Earlier this summer an old friend from high school reached out to me. He was considering moving to Belgium from the states for an expat assignment. He knew I’ve been through the experience of expatriating and he had some questions about life abroad. Living in a foreign country isn’t something you think about much until an opportunity comes up.
He decided to move abroad and took his family overseas. We’ve caught up a bit more now that he’s in his first 30 days of moving abroad. Talking to him has brought back a lot of memories of that time for me. The transition isn’t the easiest but I learned a lot of lessons. I’m happy that I’ve been able to pass them on. I also decided I should share them with a wider audience here.
Read about how Mike and I ended up moving abroad in the first place HERE.
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The Essentials for life abroad
There are some must-do things that you have to accomplish before you move abroad. If not, tackle them right away in your new country. They’re the essentials. When we moved, it was a whirlwind shutting down life in Philadelphia and establish a new life abroad in Denmark.
To help you out, here’s a quick rundown of the very first things you should do before moving to a new country.
Handle the paperwork
This isn’t the most fun part of the process, but it’s definitely the most important. You have to make sure you’re doing everything the legal way. Some expats are lucky and their current job handles a lot of the relocation. If this isn’t your situation, go online and do your research. Apply for visas and make sure that you’re granted permission to live and work abroad. It isn’t as difficult as it sounds once you know how to get started and if you just want to test the waters, many countries have working holiday visas as a way to work abroad.
Finding a place to live abroad
This can be tricky to set up in advance. Most people who move abroad go one of three directions when they arrive in their new country. One is into company-sponsored housing. It’s usually set up for you, which takes some stress out of the way, but it’s often smaller and temporary. For Mike and I, this was our case – a smaller temporary apartment. We moved into a larger place later (as seen on House Hunters International).
A second common option is to search online for a place to rent. In most cities, it’s possible to find housing online. The difficulty is renting a place sight-unseen. It’s best to restrict your search to reputable realty and housing services. Beware of common scams. In some online groups, people propose renting rooms or houses if you wire money. Verify that you’re working with an actual business if you’re looking for housing online.
The third is to stay with a friend. This is somewhat common in Denmark because you need an initial Danish address for paperwork. Staying with a friend is usually a temporary move to get you to the next step – your own place.
Insurance for expats
Some countries make this easy while others do not. Denmark, of course, has a national healthcare system. When I first arrived I had to wait almost 90 days for the processing of my residence permit. At that time I had to purchase expat insurance. I found a cheap policy through World Nomads to cover me in the interim period. You can get a free quote for World Nomads expat insurance by clicking HERE. We use them now when we travel outside of Denmark.
Opening a bank account abroad
The rules for a foreigner opening a bank account can vary from country to country. You can get a head start through online research. Mike moved to Copenhagen a few months before me, so he had just set up a Danish account when I arrived. It still wasn’t that simple for me though.
When I arrived, I had no job contract – we left the states for Mike’s job. After my permits were processed and I had Danish residency, I believed I could open a bank account. I had money, I wanted to deposit it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t open my own bank account until I got a job myself. This was frustrating, especially because I was using an American credit card in the meantime. Eventually, we returned to the bank together and I was able to be added to the account. That’s life abroad – it starts with a lot of hoops to jump through.
I can’t help a lot with these particulars as we do not have any kids. Still, I recommend you find out the process in advance of your relocation. For some cities, there will be International Schools available that teach in your native language.
Some countries will cover education expenses, others will involve private schooling. Many expats will have the aid of their companies and education expenses covered in their contracts. Even though Denmark offers its citizens paid-education through a masters degree, we are not eligible under our visa/tax scheme.
Possibly the most important thing to handle, get a phone plan. The easiest way to do this is by having a smartphone that is unlocked. This way all you need to do is get a SIM card in your new country. They can walk you through the different options for phone plans.
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Mental Health in your life abroad
Wherever you lay your head at night, you should look out for your mental health. There are a lot of unique challenges for expats, so some extra work may be necessary in this department. In the first month of life abroad, many issues can creep up like homesickness, culture shock, and significant stress. If left unchecked, it can even turn into expat depression. Here are some tips on how to cope with moving to a new country.
Be Proud of your new life abroad
Celebrate yourself and what you’ve done. Very few people can say they’ve picked up and moved to a new country. Going from the nation you were born in and know well to a foreign country you don’t understand is a major accomplishment. It’s brave! It’s something very few people even think of – so love yourself for that (even when it’s scary). I write more about this celebration of moving away in the post Expat Advice – Leaving Loved ones Behind. Check it out.
It’s natural to have self-doubt about a major decision. You SHOULD question yourself and your actions, but don’t get consumed. As an expat, you’re going to face a lot of challenges so optimism is crucial. It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t get down, but some days you’ll have to do a little more self-affirmation.
Balance your life abroad
Your new life abroad could throw your old lifestyle out of whack. Make sure you’re being healthy and keeping a healthy balance. This means you’re getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising and drinking in moderation.
Maybe some of these things are easy for you, but vices can sneak up. Jet lag can take time to wear off. You may not like the cuisine of your new country and rush to fast food. Having more time on your hands and the desire to be social could push you to pubs and bars. Monitor all of these things and keep a balanced lifestyle.
Communicate – almost until it’s overkill
I think communication is the most important part of any major change in your life. Your move abroad will affect not only you but also your partner and/or children. Even if you are moving abroad alone, your family at “home” will change. Keep constant tabs on everyone.
For Mike and I, we checked in with each other every night. It was almost overkill, but we were both going through a monumental change in our lives. It was an upheaval for both of us, and we each had differing outcomes, expectations, difficulties, and feelings. Each of us had good days and bad days and we had to pick each other up. We talk about the need to communicate in our post Expat Advice 4 Months in, check that out as well.
Even today, we still keep the communication strong even in year 3. Communication is the way through any of life’s difficult times and starting a life abroad, with or without someone else is one of them.
Appreciate the everyday tasks of life abroad
When I first checked in with my friend who moved abroad I simply asked: “how’s it going so far?” He joked, “well today we learned how to use our coffee maker, so okay.” I remembered feeling so helpless when Mike and I first arrived in Copenhagen. We were also in company housing and didn’t know how to use our washer and dryer, oven or stove. We figured it all out eventually, but we didn’t give ourselves enough credit.
This kind of goes back to celebrating yourself, but I now feel so awesome for being able to shop for groceries in a foreign country. I’m not intimidated when I have to learn something on the fly, like how to use a subway in a new city. All of this is because of my life abroad in Copenhagen. As an expat, you should appreciate when you learn how to use your coffee maker.
“This too will pass”
It goes without saying that eventually, expat life will be “normal”. The first 30 days are just SO much work. There are so many new things to get used to, all while you’re moving and starting over from scratch. You’re also doing these things with a very limited network. It can really suck! However, this too will pass. In six months you’ll have friends, a favorite cafe and a barber or hairdresser. You’ll learn how to mail packages internationally and where to buy batteries. Life will once again be normal and dare I say it… even boring.
Things to do
There’s SO much to do when you begin living in a foreign country. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it can even seem like too much. I can’t guarantee you a smooth transition, but there are some tips to make things easier on a new expat.
Meet locals right away
Perhaps the most important thing you can do when moving abroad is to bring new friends into your life. There are a lot of opportunities but connect with as many people as you can. Your first friends can even be colleagues! After that, branch out – join clubs, take language lessons, find a sports team or volunteer. As a foreigner, it can be difficult, but you have to put yourself out there to create a new network. Making friends abroad presents some challenges but it’s important for adjusting to expat life.
Purchase things to make your life abroad easier
There are a ton of expenses with moving. A lucky expat has the financial assistance of a company to help them relocate. Many new expats do not have that luxury but can prioritize their purchases. Focus on buying items that will make you the most comfortable and ease your transition. This could mean making sure your bed is comfortable and similar to the one you left behind. You may want to ensure you have high-speed internet right away so that you can keep in touch with family. Prioritize what matters the most to your comfort in the transition.
Learn how to get around
Getting to know your new city is incredibly important. You can only do that if you know how to get around. Figure out the transportation system as soon as possible. Sometimes, it just means getting up the nerve to walk onto a bus. Many cities have apps and electronic ticketing technology. The quicker you can figure this out, the easier it will be for you to get out.
It’s really important to get out. Start exploring local shops, cafes, and restaurants. The sooner you get to know your surroundings, the sooner your new city will feel like home.
Be a tourist in your new life abroad
Once you’ve mastered transportation and explored your new neighborhood, act like a tourist a little bit. The difference between being an “expat tourist” and a traditional one is how you do it. If you move to Paris, the Eiffel Tower will always be there. Instead of visiting major landmarks, do a food tour. Go see a play or traditional dance recital. Check out a local street food market. Find ways to tour your new city that will help you to feel more like a local and establish your new life.
Go online for help
There are so many tools online for your help. Expat bloggers are out there to share experiences and offer advice. Events happen in every city where expats can gather. Some hold language exchanges, family outings, cocktail mixers and a lot more. One that Mike and I looked up and joined for a few events is called Internations. Check out their link for details in your new city.
While you’re online, also lean on social media – it’s for more than hacking elections. Facebook is actually how we made connections in Copenhagen before moving to Denmark. When we posted about moving, a friend reached out and connected us with her friend who moved there a year before us. When we arrived, we jumped right into our first friend group.
Facebook is also home to many groups for expats. We joined “Americans in Copenhagen” and “Expats in Copenhagen” before we even arrived. This was a great place for help and to ask questions. Whatever you need to know – where to buy ricotta cheese, where to watch football, people in those groups can help.
Begin Learning the Language
Learning the local language as an expat is one of the easiest ways to start feeling like a local. It’s a great way to begin your cultural immersion and it goes a long way in navigating daily life.
You can certainly start your language lessons with an app like DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone but for a real language class consider Lingoda.
Lingoda is an online language school specializing in bringing you to language fluency. It’s a perfect second step once you’ve dabbled in the online apps.
Lingoda offers small group, online classes that are taught by qualified teachers and native-language speakers. Classes are available every hour of the day and you can find the schedule that works best for you.
Self-care is a popular buzzword. The internet is full of people offering advice on how you should act to love yourself more. This is especially important for expats. Beyond the mental health aspect, there are lots of things you can do to care for yourself when moving abroad.
Decorate for self-care
This may sound like an odd concept, but as you’re decorating, incorporate touches from home. Before I moved to Denmark, Mike was living in Copenhagen for 3 months. Moving abroad alone, even for a short period of time, is tough. Mike printed a lot of pictures to place around the apartment. He wanted reminders of our families, our friends from Philadelphia and of course pictures of the two of us together. He says it was a great comfort to see reminders of the people he missed. Do the same thing!
It also doesn’t have to be pictures of friends and family. We have a lot of Philadelphia decorations – framed pictures, coasters, books etc. Our favorite household item is a framed picture of the Philadelphia skyline with our friends’ signatures and messages around the border. It was placed on a table at our going away party for people to sign. It’s been a little piece of home on our wall for the last few years.
Take your time
When you move anywhere, it’s stressful and a lot happens at once. Moving to a foreign country and starting from scratch is even crazier, so take your time. You don’t have to furnish an entire apartment in one weekend. Making friends, learning about your city and exploring it are also big priorities. You can’t rush the process of expatriating. So much goes into preparing to move, that your first few days, even your first couple of months should be at a slower pace. It’s the best way to immerse yourself in your new surroundings.
You don’t have to play tourist
I know I mention being a tourist in your own city, but only in a way to start laying down roots. The urge to visit museums and landmarks is natural, but in the first 30 days, you also have to feel like a local. That’s difficult in a foreign country. Find time to sit and read a book. Put on your favorite Netflix show. Play cards with your partner. Do things that make you feel less like you’re on vacation and more like you’re sitting around your home – because you are.
Plan for your next few months of life abroad
I can’t stress enough the importance of spending month one laying roots in your new city. After talking to my friend from high school who recently expatriated to Belgium, I told him this right away. We laughed because he and his wife just bought Euro-rail passes, but I gave him the advice anyway. You have to spend as much time as possible in your new city for the first month.
When Mike and I first moved, we were so excited to be living in Europe, we booked weekends away almost constantly. Combined with visitors, it was too much! We never really got to make Copenhagen home, which was necessary for beginning our new life abroad. I talk about this more in my post, Expat Advice – Avoid the Travel Trap. Check it out.
What you should do in the first month is to plan a few weekends away during months two and three. This way you get to travel when you’re settled and you have something to look forward to.
If you’re embarking on an expat journey – BE PROUD! You’re brave, you’re strong and even though it may be tough… you got this! The highs are higher and the lows are lower. The benefits of moving abroad far outweigh the challenges of living abroad. Lean on your loved ones and make the most of the opportunity. You’re part of a pretty cool club – welcome aboard!