If you wish to live abroad, whether permanently or for part of the year only, you must ensure that it will be possible and that you will be able to afford it before making any plans. Note that if you don't qualify to live in a country by birthright or as a national of a country that's a member of a treaty such as the European Union (EU), it may be impossible to obtain a residence permit.
Do You Need a Permit or Visa?
Before making any plans to live abroad, you must ensure that you will be permitted to freely enter and leave a country, live there as long as you wish and become a resident, and do anything else you have in mind, such as work as self-employed, start a business or buy a home. For example, a national of a European Union (EU) country can live and work in any other EU country, although there's no automatic right to a residence permit and retirees must meet minimum income levels. Similarly, unless you're a citizen of Canada or the USA, you won't be permitted to live in North America for longer than three months a year without an appropriate permit or visa.
If there's a possibility that you or any family member may wish to live abroad permanently, you should enquire whether it will be possible before making any plans. In some countries the rules and regulations governing permits and visas change frequently, therefore it's important to obtain up‑to‑date information from an embassy or consulate in your home country.
Permit infringements are taken seriously by the authorities in all countries and there are penalties for breaches of regulations, including fines and even deportation for flagrant abuses.
Keeping in Touch
The availability quality and cost of local services such as mail, telephone (including mobile phones and the Internet/e-mail/broadband) and fax may be an important consideration when planning to live abroad, particularly if you wish to keep in close touch with family and friends or business associates. The range of services and the reliability and speed of mail deliveries varies considerably depending on the country. In some countries airmail letters can take weeks to be delivered, even to neighbouring countries, and thousands of items of mail go astray each year. Nowadays it's possible to set up what's called a 'portable office' whereby you postal, telephone, fax and e-mail addresses are 'transparent' and can be taken with you wherever you live.
Although it isn't so important if you're moving to a neighbouring country within a reasonable driving or flying distance of your family and friends, one of the major considerations when living abroad is often transport links (road, rail, air and sea links) with your home country. How long will it take to get there, e.g. by air, taking into account journeys to and from airports? Is it possible to drive? One of the main advantages of being able to drive is that you can take much more luggage with you and the cost for a family may be significantly lower than flying. Could you travel by bus, train or ferry? What does it cost? How frequent are buses, flights, trains or ferries at the time(s) of year when you plan to travel. Is it feasible to travel home for a long weekend, given the cost and travelling time involved.
For many people, an important aspect of living abroad is being able to get around easily, relatively cheaply and safely. Public transport services in most countries vary considerably from excellent to terrible or even non-existent, depending on where you live. In some countries, public transport is poor and there's no rail service and only an infrequent and unreliable local bus service. Public transport tends to be excellent to adequate in major cities, where there may be an integrated system encompassing buses, trains, trams and possibly a metro or ferry system. However, outside the main towns and cities, public transport can be sparse and most people who live in rural areas find it necessary to have their own car. Taxis are common and plentiful in most countries, although they can be prohibitively expensive or even dangerous. In some countries there are inexpensive shared taxis or mini-buses, which pick up and drop off passengers at any point along their route.
If you don't drive or aren't planning to own a car abroad, you'll usually need to live in a city or large town where there's adequate public transport. If you don't plan to drive abroad, you should investigate the frequency and cost of local public transport. Note that if you don't have a car, you may need to use taxis to carry your shopping home or have it delivered.
Bear in mind that in some countries, public transport can be unsafe or even dangerous, which may include old unserviceable 'equipment' (aircraft, buses, ferries, taxis, trains, etc.), a lack of safety equipment and procedures (life-belts, life-rafts, seat-belts, etc.), cars and transport may be overloaded, and drivers and operators may be poorly trained or otherwise unfit to operate public transport. In some countries foreigners are warned not to use public transport with the exception of official taxis.
If you're wedded to your car (or at least to having your own transport), you probably wouldn't consider living somewhere where you cannot get around independently. Having your own transport will also allow you a much wider choice of where you can live. However, if isn't always necessary to own a car and many people use taxis for local trips and rent a car for longer journeys.
Note that women aren't permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia and some other countries don't allow any visitors to drive, while others have special requirements.
Bear in mind that driving is a nerve‑wracking and even dangerous experience in many countries, and most people are more accident‑prone when driving abroad. Driving in cities is often totally chaotic at the best of times, particularly when traffic drives on a different side of the road from that in your home country. A car can be a liability in towns if you don't have private parking and you will save a lot of money if you can manage without one, which is why many people on a limited budget live in towns.
In most countries, finding accommodation to rent or buy isn't difficult, provided your requirements aren't too unusual. There are, however, a few exceptions. For example, rented accommodation in major cities is usually in high demand and short supply, and rents can be very high. Accommodation usually accounts for around 25 per cent of the average family's budget, but can be up to 50 per cent in major cities. Property prices and rents vary considerably depending on the region and city, and have increased steadily in most major cities in recent years (although the recession in 2008-09 has reduced prices). In cities and large towns, apartments are much more common than detached houses, which are rare and prohibitively expensive.
People in most countries aren't very mobile and move house much less frequently than, for example, the Americans and British, which is reflected in the fairly stable property market. It generally isn't worth buying a home abroad unless you plan to stay in the country for the medium to long term, say a minimum of five years and preferably 10 to 15. People in most countries don't buy domestic property as an investment, but as a home for life, and you shouldn't expect to make a quick profit when buying property abroad.
One of the most important aspects of living abroad (or anywhere for that matter) is maintaining good health. The quality of health care and health care facilities vary considerably from country to country, although most western countries provide good to excellent health care for those who can afford to pay for private treatment. However, there's a stark contrast between public and private health facilities in many countries, even western countries, some of which have severely over-stretched and under‑funded public health services.
The provision of fully-equipped hospitals is rare in many countries (in some countries there's only one major general hospital in the capital city), and nursing care and post‑hospital assistance are well below what most westerners take for granted. Health facilities in remote areas, even in developed countries, are often inadequate, and if you have a serious accident or need emergency hospital treatment in some countries, you will need to be evacuated to the nearest major city or possibly even to another country.
Another important consideration when living abroad (even for brief periods) is finance, which includes everything from transferring and changing money to banking, mortgages and local taxes. If you're planning to invest in a property or business abroad financed with funds imported from another country, it's important to consider both the present and possible future exchange rates (don't be too optimistic!). On the other hand, if you live and work abroad and earn your income in the local currency, this may affect your financial commitments abroad (particularly if the local currency is devalued). Bear in mind that your income can be exposed to risks beyond your control when you live abroad, particularly regarding inflation and exchange rate fluctuations.
It's important to obtain expert financial advice before going to live abroad from an independent and impartial source, i.e. NOT someone who's trying to sell you anything else!
If you plan to live abroad you must ensure that your income is (and will remain) sufficient to live on, bearing in mind currency devaluations and exchange rate fluctuations (if your income isn't paid in the local currency), rises in the cost of living (see below), and unforeseen expenses such as medical bills or anything else that may reduce your income, such as stock market crashes and recessions! Foreigners, particularly retirees, often under‑estimate the cost of living abroad and some are forced to return home after a few years.
Before planning to live or work abroad, it's advisable to investigate the local taxes, particularly income tax, social security and other taxes incurred by residents. If you plan to buy a home abroad, you may also need to take into account property taxes (rates), capital gains tax, wealth tax and inheritance tax. For many people, moving abroad is an opportunity to reduce their overall taxes, particularly when moving from a high to a low‑tax country, when the timing of a move can be decisive. Some countries encourage foreigners (e.g. retirees) to take up residence by offering tax incentives and many countries provide tax incentives for foreigners employed for a limited period by a foreign company.
An important aspect of living abroad is insurance, including health, travel, home contents and third party liability insurance. In many countries, the government and local law provide for various obligatory state and employer insurance schemes. These may include sickness and maternity; accidents at work and occupational diseases; invalidity, old-age and survivor's pensions; unemployment insurance; and family allowances. It's unnecessary to spend half your income insuring yourself against every eventuality from the common cold to being sued for your last penny, but it's important to insure against an event that could precipitate a major financial disaster, such as a serious accident or your house falling down.
Social security benefits in many countries may be non-existent or less than you're used to, and in most countries you would be unwise to rely solely on state benefits to meet your needs.
Cost of living
No doubt you would like to estimate how far your money will stretch abroad and how much you will have left after paying your bills. The cost of living has risen considerably in most countries in the last decade or so, and some countries that previously enjoyed a relatively low cost of living are no longer quite so attractive, particularly for retirees. On the other hand, foreigners whose income is paid in 'hard' currencies, such as those of most northern European countries and North America, have seen their incomes rise sharply in international terms in recent years. At the same time, the difference in the cost of living between 'rich' (e.g. North American and northern European) countries and 'poor' countries has widened in real terms in favour of the richer countries.
If you spend only a few weeks abroad each year, you won't be too concerned about the local cost of living. However, if you plan to live abroad permanently you should ensure that your income is, and will remain, sufficient to live on bearing in mind currency devaluations (if your income isn't paid in local currency), inflation, and extraordinary expenses such as medical bills or anything else that may drastically reduce your income (such as stock market crashes and recessions!). Note that if your pension is paid in a currency that's devalued, this could have a catastrophic affect on your standard of living. Also bear in mind that some countries (e.g. Britain) freeze state pensions at the current rate for those going to live permanently in certain countries.
It's difficult to calculate an average cost of living for any country, as it depends very much on an individual's particular circumstances and life‑style, and where you live. It's generally cheaper to live in a rural area than in a large city or a popular resort area (and homes are also much cheaper). The actual difference in your food bill will depend on what you eat and where you lived before moving abroad. Food in most southern European and Mediterranean countries is cheaper than in most northern European countries, although North Americans will find it costs around the same or more.
The quality and variety of schools in a particular country or region is an important consideration for families with school-age children. Education standards vary considerably from country to country and even from school to school. There are good private and international (usually English-language) schools in most of the world's major cities, particularly in western countries, although the standard of state-funded education may leave something to be desired, particularly in run-down neighbourhoods. Education is compulsory in many countries between the ages of around 5 and 16, although students are often encouraged to remain at school until the age of 18 and go on to university.
State education (from nursery to secondary school) is usually free, although parents may be required to pay for certain items such as text books, writing materials, art supplies, musical instruments and sports equipment. Many schools have a school uniform, which may be compulsory (particularly in private schools) and expensive. Schools may provide a canteen or restaurant, although this is rare in most countries, and transport to and from school may also be provided (there's usually a fee for these services). University (tertiary) education may be free or subsidised for residents, while non-resident students may have to pay hefty fees, which may include education in your home country if you become a non-resident. Some countries provide grants or loans for university students, which are repaid out of future income.
State schools in most countries are co‑educational (mixed) day schools, although some may accept boarders, particularly secondary schools in countries where students must travel long distances to school. In many countries, private schools usually include both day and boarding schools, and are mostly single‑sex, although this is changing in some countries. Admission to a state school for foreign children is usually dependent on the type and duration of the residence permit granted to their parents.
Note that in any country, your choice of state and private schools will vary considerably depending on where you live.
Their children's education is one of the most important decisions facing families when considering a move abroad. The choice of school and education regime should only be made after consideration of all the options and obtaining independent expert advice. You should think long-term and consider your child's interests, particularly regarding their education when your period abroad ends and you return home. Note that if your child has any special education needs, particularly concerning learning difficulties, you should seriously consider whether relocation is in the family's best interests, as it's extremely unlikely that you'll find the right sort of help and support abroad. Any help you find will probably be limited, particularly if you move to a country where lessons will be conducted in a foreign language (other than your child's mother tongue).
Another important decision facing parents abroad is whether to send their children to a state or private school. In some countries, state schools are the equal of the best private schools (some are better), while in others, particularly in neglected inner city areas, they lack resources and may achieve poor results. However, in some countries, many parents prefer to send their children to a private school, even when this involves considerable financial sacrifice. In most countries, there's no legal obligation for parents to educate their children at school and they may educate them themselves or employ private tutors. Parents educating their children at home don't usually require a teaching qualification, although they must satisfy the education authorities that a child is receiving full‑time education appropriate for his or her age, abilities and aptitude (they will check and may test your child).
'Culture shock' is the term used to describe the psychological and physical state felt by people when they relocate abroad to an 'alien' environment (moving from the USA to Canada or from the UK to Ireland doesn't count!). Although many people living abroad are single, experiencing life overseas before they settle down permanently in their home countries, they also include many families, who usually relocate because of the husband's profession or career (although today it could equally be the wife's career that prompts a move abroad). The implications are far-reaching, particularly for family members who may be reluctant to leave their 'home'.
Non-working spouses and teenage children are usually the most affected, simply because they rarely have any choice about a relocation and therefore feel the most resentment when they find themselves in a situation in which they have little control or any familiar references. These two groups may also feel more isolated - the expatriate wife left behind in the new 'home' while the husband goes to his new office or the expatriate teenager at a new school trying desperately to be accepted by a new peer group. Expatriate children (termed 'Third Culture Kids' by sociologists) run into hundreds of thousands, including an estimated 400,000 from the US alone. In general, children under 12 adapt much faster to new surroundings and tend to accept new realities and situations with far fewer difficulties than teenagers and adults. However, this doesn't mean that children will take to living in a new country immediately, or that they won't suffer similar culture shock and feelings of displacement as their parents.
A parent should never underestimate the effects a move abroad will have on children, particularly adolescents; if you feel that relocation is likely to affect a child negatively (in the long term) rather than positively, then it's probably advisable not to make the move. Bear in mind that children rarely have a choice about a move abroad, yet their needs must be considered as one of your priorities when making the decision. If a child has learning difficulties or disabilities, relocation shouldn't usually be considered unless you're certain that you'll find experts abroad to help you cope with the situation.
A possible alternative for teenagers may be for them to attend a boarding school in your home country or to stay with their grandparents and attend a local school while you're abroad.
The crime rate varies considerably from country to country and it's important to investigate the level in a particular country, region or city before deciding where to live. Most western European, Middle Eastern, Asian and Australasian countries are very safe places to live and Canada also has relatively little serious crime. However, the crime rate in the USA varies considerably from state to state and city to city, and can be high. Many Central and South American and African countries can be extremely dangerous places in which to live and precautions may need to taken at all times. Major cities have the highest crime rates, some areas of which are best avoided at almost any time of the day or night. Many cities are notorious for 'petty' crime such as handbag snatching, pickpockets and thefts of (and from) vehicles. In contrast, crime in villages and rural areas (away from tourist areas) is virtually unknown in most countries, and windows and doors are often left unlocked.
Staying safe in a large city is largely a matter of common sense (plus a little luck), although you need to develop survival skills in some cities. Most areas are safe most of the time, particularly when there are a lot of people about. At night, stick to brightly lit main streets and avoid secluded areas (best of all, take a cab). Avoid parks at night and keep to a park's main paths or where there are other people during the day. If you find yourself in a deserted area late at night, remain calm and look as though you know where you're going by walking briskly. If you need to wait for a train or bus at night, do so in the main waiting room, a well lit area, or where there's a guard or policeman. If possible, avoid using subways in the late evening or after midnight. Most major cities have 'no-go' areas at night and some have areas that are to be avoided at any time. Women should take particular care and should never hitchhike alone; rape statistics are extremely high in some countries and most go unreported.
Bear in mind that the legal system may differ considerably abroad from what you're used to, particularly if you're from North America or northern Europe and are working in a third world country. Some foreigners find themselves in serious trouble as a result ignorance or negligence stemming from seemingly innocuous actions, particularly regarding religion, 'indecency' and motoring. Take care and ensure you have a good lawyer!
If you plan to take a pet abroad, it's important to check the latest regulations. Make sure that you have the correct papers, not only for your country of destination, but for all the countries you will pass through to reach it, e.g. when travelling overland. Particular consideration must be given before exporting a pet from a country with strict quarantine regulations, such as the UK. If you need to return prematurely, even after a few hours or days abroad, your pet may need to go into quarantine.
Some countries (e.g. Australia and Britain) operate a quarantine period, which may be in the owner's own home, and some (such as Britain and Sweden) have a pet's passport scheme. Most countries require pets to have a health certificate issued by an approved veterinary surgeon and vaccination certificates for rabies and possibly other diseases. A rabies vaccination must usually be given not less than 20 days or more than 11 months prior to the date of issue of the health certificate. Pets aged under 12 weeks are usually exempt, but must have a health certificate and a certificate stating that no cases of rabies have occurred for at least six months in the local area. Note that there's no quarantine period (or only a token one) in many countries when pets are exported from countries without rabies.
It's important to be aware of anything that's happening in a country where you're planning to live or work that could affect your personal safety, such as wars, riots, military coups, terrorism, kidnappings and general civil unrest, to name but a few. You also need to be aware of crime and drugs, health, women's issues, motoring problems, and how to deal with local officials and matters such as bribery and corruption, which is a way of life in some countries. If you have any problems concerning safety while abroad, you should contact your local consulate or embassy for advice. If you register with your local embassy they will contact you in times of serious civil unrest or wars and may assist you in returning home (if necessary)