An international assignment is an exciting proposition, offering the chance for career advancement, travel, and a new way of life. There’s a lot to consider before signing the contract, though, and most prospective expats carefully weigh the pros and cons before committing to the move.
The good news: you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to resources that can help you make this life-changing decision. Books, websites, and videos are invaluable sources of information. Cross-cultural training can help you establish realistic expectations of life abroad, guide you through the stages of culture shock, and provide an overview of your destination.
I think one of the most helpful tools throughout the decision-making process, though, is the look-see visit.
Do your homework
Let’s be clear: the look-see isn’t a sightseeing trip; it’s a reconnaissance mission. Its purpose is to give you a greater awareness of daily life in your new country. If you want to make it work, you have to approach it as potential residents, not as tourists.
The look-see may be the best way to learn about this strange new world, but that doesn’t excuse you from doing your homework. Arriving unprepared wastes precious time, and much of the scut work should be taken care of before boarding the plane. This is especially true if you’re handling the visit solo, but expats working with destination service providers need to lay some groundwork as well.
“Research, research, research,” says Relocation Specialist Judy Rickatson. “It’s important to find out as much as you can, if only to know what questions to ask.” She points out that the Internet is jam-packed with travel sites, expat forums, and local blogs, which make investigating even the most remote locations easier than ever. Social networking can even put you in contact with locals or other expats at the new location.
Pre-departure preparation also includes finding the addresses of the places you need to visit and making appointments if necessary. Arriving with an itinerary in hand gives each day structure, which is especially important considering everything you have to cram into a short period of time.
And here’s your to-do list
Judy advises starting with a general orientation, which entails buying a good map and exploring residential neighbourhoods plus the central business district or downtown core. If possible, set aside at least one full day for this initial outing. This is where social networking can pay off — if you’ve managed to connect with a long-term expatriate or local, their knowledge and experience can save you a lot of time, energy, and general grief.
Other items on the to-do list:
- Visit several shops (gas station, supermarket, etc.) to determine the availability and prices of everyday items. Check to see if clothing is available in your sizes. (This is sometimes a problem in Asian countries, where people tend to be smaller than many Westerners.) Suss out the local food, especially if you have dietary restrictions — will you be able to eat well here?
- Locate hospitals and pharmacies, and find out if you’ll be able to get your hands on your prescription meds.
- Allow at least a full day to visit prospective local or international schools. (And make those appointments well in advance, or you might be disappointed.)
- Test drive the transit system and examine road conditions and traffic patterns. Judy recommends keeping an eye on rush hour traffic before deciding which neighbourhood to live in. “Don’t assume all traffic travels into the city centre in the morning and out again at night,” she cautions. “If there’s a large industrial area, for example, the heaviest flow might be across town, or even from downtown out to the suburbs.”
- If your sponsoring organization doesn’t take care of getting identity cards, driver’s licenses, etc., visit the appropriate government offices and confirm what documents — and how many copies of each — will be required. (Always bring more than you’re told to. Trust me.)
- Check out potential banks. Bear in mind that even if your home bank has branches in the host country, they’ll be regulated by the local central bank and things might be a little different than you’re used to.
- Although it’s tempting to start the visit with house-hunting, Judy recommends saving this till last. “By the time you’ve seen and done all the above, you’ll have a much better idea of where you’d like to live,” she explains. Allow at least one day for viewing properties, and a second day for negotiating a lease, signing documents, paying deposits, etc. Judy adds that if you’ll be negotiating without a real estate agent, you must be absolutely sure you’re dealing with the real owner of the property before handing over any money.
There’s a lot to accomplish during a look-see visit, but remember to take a little time to relax and enjoy your new surroundings as well. Soaking up the ambiance of the host country and meeting local people are just as important as figuring out the transit system. As the look-see draws to a close, all these elements will come together to answer the crucial question: “Can we see ourselves living here?” Bon voyage!