Moving abroad: 10 things to do before you leave

Moving abroad: 10 things to do before you leave

So, you're thinking about moving abroad huh? Whether it's the anticipation of new opportunities or the potential for adventure, there's something intoxicating about picking up your life and transplanting yourself somewhere across the globe.

But before you say your goodbyes and pack your bags, you're faced with a seemingly-never ending to do list. So, what exactly do you have to do before moving overseas?

Whether you're in the should-I-shouldn't-I stage or have already accepted a job or other offer abroad, I hope this guide will make your transition just a little bit smoother. It's based on what I learned while moving from my home country (South Africa) to Qatar, and while every nation and city has its own quirks and challenges, I hope these tips can help wherever you're from or travelling to. 

This is the first in a two part series on moving abroad, and focuses on the more practical tips and actions you can take to help you prepare for expat life. The second part is all about getting settled and surviving the transition.

Ready to begin? 

Make the decision and commit to it

It seems like such a simple step, but it's often the one that takes the most mental energy and emotional wrestling: should you go? Where should you go? And when? 

While there are many reasons for moving abroad (and some moves are more out of necessity than curiosity), the earlier you can start preparing yourself mentally for the shift, the better. Once you've made the choice to leave, everything else flows so much more easily. Yes, even if you've made the decision, you still have to take the practical steps to legally and physically get yourself to wherever you're going, but you've got a goal to work towards. You've cleared hurdle one.

  • Make up a deadline. You don't need to have a specific date (a month, year or season will do, depending on how far in advance you're planning), but you need a marker.
  • Once you've made the decision, live it. For some people, this may involve telling family and friends, getting their debts settled or starting to save. Others may be more drastic and do things like quit their job or sell their house. For me, it was choosing not to renew the lease on my apartment - I knew I could easily stay another year, and if I did, I would probably never leave. Find a way to signal to yourself and others that you're really, really leaving and need to start preparing for the change. 

Start clearing out your home

Yes, this is second on the list, because the earlier you start cleaning out your cupboards, the easier it is. Don't wait until a few weeks before you leave the country - start as soon as you can.

If you do this early, you'll be in a much better position when you finally have to move and pack up all the remaining items. It will also save you additional stress just before your departure date, when you're likely to be more focused on saying goodbye and wrapping up the legal logistics. 

  • Donate, recycle or throw out anything you don't love, that you don't want to keep in storage, that you can't take with you or that you won't use. Sell anything you can live without or can't send overseas.

Research absolutely everything

Happy to jump on a plane and figure it all out when you get there? That's great - you can skip this section. If, however, you would like to save yourself a ton of hassle, wasted money and possible crying fits, you should find out as much as you can about where you're going. 

  • Start researching the basics about your new home, including the currency, languages spoken, general history, local food and the layout of the country and city you want to live in.
  • Then get more specific with your research: find stories about what it's like to live there (blogs, forums and Reddit are good for this) and what your life would be like. What suburbs would be good to live in? Where would you do your grocery shopping? What is the public transport situation like? Do they have the artisan coffee shops you like so much, or a sports club you can join? Once you get a basic understanding of what your day-to-day life would involve, it's easier to picture yourself there.
  • Find out the names of local telecom providers and banks - you can even research some of the options and application requirements, so you know what's needed to get a SIM card or bank account.
  • If you want one, try to get a general sense of what is needed to get a drivers license (can you convert your existing one?) or sign a lease (how much will a room/house cost, and what documents do you usually need to provide?).
  • If you need a visa, find out what is needed to apply for one and what you can do with it (how long you can stay, what the conditions are, etc.). 
  • If you can visit the country or city before you move to see what it is like for yourself, do it!
  • If you can find one, join a Facebook group for expats in your destination, so you can get advice from people who have gone through it all before. If there is one for people from your home country who now live there, that's even better.

Okay. Take a deep breath. I know it's a bit overwhelming. Depending on where you're going, there may be tons of helpful guides, or very little information about the specific province or town you're moving to. Just try your best to get a sense of the place, so you have a better idea of what you'll need to do when you arrive, and what documents you should organise before you leave. 

Thinking about moving abroad and wondering what exactly do you have to do before you go? Here are some practical tips, advice and strategies to help you prepare for the change.

Save more money than you think you need

If you're headed over to another country with very little cash, or moving from a country with a weaker currency, the time until your first paycheck can be a serious struggle. Remember, even if you start a job the day you land, you won't get paid immediately and will need to get through on your savings for a bit.

  • Prepare for costs linked to leaving your current location (think penalty fees for canceling memberships, visas, costs for certifying legal documents, etc). You may also want to pay for shipping or extra luggage on your flight, so you can take more of your possessions with you when you go.
  • Anticipate some startup costs. Even if you're walking off the plane into a friend's guest room or provided accommodation, you may still need to pay for things such as transport to government departments or job interviews, food, SIM card activation fees and airtime, etc. 
  • Depending on your situation, you may be able to make sure you have enough cash to get you through by doing things like selling your furniture or car, or staying with family for a few months to cut down on rent.
  • If you have space in your luggage, consider stocking up on the basic things you'll need to get you through your first few weeks (especially if they're cheaper at home), such as toiletries, snacks and appropriate work or job interview clothes.

Get your documents in order

Otherwise known as 'The Boring Paper Quest', getting your documents ready is an important (but sometimes tedious and frustrating) part of emigrating. The requirements will be different depending on where you're headed and what type of visa or permit you will need, but chances are you will need some basics. 

  • Your passport is number one, so make sure it isn't expiring soon and you have some blank visa pages.
  • Some countries may also require police clearance certificates, bank statements, driving licenses, your travel history and copies of your degree/s and university transcripts. Sometimes they require them to be attested (notarised or certified) by their embassy in your country, to prove that they are legitimate.
  • Try to factor in extra time for getting the paperwork done, as it can take a few weeks (especially if you have to send your documents to an embassy in another town) and you don't want to have to delay your departure while you wait. If you can afford it, hiring a trustworthy company which specialises in emigration documents can be a huge stress-reliever at this stage.
  • It's also a good idea to make sure that you have the original and certified copies of any important documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc.) that you may need.
  • Your will (if you have one) may need to be updated and adjusted so that it is still valid in your new country. If you don't have one, it's something you should look into before you go. 
  • I also highly recommend getting some passport-style photos taken before you leave. They're likely to be needed for ID and membership cards on the other side, and you don't want to have to track down a photo store just after you arrive in a new city. 

Give notice and prepare to cut ties

You probably won't realize how many memberships and subscriptions you have signed up for until you start trying to get out of them. As I mentioned earlier, you may also have some sneaky extra costs waiting for you if you try to get out of certain memberships early. 

  • Go through your bank statements and debit orders and start canceling anything you won't need in your new home. Car and home insurance, medical aid, magazine subscriptions, cellphone contracts, car payments, gym memberships, some app subscriptions... they all need to be wrapped up.
  • At the same time, check the password recovery and contact details for accounts and online services you will continue to use abroad. When you try to log in from another country, some services (social media, email, etc) will be suspicious and will send a text message to your phone to validate that it really is you. If you're not using the same phone number, you won't get the SMS and may not be able to access them. Either change the number to that of a friend or family member back home who can still reach you, or make sure you have roaming enabled on your local SIM card after your move. You can switch everything over to your new number once you have settled in.
  • Depending on your situation and bank regulations, you may need to advise your bank that you will be travelling and activate your debit / credit card for use overseas. If you are moving permanently, you can also opt to close your bank account entirely and transfer funds into a travel cash card you can use until you have a new bank account and card abroad. 

Say goodbye to people and places

In the midst of all the admin, don't forget to pause and take stock of where you still are. In a few months, you'll reminisce about all sorts of things you rarely even think about at the moment. I suggest drawing up a list of your favourite places and activities and trying to do as much as possible before you leave.

  • Go for a walk around your favourite neighbourhood or visit your corner coffee shop one more time. If there is something you've been meaning to see or do in your city, now is the time. Whether it's a popular tourist trap you've avoided or a new restaurant everyone has been raving about, make sure you give your home a good send off.
  • Of course, taking time to say goodbye to family and friends is important too, but sometimes a bit more difficult if they don't live nearby. If you can, try to schedule a last visit or meetup before you head out. 
Thinking about moving abroad and wondering what exactly do you have to do before you go? Here are some practical tips, advice and strategies to help you prepare for the change.

Gather objects that remind you of home

As you start to pack up your life into boxes or bags, set aside things that remind you of home or have sentimental value. Yes, you're probably going to have to adhere to weight and size restrictions on your journey, but there may be small, light souvenirs you can take with you.

When you reach your destination country, you will be in a world of new -- new sounds, sights, smells, routines, streets, accents and food. Having something with you that reminds you of home can be a comforting anchor in your new space. 

  • Think about what could help you bridge the gap from old to new. Maybe it's a throw pillow that sat in your living room in your old home, or your favourite coffee mug or brand of tea. Photo frames, ornaments, and artwork are also light weight and easy to wrap up in your suitcase and take with you. Keep them in a safe spot until you make your journey abroad. 

Prepare your packing list

Most of the people I know who have ventured abroad have had to pack their possessions into a bag that meets airline limits. If you're flying economy class (like most of the world), that will be a weight limit of around 30kg (66lb). Your life. In 30kg. This is not the time to chuck things in a bag on the night before the flight! 

  • When you're trying to work out what should and shouldn't go in the bag, draw on your earlier research. Pack clothing that will suit the climate you're moving to, and if it comes down to it, give preference to clothes that can be worn in the season you will experience first. You can always buy more clothes later in the year. Apparel that can be worn in multiple seasons and work in a range of outfits is a safe bet too. Wear your heaviest items on the plane.
  • Consider investing in super lightweight luggage if you can afford to upgrade your kit. Some suitcases can weigh 6-8kg when empty - you don't want to use up your allowance with that.

Accept that there may be setbacks

What you are about to do is big. You're moving house and saying goodbye to a place and people you know. You're probably also leaving your job or starting a new one. Any one of those things would be challenging to go through. All at once, they can be terrifying. But millions of people have survived, and so can you. 

  • Try to accept that there will be situations and consequences beyond your control. Maybe you won't be able to get out of your lease easily, or find a buyer for your car. Maybe it will take longer than you thought to find a job, or for the paperwork to come through.

There may be tough days where you question whether you're doing the right thing, or when you want to give up and just do the easier thing and stay.

Expect that there will be some bumps in the road, accept them and above all, try to be gentle with yourself. You're standing on the brink of a great adventure, and you will get through all the challenges in the end. 

Have you moved overseas? What tips do you have for first time expats preparing to make the transition? Let me know in the comments!

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Thinking about moving abroad and wondering what exactly do you have to do before you go? Here are some practical tips, advice and strategies to help you prepare for the change.
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