Thinking of moving abroad? If you’re wondering how to be an expatriate in 2020, then keep reading to find out five important things to consider before moving abroad.
When I moved abroad for the first time in Sept. 2014, I felt prepared.
In the summer leading up to moving to Spain to be an au pair, I read blog posts and books about people who had taken the leap. I even talked to other au pairs about their experience.
I’d done my homework, and I was ready! But, for all my research, I soon discovered there’s a lot no one tells you about moving abroad.
This post was originally published on Aug. 18, 2018, and was updated on Aug. 24, 2020.
What No One Tells You About Moving Abroad
Moving Abroad Truth #1: You can’t just “pick up” a second language.
People who make the decision to move abroad often do so because they’re interested in immersing themselves in a different culture.
For many expat hopefuls, somewhere their native language isn’t spoken tops the list of criteria for a potential country. It did for me!
When I decided to au pair somewhere in Europe, I focused my search on countries where English wasn’t the first language. The stars aligned, and I found a host family in Spain.
Within a few days in, it was evident I wasn’t going to simply learn by being around people speaking Spanish. That might be good for increasing your vocabulary, but I needed a base to build upon and my high school Spanish wasn’t coming back to me like I had hoped.
So, I enrolled in a language academy in Madrid. Between the grammar lessons in class and the speaking practice I got with my host family, I improved bit by bit.
Investing in Spanish courses and chatting with natives are just two ways to learn Spanish as an adult. In this post, I share 19 more ways to become fluent in Spanish.
Four years later, I still take the occasional Spanish class online even though I’m living in Mexico. Like anything worthwhile, learning a language takes concerted and consistent effort.
If you’re serious about learning a second language, invest the time, energy and money into a bit of formal education. According to this U.S. Foreign Service Institue, it takes 600-750 class hours to learn a Category I Language:
You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run, and by “run,” I mean yuk it up at the bar on a Saturday night surrounded by locals in your new country.
Put in the work. You’ll be happy you did.
Moving Abroad Truth #2: You will feel dumb…a lot.
A big reason—maybe even THE reason—people don’t try new things or take risks is because they don’t want to look dumb.
News flash: when you move abroad and start over, you’re taking a huge risk. And, guess what? At the beginning (and for a loooong time after that) everything is going to be new.
Even going to the grocery store is a freaking adventure.
I’m not going to lie to you: There are days (hopefully, not too many) when the thought of leaving your house is overwhelming because you don’t know how to get anywhere or how to communicate with anyone.
You’ll just want to throw a blanket over your head because OH MY GOD why are there no Targets here?!
But, even Target wouldn’t magically fix everything.
In the five years I’ve lived abroad, I’ve felt like a total idiot more times than I count.
A lot of those moments involve Spanish, and the most mortifying one happened my second year in Madrid when I asked the director of my school about her weekend. I didn’t understand her answer, so I just replied with qué bien (that’s nice).
Turned out, she’d told me her mom died ?
I was living every language student’s worst nightmare.
When I realized my mistake, my first thought was that blanket and how desperately I wanted it over my head (possibly for the rest of my life). But, instead, I apologized and life went on.
When you mess up—and, believe me, you will—own up to your mistake and get over it.
You’re not going to be an expert from the get-go, and no one expects you to be! Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”
In my experience, locals are patient and willing to help.
Moving Abroad Truth #3: Making friends is hard.
So, there’s this shared fantasy among basically all first-time expats that they’ll move to their new country and VOILÀ! They’ll have a zillion friends, a booming social life and never ever feel lonely.
Ahhhh, if only things were so easy.
But, by now, you should realize very few things are easy when moving abroad and making friends is no exception. As with learning a language, you’ve got to work to find friends.
Are you starting to see a theme here?
My second year in Madrid, I wanted some new friends.
Don’t get my wrong: I loved hanging with Taylor, and we had some nice couple friends, but omg I can’t believe I’m actually about to type this because I would never saying anything like this in real life…I was in need of some feminine energy.
You might think that sounds lame, and while you’re definitely not wrong, it’s true.
Instead of just wishing for girlfriends, I did something about it. Hoping to meet one or two new people, I started a feminist book club on Meetup.
The response blew me away! I met more than a dozen cool, like-minded women, and my only regret was I didn’t start the club sooner.
? It’s never too early to think about holiday shopping! Check out this awesome gift guide & give your travel-obsessed loved ones a gift they’ll ACTUALLY use.
Be ready to put yourself out there, and don’t be embarrassed about wanting friends. It’s perfectly normal to desire human interaction (or so I’ve heard).
- Join Meetup.
- Play pick-up basketball.
- Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
You can find friends in lots of places, but one place you won’t find any is under that blanket we’ve already talked so much about. No blankets!
More Posts About Things to Consider Before Moving to Another Country
- Expat vs. Digital Nomad: Which Lifestyle is Right for You?
- The Ultimate Moving Abroad Checklist
- Ask Yourself These Questions Before Moving Abroad
Moving Abroad Truth #4: You need an expat community.
Going back to that expat fantasy: Lots of people imagine all their friends being locals.
If I wanted to be friends with Americans, I would have stayed in America. HA!
Did you hear what I said about making friends being really freaking hard? After the first month in your new country, I doubt if you’ll be turning away any friends.
If having people to talk to and do stuff with is something that’s important to you, take them where you can get them!
When you move abroad, expat groups are a great place to meet people. In this post with tips for how to move abroad, many women emphasize the importance of having expat friends.
While I’ve never been a part of an official expat group, my book clubs have always attracted a lot of expats since we conduct the meetings in English.
But, Alex, if you’re as serious about learning Spanish as you say you are, why isn’t your book club in Spanish?
Sometimes, you want to speak your native language. Sometimes, you want to take a break from being “culturally immersed.” Sometimes, you just want to be around people who understand and relate to your experience.
ALL THAT IS OKAY.
Some of my closest friends have been expats and not just because we both spoke English. We also bonded over our shared sense of curiosity, open-minded outlook and desire to do something different with our lives.
Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to find fellow expats wherever you are in the world.
It might even be worth your time to make a few expat connections before you leave home.
No one knows better about what it’s like to be an expat in “X” city than an expat living in “X” city.
If you have questions about finding a place to live or don’t know if you’ll be able to find peanut butter in your new country, reach out to an expat and ask.
Who knows, you might even make a new friend.
Moving Abroad Truth #5: It’s possible to have more than one “home.”
When I moved to Spain to teach English in Sept. 2015, I made a conscious effort to call Madrid “home.”
I told myself, You’re living here now. With your boyfriend. You have a job and friends. This apartment, this city, this country: it’s home now.
I thought if I didn’t commit to calling my new place “home” then I was just playing house.
In my mind, it legitimized what I was doing.
As a 20-something on what most people would consider an “alternative path,” I sought legitimacy often in those first few months after moving abroad.
At first, it felt unnatural because, when I started calling Spain “home,” I stopped calling Michigan “home.” My Madrid apartment became home, and the house I grew up in became my parents’ house.
When I’d mess up and call Michigan “home,” I felt like a fraud. You can’t have two homes, Alex.
After a while, Madrid did start to feel like home. But, Michigan never stopped feeling like home.
Rather than fighting it or feeling guilty, I let myself call both places “home.”
The longer you’re an expat the more you realize it’s possible to have more than one “home.”
Home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. Home is a place you feel loved, accepted, safe and happy. You might feel that way in the town you grew up in, a city halfway across the world or both.
What matters is you feel that way somewhere.
When moving abroad, don’t feel like you need to turn your back on wherever you’re moving from.
That place is part of who you are!
You know what else? It’s possible to feel at home AND still be homesick.
Just because you miss your family and friends (or Target) doesn’t mean you’re not happy in your new life.
Final Thoughts on Things No One Tells You About Moving Abroad
Since Sept. 2014, I have moved abroad three times (twice to Spain & once to Mexico). While each move has brought its own unique challenges, I was much more prepared for my move to Mexico than I was for either of my moves to Spain.
After being an expat in Spain, I knew there would be days in Mexico that I felt dumb, making friends would take time and being homesick didn’t mean I wasn’t settling in.
Basically, I had a better idea of what I was getting myself into.
Hopefully, after reading this post, you have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into too when you take the leap and move to another country.
There will be tough days, but you are tougher. Would an easy adventure really be worth having?
If you’ve ever moved abroad, what do you wish someone would have told you? If you haven’t, did anything on this list surprise you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!