Relocating to a new country is a huge undertaking. Even if you are a seasoned traveler, like me, living as an expat is a whole new ball game. From overpacking to shying away from complicated bureaucracy, there’s a long list of common mistakes every expat makes. Here’s our guide to how to become an expat and how to avoid basic mistakes, so you can get straight into living your idyllic mistake-free life abroad.
1. Not learning the language
From making friends to understanding your work or rental contract, having a decent grasp of the native language is fundamental. Dig out those high school textbooks or find an audiobook course and get prepared before you move.
2. Not even attempting to speak the language
Learning is often the easiest part, it’s finding the confidence to speak it when you’re there that’s the problem. The quicker you get over your embarrassment of having conversations riddled with mistakes the better. Especially as there’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all made the awkward language faux pas. I once thought my dance teacher said not to fart, when actually he said not to get discouraged. It’s a perilously subtle pronunciation difference in Italian.
Unless you’re moving to the middle of the desert, your new home will have shops. It’s tempting to pack five bottles of your favorite shampoo, coat hangers, and a six-month supply of underwear, but actually finding local versions of your regular products is part of making your new country your home.
4. Acting like a traveler, not a resident
Living abroad is not just long-term travel. You should find and frequent a local bar, get to know shop owners, find out where you can source your favorite foods, etc. Essentially you shouldn’t feel like you are just getting by, you should be comfortable.
5. Getting overwhelmed by the bureaucracy
It’s hard enough in your own language, so legal jargon and mountains of foreign paperwork can seem overwhelming. However, this shouldn’t stop you doing essential admin when you first arrive like making sure you are legally registered as a resident or that you have a local doctor. Try to contact expats already living there or find online forums and ask for advice about the process.
6. Not understanding the medical system
On a similar note, it’s crucial to know where you stand with healthcare. Make sure you know your legal position as a foreigner, that you are fully registered in the system, that you know if you have to pay fees, and that you know how to access any medicines or treatments you need regularly.
7. Letting employers take advantage of you
You need a job from the beginning, even when your language skills are not good. Don’t let this mean you accept poor wages or don’t understand the system of payment. Get everything written out for you so you can take it away and translate.
8. Relying too much on your local partner
It’s very tempting to use them as a crutch to deal with all the mind-boggling bureaucracy and, well, anything remotely complicated in their language. To a certain extent, it’s fine. When people start talking about taxes and national contributions my brain just switches off. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll always need some help there. But you should try to do as much as possible on your own to be in control of your situation abroad.
9. Only making English-speaking and expat friends
In the beginning, you may feel like your conversations in the native language are embarrassingly simplified because you can only use the present tense, but persevere. Say yes to invitations even if you know you’ll be totally lost in discussions. Just show your intention of friendship by buying lots of drinks and cooking for people. Sticky toffee pudding has forged some of my strongest friendships here.
10. Making no expat friends
You will certainly need regular rants about the way things are in your new country — they don’t know how to queue, timetables are merely guidelines, their administrative systems feel like they’re from the ’60s — but often home friends don’t quite get it. Find another (not too) bitter expat to moan to and then remind each other that actually, your life is pretty great.
11. Neglecting your native language
Write, read classic literature, watch serious TV programmes. You’ll find, otherwise, your English gradually becomes simplified and cleansed of colloquial or poetic expressions.
12. Thinking you won’t change
Maybe you find yourself disagreeing with your life-long friend from home, or starting to favor a different political viewpoint. When you move abroad you meet people who were brought up differently from you, you experience new political and economic situations, and discover values you’ve never held. You may find your ideas changing, and that you start to drift away from friends from home. You are learning and growing, it’s a good thing.
13. Stereotyping the culture
Another reason not to make only expat friends is the tendency to start an “us” and “them: mentality. It may start as a joke but if you constantly simplify the local culture down into quirks and stereotypes you’ll find you’re just making yourself an outsider. Delve into the culture and discover the parts tourists and travelers don’t find when they’re just passing through.
14. Not realizing there is such a thing as reverse culture shock
After four years of living in Italy, when I now return home I see how much I’ve become used to the Italian lifestyle. I can’t eat savory things for breakfast, I have to bite my tongue when people mispronounce “bruschetta” or say “cappuccinos,” I flinch when people greet me with a hug not a kiss on the cheek. It’s disconcerting, suddenly you’re not 100% at home in either country, home or abroad. After a while, though, you realize it’s not actually a bad thing. It makes you the most interesting person at a party, anyway.
A version of this article was previously published on March 15, 2015, and was updated on March 16, 2022.