Expatriate–n. A person who voluntarily lives outside their native country. Often shortened to “expat.”
Does drinking mate from a calabash gourd or living near the Himalayas or parlez-vous français-ing sound like a dream come true? Then living abroad may be just the thing you need to round out your 20-something life! While living in a foreign country can be one of the most fun and rewarding experiences possible (and a great resume booster!) it does come with some work and introspection. And to help get you started we’ve compiled the top 5 tasks any would-be expat needs to consider before starting to pack their bags.
For most of us, the thought of leaving home for new shores sounds wildly exciting and glamorous. And while it can be, there are also a lot of un-glamorous realities to consider before you take off. The most important is–how comfortable are you being away from home? Will missing big holidays or important events bring tears to your eyes? Do you rely on others for financial support? Are you in a serious relationship? While living abroad you may not be able to travel home frequently due to travel costs or visa restrictions. You may also have a difficult time finding employment depending on immigration laws or the general economy. And if you’re in a serious relationship, time zone differences and a lack of cellular service or wifi may really hinder your connection. While these questions aren’t meant to discourage your enthusiasm they are important to consider so your experience can be the best possible fit for you!
As noted briefly above, your financial state is very important to consider when moving abroad. Travel, visa taxes, lodging, food, language classes, cell phone, and other expenses will add up quickly. Not to mention you are still responsible for ALL outstanding debts in the United States. Credit card bills and student loan payments won’t go away just because you’re in a new time zone. To figure out if you’re financially ready to cross the border, create a total expense cost spreadsheet. Think of everything you will need for the year (or however long you’re staying) and utilize travel, product, and government websites for the most up-to-date costs. Once you have a number add another $500-$1500 cushion for those unexpected costs and fees. Like unplanned medical expenses or that gorgeous outfit you just can’t pass up…
If your bank account isn’t quite big enough to support an expat lifestyle, don’t worry! You don’t have to rule out your dream quite yet. There are tons of opportunities and programs available for 20-somethings to work abroad either teaching English, working as an au pair, or doing volunteer work. Often these opportunities and programs not only pay a small stipend but also provide free or reduced room and board, support networks for registering your visas/legal documents, and help integrating into the local culture. Be careful doing a simple Google search for these programs though–sometimes you can turn up scams! Consider checking out companies like InterExchange, which helps 18-26 year olds find employment abroad as either English teachers, au pairs, or volunteers. Butler University also has a great “Gap Year” page on their website with lists of programs and resources.
Location, Location, Location
Maybe you’ve always known you want to live in Rome or maybe you’re still looking for that perfect location. Either way, choosing a spot for your new home is incredibly important. Before fully committing to a place make sure to research local culture, political and economic climate, languages spoken, accessibility to public transportation, and local activities. All these factors can really be a hinderance to your experience if it’s something you’re not excited for or absolutely can’t adapt to. For example, being a vegetarian can be hard in Europe where they pride themselves on the superiority of their meat dishes. Eating at a friend’s house or a restaurant can be a challenge if you’re not comfortable nibbling on salads and basic fare.
And remember, living abroad will mean you’re a part of a community. It’s not an extended vacation–you will be susceptible to political changes, economic woes, and a basic adherence to local customs and values. Currently, some of the best places for expats are China, Japan, and Thailand, where the economy is healthy, political climates are stable, and a demand for English teachers has skyrocketed. While the thought of being susceptible to another country’s ups and downs sounds scary it can also be a great opportunity for authentically experiencing a culture without all the touristy glitz. And who knows, maybe you’ll get to see history in the making or find a new passion!
Visas & Other Documents
An important part of living the expat life is making sure you’re legal. In this bureaucratic era it’s all about the paperwork–and if you have the wrong paperwork you could get hit with serious fines or find yourself in substantial legal trouble. Once you’ve thrown the dart on the wall map and picked your new locale make sure to visit their consulate website to ascertain which documents you will need upon entry and throughout your stay. Some countries may require more than just a visa and may ask for such documents as your birth certificate or papers stating your intended residence. For Hoosiers, the closest foreign consulates are located in Chicago. Check specifically for the Chicago consulate as it will also provide detailed information about appearing for your visa. (Most countries require that you appear in person at the consulate to apply for your visa.)
As noted in a previous section, if you’re going abroad with a program they will usually provide extensive support for obtaining visas and other travel documentation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! And if you’re still struggling to figure out what documents you need you can also check the United States Government Travel website which provides information for passports and visas as well as information for traveling safely.
Now it’s time for the fun part: researching your expat lifestyle. Being an expat doesn’t mean you get to watch from the sidelines–you will have the unique opportunity to participate and contribute to a local culture.
An important part of any culture (and arguably the most important part) is language. If you’re planning to live someplace where you don’t have a basic understanding of the local language consider looking around the area for international schools where you can take language classes. Some countries will require you to take classes as part of your visa requirements but even if they don’t it’s still a good idea to consider learning the local language. You can usually get pretty good tuition rates if you register by semester or year.
In addition to absorbing the language, another great way to get involved is to build a network of friends. Starting out on your own can be tough, so try utilizing websites such as Meetup.com which brings together strangers to share a common interest. Not only can you meet new people and experience great local events but often these groups get discounted admission fees due to the sheer size of their event. Another great way to meet people (especially if you’re in your 20s) is to look at the event calendars for local universities or community centers. Most events are open to the public, cost effective and the participants are generally more willing to socialize.
So there you have it! The top 5 tasks to consider before you change time zones. While living the expat life can be difficult at times it is often an incredibly rewarding experience that will give you an authentic taste for another culture. (Not to mention, living abroad looks great on resumes and grad school apps!) So do your research, travel safe, and savor the expat life.
Ginnye Lynn Cubel, a Butler graduate and native Hoosier, is currently living and working abroad as an au pair in Paris. If you’re still curious about the expat life make sure to check out her personal blog www.indygirlparis.wordpress.com or follow her @glcubel for all the dirt on living in Paris as an Indy girl.