The complete guide to moving abroad as an expat

Moving abroad can be an exciting yet daunting experience. Read our comprehensive guide to moving abroad as an expat for peace of mind.

Travel arrangements

In today’s increasingly globalized world, flying to another country has never been easier. However, when it comes to relocating to a new destination, there are so many things you’ll have to take into account and it’s often easy to miss one or two important steps.

In this section, we’ve created a comprehensive three-part checklist below to aid you with your travel arrangements. Follow this outline to sort out priorities and minimize last-minute surprises as the moving date gets closer.

Your relocation checklist

General

  • Create a timetable for all key dates, such as your visa application date and shipping personal items
  • Take language courses to pick up basic words and phrases
  • Learn about local cultures and customs
  • Get information, meet new friends, and find jobs on expat forums
  • Check and compare internet and mobile phone service options

Travel

  • Apply for a visa or work permit with all the necessary supporting documents
  • Make copies of all important documents
  • Book your international flight
  • Package and ship items you can’t carry along
  • Compare the shipping costs by air and by sea
  • Check custom duties to determine whether it’s cheaper to ship items from home or buy a new one
  • Contact relocation companies to smoothen the moving process
 

Work

  • Try to find a job through job hunting platforms
  • Check what the relocation package includes in your employment contract

Health

  • Check if expats can have access to public healthcare facilities
  • Go through and compare different medical insurance options
  • Contact your GP for vaccinations and a body checkup
 

Accommodation

  • Store, sell, or donate everything you don’t need back home
  • Decide whether to sell, rent, or lock up your current home
  • Book accommodation for the first night at your destination
  • Research the local property market and decide whether to rent or buy an apartment
  • Make a list of affordable areas close to work, good schools, and public transport

Education

  • Talk to your children about the relocation and help them cope with the move
  • Research local and international schools and familiarize yourself with the application process
 

Transport

  • Consider buying a new car or using public transport for commute and daily travel
  • Compare the cost of shipping a car from home with buying a new one abroad
  • Check whether an international driving license can be used
  • Research what medicines can be easily purchased or are forbidden in the destination

Finances

  • Cancel direct debits and auto-billing orders
  • Decide whether to close existing bank accounts
  • Check if you can open a local bank account before relocation
  • Inform the local tax department of your move
  • Seek professional financial advice from experts on the tax arrangements of moving abroad

General

  • Create a timetable for all key dates, such as your visa application date and shipping personal items
  • Take language courses to pick up basic words and phrases
  • Learn about local cultures and customs
  • Get information, meet new friends, and find jobs on expat forums
  • Check and compare internet and mobile phone service options

Living

One of the primary considerations to make when thinking about moving abroad is to decide whether where you want to go, or whether the place you have an opportunity to move to is considered a good country for expats. To help you with this common expat dilemma, we have listed several things for you to look into to decide if the quality of life in your destination is something you’re looking for. Before making a decision to move abroad alone or with family, we suggest that you research the following aspects of living abroad:

Quality of life

When it comes to discussing the best countries for expats, the term ‘quality of life’ often pops up. Quality of life is not one single item, but rather a set of different aspects of life that translates into overall life satisfaction. It includes all major areas of life such as physical health, safety, employment opportunities, wealth, culture, environment, and so on.

So, what are the best countries for expats to move to? Let’s look at the results of the HSBC expat survey listing the best countries for expats in 2019 to live and work!

10 best countries for expats in 2019:

The survey gathered data from 18,059 overseas workers in 163 locations and looked into different aspects of life such as cost of living, healthcare, safety, taxes, career progression, salary opportunities, and education, among others. These considerations are what jointly can be described as the quality of living in those places.

1. Switzerland 6. Australia
2. Singapore 7. Turkey
3. Canada 8. Germany
4. Spain 9. UAE
5. New Zealand 10. Vietnam

Education/schools

This is an especially important matter for those with children, or who are planning to start a family abroad. Researching the various schools fees and their reputation is a crucial step in planning the big move to live abroad with your family.

1. Switzerland 6. Australia
2. Singapore 7. Turkey
3. Canada 8. Germany
4. Spain 9. UAE
5. New Zealand 10. Vietnam

Safety

We do recommend you make solid due diligence on the matter of safety before moving to a new place. Look into matters such as political tensions, crime rates, the attitude of the local population towards other cultures and nationalities, as well as any environmental hazards, such as typhoons, or bad air quality.

Culture and social life

We have included local culture and social life in the same subsection as it’s often very closely connected. Whenever you are moving to a new country, you are expected to follow the local rules and respect local traditions and culture. In some countries, people are very open and making new friends will be relatively easy, whereas some cultures are more reserved.

Another point should be added here for women moving abroad alone. As every country and culture has a different attitude towards women, what might be seen as common behavior in most Western countries like the US and UK might not be considered the norm in other countries. Solo female travelers are therefore advised to pay particular attention to their destination country’s culture and social norms.

Healthcare

Access to quality healthcare is as crucial, if not more, as in your home country. Some countries might have excellent, yet extremely expensive healthcare systems, while in other destinations obtaining any sort of medical care in English can be a huge challenge. Researching the healthcare systems in your destination country is, therefore, a crucial step in ensuring a quality life in your new home.

Getting around

Getting around the place where you want to move to might be a priority for you. Checking if your local driving license works in the new country, or what the procedure for getting a new one looks like would be useful if you want to drive in your destination country. We also recommend researching the public transportation system, and whether there will be any substantial language barriers that would interfere with you using it on a daily basis.

Finances

While the quest for choosing your new dream country is complex and consists of multiple steps and considerations, your finances should be your top consideration when making this decision. Your situation will vary drastically depending on where you move to.

If you’re a digital nomad without a steady flow of income, or a recent graduate trying your luck in a new environment, your finance and budget planning will be different than that of an expat moving for a job with decent perks being provided by their employer. Singles, couples, and families will have different needs and considerations to think about, too!

Plan your budget ahead of time

Researching the cost of living for expats should be the first thing you do when moving to a new country. The change in the cost of living is inevitable. If you come to a new place unprepared for all the possibilities, it might backfire and ruin all the fun and excitement of relocating.

If you’re moving for a job, there is a chance your employer will help with some of your costs such as accommodation, or school fees for your children. However, if you’re moving with the hope of finding a job on the spot, try to estimate your daily cost of living as an expat in a new place, and plan your budget accordingly.

Cost of living for expats

The cost of living for expats usually takes into account the costs of accommodation, utilities, transportation, relocation, as well as eating out and hobbies/past-time activities.

While comparing different cities or countries, see how much of your probable salary/income you’d have to spend every month just to cover the basics such as rent, transportation, phone and utility bills, grocery shopping, etc., and use that information to decide if that's the lifestyle you're looking for. Just to give you an idea, below you can find the top ten most expensive countries for expats to live in:

1. Hong Kong 6. Shanghai, China
2. Tokyo, Japan 7. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
3. Singapore 8. Beijing, China
4. Seoul, South Korea 9. New York City, U.S.A
5. Zurich, Switzerland 10. Shenzhen, China
1. Hong Kong 6. Shanghai, China
2. Tokyo, Japan 7. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
3. Singapore 8. Beijing, China
4. Seoul, South Korea 9. New York City, U.S.A
5. Zurich, Switzerland 10. Shenzhen, China

Be prepared for the extra expenses

As an expat, you should be prepared for extra expenses you would not think of otherwise back at home. This could be anything from buying a whole new set of furniture, expat health insurance, education fees, local taxes, and other administration and/or visa fees, rent, costs of a local driving license, etc.

Another aspect of the extra expenses you should take into consideration can relate to your assets back in your home country. If you’re currently renting out your apartment or house, you might have to hire someone to take care of such matters for you, for example.

Banking

Before moving to a new place, make sure to open up an international account/card so you can use your card worldwide. Also, we’d recommend getting some local currency beforehand, or at least any of the major currencies used in the region. Moving forward, you might want to consider switching to a local bank account, or opening an account in an international bank, so your future money transfers are more straightforward and cheaper.

Taxes

And then there are taxes. Make sure you understand how your home country works together with your new home in terms of taxes, and in particular, agreements to avoid double taxation. There might be forms to fill in both in your home country and in the new one, so make sure you properly research the steps and regulations on that matter to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Work

Moving abroad is a big decision, and unless you have enough money to support yourself in your destination country, you will most likely need to work. This means you will have to look for a job yourself, research visa requirements, local business etiquette, and whether the job you’re applying for offers good enough employee benefits to make your stay and work in your destination country worthwhile. In just a second, you will learn how to get a job abroad before moving.

Finding a job overseas

There are several approaches to securing a job abroad. You can either try to find one before you move, or if you’re more adventurous, find one after you’ve moved to your destination country.

How to get a job abroad before moving

A safe approach to moving to a new country is to get a job ahead of time. This allows you to plan and settle in a new country easier and faster. How does one go about securing a job abroad, though?

For those who are currently professionally active and work in an international company, they should try to see if there are any opportunities within the company itself. Don’t be afraid to talk to your manager, and at least inquire if your company would consider moving you to their other offices. This is also the least stressful of the options, as the change won't be as tremendous, and your employer will likely be helpful with the entire process.

Networking is probably the top way to look for a job, even abroad. Nowadays our friends and colleagues might have friends abroad. Reaching out to your ex-colleagues can also result in a job recommendation. Besides in-person contacts, social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, have literally opened doors to those willing to reach out to hiring managers, start-ups, and even CEOs! Don't be shy and simply ask your network if they can connect you with someone.

Use regional job search engines for more results. For example, if you are a UK citizen looking for a job in Singapore, research the Lion City job boards, such as jobsDB, or Indeed, where you can also see if there is an actual need for a person with your particular set of skills.

Recruitment agencies make a commission from the company, not the job seekers in most cases, so it’s definitely a good idea to extend your job search to apply for positions advertised on the recruitment agencies websites.

Target to apply for a job at international companies outside of your home country. A good idea would be to apply for roles in your dream country, with a well-designed motivation letter to support why you'd like to work there. Remember that for many people moving abroad for work is unthinkable, so you might reach out to a regional office of the global company and inquire about moving opportunities within the company.

It can sometimes be a better option to travel to your new dream country first without a job at hand, and spend some time enjoying the city and making sure this is really where you want to settle - at least for a while. This option also opens many opportunities as you will have a better understanding of the top companies to work for in this particular place, which industries and positions pay better, etc. - all of this information you can get by simply meeting local people and having a chat with them.

Finding a job after you've already moved is not that much different than the previous process. But at the same time, it gives you one big advantage: being there in person. Now you have a chance to connect with decision-making people via LinkedIn and meet them in person, go to the interviews in person, work on extending your localized network, and attend business and networking events at your dream destination!

Business etiquette

Even though we live in a globally connected world, and business is made internationally, that doesn’t mean there is only one business culture/etiquette out there. Sometimes, not knowing the local business customs can break a deal - or even result in you not getting a job to begin with. While effective communication is key to every relation, adapting to the local rules of conducting business can only bring you more benefits!

For example, business days in Israel are from Sunday to Thursday, and the Chinese make a connection through social activities, especially meals. Also, while working in Germany, it is better to be straightforward and get straight to the point, whereas in many Asian countries it’s not a good strategy to publicly talk about any mistakes, as there is a strong culture of “saving face”.



Employee benefits considerations

Many first-time expats are quite confused when it comes to the employee benefits package presented to them in the new overseas location. Expats commonly ask: "How do I know if my offer is good?", and "What is usually included and useful to have in an expat employee benefits package?". Drawing upon our experience in employee benefits plan design, we suggest you, as an expat, consider the following when accepting a job offer:

As an expat in a foreign country you will most likely need private health insurance, and premiums for those, depending on your location, can be extremely high. If your employee benefits package includes health insurance, a lot of financial worries will be taken off your shoulders.

Many expats on international assignments suffer from high stress related to their work, but even those who relocate and find a job by themselves face a number of mental health issues such as loneliness, anxiety, and even depression. Having mental health benefits as a part of your employee benefits package can ease some of the worries you and your family might experience when moving abroad.

Having a baby is one of the happiest moments in every parent's lives, however, the costs associated with this event can be sky high for expats. If maternity insurance is not included as part of your employee benefits package, and you're planning to start a family abroad, we strongly advise securing private maternity insurance to cover the costs. Another aspect to consider is the number of paid maternity leave offered by the company, as it varies largely between countries - and companies. For example, new mothers in Austria are entitled to 16 weeks of 100% paid maternity leave, whereas the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn't guarantee any paid maternity leave for mothers.

As with maternity leave, different countries observe different rules with regard to the annual leave entitlement. For example, by law people are entitled to 7 days of annual leave per year, and if you choose to work in Panama, you’d start with a statutory 30 days of annual leave. Annual leave sometimes can be negotiated with your new employer, so we recommend giving this a try.

Paid sick leave is a statutory requirement in many countries, but not in all, and rules around it vary greatly. You might find yourself in a situation where you will be offered no pay for the times when you need to tend to your health, or only be offered a certain number of paid sick leave days per annum. Most European and Latin American countries have legal requirements for paid sick leave, whereas this is not always the case in Asian and African countries.



















Healthcare and health insurance

Public vs private healthcare

If there’s one area that is crucial but easily overlooked when you are preparing for your move, it’s healthcare. While the healthcare systems in different countries vary a lot, the key differences between private healthcare facilities and their public counterparts remain universal.

Service quality

Private healthcare facilities usually offer higher standards of care versus their public counterparts, with more well-trained medical professionals, modern facilities, and stronger medical results.

Price

Public facilities are supported and subsidized by governments, while private facilities are profit-making businesses. Thus, public institutions are significantly more affordable than private ones. We will touch on that in greater detail in the next section.

Waiting times

Government hospitals aim to offer healthcare to the general public at a lower cost, while private facilities mainly target expatriates and wealthier residents. Therefore, public hospitals are often overburdened and have long waiting times.

Comfort

Another reason expat patients prefer private over public care is that they can enjoy more comfort and privacy, without having to worry about the potential for a language barrier. Not only can they focus on recovery in a private environment, but they can even opt for add-on perks such as Wi-Fi access, en-suite bathrooms with premium toiletries, and sometimes even massages.

Which type of hospital should you opt for?

Where you should go depends entirely on your budget and needs (comfort, location, privacy preferences, etc.). A solid expat health insurance policy can go a long way in helping foreigners access private care as, in most cases, they do not have access to the publicly subsidized healthcare system.

Cost of care

Governments across the world have been plagued by the escalating costs of offering healthcare services to their citizens for many years. From the research and general data that we have seen, hiking medical inflation is not going to abate anytime soon.

Country Total spending (USD) Government Voluntary
United States 10,586 8,949 1,637
Switzerland 7,317 4,660 2,656
Norway 6,187 5,289 898
Germany 5,986 5,056 930
Sweden 5,447 4,570 878
Austria 5,395 4,033 1,363
Denmark 5,299 4,472 827
Netherlands 5,288 4,343 946
Luxembourg 5,070 4,257 748
Australia 5,005 3,467 1,538
Canada 4,974 3,466 1,508
France 4,965 4,141 824
Belgium 4,944 3,820 1,124
Ireland 4,869 3,583 1,286
Japan 4,766 4,008 758

Source: OECD data

Although some countries, such as Thailand, offer a robust, universal public healthcare system to ensure that their citizens can have access to affordable, yet quality health services, newly arrived expats are often excluded from such protection. In other words, foreign patients will have to foot the medical bill out of their own pockets if they do not have an expat medical insurance plan.

Pharmacies and medications

Medication may be the last thing on your mind when you’re moving abroad. However, the medicine readily available in your home country may not be recognized, or even legal, in another country. Hence, sorting out your repeat prescription should be one of the first things on your to-do list.

Before taking off

First things first, check the local law to see whether you are allowed to bring the medication into the new country to avoid accidentally smuggling forbidden drugs.

When traveling

Generally speaking, if you are entering a new country with medicine, you should bring along your GP letter, a paper copy of your repeat prescription, and personal license if it is a controlled medicine or injection. Your GP letter should specify the chemical name of your medication, the dosage you require, and the amount you should bring with you.

After arrival

Depending on which country you are moving to and what medicine you need, usually you can prescribe the required medicine via the following ways:

  • Available upon prescription only, in pharmacies
  • Available on specialized advice, in pharmacies or drugstores
  • Available over the counter

Types of expat health insurance

In order to address the costs of healthcare in a foreign country, many expats will choose to take out a private health insurance plan. Below we will compare three different types of health insurance, and explain how they work to help you determine which is the best option for you.

Top-up health insurance

If your employer-provided health insurance is not ensuring adequate protection, instead of purchasing an independent health insurance plan from scratch, you can secure a top-up insurance plan to supplement the coverage gaps. Top-up plans typically offer additional coverage over an existing corporate plan, and can also expand on coverage benefits that may not be adequate or sufficient.

Local health insurance

If your employer has not provided you with a health insurance plan, it’s best that you secure one for yourself. Local insurance plans are great for use inside the country in which they are issued, as they protect policyholders from potentially overwhelming financial risks and afford expats access to private medical facilities.

However, as its name suggests, local plans are restricted to the country where they are issued so they may not be the best plan for those who need to fly between countries frequently.

Ranking the cost of health insurance

Despite globally increasing medical costs, we find that the average cost of health insurance across all locations, insurers, and demographics can vary immensely. In light of this, it will be useful to refer to our Cost of International Health Insurance Report, which compares the average costs of international health insurance for individuals and families in 100 countries, so that you can plan your budget better with the estimated costs.