You have chosen an expat life and it’s going to be awesome!
Your future is full of opportunity. You have the chance to have an amazing adventure. You KNOW you’ve made a great decision.
On the other hand, there are so many options for travel and new experiences you might feel overwhelmed.
Moving to a new country is a HUGE DEAL. You’re probably feeling a bit nervous about settling in, helping the kids cope with the change and finding your own tribe.
And when work and real life start to ramp up, it’s easy to find yourself firefighting, trying to make sense of an unfamiliar place well enough to live in it.
Take a moment to consider what it is you want to get out of your time in this country. Have a look at our seven steps to settling into your expat life.
Step 1: Grow your tribe
You’ve just arrived in your new country.
You’ve probably got boxes to unpack, or you might be living out of a suitcase.
What’s your first priority?
(I’ll let you in on a secret – it has NOTHING to do with your boxes.)
Priority number 1 (and 2 and 3) is to start growing your tribe. Ignore the boxes, get out there and MEET PEOPLE.
Say YES! to every single invitation.
Think about your interests (sports, art, books, whatever) and search up clubs, associations, and groups where you can do what you love and meet some like-minded people.
If you have shared facilities where you live such as a pool or garden, hang out there. Start visiting local cafes and bars regularly. Book yourself on some guided tours.
Use the energy of your settling in period to meet as many people as you can because it’s the friendships you’ll make in your new home that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Step 2: Get to know your new home like a local
Don’t be the person who finds a good coffee place, a few nice restaurants, a couple of tourist spots and leaves it at that.
While you’re still new and excited, get a map and a good guidebook and get to know your home like a local.
Divide the map into sections and go see them one by one.
You’ll find you fall in love with the most unlikely bits of your new home, and at the same time you’re picking up knowledge about where to find things you need, cool places to hang out, or even, the places you’d prefer to avoid in future.
Step 3: Embrace the food, the language, and the culture
Living in a foreign country is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a completely different culture.
When you’re on holiday for a couple of weeks you can only scratch the surface. As an expat, you have the chance to really get to know about the way people live, what they believe in, and how they think.
You’re unlikely to want to embrace all the traditions, but you might find some that you like and you’ll find yourself assimilating them into your life.
Take a cooking class, or check out the places where the locals like to eat.
Try to pick up at least the fundamentals of the language. People are generally much more willing to let you in if they see you are trying to learn their language. It will also make you feel less like a tourist.
Find out about local traditions and join in with celebrations. This is what expat life is all about!
Step 4: Live a real life
Try not to think about how long you’re staying.
Even if your contract is short term, pretend it’s forever as this will enable you to put down roots, form proper relationships and make the most of the here and now.
This means you need to live a real life, not be on a holding strategy.
Work out where to find the things you need in your new country rather than getting them sent from home. Consider what it is that you love to do with your leisure time and find a way of doing it. Make some career goals and work towards achieving them. Find a local doctor, convert your license, work out how to do your food shopping online.
Do whatever you would be doing at home if you were living a normal life, but with a touch of expat sparkle!
Step 5: Make a real home
In the same way, it’s important to make a real home.
Unpack your boxes, store your suitcases, put pictures on the walls. Look for expat Facebook groups where furniture is sold on or go to an auction. If all else fails, there’s always Ikea!
It’s important to make a home as this will enable you to feel like you are living a real life rather than on vacation.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it isn’t worth buying furniture or putting up pictures. Sure, you’ll have to sell it on later and fill a few holes in, but in the meantime, that new sofa will have made you comfortable. However long your expat posting is, it’s worth it.
(Also – you know that 2-year contract? It might well be 3, or 5 or 10 years. Put some pictures up.)
Step 6: Keep up with your friends from home
We live at a very fortunate time for expats.
We have multiple ways to keep in touch with our friends and families, and cheap air travel means we can get home more often than we would have in the past. The world is a much smaller place.
Make sure you take full advantage of What’s App, Skype, and social media and put some effort into keeping your friendships alive.
Although it’s extremely important to find a tribe in your new location, your friends and family back home are the people with whom you have a shared history, and they know you best.
If you’re feeling homesick, or a little jealous that life is carrying on without you, it can be tempting to distance yourself. If you do, you’ll regret it, so take a deep breath and make the call. You’ll be glad you did.
Step 7: Anticipate culture shock
After the first few weeks, when the vacation feeling starts to wear off, you might start to feel irritation and frustration with your new home. It may take longer to do simple tasks such as shopping. You might feel overwhelmed by how much you don’t know about living a normal life in an unfamiliar country.
Don’t worry, this is “culture shock” and it is entirely normal. You’re going through the same process that thousands of expats have gone through before. Read our guide to culture shock, and get some tips on how to cope.
Who knows what the future holds?
Maybe you have control over that, maybe you don’t. This might be your only expat experience, or it might be one of many.
The only thing you can influence right now is the life you are living. Next month, year or when you retire, you want to be able to look back at this experience and remember the friends you made, the trips you took, the home you created. You want to be proud of the fact you immersed yourself in the culture, learned some of the language and adopted snippets of foreign traditions into your own life. You want to be glad you were brave enough to pursue your dreams.
So get out there and do it.