9 Tips for Becoming an Expat

For some people like me, a RTW trip is a dream they’re working for, but might not fit their current circumstances. At the time I wanted to travel, it wasn’t feasible for my husband to quit his job. I had also recently made a career switch and didn’t want to stunt my progress.

I quickly found that there are ways to travel and experience the world without living out of a backpack. For me, the right option was moving to another country. For 13 months, I lived in Colima, Mexico and continued my career as a project manager for software development teams.

With the right preparation, proper expectations, and a little flexibility, your own transition to the expat lifestyle can be smooth. Settling in a new country means learning deeply about your surroundings, settling into a new routine, and with a little help, continuing a career you love (and not just one where you teach English).

Here’s the nitty-gritty on what to consider, how to get started, and which countries are the friendliest for foreign professionals.

Is expat life for you?

Visa and work requirements

The first thing anyone should do when considering an expat lifestyle, assuming that you have to make money, is to find out the visa and work restrictions for your chosen country.  How friendly is the country to foreign workers? Are there any industries that are off-limits to foreigners?

These additional questions will help you know which areas are most “doable” for expats looking to work in their new location:

  1. Are there age restrictions placed on work permits? Many countries welcome recent graduates only.
  2. Are there time limits on work permits? Know how long you’re allowed to stay, if the work visa can be renewed, and what that renewal process is.
  3. Do you have to have a job before applying for a work visa?
  4. Or, do you have to have a visa before looking for work?
  5. Is the visa valid for only one specific job, or can it be transferred to a new company?
  6. What happens to the visa if you get sick or injured and cannot work for a period of time?

Getting settled

If you’re thinking about putting down roots in another country, fully consider the challenges in setting up shop there. You will be entering another governmental system, with new customs, laws, and requirements.

Living abroad means everyday things become a bit more difficult. Think about where you will look for housing – is there a website like Craigslist used for apartment rentals? Will your new job provide housing or help you find something? Can you get a recommendation from the employees at your new job?

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Before deciding to become an expat, research how to set up basic utilities. You may find that you must have a bank account in the country in order to set up local cell phone service or electricity. However, to set up a bank account, you may be required to hold a certain type of visa or proof of employment. Know the restrictions in advance and plan for the interim period when you may be waiting for work or a visa to come through.

If the hassle doesn’t seem worth it, there are always alternatives. You could pre-pay for service or room with locals who meet the requirements of setting up new utilities.

In general, be prepared to spend a lot of time getting your new place up and running. In Mexico, we found that setting up cell phone service was an ordeal involving multiple trips to the cell phone store and confusing hoops to jump through. In contrast, getting gas at the apartment was as easy as popping outside when the gas truck drove by each morning. When we heard someone calling the name of the gas company loudly down our street, we knew they were there. A few pesos paid in cash and our propane tank was full for six months.

Staying Safe

Safety is another huge consideration when determining if an expat life is right for you. In Mexico I found so many times that getting to know the locals was essential. My neighbors kept watch over our house when we went home to visit family. A girl I didn’t even know prevented a man from snatching my car keys when I stupidly put them down at the local track.

At the same time, violence in Mexico is real, and the drug trade was hidden in plain sight during my year there. Using common sense, knowing my surroundings, and building relationships with my neighbors made me feel completely safe in Mexico.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have an escape plan, though. My husband and I planned out what we would do if we felt we needed to leave the country immediately. The nearest airport was 3 hours away, so we familiarized ourselves with highway routes, bus schedules, and even determined a meeting point in the event that we got separated.

I’ll never be one to scare anyone away from living abroad, but do so with eyes wide open. Know the risks you’re walking into and create a plan. Consider safety when you choose a place to live, decide how late to stay out, and how to manage your money. Finally, read the local news to know what’s happening in your area.

Making ends meet

If you choose a country that is less friendly toward foreigners, or you don’t yet have work lined up, you may find that prepaying is your best option for major expenses like housing. Look at expat forums, local websites, or contacts in-country who can help set expectations around housing prices. Set aside 1-2 months of rent before arriving to cover any security deposit and allow you to move in when you find the perfect place.

In addition to your rent money, you will need 1-2 months of basic living costs. To know how much to save, do the math carefully – consider the cost of things like:

  • Daily transportation – There are often multiple tiers of public transportation service; which are you most comfortable with and how often will you be traveling?
  • Groceries and eating out – You may find that eating out at markets or even restaurants may be cheaper than buying groceries. If you love to cook, though, consider the cost of food and the supplies you will need to prepare and eat it.
  • Communication with friends and family – Invest in cheap or free solutions whenever possible, such as Skype or Google hangout.
  • Utilities and due dates – Plan for costs such as gas, electricity, cell phone, laundry, and in some cheaper locales, even house cleaning. Know the due dates and penalties for late payments. Sometimes your service will be shut off immediately if you miss a payment, and the cost to reinstate it can be exorbitant.
  • Basic necessities – Are you bringing things like towels and dishes with you? If not, factor in the cost of setting up a basic home. In Mexico, a “senora” to clean your house and do your laundry would cost $40 a session, but so would a plastic laundry basket from Walmart. Don’t assume that costs for goods and services will be comparable to costs at home.

Traveling alone or with someone

Your travel style will have a huge impact on your experience as an expat. Going alone means that you don’t have anyone to rely on. Figuring the new place out becomes a one-person job, and it can get lonely without support.

However, traveling alone encourages you to get out and meet people, make friends, and even start a new relationship. You will probably develop stronger connections with your local area than if you go with a partner.

I lived in Mexico with my husband, and it was great to have a built-in friend. I could be myself, not worry about looking stupid speaking Spanish, and have someone to complain to. On the other hand, neither of us made the language learning progress that we’d hoped for, primarily because we spent much of our free time alone, speaking English to each other. We didn’t make as many friends as we could have, because we could lean on each other for companionship.

From surviving to thriving

Finding your routine

One of the easiest things you can do to feel like a local is to find some favorite establishments and become a regular there. This could be your corner market, the coffee shop by your work, or a public exercise facility. Explore all that your area has to offer, but find a favorite and get to know the staff.

One of the easiest things you can do to feel like a local is to find some favorite establishments and become a regular there.

This tip came from a fellow expat friend when I was first finding my way around Mexico, and it really did make a world of difference. Walking into a store and being greeted by the clerk goes a long way to making you feel like you matter in a new place, like someone knows you’re there. Embrace the routine and claim the place mentally as “yours.”

Maximizing travel as an expat

When you move abroad, everyone assumes you’re on an extended vacation. In reality, you’ll be working a job, reading a library book, and dealing with the same hum-drum activities of regular life anywhere. It’s more interesting to do it in another country, but you’ll still want to travel and explore new areas.

The best way to maximize your travel is simply to plan ahead. Do some research early in the week, pick a place, and plan to leave Friday after work. If you know where you’re going to stay and how you’ll get there, it’s easy to grab a bag and head out for a weekend. I rarely did this at home and found myself struggling to do it in Mexico. Friday would roll around and I’d want to go somewhere new, but with no planning (I’m a total planner), it didn’t work. In an entire year there, I only took two long weekend trips.

Another way to maximize travel is to meet friends and family in a third location. I’ve found that home is where the people I love are, not necessarily a physical location. Invite your loved ones to do a joint vacation rather than travel home. You’ll get quality time together and have new experiences and memories to share.

Finally, make use of your new country’s national holidays. They may not be the same holidays you currently observe, but that can actually be a good thing. If you’re able to take time off when it’s not so popular in the rest of the world, you may be able to take advantage of off-season or shoulder-season prices.

Dealing with emotion

Expat emotions are heightened. There’s nothing else to it. Three weeks into my year in Mexico, I broke down in tears because I wanted a Subway sandwich and couldn’t get one. I’ve never cried over food before or since.

These are the three tips I learned about dealing with emotion while living as an expat:

  1. Embrace it. Whatever you’re feeling is okay, and it will pass. Pretending to be happy when you’re not will not help you become happier. Accepting your current reality will. As an expat, I felt alternatively proud, excited, frustrated, homesick, and liberated. These emotions would sometimes come out of nowhere, but letting myself feel them meant I could get past them.
  2. Get it out. Find a healthy way of dealing with your emotions, be that writing, exercise, venting to a friend, etc. Write a letter to yourself, yell at a wall, or take a walk. There are ways for both introverts and extroverts to deal with strong emotions healthily.
  3. Be in the moment. You didn’t become an expat because you wanted things to be just like home. Part of the adventure is embracing the uncomfortableness that comes with assimilating to another country’s way of life. When it feels like too much, remember that you’re in the midst of an experience you might never have again. Know that it will pass, and that you will be stronger because of it.

Where to go – friendly countries for expats

Some countries make it easier than others to find work as a foreign professional. The following countries offer opportunities for expats to work in skilled industries, albeit each with different restrictions.

New Zealand

New Zealand offers US residents ages 18-30 the chance for a 12-month “working holiday.” Similar programs are offered for residents of a variety of countries. This visa allows you to work legally while technically on holiday throughout the country, meaning that you don’t need work lined up already in order to get the visa. Arrangements with some countries allow for extensions of the work holiday program.

Learn more about the work holiday program in New Zealand.

Australia

As with the New Zealand program, Australia offers citizens of several countries ages 18-30 the ability to work for a year while on holiday in the country. Visa holders can only work for six months for the same company, or else a more permanent work visa must be sponsored. The work holiday visa in Australia is not renewable. Learn more here.

Mexico

Mexico allows foreigners to work in professional industries on an FM3 visa. This visa grants many of the rights of citizenship, though it is limited. It must be applied for through the company that employs you – individuals cannot apply for and receive a work permit. The visa is only valid for the company that applied for it. Technically if you leave a company, they are required to report that you no longer work there, and your FM3 will become invalid, but this is rare. Typically expats simply work with their new company to get the visa transferred over. Visas are valid for one year, and can be renewed indefinitely.

Ireland

Current students and recent graduates from the US are welcome to work in Ireland for up to 12 months under a US-Ireland exchange program. Residents of other countries have similar programs, typically with age and time limit restrictions. The visa covers “work of a casual or temporary nature only,” and is not renewable. US citizens can learn more here. Citizens of other countries can find specifics here.

Singapore

Singapore offers the residents of several countries between the ages of 17 and 30 the chance to work for up to six months on a working holiday. Applicants must be either full-time university students or recent graduates. There are no restrictions on the type of work covered by the visa, and renewals are possible. Learn more about working in Singapore.

Finding a job

Networking with expats

You’d be surprised at how easy it is to find work in your current professional industry in another country. Don’t think for a second that the only way to make money is tending bar or teaching English. If you are on a career path and want to continue gaining relevant experience, your first move should be reaching out to the expat community in your new country.

It’s difficult to live in a foreign country, and you are immediately bound together with other expats by this thing you have in common. Take advantage of the immediate camaraderie to get a sense of the work world.

Many countries or cities have active expat forums or online communities to use as a starting point. These expats have made connections with local businesses, become known for their expertise, and often can suggest companies looking for skills you offer. Network as hard as you did to get your first job.

Superb forums exist for Greece, Spain, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. The leading general-info expat forum is the aptly named Expat Forum.

Transferring within a company

Your easiest move to become an expat is to transfer within your current company. If you work for a global organization, look for internal openings in foreign offices that will allow you to develop additional skills and continue on your current career trajectory. Note your desire for a transfer in your career goals, and actively discuss the possibility with your manager. Do not wait for someone to offer you the chance – actively network within the company to be considered for a position.

Transferring with your existing company will also make the move much easier. Most companies will support your transition by helping you find housing, handling the basic logistics, and introducing you to a new set of colleagues.

Do not wait for someone to offer you the chance – actively network within the company to be considered for a position.

The continuity of staying with a familiar company and meeting a new set of friends at work can ease the transition for someone not ready to dive in and figure it all out themselves.

Location-independent work

For many people, the most lucrative way they can work as an expat is to engage in location independent work in a place with a long tourist visa. Most tourist visas stipulate that you cannot make money or work for a local company, but the beauty of the internet is that you are not making local money. If you work for a company based in your home country, or work for yourself, you are not technically making money in your new host country.

If you can structure a virtual work environment, research the length of tourist visas in your top-tier countries. Understand if the tourist visa can be renewed, and if there is any restriction on time you must spend out of the country before reentering.

Working this way may require you to sublet an apartment or pay upfront in cash for housing, as it will be more difficult to prove your ability to continue paying rent. This is a small price to pay for preventing any blips on your resume when you’re ready to come home.

Knowing what you’re getting into is the single most important thing to make a successful expat experience. By doing your research and being realistic about cost and visas, you can build your dream life in a new location without sacrificing your career. With motivation, an open mind, and a willingness to pay it forward, a surprising number of doors will open for you. Take a deep breath and walk through one into a new life.

Have you ever lived abroad?  Comment below to share your tips and stories for becoming an expat.

To read more about expat lifestyle, check out the following articles and resources:

Photos by: Giorgio Montersino, mattiasjajaja, Gamweb, sids1

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Leave a Comment

  • Taking to the Open Road said at 2013-10-22T10:56:17+0000: I've been an expat three times now - and the usual setting up period is always the hardest. It's a challenge to sort out accommodation, banking and jobs in a completely foreign place, but you do get better at it as you go along! Another good tip and one that I try and do before I go is to research areas for accommodation so that once I've moved over I can hit the ground running when it comes to looking for a place to stay.
  • Martha Hassen said at 2013-10-14T14:57:35+0000: I worked as an expat in my 50's. All things are possible if you really want to do it. I didn't have a car, a phone, or a laptop, but I did have a bed and a kitchen, and a phone card. Local transport works just fine, and every weekend I got on a bus and went to where it was going, and saw what there was to see. There is so much to experience if you don't do hostels, but live in the real world of families and neighborhoods. I've done hostel traveling, but it gets so boring. I mean how much beer can you drink?
  • This Way To Paradise said at 2013-10-14T21:07:51+0000: This is great information! I just moved to Mexico, and wish I had this article before I came...
  • Liz Mehltretter said at 2013-02-23T17:59:01+0000: What if you are 30+ years old and want to work?
  • Mandy Moore said at 2012-08-16T21:05:50+0000: I love that you mention that being an expat is not the same as being on permanent vacation. I find many people don't realize that. Having been an expat in Mexico for the last 3.5 years, I've discovered there is a huge difference between being an expat and being a full-time traveler. While an expat might still travel, they have a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) home base vs. a traveler who is constantly moving around. I encourage anyone who wants to live/travel overseas for an extended period of time to figure out how to make non-location specific income. After more than 3 years in Mexico I'm ready to travel again and because I work online, my job just goes with me. Makes life much easier.
  • Atlas Sliced said at 2012-08-09T21:07:50+0000: What a great article with fantastic resources! I'm definitely going to check out the Expat Forum - didn't know about it. Looks like a good way to find non-teaching related jobs. I taught English in Korea for two years.
  • Worldtravelfamily said at 2012-08-02T19:40:57+0000: I've been in Australia for almost 5 years, I've never cried over a sandwich but I'd kill for a M&S prawn mayo! My husband has employed many backpackers here, just a suggestion, be ethical , if you are lucky enough to land a job, turn up regularly, the more problems he has with absent employees, the less likely he is to employ backpackers in the future. Keep it sweet for everyone! We're hoping to stay in Thailand for a while soon, my husband will be working, we hope, wondering what the regulations are for over 30s?
  • Melody Anne said at 2012-08-02T18:36:31+0000: Great article! Thanks for sharing! I definitely agree regarding the emotional thing! I went through a whirlwind of emotions when I was living in Argentina. But as long as you recognize that this is going to happen and that it's normal, you'll be fine :) www.amiramelody.wordpress.com.