In April 2018, my husband, dog, and I moved to London from the US. Starting a new life abroad had been a long time dream of ours. And while we did plenty of research and self-reflection before the move, there were a few surprises waiting for us across the pond.
Expat life has been pretty amazing so far, but it’s not without challenges. From grocery store frustrations to making friends abroad, there are dozens of little difficulties and differences that can wear on you over time.
So to celebrate my one year “expataversary”, I’m sharing the top seven things you should know before moving abroad.
Starting a new life abroad is more exhausting than you’d think
Depending on your citizenship and personal circumstances, starting a new life abroad can be overwhelming.
In the months leading up to our big move, we were both working demanding jobs. All of our free time was spent researching relocation expenses, downsizing our belongings, filing for visas, and a million other tasks. We also had to sell our home before moving abroad, which was a roller coaster ride I don’t care to repeat!
Even with the benefit of an immigration lawyer and a relocation agent in London, the entire process left us feeling run down and stressed out. Believe me: the tingling excitement of starting a new life abroad wears off quickly when you’re trying to track down every date you traveled outside the US in the last 10 years.
If you’re thinking of moving abroad, be prepared to give up your evenings and weekends (and probably a lot of money) getting your life and paperwork sorted. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether its a friend who can help you pack or a family member who can watch your pets while your house is on the market.
You’ll miss the strangest things about your old life
Do you have a beloved coffee shop in your current neighborhood? Or a favorite radio station for your daily commute?
We expect to miss big things like our family members or old houses, and we mentally prepare for that. But these small pieces of our old lives quickly become unexpected, glaring absences.
From roasted green chili to our daily dog walking route, not a week goes by where I don’t think longingly about the little things we left behind. Although we’ve created new routines and discovered new local favorites (hello, chicken tikka), we still keenly miss our Saturday morning breakfast tacos…
Managing money as an expat is complex
Between our US and UK savings, credit cards, and investments, we have over a dozen accounts to manage across multiple currencies. And due to the nature of our work, we get paid in more than one currency. When you’re trying to pay bills, invest for retirement, and save for the future, things get complicated quickly!
In the beginning, managing money as an expat felt like a full time job. Though we had some fixed, predictable costs, we could only estimate other expenses like groceries, transportation, and personal care. And with international money transfer fees, there was a lot of pressure to minimize the movement of funds between our accounts.
Having a solid budget was essential. Personally, I’ve found that Wallet is the best budgeting app for expats because of how it handles multiple currencies. It was invaluable to track our US and UK incomes and expenses without needing to do a bunch of conversions or set up multiple profiles.
Save me for later!
There are serious disadvantages of living abroad as an American
If you’re not an American citizen starting a new life abroad, kudos to you. Of all the challenges of living abroad, the ones related to our US citizenship are the worst.
As a travel blogger, I’m incredibly grateful for my US passport. But it comes at a price: all Americans living abroad are still on the hook for US taxes. And while many countries have tax treaties in place to reduce how much you owe in the US, it’s nearly impossible to avoid things like self-employment and small business taxes.
There’s also the limit on how much time you can spend in the US before your tax exemptions are revoked. Spend more than one month visiting in the states, and you’ll be fully taxed in the US on all your income!
Although we did our research on US expat taxes before moving, we didn’t realize just how complicated things would become.
The effects of moving to another country aren’t just emotional
From the sadness of leaving loved ones behind to the thrill of exploring a new country, your emotions will run the gamut during your first year abroad. But the effects of moving to another country go beyond emotion.
If your new home calls for a lifestyle change, like extra walking in your commute, you might get physical effects from your move. Hauling heavy grocery bags 10 blocks twice a week has definitely improved my arm strength. But the hard London water has thinned and flattened my hair, so not everything has been great.
You might also feel psychological effects of starting a new life abroad. Big shifts like this can lead to lots of positive opportunities, like the joy of finding a favorite restaurant or making a new friend. But if you’re not careful, it can also lead to feelings of isolation and regret.
That’s why I recommend keeping a journal when you first move abroad. It’s critical that you reflect on the changes and experiences you have the first year, both good and bad. Expat blues are a real thing, and you can avoid them if you recognize the signs early.
It takes constant effort to avoid falling back into old routines
Before the big move, you’ll probably be filled with grand ideas about your new life abroad. You might fantasize about traveling every weekend, or spending more time with your partner, or reading each morning. Unfortunately, an international move doesn’t offer as much motivation for change as you’d imagine.
A major life shift can make it easier to form new habits and routines. But it can also make you exhausted. And fatigue is the number one reason people fall back into old habits.
When we moved to London, our goal was to see something new every weekend, whether that be visiting a museum or taking a day trip to another city. And while we have done a lot of travel and seen a fair bit of London, there have been plenty of weekends that don’t go beyond Netflix binges and delivery.
You can have the best intentions, but without a plan, it’s hard to maintain life changes.
One thing that helps us is to purposely schedule time to do these new things. I literally create an event on my Google Calendar to block time for going into the city or trying a new restaurant. It helps hold us accountable to the goals we had for our new lives abroad.
Not everyone can move overseas permanently
The path to move overseas permanently is not for everyone. Depending on your visa arrangements, financial situation, and personal preferences, a forever-expat lifestyle might not be in the cards.
When we first moved to the UK, I thought we’d eventually be eligible for citizenship. Unfortunately, I was reading an outdated document during my research. The immigration laws had since been changed so that people with our specific type of visa had no path to citizenship.
With this world’s ever-changing laws on taxes and immigration, you could find your expat dreams disappear.
There’s also a very real possibility that you won’t enjoy living abroad. I know several people who thought expat life was the ultimate dream, but eventually couldn’t bear being away from their family and home country.
No one knows what the future holds, so it’s best to have a backup plan. Come up with a few ideas of what you’d do if you had to move back home (or change countries). Then, build an emergency fund to cover the costs of relocating.
I want to move abroad: where to I start?
As an expat blogger, I get this question a lot! Here are a few helpful guides for starting a new life abroad: