loads of books in my native language, that is the thing I miss most after two postings. Also to bring a load of cash in the local currency because all the paperwork and opening accounts takes forever.

Sweden moves slowly – Sweden – Hester Esteve

There are so many little things that take time; first the personal number, then the ID and a bit of waiting. Only then can you open a bank account. In summer when most people are away it tends to take EVEN longer than at other times.

Moving your money – USA – Erika Spencer

It’s wise to check out the banking system. You may wish to use it to get your funds. I personally like Western Union because the banks close early here and their rules are always changing.

Try before you buy – Turkey – Astrid Hanke

The most important thing is that, before you move with your hubby or your partner, first to spend some vacation in his country to see how he behaves in his own cultural environment.

Before moving you should have some at least basic linguistic knowledge. If possible, contact other expats in expats group to listen to them about what life is like there. And never burn bridges to your home country totally, stay in close contact with friends and family.

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer


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