Moving to a new country alone: what REALLY matters


I’ve tried both moving to a new country alone and with other people. While it is definitely easier with friends at first, I find that we’ll be happier with the accomplishment if we do it on our own.

There’s a lot of logistics to figure out but I find that many of the general worries are often an overkill coming from fear as it’s hard to set accurate expectations for ourselves before the move. Moving with someone else is a huge benefit if just for that. 

On the other hand, we might be in situations where we end up doing more stuff together because it’s comfortable. If we had pulled the plaster off in one swift move, we would have developed a more adventurous habit and worked harder to overcome that initial fear and worry. 

To give an example, I often hear about people from the same country moving together, living together, speaking the same language together and not getting into the habit of practicing either English or whatever the local language is. Often that leads to picking the easier way out with other things as well because it becomes comfortable. I was definitely guilty of that from time to time but I got lucky and had a friend who was open and outgoing to try new stuff, which forced me to do it as well.

There are many things to consider when moving to a new country alone, and in this article we’ll take an in-depth look at a few of the most important ones. 

For example, how to judge different countries or cities against each other to find the best opportunity when living costs, tax and compensation are totally different. We’ll also look at the most important things that expats mention about staying abroad: making new, meaningful, friends.

A practical way to compare career opportunities abroad before moving to a new country alone

When we consider where to move, there are so many factors to take into account that it can feel impossible to compare opportunities across different countries. Country A might have high taxes, high living costs and salary whereas country B has a lower salary and living cost but medium taxis, and country C, another combo altogether.

Many approaches to fix this have been invented over the years like PPP and the Big Mac index. They give a general sense but aren’t amazing for this situation, so I invented my own specifically for moving to a new country.

The easiest way to compare career opportunities across different countries, salaries, and living costs without getting a headache, is to figure out what we get to take home after tax and paying for standard cost of living that we know we’ll need no matter where we move. We can call this disposable income or our savings rate. I’ll refer to it as the savings rate for the rest of the article and the best part is that it doesn’t require crazy math skills.

Savings rate

We’ll first look at our expected taxes and living cost in each country. If that country has a complicated tax system like some countries do, it makes sense to get a reasonably good idea about what we might pay in tax rather than the absolute perfect number since it usually won’t make that big of a difference if it’s a little off. I don’t know of any website that shows expat taxes by country and income but I’ve found that an hour on google and searching in Facebook groups for expats in that city tends to do the trick.

Next, we’ll look at our estimated living cost for each country. I like to use Numbeo.com but take your pick. We are going for “good enough” rather than perfect so we don’t get stuck and that usually includes rent, 3-5 meals per day, insurance and transport to/from work.

Sometimes we get an apartment and a driver or taxi card as part of our compensation. If not, it can be difficult to figure out where to live in the city and a good way to solve that is to ask where other expats with X budget tend to live if you don’t have a friend who knows the city well (another reason to make friends in advance of going there). 

Another option is to ask your employer for a recommendation, pick an address and use maps to check how long it takes to go from home to work during rush hour if you use a taxi compared to public transport (depending on what’s available in that city).

Let’s pause for a second. So now, we have our estimated travel time to the office, an educated guess in terms of tax and living cost for that city. I tend to avoid asking people about their monthly budget since many of us prefer different lifestyles and value different things and so “it costs little” or “it’s expensive” is all relative and not really helpful.

The last thing we need to figure out is our savings rate to get an idea about what other expats with our jobs, in our industry, in that specific city, tend to earn. That is challenging because often we can’t use the salary websites as they tend to only have enough data for bigger cities like LA and New York, and so if we go to an obscure city it won’t be relevant but also because those websites tend to give us whatever we are looking for.

For example, we can usually find someone in the same role with lots of experience making little money and one with little experience making a lot. There are many factors that play in, so it’s usually only useful as a whole if you go to the most competitive cities and those specific companies. 

Instead, we have to get creative. Most people aren’t willing to share their own salaries but they might be ok sharing a general lay of the land of the market. If you’ve already made some connections in that field in the new city, we could ask them.

Alternatively, we can look at job posts although most will say that it is competitive based on experience which isn’t useful either. Another trick is to ask expat recruiters in the area for a range. That tends to be our best bet.

Now that we have those three metrics we can create two ranges (min. and max.) that we are likely to fall within by subtracting our guesstimated taxes and living cost. That leaves us with what we can save (or spend) per month. 

This can feel like a lot of work if we are just looking at one opportunity but the more we look at, the easier it gets since we don’t need to calculate our living costs more than once and by creating a template sheet it’s simply inputting the numbers.

Moving to a new country alone and making friends

Friends: the hardest (and best) part about moving to a new country alone

At first, it can feel terrifying moving to a new country alone, having to ditch our friends for a bit and be 100% on our own. Alone, with no friends and not knowing if making friends work the same way in that new country with a different culture and language, as it does at home.

But if we overcome it, we might just realize that things are surprisingly similar all over the world and making some friends can be the best feeling because of the concerns we had before. It will give us a newfound confidence that we can do it even when we travel to another foreign country. It feels pretty great.

It was perhaps the biggest question before I moved the first time: can I make friends abroad? What if I’m not fluent in English?

I like to think that a part of the fear we have is that we just aren’t that familiar with making friends without the aid of school, work and old circles as we know them from home. Even if we are outgoing and extroverted, we might feel shy at times in these new situations. Especially if we are moving to a new country alone, going out for the very first time over there. 

I found that the trick is to engage with someone even if it’s the receptionist at the hotel or cashier at a store to build up momentum and to do it within the first few seconds, so we don’t get a chance to think too much about it.

Another huge benefit is to find some people to connect with before going, that we can meet when we arrive. Not random people in expat Facebook groups but people that we genuinely might have something in common with.

The easiest place to start that process is a week or two before the move, otherwise it’s a bit too early. Then join those Facebook expat groups for that specific city, and ask for recommendations as to where to practice X hobby (your favorite). If you get some helpful comments and notice that the person might also be enjoying the activity, send them a DM and ask if it’s ok that you join the next time they go as you’d like to thank them for their help. 

If you seem to hit it off the first time, you might even consider buying them coffee after as a thank you later, and suddenly you have your first new connection in that city. Here’s a script you can use to get started:

​​“Hey NAME, I wanted to thank you for your recommendation to try RECOMMENDATION. I had a great experience particularly because of XYZ. I’d like to buy you coffee and say hi as a thank you sometime.”

There are many different tactics that work well but the overarching idea that wins almost every time is to be proactive. If we wish there were more cool events, organize the first one. If we wish more people would invite us out on Friday night, be the first one to invite them! People will love you for it because we all tend to feel the same way.

One of the worst things we can do is to move to a new country alone and start out thinking that we are super busy with the move right now, so we’ll do the friends thing later when things settle down a bit. That becomes a habit, work takes over and before we know it, three months have passed and we wake up, lonely, realizing we have no friends. 

There is no magic pill for immediately bonding with friends when we feel we need friends. Sure there are tricks to speed up the process but that’s not quite the same. This is one of those things that will make or break your experience abroad in the long run.

The counterintuitive ‘checklist’ when moving to a new country alone

Let’s look at a brief ‘checklist’ of what to ignore before the move and the few things that truly matter to avoid waking up lonely with no friends down the road.

  • Connect with a few people in advance via the internet. Start with for example Facebook groups and ask for recommendations on where to practice your favorite hobby
  • Plan what you’ll do over the coming first 1-2 months in the country, especially if you can’t move into you apartment right away but also how often you are going to socialize so you don’t wake up 3 months from now lonely with no friends
  • Set up an extra budget for that initial phase in case things don’t go as planned during the first part of the move

Takeaways

  • If you are looking at multiple different countries and opportunities, run the ‘savings rate’ check on each one to be able to compare them evenly
  • Begin connecting with people even before your move so you can jump right into meeting people and create a good habit that will snowball over time as you move

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