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Feature photo by Canadian Veggie. Photo above by ndh.

Planning to study abroad? These 10 things will make life easier.

I’M A PLANNER. I like to know what I’m going to be doing today, tomorrow, and four months from now. I like to stay organized in my day planner. I don’t like to leave things to chance.

So when I found out that I would be spending my final semester of graduate school in Paris, I promptly set about dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s. When the plane landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, I thought I had everything under control.

Boy was I wrong. As it turns out, moving abroad is filled with variables you don’t even consider before leaving. If you’ve ever lived overseas, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’re thinking about living overseas, here’s are 10 things you should know before you leave.

Photo by alfredlee.

1. Buying upon arrival is easier than packing.

Unless you’re truly moving to the middle of nowhere, you’ll be able to find the items you need for daily life in your new city. When I moved to Paris, I brought one enormous suitcase, one duffel bag and two carry-ons filled with things I could have bought at any number of stores in my new neighborhood.

Buying when you arrive might require some extra funds, but it will save you the headache of trying to pack everything you own and then dragging it halfway across the world.

Photo by Jeff Keen.

2. You will always need more money than you think.

Some travelers will argue that it’s possible to live on a bare-bones budget overseas, and they’re probably right. But if you’re anything like me, you like to maintain a minimum level of comfort and financial flexibility no matter where you are.

Trying to establish a life in a foreign country is even more costly than just passing through. Expenses that you didn’t imagine will pop-up, and even if you have a job waiting for you, that first paycheck won’t appear overnight.

Saving a few extra bucks in advance will go a long way towards preserving your financial health during the expensive first few months.

Photo by minwoo.

3. You might still have to pay taxes back home.

Americans working overseas are sometimes surprised to learn that Uncle Sam doesn’t take it easy on expats. Some of us who work abroad will still owe money to the I.R.S.

Before you go, check with a tax expert and get the facts straight. Paying taxes in two countries is never easy, but it will hurt less if you know about it in advance.

4. Your mail can follow you.

Mail can be hard to keep track of when you move overseas. You forward it to some permanent address and hope none of the important letters slip through the cracks.

International movers should look into setting up a service with a company such as Earth Class Mail. For a few dollars a month the company will receive all your mail, scan it, and send you the important stuff you request.

Photo by Robert France.

5. Opening a local bank account can save you money.

I should have done this within the first week of my arrival. But with everything else there was to take care of, I put off opening a French bank account. This was a very costly mistake.

After six months of paying foreign transaction fees on my credit card and bank fees for withdrawing money from foreign ATMs I had racked up a little more than $200 in unnecessary expenses. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that money could have gone towards a weekend trip or a Parisian shopping spree, both of which are a lot more fun than giving money to the bank.

Photo by Belopa.

6. Language can be learned on-site

You’ve taken the classes, done your grammar exercises, and even found a partner to help you practice speaking, but you still worry that you won’t be able to communicate with the locals?

Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But after a few short weeks of moving to a foreign country, you’ll have learned more than you did in all those months or years of sitting in the classroom.

Excessive worrying about your lack of fluency is not something you have time for before leaving. It will come on its own, and if it doesn’t you can always take more formal classes when you arrive.

7. There will be good days and bad days.

Moving overseas often gets glamorized. Everyone, including yourself, thinks you will only have an amazing time filled with amazing experiences, amazing new friends, and an amazing lifestyle.

Yes, it will be amazing on more levels than you can imagine, but there will also be some very unglamorous days tucked between the good ones. You’ll be able to manage the tough times more effectively if you don’t expect everything to be fun and easy all the time.

Living abroad involves a lot of work, sacrifice, administrative headaches and the occasional bout of homesickness. Don’t lose hope; the next amazing day is just around the corner.

Photo by stevenvanwel.

8. You can still vote back home.

Americans looking to participate in the upcoming presidential election, or any future elections, should know that being abroad doesn’t disqualify them from their right to vote.

The same voting rights apply to all American citizens, whether they live within the 50 states or not. Some foreign cities even have active American political groups, such as Democrats Abroad or Republicans Abroad.

No matter where in the world you find yourself, these groups can help you navigate the voting process.

9. Staying in touch will be easy.

If you’re moving to a place that has good Internet connection and/or phone service, home will never be more than a few clicks away. Sign yourself and your contacts back home up for Skype and you can even talk to each other for free online.

Even old-school telephone to telephone communication has become easier and cheaper than ever before. Moving to some remote un-connected location? See it as an excuse to dust off your letter writing skills.

Photo by alexi1982.

10. Coming home is more difficult than leaving.

As much as I loved living overseas, I wasn’t entirely disappointed at the prospect of moving back home. Home represented family, friends, and all of the things I love and missed while away.

In reality, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Moving abroad is difficult because of the things you have to prepare, the good-byes you have to say, and the uncertainty of what you’ll find “over there”. The sheer excitement of starting a new adventure can make all the worries seem minor. What’s more, there’s a certain reassurance that comes with knowing that home will always be there waiting for you.

But when your overseas stint comes to an end, you’ll have to deal with the knowledge that what you’ve just lived can probably never be recreated. No one but yourself (and those who lived it with you) can possibly understand what it means to you.

Hang in there; you’ll eventually get through the difficulties of returning home. After all, you just lived, loved, triumphed and flourished in a foreign country. You’ve literally taken on the world. Reverse culture shock? Relationship changes? Restarting a career? Bring it on!

About The Author

Tanya Brothen

Tanya Brothen recently moved back to the US after a six-month stay in Paris. Her blog, Parisian Spring, discusses everything from French food to Minnesota weather. She has an MA in International Affairs and currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, where she dreams of returning to the City of Lights.

  • Tim Patterson

    I hear you on that last point – coming home is often more difficult than adjusting to life overseas.

  • Craig

    I don't like the American-centrism, but I like the ideas. They're (almost) universally applicable. Good article.

  • Tanya

    Tim: Yes! And the fact that coming home is often more difficult than adjusting to live overseas can really come as a shock if you're not prepared for it. Craig: I'm glad you liked the article! I, too, grappled with the American-centrism while writing this article. I didn't like it at first either. But then I remembered that I was an American and I only can talk from experience about what it's like to be an American overseas. What's it like to be Japanese and move to a different country? I have no idea. I would love to hear some of the things other nationalities deal with that are different from what I went through.

  • Benjamin10

    Tanya, great article. Very honest and genuine. The last paragraph really resonates.

  • geotraveler

    Loved this article. Practical and to the point. Great job!

  • Nomadic Matt

    great article tanya!!!

  • Jojo

    Yeah, Ive moved from Scotland to Japan and sometimes I hate how weird and different it is and other times I love it. Weird place, and also no one says you have to go home, Im gonna travel for as long as I can, International working is easy as pie these days and great for the Curriculum vitae.

  • Dean

    I've lived in many places during my life and I'd say the point about conveying your experience for other people to understand is the most difficult. Many people do indeed think you've lived a most glamourous life and theres always an awkward feeling when people ask why you left home to visit this "boring" place. I've grown tired of such explanations and instead appeal to their fantasy. I wish I felt less of a horrible person saying that.

  • k987

    Nice to read you Tanya. You pointed it! to all of you that don t want to travel (i aint talking about beaches and all-in): please think how small the world is and how much we still have to learn to all live together in peace. You ll learn about others as well as about yourself. travelling is a necessity and living abroad is a wonderful experience. Love from Shanghai.

  • Liz

    It's funny- I'm still in highschool, but because my mother moved to Sweden when I was 13 or 14, I've had the opportunity to live there for a month during the summer and another month (or a little less) during Winter Break. Being a dependent in a foreign country is a lot easier- you don't have to worry about all the things that your parent(s) have to. You just get to meet the people and see the culture. The only issue I really have is that time zones oftentimes do make it difficult- at least for me, as my friends are always in school when I'm eating dinner. Then again, many people in the lower 48 would see going from Alaska to Sweden as moving from one foreign country to the other. Both don't seem to resemble average American life very well.

  • Tanya

    Benjamin10, geotraveler, Matt: Glad you enjoyed the article! Dean: trying to explain your experience is always one of the most frustrating things about traveling. How do you sum up weeks, months or even years of life-changing experiences in one quick sound bite? It's impossible. Sometimes it's just easier to smile and say "it was great!" Liz: I'm so glad you've been able to discover international travel at a young age! And yes, I imagine it is much easier when you don't have to worry about taxes and bank accounts and such :-) Happy travels!

  • Christine_Gilbe

    Great article Tanya! I think the point what you pack is SO TRUE! If you can buy it at home, you can probably get it overseas. Except peanut butter. That's been strangely missing from Europe.

  • Jessica

    This article is great! No one told me what to expect really, from their own personal experience, about how to live abroad (because I was the first one in my family, and out of my group of friends) to go live abroad. I realized everything that you’ve mentioned…but…had to figure it all out on my own! Preparing yourself for an overseas new life is never easy, but the outcome is definitely worth it :) Overcoming any worries and getting past culture shock is a great defeat, and the independence that comes with it makes it all worth while. :)

  • Cat

    I've lived abroad for a year now, and I can totally resonate with #7. The good days, I'm elated. The bad days, including today, I feel horribly depressed. It's easy to feel desolate, but you're exactly right – it can take very little to turn your mood around if you adjust your thinking and know that there are incredible advantages to spending time in the world. cheers!

  • brad

    what a great article. Until you have left home, you never know. Whether you go overseas, or just 1000 miles away, everything you said holds true. The most interesting is the last one and, for better or worse, the most universally true. I'm sure you have heard the phrase "You can never go home again". That's because while you are away home has grown, and so have you. It's never the same when you get back to it, or maybe you see it through different eyes. Whichever it is; home is never really "home" when you get back.

  • Marina Mecl

    For future reference for those going overseas – or for those who might still need some last minute voting assistance from abroad for this election: Youth Vote Overseas is a nonpartian, user-friendly voter resource for young adults abroad. Find links to candidate information, election deadline charts, tools to register to vote and fill out the emergency ballot, and answers to your questions.

  • Pinx

    Honestly one of the best travel articles I've read. The last point brought back some heartfelt memories. I too spent 6months as an exchange student in Australia. Upon arrival I wasn't even sure if I would have a place to stay as accomodation was not provided! Thankfully I found a wonderful family who opened up their doors to me as well as their hearts. Moving back was far more difficult than the times that preceded my going there. But now I am not afraid of living in a foreign country, infact I am about to move to Italy for a year to study for my Masters in Design. And I look forward to a whole new lifestyle out there…

  • Jeanette

    Yes I enjoyed your article too. I am an older Australian and am just completing 6 months living in a third world country as a volunteer… not formal study BUT learning a lot. I definitely agree with point 7. In the developing world health is a MAJOR issue. I have been sick with diarrhea (and something else) for 4 days starting on Christmas Day… For this type of experience I would have to fit health in somewhere in my 10. Our daughter studied in the USA for 6 months of high school and she would say the same I am sure. BUT it is good to remember good days and bad days happen in life even if you stay safely at home. :) My other comment is re banking. Point 5. Here it is very much a cash economy. I could write a whole blog on our banking experiences!!! I would definitely go for cash withdrawal from visa, of max allowed and careful hiding a most of it as the way to min. fees and min effort in this type of country. BAnks a a whole "other world" here. rapidly approaching point 10 … nervously! Finally for those of you who have studied abroad think of volunteering there some time too. An amazing experience… We have a blog if you are interested

  • maisie

    hey!!! as another proud person from minneapolis, also studying abroad (in the dominican republic)… i absolutely agree with these. also i would note that, though you can buy things in your new country, there are simple, daily things that make you feel at home which you may not be able to. i bought a lot of things here but, for example, brought a really big bottle of dr bronners. peace and prosper

  • Bobbie

    Ah, yes, the joys of moving to a different country. Best advice ever – one should first pack, and then subtract half – and budget, then double it.

  • nibs

    ha ha I love the picture at the top. Go Winnipeg!!! It's actually not that confusing, lol

  • Tim Patterson

    This is such a helpful article.

  • Ares

    Thanks for this post. I have a nephew who is just about to head overseas to study in London. (We live in America) I will pass this information on to him, hopefully it will prepare him a little.

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  • dls

    hee hee
    i stumbled on this article via stumbleupon and the first thing i saw was the street sign from osborne village where my dad had an art gallery when i was a kid… i live overseas now and it was funny to read the article that had so many good points but even better to see the first sign of confusion was from my childhood neighbourhood…
    wheee! the world is small….

  • Tany

    @Tim, Glad you think my article is helpful!

    @Ares, Best of luck to your nephew as he heads off on what is sure to be a life-changing experience. I hope some of these tips will prove helpful to him.

  • feleciacruz

    Fabulous article, ive done both leave and come home several times and this is right on point!!

  • Kieren

    I moved to Canada from Australia almost eight months ago. The first three months was hard, having to recreate a life and make new friends. I have made a lot of Canadian friends, but I also have a little group of Aussies and kiwis that I catch up with from time to time who just understand how life is different here. Eight months on, Ive fallen in love with a canuck, got a great job (in travel) and am seeing and doing things I never thought possible!

  • Kaitlin Mills

    Great article. I’m going to be moving overseas next year and it’s good to see such an informative piece. I never even thought about the tax, better look into that. :)

  • Jared Krauss

    How right you are.
    Even though I only lived in London for about 14, 15 days all of this would of been extremely helpful.
    Not like a bank would of cared if I had opened an account there for 2 weeks. That’s two weeks where they have my money, they aren’t going to complain.
    The packing is SO true.
    It’s so much easier to go through the airport security knowing you have NO liquids and don’t need to stop to put them in a clear plastic bag, make sure they are under 3 oz., etc.
    When I got to London I just simply walked to the first Boots and bought everything I needed.
    Toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, cream, body wash, shampoo and conditioner, face wash. 20Pounds I believe total. Cheap when you consider I just mailed it back to myself back home and am still using most of those.
    Great article and I really hope people take a clue from this.

    One thing I would add though, try as hard as you can to immerse yourself in the culture, the way of life of the city and try to live like that is YOUR city.
    When I was in London, I didn’t think of it as my temporary stay, I thought of it as my home, I thought of it as MY city. I thought of myself as a Londoner, this made my experience SO much better because I was so much more comfortable no matter where I was.


  • William Wallace

    Travel with common sense and you will be prepared to take on the world. Also remember that your the visitor and the one that has to adapt to your new home, not the other way around.

  • Domain Names

    When packing leave it a day or two and go back to it, and then take out half of your contents, you can always buy at your destination. Think of a budget, and double it – you will always need more, better to be safe than sorry.

  • Maxwell Lazier

    Ok, I approve concerning most of what’s being said here, I’m delighted I discovered this topic. :) I was recently having a dialogue about area in the company of my smart cousin at the jobsite.

  • Samantha Albrecht

    For people who have lived abroad and started a bank account there, did you then just wire the money from your home bank account? Or how did that work? I’m moving to Spain for a year this September and I’ve been trying to figure out how to avoid all of the fees. 

  • Vicky

    Is a bachelor’s degree (obtained in France, let’s say) recognized in the US?

  • Rahul Thube

    Great advice in this post .Bunch of new things i am learning on this .

  • Samantha Bilkey

    @ Samantha Albrecht – I’m also moving to Spain for a year in September! Where are you going?

  • Samantha Bilkey

    Nevermind I’m a year late haha.

  • aecoverseas

    Studying abroad can be a very daunting idea. Going to a foreign land for a short vacation isn’t the same as studying in another country. There are lots of things you need to know. How much money should I bring? Below is a list of vital information for people who are planning to study abroad in the UK.

    1: What is the cost of living in the UK?
    2: How much cash should I bring?
    3: How do I open a bank account in the UK?
    4: How can I get details of scholarships that are available?
    5: Can I claim welfare benefits?

    For More Information About Study abroad programs, you can contact with AEC – Abroad Education Consultants

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