What is it like to be an immigrant: tips after living in 5 countries

What is it like to be an immigrant: tips after living in 5 countries

A 8 minutes read written by Sonia H on July 2023

(This post is for those who want to move elsewhere and can afford to do so without fleeing because they are not in danger)

Moving abroad can be one of the most amazing things you can do in your lifetime - but it really depends on the nature of your leaving home and how you approach it.

Everything will be beautiful and such, especially when going to cafeterias, bars, and so on - until a friend of mine froze (and ran away) after not understanding what someone was asking her about her order at Granada's Taco Bell. It can get lonely and confusing at times. If not at most.

It can be terribly hard or terribly simple. I've done it so many times that it's somehow already imprinted in my DNA. Almost in autopilot: you arrive, dead tired and carrying your things, and you know almost nothing of what surrounds you. You have to go around to inspect, analyse, identify landmarks you'll see often and use as an orientation point. The new language, the new people, the new customs. If I'd have to sum it up, the hardest thing will be bureaucracy.

Myths about moving abroad

You need years of preparation before moving abroad

Nah. This could easily become an endless search for optimisation, preparing stuff, and actually never moving because you fear you're not ready for it. For most of things in life, we're never ready - that's how it is. You will learn more on the field than by researching behind a computer. I researched a lot for some of my moving-abroads, and things were much easier when I was there physically: you would realise that some things were not as important as you read they were. That doesn't mean you shouldn't research - please do - but that what matters is how you make the action. It will be hard regardless, but it's going to be better on the long run if you're on the ground - the sooner you get acquainted with the being-a-foreigner hardship, the better. Like eating your veggies first.

Things are easier if you are within an expat community

Although I had a look at several online expat communities that were living in the same cities I moved to, I never made any use of expat communities and meetings. It is a personal choice, but I think it is better and more helpful for your integration if you begin making local friends slowly. If you find a Facebook group or page where people from the city (locals and expats) share some insights and info that can be useful also to socialize, go for it!


Know some of the language of the country you want to move to

YES. This is one of the most important things, for several reasons:

  • You will be the foreigner there, and you will have to adapt. Adaptation isn't an easy skill, but it will serve you all your life. At the beginning you may manage with English, but that cannot last on the long run. Besides, not everyone may speak English, so going the extra mile and preparing yourself linguistically is the wisest choice. Once you're there, things will be gradually easier, as you will interact with the new language constantly, and thus learn faster. I wrote a post on learning languages, which you can read here.
  • Some countries are not easy to live in, and the fact that you don't speak at least a bit of the local language may not create an environment of trust.
  • If you're an introvert or you're shy, moving somewhere where you don't speak some of the language will make the experience very hard.  

You may choose to attend a language school once you're there (I suggest you to research some before you arrive), or pick a tutor as well. It will all depend on you and if there are reasons for which it is very urgent that you learn the language (a job, university, etc).

Tips to move abroad

Travel as light and as comfortable as possible

Most of my moving in and out of countries was with a big red Samsonite and a cabin trolley. That was my house, my wardrobe, my closet, and where everything was until I moved to Italy four years ago. I used to carry what I wore the most, what I needed the most, and would eventually pick up either winter or summer clothing at my mum's place during the big annual visit. While that is not ideal, that's how I managed living in my backpack, as I always say, ever since I left home at age 18. Now, I'd recommend you, first of all, to owe only what is strictly necessary, that way you won't need to be carrying two luggages around. A good, big enough backpack can be more than enough. (If you can have your physical books at your family's home or at the home of someone you trust, it's better than carrying them all over the place)

Carry copies your most important documents with you  

Keep copies of your most important documents (passport, ID, permits, visas, certificates) and carry them with you at all times, especially at the beginning. If something happens to you, that will be the most important thing to have on yourself, by far. I recommend to have your documents both printed and in a USB drive.

Don't underestimate bureaucracy

Some countries take things in a relaxed, non-urgent way - but some other countries are extremely strict and civil servants won't be there to help you if you didn't pay attention to a bureaucracy problem. Research the bureaucracy system of the country you want to move to, and even check some forums for first-hand info. Prepare your visa documents way in advance if you'll need one, and remember that you'll have to renew it every X time. Don't rely on people's kindness and understanding when doing paperwork - in some countries people try to make it easier for you, while in some others people directly don't want to help you for whatever reason, which leaves you at their mercy. Extra tip: save the directions of bureaucracy places you'll have to visit in your Maps app! And don't wait til the last moment.  

Learn how to meet people

Cafeterias, libraries and events are a great place to meet like-minded or interesting people. Beginning a new social structure from zero feels impossible, and it's not that one can easily begin conversations with strangers. If you find the place you may go to often, you could gradually build relationships with the people who also frequent it. In my experience, I made deeper friendships at university (abroad), and casually, my friends and like-minded people used to hang out in the same places I liked, so finding the place made things much easier. Another tip: if you have social media (I don't any more, but back then it was useful), join groups for the specific city you're moving to, so that you can get a glimpse of how daily life is, how people communicate, and how to find certain services.

Don't ignore cultural differences

Even if you're well travelled, dive deep into the culture of the country you're moving to before you're going. Sometimes there may be things you consider trivial but that are highly offensive for the locals - that's what cultural differences are, even if you don't consider certain things a reason to get angry. That can include etiquette and social customs (like not eating with the left hand in Muslim countries and other Asian countries). Read about history and politics from the country and city you'll be moving in. If you prefer to have an overlook of what subjects must be handled with care (or not handled at all), do that - this can avoid some problems when socialising with locals. Remember, you're going to be the different one, so you will have to adapt to where you arrive. Fortunately, there are also forums that inform people about cultural differences for travelling, and you can also ask the locals once you've established a relationship of trust with someone. Or, the good old way, observe and copy what the locals do.

Be mindful of your budget

It's very easy to move somewhere, think you have enough funds to live the same way you used to live at home, and then see that things are more expensive than at home. Ouch at the end of the month. For a while, soup cubes and instant noodles were my go-to, and I'm not proud of it - and I could not afford to do any activity, even if I always tend to spare, and not waste. Be sure to consider things carefully and take the right decisions for you on the long run. Sometimes the circumstances are way too hard and leaving back home can be the only option.
While I generally recommend minimalist living - especially when you move around a lot - this can only help you when moving abroad. If you're of those who chooses to bring everything in a truck or with a moving company, that will also be a big expense. Depending on your priorities and work situation, you may want to budget according to your needs and the cost of living where you're at - remember, just being an immigrant puts you in a weaker position.

Get a health insurance

Don't underestimate it, because it can get extremely problematic. Some places are very expensive and getting a health insurance may be out of your range - prepare yourself beforehand (before emigrating) and see if it would make more sense to get a travel insurance in your home country until you decide to establish yourself somewhere else. There aren't many things as scary as getting sick abroad, while being an immigrant, with no one to help you, and not being recognised as someone that would have a right to healthcare.

Be prepared to change your mind

If you want to stay where you've moved, congratulations, you've found your place - and this will mark the beginning of a new adventure. If you choose to leave, you won't come back the same person after having moved abroad. What you will have seen, learned, and experienced will stay with you. I don't mean the laughing and the parties - but what the wave of human complexity, vulnerability, overwhelm, and existence will teach you once you leave behind everything you know. Those moments of silence observing what happens around you - that you didn't know about before you moved -, the looking back at what was and comparing it with what now is... if you stay, it will continue shaping your mind, identity, culture, and general perception of things ever since, and if you leave, it will make you see what you had known in a different way. Things get a different shade, moreso if you've been exposed to conflict zones and poverty (like my case): it takes a lot of effort to adapt after that, and it would be a good idea to seek professional help if the shock of coming back home after having lived certain things feels too overwhelming.  

Wrap up

Moving abroad can be a beautiful challenge, but it can easily be overwhelming. Like anything in life, we must embrace uncertainty - no matter how well we prepare ourselves, we can never know how things will go. We can't protect ourselves beyond preparing the bureaucracy part, the housing part, and else. Being vulnerable isn't easy for anyone, especially at first. But if you open your spirit up, what you can learn on the way is worth everything, including f*cked up errors that will make you laugh for the rest of your life, or weird anecdotes to tell to your children someday.