The INSIDER Summary:
• Lisa May Cobham is an expat in Belize who shares her expertise on Expat Real.
• Befriending other expats can help ease many aspects of the transition.
• Expat life is extremely affordable.
In 2014, Lisa May Cobham was working as a secretary in Washington, DC, paying $700 a month to sleep on a couch in a townhouse with seven other people.
Now, she does the same work, but from a beach house in Belize.
Cobham shares her story and her knowledge on Expat Real, in the hopes that it will help others achieve the American Dream abroad.
She posts informational videos and interviews with other expats about living on the US dollar in other countries, has a book coming out in November called “Runnin’ Global Game,” and is launching a three-month Expat Incubator program to guide aspiring expats through their first steps.
INSIDER asked Cobham for a beginner’s guide to living as an expat, which she shared with infectious enthusiasm over Zoom — a video conferencing site every expat should know.
Visas and immigration
Know the laws before you go.
“You have to get to know your immigration border before you try to bring stuff over from one country to another. They all have their own idiosyncrasies, and the best thing to do is just bring your stuff, make sure it’s all legal, make it easy, and smile.”
Be friendly to TSA and customs officers.
“Sometimes TSA can be a little controlling, but that’s all they have. You’re going to cross the border and go on to this great new life, or this great new experience or adventure, where[as] those guys stay right there. So the nicer you are, the more accommodating you are, the easier things are going to be.”
Housing and work
Join expat groups on Facebook to make friends and find housing opportunities.
“I become a part of all the expat groups I can find on Facebook, and I try to become active so I can get to know somebody.”
House sit to get the lay of the land.
“I feel like it’s one of the best ways to immerse yourself in an area, because you are taking over for that owner who already is a part of a community. They will introduce you to their community and you get to know those people. It’s just a lot easier.” Cobham recommends using trustedhousesitters, which she describes as “kind of like an OkCupid for housesitters.”
Use couchsurfing.com to connect with locals.
It’s a great way to meet new people, and get some local recommendations. “I posted in a group that I’m looking for a place to live, and happy to take somebody out for dinner and exchange English or whatever it is that they’re looking for from Americans if they were to help me find an apartment.”
Find jobs on caretaker-jobs.org.
Caretaker jobs are usually rent-free, live-in jobs on rural properties.
Good Wi-Fi is a must.
If you’re working remotely, fast internet will make all the difference. “Live in a city in which you’ll have better WiFi.”
Check out virtual assistant positions.
Cobham does the same job in Belize she did in DC, only virtually. “I still make my money being a secretary to one lawyer in Washington DC.”
Language and cultural differences
Make expat friends.
Making friends who have been through the whole expat process before will make things easier for you. For example, when Cobham needed to get her hair done abroad, she asked her new expat friend who just brought her to her own appointment.
Have a flexible schedule.
In the beginning it helps to be flexible — that way you can go on adventures, or even just to the local store with new friends, both local and expats. “When an expat says ‘I’m going to the store’ or ‘I’m going to where you’re going to be and I’ll show you the ropes,’ then that will be that.”
Use pictures to communicate with store owners.
If you haven’t learned the language yet, Cobham suggests bringing pictures of what you need. “I get a series of pictures together and then I show them the pictures and they go ‘Oh, yeah’ and then they get me what I need.”
Money and budgeting
Sacrifice location to save money on rent.
“If you want to live cheaply in certain places, the further away you are from the beach, the cheaper it’s going to be.”
Learn the language.
Blending in is key. “The more of the language you know, the cheaper it’s going to be.”
Expat life is much cheaper, but you should still budget.
“I wish I had known how cheap it was to live, and what a relief it is. The financial relief is astounding.”
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