Eleven years ago, my husband and I packed up all of our worldly goods and moved from San Francisco to the Netherlands. Most of my friends and family thought moving abroad was crazy. And now? Suddenly my insights on expat life are in high demand. Even people who have lived in the same small town their entire life are considering resettling in a foreign country.
Interest in living the expat life is not just anecdotal. According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 40% of women younger than 30 would like to leave the U.S., and a record-high of one in five of all women would permanently move to another country.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t dimmed enthusiasm for living abroad. Over the past four months, expat-friendly website International Living has seen a 1600% increase in traffic from Americans looking to move abroad.
Before you pack your bags and renew your passport, here are six things you should know if you’re considering relocating to another country.
Before you think of renting or buying a home outside of the U.S., take time to understand the local real estate market and customs. Much about foreign homes are, well, foreign to American buyers. For example, European homes are often rented and sold bare — as in no kitchen cabinets or appliances bare — which can lead to unpleasant surprises on move-in day. American standards like air conditioning and multiple bathrooms are also less common in other countries. If you outsource your home search to a local estate agent, make sure you make your expectations clear with them. There is no such thing as asking too many questions when it comes to choosing your housing.
Banking and getting loans while living abroad
Opening an international bank account can be much more difficult than getting one in your home country. The U.S. government imposes restrictions and reporting requirements on international banks that offer services to Americans.
Rather than being able to walk into any local branch, you may need to use the same bank as your employer, or pick from a handful which cater to expats. You’ll be expected to provide your passport and tax information, and make a yearly report to the U.S. government if your account balance exceeds a certain minimum.
Personal loans, mortgages and credit cards are even more challenging, as your U.S. credit history will not carry over to the new country.
Forget the expat package
If you manage to convince your employer to send you to work in a foreign office, don’t assume you will get an expat package. Previously, companies would include amenities like a housing allowance, private school fees and holiday travel funds as an enticement for executives to move abroad. Nowadays, businesses can find qualified employees in most countries.
While you may be able to land a job in the London office, expect to be treated like the London employees and adjust your budget appropriately. You may even have to take a pay cut as international salaries are frequently lower than what U.S. counterparts make for the same position.
Rebuild your family budget
One of the hardest parts of moving overseas is building a daily life budget. American costs don’t always serve well as a starting point. For example, as a UK resident, I pay more for housing, groceries and fuel than my parents in Florida, but I pay much less for property taxes and nothing for healthcare.
Take time to research the real local costs of everyday life and balance them against a local salary. Remember, even the small things can quickly add up. Don’t forget to include one-off fees like passport and visa applications, registration fees and different tax assessments.
Plan (and replan) for unemployment and retirement
Living abroad takes you away from your safety net, particularly if you are well below the age of retirement. Most countries require you to contribute to national pensions and social security accounts for a minimum number of years before you can qualify to draw from them. If you aren’t careful, you may discover that you can’t get any retirement funds from any government. Similarly, as an expat, you likely won’t be eligible for unemployment aid. The current pandemic has taught us that the impossible can happen; as an expat, you’ll need savings to fill in any gaps.
Culture shock is real
No matter how many times you’ve vacationed abroad, making a move and living there is different. Even if you pick an English-speaking country, you should prepare yourself to experience culture shock. Oftentimes it is the little things, like not finding your favorite snack food in the grocery store, which make you realize how far you are from home.
Trying to replicate American life abroad is a recipe for disaster. You will settle in much faster if you lean into the new culture, blending your old traditions with new ones you create.
As a happily settled expat, I am the first to encourage people to try out life in another country. However, having the right attitude isn’t enough. I have learned the hard way how important the upfront planning and research can be. Enjoying life abroad is much easier when you’ve got all of the basics in place.
Resources for moving abroad
If you want more information on moving abroad, here are some general resources you can use. (There are many more country-specific guides available through a simple Google search.):
- Traveling abroad from the U.S. government
- Expat life websites: EasyExpat.com, InternationalLiving.com, Expat.com
- Information from the IRS for taxpayers living abroad;
- Financial information, advice and referrals at ExpertsforExpats.com
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