Living abroad has been a huge learning process for me, as it is for anyone who has decided to try their fate overseas for the first time. I feel like this is something one needs to personally experience to understand. Ever since I was kid, I’d read and watched stories about expats, but I could not really relate it to myself. Until now.
So here, I’m listing what I learned from several months of living in Malaysia. I’ve also asked more veteran expats to give their best tips for those who are staying abroad for the first time.
- 1. Give it time
- 2. Be kind to yourself
- 3. Let go of expectations that things will be the same
- 4. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
- 5. Embrace the differences from your home country
- 6. Sign up to a travel-specific bank account to save money
- 7. Choose the city to live in wisely
- 8. Look for accommodation in advance
- 9. Make your home feel like home
- 10. Learn the language… or at least the basics!
- 11. Read expat blogs
- 12. Find expat groups in Facebook
- 13. Read local or national newspapers
- 14. Integrate with the locals
- 15. Sign up in a class
- 16. Join a non-profit cause
- 17. Start a project
1. Give it time
One of the most valuable tips I’ve read about moving abroad is to give it at least 6 months. Initially, I thought that was too long. Later on, I realized that it’s important not only to adapt to your new environment, but also to feel comfortable, and this is just the ideal length of time to see where you stand.
The point is, the first few weeks will be difficult. You might not like your new home, but after a while you may feel differently. (Or it can be the other way around.)
I’m in my sixth month in Kuala Lumpur. I feel like I still have a lot of things to learn, but I’ve familiarized myself enough and have settled into a routine. The anxiety of dealing with the unknown has mostly died down, and I actually look forward to the next days.
Related Read: What it’s like living in Malaysia
– By Katherine (of this blog)
2. Be kind to yourself
Moving from one place to another is always hard: you have to find a new place to buy your food, make new friends, get used to new surroundings, and be fiercely independent (if you’re moving alone). Now, throw a new country into the mix, and you could have a new continent, time zone, language, diet, and entirely different way of life. Suffice to say, that’s a lot for your body and mind to handle.
Relax! Be kind to yourself. You’re growing accustomed to an entirely different world, and you don’t want to accidentally make yourself sick on top of it!
– By Crashed Culture
3. Let go of expectations that things will be the same
Living/working abroad is more joyous when you let go of the expectation that your new country will be “just like home.”
Frequently, I’ve witnessed travelers craving brands and other conveniences from “back home.” They often also express frustration and discomfort with their new environment. I find that by approaching my new home with curiosity, I find treasures I never even knew existed and more things to love (instead of discontentment). Finding humor in uncomfortable or awkward predicaments and being able to adapt is also incredibly advantageous. Admittedly, I miss consistent hot showers and internet but what I have gained is far more valuable.
4. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
Moving to a new country is a HUGE change, especially if you don’t know anybody or if there is a language barrier. In order to not feel so alone in the beginning, I had to actively remind myself every day to embrace the new experience and to step outside my comfort zone. Join meet up groups to find people with similar interests, be a tourist in your new city and explore new neighborhoods, and lastly don’t be afraid to take solo weekend trips.
You only live once, and to live in a new country is an experience most people never get to have, so be sure to take advantage of it!
5. Embrace the differences from your home country
When moving abroad, you’ll quickly notice that many things are just not the same as at home: administrative processes are different, trash is not recycled the same way and even the Chinese take away tastes not like it used to at home. Believe it or not, comparing the differences can pile up easily to huge frustrations and headaches – embrace the differences! Accept them as they are: as verities, not as competition.
– By Salut From Paris
6. Sign up to a travel-specific bank account to save money
I made the rookie mistake of going away for a year, and not joining a bank that’s tailored to travelers. I naively assumed my British bank would do the job. But each time I used it, I was charged around $5 — sometimes more.
So if you’re heading off traveling, research the best bank for people from your home country. You will need to apply for an account so try to apply a couple of weeks before you go. In the UK, for example, Monzo and Revolut are both popular, as they don’t charge you anything for cash withdrawals.
Each ATM transaction may only cost a few dollars extra — but if you’re travelling long-term, this really adds up. If you take cash out every 2 weeks and you travel for 6 months, you would spend around $80 (minimum) on ATM fees. So do a little research before you go, and save loads!
– By Hats Off World
7. Choose the city to live in wisely
One of the key factors impacting the quality of your experience abroad is the area of the city you live. I recommend choosing an area where local people have experience in dealing with foreigners (when it comes to registration and accommodation topics), there are different events around where you can meet like-minded people both local and international, and the area has a decent safety record.
When I came first time to Delhi, I based myself in a close proximity to the office because that looked convenient. Little I knew how many bureaucratic and cultural issues I would experience many foreigners haven’t ever faced while living in the same city. I just seemed to be the first foreigner to base myself in that area.
– By My Trip Hack
8. Look for accommodation in advance
If you’re moving to a new country, it’s best to ensure that you have a house lined up for the first month (or so). In many cases, it’s very hard to look for houses from abroad and unless your employer is taking care of this, it’s better not to have the stress of finding somewhere to live while getting adjusted to your new country (which is stressful!). Ensure that you have temporary accommodations for the first 1-2 months arranged before you move.
– By WanderlustingK
9. Make your home feel like home
One of the best things you can do when you’re an expat in a new home is make it feel like it’s your home. Even if you’re not staying too long, or you’re worried about accumulating too much stuff, there are some great small things you can do to feel at home.
Bring photos of your friends and family to decorate your walls. You could buy a small piece of local art or bring a favorite one with you as well. Get nice bedding, that makes you feel comfortable and cozy. Small and inexpensive touches like candles or cushions can really make a difference. Set yourself a small budget to get what you need to make you feel good about your new home!
– By Migrating Miss
10. Learn the language… or at least the basics!
Learning the language is definitely a “must-do” when moving abroad most especially if English is not their first language. It does not have to be a perfect score, but learning the basic pays a lot.
Phone apps like Duolingo, HelloTalk and Lingua.ly are three of the best free phone apps that I have been using and you too can start with it.
I usually familiarize myself with the most important phrases like asking for help and directions and apologizing. If you want to be a little extra, you can also learn how to greet people in their language, although I don’t think it is very necessary because the majority can understand “Good Morning, Thank You, Goodbye, etc” nowadays.
Aside from the phone apps, you can also enroll yourself in free language courses in the neighborhood.
11. Read expat blogs
After moving abroad for the first time, I felt utterly lost. That’s why I thought I should be better prepared the second time around. And who would know better than people who have already moved there?
When I moved from Finland to Denmark, I read any expat blog on Denmark I could find. I became aware of things I hadn’t even thought of or couldn’t even have dreamed of (e.g. that the first payment for a rental apartment could be 7 months rent in Copenhagen). It definitely saved me from some ugly surprises!
– By Nomad Epicureans
12. Find expat groups in Facebook
It’s very likely that there are Facebook support groups that you can join for whichever country you are moving to.
I am living in Japan as an English teacher currently. And I am a part of several expat groups on Facebook: support for English teachers in Japan, support for ladies living in Japan, support for cooking food in Japan, you name it! I am a member! These communities are always super helpful. If you have a question, someone has an answer! So you never need to feel alone.
I highly recommend a quick Facebook search for “expats in…” Go out there and find that tribe!
– By The Blessing Bucket
13. Read local or national newspapers
The internet is both a blessing and a curse for expats. While it’s great for research and keeping in touch with friends and family back home, it can put you in this weird bubble – a bubble where the media and conversations you’re participating in are from back home rather than your new country. There are plenty of ways to pop that bubble, but one I definitely recommend is to read a local or national newspaper in your new country.
It’ll make you feel a lot more integrated, and give you plenty of good conversation starters as well.
14. Integrate with the locals
Moving abroad is amazing — it was one of the best (free) lessons I ever got, and what I learned, I learned from fellow immigrants and locals alike!
First thing you should do is integrate with people around your workplace: locals or those who have lived in the city you’re in for quite some time. When they ask you to go out for drinks, for a coffee, for lunch, or tea: go for it! Time away from the office or your school can lead to you getting to know the area better. These people are your key to knowing where the best (and maybe cheap) places to eat and hang out, what are the events happening during the weekends or after work/school, and where can you travel to. They may be your lifeline when it comes to navigating your way around the financial system, the groceries, how people generally act, you know: the culture and how you should integrate more.
Often, people move abroad and find people within their similar culture. While that is all good, I’d say leave your comfort zone behind, integrate with the locals, and who knows, they might like your culture back.
– By A Journey We Love
15. Sign up in a class
Joining a class is a great way to meet people and learn a new skill! You may not be able to beg strangers on the street to be your friend, but having a common interest is the best conversation opener. Take a yoga class on the beaches of Barcelona or learn how to dance salsa in Mexico City.
You can find classes to suit you on Meet Up and Couchsurfing, and often the first class is free. It can be nerve-wracking turning up to places alone, but brave it and I promise you will not regret it. I have lived abroad in four different countries and have met many of my closest friends this way!
– By Unblown Away
16. Join a non-profit cause
There are many perks of joining a non-profit organization when you move abroad. Not only is it a way to meet people interested in the same cause than you, but it is also an opportunity to learn more about the culture and how the system works in your new community.
As part of a campaign, I joined to save the Great Barrier Reef, I increased my knowledge of the coal industry and the overall political organization of Australia. It’s been helpful to avoid feeling like an outsider during election times.
Plus, volunteering can also provide your first hand-on experience in the country with the referrals and network you may need to land a job.
– By My Favourite Escapes
17. Start a project
The homesickness tends to really knock you down when you’re alone. Something that really helped me was having a project to occupy my mind. A project like starting a travel blog, learning to play a new instrument, writing a novel, teaching yourself a new language. A hobby that is productive and has to be done when you have alone time. Otherwise, all free time will leave you feeling bored and wishing for home.
Do something positive that will challenge you until you settle into your new life.”
– By Ink for Miles
Are you an expat? What other tips would you give to people who are living abroad for the first time? We’d love to hear about it in the comments! 🙂
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Katherine Cortes is a 30-something freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).