Living Abroad: Choosing Your Expat Country
Up until mid-2020, I lived in Valencia, Spain with my wife, son, and dog, having relocated from Oakland, CA in 2018. This is part of a series aimed at helping future and would-be expats make the same life decision. My first post focused on whether the expat life is for you.
They say America is a big place.
The rest of the world is a lot bigger …
Over the last 30+ years, I’ve lived in six states on both coasts of the U.S. I’m from Washington, DC and grew up in Maryland, but California would be the last place I called home before moving abroad. When it finally came to realizing my dream of living abroad and becoming an expat … choosing a new country was a lot more complicated than changing states.
The world is a varied and amazing place. When I first started traveling internationally, I naively assumed most countries were just like America, with different languages and some small changes … like Canada. The truth is the lifestyle, customs, and the million small things that define everyday life vary wildly– to mention the cost of living, job opportunities, and how I would be treated as an American.
After years of traveling, my wife and I finally made the decision to live abroad before it became too late or our son got too old. I’ve talked about making the decision to move abroad before. That was the first step. Now, we needed to figure out where in the world we would make our new home.
If you are considering a move abroad, it’s worth your sanity and livelihood to take the time and choose the right place for you. Picking a place you end up hating will make your life miserable as you fail to adapt and mesh with the culture. Choosing a location where you can’t sustain yourself financially could force to you leave prematurely because of money reasons. Take the time upfront to pick the right place and don’t just base it on the latest episode of International House Hunters.
Don’t worry. While the task of choosing a new country, whether permanent or temporary, can seem daunting, it’s definitely doable and can be fun. Let’s explore how you can find your perfect new country.
Choosing an Expat Lifestyle
When you decide to live abroad you are given the option to radically change your lifestyle. As I come across more and more expats who have moved from their home country, I’ve discovered a varied and wide set of different lifestyles being lived.
Living abroad means different things to different people. Before you start looking for a new home, you need to think about the type of life you want to live.
The International Executive
Finding an international company looking for your skillset is one of the more straightforward lifestyles to adopt abroad. There are plenty of international companies and American companies operating abroad that will relocate you to work for them in another country. You may even find these opportunities with your current employer.
This is a very ‘normal’ lifestyle, just with the added twist of a new country. Important things to consider are areas with a strong job market and a good work visa process.
If the idea of picking just one place to be your home bothers you … don’t. If your goal is to see as many new places as possible and experience the world, then choose the Nomad lifestyle and find a new home every 1-6 months.
The Nomad lifestyle is one of the most adventurous. It requires a level of minimalism and adaptability so you can effectively move often and continue living as seamlessly as possible. Location-independent remote work, savings, or passive income are important since you may not be able to find work locally or obtain a visa to allow it. Indeed is a good place to start your international job search.
The Remote Worker
With technology getting better and more companies offering positions with 100% remote work, you can find a job (or several) which will allow you to live anywhere you want.
Becoming a remote worker is a change in how you work and manage your time. It can offer you great flexibility in where you live along with the benefits and compensation of staying with an American company. Try Remote OK, a remote job search engine, to try finding a remote job.
You can also start a business and become a remote entrepreneur (like myself). The internet has changed what companies look like and how they operate. Just as you can get a job remotely, you can also run your company remotely.
Maybe you just want a chance to live in a new place and do absolutely nothing for a change. Forget what you have heard, but you don’t have to retire forever when you retire. Whether it’s six months or three years, you can live a lifestyle of relaxation and self-improvement in a low-cost locale without the stress of work.
Finding a place where the cost of living works for your finances is important. But, if you have built your assets well and have passive income, maybe you’ve earned a break.
Figuring Out What’s Important to You?
The type of life you want will determine what factors are the most important in deciding your new city and country.
For example, choosing a mini-retirement may mean you need a low-cost area with enough to keep you busy during the day. Becoming a remote executive means you need a city where you can find a good job and continue your career growth. You will need to think through the type of life you want and determine what’s most important to you.
Some things to consider as you look at locations:
Cost of Living: You need to be able to afford your new lifestyle and continue to build wealth. Understanding the cost of living in relation to your income or savings is important to making your move a success.
Weather: Don’t let bitter winters or intense humidity cut your move short. Look at the yearly temperature and rain forecasts before moving.
Language: Whether or not you speak the local language is important. In addition, consider how similar the local language is to English, how many people speak English, and how easy it will be to learn that language. Ordering a shot of Henny is one thing. Trying to discuss a medical diagnosis is another.
Healthcare System: Ensure you can get coverage from the country or that you can afford private health insurance. And make sure the level of healthcare can meet any current and expected medical needs.
Visas: Check to see how hard it is to establish residency in your new country.
Taxes: Moving abroad will qualify you for a $104,100 tax exemption (yes, I said $100k). There are rules to the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and there will be local taxes to pay, so understanding taxes in your new home is important.
Once you have a good understanding of the type of lifestyle you want and the major factors in choosing a country, it’s time to start learning.
Doing the Research
Once you have a vision of your new lifestyle, it’s time to start learning about the infinite number of places to live.
For me, I started by traveling.
Since grad school, I’ve been hooked on international travel. Once living abroad became a goal, I started to use these trips strategically to scout out new places for our eventual move.
As I saw more places, I got a sense for how things varied compared to the U.S. and what I liked and hated. I tried to get more local on my trips to understand day-to-day life and get out of the tourist areas. I would ask people about living there and try to venture around. While on vacation you can also find expat groups or local meetups to get a good idea of expatriate life .
In terms of lifestyle, a full mini-retirement felt boring and my wife shut down my nomadic ambitions early on. So, I began by looking for jobs abroad and looking for places I would like to live and could work remotely. In the end, we became remote workers and entrepreneurs. This factored into the type of country we felt comfortable moving to.
There are a lot of good resources available to help you in your search. These helped a lot to rule out certain countries or regions and give me a glimpse into my new life.
Nomad List is one of my favorite sites for exploring cities. Their search has many filters, like safe for women, fast internet, or mega-cities. You can even read reviews and connect with expats already in a city. It’s a great way to start exploring places without leaving your home.
While produced for basic entertainment, this HGTV show is a good way to get a quick introduction to a lot of different countries. You will hear about the story of some person or family that is moving abroad and follow them as they search for an apartment. The episodes on Valencia actually helped us narrow down neighborhoods and get a better idea of standard apartment amenities.
With the explosion of travel blogging and vlogging, there is a ton of content detailing different experiences abroad. I often would start with “being black in [city]” as I tried to understand how life would be for me and my family. I also found videos highlighting different cities, detailing the apartment hunting process, describing neighborhoods, and all other aspects related to moving abroad.
This specific group is targeted at black women interested in moving to Spain. But, it’s an example of some of the groups and resources you can find. From IG accounts, webinars, guides, or just high-quality blogs, many expats are working to inform and entice others to make the move themselves.
Follow Your Heart, and Give it a Test Run
Even with all the research in the world, at some point, you have to make a decision. At some point, you need to think about what feels right.
After all of my research, applying for jobs, traveling, and talks with friends … my choice was made simple for me. When my wife came around and finally got excited about the move, she told me “Spain or Italy. You choose.”
Spain felt right because I have always wanted to learn Spanish. I knew the cost of living, visas, and other factors would work for our remote lifestyle. She helped make it an easy choice.
After narrowing it down to a country, I used the above resources to discover the city of Valencia. We initially targeted Barcelona, but between a lower cost of living, also having a beach, and speaking Spanish instead of Catalan, Valencia was the right move for us.
Then, we planned a 2 week trip to our future home to ensure it was a good fit for us. We set up meetings with a relocation specialist, toured different neighborhoods, found a daycare we liked, and also found office space. We wanted to really live like locals and ensure we would have access to the important things in our lives.
Before you commit to your new home, go there on a trip. Even if you have been there before, go back and see what’s changed. You will get a head start on finding a neighborhood, meeting others, and understanding what to bring with you.
Once you are there, you will understand if this place is right for you. It will take a lot of work to go from choosing a place to moving if your move is anything like mine.
Are you currently living abroad? Have you been thinking about making a change? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience moving abroad.