There are a lot of things you’ll think about and plan out before you move abroad; you’ll plan how much money to bring along, what jobs are available in the country, and what the currency will be. You’ll look into places to visit, museums to see, what transportation might look like, and what basic words you’ll need to know in the language. There are probably so many things you’ll research or plan before you move somewhere, and there are a lot of things that people will tell you to try and look out for and be aware of. However, there are even more things that nobody will tell you. Things that you won’t even think of until that day that you have to. So here are some of the things that I have only learned through experience, and would never have thought of as difficult before moving abroad.
Banking. One of the hardest things for me in Turkey was going to the bank. I have three Turkish bank accounts, and I honestly can’t tell you how many times I left the bank so frustrated that I was literally in tears. One might assume, coming from a country in which the banks work smoothly, internet banking is common, and everyone speaks English, that banking is an easy thing to do. It certainly isn’t this way when you live abroad. I’ve never had the pleasure of a bank teller who speaks any English, internet banking is somehow always impossible, and the English helplines are rarely in English. Even when the helplines are in English, every conversation somehow ends with “please visit your local branch.” And the local branch? It’s wherever you first went to open an account; it cannot be changed, even if you have moved across country and are not ‘local’ anymore. Another fun process involves the fact that you can’t open a bank account at most banks without a residence permit, but can’t get a residence permit without a bank account. So to get the residence permit you need to find some bank that is willing to do it, often obscure ones, and often not the first one you try. The different paperwork you’ll need to open an account, even with a permit, is never the same for two people, and depends entirely on how much the teller likes you. So don’t count on your banking being easy, because regardless of where you’re going, banking as a foreigner is always a whole different ball game.
Doctors. Seeing a doctor can be awkward, expensive and frustrating as a foreigner. Once again, language will be an issue, don’t think that just because they’ve made it through years of medical school that doctors will speak English or any other language you speak. The few times that I and my friends have been to doctors in any of the places I’ve lived it has been an adventure, to say the least. I spent four hours once in a public hospital in Turkey to get a pap test done – this is a 5 minute procedure. It was a 30 degree day, there was no air conditioning and I was the only foreigner in the hospital. Nobody spoke English, the doctor made it awkward, and the best part about it all? I never even recieved my results. In Tanzania, I found that some of the doctors did speak English, but the public hospitals were dirty, crowded, not air conditioned and difficult to navigate. On the other hand, the private hospitals were clean and tidy, but incredibly expensive, and didn’t guarantee better doctors or English speaking staff. I haven’t yet had a reason to see a doctor here in Hungary, but from what I’ve heard, the healthcare system sounds like it will be about as much fun as it was in Turkey. Of course, as always, private hospitals will be more comfortable and easier to deal with, but if you’re like me and recieving a similar salary, they simply aren’t affordable and won’t be covered by any healthcare you’ll be provided with by your workplace. So if you’re going to need to see a doctor, my advice would be to make some local friends and beg them to come with you, and prepare yourself for a lot of waiting, confusion, misunderstanding and frustration.
Immigration Offices and Government Buildings. No government office will be easy, logically set up or convenient. It must be a rule for government offices that they be in a difficult part of town, employ nobody who speaks a foreign language, have no air conditioning and no proper signage. I’ve made it through the legal immigration process in Turkey and Hungary, and visited various government buildings in Canada, Tanzania, and the UAE. When I say Canada, I’m pointing out that Canada is certainly no exception to my observation of government offices and immigration offices being ridiculously illogical and difficult. Basically every time I’ve had to go to some office to get my papers or drop off my papers or apply for residence or anything slightly official, I’ve spent hours of my life sitting in the inevitably dingy office, only to find that they don’t speak any English and I’m missing some document, or that they don’t have the time to see me, or that I need to go to another office first. Immigration and paperwork will not be easy no matter where you go or what you need. You need a drivers license? A residence permit? Work permit? Tax number? Marriage certificate? Well it won’t be easy. Nobody will tell you, but doing things legally while living abroad can be incredibly difficult. What I ended up doing in Turkey while trying to attain a residence permit was hiring a company (and by company I mean two guys in a office full of cigarette smoke) to do all the filing of paperwork and making appointments for me. It was relatively cheap and comparably easy and one hundred percent worth it in the end. So when you’re at your wits end trying to sort these things out, ask around and I’m sure you’ll eventually find someone making a dime off of the terribly organized immigration system in whatever country you find yourself in.
Cooking. Cooking and baking is one of those things you wouldn’t think would be any different in another country, but it can be. Finding the ingredients you need to make the things you like to make can be incredibly arduous when you don’t speak the language, let alone the fact that some countries simply don’t have some things. For instance, buying flour. You may think you know what flour looks like, but when there are seven different types of flour lined up next to each other, with different labels that all say some variation of the google translated word ‘flour,’ how do you choose? Personally, I end up buying the wrong thing several times before finally ending up with the right one. It’s not a method that I like to use or have in any way planned out, but it seems to be the end result whenever I’m grocery shopping. Not only is the language barrier an issue, but like I said before, some countries just don’t have some things, and when they do, they might be in a strange place. In Turkey they simply don’t have sour cream, and this took me a long while, and many trips to different shops, to figure out. In Hungary, sweetened condensed milk isn’t in normal grocery stores, but rather in little out of the way Indian import shops. I have yet to find chocolate chips here in Hungary, and this has made it difficult to bake chocolate chip cookies. Also, for some reason, corn starch is always an issue everywhere. So prepare yourself for a lot of deliberation in the grocery store and a great deal of fruitless searches and substitutions in your recipes.
The last thing I have had a great deal of trouble with and want to mention are the issues associated with moving into a flat. Setting up electricity, gas, internet and TV can be a huge bother if you don’t speak the language, because people at those companies generally won’t speak English, and you need all sorts of paperwork to do these things as a foreigner. It took me three months to get internet in my flat in Istanbul after I moved in. Not only could I not get accounts with any companies and had to use my boyfriends name to eventually open an account, but the installation men never show up when they should, if they show up at all. Not only is it difficult to get utilities set up, but when something goes wrong in the flat and you’ve got to call a maintenance man, how do you find one? How do you know where to look for a trust worthy handyman? You don’t. And when you have found a plumber or an electrician or whoever you need, he’ll inevitably try to overcharge you because you’re a foreigner and you have no other options, or in my case, because I’m a woman and they think I won’t know any better. Both of which are ridiculous reasons to overcharge someone, but have most definitely happened to me. Not to mention the fact that landlords are more likely to try to overcharge or mess you about if you’re a foreigner, just because they think they can. This has also been my experience. So, end result, make some local friends, join some expat groups, and when you need to set up your accounts or negotiate maintenance fees, bring someone who knows the language and will be able to argue on your behalf if you’re being taken advantage of.
These are just a few of the issues I’ve come across while living abroad, and I learned them all through personal experience, rather than a friendly warning from a friend who’s been there and done that. So here I am, giving you a friendly heads up about some of those little things that people don’t tell you about living abroad. Some of those little things that you wouldn’t think of until you’re already there having to deal with them. Living abroad is an adventure, and in any good adventure you’re going to hit some obstacles, so here’s a heads up for when you do. Good luck!