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Moving Abroad: a Basic Beginner Guide

A friend of mine recently asked me about the things I had to consider and the process I went through when I decided to move from the U.S. to Mozambique. I thought to jot my thoughts and experiences into a post, so here it is:

A how-to guide on moving abroad, based on my own personal experiences as a freelancer, and the experiences of the expats I spoke to in order to get more input for this post.

1. Be Patient When Making Your Decision

Before you jump into any expensive work visas or residency permits, or a serious longterm commitment, be sure to visit your intended new-home for awhile beforehand. See how you get along with the local community of expats (if any) and more importantly, how you feel when immersed in the culture as a “local.” Spend enough time there so that you don’t see it in a romanticized, tourist-centric light, but instead see how you would deal with being there working, commuting, paying for rent, making friends, and building a life that’s sustainable for you.

Of course most of this is a big unknown, and you may not truly get a feel for living there until after you've arrived and have started working, commuting, and socializing, and the honeymoon feelings have worn off. But I think a big mistake people make is thinking that simply visiting a place on vacation is going to be the same experience as living there.

While you will definitely have beautiful times ahead when exploring your new home, having adventures with new friends, and indulging in new experiences (new restaurants, new cuisines, new languages, new landscapes), you will also be dealing with costs of living, commuting, a whole new work ethic that can be deceptively different from what you’re used to.

As well, there could be inefficiencies, new cultural norms, maybe some corruption, confusing taxes, and more to suddenly navigate. For example, don’t think that just because you love safari that moving to an African country is going to be elephants and golden sunsets 24/7, all the time. There will be more opportunities for safari if you’re living in, say, Nairobi, but maybe not as often as you’d think (unless you’re working as a safari guide, of course).

When I moved to a small town in Mozambique I really had no idea what to expect, and was unsure of if I’d love it or hate it. Beforehand, I had spent about a month total in my new town as a tourist — starting to dip my toes into the idea of what it would be like to live here — but spending an indefinite amount of time here (and especially working here) is a completely different experience. After I came here with a one-way ticket, I spent about four months on a tourist visa, testing the waters and getting to know what it would take for me — a freelance photojournalist who depends entirely on airports to make a living and values things such as quality accessible healthcare — to live here. I had to seriously weigh all of these elements before deciding to make the jump to get a pricy residency permit and work visa. It was a confusing, stressful, and expensive process and investment, and even though I was mostly confident that I was making the right decision, I still made myself wait several months before biting the residency bullet.

During that time, I was constantly weighing how happy I was in Mozambique, how I would continue to make a living there, how I liked the culture and the people I spent every day with, and if spending the money to get a residency would be worth it for what I was looking for. This meant spending a lot of time talking with local expats (and even local lawyers) about my options, and how I would exit if I ever decide to leave Mozambique someday. But the point is, I spent months here before making the decision to stay, so don’t let the implied permanency of moving abroad scare you from taking a chance and splashing around in the expatriate waters. As long as you aren’t on a fixed work contract that keeps you somewhere for a longterm, set period of time, and you’re willing to spend the money and time in getting to know a potential new home, you can, indeed, leave any time.

2. Consider the Distance

If frequently going back to wherever you’re from is important to you, consider how much it costs to fly from your new home to your old home.

For example, let’s say you’re from Chicago, and you’re between living in Beijing, China or Copacabana, Bolivia. Beijing to Chicago is a tiring long-haul flight, but it is significantly cheaper, and oftentimes certainly quicker (less buses, connections, and puddle-jumper flights), than Copacabana to Chicago (even though Beijing is almost double the distance). So it’s important to think about that and if that matters to you. Think about the holidays you’ll spend away, the family reunions and special occasions you may miss. You may be in a position where you can fly home to visit anytime you want, but you also may not be.

It takes a considerably long time for me to get from Tofo, Mozambique to Connecticut, where my parents and siblings are. It’s about two days (or more) of bus travel and air travel and long layovers and airport hotels. But is it worth it for me? I think so. (Although I do sometimes miss living 15 minutes from San Francisco International Airport, but in this case, the pros outweigh the cons).

3. Money and Work

What’s the cost of living like where you want to move? What’s rent typically like, and what kind of housing does that get you? How about public transportation, if that applies to you? Does the salary you typically make (or will make) allow you a decent, comfortable, and practical living?

And, of course, who is going to give you your salary? For the sake of this post, let’s consider that you haven’t been offered a contract or received a position from a company that’s going to give you a fixed salary. That leaves you with the option to do contractor work or freelance.

Doing remote contractor or freelance work is something many expats pursue because it means not necessarily having to have obtain a working permit in your new country (this depends, though, on the country, so do your research), and it also allows more freedom to move around and choose your location based more on personal preferences instead of necessity.

Sounds idyllic, right? Unfortunately, because of that, higher-paying remote jobs can be incredibly competitive, and usually require a certain level of training in a speciality (such as coding, web development, graphic design, UX/UI, engineering, book keeping, etc). If you have the time, taking online courses (or even getting a degree) to specialize yourself in one of these coveted fields will make you more marketable for remote employers. To get an idea on where to start, look at remote job listings and see what they require. This takes time, of course, but these things can’t be rushed. And if you’re going to make the jump to move abroad and want to have the freedom to work from your laptop, patience and determination is definitely key in making sure you can support yourself. Websites like Upwork and PeoplePerHour can provide insight into what kinds of freelance jobs are currently in high demand, and therefore help you figure out which path you want to go down.

A popular emerging market for remote workers is to teach online, through companies such as VIPKid, Cambly, and Preply to name just a few.

There are also global opportunities for scuba diving instructors, yoga instructors, hostel workers, farm workers, and beyond. The balancing act of finding a way to support yourself in a new country will come from your own skills and creativity to find a niche market that you qualify for.

4. Choosing your Destination

Once again, for the sake of this post, let’s pretend that you can, in theory, move anywhere, with no specific job leading you to one specific country, region or city. Where do you begin?

Start by making a list of countries where you’re interested in spending time, even for a short duration (you can live abroad for a year or less, remember, nothing has to be permanent). Reddit is a surprisingly great resource for learning about countries and asking locals specific questions (there’s a “subreddit” for just about every country in the world, so get on it and start researching and chatting with the people who live there). As well, there are plenty subreddits specifically for people who are expats, who want to be expats, or who are considering (or doing) remote online work:

Brainstorm some countries or cities you’re considering, write up any questions that are important to you, and try to connect with locals and expats alike to get their input and perspective. Examples of questions you might ask or research could be:

  • What is the rent like in Friedrichshain, Berlin for a 1-bedroom apartment?

  • How are internet speeds in Ulaanbaatar?

  • Is it necessary to be fluent in Swedish before moving to Stockholm?

  • Expats who’ve moved to Bali: what’s it like being an expat versus visiting as a tourist?

  • What’s the stance on being LGBTQ in Chile?

Finally: be open to new ideas and opportunities that may present themselves. I’d always thought I’d live in Tanzania when I'd someday move to Africa. Then when 2017 came around and I began seriously researching my options (with the intention to leave California that year), I suddenly found myself seriously considering London, and then South Africa, and then back to Tanzania, and then back to South Africa. But after a serendipitous change of plans and opportunity, I landed in Mozambique. But mostly, Mozambique was practical: for an American it was relatively easy for me to become a working resident here, as opposed to many other African countries. It seemed like the perfect place to legally and easily base myself if I want to work around the continent.

Be open to anything. You could be surprised where you end up.

My two dogs in Mozambique, Vuvu and Chico

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