living_overseas (5 Part Series)
Now that you’re a stranger in a strange land it’s time to get on to the good stuff… living overseas.
Because every country has different laws and regulations, companies, and customs I can’t possibly cover every permutation. Instead of answers I hope to give you some idea of questions to ask locals as well as other expats.
There’s a bunch of important stuff to sort out when you arrive:
- Local bank account
- Depending on the terms of your contract, you might get payed into an overseas account, but most employers will require a domestic bank
- Visa/work permit
- Accommodations (along with internet, utilities, etc.)
- Your employer may provide housing (more common for teachers) or temporary arrangements when you first arrive
You’ll need to give notice of your change of address. Especially to credit card companies and the like, and if you’re from the US the IRS. Alternatively, I strongly recommend retaining a permanent address (that is not a PO box- which can’t be used in certain cases). You will, on occasion, need an address in your home country, time-sensitive items can get lost or heavily delayed internationally, etc.. I’ve used my parent’s address for almost two decades- they’re obligated to like me, thankfully.
When you first arrive you’re probably going to spend more money than you usually do to cover:
- Apartment deposit and/or first month’s rent
- This is likely your biggest initial expense. If getting this much foreign currency is problematic, consider asking your employer for an advance on your first paycheck.
- Transportation (car, bicycle, scooter)
- Appliances and furniture
- Toiletries and cleaning supplies
- Dishes, cookware, and linens
- Stocking a new kitchen
- And so on…
If you use credit cards issued in your home country:
- Make sure to notify them you’ll be “traveling” or purchases may get declined
- Check your terms and conditions for foreign transaction fees. Many cards charge 1-3% for overseas use.
If you use debit/ATM cards (issued in your home country):
- Again, maybe foreign transaction fees but ATM fees are more likely.
- Personally, I don’t use my debit card overseas. Wait until you get a local bank account and stick with on-hand cash/credit until then.
Consider looking into an alternative account to use:
- List of cards with and without fees.
- Charles Schwab “High Yield Investor Checking Account” is awesome because they will waive or reimburse any fees while abroad. I made the mistake of using an overseas address and they told me I was ineligible and declined my application…
- Nowadays there’s several alternatives to traditional banks- “mobile banks” like N26
Long-term you’ll need to transfer money back (and maybe forth). There’s always the traditional route of using a bank or third party like Western Union, but there’s a bunch of online alternatives:
Which is best for you depends on the currencies involved, the amounts you transfer, the frequency, etc.
Bring gifts. Unless you’re rushed at the airport, pick up a few things for your new workplace to help make friends with your new co-workers. I’ve never known HR that would turn down something savory or sweet from a faraway place.
Don’t sweat struggling with people’s names at first. Most new cultures I’ve ended up in I initially have trouble with names, but I’ve never heard of anyone taking it personally.
It’s easy to fall into an “expat” life-style and never really leave your comfort zone. It’s really a lost opportunity, and if you’re going to do that you could have just stayed home.
- Learn the language: we’re on the cusp of real-time language translation, but I still find it fascinating and rewarding to learn the local language (even in countries with high English proficiency)
- See if your company will provide or reimburse language lessons.
- Duolingo is fun. That owl is so encouraging!
- Regional activities: some hobbies are more feasible some places. For example, I’m thrilled about very accessible scuba diving in Cyprus.
- Cultural activities: take an interest in other people’s hobbies. It may lead to them practicing tea ceremony on you, filling a spot on a dragon boat one weekend, or perhaps even taking up the hobby yourself.
- Dating: some of my best and some of my hardest relationships were abroad.
- Apps: often a long familiar app will be supplanted by a regional/domestic option (e.g. instead of Uber perhaps DiDi or Bolt or one of the numerous others).
I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was in high school, but I wish I’d been more consistent with it. I couldn’t tell you the number of things “I’ll never forget”, and no longer remember.
I like to hand-write things in a notebook- feels more personal. When I visit home at the end of the year I put any filled notebooks into storage and have a pretty good-sized stash now. A few years ago I flipped through one from when I was in college and almost didn’t recognize myself. It’s fascinating. Just do it, I suspect you’ll be really glad 20 years from now.
I debated calling this “pre-emptive tidy”, but the point is to avoid accumulating stuff that you’ll have to deal with later. Potential lifestyle choices:
- Furnished apartment: not available in all markets outside of (often prohibitively expensive) “serviced apartments”, but avoid buying larger furniture
- Eat out: the more you eat out the easier it is to keep a sparse kitchen
- Go digital: I don’t buy physical books simply because of how painful and expensive they can be to move. Same goes for other forms of entertainment/content like movies, music, and video games.
- Quality: buy fewer but better things.
- Mobility: go with the portable option; don’t buy a desktop PC, laptops only.
- Clutter-free: avoid knick-knacks, decorations, room flair, and accessories like the plague
That said, don’t compromise on comfort simply for the sake of living some ultra-minimalist lifestyle. If you really love foofy coffee in the morning, just go ahead and get that fancy caffeine reactor.
When you first arrive you’ll be busy and everything will be new and sparkly and exciting, but eventually the novelty will wear off- the honeymoon is over. Don’t underestimate the stress involved in living abroad. Nothing will quite be like you’re used to, mundane tasks will take longer, and trivial things will grate your nerves.
With widespread adoption of Skype, WeChat, Facebook and a thousand other apps it’s never been so easy to stay connected with friends and family. Show your parents/grandparents how to use the latest app-du jour if need be. Don’t let the time difference dissuade you from calling and talking to a familiar voice. Some people go so far as to schedule calls with their loved ones.
For the first year or two I brought all my toiletries from home- things that I was comfortable with. Make friends/acquaintances with people from the same country and offer to bring things back for them- they’re usually willing to reciprocate the favor.
Be prepared to get sick. Different: environment, bacteria, food/water quality provide ample opportunity to leave you miserable. Health care may be worse than you’re used to, and familiar drugs may not be available.
Depending on how big of a move you make, you’re going to see and hear things that wound your delicate sensibilities and challenge your cultural norms. Just remember you’re in their country and you’re the guest. Lecturing others on what’s “right” somewhere else is rarely a good way to make friends. If you get offended- and you probably will- try to remember it’s not worth letting it ruin your day/week/year.
Invariably you’ll want to make flights back.
Most of the litany of loyalty programs I find obnoxious and pointless. However, I’m a big proponent of sticking with more or less the same airline alliance and trying to rack up points.
If you do any amount of business travel as well, you can really stockpile them. Even if someone else does the booking, many airlines will allow you to retroactively get a credit.
The points by themselves are worthwhile since you can redeem them for flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals. But you can advance to higher levels/tiers in the loyalty program: “silver”, “gold”, whatever.
The perks depend on the airline, route, and your level, but may include:
- Seat upgrades: usually extra leg-room and on some airlines you even get a slightly wider seat or other perks.
- Lounge access: when waiting for a connection after a 10+ hour flight sometimes it’s nice to be somewhere with quiet, better wifi, more outlets, nicer chairs and bathrooms, and food and drink (including booze).
- Luggage allowance: depending on the airline and route you get extra checked bags and/or increased weight limits. This can be especially handy when moving.
- More points: gain points faster (more per mile flown) at higher levels.
Depending on the route there may be one clear airline to invest in. If you’ll be flying between major hubs and there’s a wide choice of airlines it’s still worth considering. If I had to choose between saving $100 on on a $1000 ticket with another airline versus getting the miles to level-up with my usual carrier, I’d pick the latter.
Once you fall in love with living overseas, avoid the temptation to sever all ties with your homeland. Blinded by the panacea of awesome public transportation and the rise of Uber, I let my driver’s license expire. Last year I had to go through the trouble of getting it re-instated.
Thoroughly investigate any ongoing or even new obligations you may have. Be wary about merely asking other expats; I’ve met many Americans that mistakenly believe they don’t need to file taxes from abroad. Patently false, “death and taxes” and all that. If you’re from the U.S. you also need to tell the Department of the Treasury about overseas bank accounts with more than $10,000 in them (via the “Financial Crimes Enforcement Network”- which sounds like something from a bad TV show, but is a real thing).
It should also go without saying that you should follow the laws of the relevant country. If your employer is asking people to work illegally (without a proper “working” visa and/or do “visa runs”) or engaging in other dubious behavior (e.g. paying salaries in cash), consider looking for another job. Yes, lots of people do it- especially in certain countries, but do some risk assessment on your behalf. Contrary to popular belief and what’s in movies, I’ve never seen anyone’s government swoop in to save the day.
Insist on your work contract being in English. The original language usually prevails, so ask a native speaker to ensure there are no major discrepancies. Although it rarely happens, if the company asks you to be the “legal representative” (perhaps as part of a promotion) don’t agree to it unless you know what that entails- if the company goes under you may be liable. In short, excise good judgement and don’t assume everyone has your best interests in mind.
Depending on the country, if you’re visibly identifiable as a foreigner, you may also be targeted for scams normally reserved for tourists. Again, use good judgement, and don’t hesitate to just walk away.
I’ve probably forgotten a million other things. Part of the excitement is dealing with new situations and exercising your problem solving skills in new and unexpected ways. In my humble experience, patience a good attitude and a smile will get you far in this world.
Living overseas is one of the most enriching and rewarding decisions I ever made. It fundamentally altered me personally as well as my view of the world- including my own country. Hopefully all this emboldened you to do the same rather than scare you off.