When I first set off to live abroad years ago, I thought the whole expatriate thing would be easy. In my excitement to live in a new country, I hadn’t really thought through just how challenging expat life would be. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot along the way, faced more than a few challenges and found ways to adjust to expat life.
Here, I’ve asked some fellow expats to share their expat tips – things they wish they’d known when they first became expats and that they’d now like to share with new expats. So, if you’re contemplating moving overseas or if you’re a new expat struggling to find your way, I hope there’s something here to help you on your expat journey.
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Join a casual sports team or group
Recommended by Ann of Eco Conscious Traveller
From: Wexford, Ireland
Living in: Paris
Ann’s tip for new expat life: When I first moved to Paris to work as an au pair I found it quite difficult to make friends. Before Paris, I’d been teaching English in Seoul for a year and had used meet-ups as an effective way to meet people, but I didn’t find it as easy at the meet-ups in Paris.
A year after moving to Paris I decided to start playing casual ultimate frisbee on Sundays, a very chilled game. The people I met there were amazing. They taught me how to play and they often organised lunches after the game. It was so social and I ended up making some really close friends in doing so. I learnt that joining a sports team or playing casual sports is a great way of making friends in new cities.
Leave your home country life at home
Recommended by Heidi of Wagoners Abroad
From: San Francisco, California and Apex, North Carolina, United States
Living in: Almuñécar, Spain
Heidi’s tip for new expat life: We’ve helped many people move to Spain and those who do best are the ones who embrace the new culture. Really try to dive in and do as the locals do.
This may mean you have to go with the flow and just accept things the way they are while you adapt to the changes. If you fall into the trap of trying to create your old life in a new foreign country, you will likely be disappointed. In Spain we have a siesta each day, which I complained about for months. Once it was finally embraced, life tended to be less stressful and more focused on the positive aspects. We had more family time, more down time and now it would be tough to live without it.
Give yourself more time than you think to settle in
Recommended by Kirsty of World for a Girl
From: London, UK
Living in: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kirsty’s tip for new expat life: Give yourself more time than you think to settle in. There’s always more red tape than you imagine. You’ll need to spend time doing the little things like buying kitchen utensils as well as the bigger jobs like opening bank accounts.
Remember that things are often done very differently in other countries. Some things that in the UK merely required filling in an online form have involved collecting multiple stamped documents over here in Malaysia. It can take months, not weeks, to begin to feel like you’re on top of things. Moving to KL last year, it took us over 8 weeks to sort out WiFi in our apartment. Don’t expect to feel really settled for 6-9 months.
Know your creature comforts – and get them
Recommended by Chris of Worthy Go
From: Chicago, IL, USA
Living in: Tbilisi, Georgia
Chris’s tip for new expat life: Start by knowing what creature comforts you need or want in a place. For me, that’s a standard issue drip coffee machine. When looking for a new place, look at the pictures carefully to see if that special item is in the pictures. If you’re an expat (or a digital nomad planning to be there for a while), it’s worth buying if it makes life easier or better for you.
Before buying the thing brand new, remember to consider the local second-hand stores or ask the landlord if they have one you can borrow for your stay.
Sort out everything in your home country before you leave
Recommended by Paul of Boracay Compass
From: The Netherlands
Living in: Boracay Island, Philippines
Paul’s tip for new expat life: Before you leave to live somewhere else, make sure everything in your home country is well taken care off. While staying in Boracay I had to come back to my home country for quite some time to clean up the big mess that my lack of proper planning for my responsibilities at home had created.
The two things that went haywire for me were my apartment rental management and my taxes. I left the responsibility of managing my apartment back home to someone who later turned out could not be trusted. As for my taxes, my admin got all tangled up over the years, which resulted in me having to pay close to 5,000 euros in extra taxes…
That’s money I could have used to take vacations to other destinations in Asia. I could have prevented those taxes if I would have taken the time to keep everything organised.
Truth be told, I was just more focused on living the good life 🙂 Lesson learned though.
Embrace your new country
Recommended by Johanna of Lifestyle Fifty
From: Bideford, Devon
Living in: Bunbury, South West Australia
Johanna’s tip for new expat life: One of my most important lessons learnt from life abroad is to embrace your new country and try to be positive about everything even if things are done differently, or are not as beautiful, or don’t seem to be quite as good as “at home”.
When you are with other people always be enthusiastic and affirmative. Don’t be a “When we…” type of person. If you are chatting in company saying things like “When I lived in….” and then espousing something that you believe was better or more beautiful, it isn’t going to endear you to people who have always lived in the country you have only just come to call home. Find out about all the positives, embrace all the new opportunities and you will be much happier in your life overseas than if you focus on how good things once were in your country of birth.
Get involved with a community
Recommended by Katie of Two Wandering Soles
From: Minnesota, USA
Living in: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Katie’s tip for new expat life: Get involved with “your” community. No matter where you move in the world, there will be people like you, with the same interests, passions and lifestyles. Find them. Really think about what types of groups you’d like to be involved with: Do you want to meet other expats and digital nomads, or do you want to surround yourself with locals? (Or a little of both!)
Scour Facebook groups and city websites to find meet-ups and organisations in your new home. Reach out to others who live there and ask what community groups they’re involved with.
Find groups to fill all your “cups”/interests:
- Sports/fitness groups: like yoga, soccer, crossfit, hiking clubs, climbing club, etc.
- Fun groups: board game meet-ups, book club, trivia nights, crafting club, language exchange, photography group, music meet-up, beer/wine club, etc.
- Professional groups related to your work
Try to jump in and get involved right away! The longer you wait the harder it’ll feel, trust me. Give a bunch of groups a shot and see how they feel. Maybe you’ll even meet some lifelong friends this way. Once you’ve given the groups a shot, commit to those that you truly enjoy and get something out of. Don’t stay in any group that doesn’t serve you.
Put yourself out there
Recommended by Katie of The Accidental Australian
From: Maryland, USA
Living in: Sydney, Australia
Katie’s tip for new expat life: As an expat living in Australia, one of my top tips is to always “put yourself out there”, so to speak. I find it takes a lot more effort to meet new people, as you don’t have your childhood or college friends nearby to fall back on. This can be hard, especially if you’re more of an introvert, as I tend to be, but I would recommend saying yes and tagging along to every event you can: after-work drinks or social outings, events through Meetup.com, or parties or events with your housemates or neighbours.
You never know who you might meet, and I met some of my best friends in unexpected ways! Life abroad as an expat can be lonely without a network of friends, so if you make a solid effort early on to meet new people, you’ll soon find yourself feeling more at home in your new country.
Take care of yourself
Recommended by Monique of MC Adventure Blog
From: Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Living in: Phu Ly, Vietnam
Monique’s tip for new expat life: When we think of moving to a new country, we can often get caught up in the excitement. But the reality is that moving is one of the most stressful life experiences that we can have. It’s super important to look after your mental health both during and after your move.
Make sure to take time out for self-care, and don’t wait until you’re completely overwhelmed to start looking after yourself. You need to make self-care a habit, because it really is preventative medicine to keep your mind healthy. Whether it’s getting exercise, meditating, journalling or taking time out in nature, remember that your mental health is vital to making your move to a new country as easy as possible.
Spend the money!
Recommended by Danielle of Live in 10 Countries
From: London, UK
Living in: Melbourne, Australia
Danielle’s tip for new expat life: Be less stingy! For most nomads (and certainly me) money is tight and there are times when you’re not sure exactly where the next paid hour of work is coming from. Of course, you should stick to a budget, and save before going abroad – but there are experiences living abroad that you won’t find elsewhere.
Do some research and find out which experiences are worth paying for and then don’t skip them, because you’ll regret it. Ask yourself, will I ever have chance to try this thing / do this again if I move home again? And if the answer is “no”, definitely consider paying for it! If you’ve never tasted the pricey oysters in Whitstable, pay for them, if you will never again get near a new country, pay the bloody landing fee.
Host visitors in your new city
Recommended by Alison of Dance Dispatches
From: Cedarburg, Wisconsin, USA
Living in: London, UK
Alison’s tip for new expat life: Hosting guests is one of the best ways to settle into a new city. Although it may take a while to get your bearings, the prospect of playing tour guide for your friends and family will encourage you to thoroughly explore your new hometown.
You’ll want to scope out cool coffee shops, restaurants and museum exhibits before they arrive. Then, as you show your guests around, you’ll realise how much you know about the city in comparison to your visiting friends and family. When your guests return home, you can reminisce about the places that you visited together and they’ll be able to clearly picture the places you mention in your stories when you catch up over the phone.
Use Facebook groups
Recommended by Ania from The Travelling Twins
Living in: Muscat, Oman (previously Malta, Scotland, Kazakhstan, India, the UAE)
Ania’s tip for new expat life: My tip for a happy expat life is to find out how to get the services that matter to you most. Although half the fun of being an expat is stretching your comfort zone, be honest with yourself: what is that special something you need to feel settled?
I am fair-haired and spent most of my 17-year expat life in countries where everyone else’s hair colour is black. I realised that for me, the comfort key was finding a hairdresser who can give me a good blonde colour and cut.
Whatever it is for you, the trick is Facebook groups. Search for names like “expat in…”. Or look for your nationality in your location. Now you can find a pediatrician, figure out how to get a passport for a newborn and so on. These groups are full of like-minded people willing to help newcomers. And when you are leaving, you can sell or pass on your furniture and clutter.
Facebook groups for expats make existence much more comfortable, so now you can concentrate on the real fun of living in a new country.
Avoid negative people
Recommended by Emma of Wanderlust and Wet Wipes
From: London, UK
Living in: Doha, Qatar
Emma’s tip for new expat life: This is life advice but it’s even more true in the expat world. As expats we’ve all met “those” people – they’re either miserable in a particular location or they’re just downright negative people. Either way, they’ll drag you down and distort how you experience your expat assignment.
When we first arrived in the Middle East we met people who said all the right things about being here but you could tell they didn’t believe it themselves. Then there were the people who had nothing good to say about being here at all. One day we met some people who were raving about being here. Their enthusiasm was contagious and uplifting. I practically accosted her for her phone number and set up a play date asap.
Four years on and they’re some of our closest friends. Furthermore, the impact they had on us has forever changed how we talk to people – especially new expats.
Rent short-term accommodation before signing a lease
Recommended by Chantell of Budget Travel Babes
From: Brisbane, Australia
Living in: Nha Trang, Vietnam
Chantell’s tip for new expat life: The best advice I can give anyone moving to a new city is to rent short-term accommodation before signing up to a lease. This gives you a chance to become familiar with your new city and find a job, before making a commitment to an apartment or neighbourhood.
Some countries require six or 12-month leases, so in that case, I’d recommend renting on Airbnb for one month so you can take your time to get settled. In Vietnam, it is fairly easy to find apartments with month-to-month leases, however, we still don’t like to rush into choosing a place.
When moving to Nha Trang, Vietnam we stayed in a cheap hotel for four days while meeting with real estate agents, which we found through expat groups on Facebook. There are a lot of options with various inclusions and exclusions so we preferred to take our time until we found the perfect place. In the end, we found a lovely furnished studio apartment in the center of Nha Trang to rent.
Recognise that moving abroad isn’t the same as taking a holiday
Recommended by Brie-Anne of Brie-Anne.com
From: Southampton, UK
Living In: Rural south west France
Brie-Anne’s tip for new expat life: My biggest tip for anyone embarking on their first expat adventure is to not assume moving abroad will feel like a holiday. It may do at first, but that feeling will most likely wear off.
I’ve always holidayed in France and spent summers working here, but moving here was something completely different. Settling in, filling in paperwork and organising your work/business are not relaxing jobs and it’s so normal to feel overwhelmed by it all. Lots of people say to me “Brie-Anne, why do you need a holiday, your life is a holiday?” and to some it may seem that way, but the reality is that moving abroad isn’t a holiday and even if you’ve holidayed to where you’re moving in the past, it doesn’t mean living there will feel the same.
Find a co-working space to use
Recommended by Hannah of Bold Destinations
From: Oregon, USA
Living in: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Hannah’s tip for new expat life: As an expat living and working abroad, distraction is always around the corner. One way to avoid getting distracted and pulled away from work is to find a co-working space to set up shop. A co-working space is a space that allows workers to share a work space. You usually have to rent a spot and then there are different perks that go with each space. For example: tea and coffee, snacks, music, group events etc. Co-working spaces are all over the world and they are a great place to create a temporary office-like environment. In addition, co-working spaces are a great way to meet locals and other working expats.
Recognise that culture shock exists
Recommended by Cal of Once in a Lifetime Journey
From: Cape Town, South Africa
Living In: Seoul, South Korea
Cal’s tip for new expat life: Many expats don’t know that there are four main stages of culture shock summarised by leading expat psychologist Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign. I would highly recommend researching these four stages of elation, resistance, transformation and integration. Once you’ve read up on the subject of culture shock, you’ll understand that the expats around you are going through the same process and may be at the same or different level as you. Understanding your stage of culture shock will put things into better perspective, you’ll understand that your feelings of both rage and awe are not experienced in isolation, resulting in (hopefully) a better integration process.
It may sound strange, but after living in Seoul, South Korea, for several years, I used to look at other expats in a negative way. I thought that I was “more Korean” than the other foreigners in the country, and therefore better than them in some way. After learning about the psychology of culture shock, I realised that I was in the transformation stage and was rejecting my own culture and background for my new way of life. Understanding the psychology of it all, I was able to integrate healthily into expat life, balancing my own culture with my new one.
Make your new expat home feel like a home
Recommended by Sonja of Migrating Miss
From: New Zealand
Living in: Scotland
Sonja’s tip for new expat life: One of my biggest tips is to not shy away from making your new expat home feel like a home, even if you’re not sure how long you’ll be there. Put the pictures up of family and friends, or buy some local art to decorate. Invest in nice bedding, cushions, or homely things that make you feel comfortable and “at home”.
We can have a tendency to not want to accumulate more things after packing up and moving, especially if we’re only going to be somewhere temporarily (like a study abroad or for a working holiday) but it’s worth it to help you feel settled! It doesn’t have to be expensive either. Plus, searching for second-hand shops or value stores can also be a great way to explore your new area! Depending on where you have moved to, there might even be a local expat group where people pass on things they no longer need because they’re leaving, which is another great way to meet people and start making connections.
Pack clothes you’ll actually wear
Recommended by Molly of Luggage and Life
From: Maine, USA
Living in: Bologna, Italy
Molly’s tip for new expat life: My first experience as an expat was when I moved to Rome to study there for a year. I followed a packing list, and ended up moving with two suitcases full of clothes that I hated. The list encouraged us to dress up and wear blazers, blouses, dress pants and high heels, which didn’t leave much room for day-to-day items like jeans and casual tops. Maybe they wanted us to fit in on Italy’s fashionable streets, but, spoiler alert, Italians wear jeans and casual tops, too!
My advice is this: use the packing list as a coaster, or perhaps as kindling for a fire, and then pack the clothes you actually wear (if they’re appropriate for the host culture). When you’re in a new place, it helps to feel like yourself and to feel good about how you look, so don’t follow anyone’s packing list but your own.
Do your research before you move
Recommended by Cath of Passports and Adventures
From: Dublin, Ireland
Living in: The Algarve, Portugal
Cath’s tip for new expat life: Do your research before you move. It’ll make things easier in the long run. Before we moved from the UK to Portugal, my hubby investigated things like tax affairs, importing cars versus buying one there, buying houses and internet infrastructure, while I looked into the schooling system and how it works. All of this helped us tremendously compared to some expats we know. If you don’t have the language, hire someone who can help you with paperwork and important government departments. Our car agent has been a godsend and has become a friend.
Before choosing an area to live in and buying a house, try different areas before committing. It will be a lot of money to shell out and a few months later find out you don’t like the area or the house. We have been living in a static holiday home until we decide whether we want to put down long-term roots. It means we can save for a house if we want to or will have money to move on elsewhere in the future.
Learn the local language
Recommended by Rachel Heller of Rachel’s Ruminations
From: Connecticut, USA
Living in: the Netherlands
Rachel’s tip for new expat life: In my first couple of years in the Netherlands, I learned to understand and read basic Dutch. Speaking, on the other hand, was a struggle. Worried I would make embarrassing mistakes and unsure of the grammar rules, I could only sputter a few words before whoever I was speaking to switched over to English to help me out.
My advice: take a class, any class. In my case it was to fulfill requirements for a teaching credential, but you could take anything. Ever wanted to learn to paint? Research your genealogy? Do yoga? Any course taught locally in the local language would work.
Alternatively, get a job, if you don’t already have one. With your limited language skills, it would probably be an unskilled job. Waiting tables, washing dishes, gardening, babysitting: they all require you to speak and understand the language, and you’d find your mastery improving in a very short time.
Editor’s note: I have really enjoyed learning Spanish and French online with iTalki, which has tutors from all around the world ready to teach dozens (if not hundreds!) of different languages.
Do your research when house hunting
Recommended by Paula of Truly Expat
From: Sydney, Australia
Living in: Singapore
Paula’s tip for new expat life: When house hunting in a new country, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- When moving with children, ask the school where most children live in the year groups your children will be attending. When you live close to your children’s friends it helps them to integrate faster into the community because playdates are so crucial for children and their need to belong.
- Figure out the route and distance from home to both school and work; long commutes for either party make life a little challenging.
- Ask loads of questions of the real estate agent and always go with more than one. Sometimes the real estate agent will not understand your needs, especially if they have never worked with expats or expats with families.
- Have a good look around the area before deciding, whether it is the closest bus stop, a park for the dog or children to play in or where the nearest grocery store or medical centre is, all these are imperative to making your life easier.
- Try and connect through social media groups before arriving, reach out to people through connections, and never feel like you can’t ask for help.
Use Couchsurfing to make new friends
Recommended by Vicki of Vicki Viaja
From: Harz Mountains, Germany
Living in: Barcelona, Spain
Vicki’s tip for new expat life: My biggest tip when moving abroad is to use Couchsurfing to make friends. Many people don’t even know that Couchsurfing is not only a platform to find a couch to sleep on when travelling but also to find people to hang out with, learn languages or discover events.
Especially in big cities, you can find many events and many people willing to hang out with you and show you around the city. When moving somewhere new it’s not always easy to meet new people and make friends. But Couchsurfing surely helped me a lot. I even met people that I’m still good friends with years later, and my language skills have improved a lot after starting to meet locals. The best way is to find people that are interested in learning your native language as well, so you can meet for a language exchange.
Visit the country first
Recommended by Sarah of Travels of Sarah Fay
From: Orlando, Florida, USA
Lived in: Dublin, Ireland, Budapest, Hungary and Edinburgh, Scotland
Sarah’s tip for new expat life: After living in three countries as an expat, my best advice for someone toying around with the idea of moving to another country would hands-down be to visit the country first.
When you visit, try to live as a local to see if it is a place to where you could see yourself picking up your whole life to move. I found it important when moving to Hungary to learn the cultural nuances and see how I adapted after a week of visiting.
I love to see if I could establish a routine that would make me feel at home wherever I lived in the world. Is there a coffee shop where I can sit in and read, farmers markets that remind me of the ones back home, a gym? By treating this time less as a vacation and more of a research expedition on finding a new home, it made my decision to move there on a more permanent basis that much easier.
Surround yourself with other expats, but don’t neglect the local community
Recommended by Antonio of Vietnam Chronicles
Living in: Da Nang, Vietnam
Antonio’s tip for new expat life: Almost every expat will tell you to connect with an expat community and dip into exciting activities to get the feeling of community and of course, form some meaningful relationships with expat friends. That’s incredible advice and never neglect it!
However, I believe it’s important to look for a balance and also connect with the local community as you’ll be able to learn about their local culture, dreams, inspiration, language and much more.
Da Nang is a city that has it all: stunning beaches, fantastic nature escapes from the city (like taking a day trip to Son Tra Peninsula or Hai Van Pass), delicious and diverse food, a lively expat community and much more. When I first arrived here, I was mainly hanging around the expat and backpacker community. After a while, however, I moved away from that community slightly. I started to hang out more with locals who taught me so much about their lifestyle, culture, showed me many hidden places and, most importantly, taught me bits of their language.
My goal is to learn as much as possible about the country I’m living in, and I want to feel a deeper connection to the people, culture, traditions, and language. Being surrounded by locals give me that and it also creates a healthy balance.
Get involved with the cultural practice in your new country
Recommended by Mariellen of Breathe Dream Go
Living in: India
Mariellen’s tip for new expat life: My advice for expats is to get involved with a cultural practice in your new country. I recently moved from Canada to India, and I found that my interest in yoga really helped me to bridge the cultures and settle in. For many years, I studied and practiced yoga in Canada, and was even certified as a yoga teacher. When I finally went to India for the first time in 2005, I found that my yoga experience and understanding gave me a window into the culture.
Over the past 13 years, I’ve been travelling extensively in India, visiting yoga ashrams in India and learning about the spiritual traditions. When I decided to move to India, perhaps it’s no surprise that I ended up in Rishikesh – the yoga capital of the world!
You can start before you go, as I did, or after you arrive. You can learn a form of dance or music, or a game or athletic skill, or perhaps a culinary tradition. Every culture is different and has traditions they prize. Learning a local cultural practice will help you in so many ways, from learning about the culture, to making friends, to garnering respect.
Bring something from home
Recommended by Alex of Swedish Nomad
From: Helsingborg, Sweden
Living in: Paphos, Cyprus
Alex’s tip for new expat life: I’ve been abroad for most of the last five years, and one thing that has had a great impact on me is to bring something from my home country. This should be a personal item that makes you smile or makes you feel at home. Because there will be days when you will miss your previous home. When those days come you can bring out that personal item, and you won’t miss home as much.
It also doesn’t have to be one item, but can be several. While embracing the new culture is important, it’s also important to remember your roots, because they made you into the person you are today. For me, I have implemented some typical Swedish interior products into my new home.
Are you an expat? Leave your tips for settling into expat life in the comments below!
This post was first published in April 2019, and was updated in October 2020.