Although living in another country can be a great experience and you will spend mornings wanting to pinch yourself when you wake up to a tropical view, it is not always a smooth passage.
You may happily post photos of cocktails on a beach whilst your friends back home shiver and reach for another jumper but not a lot of people talk about the downside of an expat life. It’s not all smooth sailing and when things go wrong, they go seriously wrong. We’ve experienced our fair share of nightmares abroad but there are many more. My flip-flopped toes are crossed that we don’t encounter any more.
Here I share 10 downsides of expat life.
When the economy takes a turn, you might be first on the list to go. In some countries you will earn a decent salary because of the experience and qualifications that you bring to the role. Having an outside skill and global experience can be regarded as an asset but you can suddenly become an expensive liability when a fragile economy takes a down turn. There may not be the safety net of social security and state support that your home country would offer and since your residency is reliant upon your work visa you will be faced with no choice but to leave the country.
When you live abroad, remember that some countries do not even make their own people’s lives comfortable, so you are far down on any list of importance. If you live in a country that is politically unstable there is also a small chance that you will have to leave quickly. No lingering about with shipping quotes and planning. Just pack your suitcase can get out of there. Don’t rely on your Embassy to help you either. They are there for trade deals and visiting politicians.
With Hurricane Irma still very much fresh in our memories, natural disaster is something that can turn your life upside down. You can be left with no home or employment in another country. As with a political unrest situation your Embassy will be pretty much useless and not a great source of help.
Back in 2004 Hurricane Ivan hit the Grand Cayman hard. As the island rebuilt and cleaned up, the expat community were faced with new rules implemented by the government which meant that they had to leave sooner than they had planned.
Fully charge your Kindle, take a back up power charger for your phone, water and a snack as you are off to a government office. You may there be all day, only to be told to fill in a form and come back later with additional information that you were expected to bring but never were told. You finally submit the completed document and then will be subject to the waiting game. What about online applications you may ask. As I wipe away my tears of laughter, I like your optimism!
A lot of visas require a police report from either your home country or the last country you lived in. At one point I needed both. The UK process was a matter of uploading my documents, click to make a payment and press send. It was processed in a matter of days. The Barbados process was not that simple. A few hours in a very crowded room with my completed form submitted, photo taken then told I would have to wait 2 weeks to collect the report. I had to go through the same waiting process to collect the report too.
We personally went through a crazy amount of bureaucracy (with an amount of HR stupidity thrown in) with the visa process in Aruba. Despite initially being told it normally takes 3 months but they can get it done in a month (out right lies) it took nearly a year. When the initial application was rejected we were told “that normally happens”. Buy us a few rums and we’ll tell the whole crazy story. It’s filed under “you can’t make this shit up”.
High Cost of Living
For some countries, a lot of goods and foods will be imported, thus subject to duties and taxes. Which means you can pay a lot more for that punnet of strawberries then you would back home. I’ve almost stopped swearing about the prices in the supermarket. Utilities are often subject to a monopoly, so you have no choice but the one company and the price they charge. There’s no shopping around for the best power deal for your home.
Cars can be incredibly expensive too as they are imported. The import tax for some vehicles means that it can be cheaper for you to ship your vehicle over yourself. Your car requirements will change from wanting a newer model that sits in your drive to one that simply works without breaking down too often.
Family Events & Emergencies
Flying back to your home country can become a luxury. Some expat employee packages will have a flight back home once a year as part of your deal. This is becoming rare now and may vary between countries and professions. The only place we ever had this was Dubai.
You will find it hard to be able attend all family events such as birthdays, marriages and births simply because you cannot just hop on a plane. The cost of flights varies during the year that leaving the country can seem like extravagance. If you need to fly back to your home country for a family emergency at the last minute, it can be difficult to get a flight too.
Re-Establishing a Social Life
Every time you move, you start a new social circle. It can take time to meet people and does not happen overnight. Your social circle can become transient which takes some getting used to. Some expats will have plans of staying a year or two in their new country, some settle down for the long haul. Getting used to saying hello and waving goodbye is a part of expat life that can take a while to adjust to.
On the upside, your social circle widens and you have friends from all parts of the world.
You will have moments when you miss you family and friends. You can yearn for the simplest of things which you cannot get in your new country. Not being able to have your favourite jam at breakfast can suddenly become an important issue with you.
However, with the help of technology you can keep in contact with family and friends now better than the seasoned expats compared to many years ago. And if you want that brand of jam, visiting friends can bring it in or you spend a small fortune with Amazon and customs duty.
As someone who comes from a country with free healthcare you learn that it is something we take for granted. Health insurance is a must abroad and even then, you will still need to pay for drugs and consultation. Not everything will be covered either. The level of equipment available may not be the most recent and if there is anything serious, you need to consider popping on a plane elsewhere for treatment.
If the native language is not your own, it can become a frustrating barrier. You will need a translator and to brush up on your mime skills. Please don’t be one of those people who think repeating yourself louder is the way to translation.
The best advice is always to try to learn the language and at least try a few words, however bad your pronunciation will be (and it will!). Some phrases you will pick up on the way. I still stop myself replying in Arabic when I am asked how I am (one of the few phrases I did learn).
Regardless of the above, the biggest downside of expat life is:
You may never want to return home