There's no doubt that moving overseas provides a multitude of amazing benefits for families who are brave enough to take the plunge. However, becoming an expat certainly isn't without its challenges.
While many of the difficulties can vary from one individual or family to the next, there are several that are common to almost all new expat families no matter what their personalities or destination of choice. Most notably, the task of setting up residence.
Here are a few tips for making the chore of finding a place to live a bit easier as a new expat.
1. Choose a destination where you can easily build community
One of the most important keys to acclimating to your new culture is finding community. Whether it's with locals or fellow expats, making new friends in your destination country is essential.
As a result, your ability to fit in and acclimate to your new culture is an important factor to consider when choosing your overseas destination. Pick a place that has plenty of opportunities for your entire family to get involved.
Then start early, even before you leave your home country. Reach out to other expats via forums and expat blogs. As soon as you arrive, do your best to meet neighbors, local business owners, and other expat families.
Look for restaurants and bars offering events for expats. Seek out volunteer organizations, religious groups, or social clubs for people who share your hobbies or interests. Try taking up a new sport or activity.
Don't feel intimidated if this sounds like a lot of work. Just know that meeting people does require effort on your part. And that it's easier in some places than others.
2. Remember you aren't stuck there forever
Even if you do your homework, research every aspect of the cities you're considering, and hit the ground ready to make it your forever home, just know that not every expat story works out that way. There may be things about your new city or country that drive you nuts. You may want to throw in the towel, pack up, and move home immediately.
First, give it time. It takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months to truly get a feel for what it's like to live in a new location as an expat. Don't give up on your new city too soon.
If after a few months things still don't feel quite right, it might indeed be an indication that you need to make a change. But that doesn't mean back to the North American culture you were hoping to escape. There are plenty of other options.
If the humidity is too much for you, give a nearby mountain town a try. If you hate the crowded city and the chain restaurants on every corner, try some place more remote. Many expats live in several cities or even countries before they finally find the right location. Remember there's no perfect destination, only the one that's best suited for you and your family.
3. Try renting before you buy
Just in case your story does turn out to be one of those involving multiple international moves, it's probably best that you don't have a house to sell in each of those cities or countries. As a result, it's often a good idea to rent for a while until you're sure you want to stay in your city of choice (or just until you're sure which neighborhood is most ideal for your family).
Rental options are plentiful in Central America, with flexible terms and affordable rates. Many even include utilities, saving you the hassle of standing in long lines to establish service. Furnished options are also available. Keep reading for why that could be a good idea as well.
4. When starting out, bring only what you need
Until you've settled in your permanent destination, or even purchased a house that you plan to be in for a while, it doesn't make a lot of sense to move everything you own into your temporary accommodations. There are several reasons for this.
For one thing, there are lots of items that cost as much to import as they do to just buy in your new location. Besides, until you've spent some time abroad and gotten settled in you really have no idea what you'll end up needing anyway.
But one of the biggest reasons for not bringing so much stuff along with you is the fact that, if you do end up moving, it can be incredibly difficult to lug a house full of furnishings from one place to the next. You just thought moving was difficult in North America. Down here it can be a nightmare.
Not to mention, there is the small percentage of would-be expats who ultimately find that life in Central America is not for them...period. Nothing adds insult to injury quite as effectively as having to pack all your worldly goods into a crate and pay an arm and leg to ship them back overseas.
5. Make it home
Once you've decided on a destination, found a place to live (at least for a little while), and gotten all the essentials you need to set up house, then do everything you can--mentally and physically--to make it home. Not "like home" or a "second home" or even "home away from home," but really HOME. Embrace it. Own it.
It's okay to stay in touch with the friends and family you left behind (and technology has made that process simpler than ever). In fact, it's encouraged. Your support system back in your country of origin is still the best one you've got until you establish a network of friends and neighbors in your new city.
The same goes for things like your old belongings and customs. Familiar items and habits are great tools for helping you feel comfortable, especially in those early days. But don't rely on them to the extent that they keep you from experiencing all the things your new destination has to offer.
Finally, look for opportunities to take this great experience and make it even better. You could start a small home business, teach English to local children, volunteer to improve the quality of life of local indigenous groups, take up gardening, or become more physically fit.
It may take a little bit of digging to discover what it is that will really make your life more fulfilling. But once you do, then you'll really find your sweet spot.