Here’s What You DO have to be
You don’t have to be brave to move abroad. (Okay, maybe a little.) There are other traits that you need much more than courage if you’re going to make the leap to living overseas. As it turns out, the better you are at these, the less courage you need because you’ll feel like you know what you are doing. You won’t, but you’ll feel better about it. Kidding! Sort of.
So, what do you need to be?
Paperwork: Moving to a new country takes a lot of organizing. The paperwork of applying for a residency visa seems overwhelming while you are doing it, and when it’s done, you’ll wonder why you thought it was so hard. It’s because it’s a new process for you and every step is unknown. While I had a checklist for my Portuguese D7 visa, there were things I had to figure out. For example, I needed to send in a “Certified Copy” of my passport. What the heck is a certified copy? How do I get it certified? It turns out that I just needed to make a color copy of my passport (the picture page), and have a notary stamp it. (For the record, Amscot and bank notaries can only stamp certain types of documents. Find a regular notary.) It was simple… once I figured out what they were asking for. The expat groups on Facebook have lots of advice on every step of the process.
I didn’t bring a birth certificate with me. I had my passport and driver’s license and I just wasn’t thinking that far back into my past. I haven’t needed it so far, but it later occurred to me that maybe I should have a copy. Having digitized copies of most documents will probably get you through—you don’t need to carry paper files of everything in your life. (Having things like five years of tax returns on a back up drive would be handy. Just sayin.)
Meds: You need to think ahead about what you will need. Get copies of all your prescriptions from your doctors. Get your medical records. Try to get 90 days of any medications you will need. The first few months are a blur of setting yourself up, getting insurance, figuring out where to buy groceries, learning your way around. You don’t want to be stressing about getting an important prescription refilled before you have figured out who your new doctor is.
Clothing: I lived in Florida for 30 years. Portugal gets a bit chilly, especially at night. I didn’t have a warm coat or a lot of sweaters. I brought my fleece and some sweats, knowing I would buy more once I was here. I didn’t need to bring three coats, five sweaters, two sets of sweats, and every pair of socks I owned. I do wish I had brought more than one pair of fuzzy socks. That oversight has been rectified.
I thought that everyone in Europe would be much better dressed than me. (Well, actually, most people are better dressed than I am.) I didn’t bring a lot of clothes because I figured I would need to buy clothes there to level up and blend in. If you’re moving to Paris or Milan, you will need to level up. I live in a fishing village. We all walk around in jeans and athleisure wear and nobody is trying to impress anyone. The ladies, as ladies do everywhere, dress better than the men. Some wear heels. Most of us are in running shoes. Most of the sidewalks and many of the streets are cobblestone. Walking in heels on those stones spells sure death for me. I will leave high heels to the more nimble.
Do Your Research. People moving to a new country ask a lot of questions that can be answered by a simple Google search. What’s the weather like in February? (Google it.) How much is it to rent a two bedroom apartment in Lagos? (Google it.) Can you drink the water? (Don’t get me started.) We live in an age where information is at our fingertips. Misinformation is also at our fingertips. Learning how to research involves knowing how to evaluate the source of that information. Anyone can put a video on YouTube and make all sorts of claims. You might prefer to get your information from peer reviewed studies or sites that have credibility.
Organize your money. Money solves a lot of problems. Forgot something? Buy it here. Your new apartment doesn’t have heat? (Welcome to Portugal.) Buy a couple of space heaters. Whatever you have budgeted for your initial expenses, set aside a little more. A lot of people move to a new country and have just the bare minimum necessary to get their visa approved. You don’t want to be in that situation. If the country requires that you have income of $1,000 a month and $8,000 in savings, then increase those numbers by 20% or more. You don’t want to be scraping to pay bills or afraid you’re going to get kicked out of the country if you can’t show the necessary reserves. When it comes to money, more is better. No matter where you live.
Set up online/automatic payments for your ongoing bills. I’ve been paying my bills online for years. I set up all my recurring business expenses to go to one credit card and each month I pay it off. My few stateside personal bills are automatically debited from my Florida account. I learned how to transfer money via Wise once I was here and had my bank account set up. You now need to have your bank account set up before your visa is approved. It’s a pain in the neck to do from the States but it can be done. If you’re taking a scouting trip to your new country, try to set it up when you’re in country. Check to see what you will need to have in place before you leave the US for your trip. It can take a few days to a few weeks to get your Portuguese NIF (individual tax ID number) which you will need to open a bank account. It’s easy to do that from the States using an online service like NIFOnline or Bordr. Opening a bank account long distance is not nearly as easy.
Have a plan going in. Set up where you are going to live, whether you buy a house, rent, or use short term rentals like Airbnbs. If you’re not sure where you want to live permanently, choose an area that will be easy for you when you first get there. I chose The Algarve because it was touristy which meant that most people spoke some English. I did not go to a small village in the middle of the country that lacked the amenities I would need, like a grocery store and restaurants within walking distance, and where few people spoke English. If you’ve never lived “off grid” and that is your goal, you might want to get the lay of the land and live on the grid before you make that second jump. Will you need a car? Getting a car is another learning curve that involves registration, insurance, inspections. How long is your US driver’s license valid after you officially become a resident? How do you get a Portuguese (or whatever country) license? Try to keep your plan as simple as possible, at least for the first six, maybe twelve months. You need time to acclimate. Some of the things you thought you wanted might change. Have a plan that makes allowances for that. Flexibility is key.
Be Willing to Leave “Things” Behind
One of the hardest things for people to do is to pare down their belongings. Many “things” represent events and times in our lives that are important to us. But some things don’t. We accumulate a lot of stuff with each passing year. Keep the stuff with true sentimental value. Get rid of anything that you can easily replace. (Yes, I’m thinking of all that Pyrex that I somehow thought I needed to keep.)
I came to Portugal with one big suitcase, one carry-on suitcase, my computer case and, because my flight had been delayed by a week, a Nantucket bag with the necessities I had picked up that week.
I was shocked when I saw all the Facebook photos of expats arriving at various airports with multiple suitcases—sometimes as many as twenty. It turns out it is much cheaper to pay for extra bags than it is to ship stuff. I was miffed that I had to pay extra because my big suitcase was overweight. Now I would recommend that you keep your suitcase within the weight limits and pay for an extra bag. You can bring more stuff for the same price.
There are “things” you can bring, but they make no sense to bring them. First of all, the electrical grid is different and the plugs are different. The only thing I have that runs on a US-style plug is my laptop. That gets plugged into a converter. (A friend gave me two of those and they have been lifesavers.)
You will wear different style clothing here. You can buy hairdryers and kitchen appliances and linens, fabulous dishes and Italian cutlery. It’s a new life. For about the same price as shipping everything, you can buy new.
I donated as much of my stuff as I could bear and managed to get everything I own into a small, five foot by five foot, air conditioned storage unit. I didn’t have any furniture to store. If you are not sure that living the expat life will be for you, I recommend storing your stuff. If you own a house and feel comfortable renting it out for a year or two while you make sure you will make the full transition, do that.
I moved with the knowledge that if worse came to worse and I didn’t like it here, I could move back. I have also learned the cheapest way to ship things over here when I am ready. But a year later, I don’t want to bring all that stuff here. I don’t miss most of it. I like not having a lot of belongings to worry about. It’s very freeing to have room in your closets and drawers. Also, the less stuff you have, the easier it is to organize.
Be Open to New Ways of Doing Things
When I lived in Florida, we had a lot of transplants and “snowbirds”—retirees who spent their winter months in sunny Florida and went back up north for the rest of the year. We got very used to hearing “That’s not how we do it back in [insert any northern state]” to which we would roll our eyes and mutter, “Yeah. Well, you’re in Florida now, Bucko.” Okay. I was probably the only who added Bucko.
Different places do things differently. That’s kind of the deal. If you want everything to be the same as it was “back home” then stay back home. Be happy.
I have had to relearn all sorts of stuff. I was already familiar with packing my own groceries thanks to Aldis. I don’t leave the house without a couple of reusable shopping bags now. I automatically look for the little ticket machine in banks, post offices, doctors’ offices, etc. (Think of the little ticket machines at the deli counter but these have a touchscreen with options.) I still don’t know what most of the options are. I click on the option that looks about right, wait until my number is called and then find out if I guessed right or not. Sometimes I have to go back, take a new number, and start again. Eventually I will be able to choose the right ticket type, just as I am now able to navigate the ATM in Portuguese.
Some of the “new ways” are just different versions of the old ways. People complain about government bureaucracy and how slowly things get done here. Have you ever dealt with the SBA? Or the IRS? DMV? Nothing moves fast in government, I don’t care what country you’re in. (Though I will say the US Embassy in Lisbon is on top of stuff—just my experience.)
People (Americans) seem particularly upset that they have to pay bank fees here. They are used to free checking. My bank fee is around $10 per month. If I need a teller for something, I may have to pay a fee. If I want to take out more than €300 from my bank, I go to the ATM, print out the equivalent of a counter check/receipt for the amount I want, then take it to the teller who will complete the transaction at no extra charge. You can buy insurance through your bank. I’m good with that. I probably pay a little more per month than if I went through an independent broker, but the convenience of not having to navigate insurance (something that is hard enough to do in English) was worth it to me. For the record, my health insurance premium, with dental, is about $150 a month. It was over $900 a month (with a $3,500 deductible) in the US. An extra $5 or so doesn’t faze me in the least.
You won’t find some of the things that are readily available in the US. I now use PiriPiri instead of Louisiana Hot Sauce for my chicken wings. I buy my bread fresh from the bakery next door. I’m in a smaller town so, while the grocery stores have some prepared foods, you don’t get the buffet of ready-to-eat foods here that you do in the States. Eggs aren’t refrigerated. There is shelf stable milk and cream. (Still not used to that.) If you like yogurt, you have found your nirvana.
You won’t find bottles of Ibuprofen and other over-the-counter medications on the shelves. You go to the pharmacy or the pharmacist at the grocery store and ask. Ibuprofen here is in 400mg doses, not the 200 you get in the US. If you have an issue, ask your pharmacist for a recommendation. They are extremely knowledgeable and could save you a trip to the doctor’s—or advise you to get your butt to the clinic straightaway!
Be Okay with Not Knowing
I think this is the hardest one, especially if you’re used to being the one in charge and having your life under control. Everything is confusing when you first arrive, especially if, like me, you don’t speak the language. It’s like going to a new restaurant: Do you seat yourself or is there a hostess? Do you pay at the table or pay a cashier? Where are the restrooms? Will the food be any good?
Now imagine everything you encounter is like that first restaurant visit. But the second time you go to that restaurant, you know to wait for the hostess and you know to pay the server. It’s easier. My favorite little bakery is noisy and confusing, especially in the mornings when they are busy. Now I know when I walk in that it will be noisy and confusing. I also know the ladies who sit at the back table and we wave and say Bom Dia! I know the gentleman who sits with his laptop. And the guy with the bicycle who likes to stand at the counter and drink his coffee. Now the noise and confusion is normal to me because I know to expect it.
Every appliance you use has little symbols on it that you will need to figure out. (Yep. Google helps.) Apparently my microwave also grills. (I still haven’t hit that option yet.) The washing machines have approximately 947 different variations that you can choose from. (I found the one that works for me and I’m sticking with it.) I have a touch screen stove top and I know what degree centigrade I need to set the oven at to bake brownies.
It’s okay not to know something. Everything is going to take more time than you thought. You’re going to make mistakes. Apologize and ask for help. Most people are really nice. (They might laugh at you later, but they will help you.) Thank them profusely. The first words you should learn are “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “Excuse me,” and “Do you speak English?” Good manners, a smile, humility, and a friendly (but not overly-friendly) attitude will work in your favor.
Here’s the good news: The stuff that felt so weird and foreign when you first got here eventually becomes so normal you forget that it ever felt weird. I now look for the little ticket machine when I go in somewhere. I know not to look in the refrigerator section for eggs. I understand that I have to turn the water on close to full force to trigger the tankless hot water heater.
Courage is Often Just Fear in Motion
A lot of fear comes from not knowing what will come next. Two years of living through a pandemic has probably helped you become more familiar with daily uncertainty, whether you wanted that growth experience or not.
I have wanted to live in Europe all of my adult life. I wanted to experience it as a resident, not as a tourist. I wanted to see the places I had only read about or seen in movies. It was definitely a bucket list item. I worked on cruise ships when I was in my thirties and I saw people who finally got to take their dream cruise not being able to enjoy it fully. People would literally have strokes and heart attacks from the late nights, increased activity, rich food, and flowing alcohol. They weren’t physically able to fully participate and enjoy this (expensive) once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The years passed and I saw friends starting to slow down. I started to slow down. People my age were hitting physical walls: cancer, diabetes, pacemakers, and yes, dying. My time for adventuring was running out.
It turns out you don’t have to be brave to move abroad. I was more afraid of dying without seeing Europe than I was of moving. So maybe you just need to be more afraid of NOT doing something than doing it.
I’m not particularly brave. I am definitely not good with new things. I don’t like change. I’m an introvert. Yet I picked up my entire life and moved it 4,000 miles away to a country I had never been to, filled with people who speak a language I don’t understand. In spite of all this, in spite of me being me, I have never been more content. You don’t have to be brave to move abroad. You can always go home again, no matter what Thomas Wolfe says. But if this is something you have always wanted to do, know that you can do this. People do it every day. Why not you?