In 2013, Hana Tova, then 22, left the United States to teach English in South Korea — becoming one of nine million Americans to embrace life abroad. Ms. Tova, who now works as a freelance writer in Mexico, said she was able to have a better quality of life abroad than she would back home.
Gallup poll findings released in January indicate that record numbers of Americans want to make a similar move, and Malte Zeeck, the chief executive, at InterNations, a global expat network, confirmed that more and more Americans were heading abroad to pursue romantic relationships, employment opportunities and a lower cost of living. Want to see more of the world? Curious if you’d prefer a life somewhere else? Here are some tips for each step of your journey.
Do all the research you can
You’ve always dreamed about working by the beach, but how do you make that a reality? The first practical step is to think about where you are in your life and weigh which options are available to you. Factors like your age, financial situation and skill set will come into play as you consider where to explore long term, but if you don’t have a place in mind, reading some “best countries for expats” lists might put some places on your radar.
For instance, Bahrain was the top destination for expats in 2017 and 2018 in such a list by InterNations. Of 187 countries surveyed, Bahrain ranked the highest for “feeling like home” and second highest for friendliness and finding friends. Two other countries you might not have considered, Taiwan and Ecuador, ranked second and third.
Reading blogs written by expats and watching YouTube videos by people who have moved to the country and are learning the ropes of living there can be informative, but keep in mind that what works for someone else may not work for you. If you have a country in mind, reach out to your network to see if you are connected to anyone in that place. Knowing someone local can make a world of a difference when you move far from home.
If your network is limited, try surveying expat groups on Facebook. Groups like “Expats in Italy,” “Expats in Athens” and “Every Expat in Korea” have several thousand members’ worth of insight and may approve your request to join if you express a desire to relocate there. Many cities with large expat populations even have related groups — ones for specific neighborhoods, ones for pet owners and ones for vegetarians.
Find a vocation
O.K., you have a place in mind, but how do you make money and get by? According to data by the marketing company Finaccord, individuals moving for employment will be the most rapidly growing category of expatriates between 2017 and 2021. You can begin your search on LinkedIn, where you can hunt for openings by country.
American citizens with a clean criminal record, a bachelor’s degree and an interest in education can look into teaching English. South Korea, China, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates are a few popular choices for saving money while away, but there are opportunities in Europe and South America as well. The school or program that hires you often assists with basics like paperwork and housing, but be sure to cross-reference what those programs tell you with information online. In some cases, an internationally recognized certificate to teach English may be required.
If finances are less pressing a concern, there are alternate ways to be abroad for an extended period of time. American citizens who are recent graduates, postsecondary students or 18 to 30 years of age can qualify for a working holiday visa in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore or South Korea. While specifics vary depending on the country, a working holiday visa will grant you the opportunity to stay in the country for six to 18 months and be legally employed. Estonia, the first country to offer an E-Residency for digital nomads, is one option for those who mainly work online. Websites like workaway.info can help you look for volunteer opportunities and paid gigs in everything from blogging to agriculture.
Make your move
Once you have purchased your ticket, spend the time before you leave learning key phrases in your destination’s language, preparing necessary documents and packing.
With American health care costs higher than those in most developed countries, it may be advantageous to choose a local plan at your destination over an international one. (This is a good question to ask on the Facebook groups.) Specific medications may require a prescription from your American doctor, however. Before stocking up on the medicine you need, check the website of the United States Embassy to see if there is a limit on the quantity you are allowed to bring in.
A few weeks before your trip, double-check that you have all the papers you might need for your journey. Does your new place of employment require a background check from your home country? Transcripts? A diploma? Make a checklist of items and cross them off one by one. Speak to your phone company about pausing your mobile wireless plan (then read up on how to get service abroad) and notify your banks of your long-term leave. If you plan on driving, see if there is a driving license exchange program between the United States and your destination country. Otherwise, obtain an international driver’s permit at home to save yourself the hassle of trying to do it overseas.
Lastly, packing for an international trip will require additional savvy. Prioritize what necessities may not be available in your destination country. Amanda Hunter, a 32-year-old black American who has lived in Australia and South Korea, said products that cater to black women can be scarce in certain parts of the world. “There are no options for makeup foundation — even in Australia,” she said. “And here, hair products, braiding materials, hair grease and sleeping bonnets are all very difficult to find.”
Think about the spices, snacks and personal hygiene products you must have — especially if you have a specific brand you must use. Although international deliveries have rapidly developed in the past decade, customs fees and import taxes are a headache you can avoid on some products.
Adjust to life far from home
You’ve arrived at your destination, but now what? In addition to getting a local phone plan and registering for identification, you might need to set up a bank account and find long-term housing. Unless you speak the local language, prioritize an English-speaking bank and remember to ask about remittance fees if you are interested in sending money back to the United States. Hopefully, you will have already done enough research to have an idea of how deposit and rent work at your destination.
While covering the basics, also make time to check in with yourself emotionally, pursue friendships and have fun. “When we ask people why they are unhappy with their lives abroad, they often cite a lack of socialization,” Mr. Zeeck, of InterNations, said. “People are very much concerned with the practicalities of relocating, packing and handling the arrival. You have to do these things, for sure, but the emotional impact of being away can also be very significant.”
If you are comfortable in large group settings, websites like InterNations and Meetup list events where people can meet and get to know each other in real life. If you would rather have a common goal to talk over, language exchanges, religious institutions and volunteer groups also offer opportunities to make friends.
While you may be excited to make local friends, don’t shy away from meeting other expats. Ms. Hunter said connecting with other African-Americans helped her feel less lonely in South Korea. She said it was a misperception to think everything is worse outside the United States, but added that the expat experience is different for people of color. In South Korea, she had to get used to invasions of her space — people pulling her hair and touching her skin on a daily basis, but on the upside, she doesn’t fear the police, travels often and eats healthy. “There are a lot of advantages to living abroad,” she said.
“If I had known subtle things about the culture and what’s acceptable or not acceptable, it would have helped me transition better,” said Ms. Tova, who has lived in South Korea and Mexico. The hardest part was accepting cultural differences, but she loves the lifestyle that allows her to make a living wage and still travel. “I don’t plan on moving back to the States anytime soon … maybe ever,” she added.