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Expat Life

Common problems faced by new expats: Experts say do your research to avoid major mistakes

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.

Scenes like this in Nicaragua can be appealing but prospective expats should look deeper before they leap.

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.

The beauty and sophistication of Zurich comes at a high price.

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

The teeming markets of La Paz offer some great deals but there will be some items you can’t find there.

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.

5 thoughts on “Common problems faced by new expats: Experts say do your research to avoid major mistakes

  1. As soon-to-be expats moving to Cuenca, we would recommend the following if you are considering expatriation to anywhere. Use your “big move” as a “big change” no matter where you go. That way more of what you have (or earn) will be available to “cushion” your change. Change, whether it be moving to a new city, state, or country, requires changes, and changes often require purchases. Downsize now while you can, don’t wait until you have to. Get rid of the huge house and all of the expense of running it. I read recently of an expat who was “making do” nicely with over 2000 SF after moving from 6500 in the US! That seems ridiculous in the first place, but downsizing is good. We moved to a nice apartment several years ago in preparation, and we like it much more than I imagined for its “lock and leave” lifestyle. And it’s perfect prep for moving abroad if you are going to start out renting (as we plan). Make sure they know you by name at Goodwill. We have unloaded tons of items we don’t use and were hanging onto for some reason. We are not moving them again! Some of the items we were able to sell to auction agencies, or consign to consignment shops, and actually made some pretty good money (in lieu of a garage sale). One my neighbors loved coming over to shop in my garage once I had stored the few items I was going to keep (now the stuff is his problem!). Examine each and every recurring monthly expenditure, including subscriptions, insurance premiums, rental and mortgage, grocery store, etc., and reduce them like your life depends on it. Take the retiree approach, as one of my neighbors calls it. Tell others you are now on a “fixed income” and live like you are. If you plan well and actually retire, this is all much easier because you have to do it. Ditch one of your cars and make it work with one, hopefully to move somewhere you don’t need one (it’s gonna save you $9000/year and make you healthier anyway!). Believe me, you can spend much less than you do now, and even thought you could manage! Then seriously plan your retirement abroad and enjoy the excitement of the possibilities of your new life!

    1. Marshall,
      Wow! We loved reading your comment. I told my wife that I liked it better than the article.Your story was a confirmation of our journey. It sounded just like us. After downsizing we traveled to Ecuador earlier this year. Now we are at the excitement stage of preparing for our move to Cuenca in January. I’m sure you are excited too. If we happen to cross paths in Parque Calderon or elsewhere I’m sure we will enjoy the time together. Best wishes for your ” big change”. Dean

  2. Thank the Good Lord for Ecuador. Nice climate, inexpensive costs, and a 5-8 hr plane ride if you need to go back to the U.S.
    Ecuador has the highest % of its country covered with water. Contrast that with Saudi Arabia; many friends of mine work there in engineering. Saudi Arabia has no water coverage at all: no rivers, streams, lakes, not even a swamp for a swamp creature. Nothing. 110 degree days there in the summer; you can keep it.

    1. I think it was an Ecuadorian friend who lives in La Libertad who told me Manta is too damn hot and humid.

  3. numbeo.com is a good resource (not perfect) to compare cost of living between 2 cities … I used it extensively before deciding on Cuenca. many other things featured in my decision like learning a new language. you need to keep your brain active when you retire and what better way than to learn a new language or learn to play a musical instrument

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