Why living abroad can be so difficult

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

New opportunities, unknown happiness, and unimaginable experiences... it comes at a price

Switzerland Mountain, girl with coconut, passports, travel lifestyle

Hidden deep inside a new traveler is a special thought, one that is not shared. I hope and prayer that the journey will open new opportunities, bring new levels of happiness, and unimaginable experiences. Despite going along with the “go travel, have fun, then come back to reality” perspective, a new traveler still dreams it will different. Why is this “come back to reality” perspective so common? Perhaps for the same reason that most travels come to an abrupt end. It is hard to live abroad, regardless of how amazing and enriching it can be. Most people give up, a fleeting dream when faced by the real obstacles that it takes to overcome in order to live successfully abroad. Obstacles like learning a foreign language, finding work, and developing meaningful relationships. Obstacles, that can actually be opportunities, and the difference needed to change a vacation into an adventure abroad. In this article, we will look at some of the most difficult challenges to living abroad, and why how you can overcome them to have your unimaginable foreign journey.

Learning a Foreign Language

Fluent in 3 months? I don’t think so. How good do you need to be to work in a foreign language? Very good! Not the sort of improvements that come in just 3 months, but rather in a couple years. Learning a foreign language well enough to professionally use is time consuming. Lack of proper language skills not only keep you from working, but also keep your social life on ice. Language is likely the single most important skill required to successfully living abroad. It is the glue that holds the society together, and required if you want to integrate.

Which Foreign Language to Learn

Most people are pretty rational about this. Generally choosing a language that is most suitable to benefit them. A person from the United States may choose Spanish because of its wide usage within the Country. A person may also choose a language because of a family ancestry, such as the language of their Italian immigrant grandparents. Others may make a choice for a potential career opportunity. Regardless, choosing which language comes down to which one you presume will yield the best outcome in your life. You can be wrong. I once began learning Spanish, only to quick, and later to find myself learning French because of my wife, who I met living in Australia. I could not have predicted needing it, but it’s importance in my life now cannot be understated.

How to learn a foreign language

Have patience from the onset. Learning a language takes time and effort. Understanding the levels of a language can help you gauge where you are at. In Europe, the system is called the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CERF)”. A learner’s level is grouped as Basic (A), Independent (B), or Proficient (C), which is then further broken down into levels 0, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. Using programs like Rosetta Stone (in my experience) will only get you to an A1 or A2 basic level. The basic level is generally not sufficient enough to work in the language. An upper independent level (B2), or lower proficient level (C1) is required to effectively communicate complex issues in a normal pace environment. There is no one way to go about learning a language. Most people learn it in some combination on the following: Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Home Language course, Foreign Language course (Immersion), Foreign Music, Television, Google Translate, YouTube, Grammars Books, Relatives, and Friends.

I am learning French at the time of writing this article. I have completed all 5 levels of Rosetta Stone which got me to be a basic level. I watch foreign films that I know well in English. When you watch foreign films, you will come to find that the subtitles don’t match what is being said perfectly. Watching TV or listen to music seems like an odd way to learn a language, but actually training you ear is very important, it can’t be understated. I also use Google Translate, but it also can be wrong yet still helpful. I take foreign language courses (immersion), I read the journal, use conjugation websites, ask my wife for help, watch YouTube, and use grammar books. It takes a lot to learn a language, so if you wondering how, just pick something basic like a home course, or program that will take 3 months to 6 months, and get started. Use all the resources at your disposal, and get to be a basic level. From their your unique path will reveal itself. It may be wise to be at minimum an independent level (1 to 2 years) before trying to work abroad. It can save you substantial time from being unemployed.

Adapting to the Culture

While some cultures are heavily intertwined, like Australia and England, some are drastically different. In Bali, the locals put offerings, called a Canang sari, in the street every morning at prayer. I haven’t seen any traditions like that in the western world. There can also be small difference, such as in Switzerland, working on Sunday is not allowed (with exceptions). It is not appropriate to put out your laundry, mow the yard, or perform other similar activities. In the States, this would somehow lead to a liberty crusader lecturing you about property and gun rights, not giving a damn for what day of the week it is. None the less, I’ve grown quite fond of Sundays in Switzerland.

While vacationing in culturally different countries is one thing, living in them and being expect to assimilate is a whole different thing. For example, in the United States, a university degree may lead to a variety of different career opportunities. It is not uncommon for an say an engineer to work in the business sector. In Switzerland, this type of career change is less common. You may find it challenging if you need work and you are having difficulty finding the specific work you previous had training and education in. There isn’t much you can do about things like this but accept the culture, and try and find a solution.

Few places in the world are as convenient as the United States. In Switzerland, I once had a headache at 7am. I walked down to the local store and found that they only sell medicine at a pharmacy. The pharmacy did not open until 10am. I’m not praising convenience, just note that cultures and customs are different, life is easier when you figure out how locals do things so that you don’t end up with a headache for 3 hours.

Finding a Job

Yes, you can find a job. No, it is generally not easy. If you don’t know the language it is drastically harder. The general exception is having special skills (computer programming) or a special career (pharmaceuticals per say), and even still, they may require mastery of the local language. I’ll state it again; language is the most important skill to living abroad. Other things can also hinder finding a job. Things like getting a college degree and experience accredited to the local system, having language exam results, having letters from past employers, changing a resume to a CV, being more patient because the process is different, having the right working rights and documentation, dealing with hesitant employers, or having to take a step down in the industry to get your foot in the door. As harsh as it sounds, no one cares that you don’t know the system or speak the language perfectly. It can make you feel alone. Its up to you do the work, find a job, and struggle back up the ladder. Have patience, learn, the struggle is the investment.

Getting the right Visa

Visa’s can be a real pain, normally in terms of cost and time. Getting a proper visa to work abroad in a country may not be easy. Tourist visas do not come with working rights, but perhaps if you are a freelancer, the tourist visa holds more value. The easiest route to working rights is the Working Holiday Visa. This visa allows young adults (under 30) to easily obtain limited working rights in a country for a year, or possibly two depending on the type of work you do during your first year. There are many countries that offer this option such as Australia or New Zealand. Another limited option is a student visa. Student visa sometimes come with limited working rights, and you don’t have to get a university degree to get a visa. Sometimes just going to take a language course for an extended period is enough to warrant getting a student visa. This again varies country to country. The Working Holiday Visa and Student Visa programs be a valuable tool, but a resident working visa is generally required for you to truly work abroad properly. Getting working rights tends to be in three forms. A family relationship such as a marriage, a work sponsorship visa, or an independent skilled work visa.

Getting a proper visa takes time, money, and a special skill or relationship. Skills that are rare in countries, are normally very welcomed on work visas. I once was in the process of getting a sponsored work visa in Australia for working as a civil engineer. This visa was tied to my employer during the long application process. Unfortunately, I did not want to work for this company, but was tied to them with the visa. I had a second option, to self-sponsor based on my skills. This would have been the preferred option because it gives you more flexibility to change positions without needing a company to take over your sponsorship. It is worth determining which is the best visa for you. In my case today, my wife is from Switzerland, so the family relationship visa was the easiest to option. This however has not made finding a job, or learning the local language any easier. Visas often take around a year to process (this can vary greatly by country, and priority status). We strongly recommend getting visas processing well before you want to go.

Friends, Family, & Social Life

How much missing your friends and family effects someone varies person from to person. For some, missing friends and family is the number one hardest thing about living abroad. On a positive note, it certainly is easier today with the advent of technology. Today we use of WhatsApp, email, and other social media to see our friends and family with ease. What makes it all harder, is having a new social life. Finding friends when you don’t know the local language is difficult. Locals sometimes are shier towards outsiders. In Australia, a large percentage of my friends were travelers. Travelers are sometimes in the same boat as you are and more open to a friendship. The problem is, travelers travel. Meeting locals should ultimately be the goal here. Learning the language, having an apartment, working with people, taking part in community events and activities will lead you to have better social relationships. It takes patience to develop meaningful relationships, and with your friends and family so far away, it can be difficult to live abroad.

Go Live Abroad

I hope you will not use this article as an excuse to not go travel and live abroad. Living abroad can be difficult, but it can be life changing to (in a good way). I will leave you with 3 tips. First, have patience (I hate when people tell me to be patient, but they are right). Second, get yourself set up to work, and start the process early. And finally, learn the local language as if you life depended on it, because it may.