Moving Abroad: a how-to, where-to-begin guide

A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about before deciding to move from San Francisco to Mozambique, and what he (or anyone) should consider when wanting to do something similar (moving from America to, well, anywhere). And I thought that may be a useful post for others, including followers of this blog, so here it is:

A no-frills how-to guide on moving abroad, based on my own personal experiences as a freelancer in her 20s, and the experiences of the expats I talked to in order to get more input for this post.

My last evening in California before moving to Africa

My last evening in California before moving to Africa

I. First, my biggest piece of advice is not to overthink this. Deep breaths style.

As odd as it may sound, moving abroad without a fixed contract is not immediately concrete or permanent; even though the beginnings of researching a move abroad can be extremely overwhelming and scary. What I mean is, don’t apply for a residency or an expensive work permit or anything just yet.  Go visit a place for awhile first and see how you get along with the local community of expats. Spend enough time there that you don’t see it in a romanticized, holiday, touristic light, but instead how you would deal with being there working, commuting, paying for rent, making friends, and building a life that’s sustainable for you. Of course most of this is a big unknown that you won’t truly get a feel for until you’re living there, after you’ve started working and commuting and socializing and the honeymoon feelings have worn off. But I think a big mistake people make is thinking that visiting a place is going to be the same experience as living there. While you will definitely have beautiful times ahead with exploring your new home, having adventures with new friends, and indulging in new experiences (new restaurants, new cuisines, new languages, new activities!), you will also be dealing with costs of living, commuting, a whole new work ethic that can be massively different from your own, inefficiencies, new cultural norms, maybe some corruption, confusing taxes, etc. For example, don’t think that just because you love safari that moving to an African country is going to be elephants and golden sunsets 24/7, all the time. It’s naive to think so.

When I moved to a small town in Mozambique I really had no idea what to expect, and was unsure of if I’d love it or hate it. I had spent about a month total in this town before as a tourist — starting to wet my toes in the idea of what it would be like to live here — but spending an indefinite amount of time here (and especially working here) is a completely different experience. After I came here with a one-way ticket I spent about four months on a tourist visa, testing the waters and getting to know what it would take for me — a freelance photojournalist who depends entirely on airports to make a living and values things such as easy access to a nearby doctors office — before deciding to make the jump to get a residency/work visa. But all the while, I was constantly weighing how happy I was here, how I could make a living here, how I could support myself, how I liked the culture and the people I spend every day with, and if spending the money to get a residency would be worth it for this time in my life. This meant spending a lot of time talking with local expats and even local lawyers about my options and how I would exit if I ever did/do decide to leave Mozambique someday. But the point is, I spent months here before making the decision to stay, so don’t let the implied permanency of moving abroad scare you from taking a chance and dipping your toes in the expatriate waters. As long as you aren’t on a work contract that keeps you somewhere for many years (more on that later), and you’re willing to spend the money and time in getting to know a potential new home, you can, indeed, leave any time. (As could I). 

II. Another thing to consider is distance.

If frequently going home to wherever you’re from is important to you, consider how much it costs to fly from your new home to your old  home. For example, let’s say you’re from Chicago, and you’re between living in Beijing, China or Copacabana, Bolivia. Beijing to Chicago is a long-haul flight, but it is infinitely cheaper, and oftentimes certainly quicker (less buses, connections, and puddle-jumper flights), than Copacabana to Chicago. So it’s important to think about that and if that matters to you. It takes a long time for me to get from Tofo, Mozambique to Connecticut and New York, where my family currently is. It’s about two days (or more) of bus travel and air travel and long layovers and airport hotels. But is it worth it for me? I think so. (Although I do sometimes miss living 15 minutes from San Francisco International Airport, but we can’t have it all).

III. The most important, and most obvious, thing to consider is money and work.

What’s the cost of living like where you want to move? What’s rent typically like, and what kind of housing does that get you? How about public transportation, if that applies to you? Does the salary you typically make (or will make) allow you a decent, comfortable living?

And, of course, work. Working remotely or freelancing is something a lot of expats pursue because it means not necessarily having to have obtain a working permit in your new country (this depends, though, on the country, so do your research), and it also gives you more freedom to move around and choose your new location based more on your personal preferences instead of necessity. Sounds idyllic, right! But that idealism then means that remote working jobs are remarkably competitive, and usually require a high level of training in a certain speciality (think: coding, web design, graphic design, SEO, remote engineering, copyediting, translating, etc). If you have the time, taking online courses (or even getting a degree) to specialize yourself in one of these coveted skills will make you more marketable for remote employers. Look at remote job listings and see what they require. This takes time, of course, but these things can’t be rushed. And if you’re going to make the jump to move abroad and have the freedom to work from your laptop, patience and determination is definitely key in making sure you can support yourself.

This, however, is too much financial risk for some people, so there is always the option to pursue work in your specialty/field before setting out. Do some research into what’s available in the cities or locations you’d like to live, or alternatively, see what kind of global job listings there are for your career. This also has a major pro, in that you may get a sponsored work permit/visa which may make your life easier later. Also, of course, you have a guaranteed income. The con, however, is that you’re committing to a place you may not be sure you enjoy, and it’s usually for a long duration of time via contract, which makes leaving difficult if you find you want to go home or elsewhere. Though the plethora of options for working abroad may be daunting, it is exciting; you could open your own business, build a hip cabin and rent it out, sell pancakes out of a shack in a beach town in Thailand, sell handmade guitars or knit sustainable cotton hammocks or write a book or two. (Okay, maybe those don’t sound appealing, but you get what I mean). Just as long as you have the discipline to do the research and the savings to coast on while you get on your feet, you will, most likely, be okay. As with most things, just be smart and prepared and have an exit plan if things don’t work out how you want.

V. With that all being said, when it comes to choosing a place (if you don’t already have somewhere specific in mind)… that’s really the exciting part.

Start by making a list of countries you’d want to settle in, even for a short duration of time (you can live abroad for a year or less, remember, nothing has to be permanent). Reddit is a great resource for learning about countries and asking locals specific questions (there’s a SubReddit for just about every country in the world, so get on it and start researching and chatting with the people!). As well, there are tons of expat and digital nomad SubReddits and forums to read and ask questions on. “I Want Out” is another good one for people just looking for advice on the process of leaving.

Think about some countries and then write up some questions that are important to you, and try to connect with locals and expats alike to get their input and perspective. Or, you can always just throw a dart at a map and go, which is fine for someone comfortable and able (monetarily) to do that. But I do think there’s something to be said about putting some decent thought into this, solely so you don’t end up spending your savings bouncing around places you don’t like and end up bypassing the place where you really belong.

But, finally: be flexible and open to new ideas. I always thought I’d live in Tanzania when I'd someday move to Africa, and then suddenly it was going to be England, and then South Africa. But here I am in Mozambique, happy and fulfilled, but open to the idea that a year from now I could be in Botswana or Fiji or maybe tapping maple trees in hilly Vermont. Life is surprising. Experiment, and roll with it.

On horseback in Mozambique

On horseback in Mozambique