Maybe you want to move abroad to study, work, retire, or just experience something new. Whatever the case, the idea of living abroad is a dream for many. Expat life is full of adventure, culture, and opportunity. At the same time, it can be a lonely lifestyle full of compromises. This guide outlines, in an honest and realistic way, the pros and cons of living abroad. Hopefully, it helps you decide whether or not the expat lifestyle is right for you.
Pros of Living Abroad
For some types of people, moving abroad can be an excellent life choice. In this section, I’ll outline all of the positive aspects of packing up and moving abroad.
Living Abroad is an Adventure
Many people choose to live abroad simply for the experience of it. It is an adventure. Everything feels fresh and new. You’re guaranteed to meet new people, try new things, see new scenery, speak a new language, and pick up new knowledge and skills. You’ll also experience challenges, encounter unusual situations, and maybe even face some danger. It’s exciting.
One of the biggest advantages of living an adventurous lifestyle where you’re constantly having new experiences is that time seems to pass more slowly. Spending a year living abroad can feel like a significant portion of your life. When you’re living in your home country, it’s easy to get into a routine and stick to it for years. A decade can fly by like nothing. By living an adventurous lifestyle full of novel experiences, your life will feel longer and more fulfilling. To read more about this phenomenon, check out this interesting article from HuffPost.
Lower Cost of Living
Many retirees and digital nomads don’t earn enough money to live comfortably in their expensive home countries so they move abroad to take advantage of the low cost of living in the developing world. For many, the lifestyle works out well.
For example, in many countries around the world, you can live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for less than $1000 per month. This budget includes rent for a decent apartment ($200-$500 per month), healthy meals ($3-$6 for a basic meal in a restaurant), public transportation ($1 per trip), and entertainment.
You can get by on this budget in dozens of countries throughout Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. A few popular destinations for expats on a tight budget include Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Georgia, and Ukraine. For more ideas, check out this great list of countries that you can live in for less than $1000 per month from Goats on the Road.
This is the reason that I moved to Tijuana initially. Rent in Southern California was so high that I wasn’t able to put any money into savings. Most of my money was going toward rent. By moving to Mexico, I cut my living expenses by two-thirds. This allowed me to save for the future.
You Can Take Advantage of Opportunities That Aren’t Available in Your Home Country When you Move Abroad
In some countries, opportunities are limited. This may be due to economics, politics, geography, religion, war, etc. You may be able to open up some additional opportunities for yourself and greatly improve your quality of life if you’re willing to live abroad.
For example, you can:
- Work abroad- Pay varies greatly from country to country. If you are highly skilled or educated in a particular discipline that isn’t needed in your country’s economy, you may find more job opportunities and higher pay abroad. It doesn’t hurt to apply. Many expats are able to find work teaching English or working in the tourism industry. If you’re already working for an international company, you may be able to transfer abroad. These positions may offer better pay and even a promotion. It’s worth asking your boss. Working abroad also helps you develop skills that can help you advance your career. For example, you’ll pick up some soft skills such as multicultural experience, networking, adaptability, and social skills.
- Study abroad- Most universities offer study abroad programs. These allow you to experience living in another country while continuing to make progress toward your degree. Generally, tuition cost stays the same. If you’re not in college, you can still study abroad. For example, you could enroll yourself in language classes, cooking classes, or enroll yourself in a university in another country.
- Volunteer abroad- If you have an in-demand skill, you may be able to make a difference in the world by volunteering your time and sharing your expertise. Many volunteers choose to work abroad to help people who are less fortunate.
You get to Learn a New Language
It’s nearly impossible to learn a new language without immersing yourself in it. You could take lessons and self-study for a decade and never achieve fluency. By moving abroad, you put yourself in the perfect situation to pick up that language that you’ve always wanted to learn. Learning a new language is also a fun and social experience.
For many expats, the language plays a major role in the country they choose to move to. For example, many American expats choose a Latin American country because they are interested in learning to speak Spanish. This is part of the reason I chose to move to Mexico. Japan is another popular destination for those who want to learn the language.
You can learn the basics of your new country’s language by taking some lessons once you arrive and using apps, books, and online resources. To achieve fluency, you can practice with your local friends, read books and newspapers, and just live your life immersed in the language. Even if you put in zero effort, you will pick up a decent amount of the local language out of necessity.
It’s Easier to Travel to More Places
One of the best parts of moving abroad is traveling around the region you moved to. When you live there, you have time to explore the entire area in-depth and see every tourist site. Once you’re done exploring your new country, you can also take weekend trips to nearby cities or countries. Additionally, you can also explore off the beaten path regions that the average tourist doesn’t get to visit.
For example, if you move to Spain you can visit all of the popular tourist cities in the country including Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, Valencia, Pamplona, Ibiza, Mallorca, etc. and visit every tourist site in each. You can try every local dish in the best restaurants. You can also take advantage of budget flights to visit France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and more.
You’ll Make Friends and Meet New People
It can be easier to make friends while living abroad than it is in your home country. Particularly if you are older. The reason is that you’re already part of a community when you move abroad. That is the expat community.
Many cities have large, established expat communities with expat bars, expat neighborhoods, and regular expat meetup groups. Some cities have small tight-knit expat communities made up of just a handful of people. Large international cities may have thousands of expats.
In the expat community, you’ll meet digital nomads, retirees, people teaching English as a second language, embassy workers, and international business people. You have a good chance of making friends with your fellow expats because you already have something in common: you’re all living abroad in a country that is foreign to you. You’ll have plenty of things to talk about and complain to about.
While living abroad, you’ll also be able to make local friends pretty easily. As a foreigner, you’re automatically somewhat exotic and interesting. People will be interested in getting to know you, at least for the novelty of meeting someone from a different country.
Making friends and meeting new people is always a good thing. Who knows, you might even meet the love of your life, make a lifelong friend, or stumble upon a new job opportunity.
You Get to Experience a New Culture
One of the best parts of living abroad is experiencing a new culture. You’ll expand your horizons and learn about how others live. You can learn a lot about the world this way. Who knows, you may even incorporate some aspect of the local culture into your daily life.
Culture is a very broad term. Art, food, language, clothing, holidays, architectural style, history, religious beliefs, music, literature, economics, traditions, social habits, laws, morals, customs, political beliefs, achievements, goals, values, and more are all considered culture.
The best way to experience a country’s culture is to go and live in it. As an expat, you’ll experience the culture whether you like it or not. You’re immersed in it.
Many expats choose their new country based on some aspects of the culture that interests them. For example, maybe you grew up with a fascination with Mayan culture, you love Mexican food, and you want to learn Spanish. You might choose to move to Mexico. Maybe your family is of Italian origin. You may choose to move to Italy to re-connect with the culture of your ancestors.
You Get to Try New Foods and Drinks
When you eat foreign food in your home country, chances are it has been modified to suit the local taste. When you eat a dish in the country it originated in, you get to eat the food the way that it is supposed to be eaten.
In addition, your new country may offer foods that you’ve never even heard of before. For example, some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well so they are only available where they are grown. Some dishes just aren’t available outside of their home country. You may discover your new favorite food.
Moving Abroad Offers You a Fresh Start
Moving abroad isn’t the answer to all of your problems. If you’re lonely, anxious, and depressed at home, you’ll feel the same way abroad.
Expat life can, however, offer you a fresh start. For example, maybe you’ve fallen into a routine and become bored with your life. Maybe you just got divorced or experienced some life-changing event. Maybe you just want to make a major change.
Whatever the case, moving abroad can spice things up a bit. You’ll make new friends, develop a new routine, and try some new things. If you’re in a transition period in your life, moving abroad can offer you a fresh start.
Living Abroad Builds Character and Makes You a Better Person
While living abroad, you will face hardships. You may face a language barrier. People may discriminate against you. You’ll deal with bureaucracy. You may even fall victim to a crime. You might simply have trouble adjusting to the new culture. You’ll feel lonely without your family and friends around. The experience in general can feel overwhelming at times. All of these events and experiences build character and make you a better human being.
A few ways living abroad makes you a better person include:
- You Become more independent- When you live abroad, you have only yourself to rely on. If a problem pops up, you have to find the solution yourself. There is nobody else to rely on but yourself. After all, you can’t just call your parents or your best friend to come help you out. They might be thousands of miles away. In some countries, you can’t even rely on the police or emergency services to help you out due to corruption. This feels scary and overwhelming at first but eventually becomes empowering. You quickly learn to solve your own problems so you don’t have to rely on others as much. This makes you feel free. You become an independent person.
- You become more adaptable– When you move abroad, you have to adapt to the local culture. Locals aren’t going to change their way of life to accommodate you. Exactly how much you have to adapt depends on how different the local culture is from your own. For example, when you live abroad you may need to pick up a new language, change the way you dress, change your diet, abide by different laws, celebrate different holidays, etc. in order to fit in and become an accepted member of society in your new country. Being flexible and having the ability to adapt can help you in greatly in your day to day life. These days, the world is changing at an incredibly fast rate. If you’re an adaptable person, you can keep up. If you’re unable to adapt, you’ll be left behind.
- You become more courageous-Many people live in fear. Some are afraid of trying new things. Some fear of the unknown. Others are afraid of living outside of society’s norms. Living abroad forces you to face those fears. When you live abroad, you’re living an alternative lifestyle that allows you to try new things and become comfortable with uncomfortable situations. This helps you overcome your fears and become a more confident person.
- You become more patient- In some countries, things move more slowly. There is often lots of bureaucracy to deal with as well. For example, you might need to visit two different offices with a stack of documents and copies in order to open a bank account or change the electric bill into your name. If your internet goes down, it might take a week to get someone to come out and fix it. When you live abroad, you learn to roll with the punches. You become patient.
- You become more accepting- You will meet people who are different from you when you live abroad. Maybe they have different religious beliefs, morals, languages, diets, outlooks on life, behaviors, etc. You will learn to accept the locals for who they are and live with them.
- You become more confident- When you’re independent, adaptable, and courageous, you’re ready to handle any situation that life throws at you. This makes you feel much more confident in your daily life. If you can carve out a life for yourself in a foreign country, you can handle anything.
You’ll Make Unforgettable Memories and Gather Travel Stories
When you look back years later, your time living abroad will probably be one of the most memorable parts of your life. You’ll remember the wacky people you met and the unforgettable experiences you had. Simple tasks like going grocery shopping, visiting a new restaurant, or exploring a nearby neighborhood can turn into a memorable adventure. Looking back, the bad parts are often positive memories as well. All of your experiences living abroad make for great travel stories that you can tell your kids and grandkids.
You’ll Learn Something About Yourself
I think pretty much everyone throws around the idea of moving abroad at some point in their life. It’s a fun thought experiment to imagine how different your life could be if you lived in another country. By actually committing to it and moving abroad, you can learn quite a bit about yourself.
For example, you’ll learn how you deal with unfamiliar situations. Maybe you get flustered easily or maybe you keep your cool. You’ll also learn how you interact with people who are different from you. Maybe you’re very tolerant and easy-going or maybe you get frustrated by cultural differences. If you learn something you don’t like about yourself, you can work on it to become a better person.
After moving abroad, you might find that the lifestyle isn’t for you and you want to return home. If this is the case, you may learn to better appreciate what you had in your home country. That’s great. Maybe you fall in love with your new country and way of life and decide to spend the rest of your life living there. That’s great too. Either way, you learned something new about yourself and your preferences.
You’ll Learn Some New Skills and Acquire New Knowledge
While living abroad, you’re constantly learning new things. For example, you’ll learn about the geography, history, politics, economics, and religion of the region you’re living in. Additionally, you can learn to cook the local cuisine, speak the local language, play a local sport, or make some type of local art.
When you acquire skills and knowledge, you become a more well-rounded person. You may also become more tolerant of people who are different from you. Also, it’s simply nice to be informed. Learning something new is always a good thing.
Moving Abroad Forces You to Simplify Your Life
When most people move abroad, they don’t take all of their furniture, vehicles, clothes, knick-knacks, and other belongings. After all, it would cost thousands of dollars to ship all of your stuff overseas. It’s not worth the cost for most people.
Instead, most people sell off and give away most of their stuff and pack a couple of suitcases of their most important things. Some people get rid of everything they can’t fit in a single backpack or suitcase.
Moving abroad forces you to simplify your life. Chances are, you’ll find that you need much less stuff than you thought. It can feel incredibly freeing to get rid of all of the unnecessary stuff you’ve accumulated over the years. Getting rid of your old clothes, bulky furniture, and old junk you’ve hoarded takes a weight off your shoulders.
You May Have Access to Better Healthcare When you Move Abroad
In some parts of the world, healthcare is unaffordable, low quality, and some treatments are simply not available. You may gain access to affordable and quality healthcare by moving abroad. Some people move for treatment for a serious disease that is not treatable in their home country. You may save a significant amount of money on prescriptions and treatment as well.
For example, while living in Mexico, I received healthcare for a couple of minor health issues that popped up. Treatment that cost me less than $100 in Mexico would have cost several thousand back home in the US.
The negative is that some countries can’t offer the same level of care that you may require. For example, a poor or undeveloped country may not have the most modern medical equipment or use the newest medical techniques. Some treatments simply aren’t available. If you have a serious medical condition, you will want to make sure that you are able to receive treatment in your new country before you move.
Cons of Living Abroad
It’s easy to fantasize about how great life could be abroad but the reality is that there are a lot of downsides to the expat lifestyle. In fact, there are more negatives than positives. Take the following into consideration when making your decision to move and when choosing a country.
You Will Miss Your Friends and Family While Living Abroad
With the cost of airfare, most expats can only afford to return home once or twice per year. Sometimes even less frequently. You will feel homesick and miss your friends and family while living abroad and your relationships will suffer.
For example, when living abroad you will miss major life events of your friends and family. After all, you can’t fly home for every wedding, family reunion, graduation, bar mitzvah, childbirth, funeral, quinceañera, etc. These are events that people remember and talk about for the rest of their lives. You’re missing out on being part of the experience and making memories with your loved ones when you’re not there. This goes both ways. Your friends and family are missing out on your major life events while you’re living abroad as well.
You’ll also miss out on more minor events like holidays, birthdays, weekend getaways, and nights out. Again, you’re missing out on making memories with people that you care about. You just have to come to terms with this and accept it when you move abroad.
It’s also hard to keep in contact with your friends and family when you live abroad. You can’t just call up your parents or best friend at any time due to the time difference. You don’t want to wake them up at 3 am. If you’re living on the opposite side of the earth, there is only a limited amount of hours that you’re both awake and available each day.
Also, don’t expect your friends and family to come to visit you. Most people can’t afford to take time off and fly across the earth. If you want to see your loved ones, you’ll have to fly back to your home country to see them.
All of this has a negative effect on your relationships. Chances are, you’ll slowly drift apart from some of your friends and family members if you don’t see them or talk to them regularly. After all, relationships need maintenance.
If you decide to return home after spending several years abroad, you may find that you and your friends have grown apart. Their lives went one way and yours went the other. You may find that you don’t have anything in common anymore. I’ve lost some good friends because I didn’t put in the effort to keep in touch. I’ve also grown apart from some family members.
Opportunity Cost of Living Abroad
What are you giving up in order to move abroad? For example, if you’re quitting a $100,000 per year job to go teach English in Asia for $10,000 per year, the move is costing you $90,000 per year. Most people can earn more working in their home country.
You should also factor in any career opportunities you may be passing up. For example, if you move abroad and have to take a job outside of your field, your career is stagnating. If you decide to return to your home country in the future, you may have trouble finding a job with a large gap or unrelated work experience in your resume.
Is expat life worth the opportunity cost in this case? I don’t know. Maybe. There is a lot to take into consideration when making this decision including your happiness, field of work, personal finance, potential future income, and more. You don’t want to sacrifice your retirement to spend a couple of years living abroad.
The Language Barrier
Not being able to speak the local language and communicate freely makes day to day life exponentially more difficult. Everything becomes a struggle. Tasks like renting an apartment, opening a bank account, interviewing for a job, and applying for residency, are nearly impossible if you don’t speak the local language fluently.
For example, imagine you need to switch the electric bill for your new apartment into your name. This involves calling the electric company or visiting their office. If no one there speaks English, you may have to find an English speaking local or hire a translator to help you.
Another problem is that languages are incredibly difficult and time-consuming to learn. Particularly when you’re older. It will take at least a year or two for you to become comfortable communicating in a new language. Much longer to become fluent. You may never be able to speak a new language at a native level.
Of course, some languages are easier to learn than others. As an English speaker, you’ll probably become fluent in Spanish or French much more quickly than Chinese or Arabic.
You May Lose Some Rights and Freedoms When You Move Abroad
As a foreigner living abroad, you may not have all of the same rights and freedoms that you’re used to in your home country. For example, you may lose your freedom of speech. You may lose freedom of religion. You may lose protection from discrimination for your race, sex, age, gender, etc. If you are accused of a crime, you may not receive a fair trial. You won’t have the right to vote. If you’re part of the LGBT community, it might be illegal to date who you want to date. You may not have the right to protest or associate with certain groups of people.
These are difficult changes to accept and overcome. Particularly if you come from a very free country and move to a country that isn’t free. For example, imagine you come from a country with free speech and you’re used to saying pretty much whatever you want. If you move to a country that doesn’t allow that same freedom, you could get yourself in trouble if you don’t self censor your communication.
You’ll Always be Considered an Outsider
In some countries, it doesn’t matter how long you live there or how hard you try to assimilate, it’s impossible to be completely accepted by society. Even if you live there for 30 years and learn the local language fluently, you’ll always be considered an outsider or a foreigner. This can be discouraging. After all, everyone wants to feel accepted.
This problem is worse if you move to a country that is very homogeneous or different from your own culturally. If you look, talk, or act differently, people will treat you differently, even if they don’t notice it or intend to. For example, if you’re German and you move to Japan, you’ll never be considered Japanese. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived there.
Of course, some countries are easier to assimilate into than others. If you move somewhere that is very multi-cultural, assimilation becomes much easier because everyone is from a different part of the world. The same is true if you move somewhere that is very similar to your home country. For example, I imagine an American would be accepted in Canadian culture pretty quickly and easily.
Lower Standard of Living
If you’re moving from a developed country to a developing country, you’ll just have to accept that your standard of living will decrease. Fewer public services may be available to you. Infrastructure may be of lower quality than you’re used to. Public services may be less reliable. The city might not be as safe, clean, or politically stable as you’re used to. The internet may be slow. You may work more hours in worse conditions and earn less money. Healthcare may be worse. The education system may be poor.
A lower standard of living mostly means you’ll have fewer comforts in your day to day life. There may be more minor inconveniences to deal with. Living in a country with a low standard of living makes life a bit more difficult.
Living Abroad Can be Expensive
Many people move abroad to cut their living expenses. It’s easy to underestimate your costs and go over budget. A few unexpected expenses of living abroad include:
- Visiting family and friends- Most expats like to come home to see friends and family at least once per year. If you have to fly to a different continent, you might have to budget $1000-$2000 per year for airfare. This cost adds up. If your ticket home costs $1200, that’s an extra $100 per month that you have to budget if you want to return home once per year. If you’re on a tight budget and you want to visit friends and family more often, consider choosing a nearby country. For example, if your friends and family live in the US or Canada, you might choose to move to the Caribbean, or Central or South America instead of Asia or Europe. Flights home cost much less.
- Visas or residency permits- If you’re staying long term, you’ll need a long term visa like a work visa, student visa, or retirement visa, or some type of residency permit. Your visa could easily cost you $300-$1000+ per year in some countries. You might also need to hire an attorney to assist with paperwork. Of course, this depends entirely on the country. In some countries, visas are easy and cheap.
- Visa runs- Some countries require that you leave then re-enter to renew your visa. You’ll have to factor in the cost of transportation to the nearest border and back.
- Import taxes- If you plan to ship some of your belongings overseas to your new home, you’ll probably have to pay taxes on them. The tax amount varies by country. In some countries, there may be no tax while other countries may charge you 20% or more of the value of the items you bring.
- Shipping your belongings- If you’re bringing stuff with you from home, you’ll have to pay to ship it. This could cost thousands if you’re bringing a vehicle or heavy items.
- Health insurance- Even if healthcare is affordable in your new country, you’ll want to purchase health insurance in case of a catastrophic event. Insurance costs vary by country. Travel insurance works well if you’re just staying short term. I like World Nomads. They even offer plans for expats and digital nomads. Check out my travel insurance page for more information and a free quote.
- Currency exchange fees- If you earn money in a different currency, you may have to pay a fee to convert it to the local currency. Depending on the bank you use, this could cost you around 1%.
Some cultures are harder to understand and integrate into than others. When moving abroad, you will probably experience some form of culture shock. Some common issues include language barrier, skill difference, hygiene difference, information overload, communication difference, technological difference, food, etc.
A few symptoms of culture shock include: homesickness, moodiness, anxiety, boredom, anger, excessive drinking or eating, irritability, hostility toward locals, obsession with cleanliness, stress, withdraw from society, and more.
Culture shock is often described in four phases:
- Honeymoon phase- During this time, you may romanticize the new culture. You’ll enjoy the food, meeting new people, and discovering the differences between your culture and your new country’s culture.
- Negotiation- During this phase, anxiety, frustration, and loneliness set in. You may recognize cultural differences but not understand how to navigate them. Examples of differences include the language barrier, hygiene, food, traffic rules, etc.
- Adjustment- During this phase, you begin to get used to the new culture. You may not like it or understand it but you will know what to expect in most situations. This phase begins after 6 months to a year in a new country.
- Adaptation- In this phase, you become comfortable in your new country. You will have a strong grasp of the language and a more or less complete understanding of the local culture.
When dealing with culture shock after moving abroad, there are three possible outcomes. The most common is rejection. According to Wikipedia, about 60% of expats fall into this category. Those who reject the new culture tend to isolate themselves and eventually return to their home country. Around 10% of people completely integrate and stay in their new country forever. The remaining 30% of expats partially integrate and maintain some aspects of their own culture.
How severe the culture shock is and how long it lasts depends on how different the culture is from your own as well as your personality. For example, an American moving to Canada probably won’t experience too much culture shock. The same American moving to Saudi Arabia might never overcome culture shock.
Reverse culture shock also exists. During your time abroad, you’ll likely gain a new perspective on your own culture. You’ll notice things that are done differently for no apparent reason. You may change your beliefs, the way you talk, your diet, etc. Once you’ve adapted to a new culture, returning home can result in culture shock. What was once familiar is now unfamiliar. Readjusting after spending a number of years abroad can be challenging. You may feel alienated or uneasy when interacting with your friends or family during a readjustment period.
When you first arrive in your new country, chances are you will feel lonely. After all, you don’t have your family or friends around to spend time with or keep you company. You probably won’t have any contacts other than the people you work with or roommates. If you’re living alone and not working, you may be completely on your own.
Another problem you may encounter while living abroad is that the friendships you make may not be as deep as the friendships that you have back home. One reason is that you won’t have as much in common with the people you meet abroad. They didn’t grow up in the same neighborhood or go to the same school as you. The language barrier can also be a problem. If you can’t communicate fluently, it’s difficult to form a strong bond. In some cultures, it’s simply harder to make friends because people are more guarded. It takes years to build a strong friendship.
To ease the loneliness, try making some friends before you arrive in your new country. Set up some dates on a dating app or find a community or social activity that interests you before you arrive. You should also keep in contact with your friends and family from back home while you adjust. Avoid spending all of your time alone or you’ll get depressed.
The Locals Resent Expats in Some Parts of the World
In some places, foreigners are just not welcome or liked. This problem often arises in developing countries with large expat populations. Over time, the locals grow to resent expats for a multitude of reasons.
Possibly the biggest problem is that expats drive up the cost of living. This happens in several ways. First, expats tend to have a higher than average income and can simply afford to spend more. Businesses come in and cater to the higher spenders. Lower-income locals get priced out. Expats also pay more for products and services because they don’t negotiate as well as locals. Sometimes foreigners just get overcharged. This causes prices to increase prices for everyone, including the locals. Eventually, the city can become unaffordable for lower-income locals. This phenomenon is called gentrification.
There is also the element of envy. For example, an expat with an income of $1000 per month would be considered poor in any developed country. In much of the developing world, that level of income may put them into the upper middle class. With that level of income, an expat can afford to move into a nice, well located apartment. They can eat out when they want and enjoy all of the city’s entertainment options. In the developing world, very few people have the resources to live like an expat would.
Cultural differences can also cause resentment. Most expats refuse to integrate into society. They don’t attempt speak the local language. They don’t adopt any of the local culture. This is understandably annoying.
Many locals also find it hard to understand why a person who could live in a developed country would decide to move to a developing country where life is more difficult. Logically, this is difficult to understand or explain.
As exchange rates fluctuate, your buying power may be reduced. If you’re earning in a major world currency like Euros, Dollars, or British Pounds, the risk is minimal. If you’re earning in a less stable currency, this risk is something to consider. In extreme cases, your savings and earnings could erode to almost nothing.
Over the first 8 months of 2020, the Turkish Lira lost 20% of its value against the US dollar. In 2018, Argentina’s Peso lost over 50% against the US dollar. If you earned and saved in either of these currencies during these times, you would have lost a substantial amount of buying power.
For example, imagine you’re earning in the local currency and it depreciates against your home country’s currency. If you have credit card debt, a mortgage, or a car payment in your home country, that debt suddenly becomes more expensive than it used to. It could become unaffordable. If you have savings in the local currency, it could lose value against your home country’s currency.
You can hedge this risk by converting your earnings into a more stable currency or buying investments that are denominated in a stable currency. Whether or not this is possible depends on the country. Some investment institutions don’t allow people living outside of the country to invest.
For more info, check out this great guide to currency risk from investinganswers.com.
You Have to Learn New Systems When You Move Abroad
When you move abroad, you have to learn the tax system, public transportation system, financial system, housing system, healthcare system, legal system, cultural norms, etc. It is a lot of information to take in. Everything works slightly differently than you’re used to.
Learning how everything works is a tedious and time-consuming process. You’ll have to study and ask questions to learn how everything works. A problem that that would take you one phone call so solve in your home country could take several days and a stack of paperwork in your new country. In some countries things are fast and efficient. In others you have to go through a whole bureaucratic process.
Of course, some of these new systems are fun to learn about. For example, it can be interesting learning about how the country’s legal system works as long as you’re not personally involved in it. Cultural norms can also be fun to learn as well.
Expat Communities are Hit or Miss
Between government jobs, international business, digital nomads, and retirees, pretty much every country has some kind of expat population. Expats tend to form their own little community within their new country. Chances are, you’ll be part of the expat community. Some of these communities are better than others. They can be hit or miss.
For whatever reason, expats tend to be a group of misfits. This lifestyle attracts those who don’t conform to societal norms. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, expats are usually interesting characters who are fun to be around. On the other hand, they are sometimes weird, unreliable, and even antisocial.
Expat communities vary widely. Some countries have tens of thousands of expats while other countries may only have a handful. In some places, the expat community mostly consists of professionals working for international companies, NGOs, or government organizations. In some parts of the world, the expat population consists of hippies and drifters. Some places attract older expats and retirees. Some countries attract digital nomad types. These groups all have different personalities and interests.
When deciding which country you want to move to, consider the expat community that you will likely become part of. If it doesn’t fit your personality or demographic, you may not enjoy your time there. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to visit before moving. That way, you can meet the community and hopefully make some friends before committing to the move.
Expats Tend to Segregate Themselves
When planning your move, you may imagine yourself making friends with locals and exploring a new culture. Usually, the reality of living abroad is different. Most expats end up spending most of their time with other expats.
The reason is that expats tend to segregate themselves within the city. They often attend the same events, live in the same neighborhoods, and go to the same bars. This is fine. After all, it’s human nature to seek out people you have something in common with. After you make a group of expat friends, you probably won’t bother interacting with locals as much as you initially expected to. It’s just the nature of the lifestyle.
Another problem is that many times locals have no desire to make friends with expats. They may believe that you’ll be returning to your home country soon and not want to bother with forming a relationship. Some cultures are just so different that it’s difficult to form a meaningful friendship. This isn’t to say that you can’t or won’t make local friends as well. You will if you put in the effort.
After moving abroad, you may start to feel homesick, even if you have a better future in your new country. You may miss your friends and family, home-cooked meals, or various comforts and amenities from your home country. I think every expat experiences homesickness at some point.
The best way to deal with homesickness is to find ways to things that remind you of home into your life. For example, cook your favorite meal from your country, call your friends and family regularly, go to a bar or restaurant that is run by people from your country, go out with some expats that are from the same country as you, watch a movie or TV show from your country. These little things make you feel at home for a little while.
Your Favorite Activities, Foods, Products, etc. May Not Be Available
Some items simply aren’t imported everywhere. Some activities aren’t possible in every country. Due to taxes, some products may cost way more than you can afford. Chances are, you’ll have to give up some of your favorite things when you move abroad.
For example, maybe you’re a skier. If you move to the Philippines, you won’t be doing any skiing. Maybe you like running. In some parts of the world, people will look at you like you’re insane if you go running down the street. Maybe you really like Cheetos. In some countries, they just aren’t imported.
Dealing with Bureaucracy
When you move abroad, you’ll have to find an apartment, transfer the utility bills into your name, deal with visas, open a bank account, purchase insurance, etc. These are all tedious and stressful little tasks. How difficult these tasks are varies from country to country. Some countries have a lot of red tape for foreigners.
You’ll need to fill out paperwork, make copies, talk to people, negotiate rates, and make payments. You may need to have your documents translated, prove your residency or address, attend interviews, wait around, pay bribes, etc. Moving abroad can be a headache. It really tests your patience.
Of course, most of these things you only have to do once. To help you out, you can study online or ask a local to explain how the system works.
You Might Pick Up Some Unhealthy Habits
If you move to a country where vices come cheap, it’s easy to develop some bad habits or even addictions. For example, I’ve met a number of expats who have picked up some nasty drug and alcohol habits in their time living abroad. Some expats pick up smoking if cigarettes are cheap. If you have an addictive personality, there are some countries that you may want to avoid.
Your diet can also suffer. In some countries, healthy food is hard to come by. The local cuisine may be heavy on fat, grease, or sugar. Maybe you’re a vegetarian or vegan. In some countries, it would be nearly impossible to maintain a plant-based diet because everything contains animal products.
For some tips to stay healthy, check out my guide: How to Stay Healthy while traveling or living abroad.
You May Attract More Attention than you Want
This point is country dependent and should be considered when choosing your expat destination. In some parts of the world, a foreigner is a rare sighting. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
The good part is that you’ll meet a lot of people. You may find people approaching to chat, ask you a question, or even ask for a photo. You may feel like a D list celebrity at times. This can be a lot of fun.
The attention isn’t always good. People may stare when you walk by. They may approach you to try to sell you something or ask for money. As a foreigner, you may be a bigger target for pickpockets, robbers, and con men as well.
Of course, you won’t attract this kind of attention everywhere as an expat. For example, in multicultural cities where everyone is from a different part of the world, nobody will even notice you. The same is true if you look like the locals and can blend in. In these cases, you’re just another face in the crowd.
Expat life can end up costing you more than expected due to taxes. If you move to a high tax country, your net pay may be significantly lower than you expected. Because you’re not a citizen, you may end up paying tax for services that you can’t even take advantage of.
Before making the move, it’s a good idea to look into the tax laws in your new country to give yourself an idea of what you’ll be paying. You should also look into your rights as an expat. You may be able to reclaim a portion of your taxes when you leave the country.
On top of local taxes, you may be taxed in your home country as well. This is the case with the United States. The country taxes the income of citizens who are living abroad. This means some expats are paying double tax on their earnings. This really only applies to relatively high earners but it is something to consider.
Expat Life Won’t Solve All of Your Problems
Some people move abroad in attempt to solve their personal problems. If you’re miserable in your home country, chances are you’ll be miserable abroad. Moving to another country won’t cure your depression or anxieties.
In fact, moving abroad can make your problems worse. Cultural and language differences can make you feel isolated. You don’t have a support system to fall back on if something bad happens. The constant feeling of uncertainty and being bombarded with new situations can cause a great deal of anxiety. You may simply regret the move.
If you’re a fragile person or you’re going through a difficult time in your life, you may be better off delaying your move abroad. At the very least, you should ask yourself whether moving abroad will really solve your problems or if it will make them worse.
Pros and Cons of Living Abroad
- Living abroad is an adventure- you’ll experience new things and make new memories
- You can lower your cost of living and save money by moving abroad
- Moving abroad opens up new opportunities- you can work abroad, study abroad, or volunteer
- Living abroad is the perfect opportunity to learn a new language
- You’ll make new friends and meet new people
- You’ll experience a new culture- experience new food, music, holidays, traditions, religion, literature, beliefs, history, social habits, etc.
- You may have access to better or cheaper healthcare
- You can easily travel to nearby cities and countries
- You can try new foods
- Moving abroad offers you a fresh start
- Living abroad builds character and helps you improve yourself- You gain independence, adaptability, courage, patience, acceptance, and confidence
- You’ll learn something about yourself
- You learn new skills and acquire knowledge when you live abroad- Learn about economics, politics, geography, language, etc.
- Moving abroad makes you simplify your life- You’ll get rid of some of your stuff when you move abroad
- You will miss your friends and family
- You may face a language barrier
- You may give up some rights and freedoms if you move to a less free country
- Opportunity cost- Moving abroad could hurt your finances or career
- You’ll be considered an outsider in your new country
- Lower standard of living if you move to a developing country
- Moving abroad is expensive- you’ll have to pay for flights to visit family, visas, taxes, insurance, and currency exchange fees
- Culture shock
- You have to learn new systems- including the healthcare system, tax system, housing system, public transportation, the legal system, etc.
- It can be difficult to form friendships
- Currency risk if you earn or save in an unstable currency
- The local people don’t like foreigners in some places
- Your favorite things may not be available- including foods, products, services, etc.
- You attract more attention as a foreigner
- Tax implications- you may end up paying more taxes
- You could pick up some unhealthy habits
- Expat life may not solve your problems- the grass isn’t always greener
Final Thoughts about the Pros and Cons of Living Abroad
As you can see, there are many pros and cons of living abroad. It’s not a decision to be made lightly. The idea of living abroad is very romantic but in reality, most people will be happier and better off living and working in their home country and traveling abroad during vacation time or between jobs. For most, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are well suited for expat life. Many people have improved their lives greatly and found happiness by moving abroad. The only way to find out whether or not expat life is for you is to pack up and give it a try. At the very least, you’ll have some adventures and makes some lifelong memories.
Do you live abroad? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!