Looking Back: 6 Things I Wish I Knew About Moving Abroad

Oh, how I wish I could go back in time. Back to the days before we moved to England, specifically when we were trying to decide what to bring with us in for our trek across the pond. There's a particular, rather cliché phrase that comes to mind... you know the one: hindsight is 20/20. Remember that one? Yeah, it's totally true. And totally annoying. But still true.


When we were preparing for our big move abroad, I scoured the Internet for countless hours for helpful information: what we should bring overseas, the official documents we need to have with us, checklists for the grownup things to take care of (bank accounts, credit cards, etc.), what type of luggage is best, schedules for packing, what I should bring in my carry-on, how best to pack our luggage - the list goes on and on and on. I even had a secret Pinterest board for moving to England. Good heavens, the techniques and tips I tried to absorb!

I'll admit that some of the information was actually helpful. This blog post busts several myths about living abroad, and I can't count how many times I have read it since finding it. Most of it, though, was either not relevant to my situation, seemed superfluous, was extremely vague, or was totally wrong.

Before I get into the details, let me get some specifics of our situation out there. My husband and I:
- live as a student and a dependent (that's me); neither of us are permitted to work more than 20 hours per week, and there are all sorts of hoops you have to jump through in order to even get to that point of being employable.
- live in the second most-populated city in the United Kingdom, so it is not in a remote area or a third-world country.
- live in an English-speaking country (although there are more language barriers than anyone cares to admit).
- live with several people, and we sub-lease (meaning that no official bills are in our name, and there is no formal lease from a leasing company). This means that doing "official" things elsewhere is a real pain in the rear, if it's even possible. Hence why I have no bank account or library card. They don't believe that I live where I live.
- live in city centre and rely on our own two feet for transportation, but we take the train to get out of the city.
- initially moved abroad with one of each of the following: one large suitcase, one carry on suitcase, and one small backpack. That's it.

Okay, now to the good stuff. Or painful stuff. Whichever.

There are several tips that circulate (or are not even discussed) when it comes to moving abroad that I want to address:

1. Stock up on the things that you need but aren't sure you'll be able to get. (Think along the lines of any medications, birth control, corrective lenses, female sanitary items, makeup or hair product must-haves.)
Unless you are moving to a third-world country, you don't need to bring half of the toiletry items you thought you needed to stock up on. Shoot, you don't need three-quarters of them. I'm not even kidding. There are so many little items that I brought or had shipped over (my family is amazing, by the way), but I didn't need half of them. Granted, they were a humongous comfort to receive, and they made life just a little bit easier and a tad bit sweeter, but the joy of those things fades away eventually. 

You're going to do it anyway, though, because you will convince yourself that you need an entire pack of lens-cleaning wipes and contact lens cases with you. Those people you'll be living amongst might not clean their glasses the same way as you. And they probably don't change their contact case out with every new pair of contacts like they should. And you've conveniently forgotten that you didn't even know you were supposed to do that until a month before you left despite wearing contacts since the seventh grade because that totally justifies your need to bring them all. You'll convince yourself that you need the three different types of hair brushes because they're the basic tools, and they're all you will have since you won't have any heated hair tools to speak of. You'll vow that you need all 30 pairs of underwear, because you're certainly not going to store something like that for two years, but it is stupid to throw out a perfectly good pair of pretty panties that you enjoy. I'll repeat: I really like having all of the little things I have with me, even if it means our one bedroom is crammed to maximum capacity... but I don't really need them all for this short season in life.

For the record, avoid shipping things overseas if at all possible. It is outrageously expensive and a big pain in the butt. It makes me absolutely sick to my stomach to think of how much money was collectively spent by us, my mom, and Patrick's parents in order to ship those things over here. And by spent, I mean wasted. Just get rid of all your crap or plan to buy what you need here. If you have plenty of money, buying them a second time won't be an issue. In the end, though, we had to have things like our winter coats and boots shipped over because those things cost way more to buy new than they do to ship, but they were way too bulky to fit into our suitcase. The excess of sweaters that we had shipped over? We wear them all, yes, but we could have definitely survived with a fraction of them and would essentially have more room in our bedroom. Ah, well, hindsight is 20/20.

2. Bring with you what you know you will need. 
While I totally agree with the principle behind this idea, hardly anyone seems to mention the fact that you "need" far less than you think - specifically when it comes to clothing. I think I packed 10 pairs of pants in my suitcase; I can think of at least two that I have only worn once since being here. There's no doubt that I will circulate through them as certain pairs wear out and become useless, but the fact is that I didn't need all 10 pairs in my suitcase - I could have taken four of them out, added my silk floral robe and polkadot nighty that I miss dearly, and saved both space and weight.

Additionally, no one talks about the fact that you will be aching for familiar trivialities that make you happy, especially in the early days in your new country. Maybe everyone isn't like this, but I have an inkling that a vast majority of people want at least one thing from home that they don't need but brings them joy and comfort. My wonderful friend Sarah moved to Cambodia once, so I found myself running to her from time to time with my questions and frustrations. I'll never forget one piece of advice that she gave me: bring your pillow. The notion was that it will be a comfort knowing that it's your pillow that you're resting your head on, and that's priceless. We did our own version of this: we brought a beloved blanket for each of us. The thrifted Mexican blankets that we used every day were shoved into space-bags and put at the bottom of our suitcases. They were heavy, they took up a fair amount of room, but 4 1/2 months into this venture we still don't regret bringing them one bit. 

One thing that I wish I had put in my suitcase that I don't have with me are the photos I had printed for our time abroad. I worried that they would be damaged in the move overseas, so I set them aside (with the piles of things we wanted shipped to us) and waited for them to arrive in one of our boxes from home. The sad fact is that, despite best intentions and efforts, some things get lost in translation. We weeded through our piles of stuff "to ship" while we were a continent away from them, and I'm fairly certain that these photos ended up in storage. If I could go back in time, I would have simply stuck them in my carry on backpack inside a magazine or something. Make sure to bring photos from home. Sure, I have digital photos and Instagram, but nothing replaces the ability to look across the room and see pictures of those you love. It would be nice to be surrounded by their pictures when I can't be surrounded by them in person.

Unfortunately, no amount of packing or re-packing will leave you with 100% satisfaction. There's always going to be something that you overlooked, something that you miss, something that you thought had much more value than it does. But the saying "less is more" is totally appropriate and applicable to this dilemma. You just won't know until you've done it - that's the problem.

3. No one talks about how much money you will need to move abroad or how much you will spend when you get there. Oh. My. Gosh. WHY does no one talk about this?! I found one post that mentioned how quickly your money will disappear, but they gave no specifics. Helpful but not. The truth is, I wish I would have had another year of receiving a salary under my belt before moving, but life doesn't work that way sometimes. The safety net we had in place will get us through, but we will probably be just as poor by the time we get home as we were when we first got married six years ago.  C'est la vie.

Getting There.
Oh my living heck. What no one tells you is how much of your bank account you will drain before you ever get to your destination. Buying luggage, stocking up on certain things, storing the stuff we left at home, buying airfare, paying for the visas, paying for two years of healthcare up front, paying for expedited processing on said visas, paying to ship the visas (and have them ship it back), paying to talk to people at the British Embassy in New York on the telephone, paying to buy rain coats and other clothing items we would need in a different climate, paying to get all caught up on dental work before being gone for two years, paying off small debts, paying for more packing materials to store things that we don't need, paying for veterinary care for our pet before leaving her in someone else's loving hands while we're gone... the list is practically never-ending. And it sucks. Big time. Because you spend so much money and you're not even out of your own country yet!

The Little Things.
Okay, you're going to spend so much money on the little things that you already have/had back home, and they add up faster than you can imagine. If you moved abroad with only a suitcase or two like we did, you'll be needing a lot of little things: pillows, blankets, bath towels, kitchen towels, pots and pans, dishes, basic kitchen pantry items (think cooking essentials like oil, spices, canned and dry goods), baking/cooking basics (like cooling racks and roasting pans), laundry soap, laundry drying racks (if you live basically anywhere other than America), storage solutions, small tools like a hammer and screwdrivers to put together said storage solutions, hangers, dressers, shelves, lighting, cleaning supplies... again, the list goes on and on and on. They're things that make life in any home so much easier, but you don't think about how quickly they add up if you're buying them all at the same time. Add the fact that you have/had all of these things back home and you'll be questioning why in the heck you ever moved abroad anyway (but don't answer that negative little person in the back of your brain because he/she is not very nice to talk to).

Your New Currency & Fees.
Because you don't have a bank account yet, you will spend so much more money than you expect on currency exchange fees, even if you know about it ahead of time. Just plan on it. Every time you have to withdraw money or use a credit card (it better have a chip or good luck using it in the UK), you're going to have to pay a fee. They're small, but they add up. You'll forget a million things that you need to get at the store, and you'll make multiple small trips to the store to get the necessities - partly because you feel awful for buying it all at once and spending so much money, but mostly because you can't carry both your groceries and your new duvet, 4 new pillows, and sheet set home at the same time. And if you're moving to a place where your money just isn't worth as much, have fun. It's great times spending all that money knowing that it cost you more than it actually says on the receipt. Enter buyer's remorse fighting with logic stating that you need bed linens and food.

The Basics.
Food. Transportation. Food. Cell phone plans. Food. Entertainment. Food. UGH.
There are so many reasons why this adds up so quickly. Just let it suffice to say that you should expect to spend way too much money on transportation in the early days. You don't know when (or how many times) you're going to have to pay for a taxi ride from one end of the city to the other because you simply can't lug your 50-pound suitcases, carry-on suitcases, and backpacks for miles through the less-desirable parts of town. Plan to spend way more money than you think you should on cell phones and services. Plan to find cheap ways to entertain yourself (cards, books, etc.). Plan to waste money trying to find good food that somewhat resembles what you're used to only to find out that it is so not what it should be. Plan for said food to cost way too much. And like I said in the little things, plan to spend a lot of money stocking your new and very empty pantry.

4. Finding a good place to live requires good research.
Yes, yes, and yes. But what they don't tell you is this:
- If you're a student, you might be required to pay a crazy amount of money upfront. Think first 6 months' rent.
- Some places don't accept students. Some places don't accept couples. Double the fun if you're both! Haaaa. Ha.
- If you're a foreigner with a visa and want to find a place of your own (what married couple wouldn't, right?), you have to have a financial backer who is from the UK or part of the EU. It's like having a cosigner on a car or an apartment. It's security for the company, sure. If you're moving abroad because of work, your company takes care of that - I'm guessing they're your backer. I'm pretty sure you can bypass this if you pay enough money upfront (again, think something along the lines of first 6 months' rent). So if you're a student at the mercy of student loans and you don't know any locals where you're going to be living that would be willing to back you, good luck living on your own.
- Speaking of student loans, they don't provide you with nearly enough money to live on as is actually required, especially when it comes to allotting money for rent. Nothing new there, though. It gets really interesting when the school is in city centre and you don't have a car.
- Scams. LOTS of scams. Basically, don't try find a place to live before you arrive - ever. Just plan on living in a hotel for a few weeks and wait. It will suck, but it won't suck as much as getting screwed over, losing time and money, and still not having a place to live. Thankfully, we didn't experience the scam part first-hand, but we can definitely tell you about how badly it sucks to live out of your suitcase in a hotel for three weeks. More on that later.

5. Once you get there, you'll be living the dream! After all, you MADE IT! Congratulations!
Lies. LIESSSSSS. When you move abroad, everything will be unfamiliar - and I mean everything (unless, of course, you've spent a significant amount of time staying there before - and only long-term travel counts for this classification of time-spent. Traveling abroad and living abroad are so not the same thing, folks).
- You have to buy groceries without knowing where they are, how to get there, or how to bring (read: carry) them back.
- You have to set up bank accounts and other "official" things that are barred by all sorts of official red tape, but no one tells you what they are or how to get across them until you're already in an office after waiting days (sometimes weeks) for your scheduled appointment just to be turned away. 
- You don't know anyone.
- You don't have any idea what food is terrible (although Yelp can aid you in your pursuits), which stores have over-priced items, which streets you should take to avoid the crowds, which part of town you definitely want to stay away from... you don't know anything. 
- Repeat: YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING. You thought you did because of those countless hours spent on researching your new home, but the truth is that you know next to nothing. And there is no real way to get around that until you live there. End of story. 
- I have yet to read or hear any story that states, "I moved abroad and it was a breeze! Everything worked out, I was so happy there right away and the whole time I lived there. I was never lonely, never homesick, never lost or confused or frustrated or angry. It was the perfect experience - like a dream come true!" Moving abroad might be the best decision you ever make in your lifetime, but I would put money on the fact that it will probably be one of the most difficult things you ever do.

6. Find some expat friends who are from the same country as soon as you can. You can relate to each other and gripe about the woes of being expats in your particular part of the world. It will instantly make you feel so much better and less alone.
Maybe this is true for other people - it must be, because I've read or heard that particular bit of advice from various sources. But it wasn't true for me. However, I will say this: find friends/family that have had their own expat experience and glean as much information from them as you possibly can!

Yes, finally finding some Americans was fantastic. We got to swap tourist stories, compare our initial reactions to Birmingham and England in general, and we definitely griped about the woes of being expats. Really, we griped about how crappy Birmingham is, but in the way that you gripe about choosing to get a new pet: It is generally wreaking havoc upon your life at the moment, but you both grow out of the initial "getting to know each other" phase and adapt; you even learn to love each other.

Man, that's actually a really good analogy.

In the end, though, finding American friends before we'd really gotten to know our UK friends only made me feel more alone and angsty toward my new home. It made me long for my home in a crazy way, and it made me miss my American friends that I left behind even more than I already did. 

It wasn't until we really began to get closer to our Birmingham people that my heart began softening and the heartache started to fade. I started liking my new home, mostly because I had the chance to relate this place with people that I enjoyed spending my time with and experiences that brought me joy. And when you get to know the people, you get to experience the ins and outs of the culture that make your new residence unique, which is probably a big reason why you chose to move to this particular part of the world in the first place. A new place doesn't ever truly become your home unless you have people and experiences that make that place worth living in. If you don't have that, you won't ever call it home.

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This tiny list is in no way exhaustive or complete. There are so many more things that I wish I would have known, things I have learned, things I have struggled with when it comes to our transition to our new home overseas. I have several blog posts in the works that revolve around these types of topics, but they're all centered around one thing: our experienceThe fact of the matter is that they took a lot of time and heartache to discover, but it mostly comes through personal experience. The things we learned or struggled with were unique to our personalities, experiences, previous and new residences, etc. Moving is different for everyone, and moving abroad looks different for every person as well.

If you're hoping or planning to move abroad one day, I hope this list helps you at least a little bit. There will be plenty of things that you encounter that I'll never even dream of, and vice versa. If you have questions you'd like to ask, ask away! But when it comes right down to it, there's nothing like learning through experience - and that's just what we had to do.