Expat Insights: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Moved To Another Country

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01/04/24

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About the author

Hi, I'm Marco Sison. I worked in finance for Fortune 50 companies before retiring early at 41 years old. I have been an expat for over 10 years, living in over 50 countries to show you the best ways to save, invest, and live in amazing countries outside the USA. I am a trusted resource on personal finance and overseas retirement for US News & World Reports, HuffPost, MSN Money, USA Today, ABC Network, Yahoo Finance, Best Life, Association of MBAs, and the iTunes documentary Seeking FIRE.

EXPAT INSIGHTS

Should I Stay or Go Home? The Challenges of Living Abroad During a Global Pandemic

I am one of the estimated nine million Americans living abroad or traveling overseas. For us, the pandemic nightmare of canceled flights and closed borders began on January 31, 2020. COVID-19's viral speed and the subsequent government lockdowns had millions of people scrambling to cut trips short and find a way home before all borders and options to leave a country were canceled. 

If you were a short-term vacationer this was not a life changing deal. At worse, these travel restrictions may have ruined once-in-a-lifetime trips. But for people living abroad, the pandemic represented a critical juncture on whether to continue living overseas or pack up their lives, say goodbye to friends, and return to the uncertain safety of "home."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the US government has arranged rescue flights for over 62,000 US citizens stranded abroad

Millions more are attempting to "shelter in place" while living in a foreign country. I asked over 16 expats to share their stories of living abroad during a pandemic. The stories below shine some light on what life was like living overseas as COVID-19 hit. You can read about the decision-making process they went through. See how common concerns like healthcare, safety, and cost of living factored into the decision to stay or go home. Find out whether they regret any of the choices made so far.

Even Without a Global Pandemic, There Are Challenges to Living Abroad

  • Lack of a support network- You are thousands of miles away from your family and friends. Simple things like someone buying you vitamins when you are sick are more complicated. 
  • Difficulty communicating- There are 7,117 languages spoken in the world. Most of us only know one.
  • Visa difficulties- Strong passports (US, EU, Canada, etc.) make short stays in most countries easy. Staying longer than 90 days requires planning. 
  • “Third World” health care system- This is a hotly debated topic. Western countries outside the US decry the US's lack of universal coverage. People in the US will protest that any medical treatment outside the US is substandard.
  • Unfamiliarity on "how things work"- Trying to navigate government bureaucracies in any country will test anyone's patience. Trying to navigate illogical bureaucracies in a foreign language will make you want to punch a wall.

Living Abroad during a Global Pandemic 

The speed and the severity of COVID-19 shocked and surprised most of us. For people living overseas, the challenges of living abroad multiplied the difficulty of trying to separate truth from hysteria. Conflicting news reports and government directives added to the confusion. 

Should I shelter in place in a strange country? Can I be deported? Would I be allowed entrance to my own country? Is home even safe? We were confused, stressed, a thousand miles away from home, and the information we were getting was as clear as mud. 

As an example, in Thailand, people were required to practice "social distancing", yet there was initially no exemption for overstaying your 90-day visa. People lined up for days to renew their visas to avoid large fines, deportation, or possible jail time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shook even experienced expats and veteran travelers in March. Hundreds of thousands of travelers were slowly stranded as countries around the world systematically shut their borders: first blocking incoming tourists, then expats and citizens, lastly, all inbound and outbound flights were suspended completely. Embassies worldwide scrambled to rescue citizens stranded overseas or warned them to prepare to "shelter in place" indefinitely.

Real people living abroad making real-time decisions in a crisis

This article focuses on real-life experiences of 16 expats and nomads facing the difficulties of living abroad when COVID-19 broke out. Below are 16 personal stories of real people thousands of miles away from home, making difficult choices affecting their lives and the lives of their family, during a global pandemic and unprecedented travel restrictions.

I reached out to over 30 individuals consisting of friends, strangers, people I have met while traveling, redditors, and bloggers I follow. 16 people have been generous enough with their time to share their insight, experience, and decision-making process on whether to risk staying abroad or heading home.

Specifically, I asked a variation of the following questions:

  1. 1
    How long have you been living overseas, and where were you living before travel restrictions went in place?
  2. 2
    Why did you decide to stay vs. return to home?
  3. 3
    If the pandemic extends for another 30-60 days, would you make the same decision?
  4. 4
    What city or country would be your primary choice to live during a COVID-19 lockdown, and why?

You should definitely read through all the answers. It gives plenty of insight into the realities of living abroad, the healthcare debate, the family considerations, and the challenges faced. Use the handy links below to skip ahead or by all means, get comfortable, and read through all the great responses.

Retired Early World Travelers

Travel Blogger

Retired Early Expat

Digital Nomad

Retired Early World Travelers

Retired Early World Traveler

Retired Early World Traveler

Retired Early World Traveler

Travel Blogger

Traveling Musician with Bad Hair

  • Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore, Krakow

Hi, That's Me!

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Bonus Nachos

Eric and Kate

Retired Early World Travelers

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How long have you been overseas, and where are you now?

My wife Katie and I retired in April 2019 and hopped on a plane to Thailand at the end of June. Since then, we have been traveling around SE Asia. We are currently in Danang, Vietnam.

"...the idea of returning to the US without insurance in the middle of a health crisis was terrifying."

Da Nang, Vietnam

Why did you decide to stay vs return to home?

I didn't really feel like we had much of a choice. We have no US health insurance and there's no option to purchase short term insurance that would cover a global pandemic. As such, the idea of returning to the US without insurance in the middle of a health crisis was terrifying. That left us with only one choice. Stay put here in Asia.

If the pandemic extends for another 30-60 days, would you make the same decision?

I expect travel to be impacted for far longer than that. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see restrictions of some sort last through at least 2021. I'm encouraged by the seriousness with which most SE Asian countries are handling the coronavirus, especially compared to the US and most of Europe, so I am definitely happy with our decision to stay put.

What city or country would be your primary choice to live during a COVID-19 lockdown, and why?

Tough question. We recently bought plane tickets attempting to leave Vietnam heading to both Malaysia and Taiwan. However, we were not able to use either due to travel restrictions that were implemented in between purchase and travel. It's not that we thought that Vietnam was doing a poor job, but our Vietnam visa was expiring soon and we wanted to be in a place where we could stay put for a long time. Both Malaysia and Taiwan offer 90 days visa free to US citizens. Once those options fell through, we figured out how to extend our visa here in Vietnam for 90 days and are planning to stay put in Danang for the remainder of our time here.

While there are many places worldwide that are absolutely dropping the ball in their response to COVID-19, this is not one of them. We are thankful for that. While I'm not sure we would've picked Danang ahead of time as a place to stay for 4 months (the last month of our original visa plus our 3 month extension), we are happy to be here. The grocery stores are fully stocked and the government and populace are taking the COVID-19 situation seriously. It seems like as good as place as any to stay inside and be lazy for a month or more.

Johnny Africa

Johnny Chen
Travel Blogger

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How long have you been living overseas, and where were you living before travel restrictions went down?

I was staying in Bonaire to do some scuba diving. I had a wedding to attend in Curacao before I went to Bonaire. We took the last inter island flight between curacao and Bonaire before they canceled all inter-island flights. My flight back home to Germany was leaving out of Curacao so I had no way to get to it. Thankfully, KLM let us rebook without any fees and we departed from Bonaire to Amsterdam a week later. We were essentially on the last flight out before they closed the Bonaire airport down.

"We were essentially on the last flight out before they closed the Bonaire airport down."

Bonaire, Dutch Antilles Photo Credit: Johnny Chen

Why did you decide to return home?

The decision was very difficult to return to Germany. Bonaire is paradise and quite an amazing little island especially for those that dive. I could shore dive any time of the day I wanted to and we were fully planning on staying until May which is when the flights would be paused until. We called KLM to let them know we wanted to extend our stay and to book us on the first flight home on May 4. KLM said they could do this but that the May 4 date was just a placeholder and if we really wanted to stay, we need to be prepared to stay until at least June as they had no idea when flights would resume.

The extra 5 week stay we were planning turned into a 10 week stay. At this point, we were unsure if we wanted to stay in Bonaire or not. While it is paradise with no COVID cases, it was only a matter of time. If they did get a case, everything on the island would be shut down including diving so we would have nothing to do. In addition, if things really got bad, the hospital on Bonaire is not equipped whatsoever to handle the fall out.

Furthermore, the German healthcare system is quite good and my friends in Germany had been telling me that there is solid care for those that need it and anyone who wants a test can get it. It is reassuring to know that if the worse happened, I would be able to get the care I need.

If the pandemic extends for another 30-60 days, would you make the same decision?

I might go crazy, but probably yes! In the end, this is not a time to chase wanderlust dreams and explore new worlds. It is a time to come together and isolate yourself from the rest of the world.

What city or country would be your primary choice to live during a COVID-19 lockdown, and why?

Well the thing is nowhere is really infection free and everyone is or should be practicing isolation/social distancing. This means any city I would have wanted to live in the past would be doin the same thing, aka staying at home and doing nothing. In this case, it doesn't matter whether I'm living in NYC, Mexico City, Cape town, or Singapore. We're all doing the same thing right now. I'm trying to think if there's anywhere that isn't doing this and Bonaire might be the last place! I will probably regret not staying there in the coming weeks!

The Frugal Vagabond


Retired Early Expat

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How long have you been living overseas, and where were you living before travel restrictions went down?

We've lived in Spain for just over two years. Spain is one of the countries hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic and is subject to some of the most stringent restrictions on everyday movement in the world. Though we had plenty of warning that our window to travel internationally was closing, we opted to stay here for a number of reasons.

"Though we had plenty of warning that our window to travel internationally was closing, we opted to stay here for a number of reasons."

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Why did you decide to stay?

We saw that Spain was seeing large numbers of infections and deaths despite excellent universal healthcare and an almost universal acceptance of the restrictive quarantine. We compared those conditions with the casual (or even arrogant) attitudes we saw about the need to limit contact in the US, and anticipated that the US would soon carry a much higher risk of infection with coronavirus.

If the pandemic extends for another 30-60 days, would you make the same decision?

Ultimately we are more confident that Spain will take the necessary steps to contain and hopefully eliminate cases going forward. We do expect the crisis to continue at least another 30-60 days and with that in mind, are comfortable with our decision. Shelves are well stocked at the grocery stores, and the only things we've missed out on here and there are creature comforts like a particular brand of candy or imported items.

Was there any aggressive hording in Spain, similar to the toilet paper stories we are hearing out of the US?

There was exactly one day where we saw empty toilet paper shelves here in Granada: the day after they canceled school for the rest of the year in our province, which was also the day before the quarantine was declared. That day, there was also no meat in the store. Since that day, we haven't seen any obvious hoarding. There's always been enough of all of the necessities, but they're definitely being prioritized by supermarkets over some of the less popular creature comforts.

You mention Spain's health coverage. Did the US health care system play a part into your decision making?

US health insurance played a small role in our decision, mostly because we have a Spanish policy that covers everywhere in the world... except for the USA. That's pretty telling, but logistically we tend to buy short term emergency policies when we visit the US, and I would be very anxious with such a minimal plan in the midst of a pandemic.

Johnny FD

Johnny FD
Digital Nomad

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How long have you been living overseas, and where are you currently living?

I originally left California back in 2008 to start traveling. I was most recently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand until February…then came to Sri Lanka where I got stuck under quarantine life.

"Even if the crisis extended for another 6 months I would still have been happy to have stayed here. It’s better to be stuck here with good weather and low costs of living than back home in the US."

On top of the Nine Arches Bridge Photo Credit: Johnny FD

Did you decide to stay overseas or return home? What factors drove your choice?

I decided to stay overseas here. I knew that it would be socially irresponsible to travel during the pandemic and risk getting sick at an airport or on the plane, just to bring it back to family and friends in the USA. People returning back home is a huge reason why th