Making a new life on foreign shores is the dream of many. But what happens when you try to make the dream a reality? It seems glamorous, but it can be very hard work.
A lot of folks talk about running away to their place in the sun.
They want to find this dream lifestyle in a foreign country. Or maybe retire and cash in their chips to move someplace where the weather is always sunny and the beer is always chilled.
A significant percentage of those people have even moved beyond the “dreamer” stage. They have a very clear image of where they would go, and what sort of lifestyle they would create.
But have you ever stopped to think about why you want to live abroad? What need are you trying to meet by expatriating? Are you running toward something, or away from something else?
It’s an important question.
Understanding your reasons for moving will make that transition easier. And it’ll help you get through the tough times when nothing in your new environment seems to be going your way.
Let’s have a look at a few of the most common reasons for taking the expat road, and a few of the questions each type should consider.
You Fit in Over There, But You Never Did At Home
You took your first big trip, and it changed you in ways you never expected.
Let’s say you went to Italy. You found the people warmer than anyone back home. They laughed, they had fun, they cared about each other, and they took time to really savour good food.
When you went home, life looked a little paler. It felt like you were walking through scenes in black and white. And so you made plans to move to Italy, because you had found your metaphorical home.
First off, good for you! That can certainly happen, and that instinct can be true.
But you might also be reacting to the freedom of that first trip. The first time you go abroad, to a place where you don’t speak the language and where no one knows you, is a profound experience. People react to you differently than the folks back home, because none of them know the person you’re “supposed” to be. You’re also free to try on different hats and roles and characters, to explore the full range of potential that’s been hidden inside you all along.
I wrote about that experience in my book Vagabond Dreams; I call it “seeing yourself without your boxes.”
It’s what sets so many of us off on a lifetime of travel. And it’s a magical experience that never seems to happen quite like that again.
I guess the cautionary note is, don’t cash in all your chips and make a permanent move just yet.
Ask yourself, Could I be running away from something back home? Why don’t I feel free there, like I do abroad? Could I explore some of these new facets of myself among my family and old friends? If not, why? What’s holding me back?
Explore those emotions and feelings. Maybe get a journal and write them out.
And then book yourself an extended stay in the country you resonated with so strongly. Try it out for six months or a year, and see if those feelings were true.
Master a Language
Living abroad is the best way to master a new language. You’ll be fully immersed in both the language and the culture which produced it. You’ll learn to see the world through foreign eyes, and a foreign vocabulary. You’ll need to use your new skills each time you make a purchase or get something done. You’ll also learn so many new words, as you master the lexicon that lets you tell your new friends about the important things in your life.
This is a great reason to live abroad — whether for a study abroad course, an exchange year, or for a longer period of time.
Stretch Your Retirement Dollar Further
You can live very well on a North American pension, or on your retirement savings, if you move to a place where the cost of living is lower.
Countries like Panama have great resident schemes for North American retirees. The quality of medical care is good, the weather is outstanding, and property prices are such that you’ll get much more for your money than you ever could back home.
The weather can also be a hell of a lot better than what you’re used to. Here in Europe, a lot of Brits move from their rainy island to Spain, Portugal or Malta to escape the gloom and the crowds.
But I’ve seen it go terribly wrong, too.
I know of Brits who cashed in their savings back home and bought property here in Malta because the price was right, and people here speak English. It’s an easy three-hour flight to the UK, and the slow pace of life and constant sunshine were appealing.
Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve met expats who have lived here for over a decade. And I’ve read about some who only lasted three months. They just couldn’t connect to the culture or people, and so they put their house back on the market and returned to England in defeat. Needless to say, that took a chunk out of their precious retirement savings, too.
The lesson here is to try it out before you plunge in. Go for six months. Or even better, rent out your home and do a one-year stay, so you can experience life in all seasons. Spring and Fall in Malta are wonderful, but the extreme heat of summer and the rainy damp of winter in an unheated house can be too much for some.
Prospective expat retirees will also want to ask themselves these key questions:
What if you hate it there? There’s gotta be more for you in your new country than just a low cost of living, great weather and low taxes. Those things won’t keep you happy if everything else gets you down.
Medical care might look good on paper or in a table of statistics, but the reality of the experience can be very different. Try going to a clinic for a checkup to see the quality of doctors. And pay a visit to the emergency room to get a sense of how organized — or utterly chaotic — it can be.
Use public transit, too, to see if you can rely on it if you’re not planning to own a car.
Are you prepared for currency fluctuations? What if the U.S. Dollar or British Pound tanks? Could you still live there at an acceptable level if your retirement savings was suddenly worth less in the local currency? It’s dangerous to rely on the strength of currency exchange to back your quality of life.
Finally, what if you change your mind? Can you unload that property without suffering a crippling loss?
You fell in love with a foreigner. Perhaps she was a hot foreign exchange student you met at school (I can relate to that one). Or maybe he was doing a work abroad thing, or backpacking in your area.
Whatever the case, your partner is headed back to their country. And you’re determined to follow them.
First off, congratulations! That can be a grand adventure. And it can definitely work out.
But what if it doesn’t? Have you thought about what you’ll do if the love dries up? If your relationship doesn’t work out, could you still live there? Or is your partner your only interest in that country?
If you have other reasons for being there, great! But if you don’t, then make sure your savings account always includes enough money for a ticket home if things go badly.
You’ve decided to accept a job abroad. Perhaps it’s a one-year contract, or maybe something more open-ended.
Congratulations. Working abroad can give you a competitive edge in terms of marketable experience. It can give you a job-specific fluency in a foreign language that you’d never attain at home. And it can get you a higher salary than the same position might in your country of origin.
This is a pretty safe bet, as far as expat living goes. Your costs are typically being covered by your company, including an allowance for moving, and in some cases a subsidy for housing. A lot of the risks are removed from the equation.
The only question I’d ask here is, does your contract include a cancellation clause in case something happens to prompt your return back home, such as the illness of a family member or civil strife in your new country? And can you get out if you simply hate it like the fire of a thousand suns?
You Just Want to Have an Amazing Adventure
I can relate to this one. Heck, life is short, and what better reason do you need to set out into the unknown?
But don’t expect living abroad to be one big lark. It can make you feel a lot more free than the strictures of your life back home, whether that’s societal strictures, the pressure from your friends and family to conform, or even moral strictures which simply don’t exist in the country you’re moving to.
But the social pressures will be different, and you will need to adapt.
You’ve also got to understand that when you move abroad, you will be completely on your own. You’ll no longer have a support network to draw on — or at best, you’ll have to build one. Can you be entirely responsible for yourself? And can you sleep well at night knowing this?
To someone like me, that’s a pretty normal state. But it can be terrifying for others. And you’ll want to give it some serious thought.
Remember: living abroad is glamorous in hindsight, but doing it can be a lot of work.
This discussion isn’t meant to put a damper on your plans. View it as a cautionary tale, and make sure you’ve considered all angles and thought through the worst case as well as the best.
And remember: you can’t foresee every possibility. And that’s all part of the adventure. Sometimes you just have to take the leap. As long as you’ve thought this stuff through, you should be able to roll with the punches just fine.
Now get out there and create that exciting new life for yourself!