What does it take to move abroad?
November 18, 2017 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I am curious about what it takes to move to or spend significant time in another country, especially during a time in my life where most of my peers are "settling down" and launching their careers. I've lived/worked abroad briefly, but nothing on the scale of 3-5 years.

Some questions I have: how does this sort of thing work out financially, especially when I have very little in the way of savings? If I move to a poorer country, then I'd probably have issues saving for retirement, right? I'm also worried that it could generally a recipe for loneliness, as I have noticed that it becomes more and more difficult to make close friends as I get older even without the language/cultural barrier. It'd mean being far from my family while my parents and other relatives are only getting older. Also, what is the experience itself like? I have family who did move back to China, for example, and I've visited them and met some of their community-- the expat community seems very transient and kind of lives in their own bubble, air filters and all-- which is not something I'm all that interested in. In short, would it be more trouble than it's worth?

I'm in my mid-twenties and my skill set is kind of limited, which might also complicate things-- I feel like people who move abroad have good business skills or do web-based freelancing, or ask to be sent to a different branch of their multi-national firm or something like that. I have only basic lab tech and research skills, some writing skills, and I'm in psychiatry. Physicians can usually do locum tenens or Médecins Sans Frontières, but my options might be more limited due to my specialty, as language is so important in psychiatry. Still, I imagine I could probably work in international hospitals (there are some in larger cities with significant expat populations).

I could also potentially go based on some sort of research fellowship, but as of now I don't have any projects I'm working on that necessitate going abroad. I am not as interested in going for more school, especially if I have to pay tuition, but would consider it if it was fully funded and might conveniently further along my career trajectory -- I'm still trying to figure out specifics, but ultimately I think I just want to be a writer and work in mental health for immigrant populations.

Am mostly interested in China, but could also consider HK, Germany, Austria, and Quebec.

Any thoughts or ideas? Have you done this? Was it challenging for you? Your loved ones? Would it be better to do this earlier or later in life?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly this question has so many edges that no one can really answer it. Do your research. Every country is different; they all offer different jobs and different visas and different requirements for living there, working there and emigrating there.

Every couple and family is different. If you want to travel, partner with someone who wants to travel. If you want to have a kid research what country’s health plan would be the most beneficial.

The best advice I could give you is do your research, make a plan and set a date. For example, “Zimbabwe is the country that makes the most sense for me to move to and I plan to be there by May 2018.” Anything less is just a pipe dream.

All the best to you.
posted by bendy at 9:47 PM on November 18, 2017

Expats are a mixed bag. I spent my last two years of high school in an American high school in England. While we did have a lot of exposure to English culture we were still fixed on American culture. Don’t immerse yourself in an expat community to the extent that you ignore the culture you live in.
posted by bendy at 9:51 PM on November 18, 2017

Hmm. It's pretty hard to move to a different country, there's a lot of research and legwork and, yes, money involved. But to try and answer your questions in order ...

Any thoughts or ideas?

The single most difficult thing to work out is going to be working through the visa requirements for the countries you're interested in moving to, and will likely narrow out your list considerably. For example you might find that people from your country of citizenship need a letter of offer from an employer, or confirmed enrollment at a university, in order to enter Germany (disclaimer: I know nothing about German immigration policies, this is a made up example).

It's also possible that your qualifications won't transfer smoothly, or you might have to re-certify things, or something. I know some countries make foreign doctors retake medical exams, for example.

Have you done this? Was it challenging for you? Your loved ones?

I've done this as an undergraduate student and then again (to a different country, that is) as a professional with full visa and relocation support from my new employer. It's challenging, but in a good way -- honestly it's been a lot of fun, it's great for my career, and I'm glad I did it, both times.

I've also lived briefly (for 3 months) in China learning Mandarin by immersion. That one was the toughest, I learnt a lot but the language barrier made things hard enough that I didn't even consider living there long term. If you already speak Mandarin or another dialect you'll likely have an easier time.

Would it be better to do this earlier or later in life?

In all honesty, assuming you're organizing and driving this yourself, the younger you are the easier it will be. Some visas are only available to young people, for example there's a working holiday visa for Australians under 30 wanting to go to the UK for a couple of years. The only people I know who've done this later in life were being sent on postings for work by their large multi-national firms.
posted by Xany at 2:13 AM on November 19, 2017

As above, everyone is different. For whatever it's worth, I became an expat more than 20 years ago. I moved from the US to NL and from NL to HK. I have a film MFA and an English Literature degree. I've saved reasonably for retirement over the years. It is largely what you make of it. I realise that isn't precisely helpful, but your question is too broad.
posted by frumiousb at 2:15 AM on November 19, 2017

It is not clear from your question if you're for sure moving away and just want to figure out logistics, or if you're still exploring the idea of moving.

People move away and stay away for many different reasons; the reason has to be the foundation and you have to be very clear with yourself what your reasons are, otherwise I think it can be a recipe for profound unhappiness very quickly. If you don't have a solid reason, the fourth lonely weekend in a row with no plans and no friends, or the first time you get burgled, you will quickly question what the hell you are doing there. So my advice is to figure out your "why" first, and once you have that you can tailor your research to fit. You can find the right country, job, visa/residency status, length of stay, financial setup, etc. once you have your "why" answered.
posted by tinydancer at 2:37 AM on November 19, 2017

I've a good friend who got her psych doctorate at UNC and after a few years, wanted to see the world. She applied for and got a job with a mental healthcare service here, who arranged her visa for her. Psychiatric nurses are also recruited from abroad here.

Obviously, moving to a Western, English-speaking country is very different than moving somewhere like China. I first moved to the UK 20 years ago, then to Ireland. I have to say I assume adjustment is a matter of temperament; I just settled in and got on with it. I am not functionally further from my family in New York than my sister in LA is; I don't think it needs to be harder to move abroad than it does to move across the country in terms of coping with family distance, etc. Yes of course it will be hard -- the same way going far away for college is, or to sleep away camp; but you absolutely can adjust. Millions of people do.

I absolutely ignore and abhor the "ex-pat community" since all it seems to do is complain about how nothing is the same as America. (I do note how some things are different, but I refuse to make value judgments as that only leads to frustration.)

It helps enormously to be or be able to fake outgoing; go to everything, give your number to everyone, extend invitations left right and centre; find something to become involved with and meet people that way, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:33 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is just speculation, so forgive if it crosses lines you didn’t want crossed...

Lots of people think that by moving far away, and especially by moving abroad, they can escape from their problems and start anew. What actually happens is that their problems will eventually catch up with them, in a place that is unfamiliar and in which they may not necessarily have the social support to cope.

So I would examine very carefully whether your desire to do this is motivated by wanting to seek out new challenges and opportunities, or by wanting to get away from something, and tread carefully.
posted by Liesl at 5:08 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

2nding the point about problems following even on international moves. The question I would ask is - do you want to live in a specific location for a while or ‘travel’. What appeals about that. Be honest with yourself here.

You can probably find ways of living cheaply and support yourself in a serious of locations, more or less within the constraints of your particular visa for a few years. You’ll not save, in all likelihood.

If you actually look to settle somewhere for 3-5 years that makes it much more complex. Immigration status is more difficult to come by. Unless you’re on one of those temporary assignments people get sent on by multinationals that entail relocation packages you’ll be on a local salary with local benefits. Your savings rate will be whatever people normally manage in that country in your line of work. If the country is one with comparatively low cost of living and you plan to return to a high cost of living country your savings won’t go as far on your return. If your savings are in a currency that is soft there are likely to be significant fx risks when it comes to getting the money back.

In both scenarios your friends and family will keep living their lives at home. Things will change, relationships will change, you will change and whenever you come back you’ll come back to people and places that are similar but different to what you left. ‘Home’ will never feel the same again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but not something everybody anticipates. Read around expat experiences to get perspectives.

So figure out what you’re trying to achieve by this move first. Then you can target your research and make a decision based on that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:43 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Look into the Peace Corps! They need all kinds of skills and handle a lot of the logistics. You won’t be living in an expat bubble. You will learn great skills and get a network for when you come back.
Your age is a perfect time to go abroad. Read up about culture shock. Yes you will miss people but you will meet so many new people too.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:55 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been an expat for approaching 10 years now. You have what it takes to move - the curiosity and willingness to experience it. Whether or not you can manage to live abroad, for 1, 3 , 5 years? The variables for that conundrum change for me on a daily basis, so don't expect to get an answer for you.

Go, do it for a year. Then come back here, because you'll have a some very-well defined questions by that point. Right now, the only way to get your answers is to do it.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 6:14 AM on November 19, 2017

What about Singapore? This article is focused on British doctors going to Singapore, but it's a starting point.
posted by Jahaza at 6:53 AM on November 19, 2017

I moved abroad to China for a year and a half in my late 20s on a fellowship and stayed for a bit longer for a freelance gig. I had a boyfriend at the time and no kids and was trying my hand at being a foreign correspondent. It was a great adventure, hard, eye-opening, lonely, full of new friends, sometimes totally humdrum and boring, sometimes fascinating and life-changing. Am absolutely glad for it being a core life experience that I look back on fondly. I did not love my life there per se - China in particular was not an *easy* place to be even though I speak Chinese - but I loved having lived through it. I’m now ten years older w a spouse and kids and mid-senior career, and uprooting would be so much more difficult now. I have friends who just moved to Asia with their family and the sheer number of things they have to consider for everyone’s comfort and career and care is mind boggling. Certainly doable but it’s an amazing thing to do while you’re young and relatively unencumbered. Memail if you have questions.
posted by sestaaak at 7:28 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've just finished up graduate school, which for me involved about two years of living abroad while conducting research. I'm anticipating more international time intermittently over the next few years.

Honestly, it's been challenging. I love fieldwork and the countries I have lived in, and I love my work, but it's been hard seeing other parts of my life stall even as my professional life is going really excellently (in part because of my time internationally). I'd say that earlier is good time to travel, but think seriously about what goals for yourself you are willing to compromise on. It was very hard on my relationship to be out of the country for a full year and then again and again for shorter stints. My friends are starting families now and I'm in the early stages of a new relationship after my serious graduate school relationship ended. My travel was hard on my parents because I was traveling to relatively dangerous places and occasionally getting fairly sick. I am glad I'm back close to home more permanently now as my parents are starting to get older, and I hope that I can find a way to build a family and get those other pieces of my life sorted out. Realistically, with my career (primate research), I will consistently be spending a lot of time internationally, but I'm realizing that the tradeoffs are going to be real.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you just burnt out and want to be away for awhile? I think you're talking about your skillset in a minimizing kind of depressed way.

Can you apply for a fellowship in internal medicine if you feel that's more transferable than psychiatry? I think you've accomplished a lot. Maybe hire a career coach to help you see the next steps, whether it is learning a new language or getting a new qualification.
posted by charlielxxv at 9:26 AM on November 19, 2017

Spouse and I moved to Canada 12 years ago. We both grew up in California. We came because of a faculty job. We were on a temporary work visa (tied to the particular job) for the first few years, then became Canadian permanent residents (analogous to a U.S. Green Card), and just in the past year (dual) Canadian citizens. It wasn't our plan to move to Canada particularly, or even out of the U.S. more generally; it was just a part of academic geographical roulette.

We are far from family, which is hard, but not particularly harder than when we were living in Illinois or Wisconsin (travel time is a little longer and airline tickets somewhat more expensive from where we live now).

Culturally, coming from California, Canada is about as gentle a move as you could ask for. People can't tell that we're immigrants by our accents. The culture is similar enough to California that, in the early years, we would stop noticing that we were in a foreign country for stretches of time. But having lived here now for more than a decade, it's been extremely worldview-expanding to get out of the U.S. cultural bubble. I think we have a broader understanding of the nature of human-constructed reality than we ever would have developed if we had stayed in the U.S.

On the question of what it takes: let me interpret this in the paperwork sense. For most places, a tourist visa will give you 3 months (some countries give 6 months). If you're thinking 3 to 5 years, at least in Canada, you need either a temporary work visa (which is normally tied to a specific job which you have been offered before entering the country), or you need to apply for and be granted permanent residency status before entering the country (you can apply for PR status while in Canada on a temporary work visa). Canada uses a points system for PR application; you can add up your points and see if you qualify. If you're legally in Canada on a temporary work visa or you're a permanent resident, you qualify for the provincial health insurance.
posted by heatherlogan at 9:31 AM on November 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sorry, that should be "temporary work permit"; the visa is a separate thing specifically for entering the country. If you're a U.S. citizen, you don't need a visa because of the visa waiver program, but you do need a work permit to get a social insurance (tax ID) number and provincial health care and work legally in Canada.
posted by heatherlogan at 9:34 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I moved abroad for grad school about 15 years ago, got a part-time job (which was legal on a student visa, as long as I limited my hours), and after I graduated, they applied for a long-term work permit for me. I got it, and after it was done, I'd done enough time to earn long-term residency.

Stuff was a lot different then, I think international migration is a lot harder now, but grad school can be an excellent choice if you're hoping to try somewhere international for a few years.

I'm the total opposite of a "digital nomad," I have a normal life a regular job and feel like this is my home now. But I'm so glad that I made that decision back then. At the time, loads of people told me how brave I was and how they could never imagine doing something similar, which hadn't even crossed my mind. I just packed two suitcases, went thinking I'd say a year or two, and am still here after finding what feels like home to me.
posted by lettezilla at 10:56 AM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

> Have you done this? Was it challenging for you? Your loved ones? Would it be better to do this earlier or later in life?

I've done this. Moved to mainland China for two years for other reasons (memail me for the details), wasn't part of the highly-trained expat group, and yes as others have said it is HARD. Hard to manage the cultural shift; hard to be away from everything familiar and embracing the intensity that is modern China; and could be hard to find friends but I'm outgoing so it wasn't hard.

Being single and doing it earlier (I was single in my 30's) is so much better than going when you are more settled and established. You asked about finances, not having a lot in savings, depending on the type of work you are able to land in China (and your lifestyle while there) you may be able to save. I certainly heard of those able to save a decent amount, but I earned a fraction of what I did in the US, but certainly had enough to live comfortably while in China as well as save some. (Smaller income + even smaller expenses = small savings.)

As far as 'loved ones', one sibling visited me in-country and that was great. You get to be the host, you get someone who knows you well, and they can bring over things you may be pining for (and had no clue you would miss some random food or item) and you can enjoy that.

Would like to comment on the upside: if you go and avoid the 'expat community' and assimilate as best you can into the culture, you'll come back (I speak as an American here) and everything will seem strange and familiar at the same time. Reverse culture-shock is a thing, you can know it may happen intellectually but still have to process the feelings of being a stranger in a familiar land and all. But you will have had a life-expanding experience, that few will be able to have in common with you, and that's okay.

Many years into the future (I'm now married with kids and those experiences were more than 20 years ago) you'll be able to look back and say 'I've come a long way'. Having those experiences in my own past has had the only downside of having a little problem in getting that first position once I came back to the US; it ended up being fuel to have a career adjustment and worked out wonderfully. I think that if I didn't go abroad I probably would have just stayed put and have limited myself in a big, big way.

No regrets. Best of luck to you.
posted by scooterdog at 3:32 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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