How to Make Your Ex-Pat Life Better

Lessons and tools I wish I had when I first moved abroad.

Brian Abbey
Feb 28 · 7 min read

Moving to another country involves much more than packing boxes and changing your mailing address. In 2012, I moved from Utah to London and a few years later to Romania. Both moves went fairly well but, in hindsight, I realize I could have been better prepared. Here are the top things I wish I had known from the moment I began to plan my ex-pat life.

This is for those considering a move abroad. There is a huge difference between a lawyer who handles your paperwork and a lawyer who will help you transition. View this as an investment because a good immigration attorney helps you with:

  • Your visa, residence permits, and documents ensuring you have the right to reside and work in the country as well as those for your spouse or partner
  • Setting up a local bank account
  • Recommending an estate agent — they should have a preferred partner
  • Obtaining tax identification and enrolling in healthcare, both national and private
  • In-house international tax expertise — generally a partnering organization
  • In-house financial advisor — generally a partnering organization

These are the basics. My attorney offered all of the above as a one-stop suite of services. He recommended areas of the city for living and invited me to ex-pat seminars to mingle with other recent immigrants. I knew quite a few American ex-pats who didn’t have the same experience I did and some came to me with questions or for help. It’s worth the extra money for a good immigration attorney to make your transition to a new country easier.

I wasn’t going to include anything about packing but if I could travel back in time I would bring some things I left in storage. Almost all of these have sentimental value. Personal touches in your new abode help you feel at home.

My general advice is to think like a minimalist. If you’re unsure where to begin here is a thorough list from International Citizens for what to pack when moving abroad. Use it as a reference but remember it’s up to you to prioritize what will be important.

You can rock up with just a suitcase if you want. This is especially true if you’re coming over for work and your stay might only be a couple of years. You can easily find fully furnished accommodations providing almost everything you need.

Make sure you have important documents such as visa and passport, medical records, birth certificate, tax records, as well as any other financial or personal related information. See the International Citizens list for further suggestions.

I believe this is the most important piece of advice I can give because it is the difference between a happy experience and a miserable one. It’s normal to miss a few things from home but you shouldn’t pine for your American life. Embrace the novelty of how a different country goes about business, shopping, cooking, recreation, and life in general.

A friend of mine moved to London while I was there and she constantly complained about how ‘weird’ things were or complained about not finding the same products in the stores. You may not be able to find your favorite flavor of ice cream or your favorite brand of cereal. Try something new. She became happier when she dropped the comparisons and was more in the moment with her available options.

I didn’t fully appreciate how convenient American life is until I moved. Stores often open later and closer earlier here. Additionally, fewer monolithic stores exist offering every conceivable thing, from tomatoes to winter tires. Something I found surprising upon first arriving in Romania, but have since grown to love, is the seasonality of produce is much more apparent. Even in big stores, there will be times you cannot find strawberries, blueberries, apples, squash, grapes, etc.

Furthermore, be prepared for increased bureaucracy, especially in Eastern Europe. Part of old-world charm means some things are still done in an old-world way. Tasks I could complete online in the US might require me to deal with an actual person. When we launched a Romanian corporation, we made nine trips to city hall for our SRL, limited liability company, meeting each time with a different official. It was maddening but that’s how it’s done here. If you’re constantly saying, “In America, we do it like this….” you won’t be happy. Regardless of what you think, you have to function and be productive with how things run in your new country. Be flexible and patient as you adapt to your surroundings.

This was my biggest mistake when I moved abroad. During my first six months in London, I worked long hours and when I wasn’t at work I was setting up my flat and organizing my life. Invest time in meeting the people who will become your new friends.

Being many miles and time zones away from friends and family will make you feel isolated and lonely. I wrote about ways to make new friends here and I cannot stress enough how important my friends were in helping me adjust first to Britain then to Romania.

Seek out networking groups or organizations designed specifically to help you meet people in similar situations, such as Internations. I also joined a marketing group in London and a wine club in Romania. I made meeting new people an objective and worked to achieve it.

Begin by immediately switching to local news. Learn what is happening around you. This provides you insight and context to your new country as well as conversational topics when meeting people.

Learn about your new city as well. My London life improved when I learned the Tube system and even more so when I began learning the bus routes. Plus, it saved me a fortune on cabs. It’s a good idea to know where your American embassy is located as well. I’ve had to visit the American embassy in Bucharest several times.

Become a local by finding a local pub or café. Figure out which shops are best for flowers, wine, meats, or books. We buy our produce at one of the many farmer’s markets, which is just a few blocks from our flat. Avoid the big chains if you can and live like a local. Proprietors of smaller shops will recognize you when you walk in and this makes you feel at home.

Nothing will make you a local more than learning the language. Start learning your new language on day one and don’t worry about sounding foolish. Mark Manson, the self-help author, stresses intensity and practice. Many apps and learning programs advertise learning a language by practicing one hour per day but Manson’s approach is completely different.

Intensity of study trumps length of study. What I mean by this is that studying a language four hours a day for two weeks will be more beneficial for you than studying one hour a day for two months.

Apps such as Duolingo are fun and help you learn a few words and phrases but I recommend immersing yourself as much as possible and investing in programs such as Rosetta Stone or Babbel. I’ve used both for Spanish and thought they were both engaging, but I preferred Rosetta. Neither offers Romanian, so I hired a tutor for a few months and I practice speaking it at every opportunity.

Having a local bank account is essential but you will likely need to change currencies, send money between countries, and move money around without cumbersome bank fees. Quite a few disruptors in the banking industry offer benefits beyond those of your standard banking.

Companies such as Transferwise, Revolut, and Monese offer different ranges of services. All provide banking services and debit cards that can be used in many countries without foreign transaction fees. My experience with the three above is that they work faster, offer better currency rates, and are more flexible than my bank. They also provide other benefits such as insurance and travel perks. If I had to pick one, I would go with Transferwise because of the reach and ease of use with US transactions.

Sometimes I just need to hear a friendly voice with a Texas accent. I use Whatsapp for messaging and phone calls to the States. In my experience, they provide the best call quality and are simple enough for my parents to use. Calls are free and the service is free and it is more secure than many other offerings.

When I want to see folks back home, I use Skype. They have great quality and it’s a free service. I also enrolled in a monthly plan providing me dedicated local numbers so my British and American clients have a non-international number they can dial. It works equally as well on my laptop or phone.

My last tip ties into several of the above recommendations. It will be easier to adapt and fit in if you aren’t always trying to stand out. When I first moved to London, a Swedish friend commented that Americans are often loud and opinionated. I found many Europeans stereotype us like this. One way I combatted that stereotype and made new friends was by listening more than talking. This allowed me to take in more of my new surroundings and understand my new friends better.

Embrace the local cuisine as much as you can. There will be menu items that seem strange, piftie perhaps, but extending beyond your comfort zone is part of the experience. Be aware of local traditions and customs and try not to offend by complaining or making disparaging remarks. Take an interest in the diverse histories and lifestyles found in your new country. Flexibility and an open mind are crucial to a positive ex-pat experience.

Lastly, while you may believe America is the greatest country in the world, your new countrymen take pride in theirs as well. Tone down your stars and stripes forever rhetoric and you will be much more popular. Make America proud by making a good impression.

If you’re already abroad then some of the above might be useful and if you’re contemplating a move, then consider it a primer on Ex-Pat 101. Living in another country is a wonderful experience. The more prepared you are, the more you will enjoy your ex-pat life. Drum bun!

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Brian Abbey

Written by

writer (hack) entrepreneur (unemployable) expat (immigrant) philosopher (unemployable hack) humorist (who says that?)

Farewell Alarms

Leave the alarm clock behind and just go.

Brian Abbey

Written by

writer (hack) entrepreneur (unemployable) expat (immigrant) philosopher (unemployable hack) humorist (who says that?)

Farewell Alarms

Leave the alarm clock behind and just go.

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