Finding Yourself Abroad: A Practical Guide to Moving Overseas

Ever sit at your cubicle under fluorescent lighting dreaming of adventure.  Day dream of seeing cobble stone street instead of strip malls on your commute home.  If you have ever considered traveling away from the humdrum and trying something new this article is for you. I have twice moved myself overseas.  Once in 2008, as an international student in Scotland and again in 2017 to teach English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  

Here is what I learned from these experiences and researching a lot of other scenarios as well.  

A Guide to Moving Overseas
Imagine your lunch break here! (Luxembourg Gardens, Paris)

Think of Your Why (Include goals)

Wanting to move overseas is not enough to get you there.  It is a process that is an exercise in patience, organization, and sheer will.  The way there isn’t always apparent nor is it easy. So before even researching, write a list of what you want out of living as an expat.  For me when I left for Vietnam, I wanted a shorter work week, launch my career as an ESL teacher, and of course have an adventure. So think of your career goals, skills you would like to develop, as well as your personal goals for the future.  Then think of how they could be improved by moving away. 

Be Open to Different Countries

Many people ask me about Europe or Latin America first when chatting about living overseas.  I mention this fact first because I want to drive this point home early. It is best to be flexible on what country you want to live as an expat.  The reason for this is because some careers and countries have different needs depending on the place. Let’s use teaching as an example. Teaching English in Europe is difficult for Americans because of VISA requirements along with the fact that U.K. Citizens can easily work on the Continent.  Alternately, South and Central American pay their teachers very low. So it is difficult to live there comfortably even with the low cost of living.  

One way to avoid disappointment is to make a list of several countries you could see yourself living.  Think of places you have visited and cultures you admire. Use that as a starting off point to begin researching.

Look at Cost of Living Versus Earning Potential 

It is important to research carefully and weigh the pros and cons when considering cost of living.  When looking at jobs check into their going salaries in the countries you want to live. A lot of information can be found on international expat boards like Dave’s ESL Cafe and others.  Also consider the time of an average work week versus pay. Will you have to commute from affordable housing? How much would that cost? Make a list of your normal expenses in a month like utilities, cell phone, rent, and compare them to your dream locations.  

On the same note, I almost accepted a job in Hong Kong managing two school libraries with an International School.  However, my salary was not as good as it sounded due to the expensive housing market in the city. I also would have been faced with a crowded commute and 50 hour work week.  It was more reasonable to take a 20 hour work week with the pay scale offered in Vietnam. Especially when considering my average dinner costed 2 dollars!  

A Guide to Moving Overseas
One of my favorite strolls. (London, U.K.)

VISA Logistics 

The most frustrating, confusing, and tedious process of moving overseas is deciphering the rules for the VISA.  However, it is the most essential. Nothing can happen without the endorsed passport and proper paperwork. Here is my basic breakdown of the process.  (Seriously it gets complicated, so consider this the cliff notes version.)                           

What is a VISA?

A VISA is your legal authorization to enter a country for a certain period of time.  All VISAs have an expiration date and they vary depending on country rules as well as purpose.  They have fees attached and will request documentation that you meet the requirements to enter the country as dictated by their government.  Some will require proof of employment, degrees, and some medical records. It will certainly vary from place to place. So do not assume after researching one country another will be the same process.  (Even if they are right next to each other or on the same continent!)

3 Common Types of VISAS

Here are the three main types of VISAs that are commonly used when entering foreign countries.  

Student VISA

This was my first VISA issued to me when I moved to the U.K.  It is given for the sole process of studying in that country. They last for the extent of the length of the academic program.  Some have a limited option for employment. (In 2008, I was allowed to work 20 hours on my student VISA.) The documentation required proof I could afford study in the U.K., my medical records, and proof of my academic achievements using official transcripts/degrees.  

Tourist VISA

Some countries do not require this, some you need this before entering, and others you need one if you stay past a certain time.  They are only meant for touring and short visits. It is illegal to work on a tourist VISA in almost all if not all countries. So only use this for vacation time!

Work VISA

If you are reading this article, you probably need a work VISA.  Therefore, you will probably need to find a job before you leave to be sponsored.  There is a popular belief in some countries like Vietnam or China that you can go on a tourist VISA and find a job there.  However, this is a terrible way to do it because it sets you up to be scammed. It would also require you to pay to leave and re-enter the country on the correct VISA.  (Also known as a VISA run.)  

A Guide to Moving Overseas
This could be your backyard! (Tarragona, Spain)

How to Get a VISA

Consular websites for countries should give you the basic rules for all VISA types.  Find the locations of these embassies as well in your country. Most employers will give you the steps for a work VISA or their Human Resources will guide you through the process.  For my British VISA, I had to send all my documentation to the consulate assigned to my state including my actual passport. My company in Vietnam used a service to email a letter. My temporary work VISA was granted upon entering the country with that letter.  Read the fine print, often your passport cannot be expiring within 6 months.  

Note:  Sometimes you have to pay a VISA service to get your passport endorsed at an embassy.  This is the case for our Chinese tourist VISA.  

VISA Costs 

Be prepared to pay several hundred dollars in VISA costs.  Some companies will pay it for you. (Lucky you!) I have also heard of companies reimbursing you the costs if you stay with them a certain amount of time.  Most of the time it is up to you. So when creating your move away budget, make sure to be aware of the VISA costs.  

Do You Have to Teach English?

You do not have to teach English to move away.  However, it is a popular path for many. Take into consideration your past employment, skills, and degrees.  There are marketing companies, and media outlets that have English content overseas. Check to see if your own company has international divisions or partners. Maybe you can do the things you need for a transfer.  

Many people I met in Ho Chi Minh City started teaching English, but quickly moved on to other industries once they found the right contacts.  So it may be a good idea to use teaching English as a springboard to get started.  

Ways to Prepare 

You found the perfect place, right job, and your VISA is on its way!  Now what? Here was my basic process when leaving for Vietnam, and I would use it again if the opportunity ever showed up again. 

A Guide to Moving Overseas
This used to be a common walk for me! (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Discard Stuff

Seriously, the least amount of stuff you need to store the better.  I only got to get rid of some of my things before leaving. It was stressful for my husband and me.  So I recommend only keeping the most important things. Consider if your couch is on its last leg anyway or if you would prefer new plates when coming home anyway.  I listened to a great episode of Rise Together about a financial author, David Bach, who relocated his family to Florence. (Obviously, this was pre-virus.). The best advice he gave was to think if you would really want that item in 3 years.  You won’t miss much of it I promise.

Check Air Miles, Etc.

Leaving on a jet plane to an uncertain future?  No better time to cash in rewards or air miles. Remember, if you are part of a frequent flyer program in an alliance you can apply those points to airlines within the group.  Also check on credit card rewards. I used my Capital One Card to fly to Ho Chi Minh City for 15 dollars after fees. That is right, 15 dollars!  

Scan and Gather Documents 

In country, you will need official documents. That means your ORIGINAL degrees and such.  That is right, you might have to take it out of the frame and stick it in your carry on. What I did was create an accordion folder of my originals and copies.  I even left a copy of everything with my family state side in case something went astray.

Documents to Scan and Photocopy:

All Degrees

All Academic Certifications (Example: Teachers License) 

Official Transcripts 

Passport

Drivers License

Shot Records

All Credit and Debit Cards

Any International Insurance Plans 

Medical Prescriptions 

Save Money

Moving always has costs, but moving overseas can have big costs.  Be prepared to pay fees from apartment deposits to cell phone activation.  If there is some time before you leave, it is important to have some money when arriving overseas.  

Call Credit Cards and Banks 

Banks and credit cards will cut you off if you use them overseas without verifications.  Call the customer service located on the back of your card and let them know your plans in detail.  Also, know how ATM fees work in your new place and the max you can withdraw in a day period.  

”Trade the typical for something colorful”~ Greatest Showman
(Lisbon, Portugal)

Pack Less Than You Think You Need

My first jaunt living overseas I brought 2 rolling bags and mailed 2 boxes.  I didn’t even use everything I sent. So when I moved to Vietnam, I downsized to a medium rolling bag, a large North Face Crestone (60 liters), and a rolling suitcase.  It was fine, but I think I want to go smaller next time! For example, I brought some of my favorite OPI polish not realizing I could go for a gel mani/pedi for $11 a pop.  Most places you can get what you need. Here is a quick hack while you are making a packing list. Join an expat group for the city you are moving to. Then ask your new friends what they recommend you should bring!

As recommended by a dear friend who has also made this life change, bring something that can remind you of home. I would not recommend anything valuable to heirloom. However, a stash of pictures or a special necklace can be a great comfort moving to a strange place.

To Be Continued!  

There are so many more things I can tell you, but for now I will leave you to absorb this information.  In the future, I will make a part II to this focusing on helping you get acquainted and acclimated when you get to your new county.  I will say that you need to be prepared for a difficult psychological and emotional time. But you are also setting yourself up for an amazing adventure that you will be telling in your old age.  

What country would you move to?  

A Guide to Moving Overseas
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