7 Barriers to Becoming an Expat

There are many things that make the expat lifestyle attractive; beautiful locations, healthier lifestyle, and a lower cost of living to name just three. But at some point, when considering the expat life, many people run into barriers—things that may seem like insurmountable obstacles on the road to their new life.

Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly perceived barriers, and see if they are really so challenging.

#1 – I’ll Miss My Family and Friends

This is a big one, especially for grandparents. But is this really as big a barrier as it used to be, even just a few years ago? First of all, travel has never been easier: instead of working through a travel agent to make complex international plans, you can now simple log on to any of a number of web sites and book the best deal in minutes. There are even programs that will search for the biggest bargains for you and notify you by email of your options. This makes going home for visits, or family coming to visit you, much easier.

The biggest change in overcoming this barrier has to be the advances in internet communication, social media, and video calls. Today you can use tools like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Messenger, and others to enjoy free video chats with family and friends.

My wife and I have also found that living overseas can be made into a plus for family. All of our children and grandchildren have been out to visit us in Ecuador, and we have been thrilled to be able to show them that the world is a bigger place than they imagined, and that there are more opportunities than they know. Several of our school-age children have given presentations at school about Ecuador, and I gave a slide show presentation to a fascinated pre-school class on one of our trips to the U.S. We also have so much more to share with everyone when we visit at home.

#2 – I’ll Need to Learn a New Language

At a recent International Living Fast Track Your Retirement conference, the question “will I have to learn a new language?” was the number one concern of the attendees. While it is possible to live in most foreign countries without learning much of the local language, unless you choose one of the English-speaking destinations (Belize, for example), or limit yourself to staying within established expat communities, you will find that it is important to learn to be able to communicate on some level with the locals.

But is this a barrier, or an opportunity? It really is not necessary to become fluent. You can get quite far learning the names for household items and the “kindergarten words”—you know, words like please, thank you, hello, goodbye, numbers, colors, and where is the bathroom, etc.

Most expats who make the effort find their lives greatly enriched by the experience of learning to speak a new language. And no matter how badly you flub the accent or grammar, you will find that the locals are extremely appreciative of any attempt you make to speak to them. In fact, you will be surprised how many want to practice their English on you.

#3 – Will I Be Safe?

Right after the concern about language comes the question of “safety”. There are many people who do not like to travel out of the United States for just that reason—they are afraid that it is not safe anywhere beyond the border.

The reality is that no matter where you are, bad things can happen to people. There is not a place on the planet, including where you live right now, where someone can guarantee you that you are going to be completely safe. There are always going to be degrees of risk, as long as you are alive and walking around.

I have lived in or visited no less than eight foreign countries, and I am happy to report that my wife and I have never felt that we were in an unsafe or threatening situation. At our home on the coast of Ecuador, my wife is perfectly comfortable walking our dog by herself, and we have traveled all over this country and others by rented car and public bus, and never had any issues.

As long as you take the same normal precautions you would take anywhere—don’t flash money or jewelry around, don’t visit questionable neighborhoods late at night, and so on, expats will tell you that you do not need to be any more concerned about your safety than you are in your home right now—in fact, some will tell you they feel safer.

#4 – I Don’t Know What I Would DO In a Foreign Country

Expats often hear the question, “But what do you Do there?” The simple answer is that we do pretty much everything we used to do, and a little more—just more of it is done outdoors.

With modern internet and streaming services, it is quite easy to watch the same TV shows and sporting events you enjoy right now. Satellite TV and cable options are also present in most countries. Electronic books and magazines allow you to read the latest publications, and all the national and many regional newspapers are also available online.

In most expat locations you will find that you are outside walking around a lot more often, and there are plenty of locations with golf and tennis clubs. Water activities are of course available in all of the coastal areas. You can spend time enjoying new cuisines and new restaurants, and experiencing new festivals and celebrations.

On top of that, anywhere there are more than a dozen expats you will find plenty of gatherings for things like book clubs, poker games, or charitable causes. Our personal experience has been that although we seldom have any official plans for the day, we always seem to have plenty to do.

#5 – What About Culture Shock?

Culture Shock is something that can affect anyone, and not just from moving to a new country. College students report it when they go off on their own for the first time, and even starting a new job or moving to a new neighborhood can require a breaking in period. It is true though that being a thousand miles away (or more), and surrounded by a different culture and a different language can be a difficult adjustment.

However, there are many things you can do to make your transition smoother. Some of that starts before you leave: spend as much time as you can reading about your new home, and doing some basic research. Find out in advance about some of the cultural taboos and the local holidays. Take a look at YouTube videos about your destination, and join some social media groups for expats who are living there now. Anything that helps get you plugged into the situation before you arrive will make things a little more familiar when you have your boots on the ground.

It is also a good idea to take some things with you that remind you of home, or are important to you personally. You don’t necessarily have to ship a whole container of goods either—it can be something as simple as a favorite pillow or blanket, or a piece of art or pictures that you have had on your walls forever.

Lastly, just be aware that after a honeymoon period, you may start to feel a little homesick. That’s perfectly normal, and doesn’t mean you’ve made a big mistake. Just be prepared for it and make an effort to look around at your new home for the new things you can enjoy. A successful expat will find that the things they can experience in their new home more than make up for the few things they may miss about the old one.

#6 – Will I Be Able to Make New Friends?

This question of course depends a lot on you—are you able to make friends where you are now? If so, you will have no problems making friends as an expat. In most expat destinations, you are not going to be breaking new ground. There are plenty of “old-timers" available who will be happy to help you and to introduce you around.

Another resource often overlooked are the “repats”, or repatriates. For example, we have several friends who left Ecuador to work in the U.S., and have now returned to retire. They are great friends to have, since they are bilingual and can often help as a bridge to meeting locals, and integrating more with the local community.

As mentioned earlier, there are many clubs and organizations you can find to get involved and meet new people. In fact, most expats will tell you that if they wanted, they could attend a different gathering every day of the week. Many will tell you they have more friends than ever. After all, you already have something in common —you decided to live in a new country!

#7 – Will I Have Access to Good Healthcare?

This is an issue that will vary greatly depending on your target location, your current general health, and your lifestyle.

However, it is surprising to some North Americans how good healthcare can be in other nations. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the number of foreign doctors that attended at least some part of their medical school in the U.S. or Europe. Since most medical textbooks are written in English, it is also not too hard to find a physician who speaks at least a little English.

There are other advantages as well. In Ecuador for instance, we do not need a prescription for most medicines. Only narcotic-based and some psychotropic drugs are only available with a doctor’s note. We can buy just about anything else at any farmácia, often at much lower prices. Doctors that make house calls are also very common in Central and South America.

The Takeaway

When all is said and done, choosing the expat life is just the same as any other major decision in your life; there will always be obstacles standing in your way, and there will always be an excuse to delay or even to never make the change. But remember that it is often true that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward.

Editor's Note: “Where should I go?” This is the question International Living’s editors and correspondents hear most often, and it’s one that’s nearly impossible for any of our editors to answer right off the bat. That’s because there’s no one-size-fits-all locale. And so what’s right for one person (given their budget, interests, and priorities, and so on) most certainly won’t be for another

Every January, however, International Living delivers to readers a tool designed to help them sort through their best options all around the world. It’s IL’s Annual Global Retirement Index—and the 2021 edition marks its 30th year.

Inside, the editors rank, rate, compare, and contrast the world’s top 25 retirement havens across 10 revealing categories—healthcare, cost of living, housing, climate, and more.

The 2021 Global Retirement Index will be released in January. Learn more here.

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