Ask the Expat
Taking a Fact-Finding Trip before Moving Abroad
By Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Editor
Moving to another country is a big step that should not be taken lightly. There are many issues to consider. Much research must be done in order to ensure that you are making the right decisions. The most important decision is your choice of where to move. There are many unknown factors and questions about living abroad that cannot be answered by research alone, no matter how much time you spend gathering facts and information. The best way to assure that you are choosing the right destination for your overseas move is to take a fact-finding trip to the country that most interests you.
If you move overseas temporarily for study or work for up to a year, a fact-finding trip is not vitally important. After all, your stay abroad is limited and you know that you will return home after your study period or work contract ends. But for those with a long-term goal to live abroad, it is essential to check out the country of your choice before making the final move.
Getting a Sense of Daily Life Abroad
A fact-finding trip allows you to get an idea of daily life in your host country and you can explore first-hand all aspects of local life. When I went to Brazil on a yearlong student exchange, I had not been to Rio de Janeiro before. If I had known beforehand that I would have to go on a daily hour-long ride on a crowded bus to get to my university, I might have opted for a smaller city or a different living arrangement. I also had no idea that I would live on a major thoroughfare in the Copacabana neighborhood, where the constant traffic noise and honking was almost unbearable. On a fact-finding trip you will be able to explore these details of daily life and make a well-educated decision about where to move.
Carefully Plan Your Fact-Finding Trip
For a successful trip, you should carefully plan your itinerary and activities. If you have an employment contract and know where you will be working, you can limit your trip to one location, but if you are moving abroad to retire, open a business, or buy property, I suggest visiting several cities or towns that interest you. Take time to research primary necessities such as housing, banking, shopping, communications, employment or business opportunities, transportation, and the cost of living. Visit a rental agency to find out about the types apartments or homes available to rent and how much they cost. Ask how easy it is to have utilities connected and how to get a telephone and internet access.
It is important to picture yourself living in the places you visit. Pay attention to all the little details of daily life. Sometimes we miss the small things the most after moving abroad, since it is often minor activities and habits that give us pleasure in our day-to-day lives. Consider your own way of life and find out if you can pursue the interests and activities that are important to you. Carefully explore different neighborhoods to find a part of town where you might enjoy living. Consider the proximity of commercial areas, parks, schools, public transportation, and entertainment venues. If you like physical activities, find out about local fitness centers, sports clubs, and available outdoors activities. If you enjoy reading, check out the local bookstores and libraries. If you play a musical instrument, find out if there is a local music scene where you might fit in. Moving overseas does not mean that you have to deprive yourself of your favorite hobbies, activities, and lifestyle. By exploring several locations you will be able to determine which one best suits your own financial, business, social, and cultural needs.
Observe, Explore, and Learn From Local Life As Much As Possible
It is also important to explore the local culture and way of life of the locals. Mingle with the locals as much as possible to find out how well you get along and how easy it is to make local contacts. If you know of any expatriate clubs or organizations, it is a good idea to contact them so you can meet other foreigners who already live there. They can share their experiences with you and provide important insights into local life as a foreign resident. If you don’t yet speak the local language, pay attention on how you get by speaking only English. Do you perceive the language barrier as a major isolating factor? Then you might want to consider taking a language course for some time before you make the move. The most beautiful destination is only half as pleasant, if you are not able to communicate with the locals.
How Long Should the Trip Be?
How long your fact-finding trip should be depends largely on your available time and budget, but also on how many places you plan to visit. Ideally, you should be able to spend three weeks to a month in the country of your interest, so that you have enough time to visit several locations and learn about the facts of daily life, meet the locals, and do the necessary research. When is a good time to go? That depends in part on the local climate. Since you will be exploring many different cities, towns, and neighborhoods you will probably spend a lot of time walking around, so it might be a good idea to travel at a time of year when the weather is dry and pleasant. Cold or rainy weather, or excessive heat can stifle your efforts to explore the local surroundings, and you might have to spend more time inside than you would like.
After your return, take some time to absorb all your impressions, and do not jump to conclusions right away. Let some time pass before making a decision. That way you have a more distanced and therefore objective view of your discoveries and experiences. If after a few months you still have the same positive view of the country you visited, then it may be time to get serious and start planning your move in earnest.
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 email@example.com .
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.