It's finally happening: After weeks, months, even years of dedication, hard work, and patience, you've been offered an opportunity to live abroad and experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
After you've shared the very exciting news with everyone on your contact list, your Facebook friends, and maybe a stranger or two on the street, the nerves have started to creep in. As thrilling a prospect as it is to pack up all your things and move across the world, the logistics of it — the planning — can be complicated and overwhelming.
But if you start preparing early, you'll find the entire process manageable. To help you begin, we've rounded up nine steps every future expat should take before they leave, wherever the destination or however long the journey.
1. Save as much money as you can.
Consider how much money it costs to move across the country. Now think of how much it will take to get you to the other side of the globe! Costs include but are not limited to: the visa application, plane tickets, international shipments, housing, and emergencies.
The old advice of having six-months worth of savings is a good one — and that should be a minimum when moving abroad. We also suggest researching the exchange rate and the cost of living in your new home, and coming up with a monthly budget plan. Be prepared to pay unanticipated costs your first few months.
2. Apply for or renew your passport.
Before you can apply for a visa, you must have a valid passport. Some countries require you to have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond your final travel date. If you do not have a set return date and your passport expires while you're abroad, you can renew your passport at your local U.S. Embassy or consulate general.
3. Apply for a visa.
First check your new country's government website to see what supporting documentation you will need to send in for your application, which will vary depending on the visa. For example, if you are applying for a student visa in the UK, you will need to provide a copy of your offer letter from the university and proof that you have enough money to support yourself during the course of your studies. You may also need to set up an appointment at a U.S. Department of Homeland Security application support center to submit your biometrics (e.g. fingerprints and photograph).
4. Plan ahead for health care.
When you live abroad, you will inevitability encounter the health care system. Before you go, find out if your current health care provider will cover you while you are abroad. Ask your health care professionals for medical records and get all the necessary immunizations. You can find out which ones you will need here. You will also need to find out if your prescription medications are permitted in the country, and if so, whether they are easily accessible. If not, plan to bring an extra supply with you on your trip.
The U.S. Embassy provides a list of doctors and hospitals in the country you will be living in. Head to your local embassy's website and learn about the available medical resources in the “U.S. Citizen Services” section. Also check the requirements of the country you're heading to: Some countries require foreign residents to be able to fund their own health care, even if the country has socialized medicine for its own citizens.
5. Register with STEP.
Enroll with the U.S. Embassy's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to get the most up-to-date information about your new country's safety conditions. Your enrollment will also help the U.S. Embassy quickly notify you in cases of emergency, whether it is a natural disaster or family emergency.
6. Do your research.
Even if you're relatively familiar with where you're going, you'll need to do a lot of research to plan for the big move and ease your transition into your new home. Among the many questions you should ask yourself and consider:
Shipping vs. Storage vs. Selling
Will you ship your belongings to your new residence, or will you store them in your home country? You'll want to weigh the logistics and costs of each, which can add up to thousands of dollars. You may also wish to sell your belongings if you are making a more permanent move. If you are planning to move abroad with two suitcases and a carry on, find out now where you can purchase must-have items like furniture, bedding, and kitchen appliances and utensils.
Will you drive or is your city accessible by public transit? If you plan to drive, you will want to consider the pros and cons of shipping your car, buying a new one, and renting a car. You may also need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you move (and a new driver's license when you do), depending on which country you live in.
If you are taking public transportation, learn as much as you can about it — bus versus metro, monthly pass versus annual pass — to save money and prevent confusion when you get there.
Get acclimated to the culture before the big move: research the history of your new home and how its government currently operates; read up on its social norms and rules of etiquette; indulge in books and movies that take place in your destination country; and learn a few words and phrases if you are moving to a country where you don't know the language. Researching and understanding the culture (however imperfectly) will help offset culture shock and minimize social faux pas.
7. Contact your bank and phone providers.
The Expat's Manual recommends keeping your current bank account to maintain your credit score and make direct payments for any ongoing bills or outstanding loans. Inform your bank and credit card company of your travel dates, and consider getting an international credit card to avoid foreign transaction fees. You should also research banks in your new city and find out what paperwork you'll need to set up a savings or checking account. It can take a long time to set up an account; even if you cannot get one before you leave, doing something as simple as gathering your paperwork will help simplify the process.
Since international cell phone plans can get costly, we also suggest asking your carrier to unlock your smartphone ahead of your trip. Once you are abroad, you can purchase a SIM card from a local carrier and replace it with the one in your phone.
8. Make copies of important documents.
These include your passport, driver's license, birth certificate, and immunization records. You might need them when you least expect it, and it will make your life much less stressful if you can easily access them.
9. Throw a goodbye party.
Bid adieu to all your friends and relatives for one last hurrah (complete with all your favorite comfort foods), and get excited for the most unforgettable experience of your life. Bon voyage!