10 Tips for Packing Up and Living Abroad

by Julie Schwietert Nov 15, 2007

From the philosophical to the practical, these top 10 tips will help you plan for a temporary or permanent move abroad.

10. Examine your expectations.

Visiting a place as a tourist or a traveler, however immersed in the culture you might be, is entirely different from living there. This point seems obvious enough, but in the excitement of just thinking about moving abroad, it’s frequently overlooked. It shouldn’t be. This is one of THE most important preparations you will make in your moving process. What is motivating your move? What do you hope to lose and to gain in the process? How do you expect your life to be different?

9. Find home sweet home.

You may not have a home before you move to your adopted country, but you should have all of the documentation that you will need in order to be able to get one. The requirements for renting and buying vary significantly from one country to the next, and once you’re abroad, it can be difficult—and expensive—to put together the paper trail of your past.

To the greatest extent possible, find out in advance what kinds of documents you’ll need—you might want to read expatriate online forums (example: Buenos Aires Expat Group) to get ideas / info. You can even reach out to individual users— people on these forums typically love to share their knowledge and experiences. At the very least, prepare a package with several photocopied sets of the following documents: the photo page of your passport and identification card, tax returns, bank statements, a list of past addresses where you’ve lived, a list of past employers, and a list with complete contact information for three to five references.

8. Stay in Touch.

The world is globalized, but one of the frustrations that can complicate the early phase of living abroad is figuring out how to stay in touch with the family and friends you’ve left behind. Avoid the expense of this learning curve by figuring out the telephonic, internet, and snail mail options that are available and what you, as a foreigner, will need in order to establish service. Again, expat forums are a good source of information. If you plan to establish a nomadic lifestyle, consider options that can be portable, moving with you every time you pull up stakes.

Voice over internet phone (VOIP) technology is improving significantly, and a single number and account can keep you in touch with loved ones no matter where you are, minimizing the need to make changes in service and keep your contacts up to date every time you move. One of the biggest VOIP providers is Skype .

7. Making the Move

You’ve defined your expectations, done your homework, and now you’re ready to move. Almost. What are you taking with you and what are you leaving behind? Don’t leave these questions for the last minute. If you are planning to move furniture and other large household items from one country to another, this will require a significantly different level of planning than just moving you and your rucksack.

If you plan to pack up your worldly possessions and ship them abroad to your new home, start planning at least three months in advance. You will need to determine what companies offer shipping service between the originating and destination countries, what their policies are (some require a home visit BEFORE packing to provide an estimate), what their prices and payment options are, whether they are bonded and insured (a critical point- please don’t overlook this!), and what kind of reputation they have.

Again, don’t skimp on this point. Moving companies—especially for international moves—are poorly regulated and it is not infrequent for customers to be scammed, resulting in the loss of money and possessions, as well as precious time. Check the reputation of the companies you’re considering, (another good resource is www.ripoffreport.com or your state’s consumer affairs bureau).

Even if you’re not planning to contract a moving company, decide what you’ll be doing with your possessions: Yard sale? Storage unit? A grand give-away for friends? In any of these scenarios, you’ll need to do a bit of planning to ensure for the appropriate sale / transfer of items that are important to you.

6. Mind Your Money.

Moving is always an expense, even when you’ve planned to do so on a budget. Managing your money during a move is critical. Consider the following: Will you keep a bank account in your home country and/or establish an account in a new country? If the former, determine whether you’ll be able to use your ATM/debit card abroad and what kinds of foreign transaction fees you might incur as a result.

If the latter, you’ll want to know what kinds of documentation and references you’ll need to open an account. You may also want to consider online money management tools, either as a primary or secondary means of managing your money. Paypal is one of the many online money management tools available that can facilitate living abroad (In my own case, my clients pay for my writing, research, and translation services via paypal), but there are many other checking, savings, and transfer services. ING also has online financial services, including savings and money market options.

5. Thinking About the Fine Print.

There’s a lot about moving abroad that’s exciting and fun, but don’t forget about the fine print. All of the responsibilities that you have living in your home country—paying taxes, updating or renewing identification and other documents, and the like—don’t simply disappear once you move to another country. In fact, it’s likely that there will be more fine print with which you’ll need to comply than was ever true before.

Be sure to find out, for example, what the residency requirements are in your new country. Whether you’re staying as a temporary visitor or resident or whether you plan to establish permanent residence or citizenship, you’ll need to know the local requirements and be able to make necessary contacts (such as lawyers and accountants) to comply with them.

Also, if you haven’t fully cut ties with your home country (or if you are still employed by a company within your home country), be sure to consider what your ongoing obligations are in that jurisdiction. Keep your own notes to document your processes; these will come in handy when you renew, extend, or file for residency.

4. Working Abroad.

Maybe your plan is to get a job waiting tables, or maybe you’re in the fortunate position of being able to work online. If neither of these circumstances applies to you, though, you’ll need to think a bit about what kind of job you plan to pursue.

If you’re intending to look for a professional position, you’ll need to have copies of your transcripts and degrees. These may need to be translated by an official translation service. They may also need to be validated in the host country. As with the other tips provided here, the more information you have prepared and ready for dissemination, the better.

3. Contingency Planning

Just because you’re moving doesn’t mean that life’s little emergencies disappear. If you have any medical conditions, require medication, or have any other conditions that will need the attention of a professional, be sure to think about how you’ll get those needs met in your new country. As with the other tips here, the more detailed information that you bring with you (medical history, copy of your medical records, etc.), the more successful you’ll be.

2. Developing a New Network of Friends

Now that you’ve got everything in place, you can relax! But finding a new peer group may be as challenging as some of the other steps in the moving process. It’s likely, if you’re moving abroad, that you speak the language, so that’s a great first step.

Consider what your interests are and look for places and people that reflect those interests and would be a natural place to make new friends. In Mexico, for example, I’ve made new friends at university lectures, in film presentations, at museums, and other cultural events.

1. Pass it On!

Congratulations! Now you’re an expert in international moving. Take your lessons and pass them on. Consider how you can smooth the moving process for someone else by sharing your knowledge. What people and resources helped you along the way? Thank them for their input and add to the information they’ve offered by sharing the knowledge that you’ve acquired through your own experiences.

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