Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
If you’re thinking about taking the leap into life abroad, it can be difficult to know where to start. Choose a country to move to – well, obviously, that’s a good step one. But sometimes, even that first decision is not straightforward. And then what? You need the right visa – or maybe you don’t. You should look for a house and job, but wait – before you move or do you just wait until you get there and then sort it out? And what about opening bank accounts, getting insurance? Do you have pets or kids to move with you? Do you speak the local language or does that need to go on the to-do list as well?
Amanda Walkins is my guest today, and she’s going to suggest some good places to start. A self-proclaimed serial expat, Amanda’s probably sunning herself on a rock somewhere on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Malta, where she currently lives.
Thanks so much for joining me.
Amanda: Thanks for having me, Carlie.
Carlie: Amanda, tell me your origin story. Where are you from and how did you come to live away from home?
Amanda: Well, I’ll start with: I am not sunning myself because it’s a little too loud outdoors. So I am sitting inside, so don’t worry, you’re not missing out on anything here.
I’m actually from the Boston area in the states, and I went to university in the state of Virginia, so that was my first move far away. For anyone not from the US – it’s like 500 miles away. So I certainly wasn’t popping home for Mom to do my laundry and go out to dinner and stuff. So really, I haven’t lived back at home since I was 18.
From DC I just continued on. I studied abroad for a full year in university. I did half a year in Spain and then the other half in Ecuador. And that was really what solidified for me that I needed to live overseas and I needed to travel more. That was kind of the travel itch, I guess. That’s when that started. So it was actually 2012 when I left the US, and I haven’t lived back there since.
Carlie: So where did you head when you left the US?
Amanda: I intended to do a six-week backpacking trip. I wanted to do Honduras and Guatemala. I had a friend from university who’s actually … he’s been living and working in Honduras. He started a non-profit organization there called Students Helping Honduras. And I kept telling him that I would come down and I would help and I would check out what he’s doing and all this. I thought that would be a great opportunity. Maybe I would find somewhere I wanted to live or somewhere I wanted to work while I was there.
But I completely inadvertently instead found a guy on the beach. [laughter] My first day on the island of Roatan, which was the first place I went to on this hypothetical, six-week backpacking trip, I met my now-husband. So I ended up just staying there, and I spent the first six weeks there, and then just grabbed the rest of my stuff from my parents’ house, and moved back there and lived with him for three years. [laughs]
Carlie: Amanda, that’s such a bold thing to do, when you were on this trip for a specified amount of time, and instead you just completely changed your plans.
Amanda: Yeah, luckily, it worked out. It would have been a totally different story otherwise. [laughs] I was lucky to stumble upon him my first day there. I didn’t really have to worry too much, because I did have a six-week timeframe that I could check things out. Happily, we’re now married. We’ve been living together for years, and moved to a couple of different countries together. So yeah, I guess those love-at-first-sight moments can be real.
Carlie: Yeah, absolutely. Amanda, so your first move overseas wasn’t planned, by a long shot. What about the logistics of when you decided “This guy is for me and I’m going to stay here”? What did you do for work? How did you navigate the life setup things that you had to do to stay where you were?
Amanda: Yeah, so it was actually kind of an interesting one, and it’s not a normal path that I would recommend for people. But the island that we were living on, and Honduras in general, if you are there as a foreigner, you can be there on a tourist visa for up to 90 days. I’m speaking from an American perspective, because my passport… obviously, everybody is different.
And when we were there, you could just bring in your tourist visa at the airport – so just keep renewing it. And you didn’t have to leave, you didn’t have to do anything. It was a way that they were allowing people to stay and even work there, but it certainly is not above board, so I would not recommend that people do that. [laughter] I’m not advocating for this. But that was the reality of the situation when we were there.
It’s not the situation now, so even if you were to go to Roatan now, that’s not the same scenario. But when we were there, that’s how it played out. But at this point, you would have to apply for residency if you did want to stay.
Carlie: Is that what you did end up doing or did you move on?
Amanda: We moved on actually. [Indecipherable] and my husband grew up in Scotland, so his folks are living there. So getting from the western Caribbean, on an island, to the UK was a challenge. It was financially difficult, it took a lot of time. It wasn’t easy for them to visit. So to be able to spend more time with them and to more easily get to my family as well, we ended up moving to Scotland, which was a dramatic climate change, I would say …[laughter]
Carlie: Just a little bit.
Amanda: Yeah, just a little bit. It was intense. But I have to say, I love the city of Edinburgh. We were living there for a while, we got married there. My family was over to visit. So it was really convenient. And then, from there, we got an opportunity to do a long-term house-sitting assignment in Ireland. Which I highly recommend. If anybody is considering moving somewhere, a long-term house-sitting opportunity is actually a great way to test out expat life. Because you’re obviously living in someone’s house, you’re doing daily life things, going to the grocery store, and spending enough time there to really see if that life is for you and if that’s something that you want to then either sign a lease or purchase real estate, whatever your next step may be.
Luckily for us, staying in Ireland was not something we determined we wanted to do long term. So once we were done with the house-sitting we did move on. We are now, as you said, in Malta. So this is our fourth country together, and it’s actually I guess the seventh country that I’ve lived in. So slowly but surely racking them up.
Carlie: So getting a bit personal here – how do you do it from a financial perspective? A lot of people move overseas and they’re a trailing spouse or they have really portable job. Was that your situation with you and your husband or did you have to look at other ways to make sure you still had money coming in?
Amanda: Yeah. So we’re kind of a mixed match on that. My husband, when I met him in Roatan, was working as a scuba instructor. And he’s a marine biologist by education. He did that in Roatan, and he’s also doing that here in Malta. But he’s also a certified personal trainer, so when we were in Ireland, he was able to start working in a gym and gain some clients there. And that actually offered him the opportunity to segue those clients to remote personal training. So when we came to Malta, he was still working with those clients and still sending them programs and still checking in on their progress. So he’s actually now building that into an even larger business – in the process of launching that, which will give him more location-independence, so that way we can move around together.
Because I am completely location-independent with my work – I’m a freelance writer. So I have clients all over the world. I still have clients back in Roatan, where we used to live, clients in the US, I can do clients in Europe and in different countries, different time zones – it doesn’t matter. So I don’t have to worry about those gaps in income. I don’t have to worry about leaving one job, doing the move-out process, arriving somewhere else, looking for a new job, or even landing with a new job but having to wait for that first paycheck to come through, which can be two weeks, three weeks, a month or more. Because some places only pay by the month, so if you just missed one, you can have to wait quite a while.
So luckily, I don’t have to worry about that gap. And it’ll be more helpful as well – once Jonathan launches his business, then he’ll be able to really take those clients with him everywhere – which’ll be great.
Carlie: So obviously, you don’t need to worry about looking for work when you move. What are some practical things that you do need to do when you change country?
Amanda: There’s the basic logistics of visas and being allowed to stay … I talked about our first country was very lax on those. But there are plenty of other places that are not. And depending on what your passport is, what your spouse’s passport is, if you’re traveling to other … or if you’re not married, that’s even more complicated if you have two different passports. And that’s kind of the problem we ran into as well. So now that we are married, we do have that flexibility within the EU. My husband’s actually an Irish citizen.
Carlie: And then because you’re married, you get the same rights as he does.
Amanda: Exactly. So I’m able to … I still have to apply. I still have to ask every country that we go to for the right to stay, but I am technically entitled. It just depends on what their process is for approving me. So when we were in the UK, I had to wait seven months while they had my passport. They had to go through all the normal procedures, and it took them seven months to process my application. So during that time we couldn’t leave the country, we couldn’t make any travel plans or anything. Whereas in Malta, I came in and I was able to apply right away. They gave me my passport back … I’m still waiting for my residence card, but I, in the meantime, have the opportunity to travel and to do other things, which is nice.
Carlie: Every time that you’ve decided to move country, have you had a bit of a checklist in your mind of what you need to do to pack down your life in one and open your life in another?
Amanda: Not so much a checklist, but definitely, there are the standard things you need to think about. We were just talking about visas. So first things first – can you go to this place? What’s it going to take for you to be able to stay? There are certain countries you might be able to arrive in and then request to stay longer once you’ve arrived, but there are plenty of other countries that you’ve got to do that ahead of time. It might only take a couple of days, it might take a year to process at.
So that’s something that we always look at when we’re considering somewhere else to go. If it’s a place that we can go and stay for three months, six months without having to worry about it, then that’s certainly something that we’ll consider, especially if we would then have the opportunity within country to apply for longer stay. If it’s a place where we would have to leave, then we have to know that we could do that – can we get a six-month lease at a proper rate or does that mean that everything is going to be more expensive because it’s shorter term. So those are things that we look at when we’re deciding where to go.
And then, the other main thing is the financial part of it. We talked about the fact that I have a location-independent business, so I don’t have that gap in income, but if you don’t have that opportunity, then that’s something you need to consider. It could be two months of no pay that you have coming in. So you’ve got to have that flexibility, that savings, so that you can carry yourself through that time period, without worrying about where the money is going to come from and when.
And part of that is also when you arrive and you get a new place, oftentimes, apartments, if you’re renting, are going to ask for upwards of three months of rent straight ahead. So that’s a huge output …
Carlie: If you don’t have a rental history in the country or it’s your first time renting in that country … I remember my friends moved from Australia to the UK, and they had to pay six months’ rent up front. That basically wiped out all of their savings.
Amanda: The UK is notorious for that. It’s the same in Edinburgh. A lot of Americans who moved there had to pay six months’ rent straightaway. I was lucky enough, obviously, that my husband was from the area, [laughs] so I didn’t have to really –
Carlie: They trusted you more. [laughs]
Amanda: Hypothetically! I don’t know if they should have, but … [laughs]
But it’s a big consideration, and I think a lot of people can get blindsided by that, so that’s a lot of the research that you have to do ahead of time, is talk to other people who have come from your country and are going to that destination, or have been in that destination, rather, to know what you should expect. Because people from different countries will have different experiences, regulations will change. It’s important to ask people who are on the ground, who are there, who can give you real-time information.
Carlie: Forums are excellent sources of information, but they’re also an easy place to get the wrong information. Because as you said, what applies to you as a US citizen and married to an EU citizen might be completely different for an Australian citizen or a citizen from another country.
Amanda: That’s absolutely right, and that’s something that – it comes down to the individual to be personally responsible for. Yes, it’s good to get information, it’s good to look at blogs, it’s good to look at government websites and all these things. But you need to actually reach out, and if that means contacting an immigration attorney, then that’s what you need to do. But you need to make sure that you’re doing things that are correct for you in your specific situation. You can’t get there and say, “Oh, I didn’t know. Well …” That doesn’t resolve the problem, if there’s a problem. And like you said, if you get bad information and trust it, it’s not the person who gave you the information, it’s not their fault. It’s on you to be personally responsible and make sure that you’re doing everything that needs to be done.
Carlie: Amanda, I noticed in the article you wrote for expatfocus.com that you mentioned you and your husband have drastically downsized your lives, and you purposefully rent fully furnished places when you move. How less of a stress is it to not have to worry about moving a container or a bazillion suitcases of stuff?
Amanda: Oh, my gosh, I cannot understate this. Minimize. Minimize everything you own, because trust me, you don’t need it. Even what we have, which is just what we take on the plane, even what we have is well more than what we actually need. I think people just kind of panic when they’re going somewhere new. Whether that’s on vacation or moving, people overpack all the time, and it’s just this common thing that we do. I don’t know if we’re just worried that we’re going to want something or need something we don’t have. But whatever that is, if you really need it, you can get it there. It’s okay. You don’t have to worry about hoarding everything that you currently own and taking it with you in the off chance that it doesn’t exist on the other side.
I mean, sure, there might be certain brands of things that you really like or certain products that you’re going to miss when you’re there. But not having to worry about shipping things, not having to worry about the cost that’s involved, the headache that’s involved … packing up an entire house to get it shipped out just before you guys are leaving, and then needing it on the other side, there’s so much that goes into that.
And I do understand that if you’ve stayed in a home for a long time, you’ve accumulated so many years’ worth of memories and items, and it’s hard to let those things go. But it’s something that you want to consider – is it worth storing them back home? Or is it worth asking a family member to take care of certain really special items. There’s no guarantee that wherever you’re headed, you’re going to stay forever. To me, the less you have, the less you have to worry.
Carlie: If you’re a really sentimental person and a tangible object kind of person, are you a good candidate to be an expat?
Amanda: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think you have to just be a minimalist in order to be a successful expat. We bring framed photographs with us, and we have photo books, and books, and movies. We have things that we take with us. When I say “minimize”, I say get it down to what you can carry. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of everything except clothes. You don’t need that many clothes anyway. So it’s not hard to carry those really special things with you, but you might have to choose what is most special and what is going to make it feel like home wherever you are.
Carlie: Amanda, when you do arrive in a new place, and you’ve packed up your work as simply as picking up your laptop and plugging it into a new internet connection, and you walk into a home that’s already furnished, and you might have a few little keepsakes in your suitcase that you carry with you. How else do you make this new place feel like your home?
Amanda: For us, it’s definitely more the experiences and the people that make a new place feel like home. Again, I completely understand the photos and knickknacks – we have Christmas decorations that we carry with us everywhere. That’s really important to us, to have those with us to carry along. Ornaments are a great thing you can take with … that are small enough. And that’s our balance, that’s our compromise.
But I think for us, it’s more important, once we’ve landed somewhere new, get out and get more familiar with the area. When I can walk into the grocery store and chat with the girl that’s always there because she recognizes me, or when I can go to the bar and the bartender knows my name and can chat with me about what’s been going on with my friends and other people in the neighborhood, those are more important things that make it feel like home, because you’re being recognized and you’re becoming part of the community.
Carlie: A really satisfying moment for me in France, when I was running down the street and someone pulled up and asked me directions to somewhere nearby, and I knew where to send them.
Amanda: Yeah. It’s such a nice moment, just being able to say, “Yes, I am local. I get this. I can help you.”
Carlie: Amanda, what are some mistakes you think you’ve made along the way when it comes to moving around as an expat, and what would you do differently?
Amanda: Our biggest mistake that we’ve made so far in this expat journey was actually when we did go to Ireland, we did the long-term housesitting, and I think we were a bit too eager to do something new after having been in Scotland for over a year, so didn’t really do all the research and really think things through the way that I always told people they should. [laughs] Definitely, we jumped the gun a bit too much there, and in doing so, ended up getting ourselves a bit stuck.
Because my husband is Irish, so I had the right to stay in Ireland, but I did have to prove that I had a local residence. And we were housesitting. So what I should have done ahead of time is had, in writing, from the homeowner, a sort of lease indicating that I would be residing there. And I did not do that ahead of time. We had a verbal agreement that it would happen when I was there, and that ended up falling through. So then, we didn’t really have any options. Because I had no proof of residence there, we couldn’t stay. So if we wanted to stay, we would have had to immediately find something. And that was a pretty big moment of “Yeah, we screwed up.”
It’s something that we could have fixed if we desperately wanted to stay in Ireland, and we would have just lived out of the house, and found another apartment, and just taken whatever we could find, and gotten it handled. But it was also an opportunity for us to say, “Okay, we don’t really want to stay here anyway, so …”
Carlie: Bit of a crossroads, yeah.
Amanda: Yeah. And it was a moment where we had to decide quite quickly. So that’s the only tough part of that. But that’s something that I can say we messed up on something, and that was our mistake. Hopefully, someone else won’t make the same mistake if we share those errors that we made along the way, right? So that’s part of what I like about working with Expat Focus and writing for different outlets like this. It helps to share your own experience so that other people can hear from it. Again, every experience is unique, but there are still common threads.
Carlie: So what are you loving right now, Amanda, about your life in Malta?
Amanda: Oh, there’s so much to love about Malta. [laughs] Really, the first thing, obviously, is the climate. They get over 300 days of sunshine in Malta. So I cannot complain at all about that. I can walk out into my balcony and have the sun on my face first thing in the morning. I can sit out on a rooftop and have dinner, and be totally comfortable in a sundress in the evening.
But beyond that, I love the people here. I’ve been so impressed by the diversity here. Culturally, linguistically, historically, it’s just an incredibly diverse place for such a small location. It’s a tiny island, but it’s just incredibly diverse, and I love that every day you can learn something new, you can meet someone new. I feel like you could live here for three years and still stumble upon something else.
Carlie: And where’s next? How long do you think you’ll be in Malta and have you already got your sights set on the next place?
Amanda: I think we’re always looking for something else. It’s kind of a perpetual thing. [laughter] So I never know what’s next, and I like that aspect. I like that we have that opportunity. I know that we are very privileged to have that opportunity, and I recognize that and don’t want to waste that either. The fact that we can explore new places and meet new people face to face, and learn about different cultures and have this whole crazy life journey – it’s quite special.
I’m not going to say that we’ll never settle down, but in the meantime, I think we like bouncing around a bit more, and to carry on wherever we want.
Carlie: Amanda, thanks so much for coming on today and sharing your expat life with Expat Focus.
Amanda: Thanks so much. It was a lot of fun chatting.
Carlie: Well, that’s it for today. If you’d like to ask questions and share your own tips and advice, head over to expatfocus.com. Follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups. Also, remember to check out our previous episodes at expatfocus.com/podcast. They’re also on iTunes.
And I’ll catch you next time.