Five First Steps to Moving Overseas: US to Europe

Moving overseas didn’t just happen for us. Our plan to move from the US to Europe took a couple of years, and that doesn’t count the actual move and getting settled as expats in Lisbon.



So many friends and acquaintances have asked us how we did it, and why we chose our current location.

If we’d had more guidance on how to approach an overseas move, we probably could have done it a lot faster. Learn from us, and read on for the five first steps we recommend to anyone who wants to move abroad.

Step one: 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 (now) 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 think we could have done it a lot faster.

Or maybe your “why” is something else entirely. Whatever it is, the first thing I tell anyone about moving overseas is to get a clear view of why. Knowing this makes the rest of your planning so much smoother.

Step two: Check in with the team

Are you traveling solo, or with a spouse/friend/family member? 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 after moving overseas that your partner really wanted to move to Kyoto. Talk it out, my friends.

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I loved visiting Amsterdam – but vacations don’t tell you everything about living in a place.

Step three: 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 move overseas – 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.

Take a scouting trip to anyplace you’re considering, and imagine your life there with a more critical eye. This will keep you from getting caught up in the romance of a place, and help you see the real-life version.

Which brings me to my next tip…

New 2020 Trips

Step four: Name your non-negotiables

One smart thing Mike suggested was that we each create a list of our “non-negotiables” – those things a location must have in order for us to be comfortable there.

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.

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Curious why I chose Lisbon over Boston? Photo courtesy Mike Healan.

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.

Step five: 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 moving overseas 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 our 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 more of the process.

And that’s really what it’s all about, right? We should enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

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