Short-term travel can be so memorable and visceral; when you step off the tiny plane onto the tarmac and see that all the signs are in a new and unfamiliar language, the disorientation and newness of it all are enough to make anyone memorize their surroundings. Travel buffs talk about how much they loved their fast and furious journey through Europe, their motorbike tour of Asia, or their surfing and backpacking trek through South America, but there is something different to be gained from going somewhere new and… staying there. And soaking in the advantages of living abroad.
Travel can be meaningful in a lot of ways, from the chance to help others in need, to the chance to study a topic in-depth in exactly the perfect surroundings. That being said, staying put once you get to your travel destination can have some surprisingly meaningful impacts, which makes it a more popular way to travel.
9 major perks to living abroad (instead of just traveling)
1. You Become a Regular
While it is fun and engaging to have fleeting moments with strangers in new cities, and the intimacy generated from one quick conversation can sometimes stick with you as a meaningful traveler, the chance to become a regular at your favorite establishments is even better.
Getting to know the guy who runs your local restaurant where you get a tiny cup of syrupy espresso each morning, or the waitress who knows which wine you and your friends always pick out on a Friday night, makes a space feel like home—one of the major advantages of living abroad rather than rushing through your travels. Getting a chance to speak with locals who have seen you for a while is quite different from the surface hospitality that you get in one interaction.
Living abroad is by its nature more isolating than living where you grew up or where you’ve put down roots in your native language. Little parts of living abroad make it easier to feel like you are connected to the community, and one of them is seeing a grin of recognition at the fruit stand when you come for a paper cone of strawberries every few days.
2. You Can Give Directions
When traveling fast and furious across a landscape where there is no time for a backward glance, you are lucky if you don’t have to ask for directions every second! One of the most rewarding moments in an expat’s experience is when, for the first time, someone asks them for directions around a city they’ve gotten to know. Bonus points go to the expat who gives accurate directions and can conjugate the verbs correctly as they give them!
The ability to give directions implies a ton of other wonderful things: you know the city streets because you’ve walked them yourself, and in so walking have formed memories and had experiences along those paths.
3. You’ll Gather Contacts
Many of us feel good knowing that we have a person in our mental list who could help with any given topic. Journalists, for instance, want to know someone who is an expert in practically everything so that they can always get a source when they need one for a story. Living abroad for a substantial amount of time makes for a meaningful experience because you know not just the geography of the city, but the geography of the people in the city.
Like giving directions to physical places, knowing the best person for a great haircut and the most interesting bartender to chat with during a trivia night makes you feel tied to a community. Feeling a part of it—all of it—is one of the best advantages of living abroad. Beyond just being a regular, you have mapped out where people are when you need them, and you know who you can rely on. Traveling to a destination for only a few days may be fun, but it rarely inspires confidence that you’ve found the best of the city or town. Living abroad, however, allows you to test and see that what you’ve found is truly great.
4. You Master the Nuances of the Language
The local language is usually a reach for travelers who are just passing through; certainly, some high school classes may come in handy for key phrases, but nothing beats immersion for truly becoming part of a language. If you want your Spanish to improve, live abroad in a Spanish-speaking country for a year or more and you’ll be amazed at how much more fluidly you can access those key phrases, and how many colloquial expressions you’ll have incorporated into your lingo. Idioms and local thought processes are more accessible if you speak the language, even if they also speak your mother tongue, and that level of cultural meaning can include some of the most rich cultural insights.
5. You Can Actually Follow Recommendations
A multi-day trip to a city can be breathtaking and memorable, but often when you go back to those notes from friends who have explored the city before, you see that you barely scratched the surface of their recommendations! For instance, there is so much great food in Reykjavik, Iceland, no 3 day trip could possibly try it all. Instead, choosing to live somewhere for a while gets you the opportunity to try everything, over time, at your own pace.
What’s even more fun is when you’ve finished the recommendation list and you can actually add your own to the pile - you found the tiny museum that no one else could locate, or you had the most heavenly cup of coffee for barely any money. You want to be the one who not only tried everything, but knows what is wonderful beyond the recommendations.
6. The Locals Are Part of Your Story
Living abroad means not just meeting the “charming locals” and seeing them on the surface level. Your roommates, your co-workers, and the members of your book club will all be real locals, and you can’t just see them through the lens of a passing-through traveler. These people become part of your friend network but they also are a bit like family if this is a country where you have no family. Anyone who joins forces with you here, as an expat, is someone who means something incredibly important to you.
You’ll find that even friendships that only started for a few months while you were living abroad will have an intensity and clarity that is hard to gain in a place where you are already known and comfortable. Make being close to locals one of the hallmarks of your time abroad and you’ll reap the benefits for the many years after.
7. You’ll Find Your Niche
Volunteering abroad can be incredibly meaningful, be it for a week or a year, but one of the cool aspects of living abroad long-term is that it gives you time to figure out the role that only you can play. That might be your combination of language skills, or your passion for botany, or your ability to make a tin roof that doesn’t leak, but whatever it is, staying in a place long enough to figure out how your passions align with what that community needs is incredibly rewarding. This may be a volunteer effort or a job or even a place in a study program, but the longer you are in a place, the more chance you get to figure out what makes both the place and you yourself uniquely suited to each other.
8. You Can Make Some Local Currency
While totally surface-level, making money in-country is almost always better than having to exchange from another currency, and doing so is easier if you have more time to get and retain a job. When considering whether to devote a shorter time to traveling to many places versus choosing one “home base” as a place to live abroad and include some weekend trips to nearby attractions, it is often easier and more economical to choose the latter.
9. You Can Host Visitors and Enrich Their Short-Term Travel
While there is the chance of meeting up with friends along the way when you are traveling, rarely do you get to “play host” on a short-term trip. Rather, choosing to live abroad long term gives you the fulfilling and exciting experience of hosting friends in your city. The realities of daily life even in a beautiful new country can become ordinary, and having a friend or family member visit reminds you what you love about the place. They get to see the most impressive sites, take in the tastiest bites, and generally fall in love with the parts of the city that have drawn you in yourself.
Who should live abroad for meaningful travel?
Regardless of what convinces you, moving to another country to try living abroad for a year is a serious way to inject meaning into your travels. Especially for experienced travelers who have become experts at memorizing a new subway system and getting to their planes on time, living abroad brings a new set of challenges. Putting down roots can be more of a stumper than making new party buddies in a hostel, and it might be just the thing you need to get your meaningful-travel bug back after many trips.
At the same time, first-time go-abroad-ers can benefit from living abroad as well, because many of the things that make you good at living abroad are also the things you perfect in grade school and college, namely the ability to get to know a place quickly and network your way to friends and contacts. Employing these skills will remind you that you have everything you need even as you master a language and deepen new friendships. Then, from your location in a new place, you have the option to test your meaningful short-term travel skills using cheaper local transports like trains and budget airlines, rather than having to fly from home to a new place each time you get the travel urge.
The most popular ways to live abroad for a year
There are a lot of ways to gain the meaningful results of a life abroad. This can include choosing a long-term volunteer project (like the Peace Corps or other programs that embed you in a community for one or more years). Another popular way to live abroad for a year is to seek employment, either seasonal temporary work or a long-term career situation. These can be fairly easy to come by thanks to job directories like GoAbroad. Teaching abroad is the most common!
There are also programs like working as an au pair or a language assistant in a bilingual school, where you work less than a full-time job. but can also devote yourself to local long-term studying while living abroad for a year. If you’re extra, you’ll consider completing an entire degree abroad to really earn yourself that “basically local” status.
What will YOU identify as the advantages of living abroad?
Regardless of how you choose to structure your time while living abroad for a year, you receive the chance to see from a new point of view for long enough to really get to know a place. Living abroad makes future travel more meaningful as well, since even on short-term trips you will benefit from having new perspectives and a new sense for how to get to the heart of a city or town in a small amount of time.
The friends and acquaintances you meet in your “first destination” for living abroad may also stay with you as you move on to future endeavors, meaning that your life abroad never truly ends.