Top tips for first time expats

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s that wet, miserable time of year when thoughts turn to paradise – and plans for 2014. Thinking about a fresh start – perhaps somewhere sunny? Former expat, Kaye Holland, has some advice to help you realise those overseas ambitions

Every year, thousands of people quit their jobs, pack their bags and move abroad after becoming disillusioned with UK life. I should know: eight years ago I was one of them. The start of 2006 saw me suffering from a severe case of the January blues. Cold, tired and broke, I began to dream about living in a place where the sky wasn’t permanently the colour of porridge and subsequently made my way to the Middle East – with its promise of year round sunshine. Stepping on the plane I believed that, after a fun filled year in the sun, I’d be back in London. Little did I know then, that five years would pass – via stints in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the Cayman Islands and Beijing – before I would ‘properly’ return home. For me, moving abroad was a life enhancing experience but before you uproot, here are a few things you need to know…


Do your research
Find out all you can about the country you intend to relocate to. For example it’s well known that it’s a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public in the UAE. However not everyone knows that the UAE and its Khaleeji brothers – take a bow Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia – deem homosexual acts unlawful. (It’s illegal to be gay in 78 countries – the aforementioned included –  with lesbianism banned in 49). Meanwhile even seemingly innocuous films such as the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were banned by censors while I was living in the UAE. My message? It’s not great – something a couple of my former Time Out Dubai colleagues can attest to – for gays living in the Middle East. Do your homework before you travel.

Christmas in Dubai

Visit first
If you can afford to do so, visit the destination you have decided on first to get a feel for it before you jack everything in the UK. I took a step in the dark in relocating solo first to the UAE and then to the Cayman Islands –  having never previously stepped foot in either country. I was a little more familiar with my third posting – Beijing – having backpacked around China in my early twenties, but far from clued up. Time and funds permitting, my advice would be to do a test run before committing to moving to check that the location is a good fit for you – and your family. During my time as an expat I met many people who realised soon after landing that the UAE (too blingy), Cayman (too quiet) and China (too alien) wasn’t for them after all and consequently caught the earliest flight back to Blighty. A costly mistake to make…

Expat life in the UAE

The grass isn’t always greener
The days of lucrative expat contracts are – sadly – long gone. Once upon a time companies offered annual return flights home, all expenses paid accommodation and often covered expats’ shipping costs and childrens’ school fees. Not so in the noughties – or at least for anyone wanting to work abroad in the media. I had to find and finance my flight to both Cayman and China, and likewise was on my own when it came to accommodation. Salaries too aren’t all that impressive. A deputy editor in Dubai and Cayman can earn around £2,400 tax free in 2014 which is substantially more than a similar position pays in the UK but not wonderful when you consider that, save for petrol, everyday goods are more expensive: 90 per cent of food in the UAE and Cayman is imported, meaning that even a jar of marmite can be pricey. In China I was on just under £1,000 a month, as an editor. I was able to get by on this in Beijing but had to forgo flying home (one return economy flight to London can cost upwards of £900) for family and friends’ weddings.
So why go? For the chance of living and working – especially when job opportunities are thin on the ground in the UK – in another country, the challenge of trying to comprehend it, better weather and the opportunity to mix with people from all over the planet. In my mind, that’s something you can’t put a price on.

Carnival in Cayman

Be bank savvy
Before you up sticks, pay off any outstanding debts – credit cards, loans and the like – as you’ll need a letter of reference from your UK bank in order to be able to open an account abroad (and thus be paid). Furthermore make sure you have some savings. In the UAE and China, I had to pay six months accommodation up front. In Cayman this wasn’t the case but l still to cover the first month’s rent and deposit, electricity and water bills plus car hire and other extras such as setting up a local phone contract, all before the first pay cheque arrived.
Additionally anyone emigrating also needs to be prepared to pay for health care. We Brits may whinge about the NHS but at least it is free – unlike the system in say America which leaves millions of people unable to afford basic healthcare. Check what healthcare services are available and how much you will need to pay.
Lastly you’ll need money for socialising – especially in your first month. It’s important to integrate yourself with both locals and expats alike from the get go, so as to avoid suffering from loneliness. If you’re relocating en famille, you have an advantage in this area as you’ll meet others without even trying through the school run and so on. If you’re going solo, as I did, you’ll need to make more of an effort. Try Internations which connects expats in more than 390 cities, across all countries of the world. I went to several Internations events on arrival in Beijing and met like minded people, many – hello Em, Geraldine, Amanda , Anna and Fernando! – of whom have become firm friends for life. In Cayman, I joined the local amateur dramatics group and in Dubai I signed up for a PADI diving course. My passion for deep sea diving didn’t last but happily the friendships I forged on the course, did.

Island life: Grand Cayman

Learn the lingo
I’d recommend learning the local language. It’s not always necessary – particularly in the UAE where English is the lingua franca –  but will help integrate you into the community. In China, mastering at least some Mandarin is a must if you want to be able to eat and explore with ease. Don’t worry about pronunciation if – like me – you’re not a natural linguist. Too many of us panic about pronunciation and fear that we will look like a fool. But, in my experience, most locals will be impressed that you’re making the effort to learn their language – always remember that you are a guest in someone else’s country – and forgive you for any pronunciation mishaps. The most important thing is just to get the basics down pat.

Street food, China style

Be adaptable
It was while living in Beijing that I discovered the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which, in my mind, is one of China’s biggest gifts to the world –  right up there with the noodle. Throughout my 20s, I struggled with severe IBS and ‘coped’ by popping painkillers to alleviate my symptoms. Unable to afford the crazy prices that western hospitals were charging for medication in Beijing, I decided to see a TCM doctor. I  had my tongue and pulse points checked and was advised to avoid over processed western food, and follow an oriental diet. For while Chinese food has a bad reputation in the UK, conjuring up images of deep fried, fatty dishes such as sweet and sour pork and prawn crackers, real Chinese cuisine is super healthy: the majority of the meal is made up of stir fried vegetables and washed down with green tea.  One week after my first TCM session, my swelling had subsided and happily I haven’t had any stomach problems since. All of which has helped me realise that the most effective cure for complaints isn’t always to be found on the shelves of the pharmacy, but within ourselves. I now actively seek out TCM, as opposed to pumping myself full of pricey pills and chemicals.
On another note, prior to arriving in Beijing I’d never been to a karaoke bar but in China, karaoke – aka KTV – quickly became a way of life and a wonderful way to relax and unwind after work with colleagues. When in Rome… Be flexible and make the most of your expat experience.


Prepare yourself for going home
Returning home can – in many cases – be tougher than moving abroad in the first place. As an expat I expected to feel like an alien overseas, but I didn’t expect to feel like one in my home country.
While away, I looked back at life in Britain through rose tinted glasses and romanticised how wonderful it would be to return to the comforts of home. However after the initial honeymoon period, the creature comforts –  clothes that fit, familiar food, faces and surroundings – quickly became monotonous. Don’t expect repatriation to be a breeze: give time, time. It took me at least 12 months to truly readjust to life in London and even now, two years down the line, I still have days when I dream of living abroad again. Be prepared for ‘reverse culture shock’.

My BFs (best friends) in Beijing




If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,