Advice for an American wanting to expatriate permanently?
June 6, 2019 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm 44 and single, and I live a reasonably decent life in Manhattan, but the values of my country (insofar as Manhattan reflects the U.S.) don't suit me anymore. I've been considering restarting in Europe or Canada.


I was recently in Frankfurt, Germany, and the apparent quality of life there was really attractive to me. It was urban, with a great transport system, but green and quiet. I saw minimal litter and no homeless.

It was cosmopolitan and polyglot like the Big Apple, but people seemed less at each other's throats. I was out after midnight, and saw plenty of people out as well. It felt very safe.

I wondered if that had to do with work culture. I've heard about how Germans have a relatively healthy philosophy about work: If you're putting in overtime, it just means you're bad at your job.

In the white collar sectors of the U.S., overtime is a given, a way for the managers to squeeze more productivity from workers.

Probably most encouraging to me as I wade into middle age is what I saw of the life of seniors there: many active, socializing, going out to restaurants in groups or traveling with their bicycles, geared up for a serious ride.

Everyday life seemed better suited to generate community than what I see in America. Probably when your life is less about working, and you don't have to worry about health care, you can live a better life.

I've traveled extensively and I know I can probably find the life I'm seeking in other places. Montreal, Canada, has also caught my attention, as a place with European-style quality of life in North America. I've heard good things about Vienna, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland.


I feel like made the best of my time so far in social darwinist America, and amassed as a nest egg in the range of $1.5 to $2 million. But I don't want to play this game anymore.

Certainly, there are appeals to America: I can make an even bigger fortune here, and the arts scene is a lot more vibrant and influential than in other countries, but I seek quality of life.

I don't want to retire though. I have a good 20 more years of working life remaining, and would love to invest it in building a life in a place with values that match mine.

I have idle fantasies of setting up a life for myself in a place like Frankfurt, but I know it's not as easy as just picking up and moving.

My nest egg probably moves me closer towards permanent resident status in a lot of countries since it can serve of proof of financial independence and open the door to investment visas.

But I'm also aware that I have the language barrier to overcome, whether it be German or French of something else. I'm also non-white.

And not having the language, and being an outsider and newcomer, can lead to feelings of isolation that negate any quality of life improvements that I see.

I make friends easily though, and am willing to put my heart into a new language. I'd heard advice to travel and sample places, or even live in two places on a visitor's visa, but I'd really like to settle down and develop roots.

I'd love to hear from people who have made a similar transition. I remember reading an article awhile back about Americans who had moved to Europe and given up their citizenship with no regrets.

Has anyone else been in this situation?

Where can I best find what I'm seeking -- a better quality of life, community and a generous safety net with cosmopolitanism?

Is my premise sound? What have I not thought about?

Are there other things I need to consider?

posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You may already be aware, but as you don't mention it, just know that US citizens pay tax on worldwide income, so you will still have to file US taxes every year. The only way around this is to eventually renounce your US citizenship.

Have you got any family, friends or even acquaintances in the countries you are looking at? Their local knowledge can be a great help in the finding areas to live and also in the early days of figuring out 'life admin' in a new country, and may also give you a 'starter' social circle. Dropping into a complete unknown is doable but obviously much harder.
posted by atlantica at 9:15 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Probably most encouraging to me as I wade into middle age is what I saw of the life of seniors there: many active, socializing, going out to restaurants in groups or traveling with their bicycles, geared up for a serious ride.

Everyday life seemed better suited to generate community than what I see in America.

You get a crazy number of active, cycling seniors in Berkeley, for what it’s worth. On a serious note, though: Germany has way better work-life-balance, yes. Its cities are designed for living, not just working and driving cars. But in my experience (German born and raised, now living in the US), German communities are way more exclusive than American communities. Ie it‘s very hard to become ‚one of us‘. Especially if there are barriers like a different culture, language and (yup) skin color. This is really one of the major social differences between Germany and the US. Especially if you‘re not in your 20s anymore. You‘ll always, for the rest of your life, be ‚the American‘. This is how Germans operate. Very different from what I‘ve experienced and would expect in much of the US.
So, you‘d probably hang out in an expat community, which is fine, but speaking as an expat myself, can also be an intensely alienating experience in the long term.

Just my two cents on Germany. Seeing it from the outside does not reflect your likely social life actually living there as an expat. I‘d definitely give it a try for a year, though, and see what comes of it. Why not?
posted by The Toad at 9:42 AM on June 6, 2019 [14 favorites]

You should consider how your professional experience in America will be valued in the target country. For example, my spouse has substantial experience in finance in the US, has had no trouble getting offers in the US, but found it nearly impossible to get an offer in Canada (even though we already had established permanent residency there, so there were no concerns about visas.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 9:44 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just bear in mind that everywhere has problems, even Frankfurt. I mean, particularly Frankfurt. I'll assume you didn't visit the skid row that our hotel was on last time we were there. Literally junkies in the gutter, so...

You can look into the Dutch American Friendship Treaty. This allows you to run a self-employed business and after 5 years you have permanent residency.

If you think you saw no homeless, no beggars in Germany, just wait until you spend some time in The Netherlands.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:44 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Try to do a test drive of some sort, moving is different than visiting and I've seem instances where it really did not work out for very unexpected reasons. Not sure how to do that, perhaps a longer airbnb stay in a target neighborhood.
posted by sammyo at 9:45 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Quebec has different rules from the rest of Canada. The points system is weighted with Quebec- and French-related items. If you want to live there, learning French first may be a benefit.
posted by wellred at 10:01 AM on June 6, 2019

Yes. In Germany you will always be an "auslander" no matter what color you are. We were in a playground in a cosmopolitan german city speaking english. We also understand and speak german and two little girls were playing together near us and our children and the older one said to the younger one: THEY aren't speaking OUR language (she did not say it in an observational way, it was more judgemental) I thought that experience really showed how they start differentiating themselves and identifying auslanders at a very young age. It was weird. Maybe if you just hang out with expats or other germans in certain niche scenes then you wouldn't be exposed to it... but it is definitely there. Hmmmm.... other awesome places? I don't know... sweden? Funny enough I just wrote a question here about the terrible weather here in ireland but I have to say, they really are the nicest and kindest people in Europe. Weather NOT GOOD though.
posted by catspajammies at 10:03 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, living standards and public facilities in Ireland not nearly as good as in Germany, not even close. Germany is top notch for that stuff.
posted by catspajammies at 10:04 AM on June 6, 2019 is a website for people like you. (It is partially free and partially fee-based. For the meaty stuff, you will want to pay or find a library system that subscribes.) It discusses things like working culture in various countries and cities around the world, working visa procedures, job seeking tips and such. You will also want to browse forums at for personal stories and help.
posted by Liesl at 10:07 AM on June 6, 2019 [15 favorites]

A lot of perceived quality of life is going to be impacted by your own personality, upbringing, existing relationships, etc. But I would strongly recommend looking first into where you can feasibly gain legal residency and, unless you're independently wealthy (which based on your comments about work culture sounds like is not the case), working papers, before comparing public transit systems. I've lived abroad for almost a decade now and seen otherwise well-adjusted people with decent skills, grasp of the local language, etc., literally driven back home by the endless bureaucratic nightmare of trying to get long-term legal status. I say this not to rain on your parade but because I feel I owe it to anyone asking this question to give it to you straight. They call it "fortress Europe" for a reason.

What previous posters say about social alienation is also very accurate and Very Important in my experience. The outwardly cosmopolitan vibe of European capitals does not counteract the fact that we here on the Continent are not super multicultural. Without wanting to sound like an arrogant POS, I have a somewhat above-average-for-an-adult-immigrant grasp of French, a degree from a well-regarded French university, an extremely French job and a French partner of over a decade--and making my life in France has involved profound and prolonged periods of alienation so intense they made me question my own mental health. Nearly all of my true friends are other foreigners or French people who have spent significant time living outside France. They all report having gone through similar experiences to mine on whatever side of the Atlantic isn't theirs.
YMMV. But seriously consider whether that's a price you're willing to pay before you sink loads of time and money and energy into this move (which it's very easy to do).

Also FWIW I'm not sure what values your intro refers to specifically, but I must regretfully inform you that racism, jingoism, sexism and homelessness are alive and well in the Old World (including in Frankfurt). Europe is in many ways a fantastic place to live (if you're a member of the right social categories) and I consider it a tremendous privilege that I'm allowed to do it, but absolutely none of your rage, shame or frustration about the current administration will dissipate just by dint of living here. You'll just have another reason to feel awkward and embarrassed at dinner parties.

Tl;dr: non USian, wealthy countries do have a lot of heavy-duty quality of life improvements to offer, but extremely serious barriers to permanent residency exist, on purpose, and negotiating them can be a time and money suck that ultimately isn't worth it. If you become a resident you'll also have to weigh whether permanently feeling like a gate-crasher at a party is an acceptable price to pay for the genuinely good parts of life here.

That being said the castles are fucking dope as hell
posted by peakes at 12:39 PM on June 6, 2019 [20 favorites]

Canada has the same problems as the United States. We're just better at hiding behind our national brand.

While not quite as bad as the US, Canada still has very high levels of gun violence compared to other OECD countries. We also have institutionalized white supremacy, notably against First Nations. Our carbon footprint is probably higher per capita than in the US -- we have to heat our homes during the long, cold winters, and many of our larger cities lack rail networks. Canada also has a housing affordability crisis. Only one municipality in the country (Victoria, BC) is attempting to do anything about it.

You could move to Canada, and as a member of the privileged class you would probably be insulated from these problems, though.
posted by JamesBay at 1:22 PM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

A few countries have a 'right of return' for children and grandchildren of citizens. Unfortunately for me, Canada does not. Each of the countries in which you expressed interest will have a website with immigration information.
posted by theora55 at 1:37 PM on June 6, 2019

As others have said, think about how you would gain the right to live and work in a European country. Spend more time researching this. It varies by country too.

If you have never been an immigrant, it is easy to underestimate the amount of hassle and worry and constant paperwork it can be just to be able to legally reside somewhere. And there is a lot at stake since it sometimes feels as if you make a small mistake and then you will lose it all and be ejected from a country that you have made your home.
posted by vacapinta at 2:07 PM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

"In the white collar sectors of the U.S., overtime is a given, a way for the managers to squeeze more productivity from workers."

That's not universally true within the U.S. I have a white collar job (academia adjacent) that has very good work/life balance, and good benefits. It doesn't pay as much as finance, though. So you could try switching careers instead of switching countries.
posted by pizzazz at 4:42 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you have never been an immigrant, it is easy to underestimate the amount of hassle and worry and constant paperwork it can be just to be able to legally reside somewhere. And there is a lot at stake since it sometimes feels as if you make a small mistake and then you will lose it all and be ejected from a country that you have made your home.

I just wanted to flag this up and repeat it. Emigrating to Europe is extremely difficult. I had an easy 'in' (entering a country as a student), but soon enough virtually no one could legally hire me. I loved my adopted country fiercely and was planning to become a citizen, but it's consistently scary and expensive to get to that point. And I never did; I had to leave the country and return to the US and it broke me for a long time.

The Auslander thing is real; I wasn't in Germany but people were often unkind or unthinking in their reactions when I didn't get some pop culture or country-specific thing, and it was hurtful. I don't want to 100% discourage you, but I really cannot stress enough how difficult emigration is.

(Being an immigrant was nothing on the pain of essentially being told I didn't belong in this place I loved and had made a home in, and to go back to the country of my birth.)
posted by kalimac at 7:10 PM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hi! This from a native New Yorker who was in Germany for several years, was super unhappy, and left for yet another country. There are definitely things I miss. My sense is, though, that the problem might be--- Manhattan?

The U.S. is big, why not change scene without emigrating? There is indeed always Berkeley. Plus it sounds like you are in a financial position to "Eat, Pray, Love" for a few months. Do it for those of us without the nest egg!

Thinking of a good way to put this..... moving to a different country because you don't like U.S. politics seems a little naive. Do you really support the immigration politics of the E.U. or U.K.? Are you about the austerity measures imposed on Southern Europe by Northern Europe? Once in Europe, I am sure you will find plenty of issues to be dissatisfied with or downright horrified by (the dismantling of the NHS, yikes!). I am glad to be outside of Trump's America, sure, but I DEFINITELY do not agree with the government in power where I now live, and the idea of moving to find a nation-state that aligns with my values rather than working to create positive change in my communities seems... wrong.


1.Day to day racism in Germany is REAL (what! in liberal Europe! yes!). Even white Americans experience the "Fortress Europe" of bureaucracy, never being able to fully integrate, etc, but this is compounded GREATLY if you're not white. Too many examples to count. OK here's one: our AirBnB host in France speaking only to our European friend (even though she only knew a little French) and refusing point-blank to talk to my brown husband (grad-school level French). Here's another one: my Asian-American-in-Germany friend posting about the Mesut Ozil retirement on Facebook and getting responses from a number of "liberal" / queer colleagues that she was "being reverse-racist, Germany is not xenophobic."

2. The job market is pretty fully saturated, in my experience. It is unlikely that a company would sponsor your blue card.

3. The ten years (or 8? I forget) before you become a naturalized citizen, you are at the Auslanderbehorde waiting for your number in a sticky plastic chair once a year, with all the people who don't have two million dollars. You explain your situation in German. You filled out the form wrong and have to go downstairs and get another. It's not all canals and bike lanes. You realize: I am an immigrant. For real.

4. LOL @ German work-life balance. Your Manhattan life is surely a rat-race, but again, I don't think that's an "American problem." The joke in Germany is that people get 10 hours worth of work done in their 8 hours. A friend of mine had to file a lawsuit against her boss for threatening her that if she didn't find childcare on weekends to devote more time to a work project, she would lose a promotion. So yeah, global capitalism! It's global!

Good luck, anonymous. I hope you find the healthier work-life balance and ideal-driven life you seek!
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:44 PM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

So yeah, global capitalism! It's global!

QFT. I’m in strike-happy libertine wine-at-lunch land, and I have slept maybe 5 hours a night for three months because we have been told to deliver this project ahead of time and under budget, or else.

Sorry for the derail but all of the responses about “white collar” work hours are deadly accurate IMO. Every workplace and sector will have different expectations and values, but my colleagues and I do not work significantly less in a week than my American friends back home. We do get more official PTO, but the volume of work is the same, with correspondingly longer hours on the days we ARE in the office. God knows it beats the 0 hours of PTO most people get in the US, but it ain’t no pleasure cruise.
posted by peakes at 12:59 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Eh, I wouldn't migrate to Germany if you're after less racism. I see you mention a cosmopolitan atmosphere in your question as something that you value, which is why I make this point. I don't live there but have family who live there. I've had conversations with white Germans and Austrians that have made my head feel like it was about to explode. There's a major influx of refugees there and lots of negative feelings about Muslims and refugees 'not working' and 'living on benefits' etc. I've heard the most blatantly racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric come out of the mouths of dear family friends whom I've known for decades. As athirstforsalt says: Day to day racism in Germany is REAL.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:53 AM on June 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you are able, spend a month or two in a country before deciding to move there permanently. It's still not quite the same, but you get over the touristy vacation "this place is amazing" mentality within a few days. You can do long-term Airbnb rentals, or something like

Europe in the last decade has seen an awful lot of fascism, initially just on the fringes but increasingly gaining traction in mainstream politics. It's a bit deja vu, to see fascism rising out of global economic collapse all over again.
posted by basalganglia at 5:12 AM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm about four months in to my move to Canada - with a pending permanent residency application - so while my advice/experience is, for now, going to lack the depth of the experience of an American who's been an expatriate in Canada for many years, I can tell you more about what it's like to be here with a fresher perspective of how it contrasts with life in the states. [I posted this AskMe a few months ago; you may find it insightful, as I did.] I don't have the bandwidth to write all about it here tonight, but I'd be more than happy to chat about it and answer your questions over Memail. I have plenty to say (both positive and negative) about it all.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:51 PM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Someone I know moved to what was formerly East Berlin from New York. Berlin is so chill. It reminds me of New York in the Seventies when there weren't as many people. Everyone speaks English, so you don't need to sweat it. I also really liked Freiberg as a college town. Really down to earth. You do all your shopping on Sunday with a straw bag picking stuff up from local vendors. Germany is great for day trips to anywhere also.

Is racism a thing? Kind of. They've taken on a lot of refugees and it's an issue, so it will be discussed. It's possible tensions have risen since I last visited. In general though I found people to be very thoughtful.
posted by xammerboy at 1:40 AM on June 8, 2019

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