Expat Living: 5 Practical Questions You Need to Ask

Expat living can be very exciting! But it can also be very stressful!

Expat Living: 5 Practical Questions You Need to Ask

I’ve been an expat in 4 different countries – S. Korea, Thailand – 2x, U.S, and now call Germany home. I truly believe the pros outweigh the cons in most cases. But for many expats the initial expat turns into panic, or fear as issues arise that they hadn’t really thought through.

Here are 5 of the more common stressors of expat living, and how to resolve them – before you even step foot in your new host country!

5 of the biggest stressors of expat living and how expats can avoid them

1) Do you have enough money and how are you going to transfer it between accounts?

How much is enough? It really depends on the country and your start up expenses associated. For example, in Germany, when you’re renting an apartment, many landlords require a 2 -3 months deposit in advance. Coming from Canada, where  only 1 month is required, this was quite a shock. I was also surprised to learn that many apartments in Germany don’t come with kitchens – meaning you have to buy a full kitchen – counters, cabinets, and appliances.  Luckily we found an apartment that had a kitchen, but I know many expats who have fallen in love with an apartment and have then had to shell out a couple of thousand or more for a kitchen.

Besides ensuring that you have enough money, have you figured out how to transfer it between your bank account in your host country and that in your home country? The first time I transferred a €1000 from my German bank account to my Canadian, I almost had a heart attack when I saw that it cost me over €60 in fees!

Then I tried Paypal. But with Paypal, you can’t transfer money to yourself, so I would transfer money from my bank account to my husband’s bank account. He would then send it to my Paypal account, and then I would transfer it to my Canadian bank account. The whole process took 5 – 7 days. It was less than ideal to say the least! On more than one occasion I prayed that the money would arrive in time to cover my mortgage payment – one time it didn’t. So in addition, to paying Paypal’s fees, I was hit with an additional fee from my bank!

Now, I use CurrencyFair to transfer money. You transfer money from your bank account to your CurrencyFair account, and from there you can transfer it to yourself, or whoever else you would like – they don’t even need to have a CurrencyFair account. What I appreciate most about it is that you know exactly how much money you’re getting when you transfer and exactly what the fees are. on my recent transaction I saved over $70 CAD, by using CurrencyFair instead of doing a bank transfer:
expat living resources including the cheapest way to transfer money between your bank accounts

Plus, it’s really fast! Instead of waiting 5 – 7 days, my money arrives in 1 – 2 days. Love, love this feature! Check it out using this link and you’ll get a free transfer!

2) Do you have travel insurance?

I learned this very expensive lesson when I lived in Thailand years ago – so don’t judge, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes now. I arrived without travel insurance since my employer was going to organize it for me. I figured that a few weeks without health insurance couldn’t hurt – except that it did!

I developed a really bad kidney infection in which I was hospitalized for 2 days. The bill came to $3000 – which I didn’t have! I had just accepted a position as an intern for the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and was making $1200 (Canadian) a month. I ended up having to pay $300 a month for 11 months (interest) until it was paid off. Ouch!

Not only does the right travel insurance cover medical costs, but it will also cover flights if you have to cancel or postpone your trip for some reason. That also happened to me – and again, I didn’t have travel insurance.

I was living in S. Korea, and was unexpectedly deported. I accepted a job teaching English in Indonesia and booked my flight. Three days later riots broke out.  I received a letter from the school recommending that I not come since it wasn’t safe. I had already purchased my flight and when I tried to change it to Thailand, where I had found another teaching job, it was non-transferrable. The result?  I had to pay for 2 flights, after the expense of being deported!

I don’t think you can overstate the importance of travel insurance. When you’re an expat, someone could fall very sick at home and you need to go back immediately. The last-minute flights can cost you a fortune, adding an additional burden. Or even worse, you may not be in a position where you’re able to afford to go home. Take it from me, who has learned the hard way – twice, you need travel insurance.

3)How will you stay connected with friends and family at home?

This is SOOOOO much easier now. When I was an expat in S. Korea and Thailand, there was no such thing as Skype. If you wanted to talk to someone, you paid exhorberant rates for each phone call. Skype and Google Hangouts are  great ways to stay connected and you actually get to see the other person. Plus, they’re both free. I also have a group WhatsApp (free messaging app for smart phones) for my mom and brother so that we can exchange photos and emails together from anywhere.

Another feature that I use regularly for people who aren’t on Skype is Skype calls to mobiles and landlines. This is a paid feature, but incredibly cheap. You can either purchase Skype credit or a subscription. I use Skype credit and it costs me 2.1 cents per minute to call from Germany to Canada. It’s soooo much cheaper than calling from a landline or your mobile.

4) How will you learn the language?

In a perfect world, you will already have some basic language skills before you become an expat. When I moved to Germany, I had very basic German – i.e. I could say Hello my name is Laurel. I come from Canada type stuff.

I highly recommend learning at least the basics before you become an expat if at all possible. Once you’re in your new host country, you will have so much going on, that it can be comforting if you can order a coffee, or understand the cashier at the grocery store when they tell you how much your purchase is.

BBC has some great (free) language learning resources to get you started.  Once you’ve arrived, it’s worth enrolling in additional language classes, but the best way to learn a language is to practice it. I’m sooooo guilty of not speaking enough German since my husband and German friends speak good English, but I’m trying to break the habit of speaking English with them this year. You should also check out:  The Best Way to Learn a Language….Besides Speaking It and Fun Ways to Learn a Language.

5) How will you make friends?

meeting German friends has become part of my expat life

Proof that even the socially inadept can make friends with locals. (I’m the one with long dark hair at the back on the left.)

Don’t wait until you arrive to start making friends. Start researching potential groups that you may want to join or do google searches for your favourite activities, such as book club in Munich. I do this before each move. That way, when I arrive, I’m ready to hit the ground running and start my social life. In a lot of ways making friends is like dating – it takes time before you meet that special someone, so be patient.

On my very first day in Munich, I attended a book club, which I had researched beforehand. I ended up meeting some lovely people, which made me feel settled in more quickly. Plus, one of the German ladies that I met, is still a friend 4 1/2 years later! On that note, while I highly recommend making friends with locals, and not just other expats, it can be awkward. Don’t give up. It’s SOOO worth it in the end. My German friends have eased my mind and made sense of the non-sensical to me more times than I can count – even if I am socially awkward with Germans.

Meetup is a great way to find groups who meet around a common interest – increasing your chances of meeting people that you connect with. It can be exhausting going to event after event and meeting nice people, but never really feeling like you have a strong connection with someone. That’s why I find that attending groups around a common interest to be so effective since you’re meeting people with a shared common interest, whether that be a sport, photography, or another hobby! With that being said, at some point, you will probably find yourself faced with a weekend with no plans and nobody to do anything with. You’ll wallow in self pity and remind yourself of how cool you were in your home country. It’s happened to every single expat I know. When that happens, stop wallowing and read this instead!

I truly enjoy the expat life, but I know many people expats who struggle with the challenges, especially in the beginning. By figuring out the answers to these 5 common stressors before you go, you’re much more likely to settle in faster and have time to explore your new country with your new friends!

I’d love to hear what other questions you think people should ask themselves before they become an expat. You can leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.

5 of the biggest stressors of expat living and how expats can avoid them


Note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links meaning that I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you purchase something. All links are to products that I personally recommend.

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.
2017-03-13T04:51:20+00:00

9 Comments

  1. Scott January 23, 2016 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Have you tried the Deutsch Als Fremdsprache courses at your local Volkshochschule? I went 2 courses, and it made all the difference. Especially in keeping all the declensions right.

    • Laurel January 24, 2016 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      @Scott – Glad to hear that it helped. I did intensive German courses for 10 months, so my German is OK, just need to get it fluent, which I can hopefully do within the next new months.

  2. Marianne January 23, 2016 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    this article makes sense to me.. great writing! this is a reality to probably a number of us (expats) ^_^

  3. Penny January 26, 2016 at 4:16 am - Reply

    Shocking that Thailand is expensive for major things without insurance … most people don’t realize that!

    • Laurel January 26, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      @Penny – When I lived in Lampang (northern Thailand), I never paid more than a few $$ for a doctor’s visit. Didn’t realize that I was in one of the most expensive hospitals in Bangkok where I was hospitalized. The difference in price between hospitals is really quite astonishing.

  4. Christopher Allen February 7, 2016 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Insurance is probably the most important thing here. Young people don’t think they’ll run into trouble. Also familiarize
    yourself with tax laws. I’ve recently discovered that I was supposed to be filing a US tax return. Of course nobody is
    going to go out of their way to tell you these things.

    • Laurel February 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm - Reply

      @Christopher – Excellent point, thank you! Hope that you weren’t in too much trouble with the tax office.

  5. Rebecca Watson February 10, 2016 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Just had a convo with my hubby about travel insurance. Wondering if you know the answer to this: Do German health insurance companies generally cover you in other EU countries?

    • Laurel February 10, 2016 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      @Rebecca – I can only speak from my own experience. We have travel insurance through our regular health insurance company that’s at a reduced rate, without it, our regular health insurance wouldn’t be valid outside of Germany.

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