Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Creating a plan to move abroad

Engineer working on plans for Lake Union area, circa 1960s
Maybe I should write some of this shit down.
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives
Many people talk about wanting to move abroad, but do any of you have a plan to do so? I don't mean "Yeah, I'm planning on it", but a serious, well-thought-out plan. It's time to make one. This can let you understand what you're really facing, and forces you to deal with a hard question: is living abroad just a fantasy?

Clearing the road ahead

The first step is to read Why You'll Say No to Living Abroad. That lays out a thought experiment with one "Count von Europe" offering to let you move abroad ... on the condition that you leave tomorrow. Most of us can't do this (I certainly couldn't), but the idea brings into sharp focus everything that prevents you from moving. So step one is to read that post and make a "Obstacles to moving tomorrow" list. These obstacles should not be "I don't yet have a job abroad" but "assuming I could move, what's stopping me?" Back in 1998, I did not have a passport, so here's what my list might have looked like.

Obstacles To Moving Tomorrow
  • No passport
  • Two cats
  • A girlfriend who doesn't want to live far from her family
  • A lifetime of "stuff" I've accumulated

For each item in the list, you write down the steps needed to overcome that obstacle and the date by which those steps will be taken. If you do not have dates, you have a dream, not a plan. Write down those dates and stick to them. Also, note that no obstacles are insurmountable, but it's perfectly OK to say "that's a price I'm not willing to pay." This step helps clarify some of that.

As for my list above, getting a passport is straightforward. The cats are trickier. You need to understand about relocating your pets and pet passports. Or maybe you can find a friend or relative who will take them. By the time of my second move abroad, I already had my passport, I didn't have pets (since getting them would have impeded my move abroad) and no girlfriend. For virtually all of my worldly goods, I sold them for a very low price to ensure that I wouldn't have to take them with me and complicate my move. That also helped to pay for some of my relocation costs.

Dealing with a girlfriend is trickier (duh!). As it turns out, she would have been happy to live abroad so long as she could fly home often enough to visit family, so perhaps there was a way to work with that, too. However, if you have a partner who absolutely refuses to consider the idea (I've met a number of people who say they would never dream of living in another country), then the hard choice happens: do you give up your dream or your partner? This is one question I can't answer for you.

Determine your career path

Stumptown barista at the Ace Hotel
Being a talented barista doesn't count as "skilled labor".
Photo by Matt Biddulph
While you're sorting out your obstacles, you need to figure out if you're "skilled" or "unskilled" labor. From the standpoint of countries wanting to import your skills, you're likely skilled if you have a strong background in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering or math). Otherwise, you're probably unskilled. If you're a skilled worker, you need to read through my how to get a work permit series. Otherwise, read the young person's guide to moving abroad as a starting point for understanding your options. Whichever way you go, figuring out your plan, writing it down and setting dates for it is hard (this is often the hardest part), but it's a worthwhile exercise because it really lays the foundation for your move abroad. If you're an unskilled worker, you may very well decide to return to college to increase your chances. Many of the steps in this stage of your plan will benefit you whether you stay or go.

What are you really looking for?

Paradise ? No San Blas
A beach in Panama
Photo by Fathzer
Does salary matter to you? Do you want to live in a big city or rural area? Do you worry about your children's education? Are you willing to learn a new language? Do you have to live in a first-world country? Do you care about politics?

These and similar questions is where things start to get complicated. It's perfectly OK to say "I will move anywhere", but if you're a nightlife-loving single American woman, maybe Saudi Arabia wouldn't work for you.  This point is where you start doing research about different countries and try to figure out what offers you the best opportunities. The HSBC Expat Explorer can help with this, as can,, and other sites. After you get a few target countries, Wikipedia can help you start gathering some more detailed information about them. Many (most, I've found) Americans say they want to move to Europe, but much of that is driven by not knowing much about the other opportunities abroad. Would you really turn down a chance to spend weekends on a Panamanian beach? Keep your mind open and be willing to try the world.

Once you've got some ideas of what you're looking for in a destination, if you've already written your plans for "obstacles" and "career path", you should now be ready to start writing up your plan for the job hunt. Don't second guess whether or not your plan is realistic, just create it and don't forget those dates! If you think "I can't put a date on this", then you've created a plan that you can't put into action. Throw it away and start again. Make sure you sign up for Expat Blog, IslandX, Transitions Abroad,, and any other Web site you think might help you find that first job abroad. And, of course, keep reading this blog.

Share your plan?

Have you written you plan down? Are you willing to share it? I'm sure plenty of others would love to see it. If you have questions about a part of your personal "expatriation plan", drop me a line or comment here and I'll try to answer it for you.


  1. Thanks for the links and tools. Great post.

    This morning I made the odd discovery that the currency exchange differential between Iceland and the US is incredible - for a US citizen at least. Hardly a tropical paradise, but great politics, 1st world living standards, faster internet speeds than I'm used to. And for someone making plans around living on a very modest pension, those exchange rates matter. But SO much to investigate. Do I really want to move from a warm climate to the frozen north? Much to consider.

    Thanks for all the great tools in this post. If I do relocate you and your lovely family will always have an invitation to visit.

  2. @someofparts I wouldn't pay much attention to the currency exchange rate. What's more important is your income relative to the cost of living in that country (and even where in that country). Scandinavian countries have seemingly "favorable" exchange rates, but the costs of things compared to the US or even the rest of Europe would make your eyes fall out of your head.

  3. Curtis. I usually agree with everything you write, but I beg to disagree on the need for a comprehensive plan. My own plan (a great many years ago, at age 23, but it's still relevant) was to get on a boat with a job lined up at the other end, and tell my parents and my boss that I'd probably see them in three years. I didn't tell my girlfriend that, and I didn't ask her to come with me, either.

    Apart from a quick trip home when my Dad died, I didn't get back home for another seven years, and that was just passing through with my three-year-old wife, and I sincerely hope you understand what I mean by that. I had travelled around, worked and married in Canada, and worked in Bahamas. Eight years after the visit home, I found a new home here in the Caribbean. A written plan would only have slowed me down. My wife (whom I met in Greece) had the same non-plan as I did; she too didn't see her mother or home for seven years. She intended to go back earlier, but, well, things happened along the way, you know how it is.

    As well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I urged the same plan on my son, and it has worked out for him too. He hitched a ride on a yacht to Galveston and ended up in Norway, via Mexico and Ecuador. Sometimes, just jumping on a boat is better than all manner of planning.