Surprising things no one tells you about living abroad

People assume that living abroad is a dream. 

“I’m living vicariously through you!”

“You’re so brave, I could never live that far from home.”

“I wish I could do something like that!”

As a broad stroke: it is. Quitting my job and moving to Madrid was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But as any American expat knows, living in a foreign country comes with its challenges.

 Trying to get a good picture in Langkawi, Malaysia. It was a tad windy.
Trying to get a good picture in Langkawi, Malaysia. It was a tad windy.

From daily inconveniences to giant learning curves, finding your way in unfamiliar territory takes time. It also takes a lot of trial and error. A favorite catchphrase among my friends is, “Well, now we know.”

In the various Madrid expat Facebook groups I’m a part of, nothing is off limits. People recommend doctors that speak English, ask about where to find a certain brand of hot sauce, and post general complaints about Spanish bureaucracy. 

I often think back to the dark ages before social media, like when my parents moved to Paris in the early 90s; it was a huge adjustment for them. Aside from being a communication tool to keep in touch with loved ones back home, Facebook is how I found my apartment and met some of my best friends here. 

After having lived abroad three times, I’ve gotten used to the usual growing pains: missing holidays and family, FaceTiming with friends at odd hours, and not being able to find decent Tex-Mex.

But here are some of the strange, less-than-glamorous things people might not tell you about living abroad.

No one knows what to do with their American phone number.

Once you get a SIM card in your new country, your American number is in limbo, and most carriers don’t offer a cost-effective option for keeping it. Some people remain on family plans, others port their number through Google Voice, and still others get screwed over by Verizon and lose the number they’ve had for 13 years.

It’s 2018; it should not be this complicated. 

You probably won’t make a ton of local friends.

I’ve found this to be true in every country I’ve lived in. This is not to say that locals are not friendly, just that most of them are not concerned with making new foreign friends who may leave in a year or two. Many locals hang out with a tight-knit crew that they’ve known their whole lives and who speak their native language.

Of course there are exceptions to this, but if you want to make local friends, you have to go the extra mile: learn the language, get out of the expat bubble, and immerse yourself in the local scene.

Your expat friends will become your family.

When you’re far away from family, friendships become even stronger. You get to explore a new place together while sharing the same adjustments and frustrations. You rely on each other even more when times get tough, whether it be through a batch of homesickness or the death of a loved one—which makes goodbyes even harder.

Since most people only go abroad short-term, people come and go. On the bright side though, you’re always meeting new people and you build lifelong friendships that span the globe.

Clothing sizes vary by country.

Shopping for clothes and shoes can be a challenge depending on the country. As a woman with larger-than-average feet, it was a toss up whether a store had my size in Brazil. In Taiwan, I had to wear men’s sneakers.

My petite mother had to wear clothes at a size large or extra-large in Singapore. Spain and other Western European countries don’t seem to be very accommodating for curvy women, or anyone with a butt for that matter. Thank god for online shopping.

Your next trip home will be a shopping free-for-all. 

After frequenting the tiny, less-than-adequate grocery stores abroad, the next time you set foot in an American grocery store will feel like Christmas morning.

You’ll stuff your overpacked suitcase with all the things you never knew you needed. Garbage snack food? Check. Mexican tortillas? Yes, please. Boxed mac and cheese? Oh, how I’ve missed you so.

Finding American products abroad can be a challenge, and often expensive. (A box of Kraft Mac & Cheese at Madrid’s Taste of America shop will set you back $6—which I may or may not have splurged on when hungover.)

Smoking is (still) all the rage.

This is probably one of my biggest grievances about Madrid and Europe as a whole. Sidewalks are small, so it’s hard to avoid walking through clouds of smoke from workers on their break. Walking and smoking is a popular pastime, so if you get stuck behind someone, you may find your hair smells like smoke when you get to work. Lovely.

Fellow expats: I want to hear from you! What are your biggest grievances about being an expat? Funny translation mishaps? Things you didn’t expect? 

Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Surprising things no one tells you about living abroad

  1. Love that you mentioned not making friends with locals being difficult – I’ve found that to be so true (and discouraging at times). It’s not a big challenge when you’re in a fun traveling nomad-friendly destination, but in places like London it’s like WHAT GIVES. I thought it was just me, so I’m happy to read that haha

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