How To Prepare For An International Move

So you’ve got a new gig abroad? Maybe you’ve just been hired for that dream job overseas, or perhaps you’re going back to school? Whatever it is, go you! Setting up a life in a foreign country can be a headache. Fear not though, there are plenty of things you can do in order to prepare for a move abroad. Read on for my top tips to make sure your move to a foreign country goes smoothly:

2-3 Months Before You Leave:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.03.15 PM

If you don’t get your paperwork right, you can forget chilling at the Christmas Market…

Visas and work permits: 

Start on these immediately. Seriously.  8-12 weeks before your move date or as soon as you are hired, whichever comes first. Here’s something important: Even if you’ve moved abroad before, do not assume you know anything about the Visa process in a given country. 

Every country is different. Some places require you to show proof of vaccination and proof that you don’t have diseases like HIV or Tuberculosis, taking tests and accessing your medical records takes time, yo! When I went to Switzerland I was required to supply scanned copies of my official college and graduate school diplomas, as well as my birth certificate, so I had to make a special trip to my parent’s house to track all that crap down. If you’re applying for a student visa, as an international student you may be required to show bank statements or official letters from your bank to prove you’ve got enough dough to reside in your host country for the given period of time.

Your new employer or school should have a point person or information portal for people who are about to move there. Familiarize yourself with the support resources available to you and use them. Whatever you do, don’t break the rules and don’t just rock up in your new country without the requisite paperwork or you could wind up getting deported.

How did I end up on this wild ride? Read about my expat story here.

4-6 Weeks Before you leave:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.16.59 PM

Skipping stones at a beach in Oban.

Documents and Finances: 

Once you’ve got all your documents together, scan them and put them on a hard drive, then upload them to the cloud so you’ll have them no matter where you are on the go.

Notify your bank and credit card that you are going to be traveling, and remember, that these “travel advisories” have a shelf life on them so if you plan to use your domestic cards overseas you may have to remind your bank you are abroad again after a month or so.

Do you have memberships to cancel or monthly auto pays to put on hold? How about notifying your utility companies and cell phone provider? Get on it!

Living in a foreign country for a length of time will probably mean you need to open a local bank account. There are some things you won’t be able to do without a local account, such as paying rent. Be aware that not all banks will allow foreigners to open accounts with them, although most larger ones will. Also be aware that due to international banking laws, just because your bank has branches in another country it does not mean you can use your account as if you are home. Do your research and find out what you can and can’t do with your home bank, and which banks in your new country will allow you to bank with them. Have a plan for how you’ll access your money while waiting for your new bank account to open.

Finding A Place To Live:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.25.03 PM.png

Be a cool cat and don’t get left in the cold. 

Maybe your new job supplies you with housing or has a lovely person whose job is to find you a place to live. Wonderful! For the rest of us, beware! Finding housing in a foreign country can be fraught with peril. This is another case of not allowing assume to make an ass of you. Just because you can adult perfectly fine in your home country and you’ve been finding apartments no sweat since you were twenty doesn’t mean you won’t need help moving abroad.

Tenancy laws are different everywhere around the world. For example, before I moved to Switzerland I didn’t know that in most cases there are only 3-4 set times a year when you can move in or begin a lease and moving outside these times can cause considerable hassle. I also didn’t know that the general time frame for finding a new place there is 3 months ahead of time. Contrast this to Scotland, where most leases are month to month, you can move in on just about any day of the month, and apartments generally go on the market shortly before they are ready to be moved into and get scooped up in a matter of days!

Wherever you’re going, it pays to know your rights. Fortunately, there’s help out there for you. In Zürich I joined the local tenant’s association, who really helped me advocate for myself with a landlord who wanted to take advantage of me. In Scotland, I asked the tenant’s rights organization for help so I understood exactly what I was getting into when I signed my new lease.

If you don’t receive help from your future employer, you have two sensible choices: a) Move to your destination and stay in an Air B&B while you apartment hunt, or b) Find a trusted friend in your target city and ask them to see potential apartments for you. Do not put money down on an apartment sight unseen. Unfortunately, there are way too many scams out there taking advantage of hapless foreigners such as yourself.

Getting Rid of Your Stuff:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.35.20 PM

When your stuff has stuff… discovering both trash and treasure at the Bürkliplatz Flea Market in Zürich.

Even if your future employer is going to pay to move your stuff, it makes sense to pair down ahead of a big move. Divide everything you own into three categories:

  1. Basic things you will never let go of, either because you plan to ship them to your new destination, they are sentimental, or you want them on lockdown in your home country so you can come back and re-populate your home nest again if needed.
  2. Things you don’t need but are in good enough condition to sell and make a bit of money off of.
  3. Things you could give away.

Items in category one are the most important to you, so settle what you’ll do with them first. Either you can afford to put them in storage, or you’ve got a nice friend or relative who will hold on to them for you. Suss out how much space you have for storage and anything you can’t store… sell.

Items in categories two and three will be your biggest pains in the ass, so start on those ASAP. There are lots of ways to sell your stuff, but all of them take time and effort. I’ve had good luck with Craigslist and Facebook Buy/Sell groups. Others have had success with things like e-Bay and Poshmark, it just depends on how much effort you’re willing to put in to photographing your junk, answering stupid questions from people and shipping/ waiting around for buyers to show up.

Giving it away is by far the easiest option. People will take almost anything off of your hands for free and it saves you the effort of having to dispose of it yourself. If you want to see your stuff do good in the world, consider donating it to charity. When I left Boston I donated an entire front porch’s worth of household goods to Big Brother’s Big Sisters of Boston. I literally gave them a call to arrange a pickup, brought my stuff down to the front porch, and they took it away.

No matter how carefully you plan, your new life is going to throw you a few curves. Relax and remember, this is not your semester abroad, girl!

1-4 Weeks Before You Leave:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.03.56 PM

It’s like choosing between children…

Packing Tips:

  1. Focus on Quality

Okay, so now you’ve got this (hopefully) small mountain of stuff that you want to take with you. Well, I’ve got some bad news, you’re going to have to make it into an even smaller mountain. How to? It feels daunting to pack for moving somewhere, so imagine you’re only going over for a month and take as much as you think you’d need for your basic activities in that time period.

Now is the time to either repair or get rid of anything that’s not in tip-top condition. Focus your wardrobe around some high-quality basic pieces, and then add in some things you love and can’t live without to spice things up a bit. Pick a few “wardrobe signatures” that encapsulate your personal style, maybe even in a specific colour plate if you want to go that far. For example, I’m a sucker for vintage bangles and brightly coloured dresses. I probably will throw in extras of these at the expense of having another pair of jeans, but I’m okay with it.

Here’s something that is important for me to remember: I don’t need to import my entire inventory of cheapo basics with me. Repeat after me: you don’t need a cotton H&M layering tee for every day of the week, you don’t need a veritable rainbow of tights, you don’t need a half dozen tatty black cardigans in case you catch a draft. Socks, underwear, pajamas, cheap workout clothes, chances are they have those where you are going. Pick a few favourites and give the rest away or put them aside until the next time you come home to visit!


2. Account for weather and season changes

The kicker about packing for a long-term move is that you don’t have the luxury of planning for just one season.  For example, when I moved to Switzerland I knew I was going to be spending most of the time working, so I needed a decent fleet of professional clothing right off the bat, and I knew it was going to go from fall to winter so I needed to include sweaters, a good cold weather coat, some scarves and hats. I knew I was going to be exercising and doing yoga, so I picked a couple of my favourite yoga leggings, tops and sports bras and left the rest of my extensive collection of yoga shwag at home.

I did not plan as much for casual outings, hiking, or skiing, all of which I ended up having to pick up gear for when I was there, but that was okay! As I said before, unless you are moving to the middle of nowhere, once you get there you’ll shop where the locals shop and wear what the locals do!*

*Okay, let it be said, I wasn’t wild about the selection of affordable clothing in Switzerland (it’s basically H&M, Zara or nothing, hope you like supporting slave labor!) so I did the bulk of my clothes shopping when I was back in the states for holidays every year. This may also be an option for you.

3. It’s The Little Things

There’s always a few of those little items you feel silly tossing into your bag but you’ll really miss if you need them, so I allow myself one business envelope sized pouch of such things. I found out the hard way the first time I moved abroad that nobody in central Europe seems to know what a Neti-pot is and I sure didn’t feel like trying to find one in German the first time I felt sick. So from now on, I chuck my travel Neti pot and Neti salts into my luggage. Ditto with the nice little pair of scissors I cut my bangs with and my travel sized manicure kit. You know what I don’t bother with though? A hairdryer/ straightener or curler, and anything more than medication and the most basic toiletries and cosmetics. All of those things can be picked up once I arrive.

4. Packing tricks

I roll things tight or layer them as flat as possible. I use packing cubes for things I want to keep compressed and together. This time I also used a few space saving vacuum sealed bags to condense my giant snowboarding jacket and huge woolly sweaters into something more manageable. If you use this tactic, use it sparingly. I discovered the hard way that too many vacuum sealed bags do not save space because they’re basically just a bunch of hard, lumpy blocks that won’t play well with the rest of your suitcase Tetris.

5. Bags, Bags All Type of Bags

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.35.44 PM

I can make it fit… I swear. Thrift shopping near Brick Lane, London.

Look, name me a suitcase I’ve tried it. Hardshell, soft shell, two-wheeled, four-wheeled, convertible backpacks, duffle bags. All of them have their perks and drawbacks. Right now I’m really into Da Kine’s split duffle. It is originally made for snowboarding gear so it’s super rugged, it stands on it’s own, it opens like a clamshell and has three zippered compartments that I use to roll my stuff tight and compress so I can fit the maximum. It can also be collapsed to store flat under a bed when not in use!

Getting Your Crap There

Let’s assume you aren’t one of those lucky stiffs whose employer is paying for a shipping container. Your basic options are 1. Your Luggage. 2. The Mail. Between those two things you should be able to get everything you need there without completely breaking the bank. I packed for both international moves with two checked bags and two boxes I mailed through the U.S Post office.*

Bag It Or Box It?

Be sure to check the luggage allowance for the airline carrier you have chosen. Many let you check an extra bag for a fee beforehand. This may seem like a waste of cash until you realize that you get a LOT more bang for your buck this way. Think about it. Checking an extra 50-pound bag costs dramatically less than what it would cost to ship 50 pounds worth of your crap overseas. Also, some airlines will allow you to check sporting goods such as a bike for free, so make sure you ask!

If You’ve Just Got To Mail It…

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.36.46 PM

Sorry book lovers, getting a Kindle is going to cost a fraction of shipping your book collection. 

What’s worth paying to ship? That’s a really personal question. When I moved away from Switzerland I shipped an antique clock, some picture frames and my favorite coffee mug back to the U.S for safekeeping. All those things were worth it to me. Not worth it? The mountains of “teaching resource” books I shipped to Switzerland and then back to the states. They ended up sitting in a closet for years because my school was happy to buy me any book I wanted. Oops! Also not worth it? Shipping things like kitchen supplies. Any charity shop in your destination will have those things for less than the cost of shipping, or you can buy them off an exiting expat for peanuts! Hit up those expat Exchange/Buy/Sell groups to see what’s on offer.

*Full disclosure: I may have arrived in Switzerland with two suitcases but I didn’t leave with that! I arrived home in the states with four suitcases and a bike… after shipping (gulp) six or seven boxes. This was after I spent months selling and giving away most of my possessions. What can I say? I like stuff! Please learn from my mistakes!

Still having trouble deciding? More simple packing tips here. 

When You Arrive:

Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.18.21 PM

Not so fast, there’s important things to do before checking out the new digs. 

Days 1-7:

The very first thing you need to do is report to your local authorities and pick up your residence permit card because this piece of plastic will be essential to getting your life set up in your new country. Without it, you won’t be able to do basic things such as opening a bank account or get a phone contract. Once you’ve got your residence permit card, treat it like the all-important form of ID it is and don’t you dare misplace it. When you travel to and from your host country be sure to have it on your person and be prepared to present it along with your passport at the border. This is important because your residence permit is the only thing that proves you have the legal right to reside in your host country. Your passport with it’s expired visa does not.

Once you’ve got your ID you can set up a bank account, get a phone, set up your utilities and start settling in! Hopefully, you’ve left 1-2 weeks between your arrival and when you start work or school… right?

Speaking of Settling In…

Now it’s time for the real fun stuff! Please check out my guides for learning a foreign language, making friends and managing culture shock!

So, did I miss anything? What do you do to feel at home in a new place? 


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s