The Expat Friend Blog

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Emigrating

If you're in the thinking about, or planning stages of emigrating, and want some real-life advice, you've come to the right place! Our own adventures first began 6 years ago in South Africa and continued more recently in Mauritius. We've made lots of mistakes, and learned how NOT to relocate, mainly by inadvertently doing it the hard (and expensive) way. In order to save you time, money and heartache, I've compiled my top 3 list of the questions you should consider before emigrating.

The fact is, there's nothing easy about moving to a new country, especially if you're doing it without support from an employer or immigration agency. There's such a lot to organise and think about, and so much preparation involved that it can often become overwhelming. By breaking it all down, in these early stages, you'll hopefully have a bit more clarity about what you want to achieve, why, where and how.

Moving to a new country is, for better or worse, always going to be a life-altering experience. Before I start, I just want to make it clear that, on the whole, I've loved living overseas. Moving to new countries, with totally different cultures, has felt a lot like experiencing childhood again; everything seems new, exciting, confusing and without reference. It's permanently, and positively, shaken up the way I now think about the world, and my place in it.  

If living abroad is your dream too, don't give up. Get ready!  

We've made lots of mistakes, and learned how NOT to relocate, mainly by inadvertently doing it the hard (and expensive) way.

Steps to emigration

Question 1: Why am I emigrating? 

My husband and I had always wanted to live abroad, but always believed it would be somewhere like France, Spain or Italy. We'd not given much thought what that life would be like in reality, only that it would somehow be 'better' than life in the UK. We were thrown a curveball when we were offered the opportunity to move to Cape Town, South Africa as we'd never entertained the thought of moving so far away and had never even visited. Though we did lots of research - and almost scared ourselves silly reading about the crime levels - we didn't have a good idea of what to expect or what we hoped to get out of it. We knew we wanted to have a lifechanging experience, but didn't really have knowledge of, or plan for, the obstacles we'd face. Nor did we factor in how expensive it would be. We lived there for two years in total and were lucky to have an amazing experience that we don't regret. Ultimately though, we could see the writing on the wall and recognised that South Africa's social and economic upheaval was more than we could handle

Hopefully - unlike us - you've thought long and hard about why you want to move to another country and feel ready for the changes (and challenges) this will bring. If not, now's the time to start. If you don't know why you want to move, perhaps a rethink is in order. I don't want to seem like a Debbie Downer at this point but thinking properly about what motivates will save you from making expensive, and time-consuming mistakes. So, what are you looking and hoping for?:

  • A better work/life balance? 
  • More money? 
  • Better career prospects? 
  • An adventure? 

We all have different reasons for wanting to experience life in a new place; for us, the 'why' (having an adventure) was more important than the 'where'.    

People often have a romanticised idea of what living in another country is like, but for those that have done it, it's often a long, hard slog to get to a point where they feel settled. There can be many obstacles along the way and sometimes things don't turn out how you expect them to. If you have any financial, relationship or family pressures, moving overseas is unlikely to make those things easier. You'll still face the same pressures as in your home country, only this time in an unfamiliar culture where you might not have as much support. If you're keen to relocate, but your loved ones aren't, this can lead to problems and resentment later on. 

Making such a huge change inevitably involves risk; is this something you're willing to take? If the answer is still yes, then the next stage is to answer the following:  

Question 2: Where am I emigrating to?

As I said before, South Africa wasn't our first, second or even third choice but we decided to give it a try anyway. Even though we'd gleaned as much information about the country as possible from the internet, we were still fairly ignorant and realised as much as soon as we arrived. Like most people, we already knew bits and pieces, mainly through news items and from history books, most of which focused on Nelson Mandela and apartheid. What we found when we arrived was so different from what we were expecting that it took a few months to process; everything seemed much louder, faster and brighter initially. There were lots of similarities in terms of infrastructure, with excellent roads, schools and hospitals but culturally we found it very different. For a country with eleven official languages, many people spoke English, which made our lives much easier. The pace of life was much more relaxed than we were used to, and people generally lived a more outdoorsy lifestyle, which we loved. The South Africans we met were very friendly and optimistic, which contradicted some of the doom and gloom accounts we'd read about when researching the country. However, the poverty in the townships was unlike anything we'd ever imagined, and we experienced culture shock. It's one thing to read about extreme poverty, and another to witness it first-hand. The divide between the haves (including ourselves) and have-nots was something we could never quite come to terms with.  

This might seem obvious but lots of people uproot themselves and their families only to find that the place they are moving to is too different or doesn't live up to their expectations. Get to know where you are moving to as much as possible before you move - it won't detract from the adventure you'll inevitably have when you relocate, but it will help you to be better prepared mentally and emotionally. Speak to people who have already made the move on expat forums, and get their insights on any issues that concern you. Ask yourself how much you really know about the following before committing yourself any further:  

  • What is the culture like? Are there any customs you would find difficult to accept or adapt to? (see my post on culture shock)
  • Are there any ongoing social, political or economic problems?
  • Are there any language barriers? 
  • What is the climate like? Have you experienced the worst of the weather as well as the best? 
  • What is the cost of living like? Are there any hidden expenses you haven't factored in? Perhaps additional taxes or charges for non-nationals
  • What is the infrastructure like? Does it meet your standards?
  • Is there much red tape? 
  • Is there a different level of efficiency/inefficiency than you're currently used to? 

Make sure you research your chosen country thoroughly before making any decisions. Better still, if you can afford it, try to visit at different times of the year, learn the language and get to know the community, its culture and climate before you move. This might seem expensive, but it's nowhere near as much money as you'll spend on relocating yourselves, your possessions and setting yourselves up (and returning home again if it doesn't work out!). 

Question 3: When am I going?

We had a rough idea of when we wanted to leave and gave ourselves around six months to try and get everything organised. Due to our house sale being delayed (see the blog post What Could Possibly go Wrong), it took a bit longer than we anticipated. During those six months, we were trying to sort out housing, schooling, work-related issues and travel arrangements. We were also researching as much as we could about Cape Town and South Africa, as well as trying to prepare ourselves and our children for the huge changes that were to come. 

Moving overseas takes a lot of planning and preparation, more so if there is more than just you moving. Give yourself plenty of time - ideally at least six months - to get organised. If you can't manage it yourself, get as much professional help and advice as you can. Set yourself up with a timeline of roughly when things need to be done by, or download my FREE countdown to moving checklists. You're going to have a LOT of paperwork to get through, so now is the time to start collating, copying and notarising the documents you may need to support your applications for visas, schools, jobs, accommodation etc. Here are a few other suggestions for you to think about in the lead up to moving: 

Take lots of passport-sized photos - you'll need them now and later on when establishing yourself in your new country.

Use a planning and organisation app - we liked Trello the best and used it for both relocations

Ask your GP to print out your vaccinations, previous treatment and health information to take with you. 

If you're interested in finding out more useful tips or knowing more about our relocation adventures you can download my book, or contact me for some informal, friendly support.