Moving abroad can be an exhilarating and life-changing decision, opening you up to new sights, people, relationships, and experiences. It can take you from a familiar culture to one that is vastly different. This new culture that you immerse yourself in may turn out to be much more aligned with your values, lifestyle, and plans. Indeed, the difference between travelling to a country and moving there is that the latter is a much deeper and educational way of understanding a country, and the opportunities available to you, purely based on time spent living in one place for several months or years, will be different.
But there can be a danger in over-glamourising and idealising the process of moving abroad. It doesn’t just involve the obstacle of biting the bullet and buying the plane ticket – there are all sorts of other challenges involved, too. These challenges don’t mean that moving abroad has to be a chronically stressful change. However, if you aren’t aware of them, then you might find yourself unprepared, which in itself can be a stressful shock to the system. There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of serendipity when deciding to move aboard (maybe a job opportunity out of the blue has made it a possibility), but understanding – and planning for – the realities of moving abroad is needed to ensure that the move is successful.
The Logistics of Moving Abroad
First, there are the logistics of moving abroad. When I moved abroad to Thailand, I didn’t move there with a work visa or a long-term visa in place. I was working remotely at the time and just took my work with me, which technically made me a tourist, so I had to rely on doing ‘visa runs’ – going to a new country to renew my visa before my current one ran out. I knew beforehand I had to do this, but it was still stressful, as it added some uncertainty to my ability to stay long-term in the country (what if my application was denied or the visa office was closed for multiple days in a row due to a holiday I wasn’t aware of?).
This kind of scenario is a bit unusual, however. Most people who move abroad are not digital nomads, but people who have already secured a job beforehand or who plan on securing work when they arrive. In this case, you’ll need to research the steps you need to take to stay long-term in a country. This could mean applying for a work visa, as well as going through another process to remain settled. For example, for non-EEA citizens hoping to become settled in the UK, it’s necessary to go through the Indefinite Leave to Remain process, but there are online guides and lawyers that can always assist with that process, just like with other processes of settling in a new country long-term.
The Change of Culture
Culture shock is a further challenge you may deal with when moving abroad. A new culture can, of course, be exciting and fascinating to both experience and be a part of, but the difference between one’s home culture and the new culture one is living in can at the same time feel unsettling. You should be prepared to possibly refrain from doing or saying things that were acceptable in your country but which are offensive in another.
For instance, I remember when travelling in Malaysian Borneo, a very nice group of locals offered to give me a lift back to the city after visiting a wildlife reserve. After a pleasant conversation, we arrived at my hostel, so I thanked them for their hospitality and extended my hand to each of them. The two men in the front shook my hand but when I extended my hand to the woman in the back, she didn’t react, leaving me with my hand hanging there awkwardly. After a few seconds, she reached out and shook my hand. After I got out of the car, I realised the faux pas had made. I was in a predominantly Muslim country, of course, and it is not customary for women to shake hands with men who don’t belong to their family.
You can avoid situations like this by learning about the culture you’ll be moving to be beforehand. You should also be prepared to adapt and understand that there will be some differences in customs, attitudes, lifestyles, values, and beliefs. Some differences may be a welcome change and more conducive to your well-being (here I’m thinking of the friendliness of Thais compared to that of Londoners), whereas other differences could take some getting used to, and may potentially never feel agreeable.
The Language Barrier
Not being able to speak the language of the host country is another potential obstacle to keep in mind. You could learn the language before arriving (or at least the basics) or learn when you arrive. Not being able to speak the native language doesn’t necessarily mean you will be unable to do everyday things, but it can make the experience of moving abroad extra challenging, as well as make it feel like you can’t completely immerse yourself in the culture.
I barely learnt any Thai during my 8-month stay in Thailand, nor did most digital nomads I met (although some expats and retirees could speak enough to get by). This is because, at least in Chiang Mai where I lived, the expat and digital nomad communities are large, so you’ll always run into English-speaking people. Chiang Mai is also fairly touristic and locals are used to speaking English (as they are in many other cities in Thailand). This gave me less incentive to learn the language (although I recognise that it was still up to me whether I wanted to feel more immersed in the culture and make an effort to learn).
Not all countries or cities, however, will be like this, where you can get by with just speaking English. In other places, if you can’t speak the language reasonably well, you might feel somewhat like an outsider and unable to really connect with the locals.
Not everyone gets homesick after moving abroad, but a lot of people do. For some, the country they were born into was the thing making them feel sick – perhaps they felt the culture was toxic or other aspects of life were getting them down, such as the lack of job opportunities, the lack green spaces and natural surroundings, the city life, the high cost of living, or the terrible weather. In this way, moving to a country with a warmer culture, more job opportunities, a lower cost of living, natural surroundings and better weather can lead to substantial improvements in mental health, making any feelings of homesickness less likely.
But whether or not you significantly prefer the new country you move to, you may still miss a lot of aspects of home, such as home comforts, your loved ones, and the sense of humour you were used to (I definitely missed British humour when I lived abroad). When moving abroad, you should be prepared for the possibility of some feelings of homesickness and take steps to avoid it or manage it, such as by regularly calling friends and family, and visiting home every now and again.
Building New Connections
Moving abroad is a chance to build connections and establish new relationships. One of the main draws of moving to a new country is the opportunities you’ll have to reinvent yourself and reinvent your social circles. Deep, genuine, and lifelong friendships and romantic relationships can flourish when living abroad, but it’s worth being realistic about this process. New connections aren’t going to fall on your lap. Building authentic and non-superficial friendships is something that takes time.
If you move abroad and don’t know anyone when you get there, then any connection you build will have to start from scratch. You’re not going to have a social circle waiting for you when you arrive or people who know you well and who will be ready to offer you support should you need it. In this way, moving abroad can be an isolating experience, which may be especially pronounced if you don’t speak the native language well and feel out of place in the culture. However, with patience and effort, you can start to integrate more into the culture and build meaningful connections with others.
It is perhaps best to view moving abroad as an experiment, one that may follow a path you want to stay on. If moving to a new country doesn’t work out in the long run, at least you gave it a shot and had some new and interesting experiences to look back on.