Moving to Asia: 5 Tips for Would-Be Expats in Southeast Asia

For 11 years, my husband Mark and I traveled to all the places we thought we might move to, researched so much that we felt overwhelmed, and read every forum, Facebook page, and blog we could find. Once we decided to move to Penang, Malaysia, we were excited and terrified. After all that research and years of travel, we thought we pretty much knew enough to make our first year go smoothly, and for the most part, we did. But, there are just so many things, the nitty gritty, that you don’t know until you move and find out for yourself.

Below are five tips that I’ve learned from personal experience, which may help your transition to moving to Southeast Asia a little easier.

1. Rent Don't Buy, at Least for the First Year.

Rent in the area you think you want to settle in and see what it’s like living there, then go ahead and buy if it makes sense. Don’t rush into buying in a place where, until now, you’ve probably only vacationed. You just might not love that neighborhood.

Our first year we found the perfect condo, loved everything about it, but it turned out miserably because we had a dog shelter a few steps from our building, something we couldn't have known until we lived there. All we heard, day and night, was incessant barking from dozens of dogs. Thankfully we were only renting there so we could move—we would have been in trouble had we bought.

2. Do Not Rent Until you get There.

You might want to get there and get settled as quickly as possible, but by choosing a rental online you will be paying premium prices, as well as paying a realtor. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and sometimes they lead you to believe that the place is bigger, nicer, and closer to the beautiful beach than it really is. There is no way to know that until you see it in person.

Find an Airbnb or hotel, where you can hang your hat for a couple of weeks or a month when you first arrive. Then tell everyone you meet—cab drivers, locals, expats, bartenders—that you are looking for a place to rent and your requirements. Drive around the area you like and call the number on every rental sign you see. Check out local newspapers and get online, too.

By waiting until you get there, not only will you save money, you can see each room up close and get a feel for the neighborhood. It’s also much easier to negotiate the terms of the rent face-to-face—people find it harder to say no in person than through the computer. And before you sign on the dotted line, go to the property at different times of the day—sometimes strange things/people come out at night!

3. Get to Know the Local Expats Before you Arrive

A huge help in the moving process is to get online and join expat forums like You can choose the city you are moving to, get in touch with other expats, and ask questions from those who already live there. They also have events and gatherings in each area, so you can get an idea of what’s happening in your new home town before you get on the plane. It’s a great way to “meet” people before you even step foot on new soil. By doing this, you’ll already have a network of new friends when you arrive, to assist in a softer landing.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Shop Locally

An excellent way to save money is to shop where the locals shop. Check out your daily produce markets and buy all your fruit and vegetables from there. Yes, it might not be what you're used to, but it’s probably fresher. Most of the time that produce is from the nearby local farms, so not only are you buying the freshest pineapples and lettuce, you are supporting the local farms and the community that you’ve just moved into.

5. Negotiate…and Then Negotiate Some More.

It takes a bit of getting used to but everything is negotiable in Southeast Asia; from your rent, to cab fares, to furniture. Sometimes, you can even make a deal for massages if you are coming in with a few people. It never hurts to ask nicely for a better price.

It’s almost expected that you haggle a bit, but just remember not to be insulting. If you are buying a couch priced at $500, don’t tell them you’ll only pay $200, be reasonable and ask for $100 off and free delivery.

Unfortunately, when moving to another country, people will assume you are a tourist and will likely give you raised tourist prices. But, if you tell them that you just moved there and plan to buy all your furniture, fruit, scooters from them, they will usually give you a better price. We even negotiated directly with our landlord and got a few hundred dollars off of our rent. That would never happen in Chicago.

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