12 Experts On How To Become An Expat Without Stressing Out

01/17/2021

Nomadic FIRE How To Become An

If you have read any of my recent press coverage, you know that I'm a big believer in the benefits of expat life. Living internationally was the primary financial tool allowing me to hit a seven-figure net worth in 2020.

You can move to another country for an entire year for less cost than living in the US for just a few months. Becoming an expat can upgrade your quality of life, a nicer apartment, more frequent meals out, and a more active social life for less than you probably pay for rent in the US.

Moving abroad for a better life in another country isn't a radical or crazy idea. Nine million American expats have packed their bags and moved to a different country as retirees, digital nomads, or overseas workers. Globalization, technology, and remote work make it easier than ever to live and work in another country.

Many of my articles talk about the "concrete" steps of how to become an expat: How to get a visa, How to pack for a move, How to ship a car. But moving abroad is not without trade-offs. 

Living in another country can be a mentally and emotionally stressful experience. This post focuses on the obstacles of becoming an expat. You'll find answers to common expat challenges, including:

  • How important is it to learn a new language?
  • How to reduce the cost of moving abroad?
  • How to make friends?
  • How do I fit in living in a foreign land?

I interviewed 12 expats who have lived in 22 different countries, with over 100 years of combined expat experience. These expats reveal their tips for traveling abroad for the first time, breaking down the challenges they faced living internationally and sharing their essential steps on How To Become An Expat. If you are considering expat life, you've come to the right place for experienced advice. Still have questions about how to move to another country? Leave a comment below, and I'll set you up with the right expat to get the information you need.

How to build up the courage to move to another country?

When it came to moving abroad, my biggest challenge was to actually go through with the decision…perhaps a fear of abandoning my home, not seeing my family, or getting married abroad and never coming back (this is literally what happened in the end, but I don't regret it!)

Another major factor was that I often found myself in relationships at home, but my partner didn't want to or wasn't in a life situation that allowed for moving abroad.

Nick Kembel- CanadIan living in taiwan- expat 11 years

Whether it's the start of a new life, a significant career move, or just a new adventure, moving overseas is a HUGE step. Getting on a plane and starting life in another country doesn't happen without some stress. Major changes usually come with major potential complications.

Change is hard. Change is scary. Change has risk. I get it. But sticking with the status quo runs the risk of stagnating; Stuck in the same daily grind of sleep, commute, work, commute, home, repeat.

What we fear is mostly in our heads. Remember, 9,000,000 Americans live abroad. We wouldn't be doing it if the juice wasn't worth the squeeze.

Nomadic FIRE Fear Does Not Exist Pinterest
Nomadic FIRE Nick Kembel Taiwan Pinterest

"Thus it comes as no major surprise that it was ultimately a breakup in Canada that sparked my rather sudden decision to bite the bullet and leave home to move abroad to Taiwan. It was, of course, the best decision I ever made. I ended up totally falling in love with Taiwan

― NICK KEMBEL

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How To live abroad only speaking English?

I moved to China first...I lived in a smaller town and the biggest challenge was, of course, the language. And the symbols: not being able to tell a barbershop from a restaurant by looking at the symbols on their doors was quite challenging.

Marco Ferrarese- ITALIAN LIVING IN PENANG, MALAYSIA- expat 14 years

Don't let language be the reason not to move to another country

I struggle with languages. My Austrian girlfriend speaks two fluently and one conversationally. I'm secretly bitter. My inability is pathetic, given I didn't grow up speaking English.

There are 7,117 languages spoken in the world. Most of us only know one. At the same time, if you are only going to know one language as an expat, English is arguable the best one.

In most big cities, you'll get by with English just fine. Even in countries, you wouldn't immediately think about, like Malaysia, Singapore, or the Philippines, English is widely spoken.

I've happily lived in 10+ countries outside the US, none of which English was the native language. It's NEVER been an insurmountable issue. There will be some challenges: I ate fish, thinking I was ordering eggplant in Bulgaria. I literally ate ass (anus meat) in Peru. But nothing that would mentally break you or overly frustrate you for more than a day.

The more significant but not terrible challenge is when the written language is not even in Latin letters, so trying to read signs or menus is difficult. Bulgarian Cyrillic or Cambodian Khmer as an example. For an even more fun twist, you can try Myanmar, where they even write numbers differently.

Learn the Essentials

I've been living abroad for 6+ years, and I regrettably and shamefully admit to only speaking English fluently. Do I have an issue living abroad? No. However, life is much easier if you have at least "survival" level local language skills.

  • Numbers to understand when people give you prices.
  • Directions for when you are inevitably lost and need a local to help guide you home
  • Descriptions of food, because when eating, knowing the words for chicken, beef, pork, and vegetable make ordering food more manageable. (see story above about me eating ass)

Full immersion is the quickest way to learn a foreign language.

Once you move to a new country, you'll surprise yourself how quickly you hit survival level fluency. Being surrounded by a new language all day forces comprehension.

Nomadic FIRE Marco Avatar

 INSIDER TIP : Use Netflix as a learning tool (Time to binge Tiger King in Spanish). Use a VPN to load Netflix in another language while showing English subtitles to start building an ear for the way the language sounds. You can use the video as clues to aid comprehension. Following a plot over a whole season, where shows use the same phrases repeatedly, can help build and confirm vocabulary.

Nomadic FIRE Marco Ferrarese Malaysia Pinterest

"By the time I arrived in Penang, where English is largely spoken, I also had picked up enough Mandarin to get by and, at least, understand a menu and buy bus and train tickets, but it wasn't really necessary.

― MARCO FERRARESE

Nomadic FIRE Tips For First Time Expats ebook cover

FREE BONUS CONTENT FOR FIRST TIME EXPATS

Our experts share their #1 "Need To Know" Tip for anyone considering moving abroad for the first time. Avoid the "gotchas" that you don't think about when planning for the first time.

"For example, I could have known that I should come to Taiwan in the first six months of the year to avoid higher taxes (this mistake ended up costing me thousands of dollars)." - Nick

How do I figure out what I can eat?

My biggest challenge after moving abroad was food. For certain countries, food IS culture.

This is especially true in Asian countries, which tend to have distinct, heavily spiced, and flavored cuisines that can challenge the western palate. You can choose to avoid the local food and cook at home, but eating foreign food while out or ordering it in will drain your wallet.

Katerina Grujik- MACEDONIAN LIVING IN CHINA- expat 12 years

Take small steps and find you favorite local dishes

If the local food is entirely different than what you are used to, start slow. Take a cooking class to learn how local food is made, what meats are eaten, and what spices are used. Many cooking classes also give you an invaluable tour of the local markets. This intro helps with understanding how markets work in your new country.

Start with the easy stuff first. You don't have to eat the fermented duck embryo sold on the side of the road your first day. Check out the section in the article about making friends in the expat community. Use that network to find "rookie" versions of local cuisine.

"If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. " 

― Anthony Bourdain

Push yourself a tiny bit out of your comfort zone. Don't focus on the fact the grocery store doesn't carry your favorite cookies. Focus on the exotic fruit you've never seen in the US. Or try cooking with a local spice that you have never tasted before. Work your way up the chain until you are asking the locals where they like to eat.

It's ok if you are intimidated at first. Don't feel like you are cheating if you end up eating at a familiar Italian restaurant five times a week at first. But it's equally crucial for you to start finding local substitutes of your home favorites. Not only to break out of your comfort zone, but because living in a foreign country, but trying to live like you are still back home is expensive.

Nomadic FIRE Katerina Grujik China Pinterest

"It took me almost ten years to try certain local dishes, but I feel like a new food world has opened for me.

I am proud to say that during this time of Corona quarantine, we've been cooking different cuisines every day.

― KATERINA GRUJIK

How can I stay on budget when moving to another country?

The biggest challenge in moving abroad for us was our mindset. We were thinking like Americans instead of expats adapting to a new country, culture, and language. This kind of thinking cost us some money because we were living like Americans in Mexico. The difference is we weren't living like locals and shopping at local markets. We were living like Americans taking taxis instead of collectivos, and overpaying for items.

Corritta Lewis- AMERICAN FAMILY LIVING IN Mexico- expat 1 year

Be Flexible with Your Lifestyle and Habits

American expat life will be more expensive than living in the US if you let it. Completely replicating your lifestyle from the US (your favorite chocolate, your specific shampoo, only eating western foods, drinking imported wine) will strain your budget living abroad.

Beware of the "Expat Tax"

Be especially careful in "working expat destinations" like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Dubai, where many foreigners get transferred for their expat jobs on hefty corporate salaries of $200,000 or more. The convenience of living in these expat communities comes with a price.

Being surrounded by other foreigners, many of who probably speak your language is comfortable. The apartments tend to have nicer amenities (pools, gyms, security) and are closer to shopping areas, restaurants, and nightlife. However, you will pay for the privilege of having a trendy address. Prices can be 4X compared to local housing.

Charmaine, Expat 6 Years

"I lived in expensive cities, and it wasn't easy to find accommodation that did not cost an arm and a leg. Since these cities cater to expats with a very lucrative package, it was challenging to find something to fit into my 'local' budget."

The biggest myth of the living in another country

Becoming an expat can provide a better standard of living abroad than living in the US (geoarbitrage). The great misconception is that your expat experience will be the exact same lifestyle you enjoyed back home.

I breakdown the financial advantages and the affordable cost of expat life in my article on geoarbitrage . Here is an example chart showing how I save ~$20,000 per year living overseas.

Spending

Comparison

Average American

Marco Living Abroad

HOUSING

$963

$450

TRANSPORTATION

$862

$38

HEALTHCARE

$353

$89

Total Saved

$2,178

$577

Cost Savings = $1,600+ per month over 70% Lower Cost of Living

But what the chart doesn't show are examples where you need to be flexible.

  • Imported wines, chocolates, or electronics at 3x the price in the US

Jackie, Expat 2 Years

"One thing that we appreciated having on-hand were US snacks such as Ghirardelli chocolates and Jelly Belly jelly beans. Imported snacks are available at the gourmet markets, but the cost is 2-3 times higher than what we paid back at home."

  • The latest iPhone 12 Pro will set you back $1400 compared to $1000 in the US. 
Nomadic FIRE Marco Avatar

 INSIDER TIP : A local Vietnamese café would charge you about $1 for a cup of ca phe sua da, a Vietnamese-style coffee flavored with condensed milk. About 100x better than Starbucks for only 1/8th the price. 

Nomadic FIRE Vietnam Coffee

Expat life is remarkably cheap. Imported life is costly. If you eat loads of quality wine and cheese, your cost of living in Europe will be less than in the US. If you want to replicate a champagne and truffle cheese lifestyle in Asia, you will need to open up your wallet. 

Live like an uncompromising American tourist and watch your savings evaporate. However, if you remain flexible, becoming a successful expat can change your financial future. 

Nomadic FIRE Cee Mexico Pinterest

"We live on a monthly budget of $900 as a family of three. That is a far cry from the $2,100 we were spending on just rent and utilities in San Diego.

― CORRITTA LEWIS

How do I build a social circle?

I learned that finding a new social circle is not always easy when you are moving solo to a new country. As adults, most people already have their circle of friends who they grew up in, and you are the "foreigner" who is trying to fit in. You don't always understand how things work, or local slang, or their experience growing up. It can take some time to find people who click with you.

Charmaine- CANADIAN LIVING IN HONG KONG- expat 6 years

Connect to the Expat community

Being in an expat is a bit like being in a secret fraternity. No matter where I live, the first people I reach out to are the expat community. Regardless if they are from the US, South America, or Europe, the commonality of being a stranger in a new country of residence bonds expats from all over.

Fellow expats are almost always ready to lend a hand to the newbie. Most of us have lived abroad before, but we remember how frustrating it was when we first arrived in a new country. Whether you are looking for the best butcher for steaks or the average price of a haircut, other expats are full of tips for living abroad for the first time. Expats are eager to meet other foreigners with similar interests. Soon you'll find yourself laughing at local quirks and watching sports over a beer with a fellow expat.

Justine, Expat 12 Years

"Even though I'm fluent in Spanish and have some local friends, my closest friends have usually been expats. "

How do I build long term friendships abroad?

The biggest challenge has always been finding long-term friendships…it's not uncommon that [expats] go back to their home country because they're here temporarily. It can sometimes feel lonely and draining trying to find those close friendships again. Even though I've been here for over a decade, I still long for those American sisterly friendships I have back home.

Justine- American LIVING IN SPAIN- expat 12 years

Make local friends as well as network with expats

Until you get to retirement age, when folks tend to settle down and move less, expat friendships tend to be transient. Younger expats tend to be Digital Nomads, English teachers, or expats working on a temporary assignment. If you ONLY make friends in the expat community, be prepared to remake your social circle every couple of years.

Nomadic FIRE Tips For First Time Expats ebook cover

FREE BONUS CONTENT FOR FIRST TIME EXPATS

Our experts share their #1 "Need To Know" Tip for anyone considering moving abroad for the first time. Avoid the "Gotchas" that you don't think about when planning for the first time.

"Most people bike or walk every day and carry all their shopping bags themselves. It's important to realize that you're not only leaving your country, you might also be leaving some of your conveniences too." - Katerina

Join group versions of your favorite activities. 

Depending on the country and the language, making local friends takes work and patience. You are going to have to put in the effort. My go-to method is finding group events based on something I already love doing. Not only am I doing something I enjoy, but everyone I meet there already has a built-in common interest.

Try to avoid solo activities, even if they are your preferred activity. Choose Crossfit gyms vs. working out solo. Join a hiking group vs. exploring trails by yourself. Participate in an acroyoga jam vs. doing yoga on your own. Sign up for a salsa class rather than hit a dance club alone.

Put yourself out there. Say yes to every invitation

For the first 6-months you are in a new city, make it a point to checkout as many social events as possible to meet new people. Find your pub, café, or language exchange, where you can become a regular. The more you are seen and recognized, the more likely you'll find someone with a common interest. A bonus is not only are you putting yourself in situations where you will meet others, but you will be exploring your new home at the same time. 

Nomadic FIRE Lithuania Vilnius Acroyoga

Acroyoga Jam in Vilnius, Lithuania

Nomadic FIRE Marco Avatar

 INSIDER TIP : Couples have the biggest challenge when making friends. Families can usually leverage kids' fearless nature to play with other kids to make friends with parents. Single people have the built-in excuse of dating to meet and talk with strangers. Very few people will walk up to a couple sitting by themselves to make friends. If you are a couple, you need to put in extra effort to build local bonds. 

How can I make adapting to a new country easier?

The biggest challenge when moving abroad to Ho Chi Minh City was figuring out how to continue our previous lifestyle. We loved staying active with cycling and hiking when living in California.

JACKIE- AMERICAN LIVING IN VIETNAM- expat 2 years

Get Into Your Routine to Feel At Home

I'm a creature of habit. One of the first things I try to do after moving to another country is finding my coffee shop, gym, yoga studio, and favorite restaurant. I start to build my routines. Morning yoga, coffee, walk the beach, lunch, nap, shopping, gym. My daily routines are what make a place feel like home to me.

"What makes expat-life so interesting is "normal boring" things become mini-adventures overseas:

  • Figuring out a foreign country's public transportation system? Woohoo! 
  • Effectively arguing for a store refund in another language? High five yourself.
  • Successfully driving a motorbike on the wrong side (left-side) of the road? That one deserves a beer. 

Boring and normal no longer exist."

My coffee shop, where the barista knows how to make my coffee; my gym, where I have people that encourage and support me; my yoga studio, where I center myself and find balance. Simple rituals of everyday expat life make my new home a reality.

Nomadic FIRE Jackie Vietnam

"Currently, we stay active with evening walks around our neighborhood park and indoor workouts. Once in a while, we join a day hike that is organized by a hiking group since transportation is included.

― JACKIE

How will I fit in?

My biggest challenge wasn't in the actual act of moving abroad, which was quite easy for me. It was something I had always wanted to do…After so long abroad, my main challenge is not feeling as if I truly belong anywhere. I have lived in Buenos Aires since 2010 but, of course, I'll never be Argentine. But, after nearly 14 years outside of the United States, I don't feel entirely at home there anymore either. 

ERIN- American LIVING IN Argentina- expat 14 years

Social isolation is normal

First, know that the feeling is temporary. Even for experienced expats, moving to another country, "resets" the first-time expat experience. We haven't built our social circle; we mangle even the most basic conversations in the new language; we don't even know where to meet people. It's ok to feel a little isolated.

Prepare for a bit of culture shock

Even if you have visited a country several times, moving there is a whole new life experience. As a tourist, you can insulate yourself from the cultural differences of being in another country.

When becoming an expat, you may face different customs and social etiquette than as a tourist. How you greet someone, what name you call someone, even how you hold your chopsticks can inadvertently insult or piss someone off.

It takes time to get used to how things work in your host country. Navigating day to day things like getting around town and feeding yourself can be frustratingly different. The unfamiliarity can drive intense culture shock.

Accept That Things Will Be Different in Another Country

Culture shock, by nature of its wording, means you were shocked and did not expect it. Step one is accepting that things will be different.

Eventually, you will understand how the systems work. Embrace the changes rather than point out the differences. Instead of fighting a local custom, adopt it.

So everything, when I arrived, was a challenge: living alone, not knowing anyone, not knowing the language... but I would have not done it any other way. Licking my wounds, picking myself back up, and building a life here has been also very rewarding.

Wrapping Up: How To Become An Expat

Choosing to live outside your native country is a BIG decision with some obstacles to overcome. But nothing you face on a daily basis will be impossible. Follow the step-by-step tips covered in this post, and you'll be ahead of the game:

  1. 1
    Socialize- Change out of your 3-day old sweat pants and leave the apartment. Getting out each day and putting yourself in different social situations is crucial.
  2. 2
    Make friends with expats and locals- Now is not the time to be picky. You can never have too many friends.
  3. 3
    Prepare Your Mindset- Expect to be uncomfortable. Have the attitude that your new life will be different and different is good.
  4. 4
    Shop at the Local Markets- The local market is also a place to meet, eat, and socialize. Shopping in local food markets is also the best way to save money.
  5. 5
    Try Local Foods- Food in many ways is culture. Seeing how locals live and eat is key to understanding the local culture. 
  6. 6
    Learn Essential Language Phrases- While you can get by with English, life gets easier when you can communicate better. A little bit of effort goes a long way when talking to locals. 
  7. 7
    Be Patient- It takes time, but things slowly fall into place.

Every challenge you take contributes to your personal growth, even the baby steps to speak a foreign language help. With patience and enough small steps, you will have a full and active social life. Just keep plugging along. I promise you it gets better.

Nick Kembel

Nick Kembel, Expat 11 Years

"Life soon became comfortable, and what I thought was going to be one year abroad soon become ten."

Nomadic FIRE Tips For First Time Expats ebook cover

FREE BONUS CONTENT FOR FIRST TIME EXPATS

Our experts share their #1 "Need To Know" Tip for anyone considering moving abroad for the first time. Avoid the "Gotchas" that you don't think about when planning for the first time.

"Most people bike or walk every day and carry all their shopping bags themselves. It's important to realize that you're not only leaving your country, you might also be leaving some of your conveniences too." - Katerina

NEXT STEPS

This was part one of two. Join our Expats when they share "10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Moved To Another Country." Leave your email in the boxes below to get notified when published. 

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About the author

Hi, That's me. I'm Marco Sison. I am a survivor of the corporate rat race. I started Nomad FIRE to show you an alternative to the stress and grind of 70-hour weeks to pay off a mortgage, student loans, and countless bills. After getting laid off in 2015, I said screw it all and retired early at 41 years old. I have traveled the last five years to over 40 countries to show you the best ways to save, invest, and live in amazing countries for 70% less cost than the US. I have been featured in: US News & World Reports, Huffington Post, MSN Money, USA Today, ABC Network, Yahoo Finance, Best Life, Hacknoon, CW Network, The Times of Israel, Dr. Wealth, and others. [view press...]

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