I’m a world traveller and a proud ex-pat, and I’ve lived outside of the U.S. for years. This means people often come to me for advice about moving abroad. One of them that comes up most often is pretty straightforward: “What are some of the downsides?” Let’s review.
Having lived in 5 countries, I can share a lot of negatives, like the fact that while croissants are sold and consumed the world over, bagels sadly are not. (It’s a travesty.) Or that in order to use any American website in China, from Google, to Facebook, to Instagram, you need a VPN, which is somewhat illegal in that country, beyond the fact that it makes life a tad frustrating when all you want to do is watch Netflix.
But wait, there’s more. And by no means do these negatives make living in certain places untenable; rather, they are challenging circumstances you should walk into with your eyes wide open.
All laws are not created equally
I always tell people who are used to a certain type of structured justice system that it might not exist where and when you choose to live abroad, and that you might be living at the whims of a system you don’t understand or forced to handle things on your own. One of the worst things about living abroad is that you won’t always have the same rights as you do in your home country. People can scam you or steal from you, and in some cases, there’s nothing you can do about it.
I was once working as a teacher at an international school in Giza, Egypt. On my first day, I gave my passport to the Human Resources person to make copies of it. At the end of the workday, her office was locked and closed and I hadn’t gotten my passport back. The next day she told me I could not have my passport back and that if I wanted to get it back before my employment contract was over, I would have to pay her nearly $1,400. I later discovered they would regularly take teachers’ passports and university degrees so that they could not attempt to end their contracts early.
When I contacted the U.S. Consulate, they told me they didn’t handle “personal disputes” and that I would have to hire a local lawyer — which in Egypt is pretty much a pointless waste of both time and money.
The language barrier
This disadvantage is quite obvious, but if you’ve never lived abroad and needed your internet fixed or to get directions, it can be more frustrating than you might expect. When my family and I first moved to China in 2018, we had a really tough first 90 days or so.
Not only did we live in a city where English was not widely spoken, but translation apps didn’t help us to fully convey the fact that our Wi-Fi was down or that we’d gotten locked out of our apartment. This is why I stress the importance of trying to learn as much of the native language as possible before you travel — but I will also admit that Mandarin is not the easiest language to navigate.
Unfortunately for people who move to Europe, Asia, or Africa and still have to connect with family, friends or work in the U.S., the time differences can be substantial. When we lived in Asia we were a half-day ahead of all of our family and friends on the East Coast. When it was 4 p.m. in China, it was 4 a.m. in New York.
The time difference makes it extremely challenging to stay connected with loved ones. If you’re someone used to maintaining very close relationships with those back home, it’s definitely key to consider just how far away are really prepared to live. Being based in Central or South America or Canada would put you in similar time zones that will make it much easier to check in with family or for someone to reach you when you’re not in the middle of work or sleep.
Since moving abroad in 2015, I’ve learned that loneliness is one of the worst parts of living the ex-pat lifestyle. You’re not always going to meet new people, and sometimes even if you do, they aren’t going to be your jam. The same people you work with abroad may not be the same people you want to hang out with and grab a coffee or cocktail with on the weekends.
Living abroad can be extremely lonely no matter if you’re living solo or you are with your family. Sometimes you just want to have people around you that get you and know you. Financially, not everyone will be in the position to come visit you abroad as much as you would like, if ever, and that can also cause bouts of depression, as time does indeed fly and you can miss out on a lot of key moments in the lives of your loved ones.
If you’ve ever lived abroad, feel free to share any bad experiences you have had while existing outside of your “norm.” What was your biggest pet peeve? What was the hardest adjustment to make? Let us know in the comments.