Considering moving abroad? I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Wilson, a retired U.S. Department of State employee who was stationed in Europe and the Middle East for over 20 years. As a diplomat, she lived in many different countries including Morocco, Belgium, and Tunisia. The ability to speak fluent French and Arabic was extremely helpful. Amy currently lives in London with her husband, Steve.
Amy was happy to share her experiences living the ex-pat life. Here, she highlights some of the obstacles she’s encountered and the lessons learned, topped off with helpful travel wisdom.
1. You Have To Know Why You Want To Move Abroad
Are you looking for adventure? Do you want to experience another culture? Do you want to give back by joining a global assistance community in a less-developed nation? Are you trying to stretch your retirement dollars?
There are many reasons to consider the ex-pat life and each circumstance is unique. “I moved to London because my new husband is British and I love the city,” Amy said. “London has everything: green spaces, culture, and food. It is a major travel hub, just a two-hour train ride to Brussels and ninety minutes to Paris.”
Once you decide on your why, the next big decision is where.
2. Cultural Considerations Must Be Taken Seriously
Does your planned relocation country have certain cultural aspects you might not be able to live with? Do you want to have a Christmas tree in a Muslim country? That’s pretty much a no-no. Do you want to be able to shop every day of the week? In many countries, stores are closed in the afternoons and on Sundays.
“It is easier to move to the UK because they speak English … cultural similarities and norms will ease the challenging aspect of the move,” says Amy.
“As romantic as it sounds, don’t make a hasty decision.” Amy recommended watching the BBC series Escape to the Continent, “a reality show that follows Brits considering a move abroad and what it would be like” and stressed that blending in culturally will give you a sense of community and belonging.
3. You’ll Want To Plan A Trial Run
You visited Barcelona, Lucerne, or San Jose and fell in love with the location, people, and culture! You want to live there, becoming part of the hip local scene. Whether a beach community, vibrant city, or ski resort, it’s difficult to hang a future life on a short travel experience.
“Moving abroad is a huge decision, especially if you have never lived abroad before. My best advice is to try it out first. Find a place to live in your chosen city for six months to a year before you sell your home and pick up and leave,” advised Amy. “Test it out before you make a commitment.”
Planning a trial run in a new city can be fairly easy. Consider home-share sites like Airbnb, Vbro, and Homeshare International where you can live in your chosen neighborhood for an extended period of time. With a short-term rental, you can live like a local without a substantial financial commitment.
4. You’ll Wind Up Making New Friends
When you move away from friends and family, you sacrifice your social connections. “The U.S. Embassy may be able to guide you in finding an ex-pat community. Definitely look online for American groups; there is almost always an [American] women’s group,” Amy shared.
These groups will help you with resources like finding a doctor, a book club, golf buddies, et cetera. Additionally, these people can become your social circle -- your connection to back home.
“Living the ex-pat life is easier now than it was 20 years ago. Technology makes family and friends seem closer and transportation is less expensive, allowing you to visit more frequently,” Amy said.
5. Shopping Won’t Be What It Was Stateside
Amy’s take on shopping is this: “The familiar U.S. grocery shopping experience is very different. After you navigate the first shopping barrier, language, you will need to go to six or more establishments to get the same goods you can buy in one store in the U.S. Generally, your refrigerator is smaller, so you need to shop for fresh meat and produce a few times a week. Also, if you are in the city, you need to carry your items and typically have the heavier items delivered.”
Ultimately, shopping every few days will have you eating fresher and more seasonal foods which, in turn, is a healthier way to live. It may also lead to less food spoilage and waste, but it’s definitely an everyday change ex-pats have to get used to.
6. Your Mail May Require Special Attention
You are not required to keep a U.S. address for mail purposes; however, you may want to consider a mail scanning service like Traveling Mailbox. There may be certain documents you will need to receive by U.S. mail, and foreign mail service can be unreliable in some countries.
7. You Can Get A Jump On Overcoming Language Barriers
In major cities, communicating in English is fairly easy. But, if you move to a more rural setting, knowing or learning the language will make your ex-pat life much easier. “Test it out before you make a commitment,” Amy advised.
Take a language class before you move and maybe another one once you arrive. Watching television shows in a new language will help you pick up some new words and hone your pronunciation skills.
Of course, immersion is the best way to learn a new language. Having even limited exposure will increase your chance for rapid success.
8. Quarantine May Be Mandatory For Pets
There may be a quarantine period for your four-legged friend. Many countries have eradicated rabies and may have pet-entry restrictions based on your country of origin. One source of pet travel information is PBS Pet Travel, a European website and good starting point for researching the ins and outs of bringing your pet on your moving-abroad journey.
9. Visa Requirements Differ By Country
Some countries will allow you to stay on a tourist visa for 90 days, others for 120 days. If you are shopping for a country, you can investigate and compare requirements on Passportindex.com. Further research should be done on your chosen country’s immigration and naturalization page.
“Acquiring a visa can be a challenge, and the requirements for residence eligibility may be challenging,” Amy warned. “One consideration is to live part-time in the U.S. and part-time in an ex-pat community. Some countries allow you to buy property without a visa,” she said, but “you need to do extensive research.”
Typically you cannot work in the local economy on a tourist visa. Therefore, you need to consider your income source(s). Are you a digital nomad? Do you have sufficient retirement income to support your lifestyle?
The most important piece of advice from Amy is to “register with the U.S. Embassy in person as a safety precaution.” Informing the U.S. Embassy in your new location should be on the top of your to-do list once you have moved.
Additional Ex-Pat Ideas
I asked Amy, If not London, then where?
“Hawaii would be my second choice after London. It is sort of American International. Paris would be my next choice; I speak French and love the area, which offers the same things as London. I also have friends in Paris.”
The exciting adventure of moving abroad can sweep you up in the moment. Careful planning and awareness will make the move go smoothly, have you well prepared, and ensure a successful relocation.
Want to slow travel before deciding on an official international move? Read up on how one couple dropped everything and traveled the world by house sitting.