Moving house is said to be one of the most stressful times of life. Moving overseas is even more stressful. Moving overseas with a family … let’s just say there will be tears, recriminations, doubts, regrets and the mother of all to-do lists. With the experience I’ve gained over the years, I’ve put together the ultimate expat family to-do list.
For the purpose of this list, I’m going to assume that you’ve made the decision to move, you (or your company) have organised working visas, and that you are not working with a relocation specialist. It’s definitely worth asking if your employer would consider paying for this service, as it helps employees settle into their new life quicker, and means they are less distracted by niggling bureaucracy.
The more that you arrange and research before you leave, the easier the first weeks will be. When you arrive, you will have to navigate a new neighbourhood, settle into your new home and get the kids used to their new school. Spend the evenings before you move googling for information, make a list and keep it somewhere safe. It’s not a bad idea to store your list on your phone so that you can always access it.
Arrange a House-Hunting Trip
Depending on the age of your children, you may prefer to do this without them. Older kids may want more of a say in the choice of new home, but dragging little ones around an unfamiliar city isn’t fun, and will slow you down. A great way to involve kids back home is to arrange a video call (via FaceTime or Skype) as you view a house. Or video the tour, and send it to them using hotel wifi.
If you can, speak to some local expats, and ask for opinions on city districts. Try websites such as Mumsnet or ExpatChild (Facebook group here), or search for expat parenting Facebook groups in the country/city you are moving to.
Consider commuting distances when looking for a home, particularly in cities that are known for traffic gridlock. You may need to compromise here, with regards to decent living area vs good school vs reasonable commute. In my experience, the most important of these three is the school, followed by the city district.
We had cross-cultural training before our move to Geneva, and the trainer told us that the main reason for early repatriation from an overseas assignment was when the ‘Trailing Spouse’ and / or the kids were unhappy. (Yes, that really is a term that is used for the non-working spouse!) It really is worth ensuring that the person who will be spending most time at home is happy with the location of the house.
Some people move into temporary accommodation for a couple of months when they arrive in the country, to give themselves more time to search for a home. From my experience, this simply prolongs the unsettled period and makes it more difficult to settle in.
The question of buying or renting is one that comes up often. The UK has a high percentage of homeowners, and often Brits want to buy a home when they go abroad. In many EU countries, renting a house is more common, and this may be a better option, particularly for a temporary assignment. Even if you plan to stay longer, consider the implications and costs involved in purchasing an overseas property. If you don’t like living abroad, will you be able to sell the property? A drop in the exchange rate can be devastating if the property costs (mortgage, utilities etc) are in a currency different to your salary.
Schools and Childcare
Perhaps more important for the happiness of the family is the choice of school and/or childcare. Again, expat groups on Facebook or other websites can be amazingly helpful here. Some employers will pay for international school, or for a school in the language of your home country. For shorter assignments, this makes it easier for the kids to re-integrate when you move back home. If you intend to stay for a longer period of time, you may prefer to send the children to a local school.
Before you arrange the house-hunting trip, phone or email a couple of schools and ask if you can visit when you are there. Make a list of things that are important to you, so that you can ask about them, e.g. school times, pastoral care, qualifications, transport, special needs provisions. Also ensure that your preferred school is currently accepting new pupils, as some of the better schools may be over-subscribed.
If your child has additional needs, try and speak to some locals or expats to find out about provisions, both with regard to schooling and health care. An assessment from your home country may not be considered valid in the new country, so you might have to organise a new one.
If both parents intend to work, start to research childcare options. Is there state childcare provision, and will you be eligible? A childminder, with a small group of cohorts, may be preferable for a young child, but the opportunities for learning a new language might be better in a nursery / kindergarten setting.
Ask the school for an interim report, if you are moving in the middle of a school year. And find out about school uniform, and where to buy it.
Wifi and Mobile Phones
When you head off on the house-hunting trip, ensure that your mobile phone contract doesn’t have extortionate roaming charges for calling home. It might be cheaper to take an unlocked phone with you and buy a local SIM card.
After you have signed the rental contract, go into the local telecommunications shop and inquire about signing up for phone/mobile/wifi services. Depending on the country, this may be possible before you move. Often it can take a couple of weeks before the wifi is connected, so if you can do this in advance of your arrival, it is a great advantage. This also means that when you arrive with the kids, you won’t spend weeks hearing ‘but WHY don’t we have internet yet?!!’, and you can unpack in peace as they watch YouTube videos or chat with friends back home on Snapchat.
New regulation within the EU has cracked down on roaming charges, making it less expensive to use your mobile phone in other EU countries. Check that your new contract enables you to use your minutes/data when you visit home or other countries. Some contracts include cheap calls to specific countries – in times of internet calling, this is no longer quite as important but can be handy to have.
Various apps enable you to stay in touch with friends and family back home, using your mobile data allowance or wifi to message or even call home. Apple gadget users can use FaceTime and iMessage; to chat or phone with those on Android, the app Whatsapp is incredibly useful – or even Facebook messenger.
Apps and social media services such as Instagram and Snapchat are a great way for kids to keep in touch with friends back home. Set them up before they leave, so they have time to exchange details with friends. Ensure they know not to use normal text messaging, otherwise they and their friends could run up a hefty phone bill!
Ensure that you have health insurance set up – either via your employer or private insurance. Most employers will advise on this.
Do you need any vaccinations before you go? Take vaccination records for the kids with you, as some schools won’t accept kids without proof that they are vaccinated. If you take regular medication, can you import this into the country, and purchase it (or an equivalent) when you move? Don’t forget birth control.
This is a good time to have last check-ups, so schedule general health check-up, dental/orthodontist, gynae, dermatologist etc. If one of the family has specific health issues, ask for copies of their notes. If your child wears dental braces, check if the spare parts are available in the new country (we were advised to wait till we moved to have orthodontics fitted for this reason).
Not strictly ‘health’ but go to the hairdresser and get a good cut before you leave, as it might take a while before you find one in the new place. Take photos of the cut and colour now, so that you can show your new hairdresser, particularly if there may be a language barrier.
There is only one thing worse than having an ill child in a foreign country, and that is having an ill child in a foreign country and having no idea where to go for help. You don’t want to be holding an ice pack to a bumped head with one hand, while frantically googling to find the closest ER with the other hand. Once you know where you will be living, find out the location of a hospital with emergency pediatric care. In some places, this may be different from the regular ER.
Ask around to find medical practitioners who speak your language – doctor, dentist, optician, pediatrician… or any other specialist you or your family require.
Check if there are any quarantine restrictions or any health checks required before importing your pet. Ensure that your pet has the required vaccinations, e.g. rabies shots.
Ask around to find a vet who speaks your language and research where to buy food, bedding, and any other requirements. Take enough food for the first weeks, so that you don’t have to rush around on arrival to find similar food. Depending on where you are moving to, you might find that the food you give your pet at home isn’t available there. If not, consider switching to the new food in the weeks before you leave home, especially if you have a fussy eater.
Banking and Bureaucracy
You may want to keep your bank account open in your home country. Be aware that if you don’t use your accounts at home, you may find that on your return, your credit history has been badly affected. You may want to open a local bank account (assuming this is possible) for local costs. In some countries, acceptance of credit cards is limited, so having a local debit card will be much easier. Particularly Americans have to get used to paying for everything in cash in some European countries, where it’s less common to pay by card.
Cancel direct debits and standing orders, and any subscriptions e.g. print and online media, shopping, utilities, rental payments, house insurance, car tax and insurance… Some subscriptions have a longer cancellation period, so do this as soon as you can. Change your address – banks, pension/national insurance/health insurance, tax office.
If you will rent out your home while you are away, decide if you wish to appoint a rental agent. Consider if there will be any tax implications in the host country if you have income from rental property. It may be advantageous to contact a tax advisor with experience of expat tax affairs. Ensure you inform your bank and insurance company that you will be renting your home as failure to do this may break the terms of your contract.
Make a will, if you haven’t already. Get legal advice if you have property and assets in more than one country. Appoint legal guardians for your kids.
Make copies of all important documents – the best option for this is to scan them and save them on an external hard-drive or cloud-based drive. Check renewal dates for passports – it might be better to renew a year early than have the hassle while abroad. Some countries allow passport renewal by post, others require a visit to the embassy or consulate.
Find out about family allowance payments, and whether you can claim this locally (as is the case when moving within the EU).
Check with your public pension scheme – in some cases, it can be preferable to pay the minimum voluntary contribution for the time you are out of the country so that you don’t lose out.
Redirect post to a relative or to your new address. It’s cheaper to redirect to a UK address if you have a relative who you trust to open, scan and email post to you.
Register to vote before you leave the country – in some cases, it is not possible to do this when you live abroad.
Car vs Public Transport
Will you take your car or sell it and buy a new one at the destination? Check prices for used cars, as this can vary wildly – you might find it cheaper to import your current car, but look up import restrictions and what documents you will need.
You may be able to use your current driving license for a set period of time, or you may need an international or local license.
Perhaps it might be easier to forgo the use of a car, and use public transport, depending on your commute to school/work – but first check your options with regard to grocery shopping, online shopping etc.
Packing and Removal
Before you start packing, take a good look at all your belongings and decide which items are really worth moving. Send the kids out for the day with a friend and take a good look at their toys. Don’t discard anything of sentimental value that may bring them comfort in a new home, but it’s time to bin broken toys, Happy Meal plastic tat, and books they are unlikely to read again. Then go through the room with the kids, and see what they are willing to part with – kids often like the thought of boxing up old toys and giving them to kids who are less fortunate than themselves.
Find out if your employer will pay for the removal, and what is included. You may have to pack your belongings yourself, in which case start as soon as possible. Find out if there are any restrictions on what you can pack – e.g. some companies won’t allow transport of alcohol. These are often based on customs restrictions, so if you are moving your worldly goods yourself, check that you are allowed to bring all your belongings into the country.
Get the kids to decorate a box each, using felt tip pens. These highly recognisable boxes should be among the last to be loaded, so they are first to be unloaded. The same goes for a box with the kettle/coffee machine, tea, coffee, and sugar – make sure it is last in the van and first out. Not everything can be solved by a cup of tea, but it’s definitely worth a try!
There will be some items that you won’t be able to purchase in the new country. Logically, you’ll have to get used to the available items, but stock up on favourite cosmetics and treats before you go.
You may be used to using supermarket delivery services and home shopping, but this may not be quite as advanced in your destination country. Research the nearest supermarket, DIY store, toy shop and chemist to your new home. And ice cream parlour!
The most important thing to remember is that this phase is reasonably short. Yes, it may be stressful and there will be a moment in the middle of it all where you sit on the kerb and cry, but it won’t last forever.
Take a break from the organisation, packing and unpacking, and go for ice cream, be a tourist, have a fun day out. You don’t have to do everything within the first month of arriving, it’s really ok to leave a few boxes till later (or till you move back home – we had boxes in our cellar that were never opened, much less unpacked!).