5 Tips for a Smooth Transition to Expat Life

When planning the move from homeland to foreign country, we generally focus on the positive – the experiences we’ll have, the great people we’ll meet, and the exciting new foods we’ll try. But becoming an expat – even a temporary one – isn’t without its hardships, and many people find that much of their time abroad is initially spent coping with the many challenges of immersing oneself in a foreign culture. Even if you’re planning an extended stay outside of your home country, you don’t want to waste precious time struggling to acclimate when you could be out experiencing a new side of the world.

I am a thirty year-old US citizen who has lived abroad in Cape Town, South Africa; Oruro, Bolivia; Dublin and Belfast, Ireland; and Monteverde, Costa Rica. Making the transition to a new culture can be daunting, and for me, involve a lot of tears. I’ve never let the tears stop me, but I have learned some tips along the way to have a truly positive experience living abroad. If you’re making the move from tourist to expat, read on for advice on how to make the most of your time abroad.

Meet your neighbors

Meet your neighbors

As wonderful as many guide books are, you’ll only really learn about a place from the locals. It’s a cliché because it’s true. The most accessible locals are your new neighbors. Introduce yourself early and invite them over for a coffee or a glass of wine (or whatever is the appropriate custom in your new town). The more people you talk to, the more you’ll learn the inside scoop about the habits and culture of your new home.

The more people you talk to, the more you’ll learn the inside scoop about the habits and culture of your new home.

However, realize that getting to know people, anywhere, takes time. Let your new relationships develop and settle naturally and be patient. After a while, you’ll discover that you’ve become a part of the community network, as long as you stay open and friendly and put yourself out there. While it’s a necessary therapy to occasionally hang out at the ex-pat bar or go to dinner with a group of people who speak your native language, make the effort to meet the people who have lived in your new town all their lives- this will create a much richer experience for you.

Establish a routine, but don’t get stuck in a rut

establish a routine

Routines make us feel comfortable and in control, and are therefore important when adjusting to a new place. However, you don’t want to become so glued to a routine that you miss experiencing all that your new home has to offer.  When I was visiting Paris with my boyfriend a few years ago, we had breakfast at the same little café every morning.  The coffee was perfect, the croissants fresh, and the proprietor gruff yet charming. We stayed loyal to our breakfast place throughout our stay. Although this coziness definitely provided a sense of belonging, we were committed to trying a wide variety of markets and restaurants for lunches and dinners to expand our experience.

Similarly, keeping some of your routine from home can make the transition easier. If you practice yoga, find a yoga studio near your new address, or practice regularly by yourself. Runners have it easy and can continue jogging wherever they are. Still, remember that a new place can be a wonderful opportunity for new activities, so incorporate a local dance class into your new routine, or a cooking class, or join a book club in the language of your new home. It’s a great way to learn and practice!

Walk, walk, walk

take a walk

The absolute best way to explore and absorb any new town is to walk, walk, walk around. Only by walking will you notice all the nuances of your new locale; these could include enticing aromas from small bakeries, a tattoo-shop window crowded with various designs from former customers, or tropical birdsong. More importantly, only by walking will you learn how your town, village, or city fits together. Whether it’s the infinite cityscape of a metropolis, or the nooks and crannies of a tiny hamlet, the joys of walking in the climate and culture of a new place are endless.

Whether it’s the infinite cityscape of a metropolis, or the nooks and crannies of a tiny hamlet, the joys of walking in the climate and culture of a new place are endless.

The more you walk, the quicker you will become a local, spewing off your own advice on how best to get from point A to point B. Furthermore, as we all know, exercise releases endorphins which reduce stress and elevate mood. So when your transition away from home brings its inevitable downswings, walking will cheer you up.

Break bad habits, and make new ones

quite a bad habit

Your time away from home is the perfect opportunity to quit a bad habit that has been plaguing you for awhile. Some people use the change of scenery to quit smoking; without your usual routine, cigarette breaks are easier to fight. New sights and scenery won’t trigger your temptations in the same way. A favorite compulsion to throw away is the ever-common obsessive email checking problem. If you’re living in a new city, embrace the chance to truly explore your new environs, with your head out of your mobile device.

I established new routines in my new home, so the lack of the old vice didn’t even feel like a deprivation, because it had never existed in my new home.

After moving to Costa Rica, I quit TV. Having decided that TV was an unnecessary expense that doesn’t fit into my tight budget, I went cold turkey. And I don’t miss it at all. I established new routines in my new home, so the lack of the old vice didn’t even feel like a deprivation, because it had never existed in my new home.

When in Rome…..


Embrace the customs of your new area. If you live in a place where it is now customary to eat dinner at 10pm, eat dinner at 10pm. Or take a siesta. Or eat rice and beans for breakfast. Or rice and fish. Or stop and actually talk to everyone you pass on the street. Or bow politely during introductions. Or wake-up at dawn. Instead of trying to fit your old customs into your new location and feeling frustrated and lonely as a result, incorporate the local customs into your life. This will guarantee a happier and richer experience.

 Instead of trying to fit your old customs into your new location and feeling frustrated and lonely as a result, incorporate the local customs into your life.

On the flip-side, you’re in a new city or town, so make sure that you explore the elements of your new city that make it unique. Buy a guidebook and hit all the hot tourist spots. Even if it feels cheesy, those landmarks, museums, and adventures are part of what makes your new home special, so go see what all the fuss is about. In fact, this new practice of hitting the hot-spots is a good habit to bring home with you after your stay abroad; when you return, look at your “old” town with fresh eyes and visit all those special places that you’ve been meaning to check-out, but just haven’t made the time for yet. Just as living like a local in a new place has amazing rewards, so does sometimes living like a tourist in your old hometown.

Read more about expat life:

What are your best tips for easing the transition to expat?

manifesto - make meaningful connections

Photos by: vincentgallegos, Randy Durrum, kT LindSAy, Miguel M. Almeida, gemb1


Leave a Comment

  • Sharon Sawyer said at 2014-06-28T15:16:22+0000: Taxes, costs of visas, work restrictions, "departure taxes", having to pay international fees at US and foreign universities at the same time, inability to get online teaching jobs in the USA for not having a US residence, bureaucratic red tape and having to file tax returns in the foreign country, the US and the state where your job is, FBAR filings with the IRS in addition to income tax filings, needing to pay lots of fees for wire transfers and currency conversions, etc. are all really good reasons not to move to another country. These are all frustrations on top of the usual stuff you have to deal with living in one country. I live on a beautiful island, but these things make me want to go home sometimes.
  • Jacqui Dixon said at 2013-10-27T09:52:53+0000: A really good approach to fitting in, feeling part of, and getting the most out of, living abroad. I particularly like the "Getting to know the locals", "Walk, walk, walk" and "When in Rome". All sound advice from a clearly sensitive traveller :-)
  • Gilbert Goh said at 2011-12-20T22:42:28+0000: A good article on staying abroad and finding work...

Older comments on 5 Tips for a Smooth Transition to Expat Life

26 February 2011

i think you have covered every aspect of going abroad and enjoying yourself to the fullest in writing this article, i really appreciate the thought especially when it comes to walking and getting rid of bad habits. great job done

28 February 2011

These are all really great tips! It took me a while to do some of these things in Florence and when I did I was feeling more comfortable! Walking and running have always been good ways for me to now only learn my way around but still feel a little bit at home.

As for the neighbors, cranky old men aren’t as easy to get to know! I’ll have to try that out next time! :)

03 March 2011

Good tips!

We’ve been on a non-stop open ended world tour as family for the last 5 years ( 39 countries on 5 continents so far living large on 23 dollars a day per person) and so far have had no tears, travel fatigue nor trouble adjusting.

Even though we have been around the world and traveled over 200, 000 miles in Europe, used every mode of transportation from cargo ships to camels, motorhome to trains, planes and buses, we actually have seen most of the world by foot, bike and mass transit as it IS such a great way to see it from ground level.

Getting to know the local bus and subway systems is also as important as walking and a great way to get to know locals and understand their lives better.

As a family we always have each other so I think that makes things easier than as a single and kids are magnets for meeting locals and deep immersion through those connections.

I think holidays like Christmas can sometimes be a challenge for some at a distance, but we’ve loved it and I wrote the keys that have helped us:


Participating with the locals in THEIR holidays and festivals can also be SOO rewarding. We tend to travel for 7 months and then immerse in the same village for several winters ( primarily for language immersion for our trilingual/triliterate child) and participating with our neighbors in the local festivals like Semana Santa was AMAZING!


Irina Sazonova
08 March 2011

I think it might be a bit difficult to meet one’s neighbors in Europe. I mean my flatmates have been leaving in our apartment for 5+/2+ years and they still do not know who lives right across from them. I’ve been here 2+ months and I haven’t met anybody, because I simply do not see anyone from our building. It’s a bit odd, as in Russia you know pretty much everyone from your apartment building (and that can be anything up to 100 flats, and more).

I have found couchsurfing to be immensely helpful. I contact people or am contacted by people, we go out, hang out, explore, etc etc. I love it, it’s easy and efficient. This way you meet “locals” locals, people who’ve been in your destination for a certain time and then other newcomers. All of this enriches your experience.. [I think I should ask CS for % for advertising.]