A lot of people dream about moving abroad and what their life might look like there. After living as an expat for almost 5 years now in 8 different countries, I can tell you that everything isn’t a dream all the time! Here’s what life as an expat is really like.
Since you probably can imagine all the good things already, this is my list of harsh truths that will prepare you for the reality of moving and living in a new country.
Of course, I love living abroad, but it comes with its challenges and I think that it’s important to know what to expect!
I’ve sprinkled photos of some of my favorite places along the way to remind you that being an expat is actually awesome, even though these truths are still there!
1. Visas Can Be Really Stressful
Depending on where you choose to live, being able to stay there long-term may be more difficult than you might expect. In fact, although I absolutely loved living in Thailand, I don’t want to move back simply because the visa situation was so stressful for me.
We had to go once a month to extend the visa (which was pretty expensive) and we could only extend it for 3 months before we had to leave the country and re-enter.
However, comparing that to moving to Bali, where we were able to find a company that did our extensions for us and we didn’t have to worry about visas for 6 months.
Start learning a language before you move abroad! I’ve been using italki (I’m taking 3 classes per week right now) for years and it helped me negotiate rent and much more during our move! Try out a class and you’ll thank me later. They’re usually $9 or less!
You may even have to choose the country based on the visa that you would be able to get! A lot of people think you can just pick up and move somewhere, but you can’t just move anywhere!
There’s a lot of paperwork and applications to deal with, and in some countries, you may not be able to come at all.
For example, Germany, France and Spain all have visas that allow you to live there while earning money online. However, Italy doesn’t have a visa like this.
You can’t move there for longer than 3 months without going to school or having a company hire you that is willing to sponsor your visa. In that case, if you lose your job, you lose your visa.
You have to make sure that you move somewhere that allows you to be there long-term without too much of a hassle. (It may sound worth it, but trust me it wears on you after a while!)
Here in France, we got a 1-year renewable visa and hopefully, we are able to renew it this year!
But if we can’t, we have to be okay with the idea that we will need to move again. Back to Vietnam, I guess!
2. Your Family May Never Visit You
When you move abroad, you think about all the people that you care about and how you are excited for them to come and see your new life. But you need to be prepared that they may never come.
You spend thousands of dollars to show up at their front door and do everything you can to see them, but you can’t expect that they will do that in return.
The harsh truth is that you will always be viewed as the one that left, so if you want to see those loved ones you will be the one who has to make the effort.
Of course, some people will book flights and actually come! However, don’t expect that. In fact, expect the opposite. It will protect your feelings and relationships with them while you live abroad.
Instead of feeling bitter that you are putting in more work than they are, just accept that you chose a different path.
It requires you to make the sacrifice of traveling home to see those people you miss when you’re gone!
When I first moved abroad, I invited EVERYONE to come and visit me. But in the almost 3 years that I lived in Southeast Asia, not one person came or even got close to coming.
This made me feel really sad and rejected since I felt like I put in so much work to have them in my life but I didn’t feel like it was mutual.
However, I learned that it’s not about YOU. It’s about the comfort level of the people you love. It still hurts a bit, and that’s okay, but don’t take it out on them. Instead, just understand that this is one of the hardest parts of being an expat.
On the plus side, if you choose to live somewhere that Americans (or wherever you’re from) deem as “cool” then you may get a lot more visitors! lol
When we moved here to Nice, France, all of a sudden so many people were willing to come and visit us.
A part of me felt a little bitter that the trip wasn’t really about visiting me but visiting the place where I lived.
But honestly, that’s okay! It’s their vacation days, so I might as well live somewhere that makes them want to visit me, right?!
Well, truthfully, although I still invite everyone to come visit me, I don’t expect ANYONE to come and that is so much healthier for me. That way, it is an incredible surprise when someone finally does! (:
3. You Might Lose Friends or Your Relationships May Change
You’re deciding to move to another country and become an expat! This is great for you, but most of your family and friends will most likely not understand your decision. Or they might tell you “Oh, I wish I could do that! But I have this..this.. and this..etc.”
It’s kind of complicated to explain how this will make you feel until it happens. But although you are incredibly grateful that you have the opportunity to live overseas, you did not get there by accident.
It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifices that most people would be unwilling to do. You most likely don’t make more money than them, you just choose to spend your money differently.
In a way, this can be hurtful when they say how lucky you are, since luck didn’t really have much to do with it. Instead of going out to eat often, you are eating pasta at home so that you can afford to live where you do.
Although they may think they wish they had your life, that is most likely not the case!
Living abroad is romantic in a LOT of ways, but most people don’t realize that you have to give up a lot of comforts to get there.
That’s the first part of the problem. The second part is that because a lot of people see your life as “perfect” or are jealous of what you’ve decided to do, you will find it much more difficult to talk to people.
All of a sudden, your life is considered “bragging” and talking about what makes you happy may make your friends or family uncomfortable.
You may think this won’t be the case with your friends (I definitely have some friends who are super chill and nothing has changed!) however, you never know how things will work out when it actually happens.
I’ve gotten used to only sharing my stories with certain people while understanding that others would rather not talk about it.
If you want to keep those people in your life, you’ll have to learn to talk about their lives and ask them lots of questions without getting offended that they don’t ask about your travels or life abroad.
At first, this is incredibly sad and may make you feel bitter toward those people, but if you truly want them in your life you’ll figure out how to adjust.
One way to know if you are making them uncomfortable is if you start talking about a recent trip you’ve been on or if you wanted to tell them a funny story about being an expat and they don’t ask you any questions. They will usually just change the subject.
This makes it difficult to stay close to people back at home who may not be totally satisfied with their own lives. Instead, you have way better conversations with random travelers you meet on the road because they aren’t jealous of what you’re saying.
They have stories to tell and places they’ve lived and been and you can swap tales while enjoying each other’s company.
This is a bit of a harsh reality of choosing to live differently than most of the people you know.
4. It Can Be Very Difficult to Make Real Friends Abroad
When you watch TV shows or hear stories of your friends going abroad and they meet tons of cool people, those stories are true. However, did they ever see those people again? If they did, they are one of the few people to ever do that.
The harsh truth of expat life is that friendships are usually very short-lived.
If you are moving constantly, this is definitely true. However, even if you decide to move somewhere and stay there more permanently, that doesn’t mean that the people your age who live there aren’t going to move soon.
Expats are notoriously nomadic (guilty!!) and it can be hard to stay in contact with people you’ve met.
However, something that I’ve really struggled with is having a “best friend” abroad. I have met tons of great people, but no one really beats my best friends back in the USA.
I keep in contact with them and visit when I can, but I worry sometimes that I may never find a friend that I can just talk to about anything.
You need to be prepared that most friendships and relationships may be superficial and it might take a while to find someone that you really enjoy being with and that you can be yourself with.
Also, 2020 isn’t really the best year to find new friends lol.
5. You Can Self-Isolate Very Easily
As an expat, in a new city or country, nobody knows you’re there. If you don’t want to go outside for a week, who is going to stop you?
Of course, this isn’t the case if you need to leave the house for work, but most expats are usually retired or work online.
If you want to be alone, or enjoy being alone, expat life is probably perfect for you. At home, there are always family events and birthdays and parties to go to.
But abroad, all of that becomes extremely optional since there’s no one there to make you do it.
For me, this is much harder than it is for my husband. He has always been very shy and doesn’t love to be around people.
The way I get around feeling too isolated is by staying in close contact with my family and my best friends as well as going to church on Sundays.
6. If You’re a Digital Nomad, Self-Discipline Can Be Really Hard
Working for yourself may sound like an absolute dream come true (it really is) but there is definitely a dark side to it. If you are someone who doesn’t have the ability to self-discipline, this lifestyle might not be for you at all.
As an ex-pat that works from home, I choose when I wake up in the morning, when I start work, when I am done working, etc. I can choose to exercise or I can choose to never leave my house.
Although I still struggle with this and have bad weeks, I have come to realize that going outside at least once a day, exercising daily, and having a set work schedule and a to-do list all help me stay mentally healthy while living abroad.
7.Things Won’t Be Very Convenient (Like They Are at Home)
Obviously, you are used to what life is like where you are from. You know how things work, where to buy groceries, how to get money, where the best restaurants are, etc.
When you are an expat, you have to figure all of that out again, on your own.
And even after you’ve figured all of that out, some things may be so different than what you know that they never really become “convenient” for you.
For example, in most countries, it’s more common to take public transport than it is to own a car. So for us, instead of driving to the grocery store, we usually walk there or take a scooter.
However, we still shop like Americans (meaning that we buy in bulk and usually shop for more than just one week) it’s a LOT to carry!
In Southeast Asia, Jake would be holding all of our groceries and I would drive a very heavy scooter back home. Here in France, we walk to the grocery store and use a roller-bag to carry everything home.
It’s not as convenient or comfortable as piling all the groceries in the car in the USA, and it never will be, but we’ve had to adjust!
8. You Still Have to Worry About Taxes…And They’re More Complicated
Just because you are moving away from your home country, doesn’t meant that you don’t have to worry about taxes anymore. If you’re from the USA, it’s one of the few countries that continues to tax you no matter where you live.
In Spain, if you want to work remotely, you have to pay a pre-paid amount each month no matter how much you make as well as filing in the USA.
Although you’ll have to file in both countries (the USA and wherever you want to move) you will most likely only have to pay taxes to one country.
You definitely have to make sure that you find the right accountant who knows the laws of both countries.
You also need to be aware BEFORE you decide to move somewhere whether there is a reciprocal agreement between your country and that country that makes it so you only have to pay taxes to one country.
Sound complicated? It absolutely is and I still have no idea what I’m doing.
9.You May Feel a Bit Aimless
Once you become an expat, you may start to feel like you don’t know where you belong anymore. At home, you don’t feel like it’s exactly right, and when you’re abroad you miss parts about being at home. Welcome to being an expat!
I absolutely love living abroad and will most likely never move back to the USA because I honestly feel more comfortable abroad. In fact, I’ve spent more time living in France, Vietnam and Chile as an adult than I have living in the USA.
As an expat, you may try moving to a lot of different places to try to find the one that you want to call “home.” But most likely, you’ll be able to find a bit of “home” in each place you go.
For me, Vietnam is a place that I miss very often and I really can’t wait to go back.
I really love my life here in France, but a part of me will always want to live in Vietnam instead.
10. It Can Be Difficult to Grow a Career
Unless you moved abroad with a job already secured, you are most likely going to be working online. This means that any type of career development is completely in your hands.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a problem. For the first few years of being an expat, I was fine with my job at VIPKid.
I was making decent money and able to travel the world and nothing else really mattered then. However, after a few years, I started to crave some kind of progression with my career. Was I going to be an English teacher forever or did I want to do something else?
This led me down a few different paths, one of which is this blog! I knew that I needed to do something that I could grow and invest in that could be mine.
I hoped (and still do!) that this blog could eventually bring in more money than my English teaching job did each month.
As a backup, I started focusing more time on learning languages using Duolingo and iTalki. One day when my blog is more established, I’d like to go back and get my master’s in languages and maybe become a professor of languages when I’m older.
Just having an idea of what my career progression could look like and having specific goals on how to get me there is exactly what I needed. Usually, when you stay in your own country, those steps and promotions are all there and provided for you.
However, as a digital nomad and expat you have to figure this all out for yourself! Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years? Like your own job interview! lol
11. Your College Credits/Degree May Not Transfer
If you’ve started a career in your home country, you need to make sure that you are able to continue that career in the country you’d like to move to. Or risk having to redo some of your schooling!
If I want to do a Master’s in Europe, I will have to willing to take a few extra classes since my Bachelor’s degree isn’t considered complete according to certain schools here in Europe.
Even though I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Spanish Education, I may not be able to be a Spanish teacher here without redoing my Spanish teaching certifications.
12. You May Miss Foods From Home
I have to include this on the list, although it’s definitely one of the more minor things. In order to live abroad, you have to be willing to try new foods!
I was an extremely picky eater before I moved abroad for the first time and I had to learn how to love foods that I never would have tried before.
For some people, this may be more difficult than it sounds. Food is connected to familiarity. When everything is brand new and different, you may feel overwhelmed and crave something that you know.
When we moved to Bali in 2017, it was my second time being an expat, but my first time in Southeast Asia. At first, we tried only eating foods that were cheap and local.
However, since I was just getting used to living in Asia, I felt stressed that with the new food, new culture, and new country.
After a few weeks, the feelings boiled over and we finally decided that eating a few familiar foods from the USA would help us feel less overwhelmed. It cost us a little more money, but Peanut Butter and Mac’n’Cheese once a week helped Bali start to feel a little more like home.
13. Something Crazy Might Happen and You’ll Be Far From Family
Nobody could have guessed that a year like 2020 could happen. As an expat, you have to be aware that in situations like this, you are going to be far from family and may be more lonely than normal.
I would never have called myself “lonely” and still don’t really feel that way since I generally like being alone.
However, I had planned to see my family much more often this year than I have. By the time I see them next, it will have been a year.
Some expats only visit home once a year, but for us, that isn’t often enough. Feeling stuck and stressed about going home and seeing family this year has been hard for us (we have immunosuppressed family members).
This could be the case in a number of situations. What if there is a death in the family or a serious natural disaster?
Are you okay knowing you can’t be close to family in those situations? It’s a tough call and a very personal one.
Life as An Expat: Conclusion
Obviously, for me and Jake, the pros outweigh the cons of living abroad. However, this lifestyle is definitely not for everyone!
Even though I think that everyone who is able to should try living abroad at least once in their life.
You may think that you don’t have the money to live abroad or move abroad, but Jake and I only made $19,000 in total last year while living abroad and we were still able to travel and save money. Truth is, if we lived in the states we wouldn’t be able to afford the travel that we do!
I love my life as an expat, even with all the difficulties!