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How to Adjust to Expat Life in a New Country

I definitely made some rookie mistakes my first time moving abroad, but I've learned what it takes to adjust to new countries as an expat. Read more to make adjusting to expat life in a new country a little bit easier!

Mar 27, 2017, 10:41 AM
IMG has compensated the author for providing this article.

I can distinctly remember the first time I was entering a country I had intended to live in for the next year. 

Full of wide-eyed wonder, excitement and nervousness, my husband Chris and I were standing in line at the New Zealand immigration counter. The immigration officer asked me why I wanted to enter the country and without hesitation I exclaimed, “To shear sheep!” She laughed out loud, asked us no further questions, stamped our passports and we were in. 

It was the first time we moved abroad, and we definitely made some rookie mistakes. 

For instance, when we didn’t make a clear plan on how to leave the airport. We jumped on a random bus blissfully thinking, “We’ll just figure this out!” After wandering around in the rain to find our hostel, we eventually climbed one of the steepest hills of our lives, went to our room and despite being so hungry (there were no restaurants anywhere nearby), collapsed and slept for 12 hours straight still in our clothes. 

It didn’t occur to me that I would be hungry at weird hours nor did I really understand how much jet lag could affect me.

Since that time, I have learned the tricks to adjusting to a new country. Here are some tips to help you acclimate and enjoy the thrill of moving internationally!

Have a 48-Hour Plan 

With any international trip, delays can happen, luggage can get lost and your body may need to adjust to the new time zone. After my move to New Zealand, I have made some adaptations to my entry plan so that I arrive in comfort. 

Here’s what I always do now:

  • Pack a change of clothes in my carry-on. Trust me, this will save you a lot of trouble and discomfort if your luggage gets lost.
  • Keep a small toiletry bag handy. This is essential especially if you wear contacts. I once fell asleep with contacts on during a long flight and when we landed, I had severe dry eye. 
  • Bring snacks to stave off hunger. Make sure the snacks you take do not contain any nuts or fruits, per custom regulations.
  • Drink plenty of water and pack vitamin C. Be sure to hydrate to lessen the effects of jet lag, and take some vitamin C drops to keep your throat from getting sore from the dry cabin air.  
  • Devise Plan A and Plan B transportation options to my accommodations. Depending on the country we’re in, we might request airport pickup, take a bus or a regular cab. When we flew into Nairobi, Kenya, we requested airport pickup. But in case for any reason there was an issue and our driver was not there, we made a backup plan to take a taxi. We researched which taxi company was the most reputable for visitors to use, and the estimated cost and time it would take to get to our accommodations. 
  • Plan some down time to adjust to the new time zone. It’s understandable that when you move to a new country, you may want to hit the streets and start getting to know your new home immediately. However, if you don’t give yourself enough time to recover from jet lag, you may end up getting sick, which doesn’t make for a good first impression of the country. Depending on how far I’m moving, I don’t make any concrete plans for at least two days after my international flight. This is a stress-reducing way to be kind to your body as you get used to your new home.
  • Try to rise and fall with the sun and get on a normal eating schedule right away. Doing so will help you more quickly (and safely) adjust to the new time zone. 

Make Yourself an Expat Cheat Sheet

When moving to a new country, there are a lot of things you’ll need to remember. Be proactive and mitigate some of the stresses by making yourself an expat cheat sheet.

Whether your cheat sheet is in a notebook or on your smartphone, write down the following:

  • Currency exchange rate. My currency is USD so I do $1 USD = X (local currency). I do this for $1, $5, $10 and $50 for quick and easy computing. This also helps ensure I don’t overpay for any items. This is especially useful in countries where the denominations are very large. For instance, in Cambodia, I forgot the exchange rate of 20,275 KHR (approximately $5 USD) when I had just been in Indonesia and the same amount was 68,700 IDR. 
  • A few key phrases if I don’t know the language. I write down: hello, goodbye, thank you, toilet, police and hospital. Learning how to say other phrases such as “good morning” or “it tasted very good” are great to ask a local to help you learn. It has always provided me with a great way to form more meaningful connections. 
  • Visitor center location. Shortly after arriving to a new country, I head to the visitor center to get brochures, maps and ask any questions I may have. This helps me get a better idea of tourist attractions in the area as well as libraries, grocery stores and other important information like local holidays.
  • Purchasing processes. If you’re planning to rent a flat or apartment, or make any big purchases such as buying a vehicle, the processes and terms may be different than back home. Jot down some quick reference notes to yourself on how the process works there. I was shocked to learn in Australia that most housing complexes charge rent by the week, not per month as I’m used to in the U.S. They also used different terms; for instance, instead of “security deposit,” they referred to it as a “bond.” Having a basic knowledge of how processes work and key terms you need to know will help you feel more confident when making big decisions.
  • Your own phone number and address. You might be surprised, but it can take a while to remember this information if the numbers and format are different from what you are used to. I can’t tell you how many times I needed this at random points and was so glad I had it written down. I also write down my workplace, hospital and any other addresses that might be pertinent. 

Know the Country’s Social Customs

Every country has its own unique customs. The last thing you want to do is make a major cultural gaffe within the first couple of days in your new country, so be sure to do your research.

Common questions I look up are:

  • How do I greet someone?
  • Is it polite to shake hands?
  • What’s considered appropriate attire?
  • Are there any major social no-nos?
  • Are there certain days when businesses are closed? 

The last question is often overlooked. While in southern Australia in the city of Adelaide, Chris and I had been invited to stay with a friend. We were arriving on a Sunday and wanted to get some ingredients from the grocery store so we could make a dish to share with dinner. 

Despite being in a major city, almost every single grocery store was closed. We quickly learned that in Australia, Sundays are important days for recreation and spending time with family and friends, so many businesses are closed. When we arrived and told our friend we couldn’t buy anything for the evening, she just laughed and said, “Welcome to Adelaide.” 

Another cultural difference was explained to us by an engineer who was working at a large firm in the city of Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory. He was from the United States and told us that during his first week of work, he would show up to the office 15 minutes early, but all the doors would be locked. 

His boss would eventually get there, coffee in hand, and open the doors. The American said he learned that it was culturally acceptable at his workplace to come late if there was a line at the café and it took longer than usual to get your morning cuppa (Australian lingo for cup of coffee or tea). 

Identify Your Main Priorities

Chris and I have moved to New Zealand and Australia on work visas. Upon arriving, it felt like we had so many important things to do. To start, we identified the tasks that required processing time. This allowed us to streamline our priorities, while not feeling overwhelmed. For us, those steps were:

  • Open up a bank account and get debit cards mailed to us
  • Apply for our tax numbers
  • Transfer over my automobile coverage. We bought a car in each country, and by doing this early, we allowed for enough processing time so that when we purchased a car, we had the coverage we needed in place. 
  • Get a local SIM card
  • Read over orientation information or contact our employers to see if there are any forms we need to fill out or specific documentation we will need to bring on our first day of work.

Adjust to Your New Work Culture

While in New Zealand and Australia, Chris and I worked on various farms, cafés and at a department store. Working in other countries has been one of the most eye-opening experiences that we’ve had. 

We’ve made lifelong friends, learned new skills and had the opportunity to see how other countries balance work and life. 

To Adjust to your New Workplace, Follow these Tips:

  • Avoid over-comparing. It’s OK to mention and compare workplace differences sometimes, and in many ways this might lead to interesting discussions. But be mindful of social cues so you aren’t overstating, “Well, in my home country we do this…” over and over again. It’s important that you are respectful of the way things are done in your new country, and adjust accordingly. 
  • Go with the flow. There’s bound to be some social differences so keep an open mind and your observations keen. In New Zealand we worked on a high-end organic winery and our first day someone yelled out, “Smoko!” We had no idea what it meant at first, but everyone, the managers included, all sat down for a tea and snack break (and a cigarette, if desired). 
  • Be yourself. You will have gotten your new position because you are a hardworking and competent employee. Over the years, I have talked to many people working in different countries — from engineers to hotel staff — and the golden rule of fitting in with your new work colleagues is the same the world over: Be kind, honest and hardworking and that will serve you well.
  • Ask questions. If you don’t understand a social norm, simply ask a colleague, “I am unsure of the best etiquette to handle this situation, can you please give me some guidance?” In my experience, asking for clarification on workplace culture in this manner has always been well-received.

Utilize Online Social Groups to Connect

With the Internet age we live in, there are so many ways to connect with other people in your new country. You can use professional networks like LinkedIn to connect with people in your industry. Or do a Google search for Facebook groups in your area using terms like “expats abroad” or “digital nomads.” In my experience, there are often a few local cafés where expats frequently meet for coffee, chat or plan outings together. Ask your colleagues if they’re aware of these locales. 

You could also consider joining international groups that meet and do activities together, such as Hash House Harriers, which is a group of international, non-competitive running clubs. If you are involved in any organizations back home, such as the YMCA or The Rotary Club, check to see if they have international branches. You’d be surprised how many groups are active worldwide. 

There are other websites like Couchsurfing, which in addition to providing local homestays, connects members who are available to meet for coffee or show people around town. I found a group through this site that met every Friday for dinner at a local restaurant while I was in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. You can also search online for local “meetups” to find like-minded people who share your interests. This is a great way to begin building a network of friends in your new country. 

Remember to stay connected with family and friends back home too. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Chat all offer ways to stay in touch without buying an expensive international calling plan. 

Have fun Exploring Your New Country

Last but not least, have fun exploring your new country and settling into the day-to-day. One of my most memorable first experiences living in Australia was going to the grocery store. I will always remember standing in the middle of the produce section, holding a green pepper in my hand while staring at a sign and wondering why they labeled it “capsicum.”

As you make the move to your new country, take it all in, try new foods, go to a movie, do what the locals do and you will be on your way to enjoying your new home and gaining a presence of “just being there.” 

Don’t forget to protect your health with an international medical insurance plan designed for expats. IMG’s Global Medical Insurance is my plan of choice for long-term stays. With it, I know that if something were to happen to my health while I’m living in another country, I would have the benefits and support I need.

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