There are so many challenges of living abroad that social media does not show you! And as we all know – social media is THE place to show all your fun adventures. Between travel bloggers, travel vloggers, and our favorite celebrities, unrealistic expectations are running rampant about the advantages and disadvantages abroad.
Whether you’re traveling for a vacation or living as an expat, everyone’s experience is different. I spent a year and a half living in Spain and learned so much. There were the highs of highs and lows of lows where I made plenty mistakes.
Always remember traveling is a highlight reel. It’s important to let you really understand how un-sponsored travelers and expats live. So allow me to break down the greatest challenges of living abroad that expats often don’t mention.
The difficulties of living in a foreign country
Planning your move abroad is tedious
Paperwork, paperwork, and did I say more paperwork? One of the biggest challenges of living abroad is preparing for the move. With visas, passports, and appointment after appointment it is a lot to manage.
I recommend getting a moving abroad checklist. They are helpful to track all the things you need to do and give you a timeframe to do it. I’m all for making processes smoother and a checklist is always a good idea.
Budgeting and new currencies
Creating an expat budget depends on the country you chose and its corresponding currency. Not all jobs are created equal nor paid well. Therefore it is important to do your research so you understand how your money works. Apps like XE Currency are helpful to calculate any conversions!
I taught English in Spain, thus I didn’t make big money. Free walking tour? I was there. Student discounts on public transportation? No problem because my favorite travel hack is always carrying my student ID.
Even though you are abroad, still create a budget that works for you. Budgeting became my best friend to figure out how I could enjoy going out with friends, tasting new foods, and traveling This was in addition to buying groceries and paying rent. To supplement my travels and income I taught private English lessons on the side. Living abroad is hustle sometimes y’all!
Adjusting to hostel life
You may be wondering why I’m including hostels on an expat post. Well chances are that you will be traveling and staying in hostels is common. Some love them, some hate them. But if you are solo traveling while being an expat, you will come across a hostel.
Hostels are low-budget hotels. However in recent years they have improved to be hotel-adjacent places. On those weekend trips I always recommend hostels. If the dorm-style is a bit much for you, check out the private rooms! Learn more about booking them here.
The reality of culture shock
Culture shock is a given when you move abroad. But it can still catch you off guard! The honeymoon stage can last for weeks or months before the rejection stage. And the acceptance phase can take six months or more. It’s no joke when they say it’s a process.
Of course there are ways to navigate culture shock and prevent ethnocentrism. Minimizing the comparisons between your old home and new home, journaling to let out your frustration, and keeping an open mind are key.
Missing out on events back home
Remember that everyone’s world didn’t stop because you decided to move abroad! You will miss birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and more when you live abroad. It comes with the territory unless you have lots of money to keep flying back and forth.
Just as you are growing, your family and friends are growing too. As you learn how to open up that foreign bank account, they learn how to live without you. Don’t take it personal, life happens. You cannot make up for being gone, nor should you apologize! But know that change is constant on both sides (i.e you and them).
Building new friendships
Making friends abroad is not impossible, but it does take effort! No matter what social media tells you, we all need friends. Unlike studying abroad when you travel through a program, living abroad is different. You are more likely to be on your own and there are no coordinated events to socialize.
Under normal circumstances (i.e. not while living abroad), building friendships is already time-consuming. Add living in a foreign country with a foreign language and it makes you anxious and aggressive. You want to find your venting buddies, travel buddies, party buddies, wine-night buddies, ugly-cry-breakdown buddies, etc. in your circle with people you just met.
In the end, there is a unique and rewarding bond you create with your friends abroad. So go to those language exchanges and meetups in cafes. Talk to strangers in art galleries and bars you want to make friends. You got to put yourself out there to see the results you desire.
Homesickness is real
Do not underestimate homesickness! No one said living abroad was easy and it’s normal to miss what you left behind. By the end of my Fulbright grant I was more than ready to go home. I wanted a non-Spanish meal, my little sister talking my ear off, and my brothers bothering me to bake cookies.
Allow yourself time to feel that homesickness and find strategies to cope. Don’t push it under the rug or fly to a different country to forget. Those are temporary fixes that’ll make it worse. We are in the age of social media and video chatting. Though video calls aren’t the same, make the best of what’s available. You can overcome these challenges of living abroad!
If you have roommates, you may not get along
Remember when I said that some friendships made abroad become estranged? Well my roommate situation was one of those friendships. I got along well with a few of them, but others not so much.
The realities of living abroad with people from 4 different cultures, personalities and living styles can take a toll. Daily tension such as who cleans out the shower and washes the dishes are heightened by cultural differences.
Your bucket list is never fully complete
Chances are you can’t see every country you want to visit in the timeframe you’ve given. Also, I bet that list will get longer. For example, I was unapologetically ambitious when I planned my one-week spring break. I wanted to visit Greece, Malta and Croatia then go to Scotland the weekend after – crazy!
It’s important to be realistic with your travels and know your limits. Constant travel is tiring and there isn’t enough time to see every winding road or tourist attraction in one adventure. Each country you haven’t seen just gives you a reason to return one day – even as someone living abroad.
Now if you are set on living abroad for 10 years this may not apply! But life is unpredictable and we never know what can happen. Lots of jobs abroad start off as one-year contracts so pace yourself.
Traveling is easier but you still work a 9-5
While one of the advantages of living abroad as an expat is proximity to travel you still are working. Even though traveling with a full-time job still varies across countries, you have to fund your life somehow. Finding that work-life balance seems easier for U.S Americans who go abroad. But even in the best situations there are days and weekends where you may be too tired to travel.
My experience moving to another country
There were so many lessons from living abroad for a year. Even after studying abroad in Spain, and before interning abroad in Berlin in grad school, teaching English in a small Spanish town was an experience. Seriously – the growth was immense.
I learned I cannot live just anywhere (as I once thought). Being a Black American taught me the just how unique my life experiences have been at home and can be abroad. I traveled to places I did not know existed. And most importantly, I realized there is not a “one size fit all” experience.
Living abroad is a time I will always cherish. To pick up and move to a new country at 22 is not something many can do. That year continues to impact me years later and I am grateful. If you want to know more about my time living in Spain, check out my Black in Spain post.
FAQ: do people get tired of living abroad?
Chile yes! People do get tired of living abroad and to me this should be discussed more. Living abroad can be annoying once those rose-colored glasses are removed. The things you thought were “charming” annoy you a few months in. Plus, learning a new language takes a lot of energy because you are translating everything all day.
There are ample challenges to living abroad and it is inevitable you will get tired. It happens and it’s not a bad thing. When that tiredness turns into annoyance, expat elitism, and ethnocentrism, then we have an issue.
Unpacking the advantages and disadvantages of living abroad
Though I know this post focuses on the challenges, there are so many other advantages and disadvantages of living abroad. Yes, it is challenging to be away from family, build a new community, and learn how to embrace culture shock abroad.
Yet, it is also a life-changing experience! You learn new languages, get over the awkwardness of making friends, taste new foods, and of course travel. The pros and cons balance out and it’s good to be aware of the entire picture to make an informed decision.
What is the biggest challenge of working in a foreign country?
Understanding the biggest challenge of working in a foreign country varies. For some people, one of the difficulties of living abroad is not being as close to family. Others struggle with finding an apartment, the right job, or the right friend group.
However, if you ask me, the biggest challenge of living abroad is learning the language. In my humble opinion, knowing the language can open so many doors – both professional and personal. You can understand what is going on around you, it is easier to shop at the grocery store, and you can make more local friends easily.
Soooo is moving abroad worth it?
Despite the challenges of moving abroad, I think it is worth the experience! In many cases, if you decide you don’t like it, expats have the travel privilege of leaving and going. You have to give yourself time to adjust and then get comfortable to decide if it’s worth it. Don’t give up easily! You did all that work to move abroad and I would hate to see you waste it. Good luck!
Want to know more about the advantages and disadvantages of working abroad? Read more.
Thanks for reading! Help a friend who may be thinking about going abroad and pin it!
(This post was originally published on July 27, 2017 and updated on July 1, 2022)