I’ve been living abroad for over a year and I don’t have plans to go back anytime soon. Then again, I didn’t have plans to stay in the first place.
What I’m getting at is that if you’re reading this and considering moving abroad, you’re already well ahead of where I was when I left the States. I graduated in June 2006 and jetted off to Spain to write for a travel guidebook for the summer. I had plans to indulge in a year of “purposeful travel” in the United Kingdom funded by a grant from my university. I thought it would be just that–travel–and that I would eventually move to New York to get an editorial job. Instead, my year of purposeful travel abroad devolved into rather purposeless travel and eventually became a decision to live abroad.
Halfway through the year, while researching entry-level editorial jobs, I realized that there are at least as many opportunities in London as in New York. I have friends here, I enjoy traveling around Europe, and finally the clincher: I am a dual citizen of the US and Spain, meaning I can stay without paperwork. Regardless of your citizenship, if you end up living abroad, you’ll probably encounter some version of the following pains and gains I’ve experienced.
After my summer updating a travel guidebook I crashed at my friend Laura’s place in London, and then at my friend Jon’s, and Ruthie’s, and so on. There is a huge network of recent post-grads from the States scattered all over Europe. It’s an easy (and cheap!) way to travel–but it’s also easy to fall into a rut of traveling only with old friends or friends-of-friends and never meet anyone local. Still, sometimes it feels like an extended vacation: I’ve been on short trips to Italy, Scotland, Spain, Wales, Denmark, and France in less than a year based in England.
Despite the pound rising against the dollar, I’ve actually been able to cut the cost of one or two expenses. Like most recent arrivals, I ended up buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card, and had my phone unlocked so I can pick up local SIM cards wherever I travel. Between limiting my mobile phone use and using an online voice-over-IP provider (www.skype.com) for international calls, I’m actually spending less than I did on my standard cell phone contract in the States.
The other cost that’s happily manageable is beer–in the UK you can get a full imperial pint (20 ounce) for less than $5. I doubt if I could beat that price by much in New York, given our smaller (12 ounce) beers!
A huge benefit, compared to the States, is health care. I had arrived in England with an ankle injury so I had to sort out medical care. Since I’m an EU citizen, all it took was hobbling into a local clinic, filling in a one-page document, and I was officially registered with the National Health Service. American students on student visas are also eligible, as is anyone on a work permit. Getting residency is another story altogether, of course.
Renting a room through a reputable agency would have required me to pay by direct deposit from a British bank. But this is a bit of a catch-22, because banks require proof of residency in the UK–usually a rental agreement or letter from a university or employer.
None of that applied to wannabe writers. So to sidestep this issue, I used an American internet bank account (www.bankofinternet.com) that doesn’t charge a currency conversion fee or an ATM fee, so I had ready access to cash. Then I found private homeowners online where I could pay my rent in cash–a convenient if temporary solution.
Eventually the eroding exchange rate made it necessary for me to start earning pounds–and store the few that I could save from odd jobs that also paid in cash. So I changed the billing address on my American account to my British address, and thankfully a British bank accepted the American statement as proof of residence. A cleverer person, considering this in advance, might see if their own bank has branches in the UK and can open an account in advance.
Not every adjustment is so troublesome, of course. Not long after moving into my place, I bought a frozen pizza for my first oven-cooked meal since moving into my backpack that summer. I cheerfully threw the pizza in the oven and then stared, bewildered, at the cooking instructions. Turns out they use apparently arbitrary “gas marks,” not temperatures, but a little fiddling and lowering my culinary standards solved it. There are plenty of little surprises like that in every country.
For example, I still complain bitterly to anyone within earshot about British plumbing. Most sinks have two taps, one scaldingly hot and the other cold. They are generally set a centimeter or two from the edge of the sink, making hand-washing or dish-washing nearly impossible without filling the whole sink, bathtub-style. So I rinse my hands awkwardly, burning them, and grumble.
But there are worse fates than using a British kitchen. I could be eating local cooking.
In the end
In the end, the “big” issues with moving abroad, like visas and banks, tend to sort themselves out if you have a good reason and motivation for moving. Some people study part-time just to get a visa, other people plan ahead and secure employment and a visa before arriving. I drifted and landed here, but a little planning would take care of these issues.
And the little things like plumbing are probably the last things you’d want to change about a foreign place. How else would it feel foreign?
I’m still not used to everything here, and if I ever do settle in, it may be time to look for somewhere new.