Have you ever thought over a life experience and instantaneously wished, “REDO?!” I’m talking about the, “Ahhhh! If I’d only known about X, I would have done Y, which would have avoided *$%#!” In expat life, these scenarios occur quite a bit. Painstakingly more so at the beginning stage of moving abroad (but it gets easier, I promise).
While being pragmatic, well researched, and organized, are the seemingly obvious courses of actions to prevent any sort of calamities. It’s the invisible pitfalls that go unchecked. Aka, the tribal knowledge that (unfortunately) exists in the expat world.
Here to unpack (pun intended) the lesser-known moving abroad truths and to help manage expectations, is the Expat Dream Team. They are dishing out twenty-three things they wish they knew before moving to Sweden, Vietnam, France, Netherlands, Taiwan, and Germany.
And as an added bonus, is Bianca. An explorer who is on a 6-month slow travel adventure in Mexico. She is chatting about the motivation behind her unique journey and the interesting surprises she’s encountering along the way.
Expatriates reveal their hindsight 20/20 moving overseas moments
Chelsea in Germany
Chelsea is a US American expat/immigrant living and working in Hamburg, Germany. A German resident for nearly 7 years, she first came to the country to complete a master’s degree in linguistics, and is now working as an Editor for an international healthcare company. In early 2020, she decided to start writing about her perspective on learning the German language, living an international life in Germany, and some personal insights on Hamburg and life in general. Some other quick facts about Chelsea: she enjoys making a fool of herself on the internet, she likes trying out new art mediums, and she always has a third point when listing things.
”1. Save a digital copy of every important document. Maybe this is one of those things that is obvious for many people, but I definitely needed this tip. I’m terrified of losing important documents, probably because I have completely lost some in the past and had to go through so much hassle to make up for it. You can always print a physical copy later if necessary for (sometimes outdated) bureaucratic reasons or if a place lacks the infrastructure to handle digital documents. In other cases, having a digital copy may not always be accepted officially, but you can prove that you once had whatever document it is.
For example, having a copy of your passport makes it easier to get an emergency one if yours is ever lost or stolen. You’re still able to prove that you are who you say you are and that you once had this passport in your possession. With travel in mind as well, and knowing the bureaucracy may be different in each country, you know you’ll always have something you can pull up on your phone in case border control wants to see something wild like your university degree. (You never know!)”
2. Don’t focus too much on total integration in the first months, or even first couple of years in your new place. The thing about moving to a new country and living in a new culture is that you have to commit. You have to commit to learning and accepting differences that you may or may not like. And this takes time – it can take a lot of time.
Our brains don’t like change and it can take longer for some others. Adjusting to a new culture and learning the language is going to take quite a bit of time, and that’s OK. As long as you’re committing to the process, people respect that. I remember being so stressed all the time because I was very aware of how NOT integrated was. I couldn’t speak the language confidently for the first couple of years and I didn’t know local customs, laws, and rules. At times this could make me extremely sensitive and jumpy, and I look back and think, constantly being in a state of worry was pointless and didn’t allow me to enjoy my new life to the fullest.
Just don’t forget to take a moment every once in a while and look back at how far you’ve come and the progress that you’ve made. It can feel like it’s taking too long to reach those milestones that you want to reach, but you’ve likely come a lot further than you think. So take moments every now and then to pat yourself on the back!
3. It’s true that it’s harder to find friends as an adult, but it’s not impossible. People often say that after you leave university or school it becomes a lot harder to meet like-minded people and make new friends. Honestly, I find this to be true, but you’re just going to have to put in a little bit more work to find your people.
If you’re not using the internet to put yourself out there and find interesting people in your area (or just to have internet friends), what are you doing?! We have this amazing – and sometimes dark and weird – resource at our fingertips, so you better take advantage of it. Of course this works better for those of us who are comfortable with using social media and putting our faces out there (You’re more likely to meet up with someone who has a normal photo and looks approachable, right?), but in most cities and areas there are opportunities to attend local meet-ups or international events. Just use our friend Google and get to searching!
4. You might have an identity crisis, but you will evolve. Soaking up all of the new information about language, culture, and way of life, you’ll likely realize at some point that you’re exhausted and confused. You might question who you really are and who you’ve become. Am I still fundamentally the same person I was before moving here? Have my views changed? Have my preferences changed?
This feeling of insecurity might also be compounded by reverse culture shock when you visit home or when your friends flat out tell you, “You’ve changed…” And sometimes I wonder how much is just getting older and more mature versus how my current residence has changed me. The point is that it doesn’t matter – we will adapt and evolve as people, no matter where we are. We will convince ourselves that who we are now is the best version of ourselves because we have tried new things and experienced different perspectives. And what a privilege this is!”
Alyssa in France
”Hi! I’m Alyssa, a 27-year-old American from Kansas currently living in Orléans, France. I’ve been an expat in France since 2017, starting as an au pair in Bordeaux for a year, then getting my Master’s degree in Montpellier for two years, and now I work in the tourism industry in the Loire Valley. I love living in France and (for as far as I can see right now) I plan on staying here!”
”1. Make friends from your home country. Even though I totally agree that living abroad is about integrating into a new society and culture (and possibly language) 98% of the time, there will be days when you just want to talk to someone who understands both sides of the equation: being from your home country and also living in your host country. These are the times you’ll be happy to have those special friends.
2. Make a list of all your favorite foods and products from home. It’ll come in very handy when your friends and family ask for ideas of what to send you in a care package. (And you’ll be more than happy to receive them, trust me.)
3. If you’re moving somewhere with a different language, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Get out there and give it a try. Yes, you’ll have an accent. But it’s 100% not as big of a deal as you think it is. You’ll never get better if you don’t try! (And native speakers are generally pretty understanding and helpful if you make an effort.)”
Katie and Mat in Vietnam
”We are SteeleInTheSun, a couple from South Yorkshire who moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019. We work in education, and in our free time we like to travel at our own pace, take lots of pictures, try lots of new food and geek out to sci-fi movies and TV shows. We both try to live life with an open mind, a kind heart and a lot of laughter.”
”1. There are processes and paperwork that NEED to be done at certain time. When I (Katie) was told I had landed a job here in Saigon, in my mind it was a “That’s it, we are going” moment. However, I then slowly realised there is a lot of paperwork to legally move and reside abroad. Some people will bounce from tourist visa to tourist visa, but to live here legally you need various notarized pieces of paperwork (marriage certificates, birth certificates etc.), certain qualifications and someone willing to give you a work permit. We were lucky that my workplace gave detailed instructions and Mat is super organised, but I honestly never knew how many trips to London, the solicitor and the “Important Documents” drawer moving would take. Even now, we need health checks, police checks, and various other things at certain times of the year!
2. Shopping limitations, adaptations, and taxations. When you start packing, people offer helpful tips but often, even though these come from a place of kindness, they aren’t always the voice of experience. We left quite a few items behind in the UK assuming that we would be able to replace them when we arrived but are yet to find a store that stocks them.
We were told several times, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll be able to buy that there” or “If you don’t pack it now, we can always ship it to you.”
As it turns out, Vietnam can be quite limited in the plus-size clothing and large fit shoe ranges, but it also charges import fees/taxes (like many countries); so, a cheeky ASOS or BOOHOO order can end up quite expensive. In the same thread of things, the import of second-hand or used goods is restricted to the point of nearly being impossible.
So, a top tip from us, is to check out the fee to bring a second suitcase, and bring everything you want at the start, especially if you are an irregular size. Alternatively, check out shoemakers and tailors – it is a long process sometimes but at least they will definitely fit.
3. Make your own experiences – take advice and reviews with a pinch of salt. On several occasions, we have gone somewhere we weren’t 100% about simply because the reviews raved about how amazing it was. We’ve paid a lot of money for a meal or trip we didn’t really fancy that much, only to be disappointed and asking ourselves what the heck reviewers were on about.
Similarly, we have nearly written off places simply because the reviews have said it is bad or boring or not up to expectation, and then when we have visited – our minds have been blown.
So always take other people’s reviews with a heap of salt!
4. People will drift away. It is a sad fact, that when you aren’t just down the road, or aren’t available to go to the pub at the drop of a hat, that some people don’t have the time, energy, or commitment to maintain friendships. It is hard, and when we first moved here, we tried to keep up with everyone from back home, but as time goes on, the people you want to keep in touch with, and the people who want to keep in touch with you come to light.
No one really warned us this would happen, and when we left, we had lots of “I will message every week” or “I can’t wait to get postcards” – but as time goes on, things change and some people either don’t have time or just don’t want to hear about your new life. The things that you had in common might not be there anymore or be as important.
Don’t hold it against the people the people who drift into the background or don’t find time to reply or answer calls anymore but keep contact with those who matter and who make the effort – for some people you’ll be just as close or closer even with a few thousand miles between you!“
Eric in Sweden
”Hi, I’m Eric! Originally from New York City, I moved to Stockholm, Sweden in April 2021. The backstory: I went on my third solo trip to Europe in July 2018, met a handsome Swede, and, to be cliche, the rest is history! I started IG @ EricInStockholm on Instagram because I want to remember every moment from this new adventure: the fun, the boring, and the unexpected. After 2.5 years of long distance and traveling back and forth, Stockholm already felt like my second home: my boyfriend was here, I had my favorite go-to spots, I knew how to get around on public transportation. However, once I moved, I quickly realized that knowing something is very different from completely understanding, and visiting a place, even if for an extended period, is very different from settling down and living there.”
”1) It takes a long time to get registered in the system. Anyone who has gone through the visa process knows how laborious it is. Unfortunately the process doesn’t end there because there are so many things you need to do once you arrive in your new home! From an administrative perspective, it took me three months to get fully settled: population registry, personal identity number, ID card, and bank account. Getting a personal identity number can take up to 20 weeks, so I’m so grateful it didn’t take that long for me. Patience is key!
2) Meeting new people is not easy. It’s really difficult meeting new people, especially during Covid. Also, my friends back home are lifelong friends of 10+ years, so it’s a bit daunting putting yourself out there to meet people and make new friends again. I’m really lucky that my boyfriend is local to Stockholm and has amazing friends who I consider my own.
3) This isn’t a vacation! I think there’s this general misconception that living in Europe is like the movies: constantly exploring picture-esque sites, dining at fabulous restaurants, meeting new people, taking midnight strolls under the stars, etc. Reality check: people here work really hard! The work-life balance in Sweden is definitely better than the US, and while there are many days that are exciting, there are just as many days that are uneventful. It’s still real life!
4) The good days are great and the not-so-good-days are hard. Uprooting your life and moving halfway across the world is not for everyone. There are times where I’m like: “Where am I??? Is this real? What am I doing? Was this the right thing to do?” I’ve given myself permission to own how I feel, talk about it, and to not be embarrassed or ashamed when I’m having a tough day. If moving to another country with a different culture, language, and way of life were easy, then everyone would do it.”
Maria in Taiwan
My name is Maria and I am currently living in Tainan, Taiwan which is located in the South East side of the island. I am originally from sunny Phoenix, Arizona. My husband and I moved to Taiwan for work purposes. I am a trained folklorico dancer and finishing up school to become a museum curator. I love to visit unique cafes in my spare time.
Catch up with Maria on IG @ Pitaduhh.
”1) You need to have a Taiwanese cosigner to be able to secure a home or business loan. It is very difficult for a foreigner to be able to purchase a home or start a business on their own.
2) The most common job for foreigners in Taiwan is teaching English. It is in high demand because the country has a goal of being fully bilingual by 2030.
3) The primary form of payment accepted here is cash or electronic pay like Apple/Samsung pay. Most businesses try to avoid accepting debit/credit card payments because they get charged small fees.
4) Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken in Taiwan. English is only mainly found in the center of larger cities. I lived in the outskirts of Tainan for a little bit and English was nowhere to be found.
5) It is very humid here! You want to wear loose and breathable fabrics. It is a plus if the fabrics are water resistant.”
Azusa in The Netherlands
Meet IG@ Azusally, a traveling Japanese translator, whose strong biophilia has her living in the Netherlands. ”After traveling and staying in many different countries, I settled in a small forest cabin in the Netherlands. I feel strong connection with the trees, and I believe that I was a tree a long time ago : my name Azusa is also a name of a tree!”
”1) How easy it was to get the 2 years residency in the Netherlands as a Japanese passport holder. Knowing what country has a strong relationship with your country, considering to get a visa/residency saves a lot of time and efforts. For me, as a Japanese passport holder, I was able to receive a residency for self-employed (with almost any kind of field) person in the Netherlands just with some investment and easily-prepared documents. Process was simple and no hustle!
2) Carrying the painkiller that works on you. I’ve experienced a few times that painkillers didn’t work in a few different countries. So I try to stock up the one that works whenever I have a chance!
3) Using the menstrual cup instead of pads or tampons. Quality and price for pads and tampons are so different from your country! But it saves a lot of money and effort if you already use the cup, or practice to use it before you leave.”
Bianca in Mexico
As mentioned at the beginning, here is the bonus. Bianca is a nomad at heart, who is beginning a lifelong dream of slow travel around the world. In addition to working full time as a contractor for the federal government, she is also laying the groundwork to pursue her passions. When she’s not traveling, she’s spending quality time with her 21-year old daughter Heaven, at home in Miami, Florida.
Connect with her journey on IG @ BiancaisGlobal.
1) What motivated you to explore Mexico for 6 months, and are you working during this time? “I have always wanted to slow travel around the world, but between raising a daughter, full time work, and other responsibilities I just hadn’t been able to do it up until now. I chose Mexico because it’s a country I love and am familiar with, it’s an easy flight from Miami, and I wanted to study Spanish. Also, it was open to U.S. citizens at the time I was planning to leave the states. I was working remotely before the pandemic, so when everything began to unfold and businesses shut down, I thought now would be a great time to begin my travel journey. I am working full time and plan my adventures around my work schedule.”
2) What unique surprises are you finding (culture wise) that you weren’t expecting? ”Not too many surprising things because of my familiarity with the culture, but a couple of things I’ve noticed on my travels around the country that I hadn’t during my vacations are the loud, recorded mobile street advertisements calling for everything from trash pick up to the selling of food. Another interesting observation is the overwhelmingly abundant supply of Coca-Cola. I can recall popping into about 4 stores looking for bottled water and not one had any; however, they were stocked floor to ceiling with Coke and every other sugary, carbonated beverage you can imagine.”
3) What do you hope to gain from this experience? ”I am hoping to gain a renewed sense of self and purpose while also coming away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for Mexican culture. Honestly, that’s the goal wherever I go.”
Learn more about the Expat Dream Team series and connect with other expatriates from around the world.