Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

8 Tips for Settling into a New Country Successfully

Article and photos by Matt Scott

Settle in a new country such as Australia with a rainbow
Settling into a new country can seem like seeking a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

You may have decided to move to another country in order to experience a new culture or to change your current way of life. Perhaps work, study or family commitments have influenced your decision. Whatever the motives for your move, it’s likely that while living in a new country can be full of excitement and positive experiences, there will be growing pains and difficulties along the way. Whether your move is for a semester, or perhaps for the rest of your life, in order to make the transition as successful as possible, being proactive about integrating and adapting to a new life is key. I have provided advice below that should help you settle in more smoothly and quickly.

1. Be Open Minded

Living in Paris and walking along river Seine
Walking along the river Seine in Paris, you will see books and posters on display that may blow your mind. Let your imagination and curiosity play.

It’s unlikely you would have moved to a new county if you lacked an open outlook on life in the first place, but just make sure you maintain this outlook. It’s likely that things will be done differently, people will have different perspectives, and governments will not be run as you are accustomed. Your new way of living may be better, worse, or simply different from the familiar. Remember to accept these changes as a necessary part of your new life, try not to be overly critical (or glorify too much), and do your best to avoid feeling frustrated. Try to accept that things are the way they are, and you will need to adapt your way of living around a chosen location, not the other way round.

2. Improve Your Language Skills

Settle in to your new country and learn the language
No one said learning a new language is easy, but with a bit of effort, you will manage.

There is no better way to learn a language than to be totally immersed in a culture and forced to speak the language on a daily basis. You may find yourself in an expat community, or in an English speaking bubble, but making an effort to escape from your comfort zone is important. Improving your language skills (or learning a new language from scratch) will not only help you appreciate local cultures and people but will make life much easier if you are unable to fall back on your mother tongue for communication. Even if you are moving from one English speaking country to another, being open to new expressions, idioms, and terminology will help enrich your experience and allow you to better follow the flow of conversation.

I’d been trying to learn Spanish, on and off, for many years. While I would engage in periods of intense study for a few weeks, I’d quickly forget everything once I stopped practicing. I decided to sign up for an intensive language course in Santiago, Chile. While the course was only a few weeks in duration, I learned more than in my many years of prior study. Practicing the language on a daily basis provided not only a practical application for what I was learning, but helped reinforce grammatical rules and vocabulary. So much so that I was able to retain most of what I’d learned even years after I’d left South America.

3. Make New Friends

It’s not always easy to meet new people, regardless of where you are, but having a social life that you are used to and people you can call on in a time of need are vital to feeling at home in your new country. Joining an expat group, volunteering your time, or becoming a member of clubs that appeal to your interests can all help you develop a network of friends.   

Given that there will be many challenges in your new life, being able to call on people that are either in a similar situation or understand what you are facing, can make overcoming any issues all the easier.

4. Don’t Forget Your Old Friends

In the excitement of moving to a new county, it’s all too easy to forget about who you’ve left behind. You may wish to throw yourself into your new life completely, but make sure to stay in touch with friends and family back home. As time goes by you may find that you have less and less in common with your existing friends, or gain the impression that they don’t understand what you’re doing, but the friendships you’ve built up over the years are there for a reason, so don’t give up on them too quickly. In the end, your friends and family are the ones most likely to be there when you need them the most.

5. Know What You’re Getting Into

Learn how to adapt to a new country, such as Australia
Try to read up on your adopted land and know as much as possible how to navigate.

Living in a new country will bring with it all manner of new experiences and surprises. Hopefully, the majority of these will be positive but it’s inevitable that not everything will run smoothly. The more you know about your destination country, and what is involved in living there, the more you will ensure that you are able to adapt while avoiding as many potential obstacles as possible. Potential issues can range from ensuring that all your immigration paperwork is up to date and correct, or that you are paying your taxes correctly, to simple events such as how to buy a bus ticket, or where to find an internet café.

In particular, if you are moving to a country where the culture and customs are different from your own, make sure you know what is and isn’t acceptable (or legal) in order to ensure that you don’t have problems from the outset. Transitions Abroad has many excellent articles on adapting to new culture and practices in many different countries and serve as an excellent introduction to successful immersion.

One of the first times I lived abroad was to volunteer on a Kibbutz in Israel. While I had read up on the background of the county, and the issues within the region, I had no concept of just how complex and confusing this part of the would turn out to be. Many of my fellow volunteers were very knowledgeable about the significant events and history of the area, so I could discuss these matters in depth with the people with whom we were living day-to-day, but I still often felt left out of the conversation. I was eventually able to learn about the history of the region and soon realized that there are more than just two sides to this particular story. Nonetheless, I still felt that if I had arrived with a greater understanding, my initial weeks and months would have been much more rewarding.   

6. Plan Ahead

Map of Muchen, Germany
Often it does not hurt to buy a map and get background reading on your chosen country to have a sense of place. Photo credit Camilla Bundgaard.

Tasks that can be easy to carry out at home can become monumental chores once you arrive in a new country, especially if you are unprepared. Opening a bank account, registering for a school, renting a place to live are just a few of the tasks that are necessary for you to complete and can involve significant paperwork and time. Your initial setup can be made all the more difficult if you don’t have the correct documents in hand. It can not only be time-consuming but very expensive to ship important documents from one country to another (digital copies are not always accepted), and a little forward planning can make all the difference. If you happen to be in an area with limited internet or phone access, resolving even the simplest of issues can turn into an arduous task.  Make sure you know what you need when you arrive and try and complete as much as you can before you leave (if possible) to ensure that your first weeks are spent enjoying your new home, and not stressing over menial tasks.

When I first moved to Australia I had no idea that the rental market was so competitive. I’d show up to view an apartment for rent, find 20 or 30 other couples ahead of me seeking to get selected to become the tenant, a process similar to being selected for a new job. Landlords wanted numerous identification papers, multiple references from previous landlords, even letters of recommendation from old neighbors and copies of old bills, showing they had been paid in full.  I had none of these! In order to put in an application to rent a new apartment I needed to make several calls to previous landlords and ask them to write me a recommendation, then convince them to send it to Australia. On one occasion I needed my in-laws to go to the local council on my behalf to collect a document and then send it to me, by which time we’d been living in a hostel for weeks. Had I taken a little time to set all this up before I had moved, I could have collected all the necessary paperwork within a day or two and brought it along. Instead it was almost a month before I had everything necessary in hand and was finally able to put in an application on a place to live.

7. Seek Out Help When and If Needed

Light and help South Korea
There is always help available when you are in need. Photo by kdj71190.

No one said moving to another country would be easy, but if you are lucky you should encounter few major problems. However, sometimes things arise that may stretch your patience to the limit; from visas issues to problems at work or with a landlord.  Regrettably, it is not unheard of that individuals may try to take advantage of you in the hope that you don’t understand local laws or policies.   

While things will certainly not be the same as home, make sure you know the relevant rules and regulations of any situations you are dealing with.Don’t take the word of your landlord that it’s normal to pay a huge deposit nor the advice of your employer that you’re not entitled to minimum wage, for example. Always seek a second opinion, especially when money or legal aspects are involved.

Local expat groups, internet forums, friends, or colleagues can all be an excellent source of information and advice, but if you’re still not sure consider seeking professional help. While it can be expensive to consult an immigration lawyer or legal representative, their advice could save you in the long run and such a knowledgeable contact can be particularly valuable if you ever find yourself in a problematic situation.

If you are moving abroad for a short-term working holiday or study break, you may also be able to call on the organization that assisted with your initial placement and visa (if you used one) to help you resolve any problems.

I was volunteering in South Korea at an English school when the immigration authorities visited and interviewed all the foreign teaching staff. After my interview they informed me that I did not have the right kind of visa for the work I was performing. I was told I would have to stop working immediately, and that while I was welcome to stay as a tourist for a few more weeks, I would not be able to continue my work. As the school had processed all my visa documents, I had no idea regarding my rights, it seemed even they were not sure and so thought they had made a mistake.  

While I was considering leaving the country soon after experiencing this examination and reprimand, I decided to track down some other teachers at nearby schools that were involved in a similar program to ask their advice. One of these teachers gave me a full translation of the visa conditions to which I was entitled. With such knowledge, I was able to go back to the immigration department and assert which clauses applied to my visa, and was able to return to work almost immediately thereafter without any further issues.

8. Expect the Unexpected

Be realistic about life in a new country but expect the unexpected. You may experience emotional extremes, from loving your new environment and enjoying everything new, or have bouts of homesickness and frustration with some aspects of life. While the initial phases can be the hardest (and most rapidly changing), you’re realistically going to experience some mixed feelings over the years, at times, as you face different challenges in a new environment. The enduring benefit is that during the transitional process you will likely grow as you discover how to adapt and thrive.

More by Matt Scott
15 Important Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job Abroad
Life Working Abroad as a Tour Guide

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