A title like that makes it sound so simple, but I can assure you, it’s anything but. Having moved country 3 times now, to France, Hong Kong, and Korea (4 times if you count returning to Hong Kong), I’ve dealt with everything it entails, and the accompanying stress, in spades. So, for anyone else considering a move, and unsure where to start, I’m going to try to write a rough guide. Every country is different of course, and so is every person’s experience, so I can’t provide specific information, and your experience may not look exactly like this one.
1. Save – First up, start saving as soon as possible. I’m assuming people moving abroad will be finding work in their new location, but there are a lot of initial expenses to deal with before that first pay check comes in. Flights, flat deposits, phone contracts and furnishings, just to name a few. I save money by cutting down (or out entirely) on little luxuries; no shopping trips, no Starbucks, and stop buying so much junk food in my weekly shopping, which is a good one for dieting too. I typically buy cheap when possible anyway, and cook most of the time instead of eating out, so I’m thrifty in general anyway. Figure out where you can scrounge some extra pennies out of your current budget.
2. Choose your location – Some people will already have a clear idea of this, that they’ve been dreaming of for years, while others simply know they want to go away somewhere, but precisely where is yet to be determined. Or maybe you have a country or general area picked out, but need to choose your specific city or town there. Weigh up the pros and cons of all your options, determining which criteria is of greatest importance to you – quality of life, salary, cost of living, local culture, and expat community are all worth considering. Do you want somewhere entirely foreign or not too different to home? Do you want to prioritise embracing the local culture, or somewhere you can save money – or must it be somewhere that provides both? It can help a lot if you’ve visited the country before, or if you already know people there, which is another factor to add into your decision-making. Research options thoroughly to get a good idea of the possible places and what you’d be getting in for there.
3. Visa & job – I would strongly suggest checking your visa requirements first, as they can vary a lot. There’s no point in securing a job, if you then realise you’re ineligible for the work visa. Some require lots of documents and a criminal background check, so it can take a while to gather them all. Some also require proof of a certain amount of money saved already, to ensure you can support yourself. These can also affect your departure date, if anything gets held up, so it’s best to start arrangements in advance, which has the added bonus of making you a more appealing candidate for potential employers. In some locations, you may be eligible for a working holiday visa, in which case you can apply on your own. For others, you will be sponsored by your employer, and they will likely arrange the application for you. In either case, be prepared for a trip to that country’s local embassy to get it put into your passport (and perhaps I should have said earlier, but make your passport is valid for the length of the visa plus 6 month afterwards). Once you know what the visa entails, start the job hunt. For working holidays, you can wait to find something once you arrive, but it’s probably a good idea to start researching options beforehand too. Employment visas hinge on your job, so you have to have it lined up first. There are lots of agents and companies who can help, or go direct and look on local job boards. Try to get in touch with current employees if possible – when your employer sponsors your visa, quitting if you don’t like it gets complicated, so try to get some reviews in advance. Some industries (like ESL teaching) are easier to find work in as a foreigner, while others will prefer to hire locals, to avoid the hassle of visa sponsorship. And get ready for Skype interviews at weird times of day, in order to line up with their office hours in another time zone!
4. Accommodation – This can be done in advance or on arrival, depending on your situation. I prefer to have it arranged if possible, to ease stress and nerves. Sometimes employers will arrange it for you, or at least give you the option, which is convenient, but you don’t get any choice on what the accommodation is like or where it is. The quality will vary between employers and industries too – as a teacher, I’ve been put in very small, basic places typically, but other industries (and countries!) provide downright luxurious places. Make sure you know whether the rent comes out your salary or is simply provided as part of your contract for free. If you have to find your own place, search expat forums for flat share options, or Google local property websites and agents if you’re getting your own. You might be able to arrange a share in advance, but you’ll want to see the place in person before committing, which is doubly true if you’re going for one alone. Book a cheap hotel for the first few days (extending as required) and arrange lots of viewings. I’d suggest finding something furnished too, unless you’re emigrating permanently – no one wants to have to deal with buying furniture, getting it delivered, then selling and delivering it all again after a year or two, if it can be avoided.
5. Packing & prep – Once everything is lined up, you can start on the smaller details that need taken care of. Try to book your flight for at least a week before starting work if possible, to allow time for flat hunting and settling in. My Korean job booked my flight for me and insisted I start work the very day I landed, which was absolutely awful – I’d had no sleep, I was somewhat jet lagged, and of course, had next-to-nothing in my apartment, which I only got to at about 8pm at night. Start packing of course, and try not to excessively overpack. You’ll be able to buy plenty of stuff in your new country, and you can always sell stuff on if/when you leave again. The flip side though, is that you won’t get everything you want there, so take the stuff you know you can’t live without. Also, check if there’s anything specific you might need for the climate or environment etc. As well as packing, make 2 lists – things to do before leaving, and on arrival (more on that one later). Any bills to pay off? Memberships or contracts to cancel? Are you selling or storing your car or other possessions? Do you need to see the dentist or doctor (for travel vaccinations, or to stock up on prescriptions that may be costly or unavailable in your new location) before you leave? There’s likely to be a bunch of loose ends like this that you’ll want to tie up. By this point the nerves will probably be setting in too, alongside the excitement, but do your best to soldier on and remember why you’re going in the first place – I nearly bottled out of Hong Kong at the last second, crying most of the way to the airport, but I’m glad I did it in the end!
6. Job & accommodation – I’m only mentioning these briefly, as I explained it all above, but if you didn’t arrange these things already, they are top priority. You should have brought enough money to support yourself for at least the first month, but that won’t last forever, so start getting interviews as soon as possible. And try to get a flat before starting work, while you still have enough free time to go on viewings.
7. Settling in – That other to-do list I mentioned in part five? Get that out now. There’ll be lots of little jobs to be done to get settled in to your new life. Do you need to register with a doctor? Do you need a phone plan? Is there any kind of ID card you’re required to get? How do you set up bills and internet? Do you need some sort of transport card? How do you get a bank account (often you need the ID card first)? It sounds like a daunting list, and can be tedious and frustrating to complete, but it’s a necessary evil. You’ll feel much better and more settled in once it’s all done though. This is also the time to purchase anything else you need that you couldn’t pack. The majority will be items for your new home, plus food, cleaning supplies and such. I had to buy new clothes to adhere to the dress code at my first job in Hong Kong, as I hadn’t known about it in advance and hadn’t brought that sort of thing with me. Getting these, and unpacking your own stuff will also make your new place feel much more comfortable and more like your own, than an empty shell of a room. Part of settling in is also getting to know your neighbourhood and where to go to do and buy different things, and adapting to your new job, both of which can be hard at first, but will come with time.
8. Meet people – This can often feel like the most difficult part of all for some people (myself included). If you already know people before moving, then it becomes easier, but if you’re starting afresh and alone, it can be hard to know where to starts. And when you’re already in an unfamiliar place, it can get lonely pretty quickly. I met a lot of friends through university in France and through work in Hong Kong, which are obviously good options if they apply to you. Korea was more difficult, as my work colleagues weren’t really people I’d socialise with outside, which is true of my current job in HK as well. If that’s the case, then you have to got out and try to meet people. The internet can be a great place to start. Check out Facebook for events, classes, and other organisations in your area that match your interests, and you’ll hopefully find some like-minded people there. There are various apps designed for meeting people, though the numbers of people using them can vary a lot, and you’ll likely find mostly other newcomers on them, and not so many locals. I know some people have found friends through dating apps, like Tinder, since they’re so widely used, but you”ll obviously have to filter through all the people not interested in just friendship. This is a numbers game too, as you won’t necessarily meet people you click with immediately, so keep making an effort and saying yes to doing things to meet more people. It’s definitely tough at first, but once you find some good friends, it makes living abroad much easier and more enjoyable.
9. Dealing with homesickness and displacement – These things will definitely happen. At first, everything is new and exciting, and probably a little scary, but sooner or later, the homesickness will hit. Of course, you’ll miss family and friends, but you can make use of modern technology to keep in touch – though dealing with time zone differences can be annoying when trying to arrange Facetime calls! There will also be homesickness for other things too – a favourite food or shop or something that you can’t get here. This gets easier with time, as you find alternatives to those things, or when you get family back home to post them to you when possible. Harder to conquer is the feeling of displacement, when you realise that the behaviour and habits of the people here is different to those at home, resulting in you feeling a bit alienated in this new, unfamiliar culture. That sense of being “other”, or being “foreign” is hard to get past – deal with it by socialising with other expats a lot, who understand the feeling, and since I’m so different and isolated in my work environment a lot. I also take opportunities to remind myself of home, by eating certain foods or watching certain TV shows, and such, to make myself feel at home again for an evening or so. And the longer you spend in a new place, the more at home and less alien you’ll feel. I’m not sure if it ever goes away entirely, but time makes it more manageable.
10. Enjoy! – Moving countries is not an easy task by any means. But whenever you’re feeling stressed or homesick, remind yourself of why you moved in the first place. A new location means new places to explore and new adventures to have. Sure, you’ll still have to deal with the daily grind, same as back home, going to work, and running errands, and such. But you’ll also have a whole new culture to experience, and so many opportunities for fun things to do in your free time. I moan about my job constantly, but when I look back at all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done over the past two years, it definitely makes it worth it. Moving countries isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, and could be one of the toughest things you’ll face. But it changes you as a person, makes you brave, and strong, and independent, and capable, and gives you a different outlook on the world. It provides you with the most exciting and rewarding adventure you may ever experience. I’ve shed many tears, from stress, homesickness, and whatever else, over the past two years, but it’s also been the most interesting, unique, and exhilarating two years of my life!