Moving abroad: 8 tips to help you get settled in a new country
You've done it! You packed your bags, said goodbye to family and friends, and hopped on a plane to live in a brand new country. Congratulations!
When you're up to your elbows in boxes while simultaneously running around getting documents sorted and researching life in your new country, you think "As soon as I finish all this, it will be fine. Things will calm down." And they do, eventually. But after you've moved abroad, you will face some completely new challenges as you try to get settled in your new home, adjust to what may be a totally different way of life, and cope with the distance that now exists between you and your loved ones. It's okay. I've been there.
In my previous guide, I pulled together all my tips for what to do before moving overseas. This one is all about life after emigration. My suggestions are based on what I learned moving from South Africa to Qatar, and the many conversations I've had with expats living both here and abroad.
While your circumstances may be different, depending on your home and destination countries and the length of time you plan to stay there, I hope this guide can help you adjust and survive common pitfalls you may face on your new adventure.
Figure out your hit-the-ground-running priorities
What are the basic things you'll need soon after you land? See if you can get started on them early. Maybe you can research what you'll need to open a bank account and get your documents in order, so you can head to the bank or apply online just after you arrive.
You'll need to get a local SIM card too -- can you pick up a pay-as-you-go one anywhere or do you need to locate a physical branch and show some ID? Is there a grocery store nearby where you can pick up some pantry basics, or a takeaway place that can ensure you won't starve?
As someone who almost missed the payment cut off for her first pay cheque because she was still getting all the right paperwork for the bank, let me tell you: getting these things sorted first will save you from so many headaches down the line. Be clear on the real necessities upfront. You can spend all day unpacking boxes, catching up with friends or exploring your new city later, once you've got the basics tied up in a bow.
Make real plans to keep in touch
When you can casually pop across to your best friend's house for tea and a chat on any random Sunday, you don't need to work as hard to maintain relationships. When you're halfway across the world (and possibly in different time zones), it's something that requires more thought.
As soon as you feel like you have some kind of regular routine in your new country, chat to your friends and family about scheduling Skype or Facetime dates. You may not feel like it's necessary if you've only been gone a few weeks, but if you leave it too long you will need to do a major catch up every time you talk just to be on the same page again. Set up a reminder on your phone or better yet, send them a calendar request for a weekly, fortnightly or monthly chat.
On top of that, try to keep them updated with your day to day life with quick videos or photos of what you did on the weekend or that weird thing you saw in the shops, and encourage them to do the same with you. Some people assume that updating their social media accounts is enough, but people can miss posts with all the algorithms swirling away behind your feed, so sending quick WhatsApp blasts or iMessages can be more conversational and direct.
Find a community
This is probably not the first thing you'll worry about, but after a few months have passed and all your new-move admin is over, it's worth spending some time connecting with new people. While it's tempting to spend your weekends calling your family and flicking through your friends' Instagrams of life in your old home, you need to meet people where you are now.
You can start out small, don't worry. There are numerous Facebook groups for people living abroad, probably even people from your home country (South Africans in Qatar, Canadians in London, etc) that are a great resource for common questions and potential new friends.
Find a Meetup.com group you can join that fits your interests, from book clubs to hiking expeditions. Bake some brownies and take them over to your neighbours to introduce yourself, or find a group fitness class or community activity you can help out with.
Your new-in-town status is an easy way to start a conversation and to encourage people to show you their favourite coffee shop or give you tips on everything from good hairdressers to fun weekend road trips. Use it.
Invite family and friends to visit... soon
Once you are reasonably settled and have spent a few months getting to know your new city, give family and friends a very clear invitation to come visit you. This may not be an option for some, depending on the distance, visa admin and costs involved, but it's worth at least letting them know they're welcome.
If you have space for them to stay, tell them that your couch or spare room is ready and waiting. If not, research suitable hotels or Airbnbs, offer to cook them meals, make a must-see itinerary or take them to/from the airport to make things easier and nudge them along.
Playing tour guide and showing family and friends your new home is a wonderful experience, so try to encourage visits as often as you can. Your visitors get a holiday and a much more nuanced understanding of your new life (more than they ever could via Skype or the occassional photo). And you get to see your city like a tourist again and receive a gentle reminder of how amazing it is to have the opportunity to live abroad. Win-win!
Plan your visits home carefully
When you're living abroad, trips home are important opportunities to catch up and see most (if not all) of your favourite people in one place. But they can also be contentious events if they are infrequent, or you have loved ones in multiple cities and you won't be able to see all of them in one trip.
Try to be sensitive when planning your trips home to avoid disappointments and frustration, but also make your position clear to family and friends. Visiting your home country is usually expensive, difficult to plan around school breaks or major holidays, and requires time off approvals and advanced bookings. This may mean you end up spending way less time with everyone than you'd like.
This is unfortunately just part of expat life, and takes some getting used to. You can try to mitigate the issue by planning your visits in advance around major events (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) and letting everyone know early so they can clear their own schedules to see you.
Even if you can manage it, it's not always a good idea to go home too often. In addition to the financial burden, visiting too frequently usually breeds more homesickness and uses up time you could have put towards bonding with your new country, or even exploring brand new destinations. Try to explain this as clearly and gently as you can to avoid hurt feelings if you don't (or can't) come home every time you have an extra day off.
Visit places that remind you of home
Moving abroad is not as carefree and easy as it seems from the outside, and there will be times where you feel overwhelmed or homesick. Depending on the level of culture shock, language difficulties, and environmental shifts from your home country to your new one, these episodes may be occasional or very frequent. On those days, it can help to get away from all the newness and retreat to a space that feels familiar.
This space will be different for everyone - it may be your home, if you've been able to bring decor and furniture along with you. Maybe it's a coffee shop that reminds you of your previous local hangout, or a park that feels like a picnic spot near your old house. It could be something as small as your favourite brand of tea, brewed in a much-loved mug that you brought along in your hand luggage. Use these familiar places, tastes, and smells to ground and comfort you on the bad days.
Find the beauty in your new country
Yes, it's a stereotype - but let me tell you, the bitter expat is real. The tendency to complain (either about your new country or your previous one) seems to get to a lot of people. Everyone has their off days when the differences between old home and new home get too much, and that's okay. But if you go in with a negative mindset, it can really impact your experiences and your mood, rubbing off on to the people you speak to and colouring the places you see.
If you're finding the move difficult and are struggling to stay positive, try to find a few things you appreciate about your new country and focus on those rather than how "things aren't like this at home". Of course they're not. You're trying something new, and naturally, not everything is the same.
There must be benefits to your new country too. Is there a traditional meal you love? A scenic view? A different approach to life you admire? Keep those in mind when you feel the comparison trap drawing you in.
Take it one step at a time
Moving to a new city and changing jobs, both qualify as "major life changes", and chances are you're doing both at once. Don't set unrealistic expectations for yourself - you probably won't have your new driver's license and health card, a perfect apartment, three new friends and a fantastic career opportunity the day you arrive. That's okay.
At the beginning, it will be stressful and exciting. You probably won't know the city very well and everything will be new and challenging. Things you'd taken for granted - like what brand of cereal to buy or what side of the road to drive on - will be thrown into chaos and you'll need to learn new systems and create new routines. You will get through it, trust me.
After a few months, you'll have found your new favourite brunch spot and running route and the initial fresh-off-the-plane high will fade. You'll have average days and bad days. You'll make mistakes and get frustrated. You'll miss home and wonder if you're doing the right thing.
Don't give up too soon. When I first moved overseas, my days were filled with trips to random government departments and I spent so much time figuring out how to do the most basic things I didn't have to think twice about back home. Six months later, life seemed less intense but still strange. After a year, I had adjusted to the new normal.
It takes time, and accepting that fact and being kind to yourself helps enormously. Remember why you started this journey and try to focus on making progress, not attaining every goal immediately. You'll get there.
Have you lived abroad? What tips do you have to help new expats as they try to settle in? Let me know in the comments!