I have had this item on my blogging to-do list for probably 18 months now, without attempting to address it. To be fair, I have in the past addressed the lion share of this topic in the various posts within the Expat Topic category, but a consolidated summary has been missing so far. Here is finally an effort to rectify that.
Unfortunately, I am not too happy with the end product. I made a few re-writes over the course of several days, deleting and adding content, and in the end, I am left, I’m afraid, more with recaps of things posted elsewhere in this blog than with new and original thoughts. I still feel that it is worthwhile to post some sort of a conspectus on the subject, but anyone who’s been reading this blog since its early days may find little new stuff further down. Feel free to skip. Otherwise, you’re risking bearing to hear me admit mistakes.
I’ll start with a disclaimer. I will be generalizing the concepts of living “overseas”, “abroad” and “in a foreign country” based solely on a single example of being American expatriates in the United Kingdom. It is perfectly conceivable that some of the issues listed below have no bearing elsewhere in the world. And I’ve no doubt that a European Union citizen moving within EU would find matters considerably simpler.
Let’s start with credit history, something discussed in this blog a long time ago. Or, rather, your lack of such overseas, which will hamper your efforts to obtain auto financing or even apply for local credit cards in the first months – and, possibly, years – upon your arrival.
In truth, there is little-to-nothing that you can do about it before landing in a new land, but there is an important corollary to that issue that gets little consideration beforehand. Namely, the task of setting up local bank accounts and getting local credit cards.
You see, your check – or should I say cheque? – drafted on a US bank will not be accepted by any merchant in a foreign country. And even if you possess a US credit card that does not charge you extra for foreign transactions, you can be sure that the issuing bank will compensate themselves for that via exchange rate markups. If you plan to stay in a foreign country for any extended period of time, you need to set up a portion of your finances locally.
But you can’t just walk into a bank and open an account, can you? You need to present not only an identification, but also a proof of residence and a proof of your credit-worthiness. The former you may or may not possess, the latter will not exist. Your assets in your home country and your high current salary will play no role in the process, trust me, in the absence of searchable credit history, and your years of diligent financial transacting at home will not be in evidence in your host country. Some banks may be more understanding than others, but in the absence of credit history – actually, any history of you living in this particular country – you will not find the going smooth. Getting a loan on advantageous terms? Forget about it, you’ll be lucky to get a loan at all! Having a credit card application approved? You tick “less than 3 years in the country”, and that’s a zillion-points deduction on your credit-worthiness score. Even your existing affiliations with multi-national financial companies may not do you much good: I heard stories of long-time AmEx cardholders who were denied UK AmEx cards on the basis of not having any prior UK credit history. (I actually got AmEx to issue us UK cards without a problem, but there are no guarantees.)
You are unlikely to think about this stuff beforehand. And being suddenly faced with cash flow and/or credit issues is no picnic. Just ask any CEO.
We were lucky. Even though we have given only a cursory thought to this, my employer put me in touch with an international division of a major UK bank, specializing in expatriate finance. They took my employment referral as the requisite proof of my credit-worthiness, and not only opened bank accounts for us, but also issued us a credit card with a generous limit and extended us a standard-terms personal loan within weeks of our arrival. They also pre-approved us for a sizable mortgage at some point (not that we ever took advantage of that).
It is important to note that we were successful in obtaining a credit card on our own (we wanted a specific affiliated one) only after having lived in the country for over two years. Without the assistance described in the previous paragraph, we may have been seriously handicapped in our day-to-day finances.
The bottom line: You need to ensure having a clear path to setting up your financials in your host country prior to moving over. For business transfers, this type of assistance is often an assumed part of the deal. For personal moves, research your options in advance.
I wrote comparatively extensively in the past on the subject of selecting where to live. This is surely a thing that you would give a lot of thought to prior to relocation. But you will likely not think of all of the implications.
If you have kids, type of school and quality of available schooling (in later part of that article and in comments) will play an important role in your decisions. Your overall preferences in terms of city life versus that in suburbs will also play a likely role.
What you may neglect to consider is how [in]convenient it may be to get places from your chosen residence. We saw a direct train line to the most central place in London – Charing Cross – at the station within five-minute walk from our rented house. Takes less than half an hour – very convenient, we thought. What we did not realize until after settling in that more often than not, we have trains with frequency of only one every half an hour on this line, which causes not only occasional commuting problems when I miss a train for some reason or another, but also our general reluctance to go to the city center too often and subject ourselves to potential hour-long trips.
If you elect suburban living, you may overestimate how much you are willing to drive around to get somewhere. Yes, we lived in an “exurb” subdivision in New Jersey where we could not get anywhere without getting into a car. But I am much less keen on frequent driving in Greater London, even on weekends (this old post partly explains why). And the area that we live in, while not exactly bad, is simply quite boring and has very few walking routes.
We picked this house because a) it was hands-down, by far, the best house that we saw on our house-hunting expedition, b) we wanted to settle in as quickly as possible, c) it was hands-down, by far, the best house that we saw on our house-hunting trip, and d) we figured that we were just minutes away – by car – from a couple of much nicer locales that we would visit frequently. That last consideration, while not false, turned out to be the Achilles’ heel of the deal: We can’t really walk to any place that we want to be at, and we’re gradually increasingly letting our reluctance to deal with driving/parking/etc win over our desire to be out and about.
(Yeah, yeah, I know, now that we are fully aware of the shortcomings of our location, why not move? Without going into too much detail, by the time our initial lease was up, we felt that any house move would be for too short a term to be viable. We’ve now renewed three times following the same line of reasoning.)
If you intend to travel frequently, you may not consider how easy it is to get to various departure terminals from where you plan to be based. Surely, no one wants to live next to an airport, but if you habitually need to spend an hour and a half to two hours to get to and from your main gateway, believe me, it will eventually start weighing on your travel decisions.
We are actually located as convenient as one can be in London for driving trips to Europe, with a direct and never congested 50-minute route to the Eurotunnel train terminal in Folkestone. And as I mentioned in this article, we live within reasonable distance of four of London airports. The problem, of course, is that the one airport we (as well as our guests) use the most, Heathrow, is the one that takes the longest time to get to and from. Add to that the fact that the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras is also more than an hour away from us on public transport – and a major train station has got to be closer to you that that, if you plan to travel on trains from there regularly, – and our location again seems far from ideal.
The bottom line: Selecting a place of residence in a host country is much more than finding suitable accommodations. I suppose most people should recognize that concept without me saying so, but, somehow, we were focused on the quality of accommodations more than on any other aspects.
In the first half of relocating with kids article, I tried to address the fact that you may not think through beforehand what life may be like for your kids while abroad. It is not just about whether your offspring is keen on regularly tagging along with you for various trips. It is their everyday routine.
The lifestyle, the culture, the environment are all going to be different from what you were used to. We thankfully did not need to account for a language barrier, but elsewhere in the world you’d have to. While you may console yourself with a simple “kids adapt easily”, not thinking through how the behavioral inclinations of your child[ren] may be affected by a dramatic change of scenery may be a recipe for a future discontent.
I have to admit that our thinking on this subject consisted of, basically, “kids will travel with us all the time” and, yes, “kids will adapt easily, we’re sure”. Both of which turned out to be true, by the way. But not without issues.
The children, however inquisitive and adventurous, felt over-saturated with travels after a while. But that was not the most important issue. No matter how much we travelled, we spent considerably more time home. Thinking back to New Jersey, both girls had plenty of friends their age right on our cul-de-sac. Friends they grew up together with, went to school on the same bus together with, and saw pretty much every day of the year. If they wanted to do something fun, all they needed to do is to knock on any number of doors within shouting distance of our house.
In London, conversely, their classmates do not live close to us or to one another. We live on a busy street. And we do not know practically any family with kids living within walking distance from us.
Becky got to overcome those limitations only when we started letting her travel on public transport by herself and stay at her friends’ houses for sleepovers. It is still not as convenient as lounging by the pool in a neighbor’s backyard, but at least she has life outside school. Kimmy is too little for that. She has several friends in her class, but to see them outside of school, she needs for Natasha to arrange play-dates in advance. Natasha also keeps her busy with other activities, but it’s a constant effort to keep her involved with something. The alternative would be hours and hours of TV – not something that we want to happen, even if we have never been too restrictive with our kids when it comes to television.
Your kids will obviously be different from mine. And you cannot predict how your and their social lives are going to turn out in the new country. But you have to give it some thought ahead of time and consider both how they might cope with the different world around them and how much you need to adjust your own behaviors to give them additional care that they may have not needed in the past.
The bottom line: Identifying right schools for your kids may be the biggest headache, but it’s what they are going to do out of school that will determine their moods and attitudes, and, by extent, yours.
On to more mundane things. Like the fact that electricity is different. Yes, you will undoubtedly be aware that the voltage is going to be something other than 110v abroad and that electric plugs are going to be in different shapes. You will likely make the obvious informed decision not to bring any major electricals or electronics with you. But you will probably still bring some. Most likely not even bothering to check whether they can work with a different voltage. And even if you do realize that something only works with 110v, you will persist with the notion that buying an AC converter will be cheaper than buying a replacement electrical locally. The outcome: Some things will burn and blow the fuses because you will absentmindedly plug them into higher-voltage outlets; your not-so-cheap massive converters will consume inordinate amounts of electricity themselves, heat up to the point of being impossible to touch, or burn out, taking whatever was connected to them along for the ride into oblivion. (Surprisingly, a travel adapter that we bought ages ago remains the most reliable implement of the kind that we possess; all other voltage converters have been giving us nothing but grief.)
The flip-side of this issue is, of course, money. You leave all of your electricals behind, you’ll need to buy replacements locally. Relocation allowance (discussed in the relocation package article that I wrote ages ago) is normally meant to cover exactly these types of expenses, along with furniture and various incidentals. But if you are not moving abroad on a package, you’ll need to consider the financial impact of this separately.
The bottom line: Unless an electrical is clearly marked as operational in the range of 110v-240v, don’t bring it over. And remember that the situation will repeat itself when you decide to repatriate.
One other thing mentioned elsewhere, which is likely not to get enough consideration, is the matter of passport renewals. As stated in that article, unless your passports have several years left on them, consider getting brand-new ones for everyone before leaving. Especially, if you plan to travel extensively.
Something that has never been mentioned before by me is the exit strategy. It is not applicable to expatriates on a defined-length assignment, with return relocation provisions built into the package. Nor is it applicable to anyone who considers the overseas move permanent. But for anyone like us, moving for an indeterminate period, but with a fair potential of returning, this should be a key consideration.
My Father was the only person who tried to emphasize the coming-back considerations of our relocation when we held extended family deliberations. I – shortsightedly and foolishly, I have to admit, – more or less dismissed his concerns. Coming back will be much easier, I reasoned. We have a strong base of support in the States, we will have temporary accommodations with the relatives even in the worst-case scenarios, we’ll come back to the area that we know quite well, and so on. As far as work would be concerned, I’m fairly accomplished in my field; were my employer not interested in relocating me back when the time came, I’d simply quit, move back on my own accord, and find another job in a short period of time.
Two words for you: Financial crisis. Something that I entirely not counted on in mid-2006 when making a decision to relocate.
For all my confidence and faith in my abilities, I am certainly not very eager to take the risk of looking for a job while willingly being out of work. And I doubt that I can effectively find a position of the suitable kind remotely; transatlantic trips for interviews do not sound too enticing when the prospects are vague. At present, I am gainfully employed and reasonably well remunerated, but with no open route to finding a position in the States within the company. Until conditions improve, the only rational course of action for me seems to be “sitting tight”.
The problem with that is, on personal level, we have been ready to make the return trek home for a while now.
I have little doubt that the excitement and the complicated logistics of a relocation would push considerations of the return into “let’s not think too much about that now” bucket for almost anyone. That’s what happened to me. In hindsight, I should have not agreed to any package that did not spell provisions for coming back, given that we privately had little doubt that our expatriation would be for a limited period.
Your mileage will obviously vary, but you will be wise not to repeat my mistakes.