The idea of making that big leap—a move to a new country—is exciting and shiny and full of possibilities. Many of us yearn for adventure—or at least daydream about leaving our humdrum life behind and starting over in a new place. (Usually with a new wardrobe, slimmed down figure, fewer wrinkles, and more money—hey, it’s a daydream!) But for many, the reality of a new country causes those dreams to crash and burn. You can prepare for a smooth(er) transition by asking yourself these questions.
#1: How is my health?
I’m starting with this one because I worked on cruise ships and I saw too many people finally realize their dream of taking a cruise only to run into health issues that limited their enjoyment. When you move to a new country, you leave behind your doctors and a health care system you have learned to navigate. You will need to learn the ins and outs of your new country’s system, and you might need to do so in another language.
If you have had a major illness or have a chronic condition, you need to spend time investigating your new country’s health care system. You might need to have private insurance. Your private insurance might exclude your pre-existing condition…or it may not. Many expats plan on using the public health care system in their new country. Once you gain residency, you probably can. But you will find there is a cultural aversion to having immigrants come to a country and immediately take advantage of a system they have not paid into, particularly if those immigrants are seen as financially well-off.
Countries with socialized medicine usually have a parallel private system. In Portugal, private health care premiums are a fraction of US health care costs and the Portuguese health care system is ranked higher than that of the US.
Do bring copies of your medical records as well as prescriptions with you. Pre-fill at least 90 days worth of any medications and supplements you need. Your first few months in a new country are spent getting set up, finding your new doctors, and learning your way around. You don’t want to worry about running out of an important medication in your first month or two.
#2: How will I make money?
Many retirees move to a new country because they can live more cheaply there. Social Security was never meant to provide a full-time income, yet most people now retire without a pension (remember pensions?) and not much in savings.
Do you know how much you will need to live in your new country? Articles tout how cheap things are, but the reality is often different. Yes, I can rent a house for €400 a month, but it would be out in the country, so I would need a car. It won’t have heat (few houses here do), so I will need space heaters which will crank my electric bills in the winter. My wifi might be spotty and I depend on wifi to make a living. I have yet to find a charming lunch spot where I can have a gourmet meal and a bottle of fantastic local wine for under €10. Don’t believe everything you read in the glossy magazines.
If your idea of retirement includes a country club lifestyle, daily golf and tennis, and a social whirl, that’s going to cost more than the average budgets you will find. It won’t cost as much as the same lifestyle in the States, but you will need more than Social Security income.
Work out a budget and then add 50% for good measure. If you don’t need it, great. If you do need it, you’ll be glad it’s there.
You will spend more when you first arrive because you are setting up household—getting a new phone and phone service, setting up cable/wifi, deposits, perhaps buying a car plus insurance, etc. The bed sizes are different here so you will need new linens. If you rent a place that’s not furnished, you’ll need to buy furniture as well as outfit your kitchen with pots, pans, dishware, glassware, cutlery, not to mention restocking all your food staples. Even if you rent a furnished place, you will end up buying extras to make your place feel more like home.
If you can live on your retirement income alone, you are all set. If you’re not yet retirement age or need to supplement your income, you may have had the idea of picking up a job, either a small part-time job or a full time job. Either way, if you’re working in your new country, you will most likely need a visa that covers working. In addition, you will need to pay taxes in your new country and you may be in a situation where you are taxed in the US as well.
The IRS system in the US is a labyrinth. Don’t expect your new country’s system to be any better. Some countries have reciprocal arrangements that avoid or limit double taxation. Find out how your income will be treated and budget for extra taxes and paying a local accountant to handle them.
Next ask yourself, if things go wrong and I can’t earn a living, do I have the money to either sustain myself there or get back home? I have friends who spent a year traveling around the world. They saved their money for their trip and they also put aside about $25,000 (this was the early 90s) to re-start their lives once they returned home. They knew it might take several months to find jobs, that they would need a place to live, cars, etc. They planned for their return as well as their trip. You should, too. Which brings us to…
#3: How permanent is my move?
Some people move overseas with the idea of “trying it out.” That’s smart. Their time frame might be six months or six years. Others pack up their lives with no intention of going back.
This question brings with it a number of sub-questions.
Should I rent or buy? If you’re not sure you’re going to stay, definitely rent. In fact, I’d say start by renting, unless you’ve already put in time in your new town and have established connections there. I see a lot of people buying a house or apartment when they move to a new country and then discovering that they like another area better.
Some people have the idea of buying a place now and renting it out until they make their big move. Or they plan to rent out their first place when they move to their next (preferred) place. Being a local landlord is tough. Being 4,000 or more miles away from your rental property is a headache and a half. Yes, you can get a property management company. That may or may not go smoothly. You will have taxes (income and property) and responsibilities. Landlords need deep pockets. If something breaks in your house, you might be okay with having to wait to fix it. That doesn’t fly when you have tenants. Tenant/landlord laws can vary widely state to state and city to city. Throw in another country and it’s a whole new ballgame.
Will you need a car? If you’re within walking distance to stores, restaurants, and service providers, you probably won’t. You might want a car to explore or just for convenience. If you live outside a city, you might need a car or there might be reliable train service. I use Uber and Bolt, which are pretty good, but there are times when there are no cars available in my area. In the bigger cities, you probably won’t have a problem.
You might get by with a bicycle or a scooter. You can rent a car if you want to take an exploratory trip. There are many options available to me in Portugal. There might not be as many options available in other countries.
How will you get all your stuff over here? Will you put things in storage in the States while you decide if your move is permanent? Check out storage pricing. I have the smallest storage space available in my area—a five foot by five foot air conditioned cubicle—that runs about $60 a month. That’s over $700 a year. Most people will need larger spaces.
I arrived in Portugal with a large and small suitcase, a Nantucket bag, and my computer bag. Many people arrive with well over a dozen suitcases and boxes, plus their pets, bicycles, golf clubs, and, most likely, many items that they will soon discover they did not need. Shipping entire households is expensive. Many people use cargo containers or crating companies. Your stuff can be held up in customs which will bring about additional charges and sometimes incredibly high storage fees. I can bring the rest of my stuff over here for about $2,000. That’s pretty much the very least I can get away with. My decision now is whether or not I want to bring it or if I would like to bring it a bit at a time with each trip back and forth.
#4: Will I find a comfort level living among strangers?
Moving anywhere is tough. You’re starting a new life and you may not know anyone. If you’re moving to a country where English is not the official language, do you know the language? Or, is English spoken by so many people there that learning a new language isn’t necessary? In Portugal, most of the younger people (under 45 or so) speak some English. While they apologetically say their English isn’t very good, I am so impressed by and appreciative of their fluency. But I also know that it is rude of me to depend on their good graces.
If you don’t speak the language, how will you feel not knowing what people are saying all the time? Did the loudspeaker on the train just call your stop? What did she just say is in that dish? How much did the groceries total up to? (Full Disclosure: I just use my debit card from my local bank—I never know what my grocery total is until I see the receipt. However, I am catching the amounts a little better these days.)
I not only need to learn Portuguese, I want to learn Portuguese. I want to know what people are saying, not just to me, but to each other. I need to be able to communicate with the people at the local hospital or DMV or Finanças office. Not knowing the language slows down my ability to actively engage in my community. I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here in my little village—that was a given. While people are very kind and many speak English, I will stick out less when I speak their language. It’s a goal.
Can you adapt to a different culture? As a woman, I am well aware that in some countries, women are very much second class citizens. In other places, like the US, women are second class citizens but we all pretend that’s not the case. (That means we can swear like sailors and wear pants, but we still don’t earn as much as men.) Navigating those differences is a lesson in understanding subtleties. Portugal is very forward-thinking but it is also traditional in some ways. I need to respect the culture here and I am working very hard to curb my swearing. (Though I did hear a German woman swear yesterday. I felt very European when her frustrated “Scheisse!” came floating up to me. Tee-hee!) There are many religious holidays and traditions that expats would call “quaint.” It’s not a photo op for your social media accounts. It’s a part of life here. You need to be willing and able to adapt to a new culture. Don’t expect an entire country to adapt to you. You will be disappointed.
#5: Do I know anyone there? Can I find a support system?
I moved to Portugal not knowing a soul. I followed one woman on social media who made videos about moving to Portugal and I think I belonged to one expat group on Facebook. I am an introvert, a self-contained unit. But when you’re in a new place, you need to build a network.
Can I make friends easily? (Even introverts need friends.) People complain that it’s hard to make friends as an adult. You build social networks through work and through your community. In a new country, expat groups on social media can be lifelines. They host Meetups, they have local news, people reach out to each other. But you also want to have local friends—that’s part of the whole moving to a new country experience.
Can I self-motivate to get out and meet people? I am shy but as an adult and as a business person, I have managed to come up with enough conversation to make it through a lunch or dinner with a minimum amount of awkwardness. My problem is getting my butt out of my comfy apartment and taking the time to meet people. Every time I do, I am rewarded with interesting conversation and flat-out fun. When I find myself in my introvert rut, I actively remind myself that the people I am meeting here are more often than not smart, interesting, and kind.
#6: What are my expectations?
Whatever your expectations of your move to a new country, lower them. I was very disappointed to discover that I did not automatically drop twenty pounds because the food supply chain was healthier. (It is. I just seem to like pastries too much.) If you’re expecting a life of luncheons and golf, you can probably make that happen. If you dream of sitting in the sun, watching the boats on the water, you can probably make that happen. Hey! Wait! What about lowering expectations?
These things can happen. They do not automatically happen. List out the things that are deal-breakers if you don’t have them. List out the things that are nice to have. Understand that you will not get everything that you want.
Moving to a new country doesn’t fix a broken relationship and it may well be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. You will most likely not glide seamlessly into your new life. Your first few months, maybe even the first year will be confusing and you will spend a lot of times figuring out simple things like, “Where the hell is baking soda?”
Expect to be frustrated. A lot. A year into this, I still run into walls. Yesterday I needed to go to the grocery store. (I’d put it off for three days.) I couldn’t get an Uber. (And when you can’t get an Uber here, you can’t find a Bolt, either.) I was tired. I was frustrated. I actually wanted to cry. At that point, I could have said, “Screw it. I’ll go tomorrow,” but I already had a bra and real pants on. So I tried again. I connected with an Uber driver who waited for me at the store so I wouldn’t have to go through the same exercise to get a ride back.
Things will be different. Different from your previous life and different from what you expected. Some things will delight you. Some will not. Making a list of your expectations will help you to manage them. And they may help you with this last question.
#7: The Big One: Why Do I Want to Move to a New Country?
Not to sound like your mother, but no one picks up and moves to a new country for no reason. What’s yours? Do you want to experience a different culture? Do you want a new base of operations to explore the world? Do you want to “get the hell out of Dodge” or shake up your life? Do you need an affordable place to live? Did you visit and fall in love with the area? Do you need a healthier climate?
These are all valid reasons for moving. Many times we move for a combination of reasons. Sit down and think about why you are moving and particularly, why you are moving to a specific country. Write down all the reasons. Type it up. Make it fancy or pretty if you want. Because at some point you are going to wonder why the hell you are doing this. (I am laughing as I say this.) Take out your list and look at it. You may find that you have strayed from your primary reason for making this life-changing move. It’s a way to keep you on track.
I moved mainly because I wanted an affordable base to explore Europe. But my first year was spent in COVID lockdowns and really, getting established. I finally got to travel a bit in my eleventh month here. This year I will travel more, COVID permitting. I chose Portugal based on more than having an affordable base of operations to travel. If that had been my only reason for moving, my first year would have been a total loss. But I also wanted to live in Europe to experience it as a resident, not as a tourist. I wanted to learn about other cultures and other ways of doing things. Travel is just one part of it.
Everyone has their reasons. What are yours?
Sometimes things take longer than we expect. Scratch that. Everything will take longer than you expect. The mechanics of the move, visas, passports, finding your new home, settling in. But you can help yourself make the move to a new country by asking these questions and taking the time to fully answer them.