I'm an American expat living abroad: AMA about international moves, travel plans, culture shock, or looking for a job as an expat

June 2 2014 | Guest post by probablyreading
Photo by probablyreading
Photo by probablyreading
Hello, Homies!

I'm an American expatriate living, studying, and working abroad. I've also travelled a lot for fun and business — my old-school passport has two extra stamp booklets.

Currently, my Irish-American husband and I live outside London; we've also lived together in Belfast, Dublin, and Den Haag. My first move overseas happened when 19-year-old me took a foreign student exchange place in junior year at university. It was a challenging, exciting, troubled, and beautiful experience. Also, a dream come true!

In the years and moves that followed, I learned about stuff like budgeting for an international move, planning a big trip or move overseas, dealing with both culture shock and reverse culture shock, managing finances and legal issues internationally, looking for a job as an expat (in native and non-native language situations), learning travel safety tips both the hard and the easy ways, handling back-home junk food cravings that strike without warning…

My journey still continues and my experiences may be different from those of other international Homies, but I'd love to start a discussion about all these topics, right here on Offbeat Home & Life.

So let's talk — Ask me anything!

  1. As a Dutchie I'm always curious how 'outsiders' (and especially non-Europeans) perceive our culture. What did you think of the Dutch when you were living in Den Haag? Was it true to the stereotypes or not at all?

    • I've never been to the Netherlands, but my hometown here in the USA has a Dutch heritage.
      The stereotype here is that they all love delft pottery and lace, and wear wooden shoes. Of course, there are all the tulips, as well. Culturally, those of Dutch heritage here are seen a bit negatively as strict Christian Reformers, are very cheap (won't spend any money), and are not interested in diversity.

        • I know where you're talking about, my Dutch grandparents immigrated there in the 50s! Very cute, and very conservative little town. I can understand why the Dutch liked it there so much, it really looks like the Netherlands (with the exception of any Mt. Baker views of course!)

        • I was going to guess my hometown in Michigan. Funny that there are several of these pockets around the country.

    • Hoi, Lydia!

      Before moving to Den Haag, my prejudices had shifted from the American ones (described by Cass) to Irish ones. Mostly, I thought that 1) everyone biked everywhere, 2) all Dutch residents were tall and blonde — basically supermodels, 3) most Dutch people worked in finance, and 4) Dutch people would want to speak/practice English with me.

      When we first moved to Den Haag, we had a flat close to the centre, near all the court and banking offices, and stereotypes 1-3 were pretty much true in my eyes. 4 wasn't true at all– because everyone spoke perfect English all the time. They were all 30-something professionals with globally-informed views, biking to work in Italian leather shoes.

      A year later, we moved out to a 19th-century fishing cottage in Scheveningen. My views changed! We were surrounded by old & young people, of several different social classes. Our entire village spoke Dutch all the time, only conceding to speak English with me when I looked really confused. Contrary to the urban centre, our neighbours assumed my partner and I were married and were surprised that we didn't have children "at our age". They regularly made racist remarks about immigrants, but were incredibly kind & generous to anyone accepted into the community. We were only accepted once I started to practice Dutch and revive our tiny garden! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hello,

    My wife and I are looking to move overseas and live abroad for a few years. We are both over 30 and are unable to apply for work visas.

    What advise could you help us with on trying to find companies that might hire us so that we can get visas to live anyplace in the EU.

    Thank you

    Dan

    • My husband and I have lived/worked in Europe. He was able to get a position as a university researcher through a scholarship program. But I found a lot of great opportunities by looking on LinkedIn. I would look for international corporations looking to hire internationally. Although most require native language proficiency in the country's language. And of course each country has different work visa requirements, so while your work visa is for the EU zone, the country you plan to go to has its own requirements for application.

    • Hi, Dan!

      Like Cass and SamanthaB, my first recommendation would be LinkedIn. Businesses, NGOs, and some government institutions use it to post job listings and research potential candidates. My partner worked at a senior (hiring) level for a European Commission program, and, in three years, every person they hired came from a personal recommendation or LinkedIn.

      Once you've pinpointed a few opportunities, you'll need to look at the visa requirements for that specific country as well, since each country has its own visa regulations in addition to the EU work or study permits.

    • If you know you want to live in Continental Europe but aren't sure about where or what kind of job you might find, the EU jobs portal might help you get some ideas about what opportunities are available in the EU: ec.europa.eu/eures/

      Beware, though! EURES is intended to be a tool for people already in the EU. Your best chance for finding that first internationally-minded employer is on LinkedIn. Spruce up your LinkedIn profile and make sure to list any foreign language abilities. If you don't have a foreign language, start learning now! Either French, German, Dutch, Spanish, or Italian would be a good place to start.

      Also, EU employers are biased toward professional certifications. If you have any, like Project Management or Accounting, for example, emphasise them.

      • It's interesting that certificates are more valuable in the EU, since they're generally not that valued in the USA (at least not more so than work experience).

        When you say professional certifications, do you mean any certification in your field? Or like post-graduate certificates in a field/discipline?

        • Indeed! Of course, work experience is valued everywhere. But when I lived in the US, it seemed impossible to get any job without already having a paid employment history in that field. In my personal experience of UK and EU employers, however, an academic (BA, MA, PhD, etc.) and/or professional (CGMA/CPAA, PMP, etc.) certificate goes a long way. So does a good track record of high-level internships, volunteering, or grant-funded activities.

          By "professional" certifications, I mean ones from a professional organisation, like becoming a certified Medical Records Clerk through the Institute of Health Records and Information Management in the UK. (Rather than a university undergraduate or postgraduate degree.)

        • If you're thinking of Austria, they LOVE certifications and titles. Most of the professionals I knew had at least 2 professional titles in addition to "herr" or "frau".

          • They do love their titles in Austria! But not to be a downer, visas are very hard to come by here. It's usually only larger firms that are willing to sponsor the visa process. These larger firms are usually only willing to sponsor people that fill a need/have qualifications that can't be found in an EU citizen. For any countries other than EU/Schengen, it's a catch-22: can't get a visa without a job, can't get a job without a visa. It's not impossible; it just takes a lot of patience and determination (or marrying an EU citizen…)!

  3. Thank you for offering your tips! I'll be moving from France to Canada later on this year, so this comes in handy!

    What about timing the international move? We'll be shipping all our possessions and cannot figure out how to time the shipping. Our container will take one month to travel from Europe to North America and we just don't know if it's better to live without our stuff in our current flat or in our new flat (or bit of both).

    Oh and any tips about finding a job in a non-native situation will be useful ๐Ÿ™‚ Do you start with easy, low-paying jobs in order to get familiar with the work culture and hone your interview skills for better jobs, do you aim only for jobs in your field even if if might take longer, are locals willing to hire non-native foreigners… ? Thank you!

    • Yes! Husband and I have the ultimate goal to move to Canada but we are finding it almost impossible to get jobs there. And you can't just show up and try to find a job. We would love any advice on finding work in another country to preempt a move. I know it most countries you need to find an employer to "sponsor" you to come over but I have no idea how to find companies willing to take a risk on an out-of-country employee.

      • Hi, Sabrina!

        I hope I answered your question in general with my response to Dan, above.

        While I don't have personal experience of looking for a job in Canada, I've heard good things from expats finding paid internships and job opportunities through Career Edge (formerly called Career Bridge): http://www.careeredge.ca . Heard their application process was complex, though — don't know if it has improved.

      • Hi Sabrina, from what we gathered, Canadian companies are very reluctant to hire people if they don't have a work permit. If you're eligible, you could try a Working Holiday Permit. It is valid only for one year, though.

        As for us, since we knew we wanted to live in Canada for more than one year, we decided to apply for permanent residency. It's only now that we have it that we can start contacting potential employers. And even so, we might not get lucky as we still live in France and Canadian employers seem to favor personal over electronic recrutment.

      • Keep in mind, the further west you go in Canada, the less french is spoken. The only way to near guarantee that most people will know french is to look in Quebec or New Brunswick. I grew up in Alberta and lived in BC, and near no one there speaks any french.

        • We're sponsored by the New Brunswick immigration department precisely because we're French speakers ๐Ÿ™‚ But even there, it seems like the French-speaking community is pretty small and that most professional interactions will take place in English.

    • Hi, Nya!

      Whew, ok, lots of topics here… might have to split up the responses. ๐Ÿ™‚

      First, the job question. My own strategy has been to focus mainly on finding a job in my field, while keeping watch on the side for smaller, more temporary opportunities. For example, when we moved to the Netherlands, I tailored the CV for applications in my field at my accustomed professional level and boosted my LinkedIn activity. But, I also asked new Dutch acquaintances (like our new landlady) about local volunteering opportunities and signed up to a few LinkedIn groups and email newsletters about temporary event staff jobs for festivals (relevant to my experience in the music industry). These smaller gigs gave me a bit of local experience and language practice, while not taking too much time away from the bigger job hunt!

      • I guess I have a further question.

        What would you suggest to someone that no longer can work in their primary industry? I have a background specific to the US that due to stress and time out of the field, I decided to no longer pursue in Australia. I've tried looking on Linkedin, local boards and have found that many/most industries require a certificate that I'm not sure I want or will be able to financially complete right now. I'm volunteering a few places, but does anyone have additional suggestions?

    • Ok, on to the second bit… the Moving of the Stuff.

      To be honest, I have had *terrible* experiences with international removal services. I've also had reasonable, businesslike experiences. The difference? 1) Money and 2) Contracts.

      1) Like my Dad always says, "You get what you pay for, honey."
      If you have an employer waiting for you to arrive, check if you can get some kind of advance or subsidy to help you with removal costs. Maybe they could help you afford a better service plan or insurance plan. Alternatively, if they're fronting the main cost, maybe you could toss in a little extra for better options.

      2) Also been said before, but bears repeating: Get it in writing. In the contract.
      The two times our international removal kicked us in the bums, it was my fault for trusting spoken/informally-emailed agreements on delivery timeframe and extra fees.

      Regarding when to move what from where: most of the time I move stuff before us. We find it easier to live in our "old" house out of suitcases, sleeping on an air mattress/futon, while we're in the moving mindset and saying farewell to the place. In the "old" place, we have friends who will allow us to invade their kitchens to cook dinner when we get sick of eating out, and can use the transition time to pick up last tiny trinkets or cut lingering ties. When we finally leave, to meet our stuff in the "new" place, we donate the mattress and any other temporary items.

      BUT… don't ship all your important/essential stuff if you have a set timeframe for something important. During one of those bad moves I mentioned above, we waited 10 weeks (July-Sept) for our shipment to arrive. I had to find & buy a new wedding dress the week before our wedding because my original one was in those boxes, along with a bunch of stuff I had DIY'ed for our celebration. Don't make my mistakes! (Though, if you do, I can testify that the Tribe will be there with comforting swears, advice, and indignation.)

  4. So excited about this! Thank you!

    My partner and I are interested in doing about a 2 year work transfer with his company, but we do not know who to talk to at his place of work and how to broach the subject, or even what to expect after that as far as timing! Any generic information would be super appreciated.

    • I think it probably depends on the industry, but most multi-national companies (MNCs) based here in Indonesia have pretty transparent hiring processes for internal transfers. From what I've heard from other expats, most of the companies have internal job postings that you can browse through. If you find something you're interested in abroad, you ask your direct supervisor and HR manager to approve your application and then you just apply and go through the interview process like you would for any other internal application. This might not be the same for all industries, however — in Indonesia, the MNCs are overwhelmingly geophysical (mining, oil, etc…).

    • Hi, Liora! You're welcome. ๐Ÿ™‚

      With regard to internal transfer inquiries, my advice would be the same as SamanthaB's. I've known people who moved abroad via transfers in several industries (none of them geophysical, though, so it must be widespread). Those who were willing to start the inquiry process and wait with some uncertainty for 12-18 months were the most successful. The other ones gave up before the year was out, quit their jobs, and found new ones in their desired country. Hope that helps you imagine your timing? It does seem to vary a lot by company/organisation.

  5. I'm wondering about jobs, in both UK and Ireland. Where did you look for jobs? If someone doesn't need a visa, how difficult is it for a foreigner to get a job? Where can I go to learn how to write my CV–is it different from UK to Ireland? How much more valuable is it to already be living in the country/city versus applying from abroad?

    • Hi, vvondervvoman!

      I looked for job openings advertised on LinkedIn, which is very popular in the UK and EU. I also subscribed to a few national job boards related to my field and occasionally checked big sites like http://www.jobs.ac.uk and http://www.monster.ie for listings.

      If you are a non-EU foreigner in the UK, chances are that you do need a visa, entry clearance, or residency card of some type that allows you to work. Even if you are married to a native, you will still need to jump through immigration obstacles. The only way to be completely free from Border Control hassle is to have a UK/EU passport yourself. If you do have one, great!

      In that case, the difficulty of getting a job will depend on a lot of other factors such as the personnel saturation of your field (are many other people like you also looking?), the timing for your industry (is it a time of year when there's turnover?) and your English language ability (do you have a certificate with a high score?).

      Writing requirements for a CV are the same in the UK and Ireland. You can find guidance online regarding how to tailor your CV to your field and best present it for each job application. I'd recommend this article from the BBC: "How to write a successful CV". It includes a factsheet and examples, as well as some links to UK job boards.

      • Thanks so much for your reply! This is incredibly helpful. I do have an EU passport, but grew up in the US.

      • Some countries have more of a preference for CVs with pictures or not. It can also vary between professions. Just a little professional thumbnail next to your name is typical in my experience.

  6. What jobs have you held? How did you find them? Have you worked while attending school? If so, what was it like to go to school and work?

    • Too many jobs to list here in detail, that's for sure. In the last decade, I've paid bills by being an editor, project manager, schoolteacher, university lecturer, and artist… among other titles. Each field has its own patterns of networking and hiring, so I came into these jobs through a variety of situations, some of which I've outlined for you in my previous answer.

      I'm currently working while completing my PhD. It's tough.

      • Thanks! Have you found that there are more opportunities for contract/short-term/part-time work vs. regular full-time work?

        As an aside, what have you learned about the differences between studying in the UK system and the US? What are some tips to be successful from the get-go–I'm thinking of cultural/systemic things, not basic studying.

        • It depends on the type of work… I've found opportunities for semi/un-skilled part-time or temporary positions in service industries to be plentiful but poorly paid (of course, just like the US). Office jobs are pretty much always advertised for full-time workers, in my experience.

    • Once you get into the hiring process, it's very similar to the US. Most openings have the classic stages: written application, first/phone interview, second in-person interview, offer, contract review, and HR processing.

      Any differences I've noticed have been time-related. UK/EU bureaucracy can move veeeery sloooowly even in comparison to US "red tape", in my experience.

    • For the job application process here in Indonesia (and across much of SE Asia), Westerners (and particularly Americans) will probably be shocked by much of it.

      First, your CV should contain not only your education and employment history, but also your bio data — like race, religion, age, height, weight, and marital status. It should also contain a photo.

      Job postings will be very clear that they are only looking to hire a single man under the age of 30 or a female fresh college grad with a 'height-weight proportionate' body and attractive appearance.

      If you make it to the actual interview round, you'll find that the prospective employer refuses to discuss salary or fringe benefits — that info is also not listed in the job ads, so you are expected to interview for positions blindly. If you ask about the salary during the interview, the interviewer will not like that at all.

      You don't find out the details of the job — schedule, salary, benefits, etc… — until the employer makes you an actual offer, at which point you can negotiate to get where you want to be.

  7. Thanks for all your comments. So many good questions! I'll do my best to answer them in order. My fellow international Homies are here too– hi everybody!

  8. OMG! Get out of my head, OBH! I was just freaking out about this very topic.

    My husband and I are moving from Seattle – Stockholm in 2 months. (eep!)

    How did you adjust to different currency? I keep telling my husband we can't just keep converting forever. But its hard to have a frame of reference when Sweden doesn't use a "dollar & cents" system. (for example, a bottle of coke is about 16 SEK, a bus ticket is 25 SEK and our rent is around 14 000 SEK) My brain keeps thinking everything is incredibly expensive.

    My other question is about finding a job. I plan to take the "Swedish for Immigrants" class provided free by the gov, but we really can't wait more then a few months for me to get a job. I'm concerned because I don't have a collage degree, and since collage is free there, most everyone does.

    • Hi, Cherisse! Don't freak out! Stockholm is going to be amazing. ๐Ÿ™‚

      It *is* an expensive city, though. Your gut reaction is partly correct about that! The thing to remember when moving into a different currency is: expenditure relative to income. For example, the numeric value of a ยฃ600 p/m urban rent may look "inexpensive" to American eyes, but when the markers of past experience are replaced by the current marker of a ยฃ1200 p/m pre-tax salary, that doesn't seem so cheap anymore! (Just to pull an example out of a hat… ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) So for the first year abroad, I tried to train myself to think of costs relative to my income, until the values became second nature.

      Having an estimated household monthly budget, even if it is drawn up in crayon on scrap paper, will help you develop this ability. Also, do big grocery shopping online at first, to prevent becoming completely overwhelmed, or broke, or both. Added bonus: when you shop online, you can use a browser translator to help your search for items.

      Regarding jobs, other international Homies and I have given lots of tips in the comment discussions above… some might be helpful for you. If you're worried about lack of qualifications, look for professional certification courses relevant to your interests (TEFL/TESOL? Personal Training? Lots of things!). Some even may be available through a local organisation or gov agency in Stockholm.

      • Re: currency. I find that converting in my head will eventually lead to patterns. Like, the Israeli shekel is 3.5 to the dollar (a pain in the butt to convert in your head anyway). After being there for a while (couple weeks or months?), my brain was able to at least figure out, without thinking about it, what was "high" or "low" in a very general sense. 20 shekels for lunch? Good deal! 400 shekels for dinner for 2? Bad deal!

        In Japan and South Korea it was really easy to just lop off a few zeroes and be able to get a good rough idea of the exchange rate. Can you do that with Swedish money?

        • Last time my partner was there, it was about 11.5 krona to a British pound sterling or 6.5 krona to a US dollar. Relatively easy to round up to 12 or 7 and do rough maths.

          We do the same estimating you do, Ingrid! It's a good system. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Oh god yes. I've been to Stockholm once before and decoding the grocery store was a little over whelming. (Especially for people with diet restrictions)

        Where do you go to order groceries online?

        • We haven't lived in Sweden, so I haven't ordered groceries online there but I did some informal research for you! (i.e. annoyed my partner's Swedish coworkers with questions)

          Sounds like MatHem is the longest-established and recommended: mathem.se

      • Regarding currency, I only convert if I'm using money from my US bank account. As soon as I have an account in my respective country and an income, I usually don't feel the need to convert. Also, doing some exploration in a new 'home' country helps to get a general picture of the cost of things. I find grocery stores, chain stores (like H&M, Mango, etc.) and restaurants outside of the touristy areas good starting points.

  9. I'm a Canadian who's lived in Cuba, Bolivia, and now New Zealand. The first two visas were organised by my university and work respectively, but my time in New Zealand has been entirely self-motivated.

    The biggest advice I can give for working through visas and applications is to read the application documents for your current step in the process as well as all the next steps ahead of time and THOROUGHLY. It would have saved us time and money to read read read and make copious notes in easy to understand, step-by-step language. If you even miss one little thing, it can set you back months. It's a difficult, expensive, and time consuming process (at least for New Zealand) but absolutely worth it!!

  10. Do you have any tips/advice for people who are in the "this might be cool someday but we have no idea where to start!" camp?

    My husband and I are pretty fed up with a lot of stuff here in the US and we're talked about moving abroad as sort of a pipe dream (first I need to finish my master's degree). Germany or Sweden are the top ideas, but nothing set in stone. We just have no idea how people even begin to figure this sort of thing out! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Hi, Margie!

      Yep, I'll try to give you some tips that worked for me — right now I'm half-asleep but tomorrow I'll be more coherent. ๐Ÿ™‚

      On first reading your comment, your frustration with life in the US stuck out to me. I am very close friends with several American expats who moved abroad for personal politics- and lifestyle-related reasons. They're all quite happy now, but that wasn't always the case for some of them. So I feel obligated to pass on a word of warning, which may not be applicable to you at all! Just as disliking one person isn't a great reason to jump into bed with another (if it's your only reason), moving to another country to spite one's previous country doesn't provide a stable emotional base for the upheaval of culture shock.

      (Ok, public safety announcement finished.)

      Every place has good, mediocre, and bad things about it. Make a list of what you love & need in your home place right now, alongside a list of what makes you unhappy about your place now. Those positives are the things you should look for in a new home. The negatives… You know what to do!

      Next, make a list of challenges you both are willing to face in order to live your dream and discuss how you plan to face them together. Language barrier? Acquiring an extra income? Seeing Stateside friends & family less than once a year? Less than twice a year? Cutting down to one bedroom? To a studio? Going back to school? Putting a career on hold?

      These lists and discussions should give you a clear picture of where you have a good chance of successfully transplanting your family. Next, you have to figure out how to get there!

    • Start learning the language now for the place you want to go. Knowing a foreign language will be really important when you decide to find jobs in that country. Many foreign language courses also include a culture portion, and so when you do finally make the move the culture shock won't be so stark.

    • I just moved to Germany from Canada – it's actually really easy to get a work visa here, so long as you speak German or know someone who does that you can take with you to the visa office. You can arrive on a tourist visa, get a job offer, and then apply for the visa – so long as you have a job offer already, it's very straightforward! You just need to have proof you have health insurance, enough money to live off, and a registered residence.

      ETA: I'm actually a UK citizen but my FH is Canadian so we had to go through this process for him!

      • Sounds like Germany is very welcoming! ๐Ÿ™‚

        Check the visa regulations for each country separately. In some (like the UK), switching into any other visa category from an initial tourist visa is NOT possible without returning to reside in your native land and start a new application.

  11. Nothing to say except woop woop Belfast represent! Hope you enjoyed it there, it can be a lovely city to live in. My husband and I emigrated to Canada 2 years ago and are loving the new adventure here.

    • 'Boutye, Kit! We found wee NornIron to be good craic! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Joking aside, I loved our Belfast home with all my heart and am still a bit sorrowful about leaving. We had a good circle of friends at the university and in the arts scene. If you're at all familiar with the Queen's area down Botanic, you'll know our old house… We lived above Molly's Yard.

      Glad to hear you're sharing a happy adventure in your new place!

  12. Who would you not recommend moving abroad to? My fiancรฉe and I love to travel and frequently research different places. We've decided moving to Europe would be a welcomed change for us a at some point.

    We have heard of several individuals moving to teach English in a foreign country. Have you met many expats doing this?

    • If you have a college degree and a passport from a native English speaking country (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand) it's pretty easy to get a job as an English teacher abroad. Most contracts are for one year at a time, and many schools are happy to take teaching couples.

    • As far as teaching English abroad, the European market tends to be a bit more competitive in my opinion. I found it much easier to get a job in Asia and I also found the pay to be much higher. Of course having a TEFL/TESOL certification can give you a leg up on the competition!

  13. I know I'm a bit late in the game, but how does one find out about things like insurance coverage while living abroad or applying for citizenship in a foreign country? My fiancee and I would love to live in England, but I have a medical condition that prevents me from working (I'm on disability), and I need affordable medical care while abroad. I'm assuming we'd have to get married since I can't work – does anyone else know how I go about getting information on insurance coverage while exploring citizenship?

  14. Hello!

    I just moved from the US to Reading, just outside London 3 months ago with my fiancรฉ for his job. As much as I like being here, I have to say it's a lot harder then I imagined it would be before we left. Unfortunately we live in an area that has very few expats & I'm having a hard time making friends & finding my place here. Do you have any advice or suggestions? Do you have a blog? I'd love to keep up with your adventure.

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