12 Tips for Future Expats
We’ve just returned from our 3rd foreign expatriation in the past 12 years. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves each time and will cherish the memories for years to come. But not all expatriations are a success and many bring considerable challenges with them. If you haven’t done one before, here are a few tips based on our personal experiences.
- Take your furniture. When you move to another country, you don’t want to live like a refugee or in someone else’s furnished home. Bring your own furniture (if possible) to recreate your own familiar space. It really makes a difference in terms of comfort and mindset (I.e. your willingness to stay on). Don’t just move to a strange land; recreate your home there because you don’t always know how long you will stay.
- Less than 2 years is probably not enough. The rule-of-thumb “break-even” mark for an expatriation generally hovers around the 3 year mark. That’s for all the financial costs associated with a complex move to be (mostly) recouped. In my experience, 2 years is the minimum to make the move and all the related hassles & costs worth while. Anything less and you might want to reconsider.
- Small kids, small problems. Young children are adaptable and relatively easy to move around. Things get a lot trickier when they start hitting the teen years or when they are entering high school. We made the choice to return to the U.S. in order for our eldest son to start high school. Think long and hard about the education and socialization of your older children. A life abroad can be very enriching but it can also erode a sensitive child’s confidence and wellbeing if not handled carefully. Please also note that a US/English education abroad can be very expensive. Some American Schools, for example, can charge as much as $40K in fees per year, per child!
- Be sure your partner is onboard and fully committed. Don’t even consider an expatriation if your relationship is rocky or your spouse has serious reservations. Foreign assignments can bring a couple closer together but they can also tear it apart if the relationship isn’t strong.
- Don’t travel back home each year. Explore your new region! A foreign assignment is a rare opportunity to discover a new part of the world. Don’t spend your precious vacation time schlepping back to your home country (barring family emergencies, of course). You’ll have plenty of time to do that when you are back.
- Live in a place where you will be happy, even if it costs more. Finding the right home or apartment is essential. Especially if there is a spouse who will be at home while the other is working. If the difference between a nice place and a great place is financially manageable, opt for the great place. The whole experience gets elevated when families are excited about where they live.
- Coming back can be tough. The return home can be challenging, especially on a professional level. During your time away, you’ve grown, and folks back in the Home Office have likely changed or moved on. Your personal network may have eroded and your professional/job expectations are no longer the same. Disenchantment creeps in and it is not unusual for up to 50% of returning expats to leave their employer within the first year back.
- Beware the storage fees. We put a portion of our belongings in storage not knowing we would be gone for six years. We paid several thousands of dollars out of our own pockets which – with hindsight – was not a wise idea. We ended up paying more than the stored goods were worth! So plan ahead and avoid offsite storage if you can.
- Pick a reliable and experienced mover. Ideally with they will have their own employees and operations on the other side. This helps ensure a certain quality standard. Also, keep all your personal medical and important financial documents with you and not in the container.
- Immerse yourself right away. Get connected immediately with local associations and organizations. If you can, try to build relationships with locals. Don’t just mingle with expats and socialize exclusively with foreigners like you. You will miss a lot by doing so. Stretch yourself and your comfort zone. You will be glad you did.
- Pick the city (vs. suburb) for easier integration. One final suggestion. You may be a “countryside” or suburban person at heart but for your first move abroad, I suggest picking a residence either in or very close to the city center. You want to be close to the action and have easy access (especially for the home-bound spouse) to all the services and cultural activities. Start there first and then consider moving further out at a later time when your are more comfortable and know exactly what you want.
- (US Citizens Only) Get a good accountant! Different country, different tax rules. If your employer is sending you abroad, be sure they will pay for a good accountant to do your foreign AND U.S. Taxes. Even if you have to pay for tax preparation yourself, do invest in a trusted and reliable accountant. Being a U.S. Citizen abroad can be a nightmare from a fiscal point of view. And remember, even if you don’t set a foot back in the U.S., you will still owe Uncle Sam a return and potentially some taxes. If you own a home, some states (e.g. California) will also tax your foreign income because in their eyes, you are still a resident. Alternatively, you can sell your house before leaving and free yourself of any state taxes and filing obligations. Just remember that as a US citizen living abroad, you are NOT off the hook for filing a US tax return and potentially paying taxes on your foreign earned income. It sounds unfair (and it is) but that’s just how it goes for americans.
Bonus: One last piece of advice. Working with a quality relocation company can make a massive difference to how and where you settle. Work with an agency that truly knows the city you are moving to and has a solid track record of satisfied clients with references. Do your homework and shop around for the right partner. What is their philosophy? What services do they offers? Are they friendly and supportive? If you are moving to Lyon, I highly recommend Martine Ruiz at MRI. Exceptional service and unparalleled expertise.
I hope this was helpful. Feel free to add any tips or experiences of your own!