Welcome to I’m Not From Here — a monthly column by five people who have lived the expat experience and want to share their advice and anecdotes with anyone thinking of doing the same. We know all too well that packing up and starting over elsewhere is one of the most exhilarating, yet stressful, things you can do. So each month we will aim to make your move that little bit easier while reminiscing about our own crazy adventures abroad. Enjoy and bon voyage!
Fourteen years ago, I headed to Sydney airport to embark on my new life in New York. I was sad to leave my family and friends (and the beach) but could not wait to get to the place I had been wanting to live since I was 11 years old.
I strolled up to the check-in counter and handed over my ticket, only to be asked by the desk agent to see my return ticket too.
“Oh, I don’t have one,” I replied. “I’m moving there permanently.”
“Okay, no worries,” the Qantas agent said. “In that case, can I see your visa?”
“I don’t have it yet,” I said innocently. “My company is organising that for me once I get to New York.”
Suffice to say, I soon learned this was not going to fly and neither was I unless I could provide proof of either a valid working visa or a return ticket back to Australia — information that neither myself nor my US employer had known. Thankfully, my mum happily purchased a fully refundable flight from New York back to Sydney so that I could board my flight and head off to start my new life.
However, the obstacles did not stop there. Because my company had not been able to organise my visa in time for my departure, I was not legally allowed to work or be paid until it was sorted. Thinking that this was an easy fix, the company had booked an appointment for me at the US consulate in Toronto (the O1 visa I was on could only be stamped outside of the country) but had me there only for one night, thinking that would be all the time it took to get that trusty little stamp.
Once again, I was met with exasperation as the immigration officer told me the process took up to five days and so I could either come back another time for an appointment or surrender my passport and remain in Toronto until the paperwork was processed. I headed back to New York and returned to Toronto the following week to wait for my golden ticket.
So now the issue of me being able to legally work was solved, but the small factor of receiving my first paycheck was not. You see, without a valid Social Security number in the US, you can’t be paid, but waiting to get your SS card can take up to six weeks (or even more). Without that little blue and white piece of cardboard, it also becomes practically impossible to rent an apartment, get a mobile phone, internet or cable TV or open a bank account.
So there I was, in one of the world’s most expensive cities, working my dream job and commanding a dream salary, but not getting paid a cent. And I only had a few weeks left of living in my cushy corporate housing before I would be faced with doling out the city’s sky-high monthly rents.
My search for an apartment was equally as stressful as I had not done my research on the different New York neighbourhoods and now realised that each one was very specifically suited to different budgets and personality types. I was, therefore, tasked with asking my new colleagues which ‘hood they thought I was best suited to, despite the fact they had known me for all of five minutes.
When I did finally find the perfect apartment, a lovely two bedroom space on the Upper East Side with a big private courtyard and right on the East River, the leasing agent wanted six months’ rent upfront because I didn’t have a credit history. This obviously was a little tricky because I still hadn’t been paid thanks to my social security situation. One USD $17,000 loan from my family later and I had a place to call home, thank god.
In the end, everything worked out just fine and I spent 12 of the best years of my life living and working in the greatest city on earth, but there are quite a few things that I wish I had known before I left Australia that would have made my transition that much easier. A quick check-in with my co-authors of this column revealed that they, too, have lived and learned the hard way.
So, here is your ultimate checklist for moving your life overseas:
Do Your Own Research
International moves and transfers are more common now than they were even when I first became an expat, so it feels reasonable to trust the company that’s transferring you (if that is how you are making the move) to know what they are doing.
However, as was my experience, sometimes that is not entirely the case and if the company is new to sponsoring overseas employees it can’t hurt to make sure that you have all the information yourself so you can address any gaps if necessary. Spend some time online, check out the government or immigration websites for where you are going or even consult with an immigration lawyer so you know exactly what you are getting into and how long certain processes take so you can plan your safety net accordingly.
Note that research doesn’t necessarily need to be done online. Co-author Sangeeta Kocharekar, an American who moved to Australia 12 years ago, says she learnt a lot about visas and their rules simply by chatting with people when she’d arrived in the country.
“I came to Australia on a student visa, but through friends and even random people I talked to who had accents, I learnt what kind of jobs people who needed sponsorship (like I did) had gotten,” she says. “That gave me a good idea of what job I should try to find that would also offer me sponsorship.”
Know Your Neighbourhoods
If you’ll be finding accommodation once you’re over there, do your research on the different neighbourhoods your new city is made up of and try to get a sense of which one may make sense for you.
This task may be easier if you’ve frequented your new home before or have good friends already there who can guide you, but if you’re going in almost blind it’s a good idea to know what you’re looking at and where might best suit your interests and personality.
Of course, no matter how fabulous, cultured and just the right amount of bohemian you are, a place like the West Village may still be out of reach due to the pricey rents, so also research what your money can get you and try to have some options for where you might want to lay your head at night.
Another factor to consider is proximity to work, if you have that sorted, or the general business district you’re likely to get a job in. It’s no good finding your ideal home-away-from-home if you’re going to be hit with a two-hour commute each day. Checking up on public transport links, cycling routes, or parking is also a good idea as some cities have less than sensible transport options.
Having only ever visited New York in the summer, I was woefully unprepared for what an East Coast winter was like. I laugh now at how naive I was in thinking I would need an only slightly heavier jacket than the one I used in Australia and how chic I felt when I purchased a red Paddington-style coat for my new New York life. I also bought a little woollen beret and figured that would do me. Like, I said, it makes me laugh now.
Arriving in New York in November, I was rudely awakened to the fact I would be needing a bigger, warmer coat and about a zillion other things if my little Aussie beach bum self was going to survive until Spring. It would have been so much better if I had planned and packed appropriately ahead of leaving, rather than putting myself in the position of running around New York freezing my butt off as I tried to navigate the endless shops and department stores looking for winter clothes.
Equally, things like which plugs work for your devices are easy to forget but can be a huge pain when you land, cautions co-author Jack Revell, who moved from the UK to Australia.
“Be prepared with at least one or two adaptors for local electrical outlets but don’t overdo it as they’re easy to get once you’re on the ground,” he says. “Also expect that your devices will change over time and come with the requisite plugs. There’s no need for a power board for your now-foreign plugs (trust us on this one).”
Put Friend Feelers Out Ahead of Time
If you are moving to a place where you don’t know many people, it’s a great idea to try to connect with some locals ahead of time. Ask your friends, family and colleagues if they have any mates that live where you’re going who have similar interests and lifestyles to you, and ask to be introduced over email or Facebook.
You’d be surprised how happy people are to meet up with you for a drink or coffee, especially if they are expats themselves, and answer any questions you might have. I have been asked many times over the course of my years living abroad to be this person for new arrivals to New York, and it’s how I ended up meeting some of my closest friends to this day.
You can also find out what social groups are around that cater to your specific interests and sign up or find out if there are expat meet up groups that you can join. Making new friends in a new city can be daunting at first, but I found that the friendships I formed living in a transient place like New York are some of the strongest and most significant I’ve ever had.
If you’re moving overseas for college, like my co-author Natasha Bazika did, she suggests also reaching out to your dorm roommate ahead of time to hopefully make the transition to living together feel slightly less awkward.
Have a Financial Security Blanket
Whether you’re moving for school or work, it’s a really good idea to have money you can fall back on if you need it. It could be that it takes a while to find work or, like me, there could be delays in getting paid, so make sure you have cash saved up so that you can still feed yourself and enjoy your new home.
Natasha, who spent five years living in the US, also suggests having a travel money card to buy essentials as bank funds take a while to transfer to the US.
“If possible, look into online banks like Up (Australia) or Monzo (UK), that don’t ask questions,” says another of my co-author’s, Ange Law, who spent two years living in London.
“Alternatively, a bank like HSBC also lets you transfer your account to a UK account easily, so sign up for a card before leaving Australia so you land with a working bank account.”
Ange’s advice is obviously specific to anyone moving to the UK, so spend some time researching what your options are if you are heading somewhere else.
Find Out About Medical Coverage
Ange suggests that taking out annual travel insurance is a good idea. “Who knows how long it’ll take to get settled, or how long you’ll move around in the first year,” she says. “Having travel insurance may end up saving you if you need medical care before you land your residency permit.”
This brings me to my next point, which is healthcare. We are thoroughly spoiled here in Australia with our Medicare card and affordable private insurance, but that is obviously not the case everywhere (especially in the US).
If you’re not getting health insurance through an employer then please, please, please look into what coverage you are eligible for before you go. If you’re only going for a year then you can probably get away with the aforementioned annual travel insurance, but if you are relocating more permanently, you need to make sure you are covered.
Get Yourself a Shipping Address
Says Ange: “When you move overseas, you’ll quickly learn the annoying vicious cycle that is not being able to get a job before you get a bank account but needing a shipping address to get a bank account and tax file number equivalent but not being able to get a rental (and therefore, address) without a job.
“Save yourself a headache by finding somewhere to have your mail shipped so you have proof of address. The easiest way is to ask a friend who lives in the country — you’ll be surprised how willing distant acquaintances are to help you.”
Lean on Vague Professional Contacts
Chances are, if you are heading off to live overseas, it could be that you’ve already got a job lined up and they are helping you with all of the finer details of the move.
However, if you are taking the plunge and moving somewhere with the intention of finding a job once there, it can prove to be very tough, as Ange discovered.
“Finding a job overseas can be really hard, and the only way I was able to land one was by messaging a friend who worked with someone that knew a salesperson at the place I eventually ended up working,” she says. “People love to help other people, so leave any shame at home and reach out to everyone you’ve ever known.”
Keep All Your Docs in One Place
The most boring part of moving overseas has got to be all of the paperwork that is involved, especially when it comes to the visa approval process.
If you end up living in a different country for many years, as I did, you will likely need to repeat the whole tedious process every three years or so in order to make sure your visa is valid.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep a folder with all of your physical paperwork in one place — and a backup digital file of all your scanned documentation too. This is something Natasha, who also had to navigate documents for college, can also attest to.
Having all of your paperwork in one place just makes it so much easier when you need them (and believe, me, you will need them more often than you think) so, as boring as it is, spend some time getting really organised and making sure nothing is missing.
By about my sixth year of living in New York, I even had my visa documentation arranged in the folder in the order I would need them at my immigration appointments. Psychotic? Maybe. Super handy and time-saving? Most definitely.
Now that you’re (hopefully) more prepared to start your new life abroad, next time we’ll look into surviving your first holiday period overseas. Christmas is coming and being far away from friends and family can be a daunting and lonely experience but never fear as we’ve all done it and can show you the ropes for how we got through and had the time of our lives in the process. See you next month!