15 Things American Expats Don’t Think About Before Moving Abroad

Moving abroad is exciting. It can also be headache-inducing, depending on how you approach it.

As an American who appreciates her country but has wings on her feet, I’ve moved to two different countries. I’m currently writing this from my home in Panama, ready to share some of the biggest takeaways I learned about moving from the U.S.

So, before you hop on that plane, check this list to see if you have your international ducks in a row.


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The points I make in this article are broad and general. Every country is different; it’s unlikely all of these items apply to your situation.

So, use this information as a guide, but do your due diligence to check how things operate in the country where you’ll be moving to.

1: Build a Flight Fund

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It’s wise for American expats to beef up their standard emergency fund with extra money for an emergency flight home. That’s especially the case if you live in a place with a low cost of living, where having a six-month emergency fund equates to less than $6,000 in the bank.

When estimating a flight emergency fund, keep in mind that last-minute flight purchases are usually much higher than booking months in advance. So, investigate about how much money a last-minute plane ticket costs from where you live to where you need to fly in the U.S. Then, overcompensate your savings for it even more should flight prices rise.

2: Rent Before Buying

Keys on a table.
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You certainly don’t have to own a home to be a “real” expat living abroad. But if being a homeowner abroad is your goal, I encourage you to rent a place first.

Renting before buying allows you to get a better feel for the area you want to live in or test out different regions of the country to see where you like best. If you don’t have a vehicle, this is your opportunity to try out local public transportation. As I’ve learned during my travels, just because a place has public transportation doesn’t mean it’s reliable or isn’t packed to the brim with passengers.

3: Research the Culture

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Researching the culture where you’ll be moving to goes beyond learning to say “thank you” in the local language or reading up on the festivals they have throughout the year. Instead, look deeper.

Is talking with strangers you pass by on the street common, as it is in the U.S.? In many Asian countries, it’s not, and you could make people uncomfortable. Furthermore, are you prepared to dress as locals dress? If not, are you okay with sticking out?

For example, most people in Panama wouldn’t dream of leaving for an outing without wearing jeans or another form of pants or a long skirt. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing shorts to the store in Panamanian culture; it’s just not something many locals do. As a female here, I’ve learned that going against the grain and wearing shorts isn’t worth the attention it draws. So, I’ve learned to deal with wearing jeans in 90-degree weather.

4: Streaming Services Vary

TV apps.
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Did you know that you might not be able to access your favorite Netflix show in the country you move to? Netflix and other streaming services often offer a slightly different selection of TV shows and movies based on one’s location. The maturity ratings might even be different, so be careful if you’re moving with little ones.

If you can’t find the show you want to watch on your go-to streaming service, a virtual private network (VPN) might not work. For example, Netflix point-blank states that any customer using a VPN will only be able to see shows and movies if they have worldwide rights.

The bottom line? You might limit your options by using a VPN on a streaming service abroad.

5: Making Friends

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No matter how many friends you have in the U.S., here’s the cold hard truth: It’s hard to maintain long-distance friendships.

Research shows a clear relationship between having friends and increased levels of happiness. But there’s also science showing that the quality of friendships can impact how happy one is.

So, what does this look like for expats? Personally, I’ve found it the most fulfilling to have local and fellow expat friends when living abroad. Integrating into the culture is important to me, but it’s nice to be able to turn to fellow Americans and other foreigners living overseas who get it when I have expat-related problems.

6: Bureaucracy Could Run High

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This point will vary significantly depending on the country you move to. I count my blessings to have dealt with minimal bureaucracy in the countries I’ve lived in, but I’ve met many expats where that hasn’t been the case.

From visa troubles to buying a car to getting a mortgage, there’s a plethora of opportunities for bureaucracy to rear its ugly head in certain parts of the world. I recommend connecting with expat groups on Facebook, Meetup, or similar social networks to learn about potential bureaucracy-related issues from people on the ground before moving overseas.

7: Spotlight Is On

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Moving to a country where you don’t look like the majority of the locals can take some adjustment. In the best-case scenarios, you’ll receive some extra stares and questions about where you’re from. In the worst cases, it could lead to unwanted attention and dangerous situations.

From my experience, some expats underestimate how much looking different can impact their daily lives. Always standing out can wear on some people, and dealing with unwanted or negative attention certainly does. Of course, some Americans are already all too familiar with this feeling; they experience xenophobia without even leaving the U.S.

8: Understand Visa Options

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Many countries offer more than just a standard tourist or residency visa. Depending on the reason for your international move, it might make more sense to see if you can get a digital nomad or work visa.

In some cases, you might even be able to base yourself in a country on a tourist visa. In that case, you’d need to leave the country every certain number of days or months before reentering on a new tourist visa.

The bottom line? The country you want to move to, your reason for moving there, and the length of time you plan to stay all impact the best-suited visa for an expat’s situation.

9: Electricity Reliability

Fixing a power outage.
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Just because the town or city where you live abroad has electricity doesn’t mean it’ll work well. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with this in Panama to the point where I bought a solar panel as a backup for when the electricity inevitably goes out.

So, if you work from home, keep your fridge stocked with expensive food, or simply enjoy having working electricity most of the time, check with locals to gauge their electricity’s reliability.

No one can guarantee the electricity won’t ever go out. But I know many Americans wouldn’t be thrilled about losing electricity once or more per week, as is the case where I live.

10: Accounting Woes

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Unless you’re an accountant with experience dealing with foreigners working abroad, trust me on this: You’ll want to hire an accountant before you move to help you understand how it’ll affect your taxes.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You might qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, which can make tax season more bearable, especially if you live in a country where you’re also required to pay taxes to that country.

11: Health Insurance

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Americans are no strangers to paying high health insurance premiums. But plenty of other countries are expensive, too. Whereas Statista says that the per-capita health expenditure in the U.S. in 2021 was $12,318, it was $7,383 in Germany, which is the second most expensive country for healthcare in the world.

Not only is it wise to purchase health insurance in the country where you live, but you may also want to keep your health insurance policy in the U.S. Otherwise, you run the risk of high medical bills should you return to the States for a visit and need medical care.

12: Food Diversity

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Many Americans think about their favorite grocery store food they won’t have when moving abroad. That can certainly be a fear come true. However, if you move to a large city, you might be surprised by how many food brands you know and love that you have access to.

So, before packing an extra suitcase stuffed to the brim with the foods you think you won’t be able to buy in your new home country, do some research. Don’t believe me? The local supermarket in the closest town I live in sells Hershey’s chocolate syrup and Beyond Burgers.

13: Maintain Relationships at Home

Backpacker on the phone.
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Just because it’s hard to maintain long-distance friendships in the U.S. doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in the effort. FaceTime, Instagram, and WhatsApp are some of the many options you can use to audio or video call your friends and family.

A piece of advice I’ve learned from experience is to keep detailed stories about my life abroad to a minimum. The exceptions are with my immediate family. While not always the case, I’ve found that it’s hard for people at home to relate to how I live, so I tend to give them a shortened version, saving the nitty-gritty details for the friends I have here.

14: Unlock Your Phone

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Sure, you can buy a new phone in the country you move to, equipped with a new SIM card. But if you love your current phone, there’s little need to do that.

Instead, talk with your phone provider and ask them to unlock your phone. Depending on your contract, there may be a fee for them to do this. Once your phone is unlocked, you’ll be able to purchase a SIM card for a low fee in the country you move to.

I have my phone set up so that at the click of a button I can switch between my Verizon eSIM card when I’m in the U.S. and my Panama SIM card when I’m home.

15: Drying Clothes

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Believe it or not, owning a clothes drying machine isn’t the norm in many parts of the world, including in developed countries. For example, it’s common for Europeans to hang their clothes on a clothes line rather than drying them in a machine.

Depending on where you move to, you might be able to purchase a dryer even if it isn’t the norm in most houses. If not, be prepared for laundry day to take longer than you’re used to.

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