10 things expats wish they had known before they left their homes behind

Shannon O’Donnell/A Little AdriftExpat Shannon O’Donnell takes a boat ride near Can Tho, one of the largest cities in Vietnam.
  • Expat life can seem like a dream – but people who have done it know it has its own challenges.
  • Travel fiends who want to take it to the next level might consider a one-way ticket to an interesting locale to live and work.
  • We spoke with a handful of seasoned expatriates, who gave their best advice for working and living abroad – and for coming back home again.

I had no idea how to give someone a credit card.

The process is admittedly obvious: take the card out of your wallet and, with your hand, give it to a cashier’s hand. But I was living in South Korea, where many of my habits needed to be revised – how I rolled up my jeans, not getting leftovers from a restaurant, saying thank you if someone complimented me on being pale or having a small face.

I had seen salespeople giving their customers receipts and cards with two hands or a hand on the arm, bows aplenty. It seemed appropriate to mirror their actions and finish it with a small bow for good measure. So, that’s what I did. Cashiers did the same back to me. I felt like I made a minor inroad into integrating.

Joyously, I shared this success with my Korean friends. And I was roundly made fun of.

My close friend was between visible horror and amusement, covering her hands with her face out of second-hand humiliation. “That’s too much! Don’t do that!” Thus I stopped bowing at the pimply 16 year old at 7/11 who scanned my coffee.

It’s not glamourous, rewarding or even very interesting, but that’s a lot of what living abroad is -looking stupid, trying to look less stupid, terrible loneliness, fleeting successes, and insights that seemed difficult to wrest. Living in Korea for nearly a year and a half wasn’t as gleeful as what my Instagram feed suggested, but what I learned was valuable.

I chatted with American and British expatriates who have found new homes in places like Indonesia, France, Thailand and other incredible spots. Here’s what they wish they knew before they jetted off from their birthplaces for a life of equal parts embarrassment and adventure.


You will feel lonely

Courtesy of Bryan Pirolli‘I always tell people, ‘Keep your expectations low,” said Brian Pirolli, pictured.

I was admittedly miserable for my first month in Korea, largely because I didn’t have any friends and had no idea how to make them. It was like freshman year of college except without the dorm, classes and clubs full of potential besties who speak English.

What France-based writer Bryan Pirolli told me resonated with my own experience. “Just by going abroad, you’re kinda desperate to interact with people,” Pirolli told Business Insider. “You end up talking to people from different walks of life, different religions, different races.”

I started asking my coworkers to get dinner, went to expat events, and got creative with how I met folks. I never accrued the vibrant social life I built up in college, but the expat and native friends I made in Korea added utterly new perspectives to my life.


Don’t stress when things go wrong. In fact, you should expect things to go wrong.

Rachel Premack/Business InsiderThe author in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

Shannon O’Donnell, travel blogger and former National Geographic Traveller of the Year, spent a recent afternoon visiting stationary store after stationary store in Barcelona looking for wrapping paper – no luck.

“I went to every stationary shop but I didn’t know where to buy wrapping paper,” she told me over the phone. The native Floridian moved to Spain several months ago, her latest home since leaving the US in 2008. For a friend’s baby shower, she had to wrap the little one’s gift in tissue paper.

There are going to be a lot of little inconveniences every day, and they will add up. My friend from Colorado who has lived in Seoul for nearly ten years always referred to “a thousand little paper cuts” that build up when you’re abroad.

Try to keep a cheery attitude, or at least don’t go crazy.


If the first country doesn’t feel right, you can always go elsewhere.

Shannon O’Donnell/A Little AdriftO’Donnell takes a boat ride near Can Tho, one of the largest cities in Vietnam.

If the country you pick for your first home abroad doesn’t feel right, don’t think you have to move back home. Try another city, country or region.

O’Donnell first moved to Thailand. It took her a few years to accept that it wasn’t the best fit for her.

“It’s not like college – it’s harder to integrate into a community,” O’Donnell told Business Insider. “It was only after a couple years of living in Thailand when I realised that I would never fully integrate into Thai community.”

She’s since moved to Spain. O’Donnell, who studied Spanish, has been more comfortable there.


You won’t learn the language overnight — and you might not even need it.

Rachel Premack/Business InsiderI took a few trips to Japan, where I truly cannot read or say anything. I got by with pointing at menu items, which is ok for a short trip but gets uncomfortable if you’re trying to settle in somewhere.
As an English speaker (you’re reading this, aren’t you?), you might think you’ll be able to get by without learning the local tongue. Unless you’re dreaming of living in the Netherlands, Singapore or any other country where everyone speaks excellent English, you’re going to have to hit the books.

And don’t underestimate how tough it can be to learn a language. Along with a new vocabulary and alphabet, often the sentence structure can be totally different from what you’re used to. In Korean, for instance, just saying “What’s your name?” has a sentence structure like “‘Name’-subject marker ‘what is’?” (That’s “i-leum-i mwo-ye-yo?”.)

Luckily, people will be happy to teach you some phrases in exchange for some English-language small talk. Look on Facebook for a language exchange meet-up or download an app like HelloTalk for a two-in-one deal – a new local friend plus language learning.


You will get rid of a lot of stuff.

Courtesy of Bryan PirolliLess is more, particularly when you’re hopping from locale to locale. Brian Pirolli is pictured.

“You don’t need 40 pairs of underwear and 16 pairs of shoes,” Pirolli, who now lives in Naples, said. “I can’t tell you how liberating that’s been.”

Don’t bother trying to move your furniture, car and even much of your clothing and personal items when you leave home. Donate, give to friends or sell everything that isn’t essential.


Your new home might not accommodate your dietary restrictions.

Shannon O’Donnell/A Little AdriftO’Donnell shot this photo of a Bedouin woman in Jordan making shrak, a sort of unleavened flatbread.

O’Donnell is a vegetarian, but she had difficulty finding accommodations for that during her years in Thailand. “I had no idea that vegetarianism was such a privilege in some places that it would really not be understood,” she told Business Insider.

The same goes for gluten-free, nut-free, pork-free and other dietary restrictions. Sometimes your dietary needs coincide with the local diet, though. Vegetarians will have an easier time in Hindu parts of India, for instance, where many keep a meat-free diet for religious reasons.


Get your papers in order.

Rachel Premack/Business InsiderThe author, scuba diving in Bali.

You might need your diploma, a criminal background check, and other documents to get a job in some countries.

When you’re already there, paying your taxes and securing legal work will be helpful for securing a long-term resident visa or citizenship.

Chris Houghton, a British citizen living in Bali, told Business Insider that an international drivers licence is a must for the expat hot spot of Southeast Asia. “Everyone drives scooters in Southeast Asia,” he said. “You’ll need one to get around for sure.”


You won’t feel at home for years — or forever.

Courtesy of Rachel Pieh JonesRachel Pieh Jones, pictured here interviewing a director of a deaf school in Djibouti, said it took her a while to settle in the Horn of Africa.

Rachel Pieh Jones, author and cofounder of the International School of Djibouti, has lived in the Horn of Africa since 2003 – first Somalia, then Djibouti. At first, this vastly different culture was overwhelming.

“I wish I’d known how deep cultural learning has to go before it becomes meaningful,” she told Business Insider. “Many expats think that learning a few vocabulary words and learning to navigate the new city or eating local cuisine means we’ve adapted, but living cross-culturally requires much deeper exploration of the values and beliefs of the local community.”


You might not be able to come back to your home country without feeling foreign all over again.

Rachel Premack/Business InsiderThe author in Seoul, unaware that restaurants back in America lacked blankets and delicious Korean food.

Living abroad will change you.

Pirolli became so accustomed to France that it began to feel more like home than his native Pennsylvania. He was also shocked by how closed off his family and friends seemed compared to the adventurous attitude he and many nomads must develop. If you’re away for long enough, Pirolli said, “you sort of hit a point where you can’t go back and going back is expatriating again. So, I feel weirdly distant from America.”

If you end up needing to return home, you can take the lessons from being a foreigner back to your home country. “I am certainly friendlier and less self-oriented, but I am also more open-minded, and want to continue to experiment with doing new things outside of my comfort zone,” Anne Kooijman, a Dutch woman who lived in Canada, told The Guardian.


You don’t have to plan as much as you think you do

Shannon O’Donnell/A Little AdriftO’Donnell and her cousin at the Taj Mahal.

Moving abroad without a detailed plan seems totally counterintuitive, but successful expats say it worked for them.

Pirolli left home right after college with some savings and minimal planning. “It forced me to figure it out quickly,” he told Business Insider. “You can always find ways to make more money and you can always learn the language.”

“I wish I’d known how easy it would be to earn a living remotely while living abroad,” Bali resident Clare Harrison, founder of tech internship program Start Me Up, told Business Insider. “All I needed was an internet connection and I could run my business remotely.”

“I needn’t have been so nervous,” said Houghton. “As long as you’ve got a debit card and roof over your head, you have everything you need.”

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