10 Tips on Becoming an Expat
By Caitlin Boros and Victoria Boyd, Senior Editors at Anew Traveller
Travelling to a new place is one thing – but what about living in one? Whether a move abroad is by choice or simply unavoidable, there’s plenty of wonderful moments – and certain challenges – that shape the expat experience.
Adjusting to the unfamiliar is often a test of patience; however, here are a few helpful tips that can hopefully help ease the transition for new expats.
1. Learn as much as you can before you go
Much like a job interview or a first day at school, the best thing you can do when moving to a new country is arrive prepared. Take the time to research some of the region’s history, prominent cultural practices and holidays, cuisine and fashion. If moving to a place where you do not speak the local language, learn basic words and phrases to help with early interactions. This foundational knowledge will help immensely when first navigating your new home.
2. Pack lightly
The first time I lived abroad, I squeezed all I could into the two large suitcases I was permitted to take with me. I remember thinking that living with only 2 bags worth of ‘stuff’ was impossible, and I would surely need to buy much more once I arrived. And while I certainly did buy new things upon my arrival, I was amazed at how little I really needed. Packing lightly can help your initial transition (you’re not stuck at home unpacking boxes for months), and will also give you the freedom to incorporate both old and new into your abode.
3. Trade frustration for motivation
As a newcomer, there will be plenty of moments of frustration. Completing the paperwork for your visa. Finding an apartment. Trying to order lunch. The feeling of being an outsider will rear its head often and can leave you feeling like nothing around you quite makes sense. Rather than falling into despair, try to use these moments as motivation.
When I moved to France several years ago, I remember feeling like ‘establishing’ myself within the local system was completely impossible – I couldn’t get a cell phone without a bank account and I couldn’t get a bank account without a permanent address and I couldn’t get an apartment without a bank account and phone number. While this resulted in some initial frustration, at a certain point I decided to view each of these tasks as goals, and worked towards achieving them. Each time something fell into place, it felt like a victory, and provided me with the motivation to move onto the next.
4. Engage in a local activity
Whether it’s a familiar activity like a sport you played in your home country, or something completely new like a language or cooking class, getting engaged in an activity is a great way for expats to meet new people, learn more about the local culture, and get into a routine. While it can be intimidating at first, joining a team or class can help connect you with your new home.
5. Learn the local language or dialect
This may seem like a no-brainer, but learning to speak like a local is one of the most important ways to ease into life as an expat. When I first moved to Italy I kept putting off joining an Italian language course. I kept asking myself if it was really necessary for all that time and money. The answer is YES! I didn’t realize how much I would regret not making an effort to learn Italian until I got home a few months later. Speaking the local language not only makes life infinitely easier, but it creates endless opportunities for meeting new people and enjoying new experiences. All it takes is a conscious effort to practice, and remembering that it is only going to get easier!
6. Become friends with the locals
It can be difficult to meet locals if you don’t speak their language, especially when you are in a country where not many people speak English. But once you begin to get a grasp of the language, making friends with locals should be your top priority. Of course it’s fun to hang out with other expats who relate to your “expat problems”, but locals are the ones that will teach you about the country, its culture, and all it has to offer. In my experience, it is these friendships that are the most meaningful and memorable.
7. Keep in touch with family and friends from home
Keeping in touch with those at home is difficult when you have to factor in different time zones, diverse schedules, and flakey internet connections. Keeping in touch takes time and effort, but it is absolutely key. The feeling of losing contact with people you were once close with sucks. But remember, every relationship is two-way. As excited as you are to share stories of your travels, make an effort to stay caught up on what is happening in their lives too.
8. Don’t be surprised if the charm wears off
Living in a foreign country for an extended period is always exciting, but after awhile that initial charm can begin to wear off. Aspects of your new country that you once found exciting may begin to frustrate you. In turn, you’ll start to reminisce about all the “perks” of your home country. Don’t become overwhelmed by a negative attitude towards your new country. Like any negative behaviour, it can become pervasive in way that may affect your daily mood and how you view your surroundings. Every country has its pros and cons. Focus on the positive aspects and consciously strive to minimize any negative thoughts.
9. Keep a journal
Let’s be real, being an expat is one of the most exciting experiences life has to offer. Moving away from home and completely re-establishing your life in another country is something to be proud of. Keeping a journal (or a sketchbook or whatever it may be) offers the perfect opportunity to not only record your adventures, but to express your thoughts and feelings about your new experiences. In my experience, a journal can also be a great way to release and let go of those negative feelings that come along with #8 on our list. 10 years down the road, I guarantee that a journal filled with your experiences abroad will be one of your most valued souvenirs.
10. Make a ‘bucket list’
As you adjust to being an expat, make a bucket list of things you want to do, see, eat and experience in your new home. This list can act as a guide for early exploration of this new place, and will continue to act as motivation as you become more familiar and connected. Creating a bucket list (and committing yourself to stick to it) will help during times of frustration or disenchantment, reminding you of all that your surroundings have to offer.
Have a great tip for new expats? Share it in the comments below!