Ask the Expat
How Friendly is Your Host Country to Expatriates?
By Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Editor
My column often explores practical issues concerning expatriates and those interested in moving abroad, such as visas, working, housing, banking, retirement, economic and political considerations, etc. But there are also other very important factors expatriates should keep in mind when choosing a future foreign residence. It is not only essential for expatriates to learn about the practical aspects of life in their host country, but they should also find out if they would actually enjoy living in the country of their interest and how well they get along with the locals. Some cultures are traditionally more closed to outsiders while others are very welcoming. This does not mean that you will be discriminated against, but it may prove harder to make friends and you could remain a relative outsider. Some countries have a culture similar to your own, while others are so different from the Western way of life that it is very difficult for expatriates to adapt.
While there is an increasing amount of practical information for those wishing to move abroad, it is far more difficult to find advice about which countries are the friendliest towards foreign residents and those that make expatriates feel most welcome. However, one survey conducted last year for HSBC (The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Ltd) addresses these important questions. 2,155 expats living in 48 countries across four continents were asked to participate in 3-part surveys covering financial and material considerations, schooling and care of their children, and the overall experience of living in a foreign country. For the “Expat Experience” section, survey participants were asked to describe their experience and rate their host country in four areas:
- Did they make friends with people from the local population?
- Did they join a local community organization such as a religious group or sports club?
- Did they learn the local language?
- Did they buy property in their host country?
According to the published survey results, Germany ranked number one overall in this category, followed by Canada, Spain, and France. Canada was ranked the easiest country in which to make friends with the locals, and Germany ranked first among countries where expatriates go on to learn the local language. Belgium and Spain were also countries where expatriates blended well into the local culture and learned the local language. The survey no doubt reflects the overseas experience of the bank’s largely affluent clientele, but it still raises important questions about the quality of life for all expatriates: In which countries can expatriates easily become part of a local community and feel integrated? Making local friends is clearly an important step towards feeling at home in your host country, and so is learning the local language and becoming involved in a community group or club. I have met many expatriates all over the world who lead completely isolated lives. Some expats speak the local language badly or not at all, while others often have only other expatriates as social contacts.
The best way to find out how “friendly” a country is toward expatriates is to visit and explore the local culture before you move there. During a trip to check out a potential new home, check out the local social scenes, such as cafés, bars, restaurants, social clubs, and public events such as festivals to determine if it will be easy for you to meet the locals and make friends. Picture yourself living there and going about your daily activities and try to imagine how well you would fit in with the locals. When I lived in the Brazilian Amazon for a year, I worked at a coffee plantation and on an agro-forestry project. Although my Brazilian girlfriend and her family were well educated and we shared similar values and interests, my daily work routine with farm hands and day laborers was quite a challenge. I spent most of my day with people with whom I had very little in common. I soon longed for cultural activities, social venues, and engaging conversations. I had completely underestimated the cultural isolation I would suffer at the Brazilian frontier. To avoid this type of culture shock and isolation it is important to make a realistic assessment of the local population and culture. Be honest with yourself about how well you think you would be able to adapt to local life and how welcoming the locals are toward foreigners.
To find out more about the HSBC survey, visit: www.offshore.hsbc.com/1/2/international/how-can-we-help-you/expat-explorer.
Author's note: This column has an interactive format, and readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the Transitions Abroad Webzine. If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Volker Poelzl is a frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.