Thinking of living abroad? We’ve gathered a panel of people who’ve lived the dream of working and living abroad to answer your questions.
It sounds so exciting to live abroad, walk the colorfully-lit streets of some ultramodern metropolis, or perhaps stop by your favorite 300-year-old café on your way to work.
But do you have what it takes to pick up your life and move to another country? How can first-time expats find the best place to live? What is an expat, even? We’ve assembled a roundtable of expatriates from the United States and other countries, to answer all of your top questions.
But first, what is an expat? An expat, short for expatriate, is someone living outside their native country. They may be planning to return one day, they may be in it for the duration, or they may be taking it day by day or job by job.
Our Expat Roundtable Answers Your Living Abroad Questions:
We’ve pulled together a group of people who either are or have recently spent extended periods of time working and living abroad. Some are first-time expats; others are veterans of many countries. Please meet:
- Dawn (pictured above): An American living abroad in Slovenia
- Helen: A British citizen living abroad in the U.S.
- Pat: She comes from the Philippines; has lived all over the world, and is currently in Mozambique
- Roy: A British/American dual national, recently returned to Britain from the US.
- Willow: An American who has lived in different countries, including Nepal, Lesotho, and Japan
- Kaumudi: An India social living abroad in the U.S.
Willow’s first experience with work abroad was in Japan, in television, radio, and teaching English to businessmen. Image: Flikr, Toomore Chiang Tokyo, Japan, CC 2.0.
What are or were your main reasons for living abroad?
Willow: A sense of adventure.
Kaumudi: In 1996 my husband at the time and I moved to Austin so he could do his Masters in Urban Design there.
Roy: To live in a society that is more oriented to community and sustainability, where government operates on behalf of normal people instead of being a plutocracy. A better healthcare system, a better school system and affordable college for the children. And to escape earthquakes and guns.
Helen: [My] husband took a job in California.
Dawn: We came for a “temporary” stay so that my husband could work and do dissertation research. And we also wanted to spend time in the country his grandmother emigrated from, because we’d already visited a few times and knew we liked it.
Willow knows lots about what it’s like to move to another country. She first got work abroad in Japan, but worked in several other countries, including Nepal. Image: Flickr, GraceMarcellaNorman, Kathmandu Market, CC 2.0
How do you find work abroad?
Finding work abroad can be a challenge, here’s how these expats did it.
Willow: Networking once inside the country. In Japan I worked on Japanese T.V. and radio, and taught English to businessmen. In Canada, I was marketing manager for a Native American art gallery. In Nepal I did marketing for a Himalayan resort, and taught some English. In Lesotho, I was a representative for a Canadian parastatal.
Dawn: 1) Have at least something lined up before you go, if possible; 2) get your residency and work permit in order, 3) Network! 4) Be willing to teach English at a language school in order to network. 5) Understand that you may well have to freelance and scrape by for a while before you find what you’re looking for.
Kaumudi: It was really tough. First I was on a student spouse visa and couldn’t work, so I wrote for newspapers back in India. Then I was on my husband’s work permit as a spouse and could not work. So I continued freelancing and preparing for a day when we would have a green card and I could start my own business, which I did in 2009.
When planning your move to another country, getting rid of your stuff should be near the top of your list. Image CC-by-SA 2.0 Jason Taellious via Flickr.
How did you plan your move to another country?
Willow: The first move, to Japan, I had a little over a hundred dollars in my pocket and a roundtrip ticket. The others, my former husband’s company took care of covering the costs.
Helen: We took advice from other people who did it. Got rid of most of our stuff and put a lot of other stuff in various relatives’ lofts (a lot of it is still in them). Arranged accommodation before we arrived.
Roy: Carefully, starting a year in advance with visiting schools and neighborhoods there. Getting the passports up to date, applying for the schools. Then six months before the move, booking accommodation (AirBNB) for 2 months while we bought a house, dealing with the visa situation. Also throwing out much of the accumulated possessions of 20 years, cleaning up the house for sale, and finding a realtor.
How did you decide what would be the best place to live for you?
What’s the best place to live? Finding the best country to live in depends on any number of factors, including affordability, amenities, how easy it is to emigrate and find work, and whether people there speak your language. But for first-time expats living abroad, where you go often depends on a job offer, you or your spouse getting accepted for an academic program, or where you know someone who will let you stay.
Willow: In Japan I had a sister who had lived there for short time and was there for a month after I came.
Kaumudi: We both wanted to go to the USA so Sanjiv could study there. I was comfortable in North America, having lived in Canada, so we didn’t consider other countries.
Dawn: Husband’s ancestry and [his having a] job waiting for him. We also had prior experience with the country, having visited several times, once for an extended period.
Pat: I choose from a list of available positions and I give each country a rating for quality of life, cost of living, safety and security, job satisfaction, climate, friendliness of locals, outdoor and travel opportunities, etc. As for food, if I can’t get pork (I’m Asian), then there better be some seafood.
Taxes can be a major challenge for first-time expats living and working abroad. Image: CC 2.0 Peter Alfred Hess via Flickr.
If you’re a U.S. taxpayer, what’s your advice on dealing with US taxes while living abroad?
Expat taxes can be a major challenge when living abroad. Here are some tips for first-time expats.
Roy: You will need to hire someone, at least for the first time. You will have Federal and State returns, as well as your country of residence tax return. Which country gets what tax, and how to avoid being taxed twice is quite a headache.
Willow: In the United States tax code there is (or was) a foreign worker deduction. The first 80k of your salary is (or was) tax-free.
Dawn: Earn less than $104,000/year. Then you can just take the foreign earned income exclusion and forget about all the details. But if you’re self-employed you’ll still have to pay self-employment tax. So you may want to think about creative ways to work that don’t involve self-employment.
Pat: Get a good accountant! I made a big mistake during my first overseas tour – I missed a huge deduction that I could have claimed.
What were some of your most pleasant surprises living abroad in your host country or countries?
Pat: They say you can’t throw a rock anywhere in the world without hitting a Filipino. That is so true! I find Filipino expats who show me the ropes, e.g. the best bargains, where to get Filipino food, etc.
Helen: The friendliness of the people, the ease of making friends.
Roy: The bus system here is awesome. I didn’t realize quite how much I would enjoy traveling around in busses.
Dawn: The overall outstanding level of food quality, from production to sales to local cuisine in restaurants.
Kaumudi: I love the beauty, grandeur, and freedom of the USA. I feel I’ve become more American than Indian. My daughter is American and I’ve been so happy living here. The 2016 election makes me wonder though.
Willow: (1) Lesotho the people are famous for their blankets, which they wear as capes, shawls for warmth. I so loved the designs that I had a blanket made into a jacket. Every time I wore that jacket Basuto people would give me the biggest smiles or say nice things. (2) In Nepal there is a special Hindu festival in the fall where they slaughter tens of thousands of animals as a sacrifice, then sprinkle the blood around as protection. I had a three-gear bike I called Big Red that I’d ride to work, and my co-workers, as a kindness sprinkled chicken’s blood on my bike to protect me. I was torn between the horror of it and their kindness in including me, the only westerner.
Any unpleasant surprises?
Willow: In Tokyo, expats stick out like sore thumbs, so when I was on subways people would practice their English on me. After a while, this was exhausting, I had no downtime. To protect myself I’d say I didn’t speak English.
Pat: I had no idea how direct and assertive the locals were (are?). It was very difficult for me to adjust at the beginning since I wasn’t used to this kind of interaction on a daily basis.
Kaumudi: Lots in the past year, politically speaking. That’s opened a Pandora’s box of problems that I had hated in India and was happy to move away from – corruption, nepotism, lurid tv reporting, parochialism. To see it here makes me realize that human nature is the same everywhere. But I know I couldn’t live in India again. This is home.
Roy: The price structure of housing in Britain. In the US a house’s selling price has the agent’s fees subtracted off—5%. In the UK, the buyer’s price has a 5% stamp duty added to it. It cuts you both ways—both when you come from the US and when you buy a house in the UK.
Dawn: When we first came in 2001 there were surprising gaps in the goods available for sale, so finding something simple like birthday candles ended up being a wild goose chase populated by multiple shopkeepers sadly shaking their heads in perplexity.
Helen: The bread! Oh, the bread. I still have not adjusted to the ghastliness of the taste of American sandwich bread. This is probably a fairly common expat experience – some things will just not taste like the things you grew up with and you will never, ever get used to it. But other things will compensate.
Any other hints for first-time expats about making a smooth move to another country, finding the best place to live, or making the most of living abroad?
Willow: Be open to the experience, it’s going to be different than you imagined it to be, and it will change you. Take classes, work if you can. Some countries have a different sense of personal space. Accept it. Keep a sense of humor.
Roy: First: Sort out citizenship/visa, sort out the school situation, decide what will happen with the pets. Then cut cut cut on your possessions — it all seems so valuable before you go, but when it arrives, a lot of it will be unwanted and will stay in the cardboard boxes using up space.
Kaumudi: Discover the city/country you’ve moved to. Learn the local language and get to know local people, don’t stay closeted with your own ethnic community. Show local people that you’re not there just for financial reasons. Volunteer, participate in community activities and encourage your children to do so too. If you’re from a different religion, share it with your community so they understand you’re like them and not to be feared. Join the local library and YMCA/gym so your kids have access to the arts, sports, and community.
Helen: (1) Don’t try and store stuff in your home country unless you are pretty certain you are coming back in the short term. Take it with you or get rid of it. You won’t miss it if you get rid of it, and anything you don’t get rid of will have to be dealt with at some point down the line. (2) Accept every social invitation you get, even if you really don’t feel like going. Weeding out the new “friends” that don’t work out is a bit of a pain, but better than letting yourself get isolated. (3) Don’t panic about stuff. All the tax/driving/finance stuff is a nightmare but you’ll figure it out eventually.
Dawn: If your new country is not an English-speaking country, do your best to learn the local language. It really leads to a better quality of life (and more friends). Also, find and join the expat group in your town that seems to fit you. They can help answer all those imponderable questions, like “just where can I buy a French press around here?”
Pat: Don’t wait too long to explore the country because you never know what may happen. Make an attempt to learn the language. I really expanded my vocabulary in Turkish by watching Friends on cable and reading the subtitles. Listening to the radio and music helps with the pronunciation and fluency. Try to engage with the locals…Finding friends from your same country is very helpful with the transition. Lastly, don’t impose your own values – just enjoy the experience.
Summary of tips for first-time expats looking to live abroad…
So, to sum up: Travel light. Plan carefully, researching the best place to live–or go where instinct takes you. Try to have a job lined up before you move to another country, but don’t panic if you don’t—a lot of work abroad comes through connections you’ll make once you get there. Keep your paperwork in order, and make sure you have a good accountant. Learn as much as you can about the language and culture of your host country, and make the most of every social opportunity while living abroad. And don’t forget to take lots of pictures.
Featured image: CC 0 Public Domain via U.S. State Department.