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How to Expatriate: Tips for Expats

Updated on March 20, 2012
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Are you thinking about moving abroad? The whole idea of moving overseas can be extremely exciting yet nerve-wracking at the same time. The idea of moving abroad conjures up images of exploring foreign places, meeting interesting people and experiencing lots of new and unheard of things in the adopted country. That will come with a move abroad, yet at the same time, you need to realize that moving abroad is not an extended vacation and that there are some not-so dreamy aspects of living abroad. Believe me, I know, having moved from New York City to the capital of Portugal over a year ago.

There’s an official term for someone like you and me, which is “expat”, short for “expatiate”. Expat generally refers to a person living in a country other than the one of their citizenship. People choose to leave the comforts of their familiar surroundings for many different reasons – work, study, love or perhaps just for a change of scenery. If you’re taking the leap to move across the pond, then you should be aware that it takes a certain personality to be able to adjust to life in a completely different environment and culture.

Below are some tips that should help you adjust and enjoy life overseas.

Ernest Hemingway was one of the most famous American expats

Ernest Hemingway was part of a generation of Americans who lived by the charm of Europe in Paris during the 1920's. This is the famous writer's passport photo from 1923.
Ernest Hemingway was part of a generation of Americans who lived by the charm of Europe in Paris during the 1920's. This is the famous writer's passport photo from 1923. | Source

Number of Americans living abroad: between four and six million!

The exact number of Americans living abroad is unknown since Americans aren't required to report to the government when moving abroad however attempts to count the number of American citizens residing overseas put the estimate between four and six million of us.

U.S. Embassy in Paris

You'll need to jot down important phone number and addresses when you're abroad, such as that of the US embassy in your adopted country
You'll need to jot down important phone number and addresses when you're abroad, such as that of the US embassy in your adopted country | Source

Expat living in Lisbon

As an expat living overseas, you'll be welcoming friends from back home to your adopted home
As an expat living overseas, you'll be welcoming friends from back home to your adopted home | Source

There's lots of McDonalds restaurants overseas, making you feel a little closer to home with each sight of the golden arches

McDonald's in Tallinn, Estonia. I personally don't go near fast food like McDonald's back at home but as an expat, I crave it in my new environment.
McDonald's in Tallinn, Estonia. I personally don't go near fast food like McDonald's back at home but as an expat, I crave it in my new environment. | Source

General tips for successfully living overseas and lessening culture shock

  • Prepare yourself mentally - Once you move to another country, there will be lots of new things - a new language, new people, new routines, new codes of conduct, a new climate. That's a lot of new things! It helps if you can get cross-cultural training which will prepare you for your move so that you know what to expect and aren't just jumping headfirst into a completely new and unknown environment. Many expats feel loneliness, homesickness, frustration, confusion and other not so dreamy things. The key is to expect these things.
  • Be open-minded - Everyone has their own way of doing things so there are bound to be cultural differences with your adopted country. Stay positive, admire things around you rather than complain about them and be aware that things can be done in different ways.
  • Learn about your surroundings - Once you know where you'll be living and have secured a house or apartment, find out where you can go shopping, where different points of interest are such as the post office and grocery store. Get to know various routes and the best way to get around, as well as whether it's safe to walk. Get a map and annotate places that are important to you.
  • Make a routine - Routines help us feel in control of situations and are extremely helpful when we feel like things are out of the norm. So make a daily routine like going to the gym daily at the same time, reading or blogging daily, etc. Whatever floats your boat!
  • Keep organized - I personally like to keep a journal in which I plan out each day and jot down things of interest throughout the day. This helps me stay organized and have a routine.
  • Find new favorites - The country where you're moving may not have your favorite foods or other goods but not to worry because there will be lots of local things for you to try out and love. For instance, I usually have a hazelnut coffee with sugar and cream, and eat a bagel or a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich for breakfast back in NY but those are not to be found easily in Portugal. So instead, I've come to love Portuguese galao (espresso with milk) and salgados (salty snacks). The same goes for many other things such as favorite salons, department stores, etc.
  • Make your house feel homey - I think it really helps to bring some favorite things from back home to make yourself feel at ease with your new environment and have some familiar things. I personally like to bring a couple of framed pictures, a couple of favorite books, and as weird as it sounds, I like to bring some bathroom accessories like a soap dish and toothbrush holder from home. These little touches recreate home and make you feel more comfortable.
  • Call friends and family back home on a regular basis - With modern technology, it's extremely easy to stay in touch with people back home. If you call up your best friend every evening when you're home, you don't have to stop just because you're abroad. In fact you can keep the same routine and you'll just have a lot more to talk about. You can use Skype, Google+ or make video calls to friends and family back home. I, for instance have FaceTime on my Mac and most of my friends and family have Macs, iPhones or iPads with FaceTime as well so not only do I get to speak with them, I even get to see them!
  • Build a new social network - You're going to meet lots of new people abroad and some will be in a similar situation to you. So go out, make new friends, including with locals and enjoy the experience of living in a different country and the opportunity to meet new people and learn new things.
  • Sign up for the gym - If you go to the gym back at home, get a gym membership in your adopted country. Even if you don't go to the gym back home, get a gym membership since exercising is a great way to relieve stress and maybe you'll even make friends at the gym!
  • Remember that everyone gets a culture shock - You're bound to feel like there's so much new stuff that you don't know where to begin. The key is to be prepared and not go at it blindly.
  • Previous expat experience can help adjusting to a new location but it's important to note that every place is different. I personally believe that if you have at least one international stint under your belt, your next one will only be a breeze if it's in a country within the same country cluster as the one with experience (i.e. Latin Europe cluster including Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, and Belgium). Source: S. Ronen and 0. Shenkar. "Clustering Countries on Attitudinal Dimensions: A Review and Synthesis." Academy of Management Review, 1985

Some factors can make expatriate assignments difficult

Typical factors that can make an expatriate assignment difficult include:

  • Increased stress due to isolation from friends and family back home
  • Inability of expat and/or spouse to adjust to life abroad
  • Family situations such as a concern for children's education or health
  • Inability to cope to wider responsibilities that come with an international assignment
  • Cultural factors including: difficulties in communicating in a different language; exposure to different political, economic and religious views; different values and norms that lead to clashes with locals

The key is to anticipate these difficulties and to take steps to mitigate them such as scheduling weekly Skype calls with friends and family; learning at least the basics of the language where moving to; and researching the values and norms of the country you're moving to so that you know what to expect.

The various stages of the expat experience include culture shock

Source

Once you're done with your international assignment or whatever motivated you to move overseas, you're going to return to your home country and go through a process that's called "repatriation" or "reverse culture shock". This phase is commonly referred to as the final link of the expat experience and refers to an expat returning home.

Stats show that one-third of expats who return to the U.S. actually leave the company that sent them abroad within 18 months. Factors that contribute to this are:

  • Reverse cultural shock
  • Company's indifference to the value that the international experience brought
  • Increased "employ-ability" of returning expats

Enjoy your life abroad and make the most of it!

Comments regarding advice for expats

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    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Gill, thanks so much for your nice comment. I completely agree with you that although being an expat can be stressful, it is well worth it!

    • Gill Harris profile image

      Gill Harris 5 years ago from South Africa

      Living in a different country can be such an incredible growth experience but also so stressful. The experience well worth the stress though. Your hub lays it all out beautifully. Voted up!

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Jessica - you make a great point! Support from friends is very important and helpful when moving. Thanks so much for your comment.

    • Jessicapotter24 profile image

      Jessicapotter24 5 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      Great idea to write a hub about your experience as an expat. It is very difficult to get accustomed to the life style of a new country, I feel it when I move from one state to another, So I can very well imagine if it was a a new country. Most important thing during this phase is to be in the midst of good friends. This will definitely help to get over the transition quickly.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Mizjo - Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your experience about British expats in your hometown, as well as your own experience of moving to the US. Great tip about learning basic day to day phrases, at the minimum, before moving overseas. As a foreigner in another country, we can't expect for people to cater to us but we need make an effort to assimilate and communicate in the local language. Thanks!

    • mizjo profile image

      mizjo 5 years ago from New York City, NY

      Great hub, Anna, full of good tips for making the move an exciting adventure.

      I am thinking back many, many years when I was a young person in Malaysia. My family lived in a British-owned tin mining town with many British families. Most of them kept to their own kind, made no effort to know the native people, or to learn about their diverse cultures. After their tours of duty of maybe 3 or 4 years, they repatriated to their own country and another family took their place. I can't help feeling sorry that they could have had such a rich experience in a foreign country but chose to live within a wall of their own making.

      Such was not my own experience in the countries I have lived in. And in this country, I am fully assimilated and am quite happy. Knowing the language first before moving is absolutely essential, so make an effort before leaving home, even if it is only to learn the basic day to day phrases. They will take you far.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks so much, Alissa! I'm sure you'd be fine and enjoying the "honeymoon" stage if you were to ever move abroad.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks, Robin! It's definitely really nice to meet up with someone from your home country when living abroad and it does give the sense of "home". The other day I met a guy from Wisconsin and although I've never been to Wisconsin and can count on one hand the number of Wisconsinites I've met in my life, I instantly felt a connection and happy to meet and talk with an American.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 5 years ago from Normandy, TN

      This is a fantastic and very informative hub! Your tips will be most helpful to anyone thinking about moving overseas. I fear that if I ever moved to another country I would go straight into culture shock. Great job - voted up, useful & interesting!

    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Excellent tips and advice! It helps that you have first hand experience! We have a few expat friends in the U.S. and they seem to get together regularly. I think it's probably nice to feel a bit of home from one another. I know that I would like that.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Edelhaus - thanks so much for the excellent advice! You provide really valuable input with your extensive experience as an expat. Thank you!

    • edelhaus profile image

      edelhaus 5 years ago from Munich, Germany

      Being an expat for about 20 years now, I'd say your advice is excellent. The only thing that I would add to it, is do your best to immerse yourself in the language and culture so all those "strange" things quickly become normal. Also, you'll never really understand the people of a country unless you can speak their language and understand their jokes. Even if their English is excellent there are too many nuances and untranslatable subtleties that get missed when you're not communicating in the native language.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Hi Europewalker! Thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you that open-mindedness is key to successfully living abroad because when moving abroad, it's not an extended vacation but you need to get acclimated to a new and different way of life. There is no right or wrong, each place just has different ways of doing things and it's important to accept that.

    • europewalker profile image

      europewalker 5 years ago

      Enjoyed this hub. Wonderful tips, I think that being open minded is the key to living abroad. Some people go there for a different experience, but then complain about the unfamiliarities, instead of exploring and participating in their new culture.

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Paul, thanks so much for sharing your expat experience. I'm completely with you that the expat experience is priceless and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world either!

    • Global-Chica profile image
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      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      You're so right, nifwiseirff about people starting in various phases of culture shock depending on their situation. Now that I moved from Portugal to Angola, I feel like I also jumped straight to the negotiating and adjustment stage and looking back, I think that the reason that I enjoyed a "honeymoon" phase in Portugal was because it was my first time moving abroad so I was really excited about the idea of moving, as well as finding out about my new country and exploring it. The move to Angola was for other reasons and I wasn't as excited about moving again nor was I eager to explore another country. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an excellent, well-written very informative hub. I have been an expat twice in my life during the period 1973-1979 when I lived in Taiwan, and now from 2007 until the present while living and working in Thailand. You are correct when saying it is very important to have a daily routine and build up a circle of friends or relatives while being an expat. I wouldn't trade the two experiences which I have had as an expat for anything in the world!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Some people may start in various phases, depending on their situation, personality and reasons for living overseas. Sometimes I wish I could experience the honeymoon phase, but I always seem to jump into the negotiating/adjustment phases.