We’ve all fantasized about leaving the fast-paced, American hustle and bustle behind for a more relaxed and exotic life overseas. And while occasional dreams of escape to the French countryside or cutting-edge Asian cities are 100 percent normal, if you find yourself constantly checking international flight prices or practicing responses in your head to the Italian people on the subway, it might be time to actually consider packing up and shipping out.
While daunting in theory, moving your entire life to another country is fully feasible. With some careful planning, dedication, and passion for making a major change, the expat life can become your reality. Leah Chernick, 22, originally from northern New Jersey, began to think about moving to Paris while reminiscing about her time studying abroad there during college. While searching for full-time jobs before graduating, she decided to extend her search to outside of the U.S. “I cold-emailed at least 100 people inquiring about jobs in Paris,” Chernick said. “Maybe 10 responded. After learning I spoke almost no French, one company was interested.”
After months of persistent follow-up, Chernick found luck at a Paris-based agency with a global presence. Between her studies in communication and management, and her convenient English-speaking skills, she was the perfect international addition at Ykone, a digital and creative agency that helps connect brands with influencers and creates content through digital storytelling. As junior project manager, Chernicks helps manage international stories, allowing her to work in English.
Other than being left out of office water-cooler chitchat because of her limited French abilities, Chernick loves her job, where she can take hour-long lunch breaks, leisurely evening strolls, and eat croissants with the best of them. Despite some initial homesickness and a serious lack of American comfort food—have you ever found a jar of peanut butter abroad?—Chernick has settled into a lifestyle that initially seemed like a dream but became her reality. And you can too, with some sound advice straight from a seasoned expat.
Do your research in advance.
There are multiple types of visas, and not all are created equal. Depending on the country you are trying to relocate to, you might need a student visa, working visa, or you might qualify for dual citizenship. Do your homework on your ancestry and apply accordingly. For those looking to get visas to the EU, you can get started here, and for those looking to get a visa outside of the U.S., this Department of State site has tons of country-specific info for you.
Don’t get discouraged.
You’ll inevitably encounter obstacles along the way to settling into your new life—just remember it’s all normal and par for the course. “I needed a French bank account to sign a lease to an apartment, but I needed a French address to create a bank account,” says Chernick. “There are plenty of catch-22s like this as you go about setting up a job, home, and other logistics of life in another country. It’s frustrating, but don’t let it discourage you—as long as you keep trying, everything is bound to line up eventually.”
Take a language class.
Taking four years of high school French or Spanish is great, but it won’t replace learning the language in the home country. Chernick now attends French classes every night after work to become more fluent. And practice makes perfect: Even if you aren’t confident in your language skills, it’s better to learn from mistakes than to not try at all. “My best policy is to speak the native language as much as you can, even if it’s just at a restaurant and the only word you know is merci. You’ll get more comfortable and confident as time goes on,” she says.
Be Open to Meeting People in Non-Traditional Ways.
The expat community in many countries is huge, and only growing larger (President Trump, anyone?). There are plenty of tools for meeting new people wherever you land, from apps to Facebook groups that connect foreigners together. “I think today more than ever, social media is playing a big role in helping people meet new friends, especially abroad,” says Chernick. “Once you meet a few new friends here, branching out to others becomes easier.”
Succumb to Your New Country’s Culture.
If you’re moving out of the United States, chances are that your new host country will operate significantly differently than what you’re accustomed to. Try not to fight it, and allow yourself to learn from the new way of life. If you’re in Asia, for instance, you might feel out of the loop on all things pop culture and celebrity; in Europe, the pace of life will likely feel a little slower. “Even if they have 100 urgent emails, people still take an hour and a half long lunch break on workdays,” says Chernick. “There’s still that American in me, so I have to remind myself not to be attached to my phone every second and just enjoy. Also, no one eats on the streets here—they always sit down, even to drink coffee. The French take their meals seriously.” Feeling a little homesick every now and then is natural, but for the most part, be prepared to go with the flow when it comes to new and unexpected traditions and rituals—you might end up loving them.
Embrace the (Inevitable) Challenges.
It’s incredibly difficult to be thrown into a new setting without the little American comforts you’ve grown to expect (hey, Big Macs and subway station WiFi are pretty awesome). But those things will always exist in your home country, and they’re not going anywhere. “At first, my main challenges were the big, basic logistics like finding an apartment, but now that I’m finally settled, it’s things like finding mac and cheese that preoccupy me. Instead of driving myself crazy trying to recreate my American lifestyle, I just had my dad send me five boxes of Annie’s Mac and Cheese.” Smart! Give yourself those comfort fixes every once in awhile, and then go back to loving the challenges you come across. Promise you this much: You won’t come home the same person you were—in the best way possible.