It’s that time of year when many people start moving abroad or repatriating. After two international moves, and a third one beginning to loom, I thought I’d create a little expat starter pack based on my experience. Hopefully these moving tips for new expats will take some of the sting and exasperation out of what is absolutely a difficult (though exciting!) move.
1.Phone numbers. I always have a local number wherever I am living. However, I do two other things to manage costs and to make sure less tech-savvy people like my grandmother also can call me. I have a local US number through Skype, and I use Apple’s FaceTime/iMessage. A lot.
Skype Caller ID is super convenient and it’s how family and friends can also leave me voicemail (of which I’m notified in email) without paying for an international call. Google Voice is a similar service, and there are several others out there. I prefer Skype as it’s a pay-for-what-you-use setup rather than a monthly fee. Plus, Google Voice was very challenging to set up. Keep in mind that if you don’t have internet, you will still need cellular data to make these work.
2. Texting. I’ve already mentioned iMessage, which is a great choice if many of your friends and family also have Apple devices. WhatsApp is another popular choice among most expats that isn’t specific to an operating system. Facebook Messenger can also be useful, but I should note that I’ve only been satisfied with the Free Call options from FaceTime and Skype. Note: if you are moving to China, you’ll need a different resource due to censorship and government blocks.
2.Pets. Crossing borders with animals is not super difficult, but neither is it easy. Especially when going to island nations like Singapore, the UK, New Zealand, etc, where the bio-security and quarantine laws can be very strict. Start taking your pets to the vet right now and make sure that they are up on all their vaccines and remain completely up to date and on schedule. You will still have to do more work as part of the expatriation process. But a solid relationship with a veterinarian and a neat and consistent record of vaccinations (especially Rabies) will make your life, and that of your pets, much easier.
I also recommend stocking up on any special dietary foods and medications for your pets before you move. I brought 15 vials of insulin with an ice pack in my carryon since my cat is diabetic. It made arriving in Singapore MUCH less stressful.
3. Credit cards. If you don’t already have one, open one of the credit cards popular with travelers. Look especially for “no foreign transaction fees.” Understanding and monitoring foreign currency exchange fees and trends will be one of the ‘exciting’ new aspects of your life abroad. I love Barclaycard’s Arrival+ travel card. The Chase Preferred Sapphire card regularly comes in at the top as well on financial blogs.
For those who love American Express, Diners Club, Discover, etc, I would strongly recommend you get a second card. Mastercard and Visa have the largest, most recognized footprint across the world and the others are often rejected.
4. Cash. If there’s one thing that continues to surprise me, it’s that the US dollar is king. Even my European friends don’t revert their local currencies to euros or pounds unless they are on their way home. Everyone I know, and all the currency exchange shops I’ve talked to, recommend using the US dollar as your base currency.
Bring cash with you when you move. (Keep in mind that most governments require you to declare to the Customs authorities if you’re carrying more than $10,000 USD. Actual thresholds vary by country. Personally, I’ve never needed to carry anywhere close to that.) And bring small bills since they are wonderfully useful and welcome as tips in many countries. Small USD bills are harder to acquire in foreign countries.
Another tip is to look for foreign currency ATMs where you can access more USD if needed. (Or Euros/Pounds if you prefer.) SCB Bank in Suvarnabhumi airport has two foreign currency ATMs which issue USD, Euros, and Pounds. They are not exactly obvious, but they do exist. Search the internet for options in your major airports and city centers. Of course there are also plenty of ATMs which also issue local currency.
5. VPN. If you want to watch Hulu, Netflix, BBC and many other channels from back home… you will want a VPN. It’s also just good data security. If you are living in China, you’re going to need a fairly powerful one to see censored material and protect your data. And you may have to purchase some hardware to run it. Research and purchase before moving.
For everyone else, I can recommend ZenMate. ZenMate is an app downloaded from the Apple/Google Play store and does a nice job on mobile devices and the Google Chrome browser. I also quite like UnLocator, which is the service I use most often at home. Neither of these are free, and to my thinking they shouldn’t be if you really want them to work.
The folks over at Too Many Adapters also regularly post useful travel tech tips and reviews of everything from VPNs to, you guessed it, adapters.
6. Downsize, downsize, downsize. If you move from the US, you will particularly want to downsize your belongings. People just don’t live in as much space elsewhere. Plus, many pieces of furniture will not fit in apartments, lifts or elevators, stairwells, etc. I had many former expats advise me not to fill a storage unit when I left and instead to sell or give away most of my belongings. I didn’t do enough of either when leaving the US for Singapore. Turns out I should have listened. I ended up selling and donating an incredible amount of stuff before moving to Bangkok, and still have a storage unit to deal with when I return to the US.
If you can pare down to the essentials or only what you love, you can be fully unpacked and out to dinner within a day. I promise. I’ve done it.
7. Vaccinations and Travel medications. As I was not a super traveler before moving abroad, I didn’t know how many travel resources were available. In the US, travel clinics are actually fairly common. In Singapore, Bangkok, and many other large international cities, the big hospitals all have Travel Medicine departments. These are great places to get your vaccinations and also to purchase travel medicine kits. I always travel with Cipro (an antibiotic) and have a travel medicine kit from Singapore which contains all the basics from pain relief to nausea medicine to iodine swabs. If you’re going to travel or be living in very remote areas, these places often also offer kits with sterilized syringes, rubber gloves, etc for larger emergencies.
Note: some vaccinations require multiple rounds spaced out over as much as 6 months. For this reason I’d recommend getting started on your own health situation along with your pets’ long before moving. If you have that luxury at least.
8. Start eating real food. For some reason the taste of milk seems to be on of the most common things to send kiddos into new-country-new-culture meltdown mode. For me, it was the inability to find salt ‘n vinegar potato chips. Expat grocery stores stock a lot of foods for homesick expats. But they are often trying to support many different cultures and cover thousands of types, brands, and flavors of packaged foods. Be prepared for high prices and what feels like a limited selection of your own culture’s packaged food.
In the end, it will be far less of a shock to the system if you begin shopping at farmer’s markets and sticking to real food before you move. It’s also easier on your kiddos if they are more acquainted with fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc that aren’t highly processed and pre- prepared. You can find food like this everywhere in the world.