Have you ever flirted with the idea of living an expat life? Are you over 40s and looking for a meaningful carrer change? Somewhere new and exciting? Not sure where to begin? Here is what you need to know.
After tapping into Michelle's life as an expat in China and Switzerland on our live chat last week, we asked her to write her top tips on embracing the expat life, for women like her, keen adventurers who are looking to shake up things in their lives. If you missed our Live with Michelle, you can catch up on the chat here or watch the recording on our Facebook page.
Here are Michelle's top tips on starting an expat life, from a woman who's been there and done exactly that!
Imagine yourself on a fantastic vacation, perhaps somewhere exotic, foreign, completely different to your normal life back home, and you think, oh boy, I could just about live here! So what does it take for people, especially women over 40, to just pack up and go? Can it be that simple? Or is there a lot more to it?
The first place to start might be to think about the “whys.” Why do you want to move overseas? Are you looking for adventure? Career opportunities? The chance to save money? Perhaps the political atmosphere in your home country is not to your liking? Do you want to find out what it is like living totally immersed in another culture, to learn a new language, new culinary traditions and customs, to experience a new way of life?
“oh boy, I could just about live here!”
For me, it was a combination of all these that led me to want to venture outside of the United States. I used this desire as an opportunity to make a career change at 46-years old and seek a new life as an ESL teacher in international schools. So far my journey has allowed me to live and work in both China and Switzerland - two vastly different cultures but each with their own unique joys and challenges.
The next step is to decide where. Perhaps you’ve already spent time in another country on a holiday? Perhaps you are drawn to a particular culture or region? Did you study a foreign language in school and found you had an interest in the history, literature, and customs of the people who speak that language? What overseas career opportunities or job transfers are available to you?
In my case, living and teaching in China was part of my masters degree program. Fortunately, Mandarin, Chinese history and cultural studies were part of my coursework, which helped make immersing myself in a foreign country much easier. And although I did not do any academic studies in preparing for Switzerland, knowing something about its history, languages, and customs went a long way in understanding the people of my new home.
“What “safety-nets” you need for your own comfort and peace of mind.”
What about the “safety-nets?”
One vital question to consider before jumping on a plane jetting off to your new life as an expat is to really consider and weigh up what “safety-nets” you need for your own comfort and peace of mind. These might be financial considerations or maybe health concerns. Perhaps you have children and/or a significant other whose needs, career, education, and well-being would be a factor in your thinking? It is always a good idea to thoroughly research the financial, tax, retirement and investment implications of moving to your new home country. What is healthcare like in your chosen country? Will you need to purchase additional health insurance to cover you as an expat? What about things like banks, ATMS, credit cards? Even the availability of different types of foods, products, and clothing is something to think about and consider.
When I first moved to China I was advised to bring all the personal hygiene products and toiletries I would need for at least 6-12 months. The reason I was told was that although the brands might be similar to what I might use in the US, the actual ingredients in products could be quite different, and in some cases, unsafe. And while this was never a worry living in Switzerland, I did find their banking regulations, especially concerning Americans holding Swiss accounts to be rather “intrusive.” For example, every year I had to submit my US tax returns and FBAR filings to my Swiss bank else they would block access to my accounts. However, this has more to do with compliance of Swiss agreements with the US Internal Revenue Service than anything else.
How to upstakes and move?
So, you’ve made the big decision and are ready to embark on that grand, new experience in life. But how do you actually make such a move? Obviously you’ll need some sort of visa or permit for your new home country. Will this be provided through an employer or will you need to navigate the paperwork on your own? If so, will you use a visa processing service? What about international moving companies and shipping costs? Does your employer provide for this or will you have to pay on your own? What stuff will you take, give away, or maybe leave in storage? What about house hunting? Will you rent or buy in your new country? Much of this will depend on where you are moving and what you will need for basic comforts. Thankfully, many countries and regions have overwhelmingly adopted online everything from shopping, to moving companies, to apartment rentals and real estate agents - so with a little research ahead of time you can have a very good idea about how and where you will set up your new home-away-from-home.
“What stuff will you take, give away, or maybe leave in storage?”
Personally, IKEA became my go-to place in both China and Switzerland. I arrived in each country with only two suitcases and my cat. Everything else I bought as I needed and then gave it away to others when I left. However, I do keep a small storage unit in the US that has most of my keepsakes and souvenirs for when I finally decide it's time to stop the expat lifestyle.
“Things are starting to become familiar and suddenly you realize this is no longer a vacation.”
And here you are ….. now what?
And here you are in your new home having been in your new country for a couple of weeks already. You've unpacked and started to explore your surroundings a bit, maybe even becoming a regular at a favorite coffee shop or restaurant or bar. Perhaps that initial fear and trepidation of going to the market to buy alien-looking fruits and vegetables or meats prepared in a way you may not normally eat or canned goods labeled in an incomprehensible language has started to ease somewhat. Things are starting to become familiar and suddenly you realize this is no longer a vacation. You start meeting new friends, both local nationals and outsiders like yourself and you start to feel the first inklings of what it means to be an expat - a foreigner living in a strange and exciting new country. Welcome to your new way of life!