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What it Takes to Live and Work Abroad

A Comprehensive Questionnaire

A street scene with expats living in Europe.
A street scene in Europe.

Are you tired of the status quo? Bored with the daily grind? Sick of the rat race? Fed up with your national politics? Seek a better or more interesting life for yourself or your kids?

Do you picture yourself breaking free of earth’s gravity for a while, and soaring off to live and work in some far-flung destination, perhaps for a year, or even for good?  

Maybe you imagine yourself teaching English in Bangkok by day, enjoying the sizzle of the city by night, and basking in the laid-back beach scene on the weekends. Or perhaps you’re an IT expert who dreams of consulting for an up-and-coming in Beijing while perfecting your tai chi forms with a wushu master. Maybe you’re a post-graduate archaeology student with an urge to dig, or a statuesque beauty seeking the allure of international fashion runways, a fluent Spanish translator who wants to run with the bulls, or a wannabe chef (have knives, will travel). 

Whatever your dream, now may be the time to go for it, but not without first taking a good, long look at yourself to see if you have what it takes to live and work abroad. 

Making the decision to relocate to a foreign country is a monumental leap, and having the "right stuff" is crucial. Lots of people dream of doing it, but a significant percentage of them get where they're going and hit a wall in the first month or two because they didn't realize their own shortcomings and weren't aware of the kinds of obstacles and pitfalls that awaited them.

Unless you’re already a gypsy at heart with a lifestyle to match, which is more and more common, the process will undoubtedly require an enormous expenditure of time, energy, effort, and money; not to mention the fact that your adventure comes with no guarantee. And although your chosen destination may be a quaint, charming, simple environment, or it may be one of the safest, most sophisticated nations in the world; its culture, language, and climate may present unforeseen difficulties for a foreigner in the course of everyday life. 

So it is crucial that you make an honest and thorough personal evaluation to ensure that you have what it takes before embarking upon such a daring venture. The following questionnaire will help you evaluate your assets and attributes to determine if you are up to meeting the challenge successfully. 

Living and Working Abroad Questionnaire

1. My level of education is:

  1. Post Graduate Degree and/or TEFL Certificate
  2. College Graduate
  3. Some College
  4. High School graduate

2. I have:

  1. More than $5000 in savings
  2. $3500-5000 in savings
  3. $1000-3500 in savings
  4. Less than $1000 in savings

3. My physical condition is:

  1. Excellent in both stamina and overall physical health
  2. A little out of shape but basically good
  3. Fairly good but with a few troublesome health conditions
  4. Lacking stamina and in need of regular medical attention

4. I am someone who

  1. Can face any challenge without fear
  2. Can get by on my own in most challenging situations
  3. Functions best with a companion
  4. Is easily frightened by unfamiliar settings or unexpected events

5. I am a person who

  1. Adapts easily to new situations
  2. Enjoys the unfamiliar, but prefers my routine
  3. Avoids unfamiliar situations whenever possible
  4. Must adhere to a strict and familiar routine

6. When faced with a challenge

  1. I never give up until I succeed
  2. I work very hard and usually succeed
  3. I work at things that come easily and produce immediate rewards
  4. I give up at the first obstacle

7. When it comes to solving problems

  1. I use my own resources, logic, intuition and imagination until I find a solution
  2. I research the problem and usually arrive at a solution
  3. I seek the help of others for solutions
  4. I’m not very good at solving problems

8. I’m someone who

  1. Finds lots in common with strangers and makes friends easily
  2. Gets along well with most everyone but is slow to form friendships
  3. Works well with other people but keep to myself
  4. Is shy or prefers to remain a loner

9. In my relationship with my family, I am

  1. Very independent
  2. Closely connected but not on a daily basis
  3. Very closely connected and rely upon them for support
  4. Still living with my parents and rely on my family for everything

10. Where food is concerned

  1. I love to try new foods and will eat most anything
  2. I enjoy a wide variety of foods and am not too picky
  3. I am very conservative and stick to the basics
  4. I am on a strict diet
11. When I take a trip
  1. I travel well and enjoy all kinds of transportation
  2. I prefer comfort and luxury but can tolerate most any type of vehicle
  3. I am a little claustrophobic and prone to motion sickness
  4. I hate to travel
12. Where honesty and integrity are concerned:
  1. I uphold both at all costs
  2. I use my judgment and try to be the best person I can whenever possible
  3. I frequently bend the rules and compromise my integrity
  4. I don’t really have a code of behavior for myself
13. When I find myself in a less than ideal situation
  1. I am always willing to compromise to make the best of a situation
  2. I hold on to my ideals until I see that a compromise is the only way
  3. I find it hard to compromise and do so reluctantly
  4. I do not compromise under any circumstances
14. When life becomes difficult
  1. I try to see the humor in it and keep a balanced perspective
  2. I try to solve my problem but not always with the best attitude
  3. I sink into a bad mood for a while but usually manage to overcome the problem
  4. I get depressed and discouraged and usually give up
15. When I look back on my life experiences
  1. I feel that I have lived a rich and rewarding life so far
  2. Whether good or bad, I learned something from all of them
  3. I’ve had ups and downs but am still basically optimistic
  4. Nothing ever seems to work out for me

To score yourself to see if you have what it takes to live and work abroad, give yourself:

3 points for every a,
2 points for every b,
1 point for every c,
0 for every d

Bonus Points:

  1. I already have a job awaiting me in my destination: 10 points
  2. I speak the local language: 10 points
  3. I have relatives or friends living there: 5 points
  4. I have traveled extensively in other foreign countries: 3 points
If you scored:
More than 35 — GO FOR IT! You have what it takes!

25-34 — You may encounter some difficulty, but you will probably succeed

15-24 — Take a look at your weak areas and get yourself prepared for the challenge

Less than 15 — Don’t even think about it

15 Key Criteria to Successfully Live and Work Abroad

At a minimum, the following 15 assets and attributes are essential for a successful and rewarding experience abroad: a college education, adequate finances, good physical health, courage, adaptability, perseverance, resourcefulness, congeniality, independence, an adventurous palate, a love of travel, a code of integrity, a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor and a genuine desire to live life to its fullest. Each attribute plays a crucial role in your ability to thrive and succeed in unfamiliar and challenging surroundings. 

  1. College Education. Although it is possible to find employment abroad without a college degree, your probabilities increase exponentially if you have one. A degree of any kind is better than none at all, and for teaching English, the best credential is a BA or better in English with an ESL certificate. Many employers specifically require that a job candidate meet certain criteria, and those employers who do not insist upon it are still more likely to hire those individuals who do. Of course, many individuals without college degrees earn a perfectly good living as freelancers, but they are the exception to the rule, and they typically have some other means of staying in the country, such as a spouse with a work visa. In general, however, freelancing may not meet the country’s government standards for procuring and maintaining a work visa. The bottom line is: If you want to get hired by a reputable establishment, stay in school yourself and get your diploma before you head off on your adventure. 

  2. Adequate Finances. For some adventuresome spirits, the idea of relocating to an underdeveloped nation is a tempting way to escape the struggles of making ends meet here at home. A place where a month’s rent for a house with a servant costs less than dinner and a movie in the U.S. But remember that underdeveloped economies are commensurate with underdeveloped salaries. So it’s important to set aside some financial reserves for extracurricular travel, or for when your paycheck falls short of your monthly bills, and for your return airfare when you’re ready to head home. 

    And for those sojourners headed for cosmopolitan destinations, remember that the cost of living in a large city can be equal to or higher than that of most U.S. cities. So, if your dream job awaits you in someplace like Tokyo, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Florence, Cairo, Hong Kong, or Sydney, you’ll need to bring along enough money to sustain yourself until you find work, and to set yourself up in a modest apartment until the paychecks start rolling in.

    Of course, in a perfect world, you’d have a job, an apartment, and a company car awaiting you when you get there. Actually, it’s not unheard of. 

  3. Good Health and Stamina. Unless your job includes a company car, you will probably have to rely on public transportation for the daily task of looking for work and for traveling from home to your new job and back. This often requires a great deal of walking to and from the train stations or bus stops in all kinds of weather. Many countries are hot, humid and rainy in the summer, and depending on where you are, it is cold and may even snow in the winter. So, unless you have a generous salary for an apartment in an ideal location, an expense account for taxi fare or the use of a personal car, you’d best be in good physical shape for walking or bicycling at least part of the way wherever you go. Bicycles are usually quite common and affordable, and provide good basic transportation for errands and commuting to and from the train station. Therefore, the ability to walk or bicycle to and from your local destinations is a minimum requirement. And, of course, if you hope to enjoy any amount of recreational travel, good physical stamina and vigor are a must. 

    Many countries also have excellent health care systems, with fairly adequate social and cultural support for foreigners. Be advised, however, when it comes to health, the local ideology may differ significantly from western medical practices, and the challenge of explaining one’s symptoms and figuring out exactly what ailment you have and what kind of drugs a doctor has prescribed can be somewhat bewildering. There are often a limited number of clinics in the metropolitan areas with native English-speaking doctors who specialize in treating foreigners, but they are few and far between. And those individuals with ongoing health conditions that require medications such as insulin, thyroid supplements, antidepressants, and even women who take oral contraceptives, would be well advised to make special arrangements for them in advance. 

  4. Courage. Your chosen destination may be one of the safest and most culturally advanced civilizations on earth, and English speakers may be common. Or it may be a quaint little town where everybody knows each other. But for a first-time visitor, any foreign destination may also be like nothing you ever imagined. Even the most innocuous and commonplace occurrences can be profoundly disturbing if you’re unprepared for the experience. 

  5. Adaptability. Most countries have unique lifestyles and customs. And undoubtedly, you will want to familiarize yourself with them before you go. But it doesn’t end there. Once you arrive, you will discover that there are subtleties and protocol that will make it not only possible but highly likely that an unwitting foreigner will commit a faux pas at almost every turn. Over time, however, with an eye for nuance and an ability to adapt, you can learn how to behave appropriately in most every situation. 

    And then there are the furnishings and paraphernalia of everyday life. Things like bedding, appliances, and cooking utensils. In public places, there may be unusual telephones, mailboxes, and vending machines. Not to mention that most of the signs will be written in the local language with no English translations. 

    But, if you maintain an open mind and a willingness to adapt to your surroundings, chances are you’ll survive quite nicely. 

  6. Perseverance. After a long day of trudging from interview to interview, and looking at one apartment after another, you may find yourself flagging, if not ready to turn tail and flee back to the comfort and familiarity of home. Here is where perseverance pays off and is perhaps the most important element of your quest. In order to succeed, it is imperative that you do your research, talk to the locals, make your phone calls, buy your newspapers, and follow every single lead, no matter how remote or how small. Do this every day, without fail. Keep detailed notes, make yourself a list of all the possibilities you discovered throughout the day: every job opportunity, every agency, every reference, and every available apartment. At the end of each day, take some quiet time to relax and develop a game plan for how you’re going to follow up on them all tomorrow. And then get up the next day and do it all over again until you succeed. 

  7. Resourcefulness. Finding a job and a place to live in a foreign country requires a well-rounded repertoire of resources. This may include the prospects you turned up in your research before you left home, as well as any opportunities you may have discovered once you arrive. The best resources are personal contacts and references, guidebooks, newspapers, local residents, and especially the Internet. The secret lies in how fully you explore and utilize those resources. Therefore, it is essential that you do your homework, keep very thorough and organized notes, follow up on every lead, and don’t overlook any possibility. 

  8. Congeniality. The best way to thrive in a foreign destination is to develop a strong network of friends and acquaintances. Not only will they provide you with companionship, but also with information on the city and the culture, valuable survival tips, and emotional support through difficult times. And the friendships you form on your travels will last you a lifetime. 

  9. Independence. There’s nothing more reassuring than the comfort and support of a close-knit family. But once you’re at large in the world, you’ll need to become more self-reliant. You’ll need to be able to make your own decisions without seeking the advice of your parents or siblings, you’ll need to learn to solve your own problems, and you’ll have to get used to taking care of life’s basic necessities on your own. 

  10. An Adventurous Palate. Chances are that once you leave the cocoon of comfort that is the U.S., you’re not very likely to find Skippy Peanut Butter, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or Campbell’s Tomato Soup. What you will find is lots of new and unusual spices, noodles prepared a thousand different ways, and strange sea creatures you’ve never even heard of, much less imagined yourself eating. But be intrepid. Take the plunge. Try everything…at least once. And remember that every culture has its own version of “bland” food.

  11. A Love of Travel. Unless you’ve chosen Canada or Mexico, chances are you’re going to have to fly to your destination on a commercial airline. And unless you’ve chosen a major international city, you’ll probably have to take some kind of secondary transportation to get where you’re going, such as a smaller domestic airline, a transit train, a shuttle, a ferry, a bus, or a private car. The trip may take more than a day to go from your home to your destination. It may require extensive layovers and involve transit lines that do not intersect. So you may have to be prepared to arrive jet-lagged and exhausted. 

    And depending on where you choose to live, once you’ve settled into your new surroundings, any recreational trips you take to local destinations may require travel on aging vehicles that may be less than punctual, routinely overcrowded, and some may even allow domestic animals to ride in the passenger area. 

    Remember, you have to endure the trip to get to the destination. 

  12. Integrity. One of the most important characteristics of living abroad is integrity. Qualities such as a strong work ethic, pride in workmanship, and team effort are imperative. And on a personal level, in everyday life, honor and integrity are the gold standard. Therefore, it is recommended that you conduct yourself with the highest code of behavior and ethics at all times. It will serve you well and keep you out of trouble. 

  13. Willingness To Compromise. While you’re planning your move, it’s easy to dream in Technicolor: the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect experience. Yet, no matter how carefully you plan and prepare, there will always be those elements that don’t meet your expectations. Early on, before you’ve assimilated the culture and explored the opportunities that await you there, it may be tempting to hold on to that unwavering paragon. However, if you are lucky enough to be offered a pleasant job that meets your basic living expenses with a little disposable income left over for fun, by all means, take it. If you find an affordable apartment that feels homey and livable, go for it. Remember, once you’re settled and employed, you can always trade up. 

  14. A Sense of Humor. Despite its sophistication and refinement, or its pastoral beauty and rustic charm, any culture can also be exhausting, bewildering, infuriating, overwhelming, and downright absurd at times. And when the travails and tribulations of your day frazzle your last nerve, sometimes the only antidote is a sense of humor. So, if you didn’t travel with a companion, find yourself a buddy to swap stories with and have a laugh at day’s end. It will help to put the whole crazy circus into perspective, and will provide an outlet for your frustrations, as well as a high-five for your triumphs. English-speaking ex-pats are everywhere, and most are more than happy to meet up with a kindred spirit. In the beginning, or anytime thereafter for that matter, don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation on the train, in a pub, a shop, or even on the street. You have nothing to lose and may gain a mentor and compatriot for the effort. 

  15. A Desire to Live Life to Its Fullest. Living abroad can be one of the most personally enlightening and enriching experiences that life has to offer. But to thrive in a new and unfamiliar culture, and to get the full benefit from the time you spend there, you must have a broad sense of perspective and an unconditional willingness to let go of your expectations and immerse yourself in the experience. Live the lifestyle, eat the food, get to know the people, their history, their language and their culture. Make friends, make money, and yes, make mistakes. But whatever you do, make the most of it!  

Celeste Heiter, freelance writer and graphic artist, spent two years living, working, and traveling in Japan. Celeste is the author of Ganbatte Means Go For It! Or How to Become an English Teacher in Japan.

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