Part One: Preparation

So you want to move abroad, do you? There are many situations where you might find yourself toying with the idea of expatriating; perhaps you are following a job opportunity, seeking a different climate, brushing up on your language skills, or maybe just craving the chance to try something new. Whatever the reason, it’s no small feat to relocate your life across international boundaries – but the lifelong benefits can far outweigh the effort it takes to get there.

Before you take the plunge, it’s important to do as much preparation as you can. A little time spent now can help avoid major headaches later. Once you find yourself in a new country, you’ll want to be sightseeing and settling in – not pulling out your hair because you can’t navigate the public transit or find your favorite toothpaste.

The pre-move visit

If at all possible, schedule a trip to go do some research in person. Even if you’ve visited the country while on vacation, you were probably viewing your surroundings as a tourist and not as a future resident. This time, go with the intent of studying the finer points of daily life. Take the bus, subway, or train. Shop at the market. Find the local pharmacy. Eat at the restaurants and bars where the locals hang out. While you’re doing your recon, take plenty of notes. Are your favorite products available at the drug store? Are you willing or able to pay the premium price for imported goods? If not, can you read the packaging to understand the local equivalents?

Foreign neighborhoodCredit: © Kiankhoon | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock PhotosIf you already know where you’ll be living, you should take some time to study the surrounding neighborhood. Decide if you will need a car or a bike, or if walking and public transit will get you where you need to go. If you need a vehicle, is there a secure (and legal) place to store it nearby? Do you need any special permission or registration in order to park your vehicle?

You’ll be surprised how a pre-move visit can feel so much different from a vacation. Leaving the tourist districts behind and venturing into the “real” parts of a country is enormously rewarding, while at the same time a little nerve-wracking. Enjoy the chance to experience everything for the first time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You might be amazed at how warm and welcoming strangers can be.

Find a few veterans

The Internet has allowed people to connect in countless ways, and the expat community is certainly no exception. Chances are you’ll be able to find a blog or two about expat life in your new country, or perhaps meet a few residents in an online forum. If you’re traveling with an employer, ask about any future coworkers who are already there on assignment.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to these contacts and ask for advice about making the move. Most of these folks were in your position in the not-too-distant past and are happy to help ease the transition for others.

Once you are in contact with some veteran expats, be sure to ask lots of questions. Find out what items they wish they’d brought (and if you’ll see them when you arrive, consider bringing some to them as a thank-you gift – if it’s legal, of course!) and what items turned out to be plentiful in the new location. Ask what they’d do differently, if given the chance. Learn from the mistakes of others (and there are plenty!). People are usually pretty forthcoming about their own mistakes and missteps, since they tend to be pretty humorous; mistaking cat food for canned tuna or committing an innocent language mix-up are just a few examples. Word to the wise: a well-developed sense of humor can greatly ease the stress of expat life.

Start studying the language

Language textbooksCredit: © Aleksiejwhite | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock PhotosThings will be busy when you first land in your new country. You won’t have nearly as much free time as you might think, since daily tasks will take much longer in unfamiliar surroundings. This is not the best time to begin thinking about studying a new language. If the primary language in your new country is foreign to you, invest some time before you leave. This doesn’t mean you have to be fluent before you go – there will be plenty of opportunities to learn during your immersion in the new language and culture. On the other hand, you won’t want to go in completely blind. Learn the alphabet (and the corresponding sounds, so you can sound out unfamiliar words), some basic grammar, and some introductory phrases. Not only will this help to lay a foundation for your future study, but it will also help to establish immediate rapport with the locals. People all around the world are much more likely to respond well if you make an effort to speak their language – even if you stumble over your words.

Above all, relax

This is going to be a great experience. There will be a few hiccups, undoubtedly, but you’ll make it through. Doing your research ahead of time will prepare you for what to expect when you arrive, but don’t go overboard into a full-fledged panic mode. A little flexibility will go a long way, and is perhaps the best preparation of all.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Packing!