Becoming an Expat

Most of the die-hard travelers I know have, at one time or another, thought, “I want to live abroad!” Very few, however, do much more than take extended vacations. Why? Because the journey between having the idea to move to another country and actually doing it can be long, cumbersome, expensive, and just plain annoying. It’s a big challenge – but it’s absolutely something that can be achieved.

At the moment, I am in the process of getting a visa to move to Italy, and throughout the process I’ve buried my nose in countless books on moving to Italy, reached out to numerous current and former expats, and perused dozens of websites offering assistance and advice for living in Italy. In short, I’m up to my eyeballs in information.

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My goal is to present some of the things you should think about before deciding to move to a foreign country – not to scare you out of doing it, but so that you’re aware of the potential problems that could arise before they come up and smack you in the face. Of course, there will be unforeseen dilemmas along the way, but the fewer of those you have to encounter the better.

One note for those of you who are looking to move to a new country and then just staying on without going through the rigamarole of becoming legal – you don’t need an article to tell you how to do it. You just do it. So, this article is for the folks who are trying to stay above board in their new country, whatever pains that may bring.

Note that at the bottom of the article you’ll find a list of some of the resources I’ve found useful, both for Italy specifically and for becoming an expat more generally.

Choosing which country to live in

For some people picking a target country will be straightforward – it’s not just that you’ve dreamed of living abroad, you’ve already set your sights on a particular place and nothing else will do. For others, it’s simply the idea of living in a foreign country that’s appealing, and you haven’t yet figured out the “where” part. To be honest, if you’re in the latter camp, you may be better off – you’ll be able to pick from the countries that make it easy to become an expat, rather than getting your heart set on one of the countries that seems to specialize in expat roadblocks.

Whichever camp you fall into, there are a few things to consider when picking the country you’ll be adopting as your new home.

  • How easy is it to become an expat? While I’m having to jump through countless hoops to become a legal expat in Italy (as I would in any EU country), a former BootsnAll employee who lives in Bali merely has to leave his island every couple of years and pay the government some money in order to stay. Another colleague of mine who lives in Costa Rica just had to make sure he had a way to support himself before moving. It’s important to know how involved the process is, and how long it will take, before you start packing up house.
  • Your scouting mission should be longer than two weeks. A two-week vacation doesn’t give you an accurate picture of what it’s like to live in a place, so before you make the big move you would ideally have time to spend a month or two renting an apartment in the city you think you want to live in – preferably in not the best weather or the busiest season so you aren’t duped into thinking it’s always beautiful and sunny and full of energy. An extended, single-location stay will let you settle in to a routine in order to get used to things like doing the grocery shopping, cleaning the house, and paying the bills.
  • Talk to current and former expats. Your goal here should be connect with as many people who either currently live or used to live in your chosen country. Their perspectives will give you the fullest picture of what it would be like to live there yourself. Remember, you’re bound to get some overly positive feedback as well as some that’s overly negative, so you can’t just get one or two opinions and consider yourself informed. The internet can be your best friend in this endeavor, as there are several websites and online forums frequented by the expats of many countries.

>> Read about the best places for expats to live

Learn the Immigration Laws

As mentioned above, depending on the country you’re choosing for your new home, the process for becoming a legal immigrant can be anything from overwhelmingly challenging all the way down to essentially nonexistent. I often say that the Italians invented red tape. After barely dipping my toes in the bureaucracy that’s required to get my visa I only became more inclined to believe that.

While current and former expats can be a good resource for visa information like this, in some countries every person’s case is going to require something a little different. Your best bet is to find out what you would need right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

  • Find your nearest embassy or consulate. It’s possible you’ll have to make multiple trips to the nearest consulate representing the country you’ve chosen, so for your sake I hope that’s not too far away! The consulate’s website should be a good starting point for information, at the very least, and you can try calling or emailing for additional information as well. There’s a list of the embassies and consulates in the US here.
  • Find out about the different kinds of visas. You may find that there are several different kinds of visas available, depending on your situation. There are often working visas, visas for retired people, visas for students, and what I call “famous/rich people visas.” This latter category is the one that allows movie stars to have second (or third, or fifth) homes somewhere and come and go as they please, because they’re rich and they’re not going to be a drain on the local economy. My guess is that you don’t fall into that category, or you wouldn’t be reading this article, so you’ll just need to figure out which of the country’s visas you qualify for – and which are easier to get.
  • Find out about family visas, if necessary. If you’ve got family who’ll come along with you, it’s important to know what kinds of visas are available to them and what they can do on those visas – sometimes they’ll be allowed to work using those visas, and sometimes they’ll be strictly prohibited from working. In my case, I’m getting a visa for a freelancer, which entitles my husband to a family visa – a visa which allows him to work legally in Italy. His dreams of having a Sugar Mama are, therefore, going to have to remain dreams. Sorry, honey.

Employment – Legal or under the table?

The question of whether you are allowed to work in your chosen country can be largely – if not entirely – determined by the type of visa you acquire. Some will give you the freedom to legally accept just about any job that’s offered to you, and others will pretty much force you to work illegally if you have a need to make money. Again, this is an important thing to find out from the consulate when you’re assessing your visa options. In my experience, student visas often don’t allow for legal employment, so this could be a problem if you need a job while you work your way through school.

If you’re in need of a job and aren’t legally allowed to work, however, that’s not usually the end of the discussion. Most countries have a thriving market for under-the-table employment, although it’s usually not in positions that are particularly lucrative. In places like the EU, you’re likely to be restricted to jobs such as waiting tables or teaching English, either of which could be ideal for students looking to make a little money, but may not be enough for everyone to live on.

Also consider that in some places, if you’re given a working visa by a particular company, that means they’re sponsoring your entry into the country. That relationship may make it so you’re more tied to that company than you would be by just accepting a job at home, making it harder to leave if you wanted to switch to a new job in the same country.

>> Read about beautiful places for a working holiday in Australia

Everyday life

I said this earlier, but I can’t stress it enough – the bliss you felt during your two-week vacation to Tuscany doesn’t mean that buying a farmhouse and spending the next decade restoring it is going to be bliss. Real life in any country is nothing like a vacation in that country – you’re on vacation, after all, having put all those mundane everyday real-life activities out of your head. You’re not cleaning the toilet, you’re not defrosting the fridge, you’re not taking out the trash – you may not even be making your own bed! To assume that living in the country you just vacationed in will be the same as it was during your trip is a recipe for disaster, and you could end up sorely disappointed when you begin your expat life there.

Many of the things you take for granted at home will be different and can cause culture shock in another country. You’ll have to re-learn how to do all kinds of stuff that you’ve known how to do since you were 15. Even if you’re not challenged by a different language, the processes for renting an apartment, getting a bank account, finding a doctor, doing the grocery shopping, paying the bills, voting, getting a driver’s license, and doing the dry cleaning will all be different. Even “fun” activities like shopping for clothes and books can become problematic, as you’ll need to figure out what size you are in this new country, and you may not have ready access to reading material in anything but the local language.

If you’re an internet junkie, you’ll need to make absolutely sure you can get online and get your fix as often as you’d like. I know a woman in Italy who has been fighting with the local telecom company for over a year to get high-speed internet (she’s been on dial-up), and that’s after paying for the connection to be installed in her house. In more rustic settings, online access can be slow or limited to internet cafes and other such internet points.

The situation only gets more complicated if you’ve got a family. Bringing your children will require you to figure out your options for the kids’ schools and doctors (and you’d better hope you don’t have a picky eater who doesn’t like the local fare!). Should your family includes pets that you want to bring with you, be sure to check into quarantine laws early because they can be onerous, especially in island countries.

>> Read about how to make the most out of your extended stay abroad

Conclusions

Now, in re-reading all of this, it feels like I’m saying, “You shouldn’t do this! Out there is totally different from in here, and different is bad! Stay home! Shut the doors and windows and never leave!” Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound that extreme, but all of this cautioning isn’t to tell you that you shouldn’t move to another country. In many ways, it’s all the quirks – the differences in everyday life – that make life in a foreign place so interesting. Who would have thought that after 20+ years of doing the grocery shopping on auto-pilot back home that going to the market would be something I’d want to write home about? And yet that’s just what happens to me every time I go to a market in Italy.

Only you can decide whether living in another country is going to be worth whatever hurdles that country puts up in your path, but if you are presented with hurdles and you still keep going then your chances of success are infinitely greater than if you’d just given up at the first sign of a bump in the road. A former expat in Italy I know once said to me that “obstacles are just there to keep out the people who don’t want it enough.” And every time something about the process of becoming an expat in Italy seems more troublesome than it really should be, I just go back to that quote and it’s full steam ahead.

Resources

Perhaps the best thing to happen to the expat community worldwide, at least in my opinion, is the internet. It’s not only given expats a way to communicate with each other and share resources, it’s given them a way to communicate more easily with friends and family back home. Making the world smaller like that goes a long way to keeping important emotional ties from going cold. Still, some of the resources I’m listing here are good, old–fashioned books! I can’t help it, I’m one of those people who likes actual books now and then… So, here are a few of the resources I think are particularly useful for anyone contemplating a move to a foreign country.

  • Online Forums – You’ll need to do an online search for the words “expats in” and whatever country you’re trying to live in; there are sure to be at least a couple websites and online communities for most of the popular countries. Italy has several such sites, including The Informer and Expats in Italy.
  • “The Expert Expatriate” – This book may seem overly basic for some people who are further along in their plans, but it’s a great collection of some of the general things to think about before quitting your job and selling your house. There are several books dedicated just to living, working, and studying in Italy, too – many of which I’ve been reading – and my guess is that there would be a similar array of books for other countries as well. Check with your local bookstore or library to find out what’s available.
  • The Culture Shock! Series – This series of books, covering most countries (and some cities) around the world is good at presenting a place not just in its best light, but in its most realistic. The books go over cultural differences so that you’re prepared for them when you encounter them, instead of just getting frustrated. (Not to say you won’t get frustrated. You will.) Here’s the “Culture Shock! Italy” book, which is – of course – on my bookshelf.
  • Expat Bloggers – This is kind of an offshoot of the online expat forums, but I’ve found a great group of expat bloggers in Italy who have not only been really helpful to me in answering questions but they’ve also become good friends in the process. In addition to what I perceive as the natural openness of people who choose to live in another country, bloggers in particular are even more open to sharing their experiences – and the expat bloggers I’ve met have been incredibly forthcoming and helpful. I hope to pay the favor forward someday.
  • BootsnAll Expats Forum – There’s a forum right here on BootsnAll for expats and expat–wannabes, including those who are just looking for a 1–2 year experience teaching abroad.
  • Transitions Abroad – This magazine is great for people who are working or studying abroad, or are just dreaming about it. It’s not cheap, and is really infrequent, so it’s one of those investments that’s best when you’re pretty certain of an impending move. Check your local library or bookstore to get a sample copy, too.
  • Escape Artist – Specifically for people who are living abroad, whether to retire or for work.

>> Check out the best expat blogs

For more on living and working abroad, read:

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Leave a Comment

  • said at 2012-11-12T17:15:56+0000: I wouldn't want too large an ex-pat community, if I wanted to be around Cdns. & Americans all the time I'd just stay at home.
  • Michael Hoyt said at 2012-03-28T09:20:45+0000: I have been living overseas for 5 years, and I did very little research into my current country (Thailand). All I need was a job, and the desire to live overseas. To live overseas you need to have the will to accept things as they are, and not think about the what ifs.
  • Keane Li said at 2012-03-23T16:46:36+0000: Great post! I've always wondered about these things. I'll be in Italy for nearly two months, so hopefully I'll get a sense of where I should be in the world after!