The Expat Life – 10 Things you NEED to know

Most people dream of one day working abroad. We have visions of being in a hammock on the beach and feeling the cool trade winds, as we sip Pina Coladas from coconut shells. That’s generally not the case.

Truth be known, expatriate knowledge, skills and resource are generally required in countries that lack those skills, hence some countries having rather strict laws on companies to try and fill the positions with local talent first.

Years ago, it was fair to say that most expatriate assignments were in developing countries, or countries rich in natural resources that needed expert skills for mining or extraction. Things are somewhat different these days, with expat roles becoming part and parcel for most multinational companies and in most industries.

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and moving offshore, then there are a few things you’ll need to consider.

1. The Contract – The contract or the offer, is one of the most important things you’ll need to consider. You can find more information here at negotiating the perfect contract , but these are the main things you should look for.

  • Tax – Tax free is often the lure and the trap for most first time expats. If it is tax free, make sure you check with an international tax advisor on what you may be required to pay in your home country, or what status you need to declare yourself as being to avoid paying tax. Many expats get hit with a large bill and a nasty surprise when they return home to work. If it’s not tax free, find out if you’re provided a taxation consultancy firm as part of your contract and if not, make sure you know which country you’re obligated to pay tax in. For some countries you may be required to pay tax in both.
  • Salary – The salary is important. As the dust settles and you get into the groove of your role, you’ll realize you’re a long way from Kansas, and hopefully you’re being compensated for this.
  • Accommodation – For me and many others with previously burned fingers, this is of PARAMOUNT importance. It should ALWAYS be included in your package. If it isn’t and you’re provided an ‘accommodation allowance’ make sure it covers the actual cost of renting. Do you’re homework, research on the copious amounts of online real estate sites and see if it means you won’t be dipping into your hard earned for a roof over your head. Some of the most unlikely countries can be horrendously expensive to rent in. Why? Its due to basic economics – supply and demand.
  • Medical Insurance – Should be top cover and if you’re posted in the 3rd world and they don’t have international standard local hospitals, make sure they have policies for air lifting you to better hospitals abroad.
  • Bonus – Again, refer to tax and make sure the bonus conditions are also clearly explained. Too many expats get stiffed or short paid on their bonuses and the contracts are usually very ‘flimsy’ from a legal perspective.
  • Flights and relocation – Read the fine print and make sure there are return tickets home each year and they cover the cost of your relocation.

2. The Location – Sometimes you’ll see roles posted in places you’d never dreamed of going and have to refer to the old globe to locate them. Once you’ve found it, make sure you do 2 things. 1) Never rule a place out of consideration because it’s not on your ‘bucket list’ of places to see before you die. Some of the best places to do an expat role are places you may know little or nothing about. 2) Check the political situation and make sure you follow government warnings on travel advice and safety.


3. Contract vs. Permanent – This is the age old ‘expat’ question. Permanent roles abroad are harder to find as these roles generally serve a shorter term purpose, but they do exist. Both have their pros and cons. Contract positions have the draw back of having to find another role if you want to stay on the road. This can mean moving again, difficulty finding another role and also the hassle of starting the process all over again. This is very much a matter of personal preference.

4. Being away from home – Some people struggle with being away from family and friends, and find it too much to deal with. Generally speaking, the homesick feeling passes after six months or so. You’ll always crave being home amongst your friends and family but that is a trade off for living abroad. Just remember, the further you are away from home, the less frequently you are likely to visit.

5. Comfort Friends –  A common thing most people new to the expat life do is gravitate to their own. It’s a way of acclimatizing and making your foreign surroundings a little less foreign. These people often have a few common or shared interests but would never make your friends list in your home city. I’ve coined these people ‘Comfort Friends’. You’ll know exactly what I mean soon enough, and for those who have already been expats, you’re probably smiling as you think of a few of your comfort friends.

comfort friends

6. The Experience – What can I say? The experience is definitely what you make of it. There are good and bad things to every country and every assignment, ranging from bad traffic and limited access to your favorite things, through to wonderful beaches, exotic foods and wonderful neighboring countries you may never have otherwise visited. Go with an open mind, learn to see the beauty in everything and you’ll be richly rewarded, regardless of the location.

7. The Locals – The people are generally the best representation of the country’s culture and almost always the highlight of every expat assignment, so make sure you get to know them. Spend some time learning about their heritage, learn a few words in their language and always sample the traditional foods on offer. If you can’t get an invite to a local house for an authentic meal, then try the street food to get a real taste of the country.

local people

8. Explore – Part of being on an expat assignment is the opportunity to have to explore. Make sure you make the time to explore the surroundings, see the sights and travel around the region. Too many expats throw themselves into the work and don’t make the time to really get the most out of their experience. This is an amazing opportunity to explore your new country and learn to explore things about yourself that you never knew. Make the most of it.

explorer 1

9. The End Game – Always have a goal. This is the single best piece of expat advice I have ever received. We all do it for different reasons. Some to further their career when they get home, some to save money for a house or retirement, some to send money back home to better the lives of their family and friends. ALWAYS have a goal and a reason for doing it, as there are trade offs when you leave your family and friends.

10. Never Look Back – It’s natural for every person to wonder ‘what if’? Or to ask themselves if they made the right decision by making the move. If you have thought about the end goal, sorted out your contract and done your homework on your new country, then whatever you’re feeling or thinking will pass. Make your decision an informed one and you should never look back.

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