They say hindsight is 20/20, and in my expat experience that’s often been the case. When I made the decision to move to Germany roughly four years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Thankfully it ended up being the best decision of my life and I have few regrets. However, as with all big changes there are certainly some things I wish I had done differently.
- Learn the language before you go
When I moved, I essentially knew no German, as the move was rather unplanned. Granted it was my choice to move so quickly, but with only five months from decision to moving I didn’t have much time to prepare. While I did take a couple of intensive courses when I arrived, I wish I’d taken a beginners’ class in my hometown. Once you know the basics of a language, it becomes much easier to pick up new words and phrases on your own; you can figure things out without frantically google translating every second word! After arriving in your new home, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with work and making friends, but if you make learning the language a priority in the beginning, your expat life will be much easier in the long run!
- Save as much money as possible
Moving abroad is expensive! As well as making the journey and finding an apartment, you’ll need to buy basic necessities and get out and explore your new home – it all adds up! If I had known just how quickly my savings would run out, I would have worked a few more months and cut back on my expenses before the move. Back home it’s also much easier to pick up odd jobs, as you normally have the right to work and speak the language. Whether it’s babysitting, mowing the neighbor’s lawn, or getting a short-term gig at a store or restaurant — make the extra cash while it’s still easy.
Use your move as a chance to get rid of things you don’t need and raise a few extra bucks by selling them. Once you’re in another country, are you ever going to use the bike at your parents’ house, or that old phone that still works? You’ll also save on moving costs.
Once you move, I suggest setting up an account with a service like Transferwise as soon as possible. The money you save on unnecessary bank fees can be spent on delicious food or fabulous experiences in your new home instead.
- Ask friends abroad what they miss from back home
I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends already living in Germany when I moved. Unfortunately, I was so focused on asking them about visas and other big issues that I didn’t think to ask about the smaller things in life. For example, it’s very hard to find certain baking items in Germany that I love back home. You can find substitutes, but if you’re looking for all-purpose flour, vanilla extract, or premade frosting, you’re out of luck! Some medicines or toiletry items are also difficult to find, or quite different than what your used to. I have many American (and German) friends that ask me to bring back a favorite makeup brand or snack from my trips back to the US — little things can make a place feel like home.
- Don’t over pack
On a similar note, there’s a fine balance between packing those little items you love and not overloading your suitcase. If you haven’t used it recently back home, you probably won’t use it in your new country. Make sure to keep in mind that certain items of clothing won’t be useful, or even appropriate in your new home. Those cheap shoes you bought for the short walk from your office to the car might destroy your feet when you try to walk the 1.5 km home from the metro station. And those sorority t-shirts from your younger days might make you stand out in many parts of the world — and not in a good way. If you’re worried about what the locals wear (like I was), take a look at blogs or social media accounts from people living there. TripAdvisor or expat sites like InterNations can also be useful for any questions you may have!
- Don’t worry about what you cannot change
Unsurprisingly, moving abroad can be incredibly stressful. It’s hard enough to move across a city, but moving to a new country where you’re likely to need a visa, health insurance and various other documents can be downright overwhelming. While it’s a good thing to take these challenges seriously, keep in mind that there is only so much preparation you can do. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about my visa being denied or never finding apartment, and I wish I could go back and tell myself to relax, that things will work out, and a friendly attitude will help with many problems.
No matter how positive or prepared you are, problems or complications are bound to come up, but you learn from your mistakes (or sometimes from other people’s). I once spent several hours traveling to Munich to renew my visa, only to find out that the office was closed that day; the correct hours were listed on the German version of the site, but not the English page. Naturally I was quite annoyed, but instead of letting it ruin my week, I managed to arrange a fun night with a local friend and went into the office bright and early the next day. Now I make sure to check both website versions, and give myself extra time in case something goes wrong.
Unfortunately, I’ve not yet discovered a working time machine, so there’s no way to go back and make life easier for my younger self. But sometimes it’s best to learn from your mistakes — it certainly makes you remember the lesson better! If you haven’t made the big move abroad yet, I hope you can save yourself some trouble with my tips! And if anyone has figured out how to make filing taxes in America easier for expats, please let me know!