So, you’ve decided to try living outside your home country. Congrats – taking “the road less traveled” is a wise, and yes, courageous, choice. If you approach it with an open heart and mind, we promise you’ll be rewarded with adventures and memories of a lifetime. But, since there’s no manual on “how to expat,” planning your escape can be tricky.
Now that we’ve passed our four-year anniversary of life outside the U.S. – first in Panama and now in Colombia – here are our two cents on how to expat.
As you do your research and start to narrow down your target country, you’ll read a lot of glowing reviews in magazines and on the internet extolling the benefits of different locations. Many of these sources paint a rosy picture that seems almost too good to be true (and you know the saying about that). A lower cost of living and a simpler way of life are especially big motivators for people from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other European countries, and, now in growing numbers, South Africa. Indeed it’s possible to realize these benefits somewhere other than one’s birth country, but it takes work, perseverance, and research.
Step 1: Do your homework.
In other words, don’t take the glossy magazines at face value, especially the countless articles that “list the 10 best countries to affordably retire to” or take a similar approach. Nine times out of 10, they’re promoting these countries with an ulterior motive, and the truth might be somewhat different. And avoid any sites or publications that are trying to sell property – that should be the last thing on your agenda, at least until you’ve had some actual experience living in your target country.
Try to connect with as many real-live expats as you can. Check out the online expat forums and blogs. The expat groups on Facebook can be good information sources, but you have to sort out the “trolls” from the legitimate posts made by people that actually live there.
Our best information sources have always been, and continue to be, the expat blogs written by people who know what it’s like to live, day in and day out, in a given location. Nine times out of ten, these are written by people like us, who benefited greatly from those who went before them and are now eager to pay the favor forward by sharing information. Not only can you usually rely on these people to give you their unvarnished opinion, but you’ll also make contacts that can turn into real, live friendships and important on-the-ground resources once you’ve made the move.
When you talk to folks, go beyond questions like weather, most livable neighborhoods, crime statistics, cost of healthcare and other living expenses (this information is easy to glean from a Google search). What’s it really like to access the healthcare system? What are the things they love the most, and what things aren’t so great? Is the language barrier really a big deal? Do they get homesick, and how do they stay connected to family? What do they miss the most about their birth country?
Here are a few links to get you started:
Cost of living comparisons – www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living
In-country expat aggregate sites – www.expat.com, www.expatfocus.com
The World Health Organization’s rankings of healthcare systems by country
A comparison of the quality of healthcare in the U.S. vs. other countries
Step 2: List the pros and cons of your target country and city.
No place is perfect. You have to weigh the options that are best for your particular circumstances. How is your health, and will you be able to receive affordable care and quality treatment in your new country? What’s the process for getting a residency visa, and how expensive is it? What about safety and political stability? Will your new country tax you on your income (this is a big one)? If you’re moving with pets, how complex and expensive is the process, and how pet-friendly is your target location? Does the area you’re looking at have a big expat community, if that’s important to you?
If you decide to settle in a non-English-speaking country, are you prepared to get a least a basic knowledge of the language? Here in Medellín, we call it “survival Spanish,” and it’s things like ordering food off a menu, asking directions, and being able to tell a cab driver where you live.
Before long, you might decide that survival language isn’t enough, and you want to be able to have more meaningful conversations with the locals. Besides language schools, private tutors, and online language training sites, look for every opportunity to practice your fledgling language skills – with taxi drivers, servers in restaurants, people on the street. We’ve found that people here are incredibly kind and forgiving as we butcher their language, and they seem to really appreciate the effort.
Culturally, we see two options: jump in, feet first, and immerse yourself in your new country and its people, or take baby steps and move somewhere with a large expat community to make an easier transition. We call this the “training wheels” approach, and it’s essentially what we did when we moved first to Boquete, Panama. In a place like Boquete, it’s possible to live for many years without learning a word of Spanish. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it’s the “comfort zone” many people need, but we realized after three years that it wasn’t the culture experience – the adventure – we’d signed up for.
Step 3: Adjust your attitude before you adjust your latitude. Expatting isn’t for everyone.
If you are a positive, “glass half full” person in your home country, then you have the stuff for the expat life. Trust us, you’ll need all the positivity you can muster!
What is your comfort zone and how much inconvenience can you tolerate? If you need things like on-demand hot water, having family close by, the convenience of shopping for anything you want, fast and reliable customer service, and reliable mail and shipping, you might be better off staying put. You might also have to deal with infrastructure issues: power outages, undrinkable tap water, sporadic internet service, and poor cell phone coverage, just to name a few. Of course, these factors can vary dramatically from country to country, and from province to province or city to city.
Another very important factor for couples is that you and your spouse or partner need to be on the same page. If one is wavering, you need to address that before you make any move. Expatting has to be a team effort. And if you’re thinking of moving as an escape – from your country’s political situation or otherwise – chances are you won’t be happy somewhere else. (Remember, the grass is always greener.)
Most of all, don’t go with the expectation that your new home should be more like your old one. Expecting things to happen just as fast, or be just as easy, as they are in your native country will quickly result in frustration, and – in our opinion – misses the whole point of expatting. Sure, we have plenty of moments when we’re scratching our heads and saying things like “We could have gotten this done five times faster and easier back in the States.” Depending on where you go, expect lots of inefficiencies, government bureaucracies, and moment of sheer disbelief bordering on the comical. But we’ve learned that these moments are part of the experience. If you go with the flow and enter each situation with an open mind, you will get the job done!
Step 4: Get your boots on the ground.
As surprising as it seems, we’ve met people who actually picked up and moved to their new country after just one vacation visit, or even without ever having visited before. We would lay odds that most of these people have already moved back home or will be doing so soon. One little visit, hitting just the tourist sites, is not enough to experience day-to-day life in the new location with all of its pleasures and challenges.
At a minimum, we recommend two or three visits to your target city, and try to spend at least two weeks at a time. And try to
go at different times of the year, so you’ll know if you can tolerate the area’s weather extremes. Rather than staying in a hotel, try to rent a small apartment or an AirBnB. Buy groceries and cook in. Try to simulate, as much as possible, what actually living there is like. (On our last visit to Medellin before our move, we stayed in AirBnBs in three different neighborhoods.) Does the neighborhood have a safe reputation, and is it quiet? Are the locals friendly and helpful? How walkable is it, and how convenient to restaurants, shopping, transportation, healthcare facilities, and entertainment?
If you have already connected with expat bloggers in your prospective city, plan on meeting up with them. Buy them lunch and get their perspective and recommendations. They will be your best and most current information source for immigration and visa requirements, housing, transportation, health care, and other matters, since information is constantly changing and what you read on the internet is often outdated.
A smartphone is your best friend. Get yourself a local sim card and make sure you’ve loaded, at the minimum, WhatsApp and some sort of navigation app, such as Google Maps or Waze. WhatsApp is especially critical in Latin America, since EVERYONE uses it. In fact, people here are much more likely to respond to a WhatsApp message than an email or voicemail. Other highly useful apps are Google Translate and other language apps, Units Plus (a nifty metric-to-imperial tool for every type of unit, as well as a currency converter). We also love Easy Taxi, a taxi version of Uber that brings a taxi right to your door in minutes, with your destination already programmed into the driver’s phone.
Step 5: Figure out money matters.
The financial aspects of expatting should be a central element in your research. You’ll get a feel for the cost of living in your new country after your “living like a local” trip. Remember: relocating to another country involves (sometimes significant) costs: transportation, shipping, visas, furnishing a new home, the true costs of healthcare, deposits and other fees for renting, the costs of trips back home to see family, etc. If a lower cost of living is your primary motivator for moving, weigh these expenses – you might be better off staying put.
And before we go any further, we suggest – no, we urge – that you live in your new city for at least six months before you even THINK of buying property. A year is even better.
How will you access your money and how will you pay for things?In Colombia and other Latin American countries, ATMs are the best places to get local currency at the best exchange rates. Tip: get a debit card that has no foreign transaction fees and reimburses you for all ATM fees. We have Charles Scwab debit cards that do just that – here’s more info.
We do have a Colombian bank account (it was a prerequisite for renting our apartment) but we pay our local bills by transferring funds from our US bank account using Xoom. A similar service is World Remit. Both offer a less expensive means than a bank wire transfer, and the transaction happens quickly, usually within an hour. If you’re collecting Social Security in the U.S., we do not recommend having your Social Security check deposited into a foreign bank account. It is a process to get it set up, and you may be charged fees.
Here’s one they don’t tell you about in the retirement publications! After living as expats for over a year in Panama, we got a call from our financial advisor saying that Morgan Stanley was phasing out all of its overseas clients. In other words, the company that had managed our retirement funds for decades was firing us! We were given 90 days to move our funds and close the accounts. After a bit of a scramble, we were able to go with Charles Schwab, and it’s actually turned out to be a good move, since CS has a whole division dedicated to overseas retirees. Lesson: check to make sure your investment company will stay with you if you move to another country.
5. Time to make a decision.
OK. You’ve made your first fact-finding trip and you’ve been back a couple of times to try on different neighborhoods. You’ve gotten most of your questions answered and you’ve found the city/town/village that feels like “home.” It’s time to make a decision.
AAANNDD . . .
Now your most important work is ahead of you. Find out exactly what is required for legal residency – fees, timeframes, and necessary paperwork. What is required to open a bank account, secure housing, obtain healthcare coverage. How do you get a driver’s license, sign up for utilities in your name, and get a mobile phone contract?
Which leads us to . . .
6. Get an advocate.
Getting things done in another country with a completely different culture is challenging enough, but if you’ve got a language barrier, the challenges are multiplied. Even before you move, try to connect with a facilitator or advocate, someone local who also speaks your language and can help you navigate the business/legal aspects of getting settled in your new home.
In Medellin, a growing number of enterprising people are offering such services – locals who understand how to jump through their county’s bureaucratic hoops, but also understand the needs of newly arrived expats. We were lucky enough to find such a person, and he’s been our lifesaver.
7. Think about your exit strategy.
It’s something you might not want to think about, after doing all your homework and making a decision as monumental as picking a new country and city to call home. But what if things go south in your new location – politically, economically, militarily? We’re not trying to be downers, but the world today is a complicated place. Take Nicaragua, for instance. We have friends who built a life and a lovely home there, and who recently had to leave when the country was plunged into a civil and political crisis last year.
Are you willing to pick up and leave everything behind? How much of your expatting investment are you willing to walk away from? (It’s another argument for moving with as little stuff as possible, and for not buying property right away.) Do you have a plan and the funds for making a quick exit if need be?
8. Final suggestions
Expatting is not for the stuff-addicted; in fact, the leaner and meaner you go, the happier you’ll be. We know of many new expats that have moved with a 40-foot container, shipped a car (a few even shipped motorcycles and one brought a boat!), only to realize a year or so later that the expat life was not for them. The lesson: don’t bring your stuff, especially your big, expensive stuff, unless you’re prepared to sell it at a huge loss or ship it back if you change your mind. There are also customs duties to consider.
And here’s a random thing you might not consider (we didn’t): is your passport up to snuff? Many countries will not allow entry if a passport is within six months of expiring. And if you’re from the U.S., you might not be aware that they no longer issue extra pages for an unexpired passport that’s run out of stamping room. Our passports don’t expire for another year, but we just had to renew them because we were down to a couple of pages apiece.
Other important paperwork, wherever you go, is your original drivers license, birth certificate, Social Security proof of retirement letter or other proof of pension funds, marriage certificate, bank statements, and a copy of your last tax filing. Bring several copies of each. As you apply for residency in your new country, be prepared to present certified, notarized, and/or apostilled copies of these documents. Bring your medical records, and translate a summary of your medical history into the language of your new country .
Footnote: So why did we decide to expat?
In 2001, we sailed out of San Francisco aboard our 42-foot sailboat, Compania. For me, it was the realization of a lifetime dream. I had always wanted the adventure of casting off the lines, leaving the shore, experiencing a deeper connection with nature, and learning to be as self-sufficient as I could within my skills and boundaries. I am extremely grateful that I was able to share this experience with my co-captain and soulmate, my wonderful and beautiful wife, Susan. (Note from Susan: Aww! Ditto, babe!!)
That trip came to an end in 2004, but it ignited the travel and adventure bug within both of us. As we got back to “dirt world” (as sailors like to call boring, stable life on land) and resumed our careers, we started dreaming of someday living outside the country. One thing lead to another, and here we are – 16 years later – living the good life in Medellín, Colombia. And we wouldn’t change a thing!
So there you have it. Feeding your jones for adventure and wanderlust, seeing what’s around the next corner, experiencing different cultures and new people, learning new histories and geographies, beholding otherworldly natural beauty, and enjoying that wonderful sense of freedom. These are just a few of the rewards of expatting that we’ve experienced, and we wish the same for you!