People leave their home countries to move and work abroad for myriad reasons: whether an excellent way of flying the nest and learning to stand on your own two feet or just as an excuse to stuff yourself on pain au chocolat and freshly baked croissants more easily each morning (yes, working abroad in France we’re looking at YOU).
But, when you actually arrive, transforming into your new identity, that of dweller in foreign new lands, aka an expat, is more complicated. Everyone who’s been there, done that and lived to fall head over heels in love with a new country knows that it’s hardly a piece of cake: the rewards of moving abroad are huge, but come complete with their own set of unexpected challenges and a multitude of WTF moments.
So here’s how to be an expat and what you can expect (or be surprised by) on your first foray into living abroad.
[You can start by getting matched with work abroad programs right now!]
What’s an expat?
The obvious question, what is an expat, anyway? An expat or expatriate, if you want to be fancy, is literally any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country other than their country of citizenship. Taking three to four months to backpack across South America? Yep, you’re an expat. Haven’t put a toe back in your home country in six to 10 years? You’re DEFINITELY an expat.
Always dreamt of living in the South of France, working in a boulangerie and sipping espresso in a cafe every day? You’re a would-be expat in the making and we’d love to help you figure out your next steps to expat-dom.
What’s it really like to be an expat?
Enough with definitions. No two expat experiences can ever be the same, but it’s fair to say that there are some universal things it’s likely you encounter as you enter the ranks of the expats. So here’s what you really have to look forward to once you finally say au revoir to home for months (or years) at a time and travel the great big world around us!
1. Getting confused by social etiquette
What’s an expat? Someone who still gets confused by new social etiquette abroad. One of the first experiences of being an expat is recognizing how little you know or understand about your new country of residence and the subtleties of the culture that you must learn to comprehend if ever want to feel like you belong.
In many ways, it’s culture shock, where you have to squeeze yourself into the seams of a new culture. You learn to understand how the local bus system works and recognize those times when you should instead go straight to the till (cash register) rather than waiting to pay at your table in a cafe. You’re able to identify the most appropriate greeting for every social situation and come to understand how choosing between the one kiss, two kisses, handshake or hug and squeeze greetings of cultures around the world is the hardest, most complicated aspect of all social etiquette.
Although you might feel confused to begin with, this is the test that all new expats must face and one that decides whether your time abroad is short-term or whether your new country slowly becomes your home country. If you want to know how to be an expat, you have to know how to feel uncomfortable with getting a few things wrong here and there.
2. Continually learning
If you become an expat in a country where they speak a different language, your first battle is with the language. Expect to spend at least the first three months utterly baffled in most situations.
Ordinary exchanges with shopkeepers, in a restaurant (and don’t even talk to me about trying to explain how you want your hair cut in another language) take on a new significance and though it might take you a good few weeks to get your head around these things, you always feel triumphant when someone actually understands what you say.
Taking a job abroad so that you can pick up a new language is both extremely hard work and also one of the most rewarding things you can do. Sure, it took me a whole year of living and working in South America before someone kindly pointed out that I was pronouncing the word papas without an emphasis on the final ‘a’ and thus had been referring to my parents as potatoes, but I now speak fluent Spanish and know that it stands me in great stead for my future travel and work plans.
3. Meeting people from far and wide
Being an expat is like joining a club; no one’s really sure of the rules of the club (and others aren’t sure about exactly how they ended up in the club) but it’s a club that sees you suddenly bonding with people with a whole host or different people.
Wherever you move abroad, you find that there’s an intangible but firm bond between all expats, regardless of where they’re from around the globe, and one that’s built upon the premise that you all understand exactly the trials that expats go through when they first move abroad.
[The World’s Best Places to Work Abroad in 2018—GoAbroad Report]
Although it’s essential to look to build a network of local friends when you become an expat, it’s not an indulgence to befriend other members of the expat community; it’s something that’ll keep you sane.
Meeting up with a bunch of fellow outsiders to wax lyrical about the merits of some food you just can’t get in the supermarket or just knowing that you’re not alone in being baffled by a particular element of local culture is the what keeps you going.
4. Facing up to feelings of loneliness
Being an expat does have its downsides: living far away from your friends and family can be tough and it can take longer than you originally think to feel settled in your new place. Friendships that you thought were rock solid can wither before your eyes and facing up to the fact that you’re missing important life events with your family or friends can leave you feeling beyond guilty about the choices you’ve made.
As Amy Chau once wrote, “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery” and it’s true: becoming an expat is no easy task and requires a huge amount of courage. When you move abroad, you realize how many people are proud and inspired by what you’re doing and that the rewards of becoming a part of a different place, with a whole new group of friends and experiences, are more than worth it.
How to be an expat
“So how can I go about joining this unique brand of confused by awesome global adventurers, aka expats?” I hear you cry! Good news. It’s pretty easy, and really only takes a few steps. The biggest hurdle to jump over is making the decision right now. After that, it’s pretty simple.
1. Do your research
Not every country or city abroad is going to make your expat heart sing with the gusto of a Disney movie. Make sure you know what you want and what you’re looking for before you move abroad. There’s no point choosing a capital city if you’re a beach bum nor picking a rural town if you’re planning on moving to a country where you don’t know the language. The easier you make it for you to settle in, meet people with similar hobbies and start to feel at home, the better.
It’s also super important to have some practical considerations before you dive in. Researching exactly what visas you need is a must. There’s nothing worse than arriving and realizing you need to get a document certified in your home country, or worse, you were supposed to enter on a particular type of visa. Bureaucracy sucks but so does being ejected from a country.
Things like living costs compared to your prospective wage, how long it will take you to organize basic (but surprisingly complicated) things like bank accounts and what steps to take to find a place to live are hugely important things to research before you begin.
To help you out, I recommend you read previous participants’ reviews or reach out to people who’ve done something similar to get first-hand experience. You’ll also find this list of mistakes to avoid when moving abroad a guide to exactly how to avoid the common pitfalls of moving abroad and instead have a successful expat experience.
2. Learn about the expat community
To really enjoy the experience of becoming an expat, it’s important to think about all those small details: how easy is it to get to know people? Are there groups for locals to meet expats or for expats to meet other expats?
In some places you can fall in your feet with an active expat community with plenty of meet ups to keep you feeling welcome and surrounded by fellow brave souls. In other situations, it’s worth knowing if language exchanges exist where you can go and swap words and have a chance of making new friends at the same time.
3. Apply for job/work away programs
Learning what’s an expat is all about becoming an expat, and the easiest way to do that is to apply for work abroad programs. Work abroad programs give you a great balance of structure and freedom as an expat living abroad. You’ve got in-country support when you need it—which is especially helpful when finding a job and a visa sponsor—but, you also have the freedom to make decisions about weekend travel, projects here and there, and what you want to actually do abroad.
The most popular programs are TEFL and teach abroad, but there are tons of opportunities across fields. Whether you’re interested in conservation, childcare, sales and marketing, hospitality, you name it! There are great expat work abroad programs just waiting for you. So start your search and start applying.
- Get TEFL certified & teach English abroad with TEFL Worldwide Prague | Visit their site
- Become a sales professional in South Korea with Military Autosource | Visit their site
- Work + travel in Australia on your schedule with The Stir Experience | Visit their site
[Browse all work abroad programs]
4. Break the news to family and friends
Grandma wants you to move closer to home, but you’ve got itchy feet and an empty passport. Sorry, Grandma! I’m sure she’ll understand once she starts getting postcards from halfway across the world. Just make sure you schedule some time to skype with her now and then.
This can be a pretty tough step, but it’s important to let friends and family (and especially employers) know about your travel plans! Even if they’re a little concerned, or sad to see you go, ultimately they will support you and love following your adventures. Don’t leave them in the dark! Get excited about your adventure and share that excitement with them.
5. Go, go, go!
Pare down your wardrobe, pack it all up, sell your car (if you want/need to), and get on that plane! The most important step in how to be an expat is well… to GO. BE. AN. EXPAT. That involves actually getting on the plane.
By now you should have all your ducks and various flying waterfowl in a row and be ready to go. That means: visa requirements are sorted and understood, you have a job opportunity lined up (or, if you don’t, you have enough savings to cover you until you do), you’ve got a place to stay (even if only temporarily at first), and all in all you have a game plan for when you step off the plane and start heading through customs.
Most of all, you should be EXCITED! This is a great next step in your own journey, and you’re going to learn so much about what’s an expat and what’s not an expat—or, at least, what it looks like for you.
Take my “how to be an expat” advice
Take it from someone who has been there, done that,
- Get some contacts on the ground before you move, whether through your new job or with an expat community. Knowing there’s someone there expecting you and ready to help you out with all the small stuff you didn’t realize would be complicated can be a game changer when you first arrive.
- Chat to other people who’ve had a similar experience and been to the same country about their time living there. You can find plenty of people by checking out the reviews of past participants of programs.
- Read our tips on making a success of a job abroad to keep you positive and prepared for working internationally.
- Find ways of getting stuck into the culture as soon as possible.
- One of the best reasons to take a job abroad in the first place is because of the opportunities it offers to travel. To make the most of your time living in and exploring a new country, read this guide to combining the two.
- Remember that settling in takes time and that your bravery of doing it in the first place is what’ll see you getting there, even if it takes longer than you expected.
You'd be an all-star expat
How to be an expat—more than anything—is up to you. The ball’s in your court! Whether it means teaching English, working freelance across any field, shacking up in hospitality, it’s less about job title or location and more about your role as a responsible traveler and global ambassador.
Whether you end up in Paris, France, or Timbuktu, Mali, your experience as an expat is entirely within your control (aside from the usual/likely travel mishaps). So decide for yourself: are you ready to learn how to be an expat?