Advice for Expats: 12 Tips

There are two kinds of expatriates: the kind who move to a foreign country to seize an opportunity for a job or education or retirement, and the kind who move to a foreign country for love.

an Amsterdam canal view
an Amsterdam canal view

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The temporary vs the accidental expat

The temporary expat generally sees it as just that: temporary, a step on a career path, an adventure, but one with a foreseeable end date.

The second type, however, doesn’t become an expat intentionally. This “accidental expat” falls in love, and the person they love happens to come from another country, so the new couple has to choose which country to live in.

I should add that another group also counts as accidental expats: refugees. All of the following advice for accidental expats applies to refugees as well.

I’m an accidental expat. I’m American and my husband is Dutch, and I live in the Netherlands because of him. That decision – which country to live in – can be based on all sorts of factors, but in our case the Netherlands was better for my husband’s career, while my career was more portable. It was also, in our view, a better place to raise our children.

Advice for expats: 12 tips

This post is my advice to the accidental expat from my 20 years living in my husband’s country. 

1. Learn the language.

This should be your first priority. But DON’T do as I did and sign up for a language class at a university. These courses are likely to place far too much emphasis on speaking and writing correctly, when what you really need, at first, is just to communicate.

If your new country receives refugees, as mine does, take the courses that are offered to them. These tend to focus on basic functions like shopping in the marketplace or asking directions. You can take the academic course later, after you’ve learned the basics.

If your country doesn’t have courses like that, find an English teacher and offer to pay them to meet with you a few times a week over a cup of coffee and just talk in the local language.

2. Find local friends.

One of the best ways to do this is to join a club or to take a class. It’ll help your mastery of the spoken language and you’ll find people to talk to with similar interests, rather than people you end up being friends with just because they come from the same country you do.

My first real practice with speaking Dutch was chatting with the other mothers during my daughter’s swimming lessons. Mostly they talked and I listened, but it helped.

3. Be observant. Be very observant.

Sometimes the biggest differences are the smallest. It took me a couple of months before I realized that, rather than just placing a plateful of cookies on the table in front of visitors when we sat down to drink tea, I had to explicitly offer the cookies to them. They wouldn’t help themselves to cookies without being offered. I thought they just didn’t want any. And I had to offer them a second cup of tea, rather than expecting them to take it. I sat there, eating cookies and refilling my own tea, and didn’t realize how incredibly impolite I was being! So watch their behavior carefully: notice how they shake hands, how they sit, how they handle food, and so on.

a house in Lutjegast, Groningen province: Advice for expats
a house in Lutjegast, Groningen province

4. Ask people how they do things.

See #3 above. If I’d just asked right off the bat, with the first visitor, what their customs were around visiting and serving tea, the differences would have been right out there in the open and it would have opened a lot more to discussion.

5. Keep working on your career path.

If that involves going back to school, do it. I was a qualified teacher in the US, but had to go back to school to qualify here. I was annoyed that it was necessary, but I’m glad I did it. It made me more familiar with how the system works here, and the courses helped improve my Dutch. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, that’s fine, but what will you do when the kids are grown and don’t need you so much anymore?

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6. Make sure to save money to visit home.

No matter how long you stay in your adopted country, you will miss home. How bad your homesickness will be depends on a lot of factors, but make sure you can go back for emotional refueling now and then. Also, if you have kids, you will want them to feel a connection to your homeland as well as your adopted land.

7. Raise your kids bilingual.

Don’t succumb to the pressure: “The reason your daughter isn’t reading well is because you speak English to her. If you all spoke Dutch in the household she’d do better.” My daughter’s teacher said this to me and it is not true! There are plenty of books on how to raise kids to be bilingual, and you will be giving your kids a lifetime gift if you stick to your guns. They might speak and read later than other kids, but they’ll be fluent in two languages when they finally do!

8. Celebrate your favorite holidays.

Do this even if they’re not celebrated in your adopted country. We do Thanksgiving and Passover, for example. Some Americans hold Halloween parties, which every child likes, American or not. These are part of who you are, so don’t feel like you have to give them up.

9. Assimilate.

At the same time, assimilate as much as you’re comfortable with. Celebrate your adopted country’s holidays too. Learn local customs and participate in them. They’ll become your new traditions. We give gifts on Sinterklaas, for example, instead of Christmas, which suits us both better as non-religious people.

10. Get citizenship.

The bureaucracy can be hellish, but if you’re staying, you won’t be able to fully participate in either country’s society—one’s too far away and you’re a foreigner in the other—until you get citizenship. Voting is important. Having that passport is important. (For full disclosure, I also eventually gave up my US citizenship. To read about that journey, start here.)

11. Accept that you will never fully fit in.

You are likely to always have an accent, no matter how fluent you become. Or you may look different from the locals. That’s okay: it’s part of who you are and it makes you special in that context.

This picture shows Amsterdam Central on the left, and the plaza with tram stops in front of it.
This picture shows Amsterdam Central on the left, and the plaza with tram stops in front of it.

12. Appreciate the place.

Busy with your day-to-day life, you’re likely to stop feeling like you’re in a strange place and take it all for granted. You’ll get used to how things work in your new home. But don’t forget to stop now and then and look around you with your newcomer’s eyes. Notice the things you noticed when you first arrived.

In my case, that would be admiring the tulips in the springtime, or the lovely farmhouses and windmills I pass on my train ride to work, or the medieval church in the nearby town center. You may have gotten used to them, but they remain special and beautiful.

Are you an expat of either type? What would you add to this list?


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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This is way too true. I guess the only thing I would add is find good ways to stay connected to your folks at home — we have a few rituals that involve ‘Skype babysitting’ where grandparents ‘entertain’ the kids while the grownups make dinner, and once a month letters that we send home that the kids ‘write’ and they get once a month letters back from friends and family. Good ways to keep everyone feeling close even when we are far!

Thank you for your post. One of the biggest issues for first-time expats is the lack of mutual satisfaction among the family members.