How To Become an Expat — The Ultimate Guide

Are you about to embark on your expat adventure? Then this guide on “How to become an expat” is for you. We discuss everything from finding accommodation to building a social network in your target country.

But we will also talk about the negative aspects of expat life, like dealing with culture shock, social isolation, or racism. It’s not just all roses when you move to a new country.

By looking at both the benefits and the drawbacks, you will get a more realistic picture of what awaits you. You will be better prepared to make the most of this change.

What Makes an Expat?

Expat is short for “expatriate.” The term refers to anyone living abroad for an extended period of time, sometimes indefinitely.

Some examples of expats:

  • International professionals working abroad
  • Retirees spending their sunset years somewhere warm
  • International students getting their degree abroad
  • Digital nomads working online while traveling

As you can see, the term “expat” entails rather different subsets of people. Also, not all of these subsets automatically qualify as expats. For example, is the digital nomad traveling to Chiang Mai for two weeks before moving on to Bali for three weeks really an expat? Or are they more of a perpetual traveler?

It depends on the time spent in one place — an expat takes roots, while the traveler moves on too soon to do so. From my experience, if you spend six months or longer in the same location, you are in expat territory. Anything less than that, and it feels more like passing through.

However, the challenges all expats face are somewhat similar, especially when it comes to the emotional side of moving, like culture shock or social isolation. Hence, the category is still useful.

3 Types of Expats

There are three types of expats:

  1. “Forever” expats — they know they want to stay indefinitely
  2. “Temporary” expats — they know they won’t stay forever 
  3. “Undecided” expats — they haven’t made up their mind yet

If you know you want to stay forever, this will have certain consequences. You will want to get permanent residency, possibly even citizenship. You will want to rent long-term, possibly even buy. You will want to get a local bank account and a local driver’s license. And so on.

If you know you won’t stay forever, your action list will look different. You will still need a long-term visa, but you won’t have to worry about citizenship. You can simplify the renting process by going through a platform like Airbnb. You can use a payment app like WISE to wire money. You can get an international driver’s license instead of a local one.

I will keep referring to these two categories — the forever expat and the temporary expat — throughout this guide. They will affect almost all your decisions as an expat.

If you are in category three — the undecided expat — my advice is to behave like a temporary expat until you make up your mind. Once you do, work through this guide again, but now through the lens of the forever expat.

The 13 Best Tips for Expat Living

Here is how you overcome common obstacles as an expat and get the most out of the experience.

1. Consult Your Family

If you have a partner and kids, you must talk to them first.

Moving your family to a new country comes with real risks. One or more members of your family might hate it. If you are the one who was pushing for the big move, they will blame you. It can damage the relationship forever.

Age is a big factor. From what I have witnessed, younger children will vigorously resist the move at first but then often adapt surprisingly quickly. Teenagers tend to struggle more. But your partner/spouse might struggle the most. Since they are your age, they have had the most time to take root in their current environment. Take them out of it, and they might come undone.

Childless couples tend to fare better. Autonomy is often an important shared value with such couples. If you are both adventurous digital nomad types, there should be little friction. If you are both retirees who enjoy the sun, why not move to Mexico? Of course, you still want to make sure you are on the same page.

On the other hand, if you are single and childless, do not let anyone talk you out of your big move. Your parents and your friends might not support your decision. But ultimately, it’s your life, not theirs. You don’t owe anybody.

2. Do a Scouting Expedition

In most cases, you want to visit the country first before you permanently move there.

Think of this as a scouting expedition. Get a feel for the culture. Get a feel for the city that you want to move to. Check out the best neighborhoods. Make some local contacts.

Never skip this step if you are a “forever” expat. I have seen countless expats who were infatuated with a certain culture from afar, but then hugely disappointed once they moved there. Spare yourself that disappointment — visit first.

If you are a temporary expat, it depends. If you want to stay for a year or longer, I would still visit first. But a couple of months in Hanoi? Sure, just go there.

3. Pre-Immerse Yourself

Ideally, form a cultural connection to your target country before you even leave home. Physical activities are ideal for that. Then, as soon as you get to the country, you have a cultural “in,” so to speak. You will be able to connect with at least some locals over this shared activity.

For example, if you plan on moving to Brazil, consider taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu or capoeira.

If your future home is Germany, it might be a good idea to join a local soccer club now.

If your destination is India, start taking yoga classes while still at home.

4. Determine the Cost of Moving

Understand — moving to a new country will cost money:

  • Paying to ship your stuff to a new country
  • Paying for extra luggage on the airplane
  • Staying at a hotel for the first few weeks
  • Paying the security deposit for your new apartment
  • Paying the real estate agent
  • Eating out too much in the beginning

And this is just the tip of the iceberg; there will be many more unforeseen costs in the beginning.

However, it makes a big difference if you are a “forever” expat or a “temporary” expat. A minimalist digital nomad traveling the world with just their backpack faces much less overhead. Their whole lifestyle is optimized for “arriving.”

On the flip side, the forever expat will end up spending much less over time. For example, while the flexible digital nomad is consistently overpaying on Airbnb, the “forever” expat will pay what the locals pay. That’s the downside that the temporary expat is facing.

For these reasons, I would advise a forever expat to have some savings before they move (especially if you are moving with your family). As a temporary nomad, you don’t necessarily need that, as long as you have decent cash flow. But of course, it never hurts.

5. Think About Cash Flow

Think about where your money is going to come from when you move abroad. Even if you are moving to a low-cost destination to save money — what some people call “geo arbitrage” — things still cost cash.

There are five common scenarios here:

  1. Retirees. You are living off your pension.
  2. International students. As an international student, you typically have to show proof of funds to be able to study abroad (the bank of mom and dad), or you have some kind of scholarship.
  3. International professionals. You are moving abroad for work, i.e., a new source of money. Important detail — your job is already waiting for you.
  4. Work immigrants. You are moving to a new country with the plan of taking up work locally. Important detail — you don’t have that job yet.
  5. Digital nomads. You are doing some kind of online work (copywriting, graphic design, e-commerce, coaching, etc.). Thus, you have cash flow independent of where you are located.

We can ignore retirees, students, and international professionals. They are already covered in terms of cash flow. That leaves us with work immigrants and digital nomads.

I am not a big fan of the work immigrant option for cash flow. You are basically betting on a future outcome. That is always a risky bet. Also, if you are moving to a low-cost destination, you will be paid locally. Yes, you just cut your living expenses in half. But you also just halved your income.

Also, understand that dealing with local work regulations as a foreigner will be an absolute pain in the neck, especially if you don’t speak the language. And you not speaking the language will also make it much harder to apply for a job. You need to get your CV translated, you need to find an employer willing to hire you even though you can’t communicate with most everyone, etc.

What I see with work immigrants is that their quality of life typically goes down. They end up getting a worse deal than what they used to have back home. Many of them come to regret their decision.

That is why I always recommend the digital nomad option over the “work locally” option. You are still getting paid a regular income in dollars, pounds, or euros, but your living expenses are often much lower than before. That is true geo arbitrage.

I have written extensively about how to escape your 9 to 5 via the digital nomad option. It is easier to get started with than most people think, as long you go with a service-based business model like copywriting or graphic design vs. something more outlandish like coaching. Check out the article to learn about the differences and the quickest path to make it happen.

6. Do Your Research

“How to become an expat” is about doing your research — before you arrive at your new home. Here are the most important issues to consider.

a) Visa Requirements

To stay long-term, you will have to get some type of long-term visa. You typically have to apply for these visas beforehand, while still at home. Plan for a buffer. It might take the visa-issuing institution weeks or even months to get your visa approved. Also, pay attention to work regulations. Some of these visas allow you to work locally, some of them allow you to work remotely (so-called digital nomad visas), and some don’t allow you to work at all.

b) The Expiration Date of Your Passport

Check for how much longer your passport is valid. To get a long-term visa from them, most countries require you to have a passport that is valid for another six months.

Even if your passport is good, write yourself a reminder now to renew your passport well ahead of time. You can often renew your documents at your embassy abroad, but there are also instances where you need to fly back. Setting an appointment early and booking cheap flights in advance will make this whole process a lot less annoying.

c) The Residency Process

If you want to relocate permanently, you will have to look into residency requirements. Naturally, these will vary widely, depending on the country you are moving to. But as a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to get this process started while still at home. For example, you might have to provide certain financial documents from your current bank in your home country. It is much easier to get those while still there.

Also, consider enlisting the help of an immigration lawyer. I would recommend finding someone while still at home, so you avoid plunders early on in the residency process. They can be based in your future home. But get in touch with them now, virtually. Then continue the process in person once you arrive.

d) Vaccinations

Some countries require you to have certain vaccinations before entering. For example, certain countries in Africa and South America won’t let you enter without a yellow fever vaccination.

But even beyond these must-haves, it can be a good idea to do some research about non-mandatory vaccinations. For example, I caught dengue fever twice when I moved to SEA — an experience I would have rather skipped. Now, there is an effective vaccination against dengue.

e) International Credit Cards

There are certain credit cards that allow you to withdraw cash abroad without an extra fee. Research and compare those. Get at least two, in case you lose one or get it stolen. Also, one might simply not work sometimes (happens to me regularly).

f) Bank Accounts

If you want to relocate permanently, and especially if you want to take up work locally, you will have to get a local bank account. This can be tricky as long as you don’t have residency yet. Research workarounds by checking out Facebook groups for expats in your target country.

g) Money Transfers

If you are a temporary expat, you might not want to open a local bank account. But you will still have to transfer money electronically at some point to a local business. The solution is electronic payment apps like WISE and Revolut, which will save you the horrendous international transfer fees that your bank back home will charge you. Get these apps installed and test them out before you move, so there won’t be any friction as soon as you need to pay something, like a security deposit.

h) Financial Regulations

Figure out what financial regulations you will have to comply with. Specifically, figure out your taxes. If you become a permanent resident, that usually means you will now have to pay your taxes in the new jurisdiction. Do some research online on what that looks like. But then also find a tax advisor, at least for year one of your expat adventure. Once you get the hang of the local system, you can still opt for filing your tax report yourself.

If you are a retiree, research how your move affects your pension. There are scenarios where you might end up getting less by moving to a certain country. This might make you reconsider your choice.

i) Transport

Figure out how you will get around in your new home country. Do so in advance, to hit the ground running. You want to be mobile from day one.

Check for public transport options first and how reliable they are. In many places outside the US, the subway and the public bus system are the best ways to get around. In other places, there might be group taxis (“TukTuks”), traversing the city on predefined routes. In some countries, everybody has a scooter.

Then there are services like Bolt and Grab, the equivalent to Uber outside the US (but much cheaper). Why buy a car if you can just be chauffeured everywhere?

If you do insist on getting a car, find out if you need an international driver’s license. If so, you need to get that while still at home. But even if you can get by on an international driver’s license initially, you will eventually have to get a local driver’s license (at least as a “forever” expat). That might mean taking a test.

I would rent a car first before you buy. Yes, it is more expensive. But you might eventually find that having a car is not that convenient after all. If you were just renting, you can undo that quickly.

j) Telecommunication Providers

There is usually more than one provider/network available in any given country, and not all of them are equally reliable. For example, with some, the network coverage will be worse if you are staying in a rural region. Find out which one is best for you by checking out expat groups for this country on Facebook and searching on Reddit — before you leave. Then get the right SIM straight away once you arrive. This is especially relevant for digital nomads who must ensure they are always connected.

k) Power Adapters

Check if you need a power adapter for your target country. If so, buy a cheap one on Amazon well before you leave — not last minute at the airport, where they will cost twice or thrice the normal price. Now, when you arrive, you can at least plug in your laptop or charge your phone. Then buy more power adapters at a local convenience store, where they will be cheap again.

7. Don’t Bring Too Much Stuff

Bring as little stuff as you can. Personally, I just travel with a backpack.

The thing is — much of the stuff you bring you won’t end up using. The situation on the ground will be different from what you had imagined (different weather, different workflows). So, you might as well just leave most of your stuff at home, only bring the essentials, and then buy what you need on-site.

That means selling, donating, or dumping your old stuff. If in doubt, I always recommend going with the dumping option. It is easy to turn selling all your stuff (typically thousands of items) into an excuse to not take action.

What you do want to bring are things you won’t be able to find in the new location (for example certain rare supplements you are taking).

Also, think of bringing all your identifying documents. Here, more is better, especially if you are a “forever” expat. Think birth certificates, college diplomas, and letters of recommendation from former employers. You will not know when you will need this stuff, but the day will come. To minimize clutter, digitize what you can.

8. Bring Medication

If you are taking certain prescription drugs regularly, you must plan for this before moving. This is especially relevant for retirees — as we get older, we tend to take more pills — but also for people with autoimmune diseases or other chronic illnesses.

Understand that the current medication that you are taking might not be available in your target country. Take ADHS medication, for example. Adderall is widely prescribed in the US. In many other places around the world, it’s illegal.

Having said that, don’t just look at what is legal and illegal. For example, if you bring your own medication from home, many customs officials will look the other way. Also, just because something is not officially legal doesn’t mean you can’t get it. In Thailand, some pharmacies will sell you all the Adderall you want.

What you should do in any case is bring documentation from your doctor at home. Your doctor should write you a short letter explaining your condition and why you need to take this or that medication. Don’t forget to bring a certified translation. Also, take copies of your prescription slips and bring them with you. If there is a problem at customs, the officials are more likely to be lenient if you can point at paperwork. Finally, carry medication in its original packaging. This too might help with arguing your case.

9. Find Accommodation

One of your prime concerns as an expat will be to find good accommodation. I am assuming you are staying upwards of 6 months, potentially forever. So, Airbnb is out of the question. It might be cheaper than a hotel, but it’s still a lot more expensive than a regular long-term rental.

However, I still recommend getting an Airbnb for the first month of your stay. Even if you don’t end up staying for the whole month, it will still be about the same as staying at a hotel for a week or two. That is because of the significant rebates you typically get on Airbnb when you rent for four weeks or longer. This way, you can take your time. You can compare different rentals, talk to different realtors, visit different neighborhoods, etc.

Never rent something while still at home. There are very few exceptions to this rule, e.g., if you have a trusted friend in the same building who can check out the apartment for you. Otherwise, don’t. Always look at the rental in person first, before you sign a contract. Pictures and real life can be two very different things.

There are two ways of finding the ideal place. One of them is to go on Facebook and search for “[city name] rentals” or something along these lines. Join these groups (there are often several), then write a post about what you are looking for. Often, you will contacted by realtors right away.

Some markets have more demand than supply, though. Here, you will have to do the contacting. You will have to monitor these groups for new listings (turn on notifications on Facebook), then reply immediately as a new listing goes up.

The other option is to walk around town and simply look for “To Rent” signs. I like to take pictures of these signs while walking and then call them/text them all in one go when I return back home. This kind of batching makes the process more efficient.

Generally, I prefer texting over calling, because of the language barrier. It’s hard to understand each other over the phone if one of you is not speaking their first language. Use WhatsApp or whatever communication app is most common in your target country (LINE in Thailand, Telegram in Russian-speaking countries, etc.).

Don’t just look at the object itself, but also at the available infrastructure. Check for supermarkets. Check for pharmacies. Where is the next metro or bus stop? If you like to work out, look at gyms in the neighborhood.

With kids, look at what schools are nearby. Think about if you want to send them to a local school or an international school. If the latter, that will limit you to certain neighborhoods (or your kids will have to travel further).

Never buy property straight away. Even if it looks great in person, you don’t really know what the deal is until you start living there. I know people who bought brand-new, wonderful-looking houses in Bali only to then find out that the water pipes were leaking and causing mold everywhere.

The solution — rent a place first, then buy it once you have lived there for a year. Inquire if that is an option before you start renting. This way, you’ll know what you are getting.

10. Get Health Insurance

I won’t go too much into this topic, as it really depends on your specific circumstances. But there are two basic scenarios here:

  1. You will work locally or study in your target country
  2. You won’t

If you are a business professional who got transferred abroad, you will most likely get local health insurance. If you are an international student, same story.

But if you are a retiree who is done working or if you work online from your laptop, you will probably want to go with some kind of dedicated expat insurance or international health insurance that moves with you.

Final note — think about your deductibles. If you choose to go with a higher deductible, your monthly rate will be lower. But if you get sick a lot, you might be better off paying the full rate.

It comes down to being honest with yourself. If you have a proven track record of healthy living (and at least some savings), lower rates and a higher deductible might be justified. But if you are historically averse to a healthy lifestyle, bite the bullet and pay the higher rate. Realistically, your health is not going to get better over time.

11. Overcome the Language Barrier (Or Not)

Most guides on expat living will tell you to learn the language. I say it depends. Specifically, it depends on two factors — the length of your stay and the cosmopolitanism of your target country.

If you are a “forever” expat, that’s usually a good reason to learn the language. It will be key to building a local network outside of the expat community. It will also enable you when it comes to administrative matters like filling out forms or buying property.

But if you are staying only for a year or two (and for a very specific reason like work), it can also be okay to skip that step. Learning a language is a major project; it will take time and energy away from other important projects in your life. If you know this is not forever, it might be smarter to prioritize something else.

The other aspect to consider — how cosmopolitan is the place you are moving to. For example, if you are an English speaker, moving to one of the German-speaking countries, a Benelux country, or a Scandinavian country, you can absolutely get away with not learning the local language. Most people will speak English fluently or near-fluently, and more importantly, they will be eager to communicate with you in English — even if you do speak their language. So, you might as well just save yourself the trouble.

12. Live Frugally

It is very easy to overspend in a new environment. That is for several reasons.

First, when you move to a cheap place, ironically, it is tempting to go wild. You think to yourself, “Nothing costs anything here.” But it does. By becoming careless, you will make up for the difference or even spend more than at home.

Second, you are not familiar with the local currency yet. You look at these prices and they don’t mean anything to you yet. That’s another reason why might end up in the red.

Third, food. You are in a new culture, and you want to try all the exotic, new foods. So, you eat out twice a day. Before you know it, you spent a small fortune.

Fourth, flights home. Most expats visit home regularly, like two or even three times a year. If you don’t book your flights well in advance, that will get expensive really quickly.

Here is how to not overspend as an expat:

  • For a month or two, note down every expense, however little. There are apps that make the tracking process easier. You will quickly notice when you are getting carried away.
  • Each night, sit down with a currency converter (there are apps for that too) and look at what you spent that day. This way, you will soon develop a feel for the new currency.
  • During the first month, limit eating out to 3 times a week. Then take a local cooking class or better yet, cook locally with new friends you made.
  • Book all your flights at least 6 months in advance, preferably 12 months. It helps a lot if you always travel at the same time of the year, e.g., around certain holidays.

Follow these tips, and you will easily save several thousand dollars during the first year.

13. Deal With Culture Shock

Most newbie expats underestimate the power of culture shock. They are excited about moving to a new country and expect it to be all roses. This is especially true if you are moving to a country that seems culturally close to yours, e.g., when moving from the US to the UK.

But stay for long enough, and culture shock will always hit. There will be instances when you truly realize, “I am not at home anymore. Things are done differently here.”

For example, when I moved to the US from Germany, I was put off by the fakeness of many people. They would make a point to be seen as extra warm or as excited. But their eyes were telling a different story. This disingenuity was hard for me to take at first.

Later, when I lived in Ukraine, I had the opposite experience. I started training at a local MMA gym and from day one, was met with suspicion and even hostility. There was nothing fake about these people. They were letting me know — “You are a stranger, and we don’t like you being here.” I eventually gained their trust, but it was a fight (literally).

To be clear — neither of these cultures was “wrong.” I love both the US and Ukraine. They were just different from what I was used to. And at least intellectually, I understand that others will experience the same culture shock coming to Germany (our rigidity, our know-it-all attitude, etc.).

This is critical — to get to the point where you stop rejecting your host culture for being different. It’s like a relationship. There will be things about the other person that you don’t like. But there is no point in getting upset about them. You must take them as they are. It’s a package deal.

Interestingly, the longer you stay and the more you overcome this resistance, the more your host culture will start to transform you. You will start seeing the value of some of these new behaviors and you will adapt them. My time in the US helped me with reaching out to strangers and not worrying about the outcome. My time in Ukraine helped me realize that the world often is a dog-eat-dog place and there is no point in complaining about it.

It will make you better. That’s the mindset you need to adopt — “I want to feel culture shock. It’s a transformative experience. If I allow it to happen, I will come out better and more complete on the other side.”

Never underestimate the emotional aspect of “How to become an expat.” It is a big part of the game.

14. Understand the Exactness-vs.-Helpfulness Continuum

Now, this tip applies to expats moving from a Western country to a non-Western country. You will experience a particular kind of culture shock, what I call the exactness-vs.-helpfulness continuum.

In the West, we are used to things working as advertised. If my Amazon delivery is due tomorrow, I expect it to be here tomorrow. If I tell the salesperson at the bakery to give 20 rolls, I want 20, not 21 or 19. If we have a work meeting at 10 am, people show up at 10 am.

This is not how it works outside the West. I have been an expat in Mexico, Ukraine, Thailand, and Egypt (and traveled to many more places). And nowhere did anyone care much for punctuality or scrupulous attention to detail. It is just not part of these cultures.

On the other hand, these cultures have something we don’t have in the West — and that is a notion of social connection and helping each other out. I’ll take Egypt as an example:

  • New friends would call me up to hang out at the cafe
  • New friends would invite me to their homes and feed me
  • New friends would accompany me to play translator or make sure I didn’t get ripped off
  • New friends would literally come running when I was in trouble and needed help

This is the correlation I have noticed again and again — as exactness goes down, helpfulness goes up (and vice versa). Don’t condemn one or the other. It’s just two different ways of dealing with the world.

15. Avoid Social Isolation

When you move to another country, you are essentially cutting yourself out of your existing social network — your colleagues, friends, and family. And while you try to keep in touch, it’s not the same as seeing them every day.

At the same time, you have no one to replace these important people with yet at your new home. You just arrived. You can’t immediately compensate for the loss.

This can quickly spiral out of control, especially if you are an introvert or a socially selective person. When you don’t make new contacts quickly, you will soon feel socially isolated. It can lead to depression and worse.

You must make socializing a priority. If you fall apart emotionally, all other parts of your expat life will soon follow. Build that new network ASAP.

There are two ways to go about this:

  1. Befriend other expats
  2. Befriend the locals

Option one is the quicker one. Emotionally speaking, many of the expats you will meet are in a similar situation as you. They are looking to escape social isolation and find a new emotional home. Therefore, they are likely to take a liking to you. Put differently — they are as desperate as you are.

Also, there is less of a language barrier. You will meet other people from your home country or at least other people who speak English well enough to be potential friendship material.

Beware of the flipside though. It is easy to get caught up in these expat bubbles. You are technically living in another country, but in truth, you are living in an English-speaking enclave. It’s a very different experience from actually becoming a part of your local community.

Also, there tends to be a lot of negativity in expat circles. Many meet-ups I have attended were just a pretext to collectively complain about the idiotic host culture. It is not always the most positive environment.

Still, if you need your social fix quickly, expat meet-ups are the way to go. In your typical expat destination, there will be a couple per week; just check the expat group for your town on Facebook. If you work online, signing up for a co-working space is another great way to meet fellow digital nomads and expats. These co-working spaces also organize their own events that you can attend.

However, the better option is to meet the locals. In my opinion, by far the best way to do so is to play a sport. Note that I didn’t say, “Join a gym.” As good as that will be for your health, it won’t do much for your social life. Most people have headphones on and/or don’t want to talk to anybody.

But a running group? A BJJ club? A recreational soccer team? These places are gold. Go there at least twice a week for four weeks straight, and it will almost be impossible to not make new friends. Once people realize you are a regular now, they will reach out and want to get to know you. And even if there is a language barrier, you will still be able to bond over that shared activity.

16. Build Networks

There is another, more practical reason why you should connect with the locals, and that is networking. Networking is always important, but even more so when you live in non-Western countries. Here, often, you won’t get much done unless you know the right people.

Want to get a local parking permit? You better know somebody who works for the city.

Want to get your iPhone repaired? You better know somebody who you can trust to do it right.

Want your children to get into a certain school? You better know somebody with connections to the school board.

This takes some getting used to. In the US or Europe, we expect the same processes for everybody. This is not true for most of the rest of the world.

But you better wrap your head around it quickly. The earlier you start collecting favors and numbers, the less friction you will experience in the upcoming months. But insist on the “official” approach, and you might never get what you came for.

17. Explore Dating

When relocating, you will eventually want to start dating the locals. For many people, it is the main appeal of moving to a different culture in the first place, to have better sexual options than at home. Think male sexpats in Thailand and female sexpats in The Gambia. That is the spectrum of expat love — from “regular” dating to paid sex.

While many people like to draw a sharp line between these two, I don’t think it’s useful. Relationships are transactional in nature. There is always some kind of value exchange going on. People have been bartering financial security, emotional support, and physical beauty to since the beginning of time.

The difference — in virtually all cultures outside the West, this bartering is openly acknowledged. It is only in Europe and North America that we cling to this idealized notion of romantic love.

Many expats from Western countries struggle with this. I struggle with this. When I was talking to my Thai landlady the other day, I mentioned that I was working a lot lately. Her reaction was, “Well, some lucky lady will really appreciate it one day.”

I was dumbfounded, but I shouldn’t have been. From her cultural point of view, she was right. In Thailand, the man is expected to be a provider. If he is successful, he gets rewarded with better sexual choices.

This outspoken materialism is not the only stumbling block that you will run into. Gender roles are a close second. When you date somebody from a different culture, chances are, they expect you to behave in certain ways because of your gender. If you fail to live up to these expectations, there will be conflict.

I experienced this firsthand dating in Russia and Ukraine. As a man, you are supposed to be a rock. You must be strong in every situation. As soon as you drop your emotional guard, you lose in attractiveness. Having been raised a sensitive mama’s boy in Germany, you can imagine how that went. My lovers were often disappointed with me — and from their cultural perspective, they were right to be.

A female friend of mine from Austria experienced something similar in Egypt. Her local boyfriend would be hyper-jealous, watching her every move, and also criticize her for drinking alcohol and not being homely enough. From his cultural point of view, she was not behaving as a woman is supposed to behave in Egypt.

Third, there is family. Outside North America and Europe, family tends to take on greater importance. People don’t just meet up a couple of times per year for a few major holidays — they see each other all the time. So, if you are dating someone, you don’t just choose them — you choose all their relatives as well. It’s a package deal. This can work out great, especially when it comes to taking roots in your new culture. Your adopted family will massively speed up that process and help you out with all kinds of insider knowledge and connections.

But it can also go pretty bad. If your Egyptian boyfriend is already skeptical of your liberal Western ways, wait for what his conservative Muslim parents think of your lifestyle. There will be endless friction.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t get involved with the locals? Not at all. It can be one of the most rewarding, life-altering experiences you have ever had. It was for me. Just understand the downsides. Fully expect there to be a cultural gap — a gap that will never quite go away. And that can be hard to deal with since that is ultimately why most of us get into relationships — to feel close to somebody.

The alternative is to date other expats, either someone culturally closer to you or even from the same culture. The downside is that you will have way fewer options. You will have to make to do with the limited amounts of eligible expats in your town.

Finally, you can try the long-distance thing. You can date someone from back home and see them only a couple of times per year. For most people, this is not ideal, as it doesn’t provide enough social warmth to fulfill their emotional needs. But if you are a loner like me, it can be a good option. It can also be a good option if both of you are very busy with studies or work and want to minimize distractions. However, sooner or later, one of the two parties will leave that busy state behind and then want more closeness. So, it tends to be a temporary solution, not a stable long-term option.

18. Deal With Resentments

Sooner or later, you will run into certain resentments against you, based on where you are from. This can range from harmless jokes and mild stereotypes to full-blown racism.

The most important thing is to not get upset. Remind yourself that you are the one visiting and cut them some slack. Either laugh with them or, if there is true malice, simply walk away. There is no point in wasting precious mental bandwidth on blockheads.

You can also prevent many of these situations by letting people know what you like about their country. Praise the things that you are excited about, like the delicious food, the wonderful weather, the beautiful people, the great facilities, etc. Where they were skeptical of you just a minute earlier, now you are their new friend. You have given them a reason to feel good about themselves — and everybody likes that.

19. Invite People Over

By moving to another country, you have taken yourself out of your previous social network. And while you should focus on building a new one, you still want to keep it alive as best as you can.

All the usual advice applies. Use messaging apps. Send pictures. Have video calls. But by far the best method to keep your old connections alive is to invite them over to your new home. Sweeten the deal by letting them stay with you and playing tour guide, sharing your insider findings with them that normal tourists would never experience.

What this does is to create shared memories. When they return home, they will now feel like they are part of your new journey. You’ll keep referencing those adventures you had together. It will bring you closer even though you are geographically removed from them again.

20. Manage Your Expectations

A lot of people, when they move countries, have this idea that somehow everything is going to be better in the new place. “My life now sucks, but once I get to X, it will be fantastic!”

I am here to inform you that this is not the case. Moving can certainly be an exciting adventure, especially in the first year or two. And it can also be a life-altering experience, by facing new challenges and inducing personal growth.

But it doesn’t somehow make everything better. No matter where you go — your problems stay with you. If you had a hard time socializing before, you will still have a hard time doing so abroad. If you struggled with bouts of depression before, it will still be a problem in your new home.

21. Don’t Despair

Many expats get in this “no return” frame of mind. They think once they move to another country, they are obliged to stay there.

Often, that is because they are worried about what the people back home might think. If they returned with their tail between their legs, it would them look like a loser — or so they think.

I say nonsense. You gave it a try and found out it wasn’t for you. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time yet or the right place. Whatever the case — do not be afraid to change your mind. You can’t predict how these things will feel. You must test them out.

Understand that most people will never have the courage to do what you did. They would rather stay put than try something something new. Really, you should be proud of yourself.

Bottom line — there is no reason to feel any pressure. If you don’t enjoy expat life, you are free to undo it at any time. It’s your life — live it by your rules.

Leave a Comment