Getting the most from your look-see visit

Getting the most from your look-see visit

Me, househunting during my Singaporean look-see.

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!

A version of this article originally appeared on on July 17, 2010 © Maria Foley.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to Getting the most from your look-see visit

  1. Miss Footloose says:

    To think that when I went for my first expat experience (in Kenya), all I did was pack a bag and get on a plane 😉 Times have changed!

  2. I think this post gives great advice. I have another thought or two, though…. Before we decided to move to Italy, we actually “lived” here in a rented apartment for a month, thinking we were seeing what it would be like to live here. The problem with that theory is that we didn’t need to set up electric/gas/phone contracts or go through the immigration and health care process, and cooking in a tiny kitchen seemed like a fun challenge… for a month. You really need to think about “can I picture myself doing this” [using a laundry mat, walking up 5 flights of stairs, taking the bus, etc.] as “can I honestly picture myself doing this every day for the next ____ years.” It’s harder than I thought to picture “real life” when you’re only visiting at the time.

    • Maria says:

      Yes, and the really tough part is you don’t even know most of the questions you should be asking. I was told it wouldn’t be difficult to set up utilities in Singapore, for example, but nobody told me I wouldn’t be able to get a customer service rep to talk to me because everything was in my husband’s name. I don’t think you can prepare for everything, although it would be great to rehearse real life the way you did. Even though you weren’t able to experience everything, you were still way ahead of most of us!

  3. Sine says:

    Totally love this and will be pointing people asking me questions your way! This is great information. We did some of it right and some of it wrong, would have been great to have this in hand before going on our look-see. Great work, as always, Maria!

  4. NM says:

    Great tips – as someone who has had to do it with company sponsored tickets for look-see but no actual relocation agency assistance I can’t agree more on the research, research, research advice. Now on our third expat country in ten years I think this time was our best move yet in terms of preparation and execution. I have certainly learnt a lot along the way, its been quite a ride so far and I don’t expect its over yet.

  5. Maria says:

    I should mention that 90% of the advice comes from Judy Rickatson. When I interviewed her for the original article, I kicked myself every time she pointed out something I’d never thought of, despite having gone through the process twice. I was black and blue by the time we finished speaking!

  6. Good article Maria.Judy’s right about seeing where your family members will work or likely attend school, then see how traffic goes and the public transportation available (or not) first. What good is a nice house/apartment if everyone’s exhausted and miserable traveling to/from?

  7. Thanks so much for this post. We are leaving for Dubai on our exploratory trip in two weeks. Gulp. Excited and scared all at the same time. My first trip out of the US was in 2001, to England and France. Living in another country is something three of my four children have done, but now it is Moms turn!!! (our son and family just returned from Singapore in December.) Your post is so helpful. I want very much to experience the culture of Dubai and the Middle East.
    Social media has really helped with research. Not just the typical “tourist” sites, but hearing about life experiences of people who live the expat life. (longhorns and camels)

    • Maria says:

      Longhorns and Camels is a great blog, so you’re doing well there. Best of luck on your look-see — I hope it works out for you!

  8. Reblogged this on Southeast Schnitzel and commented:
    Typically, employers send their expatriates on a “Look & See Visit” or a “Pre-Assignment Trip” before these foreign service employees set sails for their destination.
    These trips aren’t meant as vacations and should be taken seriously by expats. There is a lot to be accomplished during these days and ideally, employers contract with destination services agents to guide their expats at the host location. Maria Foley wrote a nice 101 article with some of the most important tasks expats should complete before and during their Look & See.

  9. Jen W says:

    Many thanks for this. My husband and I leave for Mumbai on Sunday to do this! You mentioned a few things to look at (clothing, pharmacy and bank) that I hadn’t thought of. I don’t know how I got here, but I guess I’m an expat spouse — an American living in Australia with 3 kids about to go to India!

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