Five First Steps to Moving Abroad
It’s been a couple of years since we made the decision to pack up and move to Portugal. The planning process, the move abroad, and getting settled in our new expat life have been amazing, weird, and wonderful in turns.
So many friends and acquaintances have asked us how we did it, and why we chose our current location, that I wanted to pass on some of the most important things I learned during the planning stage of our Big Move.
Start with why.
What’s driving you to make this big change? Sometimes the answer is simple: You have a job opportunity, or you’re ready to retire somewhere with sunshine and beaches.
Or maybe you’re like I was. I have a career that’s location-independent. I really wanted to live somewhere with milder winters (sorry, Boston). And every time we visited Lisbon, we knew it was our “happy place.” So we decided not to wait for retirement, and instead developed a two-year plan to make it happen. (If I’d had all this information ahead of time, though, I bet we could have done it a lot faster.)
Or maybe your “why” is something else entirely. Whatever it is, the first thing I’d tell anyone to do is get a clear view of it. Knowing your “why” makes the rest of the plan so much smoother.
Check with the team.
Are you traveling solo, or with a spouse/friend/partner? Will you be bringing children with you? If your move is a group project, make sure everyone is comfortable with your dream destination.
Sure, there will be doubts and uncertainty (tons of it, if you’re like me). But you should definitely agree that you want to move abroad, and where. I mean, if you have your heart set on a small Italian village, you don’t want to find out a year down the road that your husband really wanted to move to Kyoto. Talk it out, my friends.
Choose a home, not a vacation.
I absolutely love Amsterdam. Mike and I visited three or four years ago, and the city’s smart, quirky, artistic side won my heart. I imagined us living in a little apartment in de Pijp, strolling along the canals, living that dream expat life. I was smitten.
So when we started talking about places to live outside the United States, I put Amsterdam on my list.
But then, as we narrowed our choices, I cut it, almost immediately. Why? Even though it’s a fantastic city, it doesn’t have one of the most important qualities I wanted from our new home – namely, very mild winters.
My fondness for Amsterdam remains unabated. But I knew I needed to choose a home, no matter how much I loved it as a vacation. I had to imagine my life there with a slightly more critical eye, so I didn’t get caught up in the romance of our time there.
Which brings me to my next tip…
Name your non-negotiables.
One smart thing Mike suggested was that we each create a list of our “non-negotiables” – those things a location had to have in order for us to live happily.
If you have kids in school, for instance, a good educational system is likely a non-negotiable. Or if you work remotely, like I do, then the availability of rock-solid wifi is super important. For us, an urban environment with reliable public transit was a big deal, because we decided we didn’t want to buy a car.
If you walk away with exactly one piece of useful advice, let this be it: name those non-negotiables. You’re going to put a lot of time, energy, and money into starting a new life overseas. Make sure you’re going somewhere that’s going to satisfy your most important needs.
I wrote out mine with pen and paper, longhand – something I rarely do anymore. But it put me into a more creative, thoughtful mindset than when I’m banging away on my keyboard. Then Mike and I talked through our separate lists (which were nearly identical, thankfully).
It made Lisbon an easy choice for us. And it confirmed that we were on the same page as far as how we envisioned our lives after the Big Move.
Remember that nothing is permanent.
Yes, be careful. Be thoughtful. But don’t let plans get in the way of your life.
I’m a worrier. I just am. So the idea of living as expats brought up a few concerns for me – from making friends to finding a doctor in a country where I didn’t speak the language. It would have been easy for me to get bogged down in the “what ifs” and never actually make the Big Move.
Instead, I had to tell myself that even though the Big Move felt permanent, it didn’t have to be. Boston is still there, and we can always move back if we really, truly want to. Framing our plan that way allowed me to actually enjoy so much of the process.
And that’s really what it’s all about, right? We should enjoy the journey as much as the destination.