Mistakes I’ve Made While Working Abroad That You Shouldn't

by Published

Anytime you are learning something new or experiencing something for the first time, you have to accept that you are going to make mistakes. Finding work abroad is no exception. I became an expat as a doughy-eyed 22-year old fresh out of college, and after spending the last two years living in Asia, I can look back now and reflect on some of the things I would do differently if I were to start my adventure all over again.

Do as I say, not as I did. To help make your adventure a little less stressful, I am here to share some of the mistakes I made as a young expat so that you can avoid doing the same when you begin finding work abroad. These are my insider moving overseas tips.

Evaluate Your Salary Offer Against the Cost of Living

When I received my international job offer in 2015 that would take me to Hanoi, I agreed to the offer without actually doing any research into what the monthly rent for an apartment might be, what my daily expenses would look like, what type of life the salary I was offered might afford me, or how much I would be able to save each month.

This is NOT recommended.

What to do Instead - Moving Overseas Tip #1

If I were to do it again, I would take the time to research the cost of living of my host country and then evaluate the salary offer based on the lifestyle I thought it would afford me.

I now know that, thanks to online resources, it’s actually fairly easy to estimate your monthly expenses in any country. For daily goods and expenses, use Numbeo, an online database of the prices for daily goods and expenses in cities around the world. Considering your daily habits (i.e. how much do you eat out, what types of foods do you eat, what type of transportation are you expecting to use), you can estimate how much you might spend on food, groceries, and bills.

For rent, it’s even easier. All major cities have real estate listings, or even Craigslist. After a little research into different neighborhoods and figuring out the type of apartment you are interested in renting, you can work out an estimate for your monthly rent.

Crunch the numbers and bada-bing, bada-boom — you have your estimated monthly expenses. Weigh that number against your salary offer to determine which of your working abroad opportunities will afford you your desired standard of living and savings goals.

Not Knowing Visa Expenses Ahead of Time

This one is a heart breaker. Upon finding work abroad in Vietnam, I spent a little under $1,000 for my first Vietnamese work visa (some of the cost was repaid by my ex-employer at the end of my one-year contract). The visa situation in Vietnam is very complex, but basically because I was in Hong Kong when I got the job offer, I had to have my necessary documents shipped to me and then notarized ($$$$). This expense, on top of the Vietnamese paperwork I had to have done, all cost big money to be legalized via a stamp. Then, to “activate” the visa I had to leave Vietnam and re-enter the country.

Keep in mind, I was naive to the entire process, including all the additional expenses.

View of buildings from the ground level
Make sure you know the cost of living in your new country before you accept a job offer.

What to do Instead - Moving Overseas Tip #2

If I were to do it again, I would prioritize having a clear understanding with the employer about what paperwork is required and what fees I would have to pay. Otherwise, there is the potential to get burned. Generally speaking, your new employer will either pay the full expense of your work visa, pay some of it at the end of your one-year contract, or pay none of it at all.

Knowledge is power, and that is especially true when you’re finding work abroad. The more assistance you can get both financially and with the process from your employer, and the more research you do into the process yourself, the better off you are going to be.

Start your research by reading How to Work Abroad Without the Visa Hassle.

Settling for the First Apartment I Looked At

Nothing says “Welcome to our country!” like an apartment-hunt-inducing headache, huh? Before living in Hanoi, I had never had my own apartment. When I began my apartment search, my criteria for the perfect apartment was that it needed a bed, and a couch, and a bathroom. Not surprisingly, the first apartment I saw cleared my low bar for apartment-excellence, so I signed the rental contract on the spot.

It wasn’t a bad apartment, but now that I have lived in Vietnam for two years, I know I could have gotten something better. The biggest drawback that I hadn’t considered was the fact it had almost no natural light. And I promise, when you are living abroad for the first time and facing challenges you didn’t expect, you are homesick, feeling a bit lonely or lost, struggling to assimilate to your new culture, and generally stressed, the last thing you want is to come home to a dark, gloomy apartment. More natural light means a little bit better mood, and during your transition period, there are going to be times when you really need it. There are other things to keep in mind as well.

What to do Instead - Moving Overseas Tip #3

Take your time when sifting through options. Especially in developing countries, be aware of potential sources of noise pollution in the immediate area around your apartment. If there are empty lots near your building, it is safe to assume that t won’t be long before construction there gets underway. Will you be sharing a wall with a karaoke bar? I did, and it isn’t fun. Are there beer gardens, metalworking shops, or motorbike repair shops nearby? All of these operate long hours and can drive you crazy with noise. Your sleep schedule will thank you for taking these factors into account.

It is worth taking some extra time to look at a few different apartments to get a true feel for the type of apartment you can afford on your budget. You should also look at apartments in different parts of the city. Consider: do you want to live in a more local area or near the hustle and bustle of the city center? How far do you want to commute everyday to work? Do you want a bigger place that is farther away from the action, or a smaller place in a prime location? All of these factors will have a significant impact on your experience, so invest some time into find the best housing option for you.

If you’re lucky, some of your coworkers or newfound local friends will help you navigate this (sometimes stressful) task. Use it as an excuse to get to know others better — and to show some humility by asking for their help in double checking the legitimacy of the offer.

Passport on table
Don’t leave it to chance: be clear with your employer about who is pay which work permit and visa expenses.

Not Preparing Myself for Social Norms of Another Culture

Imagine if someone from a different culture came up to you in the office and gave you “the finger,” not knowing what that gesture meant to you. Even though they don’t know it was offensive, you would still be a little put off.

This is exactly what you risk doing if you don’t know the norms of the culture you are going to be working and living in. From handing something to older people with two hands to not displaying important gestures of respect towards authority, ignorance is not a reason to be rude abroad. This should not be seen as inconvenience, but instead an opportunity to more deeply immerse yourself in the culture.

What to do Instead - Moving Overseas Tip #4

Do your research. Sometimes, you’ll come across norms that are antiquated; even the local people don’t bother with them. But other norms can really really important. Depending on the culture you are working in, norms can be easy to learn if you’re proactive, and it can mean a lot to your coworkers and people you interact if you display those little signs of cultural awareness.

So, don’t give that watch to your new boss and point with your whole hand. Inspire other expats you meet to also follow suit. In the end, following these new practices can be a pretty fun challenge!

How to Find Your Own Working Abroad Opportunities

Of course, all of these moving overseas tips are only relevant if you can actually score coveted working abroad opportunities. But never fear! Now that you know what not to do, here's what you NEED to do — to find jobs abroad that is!

  1. Choose a Country. Do you want the big culture shock you would get from somewhere like India? Or prefer a more familiar culture like Germany? It is up to you to decide the type of experience you are looking for. 
  2. Choose a Line of Work. Are you interested in an NGO or do you have technology skills to bring to a startup? Do you want to teach English while learning a local language? When you expand your job search internationally, the opportunities are endless, and you may even stumble upon some jobs you had never previously thought of
  3. Research Programs. Read Reviews. Once you know the country and the professional direction you want to go, it is just a matter of researching jobs on GoAbroad, checking international job boards, or reaching out to hiring managers and CEOs at companies you’re interested in. No matter what, be sure to read reviews of past experiences to get a real feel for your anticipated experience.

My final working overseas tip is to keep an open mind. If you are a developer, but find an NGO that piques your interest, don’t be afraid to look into it. The world is a big place with an infinite number of jobs and locations to explore, and you can never be sure what type of work you will ultimately find to be the best fit. 

Floating market in Vietnam
Knowing the cultural norms of your new country is an important part of being a respectful expat.

Ultimately, You Will Make Mistakes Working Abroad.

When you move abroad, there are always more unknowns than you can account for; it is just an inherent part of being a trailblazer and working internationally. You will make mistakes along the way, and this is to be expected. Try to remain objective about the mistakes you make and remember that moving abroad is a challenge, and that the lessons you will learn from the challenges you will face are the reason you started your adventure in the first place.

Never let the potential to make mistakes stop you from finding work abroad and embarking on this next great adventure.