This is How to Successfully Move to Another Country
A blueprint for happiness beyond the American dream
A year ago, I quit my job, sold a bunch of my stuff, and moved to the country of Panama.
What was by far the hardest decision of my life was also unbelievably liberating.
I had spent the previous 22 years working for someone else. Using my time, talents, and resources, building brands, and making money for other people.
For the past few years of my corporate career, I commuted 60 miles. In those afternoons, when time seemed to stand as still as the cars on the freeway, I began to weigh my options.
My husband and I were ready for professional changes. We dreamed of launching our own ventures, but couldn’t afford to live in our hometown and not get paid.
I also craved adventure. I kept feeling an internal nudge to dig deep. Where else might we live?
Panama became our top choice and eventual destination. These are the five critical decisions, aspects, and logistical tips that set us up for success.
What Do You Want?
The world is full of infinite possibilities. Getting clear on your goals will narrow the search and save your sanity.
I like to start with the big picture to develop a framework.
Essential questions to ask:
- What’s your budget?
- What type of climate do you prefer?
- What outdoor activities do you enjoy?
- Do you speak another language, or are you willing to learn?
- Do you want to live in a city or prefer a rural location?
- Are time differences a factor for remote work, staying in touch with friends and family, or traveling back home?
- What are your must-haves and deal breakers?
Taking time to line out your preferences will encourage research of places that fit your specific qualifications and reduce overwhelm.
For me, I wanted to live on $2,000 a month in a warm, yet mild climate with access to hiking, biking, and an occasional beach or mountain excursion. My Spanish was minimal, but I wasn’t afraid to learn.
I longed to live in a small city with a fair amount of amenities and to have an easy connection to a large city with an international airport.
I wasn’t initially concerned with time differences. Yet, when faced with a nine to fourteen-hour variance between friends, family, and my husband’s clients, this became an important factor that shaped our decision. If something were to go wrong, I wanted to “get home” in a day.
Fortunately, my list of must-haves steered me away from most of my deal-breakers.
The ones remaining were related to the country’s safety and security, including a stable government, economy, and currency.
I was also sensitive to the local culture being accepting of expatriates. I wanted to feel welcome and be able to blend into cultural norms. While this didn’t start as a must-have, the more I researched, it quickly became a deal-breaker.
Do Your Research
Once we had our goals, must-haves, and deal-breakers lined out, I started googling, “Where can you live on $25K a year?”
Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, and more are all touted as beautiful places where the cost of living is low, and the opportunity for adventure is high. They also have thriving expat havens of a few hundred to over 10,000.
This is when the lists you created will come in handy. It’s not that your preferences are meant to be rigid. They are intended to be a framework for your dreams. When you start googling “living abroad,” it can quickly become an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing project.
There are many places for expats to live comfortably around the world that initially look ultra attractive. Without guidelines, it’s easy to spend weeks, even months fishing around the internet.
Taking time to line out what was important to me and my family was instrumental in finding our ideal location and doing it in an exciting manner that met our timeline.
The Power of Stories
Think about reading various credible sources from International Living, travel sites, government agencies, or specific city websites. Thousands of Americans live and work abroad. Many publish articles, write blogs, and even host tours.
I wanted to read factual information related to government stability, economic drivers, crime rates, and health care access from reputable sites. I also wanted a sense of what it’s like to live there from folks who actually live there.
Luckily, there are Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and plenty of folks sharing their journey.
My husband came across a woman who lives in the Panamanian city that was our top choice. While she makes her living giving tours, she also has an abundance of free information on her website. She even hosts periodic calls to talk about living abroad and answer questions. While we didn’t take the tour, the ability to learn from her experience was beneficial.
Another option to consider is to reach out to a reputable Airbnb host and ask if they would be open to scheduling a call or answering a handful of questions via email.
While I highly encourage visiting, gaining the perspective of someone living in the area who’s also hosting travelers is a great way to learn.
The more stories you can collect about local nuances, recommendations of potential vendors to assist with moving logistics and connect through personal experiences of living in the area, the more confident you will be about leaping.
Use your next vacation or long weekend to visit your potential home. While I trusted most of the information I read online, I also understood that much of it had an underlying agenda or personal bias.
Moving internationally is a significant life change. I desired a sense of security that could only come from seeing it myself. I wanted to walk through the town, explore the area, and take in the vibe.
I needed confirmation that quitting my job, selling my stuff, and moving to another country felt right in my mind and body.
Strolling through town and driving around the neighborhoods where we might live were necessary to create a mental map of our future life. These actions tempered my fears, allowing the seedlings of my dreams to grow.
Visiting also provided the opportunity to see people’s faces and experience the energy of how they described their favorite aspects. I felt their joy in deliberately choosing a slower pace of life.
I learned the most from our three-hour chat with the couple who hosted us in their Airbnb. When searching for a place to stay during our scouting trip, I deliberately chose a casita where the owners lived on site.
Having the opportunity to hear stories and ask specific questions to people who successfully navigated the journey we were about to begin was a tremendous gift.
We discussed important, complicated topics such as the immigration process, moving with pets, health insurance, what items to bring, and local events and activities. They also shared recommendations on attorneys and vendors to assist with our move. The generosity of their time, information, and connections was priceless.
Create a Plan
Think about your timeline and the big, weighty decisions that require multiple steps to come together. If you have three months or three years, what are the consistent actions that get you closer to your goal?
Topics to include:
- Do you have a home to sell or rent?
- What possessions, including vehicles, will you sell, give away, or put in storage?
- Before quitting a job or changing healthcare plans, what would you like to take care of before your coverage shifts?
- Get your financial, government, and legal affairs in order. How will you earn or access money in your new country?
- Do you have pets that will require vaccinations and documentation?
It’s easy to get caught up with the small details that feel overwhelming, developing a thorough, fluid plan will focus your energy and prioritize the critical aspects.
For us, we got married seven months before our departure, and I hadn’t legally changed my name. Prior to leaving the country, I updated all my government identifications and financial accounts.
We were renting a home before our move and coordinated the lease ending with our departure date. This gave us three months after our scouting trip to devise and execute a plan.
Thankfully my husband stopped working and dedicated his time and energy to project managing the details of our daily tasks.
One of the most daunting chores was sorting through our household items. We had a good idea of what to take with us. Yet, when faced with deciding the fate of every object in our home, decision fatigue came quickly, and my stress level rose.
Utilizing various websites and apps, we sold many things. When I realized we didn’t have enough time to sell our possessions in increments of one, we hosted a few garage sales and ended up giving away or donating what was left.
Our time in Panama is a sabbatical to launch passion projects into new careers. My goal is to live here for three to five years. We kept staple household items of kitchenware, linens, a minimal amount of books and personal memorabilia, and most of our furniture — putting these into storage.
We had two cars and sold my husband’s right away. Sharing a car for the last few months wasn’t tough since we lived in a city. My car sold a few weeks before our move. Thankfully, the buyer was flexible, allowing us to drive it until we left.
My husband has type 1 diabetes, and having medical supplies is critically important. He bought a year’s worth of necessities and brought them with us to Panama. We also visited our doctors, dentists, and optometrists before ending our health insurance.
My husband and I still have our regular U.S. bank accounts and utilize credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. We use our credit cards for almost all purchases.
To get cash, we write a check from our U.S. bank account and deposit it into our Panamanian bank. It takes three weeks to access the funds, which requires some planning. However, if something comes up, I can get cash from an ATM for a fee of $10-$20.
Importantly, as Americans living abroad, we still get to vote in the November election. The process was easy on votefromabroad.org. Our ballots arrived via email a few days ago to print out and fax or mail back.
Our three pets moved to Panama as well. The government mandates a wellness statement from a veterinarian and a rabies shot. The challenging part was getting the papers notarized by both the USDA and Panamanian consulate in the U.S. within ten days of our arrival.
If you’re moving internationally with pets, I encourage an expert’s counsel on your destination’s specifics. We hired a gentleman who spoke English and Spanish to help us with the process. It was only $150 and gave me peace of mind that our pets wouldn’t have challenges when we arrived.
There will be dozens of other details, tasks, chores, and errands that will require your time, energy, and decision-making capacity leading up to your move.
You may learn new information, and for various reasons, many plans will shift or sometimes be completely reformulated.
If you take time to develop a thorough plan regarding your move’s most considerable aspects, it will give you the bandwidth to pivot and deal with minor challenges or small fires as they arise.
Ask For Help
Many of us find it hard to ask for help, myself included. Moving internationally is a huge life choice requiring hundreds of decisions and tasks. It will save time, money, and your sanity if you can lean on others for support.
If you live in another country for 3–6 months or more, going through the proper immigration process is typically required by law. Some people choose to be renegades and sneakily evade the system. I don’t recommend that choice.
If you are fluent in the country’s language and have a legal background, you may not need an attorney. For the rest of us, an attorney is standard.
The vast number of documents, notary requirements, and proper cadence of submission to multiple government offices, on top of the language barrier, made an attorney essential for our immigration success.
I asked people on our scouting trip which attorney they used and if they recommended that person. The names that came up multiple times I contacted for a quote. When the prices were close, I weighed things like:
- Did they speak English?
- How far is their office from where I planned to live?
- Was their communication timely?
- Did I get a positive vibe when speaking with them?
Overall we paid nearly $4,000 in attorney and government agency fees for both my husband and me to get our Panamanian visas and driver’s licenses that took nearly six months. We are “legal” and may remain in the country for as long as we like.
A few jack-of-all-trades vendors were essential in navigating our arrival and acclimation.
We hired a gentleman who met us at the airport and assisted with a multitude of random tasks. He picked up our Airbnb keys, oversaw our pet immigration, stored our luggage, couriered legal documents, and drove us with our thirteen bags and three pets, eight hours across the country to our new hometown.
By the time we landed in Panama City, my husband and I were exhausted. It was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other. Having a knowledgeable guide to lean on immediately upon arrival was enormously helpful. In total, we paid him $850 that was well worth his expertise and support.
For under $400, another man assisted us with the paperwork to change the title and get license plates on the vehicle we purchased.
Local service providers can help for a relatively low price compared to the stress and strife of tackling on your own. Get recommendations, a few quotes, and delegate.
Finally, I encourage you to ask for help at all stages of your journey. Friends and family were excited for us and wanted to be part of the process. They helped us pack and set up yard sales, took items to Goodwill, accepted our mail, and brought us food and moral support when we were worn out.
Even random people were kind and helpful when I shared our plans. From the gentleness of the movers we hired to haul our belongings to storage, to the car rental attendant who gave us a free upgrade, to the lady in line at the airport who shared her cell number for questions when we arrived — these simple acts of kindness went a long way.
Living My Best Life
My husband and I rent a two-bedroom home on a mountainside citrus farm in Boquete, Panama, at 4,200 feet in elevation. We have hot water, decent internet, and a large covered porch with a fantastic view where I spend most of my time writing.
I never dreamed we would make the leap, let alone successfully manage to adjust to life abroad so quickly.
We live on $2,200 a month, with 72% going to rent, food, pet, and medical supplies. We don’t buy a lot of “stuff”, but we eat well and splurge on interesting or hard-to-find foods.
While moving internationally takes a tremendous amount of detailed work, it’s entirely doable.
Taking time to decide what you want, doing research utilizing various sources, visiting your potential new hometown, creating a detailed plan, and asking for help along the way were incredible tools that proved to be successful for my husband and me.
These points were our guiding stars as we navigated toward our goals in the darkness of uncertainty.
Change is hard, and making significant life-altering decisions is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to see past the initial waves of fear into the possibility of a new life.
I feel the rewards of detoxing from constant busyness and stress deep within my body. My nervous system has been rewired by the peaceful companionship of nature that surrounds me.
It’s as if a key unlocked a secret door to my true potential. For the first time, I’m living my life’s purpose.
While moving abroad was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I now see it as the bravest decision I have ever made.
Your new life is going to cost you your old life.
For me, it was a small price to pay for freedom.