Expat to Expat Advice: Global Nomads Tell All

Who could provide better advice on the expat life than our very own expat readers? In our recent reader survey — which we wrote about herehere and here – we asked you to weigh in with your top tips and tricks for people heading overseas on expat adventures. We’ve compiled many of your responses below — some practical, some poignant – along with a list of online resources you found helpful.

What you told us (in your own words):

  • “Trust your instincts more than HR!!”
  • “Be less self-conscious. Still working on this one.”
  • “Walk out the door and take things slow every day.”
  • “Skip trying to make friends with the locals and live where the expats live. I lived in a non-expat area, near where my brother and his family lived in London — and there just weren’t as many social experiences there for people who were transient.”
  • “Not for me, but I wish more expats would delve deeper into the cultures in which they live. I married a local, so I can’t get much more in-depth!”
  • “Travel and establish a life away from the USA at a young age”
  • “Get rid of all of your stuff at home…all of it!”
  • “How much fun I would have!”
  • “Be really clear on work visa requirements before you set off to look for a job…”
  • “You will always miss New York City bagels and Irish dairy products and Japanese rice balls.”
  • “You will run into people who are not cut out for the expat experience.”
  • “Vietnam’s internet is tragic.”
  • “When to call it quits — I lived in China for 8 years, and that was just too long.”
  • “Don’t waste time trying to build relationships with people just because you speak the same language. Try to seek out new friendships and contacts with people you actually share more in common with beyond language.”
  • “Keep careful records and make copies to survive the bureaucracy.”
  • “Cheese is expensive overseas!”
  • “You will always be sitting in two chairs.”
  • “You’ll never feel like ‘home’ is one place ever again. You adopt a new country, new friends and life, but always have one foot back in your original country. I’m sad to ever leave Ireland, but scared/anxious to go back to the USA. I’ll always be comparing.”
  • “Sort out your taxes before, not after”
  • “Learn to cook. Local versions of your comfort zone will always disappoint, so learn to make it yourself.”
  • “You need a CDI in France to buy a house.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to return to your home country.”
  • “The difficulty in opening a bank account as an expat, due to U.S. reporting rules. Many local banks here won’t issue a bank account to U.S. nationals”
  • “Even international schools with U.S. college prep don’t do a great job getting high schoolers prepared”
  • “You’ll get addicted to it.”
  • “This is one that took 2 years to get over, but the ability to lose your home-colored lens, and look at things openly without initial judgment. Even if told this beforehand, it is very difficult to overcome and can be a source of negativity both personally and professionally.”
  • “I wish someone had told me the dollar would tank from 2003 to 2014.”
  • “Get settled right away. Then travel like you have no time left!”
  • “It’s supposed to suck sometimes”
  • “I wish someone had prepared me for solitude. At the beginning, when you know no one, it’s very tough. Especially when you are young!”
  • “Once you’re on the expat roller coaster it’s hard to get off.”
  • “Just because you don’t understand how things work in the country doesn’t mean the locals have no idea what they’re doing. Don’t be condescending.”
  • “Bring tampons. That both is and isn’t a joke. I researched before I came and I think I was as prepared as I could have been. The most useful lessons I’ve learned from this expat experience couldn’t have been taught before-hand. So, I think the best advice that I didn’t receive would have been to bring tampons.”
  • “That I was expected to file U.S. taxes.”
  • “Relax more, don’t sweat the small stuff.”
  • “Don’t take your connections with home for granted — they need time, work, and effort to be maintained. It’s not easy and the relationships will not be the same as they were once you leave. It may help you realize who your genuine friends are.”
  • “Bring more books.”
  • “How much spouses need to rely on each other and how hard that can be.”
  • “Get a lawyer and an accountant right away.”
  • “That my ‘normal’ will not be anyone else’s normal”
  • “Always accept an invitation.”

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The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience

10:00 pm ET
Jul 5, 2015

Montaigne once said: “The pleasantest things in the world are pleasant thoughts: and the great art of life is to have as many of them as possible.”

I’m no expert on the great art of life, but having lived on four different continents, I know that Montaigne is on to something when it comes to expat life. As an expat, you have a choice: You can be miserable because nothing in your new life works as it did before, or you can enjoy the wonder of exploring a new culture, even if it’s a culture where “just now” means “later, tomorrow, definitely not anytime soon.”

I won’t ever forget the low point of our expat assignment in South Africa. It was March 2010, we had been living in Johannesburg for a week, and I was sitting on a chair in our empty new kitchen with my head on the table, letting a wave of self-pity wash over me. The kids hated their new school. Plus, I had no car and no cell phone (and neither one seemed possible to be acquired without the other). An army of ants had marched up my arm that morning, angrily swarming out of the electric kettle as I was pouring my tea. And I had hardly closed an eye since we had arrived, because every night I was woken by a blood-curdling scream. The sound, it turned out, emanated from a flock of hadedas, a South African species of bird with vocal chords 10 times stronger than any rooster. I’d come to like them, people assured me, but I wanted to strangle them one by one. Forget the crime I’d been warned of. Getting hijacked at gunpoint sounded more promising than dealing with the non-human predators invading my house.

Thinking murderous thoughts, not pleasant ones, I was in desperate need of a good dose of Montaigne. But how to get there? What steps can you take to achieve a successful expat experience?
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Guess Which Ranks as the Most Expensive City for Expats?

Luanda, the capital of oil-rich Angola, tops the list of most expensive cities for expats for the third year in a row, according to a ranking released by consultancy Mercer on Tuesday.  For expats, imported goods and safe living conditions come at a steep cost in Luanda.

The top five most expensive cities have remained relatively stable. Moving from No. 3 to No. 2 this year, Hong Kong, with its currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, is known for having one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. Zurich, Geneva and Bern all remained in the top 10, strengthening Switzerland’s position as one of the most expensive countries for expats, thanks to this year’s appreciation of the Swiss franc against the euro. Singapore held its position at No. 4 for the second year, a consistently popular and pricey location for multinational companies in the Asia-Pacific region. Seoul rose from No.  14 to No. 8 because of the recent appreciation of the Korean currency.  Shanghai and Beijing rose 4 positions each, to No. 6 and 7, respectively, thanks to the strengthening of the Chinese yuan. The yuan’s appreciation and the high price of imported foreign goods have raised the cost of living in many Chinese cities, with 9 listed in the top 30 most expensive expat locales.

Using New York as the base city, Mercer compares the cost of a variety of factors relevant to expat life, including housing, transportation, food, imported goods, entertainment and clothing. Mercer’s analysis can be used to determine the appropriate compensation packages for employees sent abroad by their companies. Ilya Bonic, president of Mercer’s Talent business, said: “Sending employees abroad is necessary to compete in markets and for critical talent, and employers need a reliable and accurate reflection of the cost to their bottom line.”

The least expensive cities for expats are scattered in different regions, but they are primarily in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The least expensive city for expats is Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which, according to, “is not a popular expat destination, with few moving here for reasons other than an already-established job contract. The exact number of Western expats in Kyrgyzstan has never been determined, but is likely to be around 1,000 people.”  Rounding out the bottom three are Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) and Karachi (Pakistan). Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, is the fourth-cheapest place to live as an expat, which could be connected to recent political unrest and terrorist activities. Cape Town, a city relatively popular with expats, is also listed as one of the cheapest places to be an expat, thanks to the weakening South African rand.

The top five most expensive European cities to live in are Zurich (3), Geneva (5), Bern (9), London (12) and Copenhagen (24). Many Western European cities fell in the rankings, with Paris (46) falling 14 points, Vienna (56) falling 24, and Rome (59) falling 28 spots. Scandinavian currencies also dropped in comparison to the U.S. dollar, with Stockholm (106) falling 68 points. Although it is still top 5 for Europe, Copenhagen (24) fell 9 points from last year’s No. 15. Unsurprisingly, following a year of devaluation for the Russian ruble following U.S. sanctions and international uncertainty, the cost of living as an expat in Russia decreased significantly, with Moscow (50) dropping 41 points, and St. Petersburg (152) dropping 117.

Moving to the Asia-Pacific region as an expat comes with a notably high cost of living, with the 5 most expensive cities in that region coming in the top 10 worldwide. Hong Kong’s U.S. dollar peg and competitive housing market kept it at No. 2, and Singapore (4) remained near the top as well. Seoul (8) appeared in the top 10 for the first time.  Tokyo (11) was bumped down from No. 7 due to the devaluation of the yen against the dollar. Chinese cities Shenzhen (14), Guangzhou (15), Shenyang (21), Qingdao (24), Nanjing (26), Tianjin (27), and Chengdu (29) all made jumps up the rankings. Taipei (41) in Taiwan also jumped 20 spots. Every major expat city in South and Southeast Asia either became more expensive to live in or remained constant over the past year. The cost of living for expats in Australia went down due to the devaluation of the Australian dollar against the U.S. dollar, with Sydney, the country’s most expensive city, moving from No. 26 to 31.

Tel Aviv (18) remained the most expensive city in the Middle East for expats, while several other Middle Eastern cities became more expensive for expats, as many Middle Eastern countries peg their currency to the U.S. dollar. The other top 4 most expensive cities for expats, Dubai (23), Abu Dhabi (33), Beirut (44) and Amman (54) all operate on U.S.-pegged currencies and saw major leaps up the scale this year. Housing for expats, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has seen major price increases over the past year.

Latin America remained fairly consistent, with a general trend toward shifting up the list. Buenos Aires (19) tops the list as the most expensive city in the region, with a significant amount of inflation in the goods and services basket. Brazil’s São Paulo (40) and Rio de Janeiro (67) were the second and third most expensive places to live, respectively, in Latin America, followed by Montevideo (83) in Uruguay and San Juan (89) in Puerto Rico, all popular destinations for expats.

Africa has some notably expensive places to live as an expat, due to the “two-tier economy” for locals and expats. Luanda is at No. 1, followed by Chad’s N’Djamena (10), Kinshasa (13) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Victoria (17) in the Seychelles, and Lagos (20) in Nigeria. Most of this is due to the high price of ensuring an employee’s safety in these areas that are often known for being unstable. Lagos, however, is a burgeoning expat destination, due to its position as the business hub of Western Africa.

In the U.S., the appreciating dollar means affording housing is relatively more expensive than it is abroad. New York, the city used for comparison in this survey, was the 16thmost expensive city for expats, followed by Los Angeles (36), San Francisco (37) and Washington, D.C. (50). All of these costs are up from last year and mirror cost increases in other U.S. cities, especially those with growing tech or financial centers, like Seattle (106) and Portland, Ore. (135).

Worldwide, here’s how the cities ranked:

Correction: Islamabad is the capital of Pakistan. An earlier version of this post misidentified Karachi as the capital. 

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