The decision to relocate to a foreign country is filled with anticipation, excitement, optimism.
“What if I miss my family and friends too much?”
“What if I’ve forgotten something important?”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
You can “what if” yourself into such a state of analysis paralysis that your dreams of becoming an expat remain just that — unfulfilled dreams.
That kind of pressure is self-defeating. When you uproot yourself from a life where everything is familiar to one where nothing is, uncertainty comes with the territory. And you’re definitely going to make mistakes. The key is avoiding critical ones that can derail your plans.
No matter what, chances are you won’t top the boneheaded blunder we made when we moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, almost 13 years ago. Would you believe that we shipped all our furnishings from the U.S. without having anywhere to live?
“We’ll easily find a great place before the container arrives,” we naively told ourselves. Day after day of searching brought no success and a growing sense of panic. Then, our shipping agent called with the “good news” that our container would be arriving early. Yikes!
Through sheer luck, disaster was averted when a random Se Arrienda (“For Rent”) sign we spotted in a window revealed the dream penthouse apartment that we enjoyed for over a decade.
With that confession out of the way, here are 9 mistakes to avoid when you move to Ecuador.
1. Not Being Clear On What You Want
We’ve been amazed at how many people we’ve consulted with over the years say something like, “I’m going to spend a few weeks in Ecuador trying to decide whether I want to live at the beach or in the mountains.”
No need to plan an expensive scouting trip to figure that out. Simply ask yourself, “What do I want to wake up to 24/7/365? The sound of ocean waves or the springlike climate of the Andes?”
Make a wish list of everything your ideal location could include. Next, rank the items in order of importance. Only then are you ready to begin your research finding the place that checks as many of those “must-have” boxes as possible.
2. Not Taking A Scouting Trip
With something as important as relocating to a foreign country, relying solely on Internet research and the opinion of strangers is risky business. We know a scant few who showed up with suitcases in hand for the very first time and lived happily ever after. Far more have headstones in the expat graveyard, some returning home after only a few months.
All the facts and figures you gain from research help you narrow down choices from a world of possibilities. Actually being in the place you’re considering for your new home is the only way to know if it truly speaks to your heart.
3. Buying Before Renting
Home ownership is part of the American Dream and many new expats who rush to buy a residence as soon as they arrive end up regretting their decision. Why? The place seemed perfect.
Sometimes there are construction issues, but more often they simply didn’t know enough about the neighborhood, or about what their daily life would be like.
Maybe the condo building isn’t as close to restaurants and shopping as they imagined. Only being there during the day prior to purchase, they didn’t realize there was a loud nightclub down the street. There is a dog that barks all night. A rooster right outside their window crows every morning at dawn.
Renting before buying is the way to go. Better yet, rent short-term through Airbnb before signing a lease. Each neighborhood has its own vibe. Take your time and discover the right one for you.
4. Trying To Do It All Yourself
Are you one of those self-reliant, I-don’t-like-to-ask-for-help kind of people? You might want to give that attitude a rest when moving abroad. New expats attempting to get a visa on their own have fallen into a bureaucratic black hole so deep that they’ve never been seen again.
Pay an immigration attorney to handle that chore. Hire a bilingual $10-per-hour facilitator to help you set up a bank account, register your vehicle, and even show you the best places to shop. Frugality has its place, but remember, you moved abroad to enjoy yourself.
5. Ranting About “What’s Wrong”
The United States has a lot of problems these days, but you appreciate everything good about it a lot more when you move somewhere else.
You trip over uneven sidewalks. Products that were there last week are now missing from the grocery shelves. You’re shocked to learn that appointments are merely suggestions.
After waiting in line on your third trip to a government office, you’ve brought every document you were told. The clerk asks you for just one more thing…
In times like these, you’ll fume in frustration wondering, “Why don’t they (fill in the blank)?”
The simple answer is: Because they don’t.
The efficiency of service and availability of products in the U.S. is unsurpassed. But you chose not to live there anymore, and learning to go with the flow is a key to your expat success. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming one of those miserable trolls spewing poison on online forums all day.
6. No Emergency Fund
Making sure your available assets are sufficient to cover monthly expenses is mandatory before boarding the plane.
But no matter how much planning you’ve done, there will be surprises; some that simply catch you off guard and others that require you to open your wallet.
We recommend setting aside around $5,000 for the unexpected. Hopefully, you won’t need much of it because we have news you’re going to be very happy about.
7. Not Understanding The Banking System
Ecuador has a two-tiered banking system. The top tier includes the large banks while the second is comprised of cooperativas, which are similar to credit unions.
Cooperativas loan money to small farmers and business owners at a higher interest rate, so they in turn offer a higher rate of return on CDs. How high? As of this writing, 1-year CDs pay an interest rate of 8.5 percent.
When creating your CD, you will also set up a savings account to receive the interest each month. From that account, monthly bills like utilities and Internet service can be automatically deducted.
It’s important to choose a cooperativa that is insured by the Ecuadorian government much like the FDIC in the U.S. The maximum insured amount per individual per institution is currently $32,000.
8. Not Understanding The Healthcare System
Medicare rarely provides coverage beyond U.S. borders, so it’s important to understand healthcare options in Ecuador. Your choices are to pay out of pocket, sign up for private coverage, or enroll in the country’s national healthcare system.
Prices for treatment and medication are so low (in some cases 10 percent of what you’re accustomed to paying) that many expats simply pay out of pocket. Hospitals offer private coverage to use their facilities and doctors. The most expensive choice is an international plan.
We belong to the national plan and pay less than $90 total per month for 100 percent coverage with $0 deductible and no restrictions for age or pre-existing conditions.
Our experience has been very positive, but under this plan, you can’t choose your doctor and wait times to see specialists can be long. We pay our dentist, dermatologist, and ophthalmologist directly, with same-day appointments costing $50 or less.
9. Having Unrealistic Expectations
We arrived in Ecuador with Taco Bell-level Spanish and feared we would perish. That obviously didn’t happen. Learn as much as you can and don’t be shy trying to speak the language. Locals appreciate any effort you make and will go out of their way to help.
Because of the low cost of living, too many people come to Ecuador expecting a cheap North American experience. Big mistake. In Latin America, the pace is slower. Family is more important than work.
Thinking otherwise is simply fantasy. Appreciate your new surroundings for what they are. Make local friends, let go, and enjoy the adventure!
Expat life is a huge adjustment. Initially, there will be days when you feel like giving up, when you think maybe those friends and relatives who said you were crazy are right.
But soon enough you become more comfortable and begin to establish a routine. You meet new friends who introduce you to their friends, and before you know it your social calendar is so full you’re having to turn down invitations.
Through it all remember to not take yourself so seriously. Sure, you’re going to goof up, a lot. Edd once asked a clerk for a prostitute instead of a shopping bag. Oops!
Maybe you’ve lived a lot of years fulfilling the expectations of others. You’re doing this expat thing for you. Relax, laugh often, and have the time of your life.
P.S. Worst-case scenario: You decide expat life isn’t for you after all. Guess what? You didn’t fail; you’ve simply decided to go in a different direction. Move on and cherish those memories, experiences, and stories forever.
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