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6 Questions to Ask Before Becoming an Expat

The writer in her natural habitat. Rema Gouyez Benallal

By  May 9, 2017

A veteran expat's best advice—and some words of caution—for aspiring nomads.

Nearly 10 per cent of Canada’s population lives, works or studies abroad. I’m one of the 2.9 million Canadians who have traded the True North for warmer (and in my case, rainier) pastures. I left the leafy suburbs of Toronto five years ago. After studying in Denmark and Australia, I “settled” in London three and a half years ago.

This nomadic lifestyle might sound dreamy, but it can be taxing and full of un-glamourous aspects. Visas, packing, house hunting, communication gaps, and sad goodbyes are as much as part of being an expat as basking in the vibrant energy of a new place.

I love the bustling British capital, but it’s not as culturally diverse as Toronto, not as beautiful as Vancouver and not as friendly as Halifax. There is no hockey here, no panda-hugging prime minister and no grand lakes. It’s a tough choice to give up one incredible place for another, even if temporarily.

When friends and acquaintances ask me about moving abroad, I always tell them to do it at least once. Why wouldn’t you want to use an opportunity to make new of friends, pick up a language and scratch more places off on your Luckies Scratch Map?

One expat moves abroad every 44 seconds. The number of expats has been on the rise over the last few decades, with 232 million people living outside their country of citizenship. That number was 73 million in 1960. There are more resources and increasing cultural acceptance for moving abroad now than ever before. It can be a daunting choice, but also a hugely rewarding one.

For me, it was a no-brainer. But the expat lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Here are six questions that you should ask yourself before deciding to make the big move:

Why do you want to move abroad?

Your intention is key to the kind of experience that you’ll have. The driving force behind your decision has to be a positive and powerful one.

Along with gaining new friends and unforgettable memories, what do you hope to get out of your time abroad? Education, work experience, language skills, and physical and mental wellness are all perfectly legitimate answers.

Identifying your motivation streamlines your experience. It allows you to be able to justify the time and money spent away from your “normal” life, family and friends. When you have a rough day where you just want to give up and head home, reminding yourself of the why will encourage you to keep pushing your boundaries.

Making friends as an adult is a bit like dating: you need to meet people, get to know them, casually exchange phone numbers and hope you see them again. In some ways, it’s harder than dating.

From yoga training courses in Bali, to career opportunities in Singapore, there are many wonderful reasons to pack your bags. And let’s not discount moving abroad for love. International couples constantly surround me, which has me convinced that following your heart across the globe can be both poetic and practical.

How good are you at making new friends—and keeping up with the old ones?

Making friends as an adult is a bit like dating: you need to meet people, get to know them, casually exchange phone numbers, get them to like you and hope you see them again. In some ways, it’s harder than dating. But we’re social animals and we need to find our clan wherever we go.

My experience has been that befriending locals can be challenging. But if you’ve picked a popular expat destination like Singapore, UAE or Taiwan, you’ll find plenty of people in the same boat as you. Being part of an expat community has given me the much-needed support for adjusting to new places. Whether it’s commiserating about homesickness, or huffing and puffing over how expensive flights are during the holidays, having mates who experience things in the same way as you is invaluable. Of course, if you find yourself in a place where language isn’t a problem, don’t shy away from making friends with locals; add as many gems as you can to your international group of friends.

Along with jumping on every social activity that your newly found group of friends suggests, you’ll also need to make (and keep) Skype dates with the friends and family back home. A 10-minute conversation with them can sometimes be more satisfying than a late-night bender with new acquaintances. For any long-distance friendship to work, you need to put in the hours and the effort.

Do you enjoy admin?

Moving abroad is a bureaucratic process. Documents, processing fees and waiting times can’t intimidate you if you’re really going to make this happen. For my UK visa, I needed to list every country I had been to in the last 10 years, supplemented with dates. Short answer: many. But there are no short answers on official documents.

You also need to notify your own country that you’re moving abroad i.e. more forms.

Some things to research and consider: How will taxes work in your new country? What are you going to do about health insurance? Do you want to swap your driving license for another one?

If that list has already intimated you, maybe reconsider the move overseas.

How addicted are you to Tim Hortons?

Can you handle a life without slurpees, iced capps and poutine?

I asked the members of my “Canadians in London” Facebook group for their input on what to consider when choosing the expat life. The most popular answer was learning to actually leave their home country behind. Physically moving somewhere doesn’t mean you’ve stopped having the same expectations you did back home. You need to be prepared to learn and tolerate (if not embrace) new customs, language, culture and zeitgeist.

Do you have savings and a back-up plan?

Moving abroad is expensive. You need to pay for a visa, plane ticket, shipping, deposit on a new flat. . . the expenses add up. That’s also assuming you are going to spend some time job-hunting in the new city. (If you are moving abroad and it’s covered by your employer, congratulations! You lucked-out and can ignore this entire point.)

For the rest of us, we need to have a safety net. That may come in form of substantial savings, a freelance job or loving parents (hi, Mom!). However, it’s not just about the financials. Prepare for returning even before you’ve left (not mentally, just practically). Things may not turn out as you anticipate. See if you can sublet your apartment for a year instead of selling everything you own. Consider whether you can put your car in your parents’ garage. Have a family member temporarily adopt your puppy instead of giving it to a stranger forever.

Will you be able to move back home?

There is a difference between being an immigrant and an expat. The expectation is that expats will eventually come home. And resettling back in your old life may be harder than you think. We’re familiar with the good old “reverse culture shock”—readapting to your country and its culture is as challenging as embracing a new one.

I’ve tried moving back to Toronto a couple of times and failed. I’d like to say that it’s new opportunities and good friends that keep me glued to London, but there is also the worry of starting from scratch back in Canada. Visiting “home” over the holidays is glorious, but it’s also an insight into how your “old life” isn’t a thing anymore.

Weirdly, moving home also requires you to ask yourself a lot of the same questions as moving abroad: Can you restart? Do you have a backup plan? How good are you at making new friends?

But despite the feeling that I live in limbo between two places I love, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This article originally appeared in Verge's Winter 2017 issue. 

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Published in Work Abroad
Roop Gill

After finishing her undergrad in Toronto, Roop Gill worked as journalist for a year. Giving into her wanderlust, she packed up her life in Canada and is currently doing a cross-continental MA through the Erasmus Programme that will take her from Denmark to Australia to England. She can’t understand how this happened, but she has managed to pick three of the most expensive places in the world to live as a student, but she is determined not to let that stand in her way of travelling.

Website: roopgill.com/

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