If you want to live the expat life, with dreams of living affordably and comfortably in a foreign land that offers an enticing set of benefits, it’s possible. It’s not always straightforward and simple, but it’s possible.
While it would be wonderful if we could just show up in a new country, find a place to live and get settled into a new life, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. You can do that for a limited period of time (usually up to 3 months) in many places but beyond that timeframe, the process gets trickier.
This is why it’s vital to not just plan ahead, but to really dedicate significant time to figuring out how to achieve your expat goal before you buy a plane ticket or start looking for apartments. The more you plan ahead, the easier the process and the better your chances of making it happen.
When I recently got a residency visa for Spain, the process seemed overwhelming at first. But I spent a week examining everything I needed to do in order to apply and when the time came to move forward, I only needed 1 week to gather all of the documents and apply at the Spanish Consulate in Miami. Two weeks later, I had my visa and I was good to go.
Without that pre-planning though, the process would have been a mess and taken much, much longer in the end.
Apart from determining how you can actually stay in a country long-term and which visa you might need, there are other things to consider as well that will help ensure the process is smooth and the adjustment to life in a new country is smooth too.
1. Learn the language
Yes, people all over the world speak English these days and in 20 years of travel, there has never been a time when I was 100% stuck and could not communicate with anyone at all. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the language of the country where you want to live. It’s important that you do. It’s not only respectful to your new country but it’s also going to benefit you by allowing you to communicate better, meet more people and get deeper into the local lifestyle and culture. Expat life will be so much more rewarding as a result.
Start with the basics, dedicate some time each week to expanding your knowledge and focus on the benefits of learning more. If you are headed to Thailand, for example, try out the Simply Learn Thai app, and use that to improve your knowledge, with its 1000+ phrases available at the touch of a button. There are apps for every language and don’t try to rush it. Take it slow, learn a few more words each day and you’ll quickly see the results. Of course, taking professional classes and making sure you use your language skills by directly interacting with locals are also important steps.
2. Accept the surprises of expat life
Life in a different country can sound extremely appealing. However, there are always going to be surprises or aspects of life that you didn’t expect. Certain things that are easy back home might be complicated in your new land. There will be cultural differences and unique customs that you must adjust too. Life overall will indeed be different that more you realize this ahead of time, the less stressful will be your experience once you arrive.
Keep an open mind, try to learn as much as you can and appreciate the differences. This will help you get adjusted quickly without much friction. Making local friends helps and hanging out with other expats who have been in the country for a long time can help too.
It’s best to learn and join in the new culture instead of shutting yourself out. It can be tough at first but once you’ve figured it out, life will be even more fulfilling.
Not getting too worked up about the differences is the key. It’s only natural that different places will have different ways of life but again, it will all seem normal soon enough.
3. Understand your budget
While it might seem like you’re moving to an inexpensive location, it definitely pays to spend some time figuring out just how much you should expect to spend. A realistic budget takes into account potential surprises (which you can find with some research) that you might not initially think about when moving abroad.
One example is Playa del Carmen, Mexico. This great beach town offers an ideal expat life, with beautiful apartments for less than $1000 per month, within walking distance of the white sand beach and the center of town. You’ll probably have a rooftop pool with a view as well. However, most people don’t realize that the cost of electricity is very high in parts of Playa del Carmen, especially in newer buildings.
If you use the air-conditioner for 10 hours per day, you could end up paying over $200 USD per month in electricity. This could affect your budget greatly and would be an unwelcome surprise if you didn’t know about this before you arrived.
Some countries have very high fees for signing a contract to rent an apartment or house. Other countries might have limited public transportation options, leading you to take more taxis than you normally would take, and therefore spending more money. There are all kinds of possible financial surprises and it’s best to know about them ahead of time.
The best way to get real information is to ask questions to those already living in the place you want to go. Facebook groups, reddit forums and so on are all great resources where you can post your questions and get actual answers that will help you figure out how you will actually spend per month for the lifestyle you prefer.
4. Earning an income
If you can live off of savings or retirement funds, excellent! If you need to work though, you want to look into the rules before moving to your new country. In general, it can be quite difficult to get a work visa that allows you to work for a local employer. You would typically need a job offer that proves the company couldn’t find any locals to do the work. This is difficult and unless you’re moving between countries in the European Union as an EU citizens, the chances of getting such a visa are low.
If you work online, that’s ideal. In many countries, such as Portugal and Germany, there are actual visas you can get that are designed for those who work online and just want to live in their country as a resident. You can show up, continue your work and avoid the taxation rules as a result, making for an easy adjustment to expat life.
For other countries that don’t offer such a visa, it can be a little more challenging but still doable. You just need to check the local tax and employment rules and figure out how that might apply to you.
Whether you teach English online, design websites, find work on Upwork.com or even work remotely for a company in your home country, wherever you end up, this is going to make life easier than if you need to look for work in the country itself.
Of course, if you do work online and even if you have a small one-person business, it’s best to make sure that your operation complies with the laws of your home country before you move abroad. This could involve having the proper business structure, tax numbers, bank account and business insurance, which doesn’t need to be a huge expense but offers some useful peace of mind.
The allure of the expat life is real and these days, it’s easier than ever to make happen. What you don’t want to do is decide to move to a new country, buy a plane ticket and only then realize that there is much more to the process than you imagined.
From cultural surprises to unexpected expenses to visa rules to work eligibility and so on, being an expat can be quite frustrating if you don’t take the time to understand the situation before you leave.
It’s worth doing the research and being prepared in advance. This will certainly lead to a smoother transition from life in your home country to those wonderful expat dreams.