Everyone wants to travel abroad and be paid to do so. And, if you just shook your head no, I’m telling you that you really do. However, being an expat, either on a temporary assignment or something medium-long term, isn’t as rosy as it seems. There are actually several challenges of being an expat that people don’t usually talk about.
Since I started working right after university, my life has been a constant rollercoaster. In just 8 years, I’ve lived in 4 countries and had to deal with a few things that most people don’t usually think twice about. So if you’re hunting for that job that will allow you to tour the world, make sure to consider some of the following.
I know that foreign exchange is an obvious one for anyone who has ever crossed borders. However, when you think about how much you make, you will need to think about it in more than just your net worth. Living abroad means you need to factor in the expenses you have at home as well as the market volatility which could either increase or decrease your earnings throughout the month.
Many people still need to send money home for family or for personal investments. If you happen to be one of them, you’d need to be cognisant of the following
- Are you making a cross-border payment after the local MPC meetings?
- Is there a significant economic update in the country you’re living in just before you need to transfer funds?
- How are politics going to affect the exchange rate?
And if you happen to have disconnected from your hometown, you aren’t exempt. You may potentially get swayed by the actual value of the things you purchase on a day to day basis.
One thing I’ve noticed since settling in South Africa is that everything feels very cheap. Especially after spending 6 years in Tokyo followed by 2 in Luanda – two of the most expensive cities in the world. I don’t usually think twice about purchasing items and always wonder why I am out of pocket before month-end.
While the logical thing is to just convert your brain into local currency, almost four years later, I’m converting every single purchase into foreign currency. In fact, yesterday I made a very impulsive buy that feels dirt cheap to my expat brain but is quite expensive relative to where I live.
It’s a trap y’all!
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Taxes, taxes, taxes
When you work abroad, you still need to pay taxes. And with every new country comes new tax laws and procedures. You may be lucky enough to work in a place like Angola where the company automatically deducts your tax before you receive your net pay. Or you may end up in a place like South Africa that expects you to calculate your taxes and ensure that they are paid.
Firstly, what a concept!
I was extremely shocked to have been dished out the task of managing my own taxes. You would think that given the seriousness of the payment, the funds would be resolved either by the company or the government. After all, they are the ones who need the money… But I digress.
Besides paying taxes, another challenge is the disparity of taxes in the country you work in vs your home country. Knowing what impact moving to a tax-free country or one with a lower quota is essential. Do you need to pay the difference to your home country? Will not doing so equal tax evasion? Is it even mandatory to be paying taxes if you are in a new country temporarily?
Now, Im not a tax expert so please don’t quote me on anything. However, this is one of the challenges of being an expat that could potentially make or break your experience.
Dealing with visas
If you plan to live abroad, many people will tell you that keeping your visa up to date is the most important thing. But I would argue that being organized is even more important than that. I recently realized just how important it is at the most inconvenient time ever.
Remember how I said that my sister is graduating in May and that I absolutely had to be there? I believe I even said I’d swim there if I had to, because nothing would stop me…
Well, I’d better get swimming.
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As an expat, you need to make sure that you give enough lead time for your visa renewals. And in addition to that, you need to make sure that you factor in the validity of your documentation when planning any trips that will require an immigration stamp. That means knowing the timelines your embassy will need to issue a new passport, the amount of time it takes to get your visa renewed as well as the requirements of the countries you intend to visit.
So before you decide to buy plane tickets, make sure you won’t be ‘bounced’ at the border upon your return!
The holidays never align
As I write this, I am rolling my eyes at myself because I’m not much of a patriot. However, a huge problem I face with living abroad is that many public holidays from my home country never align with those of where I live.
Actually, let me take myself out of the equation.
If you are planning on working abroad and are used to the billion public holidays you get at home, readjust your expectations. And if you want to synchronize holidays with your family, good luck! School holidays, public holidays, religious holidays… They will never be the same!
Conclusion: Are the challenges of being an expat worth it?
While I’ve only mentioned negative things, living abroad is an amazing experience for personal, professional and emotional growth. So if you are about to embark on that journey or are hoping to do so one day, just make sure prepare yourself mentally so that the challenges of being an expat don’t ruin your experience.
Have you ever lived abroad for work or school? What are some other challenges of being an expat you know of?
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