5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving Abroad

Moving across the globe might sound fun and glamorous, but international relocation brings logistical challenges, surprises and culture shock. These glitches will be easier to handle if you prepare before you pack your bags.

One of the best ways to get ready for a move abroad is to find out what others wish they had known before starting life in another country. Here are five lessons learned from moving abroad:

5 Things

A New Language Takes Practice.

There’s a difference between studying a language at home and living in it in abroad. Before you move, practice with native speakers if you can, said Steph DeLaGarza, who moved from San Antonio, TX to Costa Rica and then to New Zealand. She said she wishes she had practiced her Spanish more before her first move because, after arriving, she realized her language level was not as high as she’d thought.

“The way I got better was to speak to locals only in Spanish,” she said. “I had the chance to do this in the States but didn’t take advantage of it because I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge.”

A young woman shopping on farmer's market in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A young woman shopping at a farmer’s market in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Moving Stuff Isn’t Worth It

It can be an expensive to move large, heavy items like furniture and vehicles. So, consider getting rid of most of your stuff or putting it in storage.

“I hear about people moving containers of furniture with them, which costs a lot,” DeLaGarza said. “And sometimes that furniture is not suitable for the place you’re moving.”

For example, transporting a car internationally can cost several thousand dollars, and many countries put import taxes on vehicles. And leather and overly stuffed furniture don’t work well in the tropics when you don’t have central air conditioning, she said.

“Mold is a fact of life and you don’t want it growing in your furniture,” she said.

Finding Housing Can Be Tricky.

When she moved from San Francisco, CA to Medellin, Colombia in December 2015, marketing manager Eleni Cotsis had a hard time getting a place to live.

“Renting an apartment in my own name was pretty much impossible,” Cotsis said.

She found that landlords worried that tenants from other countries would leave before the end of the lease. By networking with people she knew, she finally found a room available for rent. And DeLaGarza, who also faced housing challenges, wishes she would have known about house sitting, which solves the housing issue and cuts living expenses.

“Luckily I found out about house sitting a few months after my move to Costa Rica,” she said. “I managed to secure a long house sit, which was my springboard to getting more of those.”

Colorful colonial houses on a cobblestone street in Guatape, Antioquia in Colombia.
Colorful colonial houses on a cobblestone street in Guatape, Antioquia in Colombia.

Making Friends Takes Time.

Before moving from Louisville, KY to Madrid, Spain, Larry Hyman had been traveling there for decades for work and vacations. Hyman, who runs a tour company, Creative Travel Madrid, always found people in Spain to be warm and welcoming. Nevertheless, when he moved there permanently in October 2014 to get married, he found it tough to make friends because many people he met worked long hours and spent the rest of their free time with family.

Making friends is “hard” and a “long-term process,” he said.

However, resist the temptation to go the easy route and hang out only with people from your own country, said Cotsis, who met locals at language exchanges and by starting a group for women entrepreneurs.

“Expat and digital nomad friends are great to have, but they leave after a very short time and the friendships don’t have the opportunity to develop into anything really substantial,” Cotsis said. “Local friends give you an entire new view of the city.”

Multiracial Group of Friends Taking Selfie at Beach

Red Tape Causes Big Headaches.

One of the biggest challenges of moving abroad is dealing with bureaucracy around getting a visa, driver’s license, bank account or utilities. For example, Cotsis found it challenging to navigate the visa process in Colombia, and she recommends getting your information from the country’s official website for maximum accuracy. Now, Cotsis lives with her Colombian boyfriend, writes the blog Vida for Two about intercultural relationships, and has a “co-living visa,” similar to a spousal visa, for partners of Colombian citizens.

No matter how much research you do, there’s no way to anticipate every challenge you’ll face, said DeLaGarza, who is happy she decided to wing it on her first international move.

“It was a challenge and made for a great learning experience,” she said.

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