Making the decision to become an expat isn’t an easy one — there are many factors to consider when deciding to live away from your own country.
I have met so many people who tell me they wish they could be an living as an expat. While being an expat is amazing and life-changing, it is important to give this big decision some very serious thought. And, if you are going to become an expat without putting some thought into it, you will find yourself stressed once you touchdown in that foreign country of your choice.
Simply making the conscious decision to pack up and move abroad is not enough for long-term life as an expat. Before you take that leap — and yes, you should take that leap — it is necessary to really think about the logistics of becoming an expat and whether you are prepared to do so. Personally, becoming an expat in Chiang Mai was the best decision I have ever made.
Before you relocate, consider the following questions to ask yourself before becoming an expat:
Where do you envision yourself living? The world is a big place, and there are so many places you can live as an expat that are wonderful. But, what suits you best? Do you love being near the water? Does humidity agree with your hair? Can you stomach temperatures as cold as Mars?
How are foreigners treated where you want to live? Not every country is welcoming to those who want to live as an expat. Take the time to speak with others who are living in the place you wish to plant your feet and learn about the realities of being western there. If you don’t know anyone in the place you have chosen, reach out to groups on social media. There are plenty of expat groups on Facebook where you can chat with those who are living as expats in your desired location.
Do you have enough to support yourself in a foreign country? To get certain visas, you will need to show proof of income, so be sure to research your desired location to learn about requirements in terms of financial qualifications. Also, account for the cost of securing visas and all that it entails (documentation, travel to consulates, etc.)
Do you expect to find a job in the country you are moving? Employment in foreign countries is not easy — depending on where you wish to live. Often times, depending on your experience, the only way to make an income legally is to teach english. Research, research, research. Do not move to a place with the expectation you will find a job and be legally allowed to be in a country. If you have a career in your home country, it is worth it to try to look up companies with offices around the world and see what qualifications are required to be employed with them in a foreign country? Or, do you want something new? Often times, you need to think outside-of-the-box in terms of being gainfully employed. Then again, there is always life as a digital nomad should your work fit that bill.
Do you have the money to back your day-to-day living expenses/cost of living? Some places are extremely friendly to the wallet (like Chiang Mai), others are right on par with Western prices. It is important to know what the cost of living is and what kind of lifestyle you wish to have before you head out.
What is medical care like? Are the doctors good? I remember I was walking through Siem Reap one afternoon with my expat friends there. We walked by a hospital and I asked how the care was. “If you go in, you won’t come out,” she said. Be sure to research medical care where you want to live, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions. Also check into whether or not you can purchase health insurance in your chosen country.
Do you speak the language? Not all places are hard to get by in if you aren’t fluent or don’t have a basic understanding of the language. But, some are more difficult than others, depending on where you decide to live. Here, most people in the city speak a certain level of English. The villages outside of town? Forget about it.
Are you interested in learning the language? After being here for nearly two years, I am starting to be able to get by with my horrid, tone-free Thai-glish. It’s a step in the right direction, but I would really love to become more fluent. Or at least nail my rising/falling/flat, etc. tones. (Note: if you are interested in learning the language, you can look into getting educational visas which allow you to live legally in the country while taking language courses.)
Lifestyle and culture
Are you moving to a place which is more conservative than where you live? Always know what you are walking in to before you walk in. Thailand is far more conservative than Las Vegas and what is OK in Sin City, certainly is not OK here. Some countries, like Morocco, are not booze-friendly; others are far more alcohol-fueled.
Do you understand the culture of the place you are moving? Are you comfortable with the cultural differences you will encounter? Recently, I was speaking with Mindy and Ligeia of Bounding Over Our Steps, a married couple, and they were concerned about how they should be while visiting Jakarta. It is a valid concern given the conservative nature of the city and its take on same-sex relationships. In Thailand, prostitution and buying women is normal. Does that idea bother you? Things like this are important to think about before you relocate.
How far are you willing to move from the life you know? Thailand is far, far away from my parents house. How far away from your comfort and support system are you willing to go? Can you handle a transit time of 24-hours, or do you prefer to be on the same time zone, just in a foreign land?
Are you prepared to fork out big bucks to return to your home country to visit friends and family? Sure, you can find deals on flights if you plan in advance, but what about those instances when you need to go back home and don’t have a lot of notice? What do you do?
Are you prepared to invest time in meeting new people? Moving to a foreign country likely means you don’t know people there. Not only that, but are you prepared for the transient nature of expat friendships? Relationships as expats are fast and furious and often end in “see you soon” — even if you thought it was more long term. Expat friends are unique and can be both a good thing and a challenging thing. I have certainly had my struggles with friends here, but the ones I keep close are ones I would be friends with forever — no matter where in the world I am.
Are you ok going through an adjustment period without a support system? Being alone in a foreign country can be challenging. Unless you know people where you are going, it will take time to meet others you have things in common with and with whom you can share experiences.
What is your relationship status? I am single and so long as I live here, I think I will be single. Being a single western woman in Thailand is not easy for a variety of reasons, one being that most western men aren’t interested in western women here, and the other being that most Thai men aren’t interested in western women. Thankfully, being single has given me a chance to get out of my comfort zone and work on myself … but it isn’t always easy. I know that if I was an expat in another part of the world, I would not have a problem finding a date, but here? Nope.
Are you prepared for your dynamics of friendships in your home country to change? Time differences, a lack of face-to-face communication and more can drastically alter the relationships you have in your home country. Yes, there is Skype and FaceTime and Facebook and countless other ways of staying in touch, but a long distance hug is not the same thing as an in-person one.
What is the visa situation where you want to go? Not every country treats those wishing to become an expat the same. For places like Europe, there is the Schengen visa, which essentially gives you 90 days within the Schengen zone, then you must be out for 90 days. I know people who have ignored the rule and stayed for far longer, but there is always a risk. In Thailand, there are visas in place which allow you to get a double entry, which basically gives you nine months in the country. Be sure to thoroughly research visa options for the place you wish to call home. There’s nothing worse than getting to a place and not being able to stay as long as you wished. Additionally, there are ways around this. You can get education visas in many places which “require” you to enroll in a language school, etc.
Are you running? Becoming an expat should be because you want to experience, not because you want to escape. Everywhere you go, there you are, and if you are not happy with yourself, this is magnified a bajillion times in a foreign place. If you think you are becoming an expat because of running, please, please, rethink this decision. Even living here and not running, I have gone through bouts of depression and it is incredibly difficult to experience this in a foreign country.
Can you handle unsolicited feedback? Some cultures are quite open with what they think of you. For example, in Thailand, the fact I am overweight means I am constantly told I am fat. It isn’t a mean thing when it comes out of peoples mouths, but that doesn’t take the sting away. If you are sensitive, be aware that in some cultures, you have to smile through it … even if it hurts on the inside.
Are you up for the challenge? As you probably noticed above, there are a lot of things to consider when deciding to become an expat. Can you handle the challenges, the stress of arranging this? Do you think life as an expat is a fit? If so, I can promise you, life as an expat is never dull and a beautiful experience to hold on to. It allows you to see a different side of life and gain so much perspective.