Now more than ever, families with children are making the conscious decision to move abroad. This is far different than a corporate transfer or assignment to an overseas military base where everything (transportation, housing, etc.) is taken care of for you, and the move is for just a few years.
In this next generation of expat families, they are flying solo, figuring things out on their own and with the assistance of those families who’ve already made the transition and are ready and willing to help newcomers.
There’s no one-size-fits-all. Some are moving temporarily, taking a sabbatical from their careers for a year or two to give their kids exposure to the wider world. Some are full-on emigrating, leaving life in their home country behind. Some are traveling regularly, not having a home-base and traversing the world, a month here, a month there. Some are living in RVs, traveling Latin America or Europe by road.
Whatever the mode you choose, it’s never been easier to make a move abroad. But there are certain things specific to families and children that make this a much different transition than for expat retirees.
I moved abroad with my wife (who was pregnant at the time), four-year-old son, and two dogs to Costa Rica in 2012. In our case, we were looking to have an adventure—along with affordable and good quality healthcare.
Since then we’ve traveled all over Latin America—places we never dreamed of when we had a typical suburban existence in our home state of Florida. We now live in Mexico and continue to enjoy our expat experience.
I’d like to share the strategies I’ve picked up over the years from my experience and from other families I’ve met that make it more likely you’ll have a successful move and enjoy your new life in a new country. Above all keep an open mind, expect surprises, and make the most of the experience.
Why Move Abroad With Your Kids
During our time abroad, I’ve met a 100+ fellow families in places as diverse as Peru, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and beyond, and they have a variety of motivations for making the transition. Some simply want to have their children experience life beyond their country and see how different cultures operate. Some want their kids to learn a foreign language and know that immersion is the most effective and fastest way to do so. Some are dissatisfied with the cultural and political strife in the U.S. and want to escape. Some just want an adventure.
Some people move abroad and end up loving it…and truly starting a new life. Others miss home and go back after a while. Neither choice is wrong. There are no winners or losers. It’s a very personal decision. And either way you and your kids have had an adventure of a lifetime.
But it does bring to mind my #1 piece of advice for those considering a move abroad:
Test drive first. By this I mean, don’t sell your home and car and all your possessions and make the move. First, try it out. If you can, spend several months in your desired location. Try a few different spots in the same country to see if you like those better. You might even travel to a few different countries to see which one is the best fit.
Don’t buy a property right away. There are plenty of affordable and fully furnished rentals. This will allow you to try out life in a location or several locations without making a big commitment. By being in a spot for several months, you’ll learn so much about it and yourself.
Whatever, you do, when you make that first move, make sure you can leave if you need to and that you have something to go back to if things don’t work for whatever reason.
Preparing for the Move
Research, research, research. I can’t stress enough how important it is to become informed about all the things you must do to prepare effectively for a move abroad…as well as the place you plan to move to.
Some items to think about:
- How much “stuff” will you bring? (Suitcases on the plane…or a shipping container?)
- What are the residence visa requirements?
- Are essential services like electricity, water, and internet reliable?
- Is there the level of healthcare you need?
- Is there an expat community, including families?
- Are there schools—and do they meet your needs?
- Is the cost of living within your range?
- Is the climate what you’re looking for?
- Is it safe? (All the places International Living covers are, but you want to check conditions in specific towns and regions you’re considering.)
As you go through your list of essential items you’ll need in your overseas location that should start to narrow down your possible destinations.
Easing the Transition
Moving is always hard. You’re leaving familiar surroundings and routines for…well, you don’t know until you get there. Making a move to a totally new country, culture, and language, adds a whole other level of difficulty. I won’t sugarcoat it—moving abroad isn’t easy. I guarantee there will be times where you are confused, frustrated, and even questioning if you made the right decision, especially at the beginning.
But if you stick with it…the rewards can overcome any initial hesitation and fear.
There are some things you can do to ease the transition, especially for your kids, who, after all, are along for the ride in many ways and probably feeling uprooted from the comfort of school, friends, sports, afterschool activities, and more from their “old” life.
The transition process should begin well before you board the plane. Involve your children in the planning process. Let them have a say in what they bring and what they leave behind. Show them picture and videos of where you plan to live. Explain the benefits they’ll enjoy in your new home. Talk to them about the school they’ll attend.
You should also start making contacts in your new location before you move. With Facebook and other social media apps, you can connect with people easily. Most expat communities have a Facebook group; some even have groups especially for families. Feel free to introduce yourself and ask for advice. Most of these groups are friendly and more than willing to help…and will probably even invite you over for dinner once you arrive.
What Do You Do for Money?
In some cases, families have been saving up for years before they made the move abroad. But most of the time, you’ll need to make an income. The good news is that you probably won’t have to make as much money as you did back home because you’ll have less expenses and the cost of living is lower.
You’ll have several options. (One thing to note is that you almost definitely WILL NOT be able to just apply for a job in the new country because of work visa requirements.)
Check with your current employer. It might be possible for you to telecommute and work from your new home overseas. Think about it. If most of your communication with colleagues is via email and phone…why can’t you do that anywhere in the world?
Many expat families I meet work online in some capacity. Some have an internet business selling products, either physical items or digital downloads. Some are freelance web designers, graphic designers, or writers. Some are consultants, working for clients in the U.S. or around the world, in professions like engineering or accounting. A very popular online career right now is teaching English via video conferencing software (no teaching experience needed); the big demand right now is to teach Chinese children.
Another income option, if you own your home in your home country, is to rent it out, either as a vacation rental or to a long-term tenant. The money you bring in from that might cover a good portion of your expenses.
Social Life and Friends
One of the biggest worries from any move to a new place is the fear that you won’t be able to make friends. This is especially stressful for kids who perhaps have had the same buddies their whole lives.
From my experience, it’s very easy to make friends as an expat and that includes the kids.
Expat communities tend to be welcoming and friendly. They were new once…they know how it is. Plus, you’re all going through the same experience and are probably like-minded. You ended up out of your home country and in the same place after all. You have a lot in common.
The result is fast friendships with people from all backgrounds, ages, and nationalities. And the kids get along really well also. You won’t find bullying. You don’t have to be so concerned with what kids are doing online. It’s more of an old-fashioned childhood in many ways. Plus, there are plenty of ways to stay active as a kid, from sports to clubs to play dates and beyond.
School and Education
One of the biggest concerns for parents is what to do about school. In many countries, you’ll have several options.
- Local public schools. This really depends on the country. In some places, they are good quality. In others, it’s pretty bare bones. It is probably the best way to pick up the local language as there are no accommodations made for foreign students.
- Private schools. Usually designed for locals with means and expats, private schools often offer U.S. level education, sometimes even a curriculum accredited by a U.S. state. The downside is that the language is often English and the costs can be high.
- Online schools. Many states and private companies offer online schooling for K-12. You simply set up an account for your child and away they go, with live online instruction by teachers or more of a go at your own pace system—it depends on the program.
- Homeschooling. A very popular option for expat families is homeschooling. That does mean one parent’s job will be to be a teacher. And if you’ve never done it before it can be intimidating. But structing your child’s education the way you see fit and having the flexibility to let them pursue their own interests does offer a lot of benefits. Plus, when school is at home and on your schedule, that leaves plenty of time for fun and travel.
Your Next Steps
Moving abroad with your children can be very rewarding…the experience of a lifetime. It takes some preparation to make sure you have things set up in your new location and that the whole family is mentally ready for life in a new country and culture. In many ways, no matter how much you prepare it will still be a leap of faith because you won’t really know until you’re there.
But that’s part of the fun. Best of luck.
Moving to Thailand with School-Aged Children
By Rachel Devlin
If you’re thinking of retiring early and moving overseas or planning to work overseas for a time with school-aged kids, it is actually very possible. In fact, there are many expats doing exactly that. I’m one of them.
It’s natural to be concerned about your children’s educational pathways but you may be relieved to find out that there are many great options.
Sure, it takes some research, but in the end you will probably be pleasantly surprised. Of course, it takes some planning and there are a few “what ifs” to consider, but as a former teacher myself I can say from personal experience that my son has benefited greatly from his time at an international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
More often than not, international schools are smaller in size compared to mainstream schools and they tend to have a stronger sense of community. Partly because the students all pull together to maneuver through their new landscape—automatically teambuilding.
Other benefits include getting to really understand another culture and, for younger children, the very real possibility to be fluently bilingual.
Children who experience life in another country also become members of what is known as “Third Culture” club. These children have such different experiences as they grow up, immersed within a different culture to the one they left behind, they see the world a little differently to how they may have done if they’d stayed back home.
I have watched this first-hand with my son, who moved from Australia to Thailand when he was 16. As he has witnessed how culture, economics, and politics help shape another country, he can look through another lens at national and international events. His observations on international politics not only make us smile, but come from someone who sees more of the “big picture”. And let’s face it, having the capacity for “big picture” thinking is a huge bonus in many jobs and can’t be taught through a school syllabus.
Another pleasant surprise is that international schools tend to have very busy extra-curricular activities. Naturally, sporting teams are popular but there are also after-school clubs.
When considering moving overseas with school-age children, choose a country that has a selection of international schools. Lessons in local schools will be conducted in the native language while international schools provide lessons in English or indeed are bilingual. These schools are great for expat families, as some lessons are carried out in English and some in the local language.
Finding the right school overseas—just like at home— really depends on the needs of your child. It is important that you understand exactly what you are paying for. Some international schools use an American curriculum, some a British curriculum—it is even possible to find Australian curriculum schools.
Whatever the case, the most important question to ask is, “does the school have current accreditation from the country whose curriculum they follow?” This means the school is legally qualified to teach the curriculum from their country and that external inspections monitor the school is actually following the curriculum correctly. In real terms, this means that if your child graduates from the school, he or she will have a recognized certification.
If your children are young and you are planning to move back to Australia at some point, you don’t need to worry about the transition back to Australian classrooms. It will not be a disadvantage that your child has been attending an international school, even if the school was teaching a different curriculum. Australian schools have had systems for integrating students from overseas for many decades. All you will need to do is discuss the situation with the school principal and provide some school reports, which will give helpful context to your child’s progress.
If you are moving overseas with teenage children you do not have to worry either, particularly if your child wishes to go to university. There are lots of different pathways to universities in Australia so it’s best to contact the Admissions Centre of each university that you are considering.
So, what about the prices? It’s a big question and difficult to answer. Most schools keep their pricing off the internet and prefer to meet you in person to discuss the fees. From our experience, the fees are fairly similar to smaller private schools in Australia. We have paid around $12,000 per year. But what we have received for that is a quality curriculum, very caring teachers, lots of social activities, and a nurturing community.
As we decided to retire overseas, we do face one final challenge and that is what our son will do when he is ready to go back to Australia. We pay to fly back and help him get set up but he will also have us on Skype and has relatives back home if he needs them. At this stage he is planning a gap year after his final year of school to explore more of Thailand and complete some online courses.
We took a big leap of faith moving overseas and it turned out pretty fabulously, so we won’t stress. We’ve already proved as a family that we can conquer all the challenges of this new expat life, time, and time again.
Moving to Volcán With Five Children: How We Did It
By Nanette Witmer
Moving to Panama with five children, all of them under the age of eight, seems like a challenging task. Nevertheless, fortune favors the brave, and seeing how happy Kama and Ben Hart, and family, are now, it’s obvious that the move turned out to be a success. The Harts moved to the area of Volcán from Texas in 2017.
“We decided to move to Panama for various reasons,” Kama says. “One of the main ones was that we liked how the country was very family-oriented. In Texas, we rarely saw our friends because all their kids were involved in so many activities. We never got together.”
Volcán has a small population of around 250 expats who are very involved with their community. Over the last few years, younger couples with children have made Volcán their home. Activities here are mostly of the outdoor sort—hiking, birdwatching, and fishing, for example. Social life is mostly visiting friends and gathering at some of the local places to eat out. While this simple life is not for everyone, those with families have found it a perfect place to raise children.
“One of the best resources for finding information before we moved here was joining a lot of Facebook groups and getting to know people that way. We also took a short trip to get to know some of the people we had met online, acquire our temporary residence cards, and see the area. At that point, we had pretty much decided we were moving here. Our kids have done an amazing job of adapting to their new environment and culture. In a lot of ways, our lives did not change too much from what we were used to. My husband has worked at home for years, and we even brought our dog with us.
We love it here, and we love the people.
“The kids have been homeschooled up to this point. We thought when we moved here, they would be around enough Spanish to pick it up, but that didn’t end up being the case. We decided that one of the easiest ways we could get them to acquire Spanish would be to enroll them in school, so we did that this year for the first time. They have been in for four weeks so far, and they tell me that they can understand it better than they could at the start.
“Buying school supplies, uniforms, school fees, and such cost more than I expected, but perhaps it is because we are multiplying by five kids. The process of doing homework and switching to everything in Spanish for five hours a day has been a challenge. I am glad I spoke Spanish, or it would have been difficult for them to be in a Spanish-only school.”
Kama notes that her children are the only North Americans at their school, but the other kids are very helpful and friendly to them. They’ve also made friends in Volcán in the homeschool community, and in their neighborhood. The whole family has enjoyed the new friendships they have made over the last two years.
“The kids love that they can run and play outside so much here since the weather is so consistent. In Texas, it was hard to get outside in the cold winters or super-hot summers.”
Volcán lies in a small breathtaking valley shadowed by Panama’s only volcano, Volcán Baru. At an altitude of 4,600 feet, the weather is always moderate and spring-like, making it lush year-round.
“The culture has been interesting for all of us to learn more about. Being five blond kids, they get a lot of stares out and about in town, but they have gotten used to it,” says Kama.
The transition hasn’t been without its obstacles. The slow pace of getting things done, especially for government-related matters, has been frustrating. But it helps that Kama speaks Spanish. She recommends anybody considering a similar move to be prepared to learn at least some basic Spanish. And they should expect things to be different and slower but accept it. It’s an adventure, after all.
Kama continues about her experience in Volcán. “We are glad that we have made the move. We love it here, and we love the people. The community spirit here is amazing. I know there are about five families I can call on to help me with anything and they’ll be there in a minute. There are also quite a few more families who are willing and able to help out regularly as well. Our support system is something that has been a huge blessing for us.”