Moving across the globe to a new country might sound fun and glamorous, but international relocation brings logistical challenges, surprises and culture shock. These glitches will be easier to handle if you prepare before you pack your bags.

One of the best ways to get ready for an overseas move is to find out what others wish they had known before starting life in another country.

Here are five lessons learned from moving abroad and a handy moving abroad checklist to make your relocation to your destination country as smooth as possible:

5 Things

A New Language Takes Practice.

There’s a difference between studying a language at home and living in it in abroad. Before you move, practice with native speakers if you can, said Steph DeLaGarza, who moved from San Antonio, TX to Costa Rica and then to New Zealand. She said she wishes she had practiced her Spanish more before her first move because, after arriving, she realized her language level was not as high as she’d thought.

“The way I got better was to speak to locals only in Spanish,” she said. “I had the chance to do this in the States but didn’t take advantage of it because I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge.”

A young woman shopping on farmer's market in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A young woman shopping at a farmer’s market in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Moving Stuff Isn’t Worth It

It can be an expensive to move large, heavy items like furniture and vehicles. So, consider getting rid of most of your stuff or putting it in storage.

“I hear about people moving containers of furniture with them, which costs a lot,” DeLaGarza said. “And sometimes that furniture is not suitable for the place you’re moving.”

For example, transporting a car internationally can cost several thousand dollars, and many countries put import taxes on vehicles. And leather and overly stuffed furniture don’t work well in the tropics when you don’t have central air conditioning, she said.

“Mold is a fact of life and you don’t want it growing in your furniture,” she said.

Finding Housing Can Be Tricky.

When she moved from San Francisco, CA to Medellin, Colombia in December 2015, marketing manager Eleni Cotsis had a hard time getting a place to live.

“Renting an apartment in my own name was pretty much impossible,” Cotsis said.

She found that landlords worried that tenants from other countries would leave before the end of the lease. By networking with people she knew, she finally found a room available for rent. And DeLaGarza, who also faced housing challenges, wishes she would have known about house sitting, which solves the housing issue and cuts living expenses.

“Luckily I found out about house sitting a few months after my move to Costa Rica,” she said. “I managed to secure a long house sit, which was my springboard to getting more of those.”

Colorful colonial houses on a cobblestone street in Guatape, Antioquia in Colombia.
Colorful colonial houses on a cobblestone street in Guatape, Antioquia in Colombia.

Making Friends Takes Time.

Before moving from Louisville, KY to Madrid, Spain, Larry Hyman had been traveling there for decades for work and vacations. Hyman, who runs a tour company, Creative Travel Madrid, always found people in Spain to be warm and welcoming. Nevertheless, when he moved there permanently in October 2014 to get married, he found it tough to make friends because many people he met worked long hours and spent the rest of their free time with family.

Making friends is “hard” and a “long-term process,” he said.

However, resist the temptation to go the easy route and hang out only with people from your own country, said Cotsis, who met locals at language exchanges and by starting a group for women entrepreneurs.

“Expat and digital nomad friends are great to have, but they leave after a very short time and the friendships don’t have the opportunity to develop into anything really substantial,” Cotsis said. “Local friends give you an entire new view of the city.”

Multiracial Group of Friends Taking Selfie at Beach

Red Tape Causes Big Headaches.

One of the biggest challenges of moving abroad is dealing with bureaucracy around getting a visa, driver’s license, bank account or utilities. For example, Cotsis found it challenging to navigate the visa process in Colombia, and she recommends getting your information from the country’s official website for maximum accuracy. Now, Cotsis lives with her Colombian boyfriend, writes the blog Vida for Two about intercultural relationships, and has a “co-living visa,” similar to a spousal visa, for partners of Colombian citizens.

No matter how much research you do, there’s no way to anticipate every challenge you’ll face, said DeLaGarza, who is happy she decided to wing it on her first international move.

“It was a challenge and made for a great learning experience,” she said.

Moving Abroad Checklist

Now that you know what you are getting into, it is time to start planning your move abroad.

Put Your Important Documents In Order

It is essential that you have copies of your important documents with you abroad, as well as stored safely with family members or other secure location in your home country. These documents are the most important:

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Medical records and health insurance cards
  • Social security card
  • Copies of your passport

Prepare For Your Arrival in Your New Country

This perhaps will be the most challenging aspect of moving abroad, aside from actually getting used to living in a new country. But each step in this task is absolutely essential to ensuring your legal status at your new destination, as well as your ability to quickly live your life without any major issues.

  • Find a new home. This might require working with an international relocation expert, your overseas employer, or traveling to your destination country in advance. Remember, some countries may have unique requirements in regards to foreigners renting or a buying a home, so you will need to research these laws thoroughly.
  • Obtain work permits and visas. Research the specific work permit/visa requirements for the country you are planning to move to. If you have an employer lined up, this is something that they should assist you with. Otherwise you will need to complete this process on your own.
  • Check on driving license and insurance requirements. If you think your state-issued driver’s license and insurance policy will cover you abroad, check again. Requirements vary widely depending on your move. If you plan to live in your new country long term, you will almost certainly need to obtain a local license and a new insurance policy.
  • Perform a financial checkup. Don’t plan on using your United States-based bank account for everyday needs, as overseas transactions fees will become a drain on your finances. Look into setting up a bank account in your new country. The same applies to any credit cards you may have. You’ll want to consider for applying for new cards at your new location, so be sure to have access to any documentation you might need to prove your income and credit is up to par.

Find a Moving Company and Start Packing

Will it be easier to sell all of your belongings and start over? Probably, but not always. It might be more cost effective to move your furnishings to a new country, depending on your living needs.

  • Get quotes from a number of international freight and overseas moving companies.
  • Check to make sure that any movers you choose to work with are properly insured.
  • Compare the cost of moving to what it will cost to purchase new furniture and decor in your new country.
  • Make a packing list of items that you need to take with you no matter what, including copies of your important documents. Be sure to pack these in your luggage when you travel, along with other valuables and necessities.
  • Find a self-storage unit or trusted family member’s home where you can keep personal items you can’t take with you. If renting a storage unit, be sure to stay up to date on your payments or you may return to find that your possessions have been auctioned off.
  • Make your final travel arrangements. Book airfare as far in advance as possible to avoid paying a high price for a last minute flight.

Tie Up Loose Ends

You are almost ready to enjoy your life as an expat, but make sure you finish up these few last pieces of business.

  • Consider power of attorney. You might want to give a trusted friend or family member a limited power of attorney to handle your affairs while you are abroad. For example if you needed to sell a car or other property, they could sign documents on your behalf.
  • Change of address. The United States Postal Service won’t forward mail internationally, but you can fill out this form to arrange for a U.S.-based agent to receive your mail. This will allow a mail forwarding service to receive your mail and then ship it to you abroad for a fee.
  • Pay your bills. Be sure to pay off any outstanding bills, and make arrangements to pay anything that needs to be paid on an ongoing basis. If not you could be in for quite a disaster when you return stateside.
Allie Johnson