5 Things to Do Before Moving Abroad (And 3 Things Not To)

Moving to another country can be as exhilarating as it is overwhelming. Not only are you leaving behind everything you know and (possibly) love, but unless you’re familiar with the city or country you plan on calling home, there’s a good chance you’re stepping into the unknown. And said unknown comes with plenty of logistics that have to be dealt with, like it or not.

Overall, my experience moving to Spain was a relatively smooth one, though not without a few bumps in the road. To make your transition even easier, here are five things to do before moving abroad to add to your to-do list.

5 Things to Do Before Moving Abroad

Get your documentation in order

Do you have a passport? Is it valid? Will it be valid for at least the next year? If you answered no to any of those questions, you know what you have to do.

Next, familiarize yourself with your destination country’s visa requirements. Do you need a visa? If so, how do you get one? Too often, I see people post online about wanting to move to Spain for an entire year, much of the time completely oblivious to the fact that they may need a visa to do so. A quick Google search can save you loads of trouble—including bans and fines—down the road.

things to do before moving abroad - passport
Decal representing your country of choice optional.

Learn the local language

Yes, English is spoken in much of the world, especially in large urban areas such as Madrid. Yes, many locals will relish in the opportunity to practice their English with you. But not everyone will. If you plan to live in a non-English speaking country for an extended period of time, know that the overwhelming majority of your daily life will likely be carried out in the local language.

Get started as soon as possible. Language learning apps like Duolingo and Memrise make it possible to learn everything from Spanish to Russian to Arabic all from your phone. Reading articles and watching YouTube videos in your target language is great practice as well. If there are classes or conversation groups in your area, sign up for them. It’s true that once you move abroad you’ll learn a lot through immersion, but having a solid base of knowledge never hurt anyone.

Figure out health insurance

Fortunately, many countries offer affordable health care (*side-eyes America*), but navigating insurance policies in a foreign language and choosing the one that’s best for you can be confusing. Figure out if your means of moving abroad provides insurance for you—the auxiliares de conversación program in Spain, for example, provides health coverage through private companies. If not, you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.

First, find out if you’re eligible for your destination country’s public healthcare system (if there is one) or if you’ll have to find a private plan. In Spain, for instance, only citizens and foreigners with valid legal residency have access to the public system, but private plans are extremely affordable, with many offering full coverage for just €20–€50 per month. Having utilized both the public and the private systems here in Spain, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the care is absolutely on par with medical treatment I’ve received in the US—and I’ve never paid a cent.

Speaking of which…

Manage your money

Moving abroad is not cheap, so you’ll obviously need to have quite a bit saved up before you go. But it doesn’t just end there.

If possible, get a small amount of the local currency in cash to have on you when you land. You don’t want to be walking around with the equivalent of hundreds of dollars on your person, but it can’t hurt to have around $50 or so in local currency to pay for transportation from the airport to the city center, or even just a cup of coffee during your layover. I stupidly went to London a few years ago without any cash—thinking I could just withdraw pounds from the ATM—and ended up getting stranded money-less when both my American and Spanish bank cards miraculously managed to stop working at the same time. I will never travel somewhere without local cash on me again.

On that note, set up travel notices with your bank and credit companies for any card that you even think you have the slightest possibility of using abroad. I did this for both my American debit card as well as one of my credit cards so I can use them in Spain, but left a second credit card travel notice-free so I can use it as normal whenever I’m in the US.

euro coins, bills and wallet

Establish an address in your home country

Whether it’s that of your parents or a friend, you need to have somewhere for mail to go while you’re away. And a P.O. box won’t necessarily cut it—to renew my American driver’s license via mail from overseas earlier this year, I had to provide proof of a “habitual Ohio address.”

3 Things NOT to Do Before Moving Abroad

Put money down on a permanent or semi-permanent living situation

Would you pay for an apartment you haven’t seen in your home country?

Probably not, right?

Then why do so many people think it’s a smart idea to wire money to a stranger in a foreign country to secure a living space?

I get it. Showing up in an unfamiliar country without a place to live can be challenging. But you know what’s more challenging? Showing up in an unfamiliar country to find out that the place you paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars/euros/etc. for doesn’t even exist.

Even if you show up to find that the place does exist, it may not be ideal. I know people who have paid to reserve apartments here in Spain only to arrive and find out that they can’t stand the people living there, or it’s in a loud or unsafe neighborhood, or the place is way overpriced and they could have found an equally nice apartment for half of what they’re now stuck paying in rent every month.

The solution: reserve an Airbnb, hostel, or even a hotel with a flexible cancelation policy for your first week or so in town. That way, you have a home base to come back to as you visit homes in person and find a spot to call your own. Whatever you do, do not pay any money until you have literally smelled the place.

things to do before moving abroad - apartment living room

Overload your suitcase with things you can buy at your destination

Everyone will have a few products from their home country that they make a little extra room for in their luggage every time they leave. For me, my two things are Reese’s cups and stick deodorant (stores in Spain mainly stock the roll-on kind, which I find unpleasantly wet and sticky). Decide what your two or three must-have items are, and leave it at that. There’s no sense in risking overweight luggage fees on things that you’ll likely be able to find in your destination country.

Leave without a network

Moving to small town Spain was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I would be leaving my comfortable existence in suburban Columbus and heading out to a tiny town in the middle of Europe’s only desert. I can’t imagine having done so if I hadn’t already made the effort to contact people in the area so that I’d have some sort of quasi-support network upon arriving.

First up, obviously, was the school I was assigned to work at as a language assistant. My boss there ended up being a godsend, driving half an hour out of her way to pick me up from the bus station when I arrived and then proceeding to spend her entire afternoon helping me find an apartment. I’d also taken advantage of the various Facebook groups for fellow participants in my program to find people who were placed in my same town and the surrounding area, as well as in Almeria capital an hour and 20 minutes away.

In this day and age, it’s quite frankly inexcusable to not make connections. Spare yourself potential loneliness and start reaching out!

things to do before moving abroad - make connections
I met most of these people on Facebook before I even set foot in Spain.

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