Moving around the globe

The international mover's page

If you are planning to move to another country, read on, you may find something useful in this page.

NOTE: I don't have advice or recommendations to offer regarding companies and/or products.

A number of Web sites offer advice on moving (most also offer actual help and services but they charge for that) but these focus usually on same-country moving. Moving to a different country is quite different from just moving two blocks away. Over the last 15 years, I have changed country four times. There are a few things I have learned the hard way (...). I thought I could offer some of my experience in the form of advice, recommendations, etc.
The information I gave is based on my experience only. Individual circumstances may vary a lot so it may be that most of the information I give is irrelevant for you. You may be sent abroad by your company, people take care of everything on both sides, all relocation expenses are covered, this is (almost) paradise; you may be a student or postdoc in the academic world and live on a shoestring budget, or you may just want to try your luck somewhere else. In each case, you will have to prepare your move and adapt to a sometimes very different culture. I hope that you will find something useful in this page. The list below contains several important items. They cover the most basic things you need to know/think about.
This link also has information about moving and living abroad.
I may be able to answer specific questions regarding Switzerland, Australia, Chile, USA, or the UK, just ask me.

The master word: "Planning"

Items 1 and 2 beow concern the preparation of your move. You can start doing that well before moving (say 2 months). This can take time. Furthermore, in the last 2-3 weeks, you are going to be busy with other things (just like any other move). Be prepared to devote most of your time to the move during your last weeks in your home country. You will also want to spend some time with your friends, family, launch a "good-bye party", etc. This also takes time (remember the master word?). Do not expect to start to work in the new country before several weeks. As a rule of thumb, I would say that 4 weeks before and after the moment you travel will be devoted to the preparation of the move/settling in.
The following points tell you what to expect once you are there.

0. Where to go?

Sorry, no help here. It is your choice. The US State Department has some basic information on many (all?) countries here (note that this is not an endorsement of US foreign policy).

1. Visa

Only one advice here: go to the embassy or consulate of the country you are going to. THEY have the information.
Forms, rules, requirements, documents to present, vaccinations, timescales are widely varying from one country to another. You may have to go to the embassy yourself (even if it is 5000 km away) or you may be able to do everything by mail. Usually a preliminary phone call will let you know what the procedure is.
Some countries require a thorough medical examination, including X-rays, vaccinations, etc. Adding to that the fare for the visa itself, this can easily be several hundred dollars for a family.

2. Sending your personal belongings abroad

You need to contact an international mover. Actually you should contact several and ask for quotes. Somebody will come to your house and estimate the volume that you want to send. Once you have several quotes you can choose what corresponds to your needs and budget. Some companies can provide a full service (including packing your stuff, shipping, customs paperwork, delivery to your new house and unpacking) while others provide only a minimum service. You may or may not want to take an insurance. Make sure the quote says exactly what you pay for. Some companies can provide boxes even if you pack yourself. You can do all that sufficiently in advance that you have time to decide what company you want to do business with.
The travel time of your shipment can be anywhere between a few weeks and a few months. Beware that if you send all your household and need your beds in the new house, you may have to sleep on the floor for several weeks... Ask how much time it takes to have your stuff delivered (which is not the same as the travel time. There can be delays caused by customs handling, inspections, etc.).
Upon receipt, inspect everything, make sure nothing is broken, this might be the time where you regret not having taken an insurance.
This is a fairly expensive part of your move. Expect a few hundred dollars if you send only a few boxes with books and your bike, and virtually unlimited amount if you send your whole household with 40+ years of your life, all the furniture, the car, etc.

3. Sending yourself

If that other place is just a few hundred kilometers away, you just hop in the car and a few hours later you are there. But maybe you need to buy a plane ticket. You need to do that well in advance. The mysteries of tickets tarification are such that a one way ticket is probably more expensive than a return ticket (and it will allow you to go back home in case you forgot your toothbrush). Ask your travel agent.

4. Housing

Well in advance, contact your new employer and ask if they can provide any help. Many universities have a "housing office" and they may be able to offer decent housing. Your company may own several houses/apartments and you will be assigned one. It saves a lot of time and trouble if you have a place before arriving there.
If you have nothing lined up, you will probably want to book some hotel or short-term furnished apartment before arriving. You can look on the Web before your move and check on realtors, maybe contact some of them by phone/email. At least you should get an idea of average rental prices, it will allow you to prepare a budget. If you realize that more than half of your salary is going to be swallowed by a landlord, it may be the time when you will have to refuse this otherwise wonderful job offer.
Once there, buy the local newspaper, call realtors, etc. In many places there are free newspapers containing listings of places to rent (or buy if you want to buy straight away). These can usually be found in supermarkets and local stores. Again, ask around if such a newspaper exist in your area.

Furnished or not?

A rule of thumb is that if you are going to stay for more than a year, and assuming you didn't take any furniture with you, it is better to buy second hand furniture than to rent a furnished house. Several countries have second hand furniture shops; you may also be able to buy used appliances (washing machine, fridge, etc.). Ask you future colleagues/employer, somebody you know who lived there, whether it is possible to buy second hand or not. Even if you have to buy some new furniture, you can probably find some basic stuff for an affordable price. Yard sales (or garage sales, moving sales, etc.) are another way of finding cheap furniture (and junk). Here again the local newspapers may have pages of stuff for sale.
If you know that you are there for the long haul, you may consider buying new stuff directly.

If you stay for a year or less, it is probably worth renting a fully furnished house. You will save the trouble of looking for furniture, buying it, then selling it a few months later.

5. Banking/money

Try to contact several major banks in the country where you are going. You may be able to set up an account early on and transfer some money before actually moving. Remember that it is very likely that you will need a fair amount of money in the first few weeks (rent deposit, buy furniture, car, etc.) so it is better to have that money available. You may still have a credit card from the country you just left but sometimes it is not accepted (yes, it does happen). Another way of transfering money is to take traveller's cheques.

Beware that some countries may have restrictions on the amount of money you are allowed to import. Ask the embassy about that.

6. Transportation, car

You may want to take your car with you (although in most airplanes it is not accepted as cabin luggage). Inquire at the embassy about their rules regarding such a case. You may need some mechanical inspection. Check that the fuel your car is running on is easily available.

Buying a car: This is not particularly related to changing country, it also happens even when you don't move. I don't have any professional advice on what to look for, how to distinguish a golden opportunity from a dog but car dealers are the same everywhere in the world, so beware!
Some sites offer some general advice on buying a car, used or new.
Depending on the country, you can have a more or less wide range in the quality of used cars. In some countries, you can have a limited warranty on not-too-old cars, inquire about that.
Some form of insurance is usually needed. Sometimes you will not even receive the registration plates without paying a third party insurance. It is also advised to cover your car for various damages (accidents, scratches, glass damage, earthquakes — I lived in Chile — vandalism, etc.). Before leaving your country, get a translation of your local driver's license, or an international license (these are usually valid for one year). You will probably have to pass a new road test once you're there but an international license will give you time to breathe and leave this issue aside for the first few months. Once you've settled, pass the road test and get a new license. This will often serve as a form ofID.

Public transportation may be efficient where you go, and even if it is not so efficient, it may be better than being stuck in traffic everyday (I wouldn't think of owning a car if I lived in Paris for instance). Again, ask your future colleagues what they do, what they recommend (e.g. is there a parking at your work place, is it accessible by bus).

7. Schools

Public or private school? This is both a matter of taste and budget. It also depends on your perception of the "quality" of the schools. Again, ask your colleagues, what they do, recommend.
I do think though that it is a great experience for children to learn another language. And there is no better way that to immerse them in a school where teaching is in the local language. You may want to look for a school where teaching is in your home language however. That can make the transition easier for your children. Also, if you know you are going to stay for a short period (say 6-12 months) and then go back to your home country, it may be possible for your kids to follow the school programme of your country (e.g. I know it is possible to live anywhere in the world and follow the French public school programme). However, if you know you'll stay for a long time, it's better to have them learn a new language as quickly as possible.

8. Health insurance, hospitals, etc.

Again, health coverage and medical insurance practices vary a lot from country to country (how many times did I say that in this page?). It may be that you live in a country that has a national, state-sponsored health insurance, and some fraction of your salary goes into it every month. In this case you may have just nothing more to do. You may have the possibility of considering private health insurance, covering things that are not covered by the national system (e.g. dental, chiro, etc.). If you can afford it, why not, it's your money. On the other hand, you may have to take a private insurance because there is no other form of coverage. Ask your colleagues, shop around, etc.

9. Adjusting to a new environment, starting a new social life

You can probably find some travel books on the country you are going to, some facts and figures, pictures, etc. However this will never give you an idea of what everyday life is in that country. Travel books are not intended for people who move, and it is the reason why I decided to put this (sketchy) page together. You may want to learn a little bit of the language before leaving. It helps a lot to be able to communicate because you'll have to do a lot of that in your first weeks there. Unless you have a friend who is willing to act as an interpreter and waste hours accompanying you every time you have to go out, you'd better learn a bit. That is also one of the first things you want to do once there, take some classes.
When we have lived in some place for many years, there are things we take for granted. Summer is coming? Organizing a barbecue next Sunday? Call a few friends! Well, in a new country you may have no friends, just a few colleagues that you hardly know. You will need to start a social life from scratch. Kids are a good channel, you'll meet other parents at school. Get involved in community organizations, go out, join a fitness club, take music classes, whatever. You need to create opportunities to meet new people. Little by little, you will go from few acquaintances to some good friends, although it takes time, unless you are a social beast.
People tend to congregate according to interests and origins. You may find a group of people from your home country that holds regular meetings in your area. That is also a way to get started, and most of them will have been through the same exercise of moving/adjusting before, there you will certainly find a few people ready to help. The embassy or consulate of your home country may have information on these groups.

In general, be prepared to revise your standards, adjust your thinking and make changes in your "way of life". As weeks and months will go by, you will discover more and more things that are done differently from what you are used to. You will find that some things are very annoying while others are great.
You are going to meet new people, a new culture. Adjusting to a new way of life is an extremely challenging, and at the same time an extremely rewarding experience. Keep your heart open and enjoy a new life.

Created on June 1 2000
Last updated on May 5 2011
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