By Randall Morrison
Regardless of what country you move to, you’ll face problems and challenges that expats face the world-over. On the other hand, there are problems that are specific to the country, some of which are deadly serious.
Moving abroad is a huge decision, and not one to be taken lightly. To withdraw from everything one’s ever known — the food (even if it’s healthy), the weather (even if it’s miserable), the traditions (not to mention the national sports teams) – and be thrust into an entirely new environment, with its own climate, currency, and culture, it’s no wonder expats frequently have complaints.
Of course, most gripes are minor and can generally be related to the process of culture shock. But knowing some of the common expat problems can help expats better prepare for a big move abroad, because once the culture shock wears away, expat life offers so many rewards.
Some expat problems are foreseeable. For example, those thinking of moving to Ulan Bator, Mongolia or Siberia — destinations, believe it or not, that are being promoted by some move-overseas websites — would be wise to pack a fleece and other cold weather clothes.
On the other hand, there will inevitably be issues that expats cannot plan or prepare for.
Michael Brinksman of online expat resource Expat and Offshore, outlines some of the main issues that might cause stumbling blocks for those moving abroad.
“When moving overseas there are a number of obvious obstacles that most people will struggle with: finding a house, setting up a bank account, buying a car, setting the kids up in school and sorting out healthcare. Struggling with those things in a foreign language can make it twice as stressful,” Brinksman says. “Then there are always the social issues that come with living in an unfamiliar culture — loneliness is not uncommon. We therefore always advise prospective expats to research their destination as thoroughly as they can before making the move.”
Cost of living, high and low
High cost of living is one of the main problems expats face in some countries, although there are plenty of affordable countries you could move to instead. However, it is often difficult to know how tight finances will be until you reach your destination. A recent survey conducted by ETA International looked at the most expensive cities for expats, but the reality of living in an expensive country may not always be as straightforward as these simple lists suggest.
Switzerland had the highest number of cities in the top 10, with Zurich, Geneva, Bern and Basel ranking higher than commonly cited expensive cities Tokyo and London. However, British expat Clare Fraser suggests that the figures may be misleading: “I’ve been living in Basel for the last two and a half years. If you compare Swiss prices to those in your homeland, it’s going to seem expensive, especially for food staples such as meat. But once you start earning in francs, you don’t notice it as much. Although it may be a different story in Zurich – friends there pay astronomical prices for rent!”
Paris ranked 28 in the survey, 10 places up from last year. Although expat sources suggest they haven’t experienced a noticeable difference: “Living in Paris has always been expensive, but you get used to managing your money more wisely and eventually you don’t feel so bad about the money you’re spending just to get a roof over your head at night!” suggests five-year expat Sam Morgan.
Even locations known for lower costs of living, including Latin American countries, pose problems. A Portuguese man who recently relocated to Bolivia, considered one of the cheapest countries for living expenses in the Western Hemisphere, says he paid thousands to obtain residency and citizenship. “Although I lived in four countries in Asia, I had not figured on the extent of corruption in La Paz,” says Juan Almeda. “When I add up everything, the cost to live in Bolivia on a permanent bases comes to almost $10,000 and I will have the concern as long as I live here that my documents may not be legal and a future government could kick me out.”
If he had it to do over again, Almeda says he would have chosen Ecuador or Panama, where he could have obtained residency for about $1,000 — and totally legally.
Other concerns potential expats should consider before moving to low-cost countries are the lack or scarcity of some consumer items. “You should spend a significant amount of time in the places you’re considering moving before making a final commitment,” says Brinksman. “You might find foods you like unavailable or very expensive and the same goes with electronics and medicines. Some people are fine with this but others are not and find out after they’ve moved.”
Don’t believe everything you read
A problem that deserves special note is first-time expats not doing adequate research about the countries and cities they relocate to. “In too many cases new expats will rely on bad information when they choose a new home,” says Carter Feister, a relocation expert in Costa Rica. “They read online blogs and websites that are essentially advertising vehicles pushing specific locations. They believe they are getting objective information when in fact they are getting a sales pitch.”
Feister cites several recent cases of new expats living in Colombia and Nicaragua. “These folks did most of their research on promotional sites and found out later that the reality did not match the hype. In one case a Texas couple bought an ocean-side property in an upscale gated community in Nicaragua after being told that they would be insulated from the political unrest in the country. Although they tell me that this is mostly true, they now feel like prisoners in a compound. They want to experience the local culture but don’t feel safe when the leave the resort.”
Even for expats who live within a local community, there can unpleasant surprises. “Colombia has been pushed hard lately as an expat destination and all the advertising emphasizes how much safer the country is than it was in the days of Pablo Escobar,” Feister says. “This is true but what they don’t tell you is that the murder and overall crime rates started climbing again four or five years ago in Medellin and Bogata and many expats are becoming victims. In Medellin, the murder and violate crime rate is 300% to 400% higher than in most cities in Ecuador and Peru and this should be a serious consideration when making a final choice of a country.”
Feister adds that some expats are seasoned veterans and know how to live safely in high-crime areas. “What’s important is to understand the risks before you move to avoid unpleasant surprises.”
Common expat complaints
It’s impossible to predict the complications and grievances of expat life before arriving in the country, however it helps to be aware of some of the common problems that other expats regularly experience. And what better way to find out about other people’s problems than on social media?
Scrolling through Twitter, there are several issues which emerge with frequency.
- Learning a language is usually rated as the biggest problem for expats (especially for retirees);
- The struggle to make friends can be a common issue, particularly when the usual long-term background of knowing people from childhood, university and employment is eliminated;
- Understand the currency and its risks is important. If you’re thinking of moving to Brazil, Argentina or Colombia, understand that inflation can play a big role in cost of living and the value of assets you buy in the country;
- Establishing a new identity can be a challenging but rewarding factor when moving abroad, as many expats experience significant personal growth and absorb new factors from another culture.