How to successfully be an expat
In order to help navigate you along this exciting, if a little daunting, task, we’ve put together a quick ‘crash course’ in becoming an expat.
People leave their home countries to work abroad for a whole host of reasons: whether as a springboard into adulthood and independence or as an excuse to gorge on the local cuisine.
But when the time finally arrives, what seemed as a romantic voyage to another land, becomes a slightly more complicated affair. Anyone who’s made this bold leap knows that it isn’t a walk in the park: the rewarding ups of moving abroad are priceless, but accompanied by a whole host of challenges and changes, frustrations and lows.
What actually is an expat?
So, naturally, the question is, what is an expat exactly. An expat, short for expatriate, is essentially anyone living either temporarily or permanently in a country in which they don’t have citizenship. Backpacking in Australia for 6 months, travelling the world and haven’t returned to your home nation in years; both are perfect definitions. Dreaming of living in foreign climes with coffee in hand, beach to the side of you, reading a newspaper before heading to the office? Then you’re dreaming of being, you guessed it, an expat.
What is it actually like to be an expat?
Being an expat is going to be different for everyone, including those in the same foreign country, neighbourhood or friend group. But there are, of course, going to be several universal instances you’ll likely bump into, while discovering your new expat world. So here’s a few things to look forward to as you discover new lands, be it for a matter of months or a number of years.
1. The confusion of social etiquette
One of the first noticeable things, on entering expat-dom, is the culture shock you’ll feel. More often than not, despite thinking you know much about your new country, you’ll soon realise there is much to learn, including your grasp on their social etiquette. It’s all those small things that come as second nature in your native land: how to greet someone, paying the bill at the bar rather than at the table, or simply working out which side to stand on the escalators. All these subtleties can be learnt along the way, albeit with the odd embarrassing moment, in your quest to feeling like you belong to this new land. And this is the first key test, a test that will either be a potential reason to return home, or see you feeling at home in a foreign country,
2. Always learning
If your quest to be an expat takes you to a country where they speak a different language, then your first challenge will be one with dialect. Prepare to be constantly confused in a sea of foreign sounds, especially for the first few months. But like with many new things, while often times you’ll struggle to be understood, you’ll have mini triumphs along the way, when you manage to correctly pronounce a morning greeting or finally get the bartender to understand you.
If your new job involves a new language, although at first being difficult and tiring at times, it will be a massively rewarding experience. You’ll find yourself making huge steps in progressing to fluency, much more so than simply sitting with a text book.
3. Meeting new people
One of the most exciting things in expat life is meeting new people. While at first, it can be a scary prospect for some; turning up to a new place, and plucking up the courage to interact with strangers, it’s also one of the most exciting. It’s important to try to make friends with locals in order to really immerse yourself in your new home land. However, having expat friends is no guilty pleasure, and having a group of companions facing similar obstacles will keep you sane along the way. Being able to complain about, rejoice or struggle to comprehend things with people in the same situation will give you a much needed rest from all the new encounters you’ll very likely experience.
4. Dealing with feelings of loneliness
As with many big changes, being an expat does have its downsides. Living far away from family members and long time friends can be difficult to come to terms with, and might be a reason to initially feel unsettled in your new place. People you were in contact with all the time may go off the radar, and you might find that you’re missing out on important events; weddings, births and other celebrations. Despite these drawbacks, you will also be inspiring others to make the same brave step as you, and find that many people close to you are incredibly proud of your new adventure.
How to be an expat
So, the big question is: How does one become part of this exclusive club of foreigners abroad (expats for short)? The great news is, it’s quite simple – the biggest hurdle being the decision to do it.
1. Do your research
There’ll be cities and countries that aspire to you and places you’ll want to avoid at all costs. There’s not point going to live in a remote village, if you love spending your time in cafes, galleries and busy streets. Likewise, if you plan on spending your free time climbing mountains, living In Amsterdam may prove difficult.
The easier you make it to fit in and settle down within your new country, the more you’ll feel at home and the quicker you’ll get used to the inevitable differences you’ll encounter. Researching the practicalities of a potential place is also of huge importance. You’ll need to take into account entry requirements to a given country, whether you’ll need a work Visa, or other specific documentation. There’s nothing worse than planning your move and finding once you get there, that you don’t have the correct stamp from your home country. Bearing in mind things like living costs compared to your probable salary and healthcare procedures are also important.
Finding first-hand experiences on forums, or reaching out to friends-of-friends who’ve done something similar can provide invaluable information and ultimately prepare you for your new life.
2. Learn about the expat community
To really make the most of your experience as a new expat, try to find out about the little details: how straightforward is it to meet new people? Are there any events for expats to meet locals, or groups to meet with fellow expats?
Some places will prove easier to fit into and find an active expat community, while others will require more effort, research and interaction with locals.
3. Apply for work away programs
Learning how to be an expat is very much about learning on the job. As you discover, you’ll learn, and as you learn you’ll feel more at home. Work away programs will make some of the daunting tasks, like job searching in a foreign country, much easier. They’ll provide structure as well as excursions in your new home.
4. Break the news to family and friends
This might prove to be a difficult step. Close family and friends will no doubt be sad to see you moving away. However, while some might find it hard to understand why you want to make this bold move, most will be proud of your confident decision and jealous of your new situation. Be sure to make time for Skype calls and letters, and your loved ones will become excited to receive that next communication and ultimately happy with your new position.
5. Its time to go!
Pack up you wardrobe, getting rid of those non-essential pieces, sell or store your excess stuff and book your plane tickets. Get out there and become an expat!
At this point you should have everything in place, that being: any visa or work permit that’s required, a job opportunity or sufficient savings, a place to stay (at least temporarily) and a plan for your arrival and first days and weeks.
More than anything, get excited – you’re making that next big step in your life, a potentially life-changing experience and something you’ll share with people, whether you move away forever or only for a few years.
Author: Míša Benešovská
I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter, mainly covering IT industry. I’ve been fascinated by it for nearly a quarter of a century (or since I dismantled my first computer). I worked for Seznam.cz, Unicorn Systems or Mafra publisher. In my spare time, I love game consoles and keep perfecting a recipe for the best pumpkin risotto in the world.
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