The days and months before moving abroad are a very special time. Mostly exciting, they are also full of numerous moments of panic. “What were we thinking?,” you’ll probably ask yourself on a near-daily basis. You’ll have to make hard decisions about what to pack, what to sell, and what (if anything) to store. You may be concerned about how long it will take to learn the local language and how easy it will be to get by before you do. And if you don’t have a job lined up, you will probably be wondering: What on EARTH am I going to do all day?
Throw a kid into the mix and things get even more complicated. Suddenly things that you’d otherwise just figure out “when a problem arises” become urgent. What does the childcare situation look like? How easy will it be for her to integrate? And—perhaps most importantly—how does the health care system work?
In the first two years of L’s life, we made this transition twice. First from Seattle to Prague, and then from Prague to Oslo. The first time, I had questions but didn’t worry too much about it. After all, we were moving with my husband’s company and they were taking care of most of the logistics. But as the months unfolded, I realized there were a lot of things that could have been handled better. So when we were considering moving to Oslo, I had a lot more questions and some requests.
Regardless of where you are moving, what should you do and learn in order to prepare? Here are my top ten recommendations for what to do in the months before the move.
1. Sign up for all the expat Facebook groups (especially the expat moms groups) for your new city and/or country.
The problem with relocation people is that they are usually locals. Which means that they know the area and how to navigate the legal system, but they probably don’t know about the common challenges that expats—but never locals—face. So whether you need to know where to buy perfume-free detergent or whether that rash on your toddler’s face is normal, other parents who’ve been through the shock of moving to a new country will be in the best position to help you out. So join some groups, post your questions, and return the favor once you get settled in and know which milk is “whole.”
2. Learn about the health care and health insurance systems in your new country, ideally by talking to other expats.
This was definitely the worst part about our move to the Czech Republic, and what I was most concerned about before moving to Norway. In both countries, everyone has health insurance. (In fact, you can’t get your Czech visa until you have proof that you’ll be insured.) But in Norway, everyone is assigned a general practitioner, most people (or at least most young people) only have public insurance, and the coverage is the same for citizens and all legal residents. In the Czech Republic, in contrast, you must find your own doctor; many foreigners get private insurance so that they can access high-quality care in English; and the coverage available to legal residents who do not work (including children) is not the same as that available to Czech citizens, EU citizens, or even non-EU citizens with employment contracts.
Eventually, we got things sorted out in Prague, but it wasn’t easy. After a costly trip to one of those fancy clinics, followed by a Czech doctor who totally lied to our insurance company about her English-language ability, we finally found a pediatrician we liked. She spoke English well, her office looked more like an American pediatrician’s office than a Czech one, and she took our insurance. Or at least she did after the insurance company came to visit her and explained to her and her staff that the wacky insurance that the Czech consulate told us to buy was in fact “valid in the Czech Republic.” But it was a headache and I didn’t like the differences in coverage, so health care will now be at the top of the list if we move to another foreign country.
3. Organize your finances.
This can be very difficult, especially for money avoiders like myself. But it’s essential, especially if you are a U.S. citizen. (The U.S. is pretty much the only country in the world that taxes its citizens on income earned in other countries. And there are lots of horror stories out there of accounts being liquidated because many banks don’t want to deal with foreign residents unless they are REALLY wealthy.) I’m not a financial advisor and I will admit that I took a fast and loose approach to our finances when we were in Prague—at least until I learned just how difficult our U.S. tax situation would have been if we’d followed our Czech banker’s advice.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need a financial advisor, but if you want someone with lots of experience working with expats, check out Thun Financial. (We do not use them, but I did have a Skype consultation with them and was impressed.)
4. Get a VPN.
Trying to make it look like you are logging in from a different country than where you’re located? Sounds a little sketchy, right? Not necessarily. Maybe you just really want to watch that football game. Or a certain series on HBO. At times like this, you’re going to wish you hadn’t moved. Unless, of course, you have a VPN so that you can stream online content as if you were still in the U.S. (or wherever you are from)!
5. Learn everything you can about the school system and child care for kids under five.
Even if your kid is young and you are planning on staying home with him or her, this is an important thing to understand. You are going to want some time to yourself, but more importantly, you are going to want to know where little kids can be found all day. For example, in the Czech Republic, there is not a lot of group child care options for kids under three years of age. Nannies and babysitters, however, are quite inexpensive. But perhaps more importantly, because most kids are at home (with mom or a babysitter) until three years of age, there are tons of things for them (and you) to do each day, even if you don’t speak Czech.
Norway couldn’t be more different in this regard. Virtually all kids start barnehage at about one year of age. As a result, not only are the people you run into in the grocery store not used to seeing children out during “work” hours, there isn’t much other than grocery shopping for you to do outside the house. This can make it pretty lonely for both toddler and parent.
Of course, having a basic understanding of the system for older kids can also be helpful, especially if you are considering staying in your adopted country for a while. But as parents, there’s so much to think about now, that we often don’t have time to think that far down the road. Hence my five-year recommendation, although you’re likely to get a high-level overview of the system for older kids (free college tuition in Norway!) without really trying.
6. Make a plan for communicating with grandparents.
While most people will be excited about (even if confused by) your plans to move abroad, your parents will probably be hurt. Even if you’ve done it before and even if you don’t currently live in the same town, taking their grandchild away from them is going to be a hard thing for them to come to terms with. Make it easier by making communication easy—even if your little one can’t talk yet. For us, this means a WhatsApp group so that we can share pictures and greetings, and weekly video calls. (We usually use Skype, but FaceTime and WhatsApp also have video-calling). Bonus points if you can set a regular time for the call, so no one forgets. (Some friends call one set of grandparents every Friday and they say a blessing before dinner in Norway.)
7. Spend time really investigating the neighborhoods and thinking about what you want from your living arrangement.
Before we moved to Prague, we didn’t know much about the neighborhoods, outside the tourist core. I’d heard about Vinohrady, however, and I knew that it was supposed to be a nice part of town where lots of expats lived. So that’s where we moved to.
Don’t get me wrong, Vinohrady is fantastic. It’s a short walk to Old Town, so I highly recommend it to travelers who’d prefer to stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. The buildings are beautiful and there are a lot of foreigners there, which helps if you don’t speak (much) Czech. But I quickly learned that it is not where all the expats live. Those with kids were much more likely to live in Prague 6. Close to the international schools, that area also offers residents the option of living in a house. And that fancy medical clinic I mentioned earlier? It’s located in Prague 6, not Vinohrady, which means that many of the expats in Vinohrady have to trek across town to see their doctor.
Oslo has a neighborhood (Frogner) that is similar to Vinohrady. But we don’t live there. And while I wouldn’t say we live in the Prague 6 equivalent, we have a big house with a big yard for both L and Bella. (The yard being a huge bonus when it is snowy or rainy and Bella needs to pee but I don’t want to get dressed.) We’re reasonably close to the international school (although we won’t be in this house at that point) and public transportation to the center is pretty good. So it works well for us, and we have a lot more space for not that much more money than we would have spent if we’d moved to Frogner.
8. Get smart about your belongings—don’t just sell or ship them.
When you had a kid, you probably noticed that the amount of stuff you owned doubled. Moving is a great time to downsize a little, especially if it means getting rid of things that your little one has outgrown. But don’t go crazy. A lot of people will tell you to sell everything, but I won’t. Sure, get rid of what you need or want (or put it in storage if, for examples, it operates on the wrong voltage for your new country, but you’d like it when you return) but don’t forget to take the things that you love and that will make you feel at home. While this is good for adults, I think it is especially useful for little kids, who are likely to be confused by the move, even if they can’t communicate it.
When we moved to Prague, we put most of our furniture into storage. But we made a point of shipping all of L’s. As a result, his bedroom there didn’t look dramatically different than the one he had been growing up in. And we didn’t have to go out and completely replace our baby gear in a country where safety standards are—how to say this nicely?—different than we were used to. But we put most of the rest of the furniture in storage. When we moved again, we decided we wanted some of the furniture, so we shipped everything to Oslo. The only problem was that there was a lot in storage in Seattle that we don’t need here. So if I had a do-over, I’d work a little harder at decluttering and minimizing what we put in storage.
9. Know what you want your little one to get out of this opportunity.
Living abroad is a fantastic opportunity that not many people get to have. And moving overseas as a small child—before you have to think about all the challenges that come with it—is an even better one. So help your child make the most of the experience by reflecting on what you want her to gain and setting up her life to help make it happen.
Do you want your kid to learn the local language? If so, you’ll probably want to put him in childcare or get a native babysitter. (That’s what I’ve done even though I don’t work.) Would you like her social circle to be mostly locals or other expats? This will likely determine which childcare and school options are best for you. Do you want to travel a lot or just have a nice normal life in your new city? We’ve opted for something kinda in-between, although friends in Oslo have commented on how frequently we travel. (Interestingly, we probably traveled much less than the majority of our expat friends in Prague.)
I don’t have any tips on what your life should look like, other than this: Whatever you do, do it with intention. Not only will your entire family get more out of the experience, you’ll probably be happier too.
10. If you are moving with a spouse/partner, make your relationship as strong as possible.
Moving abroad is really stressful. But moving abroad with someone else might even be more difficult. Even if (especially if?) one of you is going as a “trailing spouse.” And a strained partnership is not good for your little one. So even if you have an awesome relationship, is there anything you can do to make it better? Maybe that means “preventative maintenance” couples therapy. Or maybe you want to learn from experts from the comfort of your own home by reading (and implementing the techniques in) some books. (Two good ones: The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Jon Gottman and Nan Silver.) Either way, take a break from all the packing and plan some date nights so you can visit your favorite haunts in your (soon-to-be) former home.
Fellow expats: What other tips do you have for moving abroad, especially for families?
Or, if you are thinking about making a move, what would you like to know?