Living and working abroad is an aspiration for many, but it can seem like a far-fetched goal. I’m here to tell you it can be done.
I’ve had the travel bug for a long time. As a kid growing up in the U.K., my family had only three channels of TV to choose from: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. Every few months ITV showed a James Bond blockbuster. The trouble was, it usually started after my bedtime, and I had to beg my mum to let me stay up. We lived in a thatched 400-year-old cottage in rural Exeter, a far departure from the glamorous life of 007, and I was completely entranced by the globetrotting adventures of the most famous spy ever. Soon it became my mission to see as much of the world as possible.
I studied and worked in Germany as part of my college degree and then ended up living in in Munich for my first job. But my eyes really opened when I moved to Hong Kong with Microsoft more than a decade later. It hit me that there is a huge difference between going on a vacation or taking a business trip to a foreign country and actually living there, befriending the locals and becoming immersed in the culture.
Since Hong Kong, I have lived in Singapore, Seattle, and now Palo Alto. Moving and working abroad hasn't always been easy — over the years I've learned a ton about how to prepare and what to expect. Here are a few things to think about before making a big move.
1. Things to know before you go. Okay, so you have a job offer in a different country. There are two major factors to consider before accepting it. First, is the job one that you’re really excited about, and is it in line with your ultimate career goals? Second, do you want to live in the country where the job is based? There is some tension between those two things.
For example, let’s say your dream has been to move to Paris, but the job you’re considering is a lateral move or a step down. Conversely, there could be a role that is absolutely superb for your career, but it’s based in a dangerous place where you can’t walk outside without a bodyguard, which would make life very unpleasant.
Those are major, major factors. Make sure you are comfortable with both the job and the location.
The final consideration: How will your spouse and children adjust to the new place? Sure, you may enjoy an exciting, far-flung locale, but living in a country with poor infrastructure can be difficult for families. Thoroughly research the quality of housing and schools, and whether basic needs such as electricity and clean water are easily accessible.
2. Have your finances in order. When I was interviewing for my job in Hong Kong, I visited the city and immediately fell in love with it. When I received the job offer, I noticed that it had a housing allowance. I remember thinking, Wow, that is amazing. They are paying me so much on top of my salary for housing. Then, when I went to look at apartments, I found that the only places I could afford with that allowance were miserable. I had to go back to renegotiate my deal.
The key lesson I learned was to be aware of different market pricing and figure out how much accommodation will cost beforehand — that’s the biggest expense you will have.
Related: How to Launch a Business Abroad
Be sure to consider which currency you will be paid in, your home country’s or your new one’s. Local packages can sometimes be more attractive than expat packages because of the tax situation. (Note that the United States is one of a small number of countries that tax foreign earnings.) Do the math to see which deal is better for you.
Also, most standard job offers requiring relocation include a few months of temporary housing, a rental car and a local agent who will help you find longer-term accommodation.
3. Follow the local customs. The Digital Age has made the world a whole lot smaller, but every country conducts business in a slightly different way. As an expat, it's simultaneously thrilling and nerve-wracking to learn the cultural norms of your new home and job. Know this: One seemingly small mistake could ruin a relationship.
The key is understanding where formality is required. Some countries have polite and friendly forms of addressing people, depending on your role in their society. Others are always formal. Dress codes also vary.
Gifts are important in some markets. For example, in Hong Kong, it's important that team leaders give employees little red packets with money for Lunar New Year. It's also crucial that you don't give the wrong gift. There's a story about how Prince Charles once presented a Hong Kong businessman with a clock. He meant it as a friendly gesture, but in Chinese culture a clock symbolizes death. The businessman never took the clock out of its wrapping.
Keep an open mind about your new home. For every job I’ve taken in a foreign country, I've considered myself to be a tourist for the first two months. It's important to listen, learn,and absorb as much as possible. Wait until everything sinks in before forming an opinion about the place.
Yes, you will have some preconceived notions about the way certain things should be done, both in and out of the workplace. Try and push those biases to the back of your mind and instead focus on learning new things. The fact is, there are many different ways to do things. This is a terrific opportunity to discover them.
Experiencing different cultures and working environments around the globe can be extremely rewarding. As I’ve moved from place to place, I’ve become more open-minded about different opinions and ideas. I sometimes think back to the teenage me, watching James Bond’s adventures in my family living room, feeling so inspired by the prospect of exploring the world.
That feeling still remains.
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