International Relocations: It’s All in the Expectations…

By: Heather Collins

Okay, maybe it’s not all in the expectations, but managing a successful international relocation really does start with realistic and educated expectations about some of the following things:

  • time frames for things to get done
  • differences in types of living arrangements from your current location
  • school curriculum and extracurricular activities
  • trailing spouse job opportunities
  • language issues
  • residence and driving documents
  • ways to meet people (both expatriates and local)

Moving to a new country is an exciting—and somewhat daunting—experience. It can be much smoother and there will be fewer bumps in the road if you take some time to understand what the day-to-day differences are and prepare yourself. In my first move to a foreign country as an adult, it took me a few months to realise that my personal transition would go much better when I truly realised that they didn’t do it wrong in my new country, just differently.

When you first start considering a move, you’ll identify some obvious differences between the home and host countries – such as language, climate, urban/suburban living – that you can expect to experience. These are certainly important to be aware of, but those aren’t generally the ones that can make it a more difficult transition.

Rather, it’s the unexpected or completely unconsidered differences that will catch you by surprise and cause frustration. I’ve lived in five foreign countries in my life (four of them as an adult and mom), and the transition that was initially the most frustrating was to the United Kingdom, which speaks the same language that I do – or at least I thought it was the same!

For that reason and others, I assumed that this move would be the easiest. The UK would be just like America with older buildings, more history, royals, and lots of pubs! What I discovered within the first couple of days was that phones, internet, banking, store hours, TV, and words definitely were not the same as in the U.S.

On our first day there, I called to have the phone/internet/cable set up – presumably within the first week. Note that this was before smartphones or tablets. Imagine my dismay when, after 30 minutes on my cellphone on hold to contract with my chosen provider, they told me that I would first have to contact the company that owned the landlines, and that I couldn’t call back to even schedule installation until the phone company had come out and activated the line. After that, it would just be a couple of weeks.

So of course I assumed that meant it would be about 2-3 weeks before I was connected to the world again – oh, if only!

I called BT to activate the telephone line (that had only been disconnected two days prior to our moving in), and was on hold for 1-½ hours. I was told that the earliest appointment for someone to come out was approximately 3-½ weeks!  We set the appointment and I was told I could call back to see if anything opened up earlier. I tried this several times and my record for hold time was 107 minutes – I didn’t try more than a few times!  In the end, it took almost six weeks for us to get phone/internet/cable TV. That wouldn’t be as much of an issue today, of course, with smartphones. It’s a perfect example, though, of not knowing what to expect and not having the local knowledge so you can make different arrangements or cope differently.

One well-known difference in driving in the UK is the side of the road that you drive on; however, there’s a lot more to it than that. I had a couple of sessions with a driving instructor to find out if I needed to learn anything or do anything differently. The instructor told me that it was easy, just do the same thing on the other side of the road. What he didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just that – for example Americans don’t have roundabouts with very specific commonly-known customs to make them operate efficiently.

And in the U.S. we do this crazy thing like putting the actual speed limit on a sign, instead of posting a sign that looks like this (), which means “the national speed limit for the type of road and class of traffic applies.” The problem, for me, of course was that I had to know if I was on a road in a built-up area, a single carriageway, a dual carriageway, or a motorway. The first and last aren’t difficult to distinguish, but the second and third are.

I also had to be able to “reverse in to” a “parking bay” on the test – an example of where new words were an issue. Fortunately, I had met a number of women who had taken the test before who had lots of tips for me.

Many resources are available to help educate and prepare yourself about how things work in the country you’re moving to. These include online and social media sources as well as books. Your relocation counselor may be able to answer some of the questions and may be able to put you in contact with people who can answer ones that aren’t within their areas of expertise.

The more you avail yourself of those resources, the more informed decisions you can make about how to plan the logistics of the move, choose schools and neighbourhoods, know what items to bring or purchase locally, plug into a local personal network, understand cultural etiquette, etc.

One of the best resources you can find are colleagues in your company who have had an assignment in the country you’re going to, friends who have lived there or who can put you in touch with someone they know who has lived there, or getting in touch on social media with an expat currently in that country. Expats are a unique and wonderful group of people who love to help others navigate the new country – because they probably had someone that helped them and they want to pay it forward.

The bottom line here is the more informed you are about the differences and the proper procedures and customs in your new country, the easier and less frustrating you’ll find the transition. Take advantage of all the resources you can find to learn about what to expect. And even then, prepare to be confused and even frustrated at times. But after you’ve really learned about another country or several countries, you won’t see the differences as “different” anymore, more like interesting and enlightening!


More about Heather Collins:

Heather CollinsI have lived in six countries on four continents in my life. I was a U.S. military brat growing up and have been an expat due to my husband’s career. I had my own company in the UK, where we lived for almost nine years, as a contractor to the relocation industry. I wrote guides for expats moving to cities around the world, procedure manuals, and also did project management. My career as a serial volunteer in many different types of organisations has included schools (PTA’s, classrooms, School Boards), Girl Scouts (troops and service units), charities (Make-a-Wish, Alzheimer’s Association, church activities), Credit Union Board of Directors, and Expat International Women’s Groups. I have two adult daughters who are, most definitely, TCKs (Third Culture Kids). One of the things I enjoy the most is to be a resource for people moving around the world or to a different state and help make it a bit easier.