How To Move Abroad: American Expat Women Share Their Stories

It happened almost nine years ago. It was the last day of my Italian holiday, and I'd made the mistake of ducking into an Internet cafe to check my work emails. The inter-office sniping from New York snapped me out of my vacation reverie and left me with a burrata-sized stone in my stomach. Later, I tried to soothe my nerves by lounging in the grass surrounding the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I willed myself to soak up these final moments, to figure out a way to make this my life. 

The next morning, I dutifully arrived at the check-in counter for my flight. One snag: The agent could find no record of my booking. I handed her reams of paper, an e-ticket, a printed ticket, everything. Still, no record, and the flight was completely booked. The airline came up with an enterprising compromise: An agent would drive me to Florence, where I'd be placed on a different flight to Paris, landing in time to catch my flight back to New York. 

The trip was frenzied, but the Air France flight was idyllic: cheese plates, sparkling water, Francophone flight attendants. I tried to pretend that I was actually staying in Paris for a glamorous holiday, and not simply hauling ass through Charles de Gaulle to catch another flight. 

That's exactly what I did, of course. Charles de Gaulle is maddeningly enormous, and by the time I reached the check-in counter, shaking and out of breath, the agent informed me and two American couples that the flight had closed. There would not be another one for 24 hours. The couples weren't having it. "We have to get to New York City," they seethed. When they eventually skulked off, I stepped forward to consider my options. The agent looked at my ticket and shared the good news. It turns out my original booking was there as plain as day, and the airline in Pisa had booked an illegal connection. I was never going to make the flight to New York City. As such, they owed me a hotel room, dining vouchers, and 24 hours in Paris. 

When I got to my hotel room, I drew a bubble bath and sang loudly to the Edith Piaf songs on my iPod. I was giddy. I had willed myself to stay in Europe. Sure, my boss was going to dock me a day of vacation time ("You're stuck in Paris? That sucks," he'd whined over the payphone while I tried to sound appropriately frustrated), but it seemed like a sign. 

After a day of sightseeing and eating steak frites, I eventually got on a flight to New York City. My first weekend back, I decided to check and see how much a one-way ticket to London, scheduled six months ahead to allow for planning and saving, would cost. It was $250, cheap enough that I immediately purchased the ticket, figuring I could eat the money if I didn't end up going. I picked up freelance work on the side, saved my cash, sold my furniture, and six months later I was wheels up again. 

My expat experience hasn't been linear. After living in London for a few months on a tourist visa, I broke up with my British boyfriend and moved back to my home state of Texas. I then filed the paperwork (so much paperwork) to get Irish citizenship through descendency, a parting gift of sorts from the late Wexford-born grandfather who babysat me and my siblings every single day of summer vacation. Getting the citizenship and accompanying passport took a little more than a year. In December 2009, I moved back to London, where I've been living and working ever since. When people (usually my parents) ask how long I'll be staying, I can't think of a better answer than the one Julia Roberts gave in Notting Hill: "Indefinitely." 

That's my story. Each of the six women featured here all have tales of their own, with their own lessons gleaned from living abroad. From Sydney to Rio, London to Paris, these ladies have all made lives for themselves far from home. The expat experience is different for everyone, but the adventurers ahead prove it's one worth pursuing. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Karplus.
Alexandra Karplus, Editorial Director, TimeOut, Singapore

When did you first move abroad and how did you acquire a visa?
"I moved to Singapore in 2008 for a job editing TimeOut Singapore. The job was through the company I was already working for in New York, Ink (formally Ink Publishing), so they helped organize everything related to my visa. My husband, a freelance graphic designer, had a bit more trouble, as with the dependent visa, he would not have been able to work. Instead, he set up his own design company with another expat we met, and they were able to employ themselves. This is something that was possible in a country like Singapore, which at the time was very open to foreigners, but would be difficult in many other countries."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?
"I had a hard time deciding which neighborhood to live in. Singapore is not organized like NYC, in that there is no real West Village, East Village, Chelsea. Instead there are some main streets that are referred to, along with MRT (subway) stations. It would have saved a lot of time to have known where I wanted to live. It would have been nice to spend some time in the city before having to decide where to sign a lease."

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"Being an American is always tricky when traveling abroad — more so when Bush was president, but there are still a lot of negative views on the country, and having to defend a government that you yourself often disagree with can be very difficult. I had never heard of the term 'sepo' ('septic tank Yank,' a term commonly used by Australians when referring to Americans) until I moved to Singapore. I have had to explain to several people along the way that the United States is made up of a huge variety of people and that views differ throughout. I have been able to show most of them that they are narrow-minded for thinking that they know anything about you based on the fact that you are American."

How do you handle tax returns?
"I use the same guy as always for my U.S. taxes, and for Singapore. Everything is incredibly simple."

What should someone do to prep for an international move?
"Read up on the place you are moving to. The Culture Shock! book series often does a really good job explaining what to expect when moving to a new country. I have read them for several places I have lived and also for many I have just visited, giving me a better idea of the customs and culture to expect."

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"The lush life that many people enjoyed in the old days — things like free apartments, business-class flights, and spending accounts — only exist for the very fortunate few. Even some of the big bankers and top execs don’t get the kind of packages they used to. For someone in the creative world like myself, very little is included. It’s important that you want to be there and that you can see the cultural benefits of living abroad."

Any there any sites or resources you would recommend?
"Asia is filled with budget airlines: Air Asia, Tiger Air, Scoot, Jet Star…the list goes on, so making sure to check all of the websites of those airlines for travel. The same is true in Europe with RyanAir and EasyJet. If you want to take advantage of the neighboring cities, you can make more use of your budget by flying with those airlines. In many cases, the service you receive on board is equivalent or better than that on the domestic flights in the States. A lot of the cities in Asia have tons of 'what to do' websites set up, like TimeOut [or the magazine is] being published, as well, usually as a monthly, rather than weekly. It's useful to use Craigslist and similar sites when hunting down furniture and homeware, as tons of other expats are often on their way out and selling great stuff for super cheap."

How much did your visa cost you?
"My company paid, so nothing."
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Photo: Courtesy of Kenya Hunt.
Kenya Hunt, Elle UK Acting Content Director, London

When did you first move abroad and how did you acquire a visa?
"I moved to London about six years ago, a fact that's really hard to believe because it still feels like I just got here. After working in publishing in New York, I was itching to travel and have a change of scenery. So, when my company offered me a position in our head office in London, I jumped at the chance."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?
"Honestly, I just wish that I had relaxed more. I thought moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn was stressful enough, but that was nothing compared to the headache of dealing with U.K. immigration, while packing up my apartment, moving things to storage, shipping boxes across the pond, and hunting for a new flat in a new city, learning new real estate lingo, and learning about new neighborhoods I knew nothing about. At the time, it seemed overwhelming. But, it worked itself out, as those things usually do. So, if I had to do the move all over again, I would have spent more time savoring my last summer days in New York rather than fretting over the fact that some realtor in London hadn't called me back yet.

"Oh, and speaking of realtors, it really is important to pay attention to location when hunting for an apartment. New York is a compact, walkable city. If you really wanted to, you could hoof it from the East Village to Brooklyn, no problem. But, London has a lot of sprawl, which means a walk from Hackney to, say, Brixton is not that doable or fun. So, you really want to be near the best train lines for you. Think about the parts of town you'll find yourself in the most — where you'll be working and where you'll be socializing."

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"The culture clash. Brits and Americans share a lot of similarities. But, there's also a gaping chasm that separates us about everything from fish tacos (Why are they not here?), the usage of the letter 'z,' the meaning of the word 'pants,' the pronunciation of the word 'adidas,' whether or not it's appropriate to wear tights in summer, and other equally controversial topics. All jokes aside, I did encounter a pretty steep learning curve when it came down to working in an office filled with Brits, Swedes, Danes, and other nationalities. It took me a few months to wrap my hand around some of the subtle differences. For example, email sign-offs are either incredibly formal ('best wishes') or overly familiar ('xx') and there is a heightened awareness of office hierarchy here, while a lot of New York companies seem to favor slightly more democratic environments and/or flat management."

Do you have a tax pro or immigration lawyer you recommend?
"Ferguson Snell & Associates are the absolute best. They made my Indefinite Leave to Remain application experience a relative breeze."

What should someone do to prep for a transatlantic move?
"I found the conversation threads on Expat Exchange to be really helpful as I began researching things like expat packages and the cost of things like utilities, groceries, mobile phones, etc. I also suggest taking the time to really research the various neighborhoods, because there are a lot, and they all have their own unique character and scene. In that way, I think London has a lot more choice than New York does."

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"I think a lot of people assume that expats tend to stick together and only socialize with one another. This isn't always true. And, I think people who do that are missing out on a chance to really get to know the city they've moved to."

What sites or services would you recommend?
"Unlike in New York, most of London's grocery stores deliver. I usually find myself using Ocado and Sainsbury's the most. For flights, I just go directly to the source: EasyJet, BA, and Virgin. EasyJet has great last-minute sales. Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Airbnb for travel. Cyber Candy to get all of the New York bodega candy you can't get here in London (not that I'm eating sugar or anything!).

How much did your visa cost you?
"I was fortunate in that my company moved me here, so they covered the costs."
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Photo: Courtesy of Jessie Clear.
Jessie Clear, Art Director, Sydney (Via Paris)

When did you first move abroad and how did you acquire a visa?
"I left NYC for Paris in July of 2007. I relocated from Paris to Sydney in 2012. I initially obtained a Working Holiday Visa (which was approved in less than five days) and subsequently obtained a Working 457 Visa from there."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?
"Be prepared to pay more for rent, food, drinks, concerts, Adobe software (ha) than ever before. Prices are quite inflated. That said, in general, so are the salaries."

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"The 20-plus hour flight back to the U.S. from Sydney! Timezone-syncing calls with family, friends, colleagues, and clients can be challenging."

What should someone do to prep for an international move?
"Don't fear the unknown. Keep an open mind and be reminded any challenges are simply part of the adventure. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. Brush up on Aussie slang to avoid that expat-in-headlights look when 'arvo, esky, tuckerbox, bogan, westy,' to name but a few terms, are uttered."

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"That we only hang with other expats; likely a survival tactic for Friendsgivings and Orphan Christmas sidekicks. Aussies are the friendliest lot I know. I feel fortunate I've met Australians I will consider friends for life and would go to bat for."

How much did your visa cost you?
"I recall around $200 for the Working Holiday Visa. [For] the Working 457 Visa, your sponsorship expenses are most often covered by your employer."
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Photo: Courtesy of Cora Hilts.
Cora Hilts, Rêve en Vert Cofounder, London

When did you first move to London and how did you acquire a visa?
"I moved to London three years ago. First it was a student visa whilst getting my master's. When I started my business, Rêve en Vert, I got a Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?
"How it always takes longer to get your visa than you think it will. I crashed at my best friend’s place in New York for three weeks longer than expected and had to bribe someone to expedite the process!"

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"I always want to go home to my parents' house in Maine on Sundays."

Do you have a tax pro or immigration lawyer you recommend?
"Yes, the best immigration lawyer, Ravi Khosla."

What should someone do to prep for a transatlantic move?
"When I moved abroad is when I learned about clearing my closet of everything but investment and sustainably made pieces. It is much easier...when you travel with fewer things that have meaning to you."

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"That you will stop wanting to be in two places at once. I’m still torn most of the time, which results in way too much air travel."
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Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Jordan Hewitt.
Lisa Jordan-Hewitt, Maître d'hôtel, Rio de Janeiro (Via London)

When did you first move abroad and how did you acquire a visa?
"The first time I moved abroad was New Year’s Eve 2008, to London. I loved the city and I decided to get a visa through university and enrolled in a master's program. My husband and I moved to Brazil in November 2013 on tourist visas. We just received our working visas, so we can both work."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?

"My rights as a tenant and the Deposit Protection Scheme. London has a great scheme that prevents landlords from stealing tenants’ security deposit, but I was unaware of this. My sister and I rented an apartment from a shifty lady and she stole our security deposit. This was a real blow for us and apparently it happens all the time.

"For Brazil, I did not realize that the language barrier would be so challenging. I speak Spanish fluently and I felt confident after taking an intensive Brazilian Portuguese course before the move. It wasn’t enough. In Rio, the Brazilian accent is very hard to understand, and no one speaks English or Spanish. Cariocas (Rio residents) also have this inability to understand broken Portuguese, if you don’t pronounce things correctly, forget it!"

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"Making friends outside the expat community. Living abroad is a challenge socially and the most welcoming people tend to be expats. In London, I made some great friends through work, but those friendships never progressed outside the work environment. Brits tend to stick to themselves and their own established social circles. I’m currently living in Rio de Janeiro and I find the exact same thing with Brazilians. There’s the language barrier, but it’s also just hard to get in socially."

Do you have a tax pro or immigration lawyer you recommend?

"I don’t have a tax guy, and the U.K. visa application is relatively easy. I’ve applied for four different ones on my own and it’s been okay. Also, the U.K. Border Agency provides a lot of support and they are friendly. The application for a Brazil tourist visa is easy, but a work or permanent visa is very complicated. I would highly recommend a lawyer, and we used Pinheiro Neto. There is so much bureaucracy here, and the government makes it extremely difficult for expats to obtain these type of visas."

What should someone do to prep for an international move?
"I would recommend looking up expat forums for that city and learning about other people’s hiccups and advice. They have useful information about transitioning and settling into your new city. Also, you might make some friends!"

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"That living abroad is amazing and like a dream. Life abroad is a wonderful experience, but it’s also very hard, lonely, and at times disappointing."

What resources would you recommend?
"In London, I used Gumtree for apartment hunting. In Rio, there are several useful Facebook pages for expats or gringoes, as we are locally known. People post job opportunities on Gringoes and if I ever have a question about how to do something...people are so quick to respond and help you out. Another great page is Gringos Buy & Sell. Everything is expensive in Rio, especially electronics and things for the home. You can find great deals on this page."

How much did your visa cost you?
"My U.K. student visa was £400 [$623], but my latest visa for permanent residency was £1200 [$1870]. My Brazilian tourist visa cost £128 [$200]."
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Photo: Courtesy of Emily Johnston.
Emily Johnston, Fashion Foie Gras Blogger, London

When did you first move to London and how did you acquire a visa?
"I moved here in 2002. I was fresh out of college and had heard about a visa where I could live and work in the U.K. for six months. So, I put off the real world in the U.S.A. and packed a bag to move around the U.K. for a while."

What one thing do you wish you'd known then?
"That the whole love of the accent would wear off. When I first got over here, I thought every single man with the ability to speak was the best looking man in the world. There is just something about an English accent. Now, after 13 years, the effect has sadly lessened."

What's the biggest challenge about living abroad as an American?
"I don’t think there are really any challenges. One annoying thing: Everyone assumes you are from NYC or Los Angeles. Apparently there are no other cities that supply Americans to the U.K. I’ll go ahead and tell you the biggest pain in the arse: The weather, and how everyone is obsessed with it. I, too, am now obsessed. It’s the first and last thing I talk about every day; just seems we’re cursed here a bit. But, on the flip side, there is no better place in the world to celebrate a beautiful day. When the sun is out, everyone is in the best mood, ever. You can’t even describe how wonderful it is. You need to be here to feel it."

Do you have a tax pro or immigration lawyer you recommend?
"Magrath worked wonders for me! Highly recommend.

What should someone do to prep for a transatlantic move?
"Leave it all behind in the U.S.A. No kidding; I moved over here with two suitcases and built the rest as I went along."

What's the biggest myth about being an expat?
"That you have somehow fallen out with the U.S.A. I am one of the biggest patriots you’ll ever meet and I go back as often as I can."

What sites or services would you recommend?
"Go to Partridges for American food. There’s a Costco as well just outside of London for those Americans missing their bulk buys. There’s a Pinkberry and a Krispy Kreme at Selfridges if you need a sweet taste of home. Oh, and I always go to the home store in Ralph Lauren’s flagship and sit in a mock room to remind me of home. Cheesy, but it cheers me up."
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