Have you been thinking about moving to another country? Wondering where to start?
Or are you feeling stuck, and wondering how to ACTUALLY make your move abroad happen?
As someone who has lived in 6 different countries over the past 11 years, I know firsthand that there are a lot of ways you can move abroad. The most important first step you can take is often the most overlooked. Here is what I’ve learned about taking the RIGHT first step toward an international move that will help you follow through with your plans and find happiness in a new country.
Begin with WHY
The process of moving internationally is long and can be exhausting. To follow through with your plan despite possible hiccups, you’re going to need a good WHY.
To adapt an idea from Simon Sinek, we often get overly focused on the less important aspects of moving abroad - the HOW, the WHAT, and the WHERE.
Let’s start with the WHERE. When you’re dreaming of moving to another country, you are probably fantasizing about where you could move. Is it a tropical beach? A charming European city? Maybe you recently took a wonderful trip, and you’re thinking about extending it - permanently.
Or maybe you think about WHAT you’ll do in that new country. Maybe you plan to go surfing every day, or you’ll eat the world’s best croissants each and every morning. Maybe you’ll go on beautiful mountain hikes while living more cheaply than you could in the U.S. or Canada.
If you’re further along in the process, or you’re more Type A, you might also be considering the HOW. Which type of visa should you get? Which town or neighborhood will you live in? How will you transfer money to your new home?
Editor’s note: Answering the HOW is StartAbroad’s bread and butter. If you need help with any details, we’re here for you.
Where you will live, the type of life you want, and how to make that happen are all important. You should absolutely think about all of them. Day-dreaming about Parisian croissants or Costa Rica sunsets may very well fuel you through your international move journey.
But here is the most important thing to do when planning for an international move: start with WHY. If you can first identify your reasons for moving, you’ll be much more likely to follow through with an international move. This is because:
A strong WHY will keep you going when you experience hiccups during your move. It’s challenging to move and adapt to a new country! Your foundation needs to be strong to keep you steady throughout the process. Your WHY is your foundation.
Without a clear WHY, you could easily get seduced by the idea of life abroad being like a vacation. While living in another country can be eye-opening, full of awe and discovery, and a true adventure, it is NOT a holiday. Believing otherwise sets up your new home country for failure - it is hard to meet the expectation of a year-round vacation.
That’s all fine, but what do you mean by WHY? Aren’t beach-sunsets and croissants enough?
Push vs Pull Factors
Hopefully you now have some reasons you want to move to another country. Let’s take a closer look at those.
WHY do you want to move to a new country? Consider:
Something pulling you to that place?
Something pushing you away from where you are now?
Some combination of the two?
Here’s the key: In my experience, you need at least one good pull factor. A pull factor is something attracting you to a new place. It’s about the upside of a new country, and it’s pulling you to that spot in the world.
You could have one really significant pull factor, like a job or a romantic partner in another country, or you could have a couple medium-sized ones, like a desire to see the world or live in another language or save some money.
You may also want to leave some things behind. We can call these push factors, the things that are pushing you away from your current life. Most people have these - after all, it’s rare that anyone is entirely content where they are. A lot of us have fleeting dreams about a better life elsewhere.
What you need to consider carefully is:
Push factors alone are typically not enough motivation to make a move
If they are, you are less likely to be happy in a new country, because…
Oftentimes you cannot outrun them.
I’ll give you a personal example: I have a track record of working really hard, burning out, and then feeling generally depressed and underappreciated at work (it’s happened in multiple countries and with multiple jobs). Turns out, changing the scenery and the language around me do not change my real problems: my work habits and motivations. Escaping burnout has never been my primary motivation for moving, but did I expect it to disappear when I crossed national borders? Yes, I did. I was wrong.
Changing your country isn’t going to solve most of the things that bother you about your life today. You could just end up trading off pet peeves in your current home for others. What will be more reliable, enriching, and rewarding is thinking about what you gain from an international move.
Identify some strong pull factors! In fact, here’s a sample worksheet. You can make it your own!
*I think this one can be either a pull or a push factor, depending on how you’re thinking about it
If you’re having trouble identifying push vs pull, ask yourself, in your heart of hearts, is this about something I’m adding to my life? Or is it about something I no longer want in my life?
Put on Your Life Lens, NOT your Vacation Lens
I currently live in Costa Rica and talk to a lot of aspiring expats who want to move here for the long-haul. I’m talking about a full-time move, not a second home.
If that sounds like you, the number one recommendation I would make is to visit your dream country without your vacation glasses on.
On vacation, you are:
Spending more money per day than normal, and often a lot more
Focused on relaxation, adventure, or a mix of the two
Not working (hopefully)
Once you start living day-to-day in a new place, you are often working, need to stick to a budget, and realize that lying on the beach all day is better enjoyed as a treat, not a lifestyle. Plus you have to do things like go grocery shopping, pay your bills, and drive yourself places. You are still in a stunning, beautiful place. But you have to manage a lot more.
Before making the decision to move and live year-round in a new country, see what it would be like to really live there. Take a trip, but fill your itinerary with regular day-to-day tasks instead of dolphin-watching or museum visits. Hang out at local spots, not restaurants catering to tourists. Stay in a place that you could afford to rent long-term, not a hotel. Meet up with other expats and ask them lots of questions.
You might be surprised to learn that you prefer living in a quiet neighborhood instead of downtown in your favorite European city, or that you prefer somewhere less humid than your favorite vacation beach town. Figure that out before moving! If you want someone to plan this kind of trip for you, get in touch with StartAbroad. We offer exploratory trip planning in Costa Rica, Portugal, and Panama.
Make it Happen with WHY as your North Star
Once you know what life is really like in this country and you have your solid reasons for going there, I’d say you’re in really good shape to make it happen. You have your WHY. You have your WHERE. If you ever need help with the HOW, feel free to reach out.
Moving internationally is hard. You’ll face challenges. But if you keep your WHY central to the process, you’ll be able to navigate the tough stuff. And if you want to talk to someone, we’re here!
Schedule a 15 minute consultation with StartAbroad here.
Anna Sosdian is the co-founder of StartAbroad, a concierge international relocation service. She spent nine years working internationally as an HR lead and operations specialist for multinational social enterprises before moving to Costa Rica. You can reach her at email@example.com.