A few years ago, my husband sent me an interesting post from Reddit’s /r/travel. It was a photo of an empty Kyoto street at night, with the iconic Tower of Yasaka in the distance. I scrolled down to the comments section and was not surprised to find several people gushing about the exotic beauty of Japan and wondering Should I move abroad?.
And then one commenter stepped in with a much-needed reality check.
To paraphrase this good samaritan, photos posted to r/travel are fantasy fuel. These carefully crafted travel shots we see on TV and the internet exist for our entertainment. They make the idea of living abroad seem like a magical escape. Unfortunately, that photo capturing the quiet beauty of Gion was taken while all the tourists and residents were asleep! Here’s what Gion is really like during waking hours:
Don’t get me wrong: I love looking at gorgeous photos of dream destinations. It’s how most people–myself included–get ideas for future trips, or find motivation to save for a big vacation. And it’s fun to scroll through Instagram or watch an episode of House Hunters International and imagine what it would be like to live in a faraway place.
However, basing your decision to move abroad on a bit of Googling and some nice photos is like getting engaged to someone after seeing only their Tinder profile.
You need to dig deeper to know if you should move abroad. What are your real reasons to move to a different country? What might be the consequences? Are you okay with moving to another country alone?
These are big questions! So I’ve come up with a five-step exercise to help you sort things out before starting a new life abroad. Grab your favorite note-taking gear and get ready for some self-reflection.
1. What are the effects of moving to another country?
Let’s start with the fun question first. From learning a new language to gaining international career experience, there are many benefits of moving to another country. For me, a move to the UK fulfilled my childhood dream of living in Europe. Plus, London offers affordable, easy access to the rest of the continent. For my husband, moving abroad was a chance to further his career and improve his work-life balance (a rare win-win).
Take a few minutes to write down what you hope to gain from a move abroad. It could be anything from “improve my mental health” to “become fluent in Japanese”. There are no right answers to this question. It’s all about what you, as an individual, are envisioning for your new life abroad.
Then, write down some possible challenges of living abroad. These could be anything from tax complications to giving up your Friday night take-out routine. Be sure to consider what you’re giving up in exchange for expat life. That way, you won’t have unpleasant surprises waiting for you when the dust settles.
2. Are my goals for moving abroad realistic?
Now that you have a list of your hopes and dreams, it’s time for a reality check. Go through every item on your list and ask yourself, “will moving abroad actually help me accomplish X?”. Put a mark next to any item that you aren’t sure about.
For example, many people think I want to move abroad because they hope to spend more time traveling. Unfortunately, becoming an expat does not equal a life of endless adventure. No matter where you live, bills must be paid and obligations on your time will still exist. In fact, you might end up with less time and money to travel after you move abroad than before you left!
Goals like “experience life in a different culture” are a given (assuming you don’t live in an expat bubble or become a shut-in), but things like “improve work-life balance” heavily depend on your career decisions. Make sure you think through the how and why behind your goals.
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3. Are my reasons to move to another country just an attempt to run away?
This question is the most difficult, but the most important. Look back at your list of goals for moving abroad. Is there anything that’s pointing to a desire to escape, to start anew? What about the thoughts you left off the list, like that fantasy about walking out in the middle of yet another pointless meeting and never coming back? There’s nothing wrong with these desires, but it’s critical that you recognize them and consciously consider them in your decision-making process.
If you read my first post, you know that I am terrified of failure. Shortly before my husband’s company contacted him about transferring to London, my company rolled out new, ambitious goals for people in my position. I had a reputation for being a high performer, and I was afraid I would fail to deliver.
Naturally, my first instinct was to run away as fast as possible, because obviously I had fooled everyone into thinking I was good at my job and there was no way I could let them think I was an incompetent buffoon.
So when the email came through about relocation, it felt like I’d been handed a golden ticket out of my work situation. Deciding to move abroad was a no-brainer! I was ready to pack my bags, take a loss on our house, and put 5,000 miles between me and the looming specter of disappointment.
Fortunately, my husband reminded me that we had just decided not to move abroad for a couple more years in order to save more money and get a better return on our two-year-old home. This quickly took the wind out of my sails, because I was the one who initially made these points! Being the insightful partner that he is, he also gently wondered if maybe my loud demands to “jump on this transfer right now” had something to do with my not-so-secret panic attacks about work.
Humans are hard-wired to avoid difficult situations, and the “grass is always greener” mentality plays right into this. It would have been easy to let my desire to run away from responsibility influence my reasoning for moving abroad. Instead, we spent several weeks crunching numbers, doing research, and having deep conversations about whether or not this was the right decision.
Running away from home rarely ends well. Beware if you’re asking Should I move abroad? just because of personal or professional challenges. Give yourself the time and space to process the real reasons to move to another country.
4. Will I be okay without my support network?
If you’ve made it this far in the exercise without having an emotional breakdown, congratulations! Now it’s time to think about what your life would be like if you had no friends or family around to support you.
Think back on all of the times in the past year that someone outside of your household has personally helped you. Maybe your parents watched your dog while you were out of town. Perhaps your best friend drove you to the doctor when you had the flu. What about that trusted babysitter who makes date nights possible? How will you cope when you move to a new country and have to rebuild your support network from scratch?
As someone who had already gone through the experience of moving hundreds of miles away from everyone I knew, I was pretty sure I could do it again. But there will always be little things that make life harder or scarier when you have to rely on new people, or lose the stability of having family nearby. I was a nervous wreck the week leading up to our first trip away from London because we had to board our dog at an unfamiliar place.
If you don’t have an established support network in your new country, be prepared to build one from the ground up or get by without it. Making friends abroad takes time. Think about how you’ll handle emergencies and other things that your friends and family typically help with, and make sure you’re comfortable with the alternatives.
5. Do I want to move abroad without first visiting the country?
If this exercise hasn’t scared you off yet, you should be mentally ready to take the next step. But there’s one last thing that will really help seal the deal: committing yourself to a visit.
There is no better way to figure out if your dream location is a good fit than to spend some time getting to know the area. Before my husband formally accepted his work transfer to London, we made a five day visit. We walked neighborhoods, took the Tube, and tried to get a sense of what life in London would be like. We had the added benefit of going in January, so we experienced the coldest month of the year AND saved on airfare and hotel costs.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of money and workplace leave to pull off an international trip. Sometimes you simply can’t take time off. If this is you, I’m not surprised you want to hop on the next plane to a sunny beach and work out the details later! But if you’re truly committed to moving abroad, you should be willing to get creative and devote resources to seeing it first. Especially if you’re moving to another country alone.
Traveling in the off-season, using credit card and hotel rewards points, and taking a hard look at your budget are all great ways to make your trip a reality. My personal favorite tool for saving money on airfare is Hopper, which is available for iOS and Android.
You’ve made it to the end of the exercise! Pat yourself on the back. Of course, there are far more things to consider before you buy that one-way ticket to your dream destination.
Becoming an expat affects life in so many ways, from how you cook dinner to how much you can save for retirement. Use great photos and fun anecdotes to inspire you to take the next step. But don’t make life-altering decisions before doing a bit of reflection.
And when you’re ready, my checklist for moving abroad will guide you every step of the way!