With more and more retirees, entrepreneurs, and families moving abroad than ever before, there are numerous websites and publications dedicated to the topic of international living – including, most notably, a print and online magazine that goes by that very name.
Their pages are filled with stunning photos of exotic destinations and bold claims about affordable living, ideal climates, and first-world amenities. While not entirely untrue, these assertions are often biased (at best) or completely misleading (at worst).
Before you buy into the hype about international living, make sure you understand the truth behind their claims. Here are a few tips to help you avoid being unsuspectingly led down the primrose path.
1. Never rely on ANY single international living resource for all of your information, including our site.
This is one tip I can’t stress enough. Every expat blogger, travel writer, or international living expert has his own opinion. Some are more candid than others. A few may tend to gloss over the unpleasant parts of living abroad. Some may even have ulterior motives that drive their recommendations.
Before you make such an important decision as where to live or invest overseas, you need to know all the facts. Dig up all the research you can find on your prospective area, even the negative stuff. Chances are, if something about the place bothers enough people, it may affect you as well.
2. Understand there’s no such thing as a “top secret” destination.
News flash. A quaint little town that some international living website labels as its best “undiscovered” destination can just go ahead and toss that title in the trash just as fast as it earned it. Places dubbed as being “off the radar” will soon be “up-and-coming,” and the next thing you know they’re “expat hotspots”!
Don’t believe me? Just look at what happened in Boquete, Panama.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with moving to the place that everyone else wants to be…unless you were truly looking for a more authentic expat experience. In which case, your best bet is to “discover” the place for yourself.
3. Realize phrases like “affordable living,” “spring-like weather,” and “modern conveniences” are relative terms.
These phrases are favorites among people who write about international living. They’re also incredibly ambiguous. What’s affordable to Donald Trump is entirely out of reach for the rest of us. Spring looks a lot different in Southern California than Northern Maine. And my grandparents would consider a phone modern as long as it doesn’t have a rotary dial.
Instead of naively believing these generic claims, look for actual data that supports them. Average temperatures and rainfall are easy enough to find. Expat forums and city-specific websites can give you more info on actual prices for things like rent and utilities. They can also tell you if there’s reliable cell and internet services.
4. While you may not have to learn the language, you’re going to want to.
While it may be true that it isn’t necessary to learn the local language, especially in places with an established expat population, I highly recommend that you do. If not, you may find yourself only associating with other expats or frequenting the same handful of expat-friendly establishments over and over again, never branching out.
There may be a handful of people who would be content with moving overseas and never experiencing what international living is truly about, but I doubt it. Unless your goal is to move hundreds or thousands of miles away, only to live a lifestyle that looks almost identical to your North American one, then plan to become bilingual.
5. Make sure your anticipated budget meets your needs.
One of the biggest international living mistakes new expats make is believing that estimated costs for various expenses are one-size-fits-all. Take housing for instance. Sure, you might be able to buy a home in Boquete for $200,000. But make sure you’re considering the whole picture.
If you have to move outside the city center to find a more affordable place, you may end up needing a car. If you’re accustomed to having a pool or gym in your building, consider whether a prospective apartment has those amenities.
The same goes for expenses like health insurance. Just because it’s inexpensive for most people, it’s best to make sure you can afford coverage for any special conditions or needs you have.
6. There’s no substitute for experiencing a place for yourself.
You would think most people would have the common sense not to move abroad without ever even visiting their destination of choice, but in fact we see it all the time. Not getting the full picture of your new city, before you move there, is one of the most devastating mistakes made by expats. It’s also the most easily avoided.
Once you’ve chosen where you think you want to be, or at least narrowed it down to a few, you absolutely must visit them. Once one wins out, spend even more time there. Interact with the locals. See what it’s like in all seasons. Try to get a feel for it as a resident, not just a tourist.
Only once you’ve experienced a destination for yourself can you truly feel confident in your decision to become an expat there. No international living magazine can give you that assurance. I don’t care how many seminars they offer.