A Guide to Living Life As an Expat
Living abroad sounds like a dream, right? Being an expat means you get to broaden your horizons with exhilarating new experiences and build the lifestyle you’ve always wanted. But what is life as an expat really like?
Despite what your friends back home might think, being an expat is not a permanent vacation. To minimize unexpected roadblocks and get the most out of your move abroad, it’s important to know what challenges you might face and how to prepare for them.
Whether you’ve recently moved or are curious about what it’s like living in a foreign country, here’s the ultimate guide to living life (to the fullest) as an expat.
What does it mean to be an expat?
You’re probably familiar with the term expat—short for expatriate—but what does it actually mean to be one?
An expat is simply someone who lives outside their native country. But some people take offense to that term—calling someone an expat as opposed to an immigrant can have connotations of privilege and status.
There is a slight nuance when it comes to the two terms. Generally speaking, an expat refers to an educated professional or skilled worker who takes residence outside their home country, either on their own or sent abroad by their employer. There’s a sense that an expat’s time abroad is temporary, and that it does come from a place of privilege.
Many who are privileged enough to move abroad just because they can have the means to do so, while immigrants—who by definition are anyone living in a country other than that of their birth—are often looking for a permanent home with better opportunities than the one they left behind.
You might feel more comfortable with one word over the other, but for the sake of this article let’s stick with expat.
What you can expect being an expat
Living in a foreign country comes with its fair share of ups and downs, but seasoned expats will tell you that the pros far outweigh the cons.
Depending on where you move to, the level of initial culture shock can vary. If your new home is vastly different from what you’re used to, it can take a bit more time to adjust. But generally speaking, if you’re actively choosing to live abroad, then expat life brings greater peace of mind.
For many Americans, some of the best perks of being an expat include having cheaper healthcare, worrying less about gun violence and putting a bigger emphasis on living life over climbing the corporate ladder. Living in another country definitely adds perspective, and shows that there’s no such thing as the right way to do things—only the right way for you.
Moving to a different part of the world also means opening up a whole new set of places to explore. Singapore, for example, is a great jumping off point for cheap flights around Southeast Asia, while Germany is well-connected to other European countries by train—not to mention you’re actually encouraged to take long holidays to travel.
Not only does being an expat broaden your travel horizons, but it expands your personal ones too! It’s not uncommon for expat friend circles to include people with different nationalities, ages and life experiences—all contributing a rich mix of cultures and perspectives.
Ultimately being an expat is about getting comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to push outside of your comfort zone to make new friends, learn a new language and navigate a foreign culture. But overcoming these challenges are exponentially more rewarding abroad, because they instill a sense of autonomy, personal growth and confidence in your own life choices.
How to prepare for expat life
Unless your job is sending you abroad to a particular country, research as much as you can about where you want to move to. Make sure you’re familiar with your visa options and how to obtain a residency permit in your country of choice—and be sure to gather all the necessary paperwork before you go.
That being said, Google can only get you so far. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need some guidance, check out the digital book I’m Outta Here! An American’s Ultimate Visa Guide to Living in Europe, with over 50 different visa options in 17 European countries to plan your move.
Once you’ve decided on a destination, it’s important to talk to actual expats who have experience in your adopted country. You’d be surprised how many connections you might already have there! Even if it’s your friend’s cousin’s girlfriend, connect with whoever you can to get advice or have a friendly face when you arrive.
Now for some real talk: It’s important to have a plan in place when it comes to supporting yourself abroad. Be realistic about your budget and resources—do you already have a job or will you need to find one there? Can you start looking for housing now or do you have to be in the country first? How much money do you need to have saved in order to get settled?
Once you’ve prepared for your future life, it’s time to figure out what to do with your old one. Start decluttering and downsizing your belongings. That way you can simplify the moving process and even make some extra money on the side. You’ll also need to figure out logistical stuff like what to do with your current phone number, mailing address, bank accounts and pets.
For more detailed advice on how to prepare for your move abroad, check out our moving checklist!
How to enjoy life as an expat
First thing’s first: find a community. Whether you play a certain sport, have a particular hobby—whatever you’re interested in, look for like-minded people. This is obviously easier in a big city, but the best way to integrate yourself and start making friends is through a shared interest.
Find a Facebook group for single moms in your area, join the American Club (or an organization for your nationality), search Meetup.com for amateur sports leagues—the internet is your friend. And if you’re a women age 30+ join She Hit Refresh!
Fellow expats know what it feels like to be the newbie in town, so don’t be afraid to reach out and send someone a simple message! Oftentimes, they’ll be happy to meet and, even better, introduce you to their circle of friends.
Once you start finding your people, it’s important to connect with the local culture. Be a tourist in your own city and discover what makes your new home so special. But then you can even take it a step further by visiting local museums, taking a stroll through an unknown area or reading a book in your neighborhood cafe or bar—you never know who you might strike up a conversation with.
Connecting with your community often goes hand in hand with learning the language. The more you can communicate with locals, the better chance you have not only of making new friends, but also feeling more at home in your surroundings. Once you start being able to read local street signs and understand some of the conversations and references around you, you’ll be amazed at how accomplished you feel.
And once you’ve become an expert in your own town, take advantage of one of the biggest perks of expat life: traveling to new places! Whether it’s exploring a city that you only heard about through locals or taking the train to a neighboring country, take it all in!
4 challenges of expat life
Exploring new places, making new international friends—expat life sounds dreamy right?
It certainly can be, but no matter where you live, daily life can get in the way. And expat life in particular comes with its fair share of challenges—from language barriers to piles of paperwork. Here are four of the biggest challenges you can expect as an expat.
1. Neverending bureaucracy. Living abroad takes work. You may have conquered the initial visa process, but you’ll probably have to deal with regular bouts of paperwork and trips to your local foreign affairs office when it comes to renewing your residency or even switching your driver’s license to your new home country.
2. Language barriers. On a more daily basis, language barriers can make even the smallest tasks a challenge—from going to a restaurant to getting your haircut.
It’s always a good idea to learn some basic phrases before you move, but language learning is an ongoing process. And if you live in a small town or somewhere with a smaller expat community, you may need to level up quickly to live a more comfortable life.
3. Making local friends. Learning the language will definitely help you make local friends, but it can still be a challenge to get in with those tight-knit friend groups. In many countries, people maintain the same group of friends they grew up with, and likely don’t feel super motivated to befriend foreigners who might leave after a couple of years.
The best way around this? Be persistent, but patient. By engaging with the local culture, you’ll make local friends over time, and if you build a consistent friendship, they’ll open up their circle more and more.
4. Feeling disconnected. You might be loving your new life abroad, but that doesn’t mean you won’t miss the comforts of home. Homesickness can be as simple as missing your favorite midnight snack, but it can also hit when you have to stay up late to FaceTime a friend or watch the Oscars at a ridiculous hour because of the time difference. Unfortunately, being an expat means missing out on things back home.
5 tips for managing your expat lifestyle
Now that you’ve prepped for your move abroad and anticipated some of the challenges you might face, you’re a little more familiar with what to expect.
So once you’ve settled in, how exactly do you live expat life to the fullest? Here are five tips for managing your lifestyle in your new home away from home.
1. Find other expats. Meeting people who understand exactly what you’re going through is key. Not only can they be a source of moral support when living abroad, but they can also be helpful resources for practical things like filing taxes as an expat or finding a particular doctor who speaks your native language.
2. Take advantage of social media. Follow local news accounts on Twitter, join relevant groups on Facebook and even check out nearby restaurants on Instagram. This can help you feel more familiar with your surroundings and more immersed in the local culture.
3. Keep in touch with loved ones back home. Whether it’s weekly video calls or a lively group chat, find time to stay connected with your friends and family back home. For even more quality time, you can watch Netflix together, play an online game or even send them a handwritten postcard.
4. Create your own traditions. Missing certain holidays or family celebrations back home can be hard, so take the time to make your own traditions! Share a bit of your culture in your new home by hosting a Friendsgiving potluck or bringing your coworkers one of your favorite treats from your home country.
5. Relish in the little things. Try to find at least one thing per day that you’re grateful for as an expat. When you’re feeling extra homesick, it can be helpful to remember why you chose to move abroad in the first place. So even if that trip to the migration office was particularly stressful, you can stop, look around and remember that your new life is worth it.
Like with any major lifestyle change, remember that settling in as an expat takes time. And just like back in your home country, daily life has its ups and downs.
Perhaps one of the most comforting things about being an expat is knowing you’re never alone—wherever you are in the world, there are ways to find your community, take advantage of your surroundings and successfully build a home away from home!