Your First Days as an Expat: A Brief Survival Guide for Those Moving Abroad

Your visa is approved, your bags are packed, and you’re ready to start a new chapter of your life. Even though you think you’re ready, there inevitably will be an adjustment period in your new home country. Whether you still haven’t mastered the language or don’t have a budget plan in place, use this as a guide to ease the transition during your first few weeks.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

While speaking the language of your new host country before you move there is ideal, you don’t always have the time or resources to learn. If your only experience with your new country’s language is listening to audiotapes on the plane ride there, don’t fret. Follow these three tips to diving into the language:

  • Don’t assume everyone will speak English. It’s tempting to settle into your comfort zone when you don’t know the right word, but hoping everyone else speaks your language won’t help you learn theirs. Try your best to communicate using the limited vocabulary you do know, and make a note to look up the ones you don’t later.

  • Turn on the TV. Watching soap operas, dramas, and even reality shows will teach you how the country uses different phrases. If you’re using the English sentence structure in a Spanish or French-speaking country, then you likely won’t make any sense.

  • Find a language exchange. Many countries and cities have clubs for people who want to learn English and English speakers wanting to learn the native language. Not only will you learn the language in a comfortable environment, you’ll also meet new people and make friends.

Calculating Your Budget and Anticipating Shortfalls

To put it bluntly, financial planning for expats is not a simple proposition. You may arrive in your home country with a budget that accounts for housing, food, and other expenses for each week or month; however, thanks to unforeseen circumstances (or poor planning), you still could find yourself going over budget easily. You likely won’t know exactly how much food costs until you arrive, and it could be more than anticipated. Alternatively, you could get caught up in the new city, spending more than intended while dining at restaurants and enjoying the sights around you.

From the moment you arrive, track your grocery costs and expenses (in both US dollars and the new currency) to understand what your actual budget should be. This will also help you better understand the currency conversion rates.

If you find yourself low on funds as you look for a job or wait for your first paycheck, you can use an international money transfer operator such as Ria Money Transfer to have money sent to you from the United States. Moving forward, make an effort to budget and spend wisely, and you’ll soon be on your feet and converting smartly.

Figuring Out the Driving Patterns

Many countries have driving patterns and laws that are unfathomable to Americans, whether it’s driving on the other side of the road in London or navigating the loud and crowded streets of Delhi. Start by taking advantage of public transportation options for your daily commute, and ease into driving if possible.

One of the simplest ways to learn foreign traffic patterns is to head into the countryside. You will be able to grow your confidence on the highway and get used to traffic patterns by driving through small towns. A roundabout in a small hamlet with two other cars is a lot easier to navigate than the Arc de Triomphe roundabout in downtown Paris. Don’t feel like you have to immediately cut your teeth in city driving; start in the country and work your way in.

Helping Your Child Adjust

When your child first arrives in the country, he or she might be just as excited as you are to start their new life. A few weeks in, however, he or she might start acting out, being disruptive in class, or sulking in his or her room. Psychologists call this Expat Child Syndrome, and it occurs when a child is having a hard time adapting to the new culture.

Oftentimes, the more different the culture is, the more difficult it will be for your child to adapt, meaning he or she will have a harder time moving to Brazil than Scotland. To help your child get used to the change, set up playdates with friends from school to get them excited to go to class each day, work with their teachers to track their progress, and try speaking the local language at home where they feel more comfortable practicing.

While ECS is a real concern for your child, he or she might have an easier time than you do. Many children actually pick up languages more quickly than adults.

Dealing with Homesickness

It’s inevitable that you’ll long for your family, friends, and culture when you’re in your new country, no matter how much you’re enjoying your time there. Sometimes homesickness can be cured with a Skype call home or a jar of peanut butter (a rare treat in many countries), but other times, it can affect your day-to-day life.

One common technique to overcome homesickness is overexposure. Take whatever makes you nervous and immerse yourself in it until you feel comfortable and at home. For example, if you feel lonely from not being able to communicate, challenge yourself to talk to at least one person a day in the new language — from meeting someone at a bar to asking questions in a store. If you feel nervous about public transportation or in a crowded market, try experiencing those things daily until they become natural. Each time it will get a little easier.

When left unchecked, homesickness can turn into resentment for culture and country. To keep the city as magical as before you arrived, set aside time each week to explore the city. Whether you visit a new museum every Sunday or go to a new restaurant every Friday night, try to keep the excitement of a tourist.

The first few weeks can be the hardest for expats moving to new countries, but if you follow this advice you should feel just as comfortable in your new home like your old. Give yourself some time to acclimate and face your new challenges one day at a time.