Worst Mistakes When Starting a New Life Abroad

When Mark and I moved to Penang, we kind of knew what we were doing–or so we thought. We visited, fell in love, went back to Chicago, and sold it all. So we were prepared, right? Wrong. Thankfully, plenty of people are ready to tell you what to do, where to go, and how to get stuff done when you are starting a new life abroad. But no one really talks about what NOT to do.

And we didn’t know enough to ask that question.

Six years and hundreds of expat interviews have taught me a few things. Take it from me…here is what not to do when starting a new life abroad. So don’t…just don’t.

1. Do NOT buy a home.

Kuala Lumpur skyline-starting a new life abroad

I know this may sound crazy coming from me, an ex-realtor, but hear me out. You take the plunge. You move to a new country. You are enamored by the new adventure. Everything is wonderful. You are in awe of your new homeland and busy meeting new people. It is soooooo exciting! You get all wrapped up in it and buy a home. Yahoo!

Three months down the road, that newness wears off a bit; you start to settle down. You realize that your new condo isn’t in your favorite neighborhood. Or your ocean view is about to be blocked by a new building going up. Or even worse, you love your new home, but you don’t love your new country.

Now what? You have to sell it. And most likely take a beating.

My best advice is to rent in the neighborhood or building where you think you want to live. Suss it out for a year; then you can make an educated decision about buying.

Which leads me to my next point…

2. Do NOT sign a long lease.

Even if you get a better deal.

For the first year, take it slow. Don’t just jump into a five-year lease because it’s cheaper. It isn’t worth the misery when you find out the neighbor is a breeder and has 12 dogs that live in cages and bark incessantly as soon as the call to prayer starts at 5 am every morning. We couldn’t make a phone call without people asking if we’d become dog walkers since moving to Penang.

dogs on a pink wall

It was so disturbing, and we couldn’t have known that without living there.

We had a year lease, so we had to deal with it. As soon as that lease was up, we skedaddled.

No matter how much research you’ve done. Or how many websites, forums, blogs you’ve read; there is no better lesson than when you do it or see it for yourself.

That is when you learn the insider secrets. So if you can sign a six-month lease go for it, and if you love your spot then add on another six.

An educated decision is always a wiser one.

3. Do NOT limit yourself to expat friends.

LOVE spelled with fingers

It is easy to fall into the expat bubble and only make friends with other foreigners. It can be comfy in that bubble.

You moved overseas for a reason. If you only hang out with people from your home country, then why did you move? You need to expand your friendship circle. Of course, you’ll want people who can understand what it’s like to miss your favorite cheese from Wisconsin.

But you also need local friends when you are starting a new life abroad.

I am going to assume that whatever county you have chosen has a culture that you enjoy and want to learn about and be a part of. Who is better to show you the ropes than the locals? No one, that’s who.

When I want to know more about a Chinese festival that is happening here, I don’t call my American friends. I call my local friends. When I want to know who makes the best curry, I don’t call my German friends…you get the point.

Now don’t get it twisted.

I’m not telling you to shy away from expats. You need expat friends just as much as you need local friends. Expats know what you are going through so you’ll need them for support. Locals can teach you about your adopted home more than anyone else. This is your chance to broaden your world even more, so do it!

4. Do NOT try to make it feel like your home country.

It’s not. The sooner you wrap your head around that, the sooner you’ll acclimate. And you need to adapt to feel at home again.

I’ve met a few expats that consistently compared their home country to their adopted country. They sat around bitching about why the UK/US/Australia is so much better than Malaysia. They were NEVER happy.

Guess what? Those people are all gone, moved back to their old country.

There was no intention or desire to adapt. They all wanted the ease and comforts of their home country in Malaysia. It doesn’t work that way.

You need to make it feel like home, a new home, not your old home. There is a big difference.


Want to read more about expat life? Read this and this and this one too.  😀


5. Do NOT be afraid to try the local food.

Food stall-food on sticks. Starting a new life abroad

Food plays a massive role in any culture. I think the fastest and best way to learn about your new country is through its food.

If you are only going for western food, two things are going to happen:

1. You will be disappointed because no one can cook it like you can. And most likely that cook has never been to Italy, America, Australia, wherever. They can make a mean curry but pizza not so much. Don’t eat a hamburger in Thailand. Trust me.

2. It will be stupid expensive compared to local food.

I am not saying there won’t be a few good western restaurants in the bunch, but stick to local food and you’ll be much happier. Your stomach and wallet will thank me.

If you don’t at least try the local food, you’ll be missing out on a considerable part of the society you’ve just joined. Breaking bread together can make lifelong friends.

6. Do NOT bring or ship all your stuff.

I know it is tempting to send or pack the entire contents of your home when you are starting a new life abroad. But believe me, you really don’t need to. Unless you are moving into a secluded village in some remote country, you will be able to find pretty much everything.

And if you can’t, you will learn to live without it.

Or when you return to your country of origin for a visit, you can load up on whatever you are missing. You might just be surprised what you can live without.

If you have exacting standards and will never sleep again if you don’t have your favorite sheets, then ok. Otherwise, I suggest buying that stuff when you move.

Also, expats come and go. Many of them sell all their stuff when they leave. We bought a dishwasher, a freezer, and a Kitchen Aid and didn’t spend more than $200US for any of it.

7. Do NOT buy a car in your new home country.

If you are living in a place that has good public transportation, Uber/Grab, or taxis, use them. If you buy a car and then realize you aren’t cut out to be living in Thailand/Malaysia/Portugal wherever then what? You are stuck and have to sell the car at a loss.

Trishaw in Penang-Starting a new life abroad

Plus the longer you live somewhere, you learn all the ins and outs. You’ll have a gleaned a few tips from others who have done it before you.

We went to help a friend buy a car, and the odometer had over 200,000 kilometers on it. When we turned the salesman down because of the high mileage, he looked at us and said, “Ah, no worry. I change that number for you. How many kilometers you want?” And he was serious.

Audi on side of road-Starting a new life abroad

So wait a while, find out who is reputable from your friends. Or better yet, buy it from a friend or acquaintance that is moving away.

8. Do NOT decline any social invitation.

Say yes to everything you are invited to. It is how you will make friends and meet new people.

Find expat events and go them all. Internations.org is a great place to meet new people in a different country. Go to the local celebrations and hangouts and start chatting.

Friends sitting around a pool-starting a new life abroad

If you are an introvert, this could be difficult, but you need to get out of your comfort zone so that your adopted country can really feel like a home. Not just a new location.

And for that, you’ll need friends.

Be a busy bee and keep on buzzing.

9. Do NOT move somewhere you’ve never been.

Visit at least once for as long as possible.

Vacation is one thing, moving somewhere is a whole different beast. What might be cute while there for a week, might turn into a deal-breaker when living somewhere. You may love the steamy heat for that week in December when you are escaping four feet of snow. But will you like it ALL year long?

Test drive your new country. Stay for a few months. See what it’s really like.

Online research is not enough. You need to get your boots on the ground to feel it out.

10. Do NOT be afraid to shop locally.

produce market in Southeast Asia

You don’t need bananas and pineapples from Dole just because it is what you’re accustomed to. We have the choice to shop at many local markets as well as big chain grocery stores. But we always shop in the market.

Almost everything I buy comes from Malaysia, so not only is it super fresh, I am supporting the community that I just moved into. Not some faraway land that I have nothing to do with.

And it’s less expensive than at the big box stores.

However, at first, the local markets might be a little off-putting. Especially the meat areas. Things aren’t all neatly wrapped up in pretty packages. There might be heads, hooves, and hearts laying on a table. There might be piles of chicken, or possibly pens of them if they are still clucking.

Raw meat at market-starting a new life abroad

It is the definition of farm to table. It’s just not as pretty as you might be used to.

Since the first day we moved here, I have been buying my fish, chicken, and pork and produce from the local market. I have NEVER had a less than perfect piece of meat. It compares to anything I ever bought in the grocery stores or fancy butchers in Chicago.

The wrap-up for your new life abroad.

When starting a new life abroad, every path will look different. Everyone has their individual journey to embark upon. But I have met and interviewed expats from around the globe, and we all have some commonalities. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You aren’t the first person to move overseas and won’t be the last. Just be sure to offer up your advice to the next generation of adventurers.

Do you have any advice to add to this list? Comment in the box below.

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