Expat Life: Things To Know When Moving Abroad

Moving abroad can be a daunting experience. From logistics to homesickness, it can seem like there are difficulties and setbacks at every turn. During this process, being prepared can make things run much more smoothly, but it can be hard to be prepared if you don’t know what to expect. So I decided to make a list of things I wish I’d known when I was first moving abroad. I compiled this list drawing on my own experience, and while each person’s experience is different, I think many of these are universally helpful. Feel free to add your own tips in the comments!

Before leaving:

  1. Find a support network. For me here in Tel Aviv, the Facebook group Secret Tel Aviv has been really useful. People in the group are largely immigrants and many of the posts give you a good idea of what kind of issues to expect to encounter in your new home. I didn’t find the group before I moved but I wish I had, because I think it would have prepared me better for the “Israeli experience.” The group is also great for when I have a question about something or am trying to figure out where to buy something I normally get at home. While my fiance is obviously my greatest guide, he doesn’t know things like where to buy the brand of makeup I prefer.
  2. Designatean address in your home country. You will find that many many things will need to be mailed to you in your home country. For instance, when I renewed my US drivers license, the actual license wouldn’t arrive until after I had left so I had to have it mailed to a US address. Some things you want to buy online may not ship to your new country. If I really want something that I can’t find or get delivered here and I feel it’s worth the hassle, I can order it to my US address and have one of my parents ship it. Parents are great designees for this address duty, but a sibling or close friend could help you out too.
  3. Collect every government document you could possibly need and get them apostilled. Any process related to citizenship or immigration involves a whole lot of official documents. Every country requires different ones. Unfortunately, they’re not always clear on which ones they require, and once you’re in your new home, its near impossible to get them from your home country. Always look online at the Ministry of the Interior website (or whoever handles immigration in your new country) and find the list of required documents. However, don’t just rely on that list. Google the application process you’re going through and you’ll find message boards of people going through the same thing and coming up short on documents. Get whatever ones they say they’re required to have, just in case. In this department, it’s better to be over prepared. Remember that depending on where you live, getting an apostille could take a while, so do this in advance.
  4. Learn the stages of culture shock. When I studied abroad in school they gave us a sheet describing the “Classic 4 Stages of Culture Shock.” I kind of laughed it off until I had an “aha moment” here in Tel Aviv after having a minor breakdown over the way the grocery store checkout operated. In short, the first stage is the honeymoon stage, where you’re excited about the differences in your new country and you love almost everything about it. This is especially true, in my opinion, when your move is due to a long distance relationship and now the two of you get to be together. Unfortunately this stage doesn’t last forever, and you eventually move into the negotiation or distress stage. The differences start to frustrate you, you start the get overly annoyed at minute things, and you might start to question your decision. Add to this frustration that your normal support system of friends and family are thousands of miles away, and you might just find yourself having a breakdown at the grocery store checkout. For me, I just couldn’t understand why people couldn’t walk straight down a sidewalk, or stop at a stop sign, or form an actual line for something, and the frustration got to me more and more until I hated doing things like running errands. The most important thing is to stay positive and remember all of the reasons you decided to move. While things like those above still annoy me sometimes, I thankfully moved into the adjustment stagewhere you begin to adjust to your new country. Now, I understand that the differences here are not going change no matter how frustrated I get, and its me who needs to adapt to them. I feel like I’ve gotten a thicker skin since I moved to Israel, and I appreciate that since it’s something I’ve struggled with in my life. I haven’t yet made it to the mastery stage, simply because my Hebrew is not good enough for me to participate fully in society. Hopefully soon I’ll make it there, but for now I’m happily hanging out in the adjustment stage. In summary, after that long winded explanation, my advice is this: no matter how much you think you’re going to love everything about your new country, you will almost surely find yourself in the distress stage at some point, so prepare for that, and remember to stay positive.

The most valuable thing in my luggage.

  1. Stock up on the things you won’t be able to get (here’s looking at you double stuffed Oreos).No matter where you’re moving, you will find that you won’t be able to get some of the things you can in your home country. Don’t worry, you’ll find a lot of new things that you may like even better. But if there is something that you really want from home, buy it in bulk and bring it with you. I’m pretty sure that airport security must think I’m a drug dealer from the amount of ziplock bags I bring with me (why don’t you have ziplock bags Israel?!), but I’m glad I brought them. A Facebook group like the one I mentioned in the first tip can help you figure out where to find some things and which things you absolutely can’t find and need to bring.
  2. Figure out the best way to move all your stuff. Many countries have specific allowances for immigrants to bring their stuff over – for example, in Israel it’s a shipping container that you won’t pay taxes on (along with some other benefits) – but that doesn’t mean that’s the best option for you. Figure out the cost benefit of every method of moving your belongings from Point A to Point B. Since my fiance already had a fully stocked apartment, there was no point to me schlepping my dishes and home goods all the way to Tel Aviv. Since that left me with mostly clothes, it was cheaper for me to just pay for an extra suitcase and bring everything over that way than to pay for an entire shipping container.
  3. Learn some of the basics of the language.All of you folks who already speak the language of your new country can move along since this doesn’t really apply to you, but for those of you moving to a country that speaks a different language, if you haven’t already start learning some of the basics before you leave. When I first came to Israel I didn’t know even one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This set me up for some real difficulties – for instance, I couldn’t even type the labels of foods in the grocery store into Google translate on my phone to figure out what things were because I didn’t know the letters (grocery stores seem to be a real issue for me). Once I did my first intensive Hebrew course and learned to read and write along with some basic language, things got exponentially easier for me. In hindsight, learning these things before coming to Israel would have made the transition dramatically easier for me.

Rosh HaNikra

Once you’re there:

  1. Make friends. Easier said than done I know. I really struggled to make friends when I got here, but if you can make even just one good friend it can make all the difference. I was lucky to meet another American who moved here and married an Israeli years ago, and I don’t know what I would have done without her. She helped me with so many issues: confusion about random minor things like ATMs, where to buy things, and getting through that distress stage I mentioned earlier. Also she’s just a really great friend. I would recommend looking for a group online of people looking to make friends. Through the Secret Tel Aviv Facebook group I found other groups just for women looking to make female friends, and that has been an invaluable resource for me.
  2. Don’t worry about looking like an idiot, because at some point you probably will. This may not be as relevant for those of you moving somewhere with the same language and customs, but for the rest of us, prepare to be embarrassed at some point. New languages are hard and cultural norms take time to learn, but the people in your new home will understand that. Don’t let your fear of saying or doing something wrong keep you from trying, and recognize that you will make mistakes, some of which will be embarrassing, but you’ll learn from those mistakes and have some great stories to tell down the road. I once tried to order the slang word for female genitals instead of a cup of juice at a falafel stand due to an unfortunate similarity between two Hebrew words, so it really can’t be worse than that.
  3. Find and download the apps the locals use. Every city has its own unique apps, and many global apps work better in some cities than others. For instance, Uber is popular in many cities but disallowed in some. Many public transportation systems have their own apps which make it easy to figure out which bus or train you need to take to get where you want to go. In Tel Aviv, the app Moovit fills this roll. Uber is popular here along with GetTaxi, which does exactly what its name implies. While Google Maps works in Tel Aviv, but many people prefer the app Waze. Check with locals in your new home to see which apps you should be downloading and make your new life a whole lot easier.
  4. Be patient.This was kind of addressed in the tip about culture shock, but I think it’s so important that it needs reiterating. Life in a new country can be hard, and it times it might not be what you initially expected. Things may not fall into place immediately, but have patience because they will eventually. Just remember that there are so many great things about moving abroad – meeting new friends, learning about new cultures, and having some awesome adventures. Most people would never dare to do what you’re doing, so when times get hard, give yourself some credit. Most of all, enjoy the good times, because there will be plenty, and they’ll make everything worth it.
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