How to research expat life effectively
I expect the first thing you did as soon as you heard you may be moving overseas was to start researching your potential destination.
Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people make assumptions about a country and don’t bother to research it.
People who make the most successful transition abroad are those who are fully prepared and have done their research.
You need to work out if a country will be a good fit for all members of your family. It’s hard to gauge what it will be like based on other people’s perspective, which is what you’ll find when you search; someone else’s view of a place may differ wildly from yours.
Researching the rules and regulations, visas, work permits, culture and customs, geographical information, climate etc is one thing, you need to stick to the facts and note what is relevant to you. When it comes to finding out if that destination will suit you and your family, you need to be more circumspect and open minded.
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com.
Welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole and in today's episode, I want to talk about researching your move abroad. Now, I expect the first thing you did as soon as you heard you may be moving overseas was to start researching your potential destination. But not everybody does that. The number of queries that I get from people who want to move abroad but who haven't even looked into the vaguest possibilities. For example, if I can even get a visa to move and live in that country, let alone a work permit, is astounding.
You may be surprised to know that not every country in the world simply likes you to turn up and live there without any paperwork. So you should research your destination and quite a lot of depth, but also enjoy the rabbit holes that you'll inevitably go down. People who make the most successful transition abroad are those who are fully prepared and have done a lot of research.
Now, some people love doing research and some people don't. Well, that's fair enough. But it is important - it's your life. So it's important to understand what your new life will be like. If nothing else, you need to know something as basic and as simple as whether or not you're allowed to move there in the first place. And that means looking into visas. At the other end of the scale you need to know what kind of climate to expect so you can decide on what to pack and what to leave behind.
So it helps to know how to research effectively. It's easy to get really deep into research and actually not get anything done. You can overthink as well. It sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people make assumptions about a country and just don't bother to research it. I'll admit I have been guilty of this too. For example, when opportunities for my husband's job came up and listed South Africa on their options, I immediately said no, based purely on my tiny understanding from international news reports about the violence, basically.
Luckily, we knew people who had actually lived in Pretoria, so we listened to them and very quickly changed our minds and we were so right to do so. It's an incredible place to live. You also need to research on behalf of all family members. So you need to work out if a country will be a good fit for every single person within your family. For example, South Africa is lovely for little children, but teenagers can find it a little bit too restrictive and lacking in their own self independence. They can't get around much and there's not much public transport, if any.
You also need to have an idea of what your own personal deal breakers are. Are they comfort levels? Can you cope with regular electrical outages? Can you cope with flaky Internet connections? How about drinking bottled water only? Extremes of heat and cold? What are you like if the temperature goes up to 45 degrees Celsius and you have no air conditioning? How do you cope when it gets down to minus 30 Celsius and your nose is fairly dropping off?
What about medications? How do you feel about having to take regular malaria tablets? How do you feel about your children having to take them every day? What about the health care system? Are you comfortable with it being slightly dodgy, maybe? What about distance from your own family at home? Is it too far or too close? So I have an idea of your own personal comfort zones and your own personal deal breakers.
Whether a person likes a country or not depends on what they like in general. If somebody enjoys the countryside and fresh air and rolling hills and mountains, they're not going to particularly enjoy living in the centre of a massive urban conurbation; whereas somebody who loves the city life isn't going to be so comfortable in the suburbs or deep in rural Latvia or something.
So when you're reading reviews of a country or articles about a certain area, bear in mind the writer's likes and dislikes. They may well differ radically from yours. Keep in mind what you enjoy. I'll always remember reading a review of Japan, which said something along the lines of 'Japan is a very populous country. The majority live in cities, but most of the country is forest and mountains. However, you may find something interesting to do outside of Tokyo if you search.' Hah! The countryside was amazing.
Anyway, it's all relative. If somebody has just moved to a less developed country after a relatively luxurious one, they are less likely to enjoy it than someone else who considers it a step up from where they were before.
What about education? What about schooling? Are you willing to homeschool your children if the local school options are inadequate? Are you prepared to give up working a nine to five job in order to take into account the early starts and finishes at school, for example, in Germany?
So there are a lot of issues that you need to consider with regards to your day to day life when you do your research. Now, where would you do this research? Well, obviously, a library is a great place to start for books unless you have a book habit and want to buy all of the books... Don't do this. They take up way too much space in your luggage. But you may like to read novels based in your new country. Travel has inspired writers for centuries, and it's one of my personal favourite research tools. Kids like to learn this way too. So perhaps have a look for some books about myths and legends of that country. Watching a movie is also a great way to take a break from serious research. One word of caution here. Don't take all the films or books at face value. Literature in both film and books tends to draw on stereotypes. So do try to look beyond this.
Have a look for movies either based in that country or of that country. Local movies. You can click on the subtitles. TV programs and documentaries are also great. I didn't have much time to do any research or language learning before I moved to Japan, but I did accidentally stumble across a documentary about geisha in Kyoto. So I watched it. I think it was a night or two before we left the UK. I couldn't grasp even a single word or a single syllable of the Japanese language. Suddenly I was terrified. What was I letting myself in for? Rest assured, as soon as you're surrounded by the sounds of the language, it all becomes so much clearer.
So at some point you're going to go online. And that, of course, means Google. Try different keywords in your research. For example, search for expat life in Singapore, countryside in Berlin, horse riding in Beijing, art galleries, Helsinki, Japanese restaurants in Dundee and so on. It's also fun to use Google Earth to take a virtual walk around your new hometown. But remember, it may not have been updated for a while.
If you like to look at pretty pictures and Instagram is excellent, as is Pinterest. You can use hashtags and they will enable you to filter down to look at the prettiest pictures with the lovely filters. It's always good to get something nice to look at. Facebook is a bit more hit and miss at finding information. It's a bit tricky due to the limited search options. And Facebook is where you find the expat groups that you actually really need to contact.
You'll probably be introduced to them once you've arrived and have met people, but do try and find them first. Ask around and perhaps someone will recommend some to you before you leave. Try putting the country or city and the word expat into the search field. You may get lucky.
Other options I like to use are TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and other guidebooks. They may seem too touristy for you after all, you're going to be living there. You're not a tourist, but for the first few weeks you are essentially going to be a tourist.
So these are a great bet to get ideas of interesting places to visit and things to do. And the guidebooks also have maps for you to pore over. Please tell me it's not just me that loves a good old fashioned map? On the same topic, try and get an ordinance survey map for the country and a street map of your town or city, as it's always very interesting to see what's around.
Now I want to look at what to research. The following are the absolute minimum you need to research. This is the information you need to know before you move. So the legal stuff to start with; you need to know if there are any legal restrictions to you living there as an expat or an immigrant. For example. Sometimes you can only stay for as long as your work sponsors you. If you leave your job, your right to stay disappears instantly and you have to leave the country. or very swiftly find another job. And that means finding another job who will sponsor your visa.
Visa requirements must be sorted out before you leave. This can take some time and maybe a few hoops to jump through first. You may end up having to visit embassies in distant cities to where you are now. Start early in your relocation planning with the visa research and make sure you get them right. You do not want to turn up at the airport at the other end to find that you cannot stay more than, say 30 days because your visa is wrong.
And basically don't even consider moving overseas until you have investigated the visa options. It will save everybody a hell of a lot of time. Yeah, I mean, me! The same goes for work permits. Are there restrictions on the working visa or work permit and are these acceptable to you? If you're moving on your partner's visa in any form, this may well restrict your working options. So double check that too.
Medical care research is also mandatory. You will need medical insurance. What are the care facilities like? Would you have to go to another country for medical aid in case of something serious? Are you planning on getting pregnant? You may have to travel somewhere else to deliver your baby.
And pets. My favourite topic, of course, and not applicable to everyone, but it's one of the first aspects of a country that I personally research. Is it somewhere I can take my pets without them having to go into quarantine? Once there, is this somewhere that they would be happy? Is the accommodation in a high rise? Are there parks and open spaces for walking? Is the climate too hot or too cold for them? Are there predators that may kill my cats? Eek!
So what else to research? So you've looked at the legal stuff, the really key points before you even consider a move overseas and now you need to look into the country and the place you'll be living. It's the 'what's it like to live there' kind of research. So throw away all your assumptions and look at everything with a fresh mind and open eyes. Consider your lifestyle, your actual lifestyle, not the one that you think might magically happen when you move to a new country. It always makes me laugh when Brits moving to Australia say that they go for the weather and the outdoor lifestyle when they haven't ever had a lifestyle that was outdoors in the first place.
And there are just as many opportunities here in the UK as there are in Australia. Of course, people can change, but at their core is their actual self. If you're not an outdoorsy person, it's unlikely that you'll magically change into one once you set foot in Australia. So if you like the outdoor life and you like to walk everywhere, you like hiking in the countryside, mountain biking, camping, will there be opportunities to continue this in your new home country?
Or are you more of an indoor person? Will that be enough to keep you occupied? What do you like doing? Is it museums, art galleries, theatre, music, going to gigs, the ballet? Does it actually happen in that country, in that city where you're going to move? What is there there for you to do that will make you happy?
Another aspect to research is personal safety and crime. And this brings me back again to your own personal breaking point. While I was very comfortable in South Africa, there were many other people that lived near us who were absolutely terrified of potential crime, and would literally come home from work, lock their doors, pull their curtains and stay there until it was time to go to work again the next morning. They lived in fear for their entire time there, which I don't think is a great way to live. Many other people simply gave up and went home as well.
Anyway, personal safety. Remember that all statistics for this are usually generalised for the entire country. So there will be hotspots that boost these figures. What's your line in the sand?
What about driving? Do you drive? Are you a confident driver? What's the traffic situation like there? Would you be comfortable, for example, driving in central Beijing? I personally couldn't do it, but that might be because I learned to drive deep in the depths of the countryside of the UK. City driving is not something I'm comfortable with. Get me on an autobahn in Germany, however, and, well, that's absolutely fantastic fun! If you don't drive, what options are there for public transport? Is it plentiful? Is it safe? If not, are you prepared to learn to drive?
What about climate? Can you cope with extremes of heat and cold? Have you ever experienced walking around in 40 degrees Celsius or minus 25 degrees cold? I have. Give me a cold over heat any day. Winter in parts of Canada, for example, can be extremely hard work as simply getting ready to go out for a short walk to the car involves changing into several layers of specialised clothing. And then you have to get the kids ready for school at the same time. That would be an interesting experience.
What about humidity? Everything is harder with high humidity. Cold feels colder, heat feels suffocating. Everybody deals with these differently. And do be aware that you will get acclimatised to it... Eventually. What about altitude? Living in high countries? This is my personal kryptonite. I simply cannot do altitude. I never have been able to cope, even when I was young and extremely fit.
Pollution levels, this is particularly relevant if anyone in your family has respiratory difficulties such as asthma.
A quick note. If you're moving somewhere with a radically different climate, for example, from the UK to Singapore or Dubai, don't think you should jettison all of your winter clothes. After all, you may want to visit another country where the weather is colder. And you're likely to visit home where you'll need your warm coat as soon as you get off the plane. I left all my winter clothing behind before moving to South Africa. We arrived in winter. There was no heating and then we went exploring the Drakensberg Mountains in midwinter and stayed in a rickety hut. Freezing!
OK, now more important things. Cost of living, general cost of living indices display an average figure based on the different costs between the centre of the city and the outskirts of the city. So do take note of that. If you're fortunate enough to be moving on a relocation package, ensure that you're getting the best deal for your family and to take into account the cost of living in the different country.
Now, to culture and customs. Every culture has its own traditions, customs and habits. And some cultural differences seem quite strange from a foreigner's point of view. The most obvious of these is dictated by the religion of the country. Are there specific clothing requirements that you need to take into account? Are there specific rules within that country? How do you feel about it? Is it something that is going to make you feel rebellious and anxious, or are you comfortable with adaptations?
With regards to culture, depending on your country of origin and destination, you may find that there are far more public holidays and festivals than you're used to, or maybe far fewer. Personal space is also something that throws many expats, especially those of Western origin. People may be much friendlier than you're used to. Initially this can cause paranoia, especially if you're getting a lot of attention or your children are getting a lot of attention. Knowing what to expect can help prevent you freaking out.
So back on the health and medical care. You need to look at the following: the health care system in that country, what medical insurance you'll need, what are your personal needs? Are there medications that you need to get regularly? Any vaccinations and medicines? And also potential emergency options. So ensure your medical needs will be catered for before embarking on your big move. Start by researching the health care system and medical regulations in your host country and whether or not your current health insurance will adequately cover you while abroad.
Will you be able to find a doctor who speaks your language, or are your language skills up to dealing with medical practitioners in the local language? Make sure you know where to go, who to call and what to do when you need medical attention.
And lifestyle. Because lifestyle ties in with health. What are your needs for a happy and healthy life? Do you need a certain environment in order to feel well? Do you need open spaces, places to walk? Do you love urban life, the hustle and bustle? Do you need lots of shops and galleries within walking distance? Do you like easy access to the countryside or to certain hobbies? Do you need somewhere safe to jog at dawn? Or would you be satisfied with a gym instead? What if there is no gym?
Maybe you have a health condition that could be aggravated or alleviated in your new country. The difference between asthma in Hong Kong and Beijing versus the clean mountain area of, say, Switzerland or the Rockies.
What about diet? Are you vegan or vegetarian or gluten free? That's an odd question, but some countries have very little idea what constitutes these diets. For example, in China, you may be offered chicken. If you say that you're vegetarian. They may be more on the ball nowadays, but it's something to be aware of. And allergies and intolerances. As a start, learn the phrase in your new language to say 'I am allergic to peanuts', for example. Perhaps write it down too, but also research the likelihood of you encountering this food. If you have serious allergies, life threatening allergies I'm sure you've encountered a few people who are a bit cavalier with your health by simply not believing you. Just be super careful and learn the words for your nemesis.
What about vaccinations? If you need vaccinations for the country, then make sure you can get them well spaced apart. It's very debilitating, as I think I've mentioned before, if you get something like seven diseases vaccinated within a week. Not fun!
Do you require ongoing regular medical care or medication? Are the medications you require available and legal in your destination? What are the restrictions on taking them into that country? Can you take your current medications with you? I'm just recalling a 'Sex and the City' movie where one of the characters wasn't allowed to take her HRT into Abu Dhabi! Some unexpected examples are, you're not allowed to take chewing gum, including nicotine or dental gum, into Singapore. HRT medicines and common cold remedies aren't allowed to be taken into the UAE. Medicines that contain pseudoephedrine such as Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhalers are forbidden in Japan. That was correct at the time I made notes for this. It may well have changed and it will continuously change. So again, double check. This is what your research is about. You do your own research, but don't take for granted that everything is allowed and everything is available everywhere.
What about malarials? I mentioned those in passing just now. Are they actually required? Double check. While I lived in Pretoria, I didn't need malaria tablets every day because the altitude that Pretoria is based on doesn't support the malaria mosquito. However, if I went on a trip to, say, Kruger National Park - still in South Africa, I would need to take malarials because that disease is found at the lower levels.
In some destinations, you may have to travel to another country for emergency treatment. Ensure your insurance covers this.
Another aspect that you need to research that is sadly lacking in so many people, is your career and working prospects. And this aspect of expat life is surprisingly unresearched by so many people and is the biggest cause of expat dissatisfaction.
Ensure you have your work visa or work permit in place before you move. It's usually very hard to get one once you've arrived. Too many expat partners move abroad, expecting to step straight into a similar job that they had at home and then express surprise and disappointment when they can't. And what happens is often this one partner has a job opportunity overseas and takes it - after discussion, of course. The other partner gives up their career to become a trailing spouse and enthusiastically launches themselves into a new and very different life, which isn't always as fun as is expected.
And they soon get bored of being a full time parent. The endless school runs homework battles. Of course, this stay-at-home-parent is the perfect role for many, not so much for others. And there can be a crisis of identity, a lack of fulfilment and a downward spiral. It turns out that we are highly defined by a job title. Our career often defines our identity, and losing your career means that you lose some part of your identity.
I'm going to talk about that in more detail in another episode in future. But for now, having no defined role in the workforce can have a negative effect on our sense of self and even our mental health. When meeting new people in your home country, how many times do you get asked, "What do you do?" Now, welcome to the expat world where nobody asks you that anymore. Now it's "What does your partner do?" Or if you're very lucky, "Do you work?"
I ended up making up stuff about my husband's job and I did have a job myself. I was a freelance writer and a webmaster for a publishing company. That was before I created ExpatChild, of course. And because I'm a bit bolshie, I would say something like, "Oh, it's not important what he does, don't you want to know about me?" Anyway, sometimes huge assumptions are made that the expat partner who gave up their career can continue a similar path overseas. Or you may negotiate a remote role, for example, which works fine until you realise the time difference makes it incredibly hard to find time to sleep and work.
I learned how to exist on three hours sleep a night, often on a deadline time. It worked for me for a while, but I wouldn't recommend it for most people and you do end up burning out. Or you may find that your vital Internet connection doesn't stay on for a reliable period of time. Or the Internet speeds are simply too slow for you to be able to work successfully and efficiently, and deadlines can then end up highly stressful.
If you want to work, if you need to work, find out what the visa requirements are for working before you accept the relocation. Are your skills and qualifications transferable or portable? Will you have to take new exams to continue your role? Maybe you'll need to make a new professional registration. More and more global companies are moving away from expat employment towards local contracts, and that is especially valid this year. So if you do find a job, you may be employed on a local contract and you may not be as well financially rewarded as you may expect. But, hey, you're working!
Other issues you may run into. If you're moving there on your partner's visa, you may be restricted to whether you can work or not. You may need their official permission to get a job. Also, obtaining a work visa means you'll probably come off your family visa, so your right to stay is now linked to your work rather than your partner's. So that may be another big process to go through if either of you leave your job for any reason.
Again, go into expat life with your eyes wide open and do your research. Talk to somebody who's done it all before. It's a great idea to get some first hand experience of that country that you're going to and that work that you're looking for in that country. So find and chat to other people who have lived there recently or who are currently living there. Look at blogs, search online, read the travel guides and ask around. Most people are very happy to share their expat experiences.
If you find some expat blogs relevant to your destination, contact the writer for more information. And Facebook, as I say, is the place to find expat groups. When you read expat blogs, you tend to find the information is biased in a certain way. It's usually all very positive and 'good life' as nobody wants to share their difficulties and hardships in the public arena. When it comes to discovering other people's stories and experiences, take them all with a pinch of salt. And remember, everyone likes different things and everyone has a different life experience. If they're particularly negative - and yes, there are many who don't gel with expat life or a specific destination - that's normal. Just sift through the information you're given and reserve your own judgment. There may be some very useful and relevant tips that you can pull out of that.
And I think I've mentioned this in a previous episode, but the way a single male will view life in a specific country will differ wildly from how a family with young children will see it. And that will differ again from the perspective of a young childfree couple.
Every person's perspective colours their own experience. Take this comment from a fellow expat as a reference point of example to how personal perspective colours reactions to a place.
"When we moved from Pakistan to Cairo, I was thrilled with the freedom I experienced as a woman. I was flabbergasted at my friends who were so frustrated and felt confined. It turns out that they had moved from places like Houston in Texas. So to them, Cairo was not a thriving metropolis at all."
You see, it's all relative. It depends where you move from and where you move to.
So to sum up, when researching, you have a variety of areas to look into. First of all, research the rules and regulations, the visas, the work permits, the culture and customs, geographical information, climate, medical care and so on, stick to the facts and note what is relevant to you and to your family. Not what's relevant to somebody else; this is your life. This is your family's life.
When it comes to finding out if that destination will suit you and your family, you need to be more circumspect and open minded. It's hard to gauge what it will be like based on other people's perspectives. So look for activities nearby that interest you, that interest your children. Whether you like skiing or beaches, snorkelling or horse riding, city lights or countryside, hiking or archaeology, research those options, while keeping an eye out for potential new hobbies and new interests you could partake in.
Also, consider nearby travel opportunities. You may be living fairly close to a country that you've never been able to visit before because of distance. That's a big plus. Don't overlook the chance to try something new. This is your opportunity to try things you've never done, to see things that you've never seen and to go to places that you've never been.
You're researching for your own life, for your own future life overseas.
I hope your research goes well, if you'd like my help with anything, I'm here for you. I do love a bit of research and I've got quick routes to finding out all sorts of stuff. I am the research queen!
I look forward to joining you again soon. Take care.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability Chat podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.