At a young age, I understood that my father’s career as an Army officer meant that I would be raised as part of a unique community of modern nomads. Affectionately known as brats, the children of the men and women defending our country are regularly uprooted and moved around the globe as determined by the United States government as their parents fulfill their military obligations.
Stateside or abroad, the places we lived gave me the opportunity to explore new cities, different cultures, and unique foods, and these experiences were especially memorable when we lived overseas. As a parent, I wanted my four children to have the best of both worlds: a childhood with deep roots in one spot and enough travel experiences that they knew the world was bigger and more diverse than their bubble.
Naturally, I was a mix of emotions -- heart-swelling pride, a touch of fear, and a twinge of jealousy -- when my 20-year-old daughter, Juliette, announced 18 months ago that she planned to move abroad to Southeast Asia.
Whether your child is a minor or an adult moving abroad for a more-structured experience (like a study-abroad program) or a less-defined opportunity (like my daughter’s), supporting them by working through the following move-abroad checklist will help shape the experience of a lifetime (and prevent you from prematurely aging from stress).
1. Draft A Plan
A person filled with wanderlust can easily get lost in rainbow-filled fantasies about what it’s like to live abroad. Guide your child’s feet back down to planet Earth by discussing their plans, including:
- Where will you live?
- Which local transportation options are best for your budget and safety?
- Are there parts of town you need to avoid?
- What common scams will you need to watch for in your new country?
- How will you support yourself?
- How long do you plan to live abroad?
- Under what conditions will you return to the U.S.?
- What things do you want to do and see beyond your proposed home base?
- What would you do if there were an emergency?
Juliette chose to move abroad to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam because she had a few friends living there. She was able to rent a bedroom in a friend’s apartment and quickly get up to speed about living in Vietnam through this friendship.
2. Build A Budget
Once your child has outlined a plan, help your wanderluster build a budget. This will help them set savings goals and develop an action plan to make their move-abroad dreams a reality.
Because Juliette moved to Vietnam without a job, she saved six months of living expenses before she left. Additionally, she put the funds for return airfare in a separate savings account.
3. Learn About The Destination
While Americans are fortunate that English is widely spoken around the world, knowing at least a few phrases in the local language will greatly enhance your child’s experience living abroad.
It’s also important for your world traveler to be able to identify the country and a few key cities on the map, have an overview of the country’s history, a sense of the political climate, and a basic understanding of the nation’s culture and customs.
4. Get Affairs In Order
Anyone planning on moving abroad should have a valid passport with an expiration date well beyond the intended stay. Your child should also fully research and prepare for:
- Visa requirements
- Travel and health insurance
- American tax laws regarding earning income abroad
Additionally, your child will need to notify their bank that foreign transactions are expected.
Lastly, regardless of your child’s age or frontal lobe development, if he or she can’t consistently make informed, rational decisions, they are probably not prepared for a move abroad. Be prepared to explore alternatives during your planning conversations as well.
5. Have A U.S.-Based Backup
No matter how worldly your child is, bad things can happen out there. And, no matter how old a child is, parents worry. Be a lifeline back in the U.S. by keeping a copy of your child’s passport and other important documents in a safe place at home. While no young adult wants Mommy or Daddy keeping daily tabs on them, encourage your child to share his or her high-level travel plans with you. Additionally, it’s wise to agree upon how frequently you will communicate.
I know that my daughter is a smart, street-savvy, independent young woman. But I still worry. Our agreement is that she’ll post at least one photo or story a day on Instagram so I know she’s alive and well. If she’s taking a weekend trip away from Ho Chi Minh City where internet access may be spotty, she’ll let me know in advance of her plans and when I should hear from her next. And, of course, we also have longer conversations from time to time via chat or video calls.
6. Prepare For The Worst
I believe that when you have a detailed emergency plan, you rarely need it. So help your child take out a “smooth move abroad” insurance policy by planning for the worst.
Encourage your child to always carry the address and phone number of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, especially the emergency after-hours phone number. It’s also wise to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) designed to keep U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad informed of conditions as they explore the world. Our tax dollars fund a global team of people who are ready and able to assist with any emergency that may arise.
Surviving A Child’s Move Abroad
Parenthood is perpetually full of emotions: unconditional love, heart-swelling pride, paralyzing fear. And it’s normal to experience all of these feelings at once as your child plans to move abroad. But the right preparations can make for a smooth -- and perhaps even enjoyable! -- experience for both of you.
Want to share a great resource with your outbound kiddo? From Columbia to South Africa, here’s how one woman’s safely solo traveled the world.