Moving house is just about the most stressful project you can undertake, moving abroad doubly so. At the outset it can feel overwhelming, taking months of stressful planning and endless checklists to pull off smoothly.
Having been through this experience twice already, and now on my way to a third time, I’ve put together a short guide on the key elements to planning and executing an international move, including:
- Visas & Documentation
- Flights & Shipping
- Apartment & Utilities
- Vaccinations & Insurance
- Mobile & Internet
- Driving License
Note that the guide is aimed at individuals (not families) moving at their own expense (not at a corporation’s) but much of it applies to anybody.
Unless you’re being sent by your current employer, finding a job abroad not only depends on your skills and experience but also having something which is lacking or in high demand in your destination country. I would always start job hunting before making your move by looking at local job and expat websites to get a feel for what’s available. Also, draw up a list of companies who you think you might like to work for and then email or call them to see if they’re hiring.
At the low end of the spectrum, English teaching is something that many people start with or fall back on, but unless this is your lifelong passion then it’s probably not something you’re going to want to do long-term. I would avoid it altogether because all too often people get trapped doing this for years and are then unable to break free of the safety net and relatively easy life it provides.
Although the highly lucrative ‘expat packages’ of the past are mostly history, professional careers still pay better and will hopefully be more fulfilling. Many of the in-demand jobs are in high-tech or internet-based sectors but finance, design and journalism may also provide pathways to good jobs abroad.
Thirdly you may consider starting your own company. This is the most challenging option which comes with its own logistical headaches, but if you have an entrepreneurial streak and knowledge of the local business environment it may be very rewarding.
Hunting remotely can only take you so far, so for all of these options it helps to be on the ground and able to meet people face-to-face. Don’t be put off if you don’t hear back from people immediately – it will take significant time and effort but persevere!
Visas & Documentation
Depending on your nationality, many countries will allow you to visit for a certain number of days without a visa as a tourist but to legally live and work in another country you will need a visa that is usually applied for at the destination country’s consulate.
This is usually sponsored by your employer but in the case you do not have a job before you move it becomes a little more complex. You could opt to enter on a tourist or student visa and then search for a job within the country or if you have money to invest you might consider setting up a business locally that may also provide a route to a visa.
Whatever approach you take, visa applications are often complex and tortuously bureaucratic so be sure to begin the process as far in advance as possible. There are usually agencies which can help smooth the process for a reasonable fee.
With regards other important documentation, I like to keep digital copies that I securely store in a combination of Dropbox and 1Password. Key documents include:
- Degree certificates
- Job references
- Medical records and insurance information
- Passport photo page and visa copies
- Bank account and credit card details
- Serial numbers (for cameras, laptops, smartphones etc.)
- Emergency contacts
The advantage of using these cloud services is that you can get access to all your important information on the go through your smartphone or tablet and there is no chance of losing them.
Flights & Shipping
Searching for the cheapest and most convenient flights is a bit of a dark art but Skyscanner, Kayak, and Hipmunk make things a little easier. Expedia is able to search for multi-stop flights but for this, you may find a better deal by going to the airline’s website direct.
Unless your employer is prepared to pay to move all your possessions I would always recommend travelling as light as possible. This is hard, especially if you already have a well-established home somewhere, but having to ship large items like furniture is extremely expensive and limits your flexibility in being able to move at will. Only take with you the essentials – leave the kitchen sink behind or sell it on eBay/Craiglist! Everything else can be brought locally as needed.
To prevent myself from acquiring too much I have taken up the habit of only buying new clothes and other items if I’m prepared to throw something else away. Be ruthless because bear in mind that the normal weight restrictions when flying for checked-in baggage is around 23kg and for carry-on baggage 12kg (economy class). If you really need to carry more it may end up cheaper flying business class than paying for an additional luggage allowance.
Apartment & Utilities
If you’re a homeowner this is a bit more complex but I’m going to assume most people are renting. The first thing you’ll have to do is give notice (usually 1 or 2 months) on your current place and settle your bills. Don’t forget to get back any deposits. If you have contracts for things like internet connections then you may need to pay your way out of them if they have not already reached their end. Key utilities include:
When getting settled into your new country you’ll probably want to book somewhere temporary to stay before finding your own place. An excellent alternative to a hotel/hostel is Airbnb where individuals rent out their spare room or entire apartment for short stays.
When it comes time to search for your own place, be sure to understand exactly what you’re getting into before signing a new lease, including:
- Minimum rental period
- Deposit required and % you will get back at the end
- Utilities included or additional cost
- Furniture/appliances included or not
If the contract is not in a language you understand be sure to get a trusted local to check it before signing. On the day you move in I suggest taking pictures of every room in the apartment with the landlord present to ensure you have evidence in the case of any disputes when the time comes to move out.
To prevent future problems be sure to settle any debts and cancel auto-payments before leaving your home country. If your bank or credit card company charges a fee you may want to consider cancelling them but it’s often handy to have a bank in another country as a backup. If you can find a bank account which doesn’t charge for international withdrawals or transactions then this is worth its weight in gold but these are usually reserved for long-term customers with significant assets.
In your destination country try to find a bank with a foreigner-friendly reputation and ideally English-speaking staff (HSBC and Citibank are good bets where available). Also, check to see if they have an English online interface which can save you much time and frustration. When I lived in mainland China I had to memorise the function of each button in my online bank – this was fine until one day they changed the order of all the buttons!
For international transfers be sure to note how much your new bank charges (usually a flat fee and/or a % of the amount to be transferred) and the IBAN / SWIFT codes that will be required.
Unless you’re American or intend to return to your home country for a significant number of days each year you can probably get tax-free status and avoid paying tax twice on your income. This is usually done by completing a form for your local inland revenue department.
In your destination country tax is often handled by your company but in some cases, you may be liable to submit a tax return yourself. Some countries like Hong Kong collect income tax yearly so you’d want to remember to put enough money by for that purpose and depending on the law you may also be charged a different rate of tax from locals.
Vaccinations & Insurance
Depending on your home and destination country you should check whether you require specific vaccinations to protect yourself from regional diseases, most commonly including Tetanus, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, Cholera and Rabies.
Obviously, the more remote and undeveloped you intend to go the more important this becomes, and some tropical countries require you to have an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) before you enter.
Photo by Sanofi Pasteur
As well as getting immunised before your move, you’ll also want insurance for routine and emergency medical care which may be needed while you’re abroad. International health insurance can be expensive so it’s wise to shop around – you will probably find that local plans are often cheaper than the likes of AXA or Bupa and you may even be covered by the local public healthcare system.
Mobile & Internet
One of the first things you’ll want to do when arriving in your new country is getting a local phone number and maybe a data allowance for your smartphone that makes navigating your new surroundings much easier. I always find it best to start with a pre-paid SIM card that you pick up at the airport or local telecom shop and then consider whether you want to get a contract once you’ve settled in. Unless you know you’re going to be staying for a number of years be careful about signing up for lengthy contracts that may be expensive to terminate later on.
If you plan on driving abroad you may want to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) which accompanies a valid license from your home country and is recognised in many countries. However, in some countries, if you are taking up long-term residence or employment you may be required to apply for a local driving license and retake a test.
Be warned that in some countries unscrupulous locals may see foreigners as an easy target for insurance fraud and purposefully cause accidents that the foreigner is then blamed for. While rare it’s always worth being on your guard and making sure you have the right documentation at all times.
Phew. After all that hard work it’s time to pack your bags, pour yourself a glass of Champagne and get ready for your new life overseas!
This guide is a work in progress so feel free to leave comments and suggestions below.