THE BLOG

10 Things to Consider Before You Move to a Foreign Country and Become an Expatriate

04/09/2013 01:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013
  • Norm Schriever Writer, expat, cultural mad scientist and enemy of the comfort zone. Best-selling author of South of Normal and The Queens of Dragon Town.

Every year 6.6 million U.S. citizens call another country home. They do so for a variety of reasons -- work assignments, warmer climates and better medical care, and a cheaper cost of living. But whatever the reason for buying a one-way ticket to being an expatriate, they have some important choices to make once they get there.

2013-04-06-522931_3571415679789_1895186066_n.jpgI've been lucky enough to live in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and travel all over the world, 37 countries on six continents and counting, and I've met U.S. expatriates almost everywhere. If you're considering a similar move, here are some things to consider:

1. Language.
Communication is something we take for granted, but when you are in a foreign country you might not be able to walk right up to someone and express yourself... or ask for life's essentials, like the bathroom, and beer. You'll want to study and practice the language as much as possible before you go. Also, taking intensive language lessons once you arrive is a great way to meet people and ease the linguistic transition.

2. Where to go?
There are many factors that go into your choice of a new home country: climate, political stability, crime, proximity to the U.S. for a quick flight home, cost, language and customs, etc. Many people chose to expatriate to places like Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, or the Philippines for these reasons.

3. Taxes, insurance, and other nuts and bolts.
Even when you're living in another country, the IRS expects you to pay U.S. taxes as long as you're a citizen and make income. You'll probably also want to stay current with your U.S. health insurance, and many people conveniently forget to tell them that you don't live in the U.S. any more so it doesn't cause complications. You can bank online and pay bills online these days with e-statements, but you can also get your stateside mail sent to a relative or to a post office box.

4. Medical.
It's important to be aware of the medical services available in your communities, and how they are rated for quality and consistency, as well as access to prescription medications. Many seniors who are expats want to live in countries with medical care that is much less expensive than in the U.S. Luckily, that is most of the world.

5. Buying real estate and a car.
Your first instinct may be to plant "roots" by buying a home, a car, etc. but I've found it's best to give it some time. Don't make any major purchases for at least a year until you thoroughly learn the local culture, customs and business climate. There can be some complex and Draconian rules when it comes to property and vehicle ownership, as well as bizarre registration and paperwork demands. Basically, people get ripped off or make bad decisions all the time, so give it some time until you're a seasoned expat and enlist the advice of a trusted local. You'll also want to weigh out the import taxes and costs of having things like a car or furniture shipped down to you, or buying them locally.

6. Safety.
The reality is that you have to be careful no matter where you are in the world, but with some common sense you can stay safe. Don't walk around with jewelry, don't show off valuables, don't go into bad areas, befriend locals to show you around and watch after you, don't walk around late at night or get too drunk, and get a dog! Every country (including the U.S.) suffers from street crime problems, but avoid countries where there's political upheaval or religious fundamentalist groups.

7. Working, making money, and doing business.
Many expats find out that life isn't quite as cheap as they anticipated and the savings goes fast, so you'll have some decisions to make about earning money. But do you try and open a local business? Try to keep working in the U.S., doing your job remotely from your new home country? Or jump into tourism? Do your research and go for a low risk consistent paycheck, not a venture that requires a huge up-front investment of time and money. I can't tell you how many people I've seen open bikini or surf shops or restaurants, and six months later they're broke, stressed and going out of business. Keep it simple.

8. Technology.
Technology will be an invaluable tool as you try to stay connected to friends and family, do business, and get things done from your new country. With some adjustment and planning technology will be your best friend. Get a local cell phone. Almost every bar and restaurant has Wi-Fi, so iPads, laptops, iPhones (with your U.S. network turned off!), and e-readers can all be used as mini computers to keep you rocking and rolling. Applications like Skype, Netflix, WhatsApp, internet calling apps, language translators, currency converters, and GPS make your life easier. And a Go Pro camera is just fun!

9. Blending into the local community.
Assimilating to the local culture is a long-term challenge, but also a constant source of beauty, humor and fascination. Be naturally curious and open to being outside of your comfort zone. Say hello and show respect to everyone, learn the local sayings, the customs, celebrate the holidays, make local friends, and even get in good with the police and officials. Attending religious services and volunteering to do charity work are great ways to foster good will and positive karma.

10. Residency and Visas.
Some expats want to become citizens of their new nation, some are content staying there on extended tourist visas. If that's the case you might have some shuffling to do over the border to renew your visa every 90 days, and be your ability to open a business or own property restricted. Sometimes there are huge benefits to becoming a citizen, sometimes no real difference, so do your homework and talk to other expats, because it could be a lengthy and expensive process to establish residency.

I hope that helps! Feel free to contact me any time for advice or to tell me about your plans to live abroad! hi@NormSchriever.com or visit my site www.NormSchriever.com