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8 Things Successful Expats and Their Families Do Before They Move

A successful relocation requires good planning. In this blog post, we share tips for how expats and their families can best prepare before they go abroad.

Moving to a foreign country for work is a big, exciting life event — even more so if your partner and family will be joining you. Preparing for relocation can feel overwhelming, but there are certain things you can do prior to your move to help build a strong foundation for your expat experience.

This blog post is the first of a three-part series about how to have a successful relocation. In part one, we focus on things that are important to do prior to moving.

The inspiration for this series comes from Terry Dunne, C3 Consulting's U.S. specialist. Terry has more than 20 years of experience working and consulting globally and has developed a handy to-do list for families who are planning to move abroad for work.

The blog posts based on this list were written by Annette Dahl, C3's CEO and chief trainer, who has prepared many hundreds of employees and families for their future lives as expats, and Phoebe Berke, an American expat who is studying and working in Denmark.

So what do successful expat families do before going abroad? Keep reading to find out…

1. They have a sense of purpose and set goals as a family and as individuals

It's important to think about the purpose and scope of your relocation before you go. By thinking about what you want to gain from your expat experience, you will prime your brain and make it easier to adjust and learn new things.

You don't have to set goals that are huge or extremely ambitious. A goal can be as simple as wanting to spend more time together as a family, getting more exercise or eating healthier, or experiencing the local culture or seeing the local sights.

If you're having trouble thinking of concrete goals, imagine you are writing yourself a postcard on the last day of your relocation, before returning home.

Who are you as a person? What did you gain from your experience? Did you become part of the local community, or did you make friends with other internationals?

This is something you can do as an individual or as a family. We often discover when working with partners that they may have very different goals from each other, and it's important to clarify that in advance.

Every family and every relocation is different, and there are no right or wrong goals. The important thing is to articulate your goals out loud and acknowledge that there are specific things you want to accomplish in order to be satisfied with your relocation.

2. They learn about the phases of expatriation

Many expats go through similar phases at the beginning of their relocation.

Before you move, you may feel a lot of excitement but also some worry or even fear. What is going to happen? What about the kids? Everything is an unknown.

Then when you first arrive, you will likely experience the so-called honeymoon phase. There will be so many new people to meet and new things to see, maybe even a welcome committee and parties!

After you get settled, the everyday hits and you might begin to miss your old life and your friends and family. The newness and excitement begin to fade, and navigating everyday tasks can feel exhausting.

When you are experiencing this, it can be challenging to establish and maintain good habits. This is why we always say: don't wait to get started! When you identify something as a goal, try to begin building that habit as soon as you arrive.

For example, if you know that you want to learn the local language, begin attending language classes as soon as possible.

If you prioritize the activities and behaviours that will support your daily life right from the start, it will actually help you settle in faster.

3. They learn about the host culture — and their own culture

It is extremely important to learn about the culture in your host country, but it is just as important to understand your own cultural background.

Take time to examine the things that are normal and typical both in the culture that you're coming from and the culture that you're going to. (For inspiration on how to do that, check out our article here.)

When you explore cultures from this perspective, you can identify the differences and similarities. It gives you a head start so that when you're in the new environment, you're prepared and know what to expect: "Aha – so this is what they were talking about!"

There will be many surprises along the way, and preparing in advance is a way to keep from feeling overwhelmed by all the new and different things you will experience. 

4. They organize as many of the practical and logistical details as they can ahead of time

There are many logistical things that need to be sorted out before you go abroad. You will often have a relocation service to help you, but there are some specific things you should keep in mind.

One thing is to find out what to do in case of emergency. Who will you call if there is a fire, if you need an ambulance, or if you need to see a dentist? In Europe, you can dial 1-1-2, but what about outside of Europe? It's a great idea to programme the local emergency numbers into your phone before you go.

Location and transportation are also important to think about in advance. When you're looking for a place to live, try to find out what it will be like to get around.

For example, how will you commute to work? If the traffic is horrible in the morning, you might want to find a place near a subway station.

Consider also where you will do your grocery shopping, how the kids are going to get to school, etc.

These are the kinds of details you should pay attention to before you move because once you have unpacked and settled in to your new home, it’s too late.

5. They prepare for what may be a new role as a non-working spouse

If you are relocating because of your partner's job, you may not be working in the new country. Some will find it enjoyable to have a break, but for others it can be a big challenge.

In Denmark, for example, all adults in a household typically work outside the home, so as a non-working spouse you may feel excluded, stigmatized, or less valuable if you are not contributing financially to the family.

People might ask well-intentioned but insulting questions, such as: Aren't you going to get bored? Won't this hurt your career back home? How will you explain the big gap in your CV?

To help cope with this, it's important to be active and get out of the house. We often suggest that the non-working partner take on the role of Chief Cultural Outreach Specialist.

The other family members can get caught up in a parallel reality at their workplace, school, or compound. The non-working partner has an opportunity to be a bridge to the broader cultural environment and help the others stay in touch with what's actually going on.

This takes effort! You need to train yourself to have a flexible mindset and use your skills to translate what you're experiencing so you can share it with the rest of your family. But by doing this, you will enrich their experience with your perspective and observations, and you will feel like you're contributing in a meaningful way.

6. They choose the right schools for the children

Think about what the education style is where you come from and how it might be different where you're going. Often, parents will try to find a school that is as similar as possible to what they are used to.

For parents of younger children, the academic level may be as high or higher than what is available in your home country, but the children's native language skills might suffer, especially in terms of reading and writing. You might want to bring reading materials or workbooks with you from home to support their language skills while abroad.

Parents of teenage children face a bigger challenge, which is deciding whether to go home before or after their children have completed their upper secondary education. 

This is because the curriculum and exams at, for example, an IB (International Baccalaureate) and a Danish gymnasium (typically years 10-12 in the Danish school system) are totally different, so you can't very well start in one and switch to another.

7. They set realistic expectations for friends and family who want to visit

Are you planning on having friends and family come stay with you while you're abroad?

Before you start inviting everyone, spend some time thinking about how you will actually deal with guests.

When people come to visit you, they will be on holiday, which often means nice food, wine, and staying up late – but you will be trying to live your everyday life.

It can be expensive to have guests and entertain people, and depending on how far away you are living they will usually come not just for a weekend but for a whole week.

We suggest you set some ground rules for your guests.

You might say, for example: "You're more than welcome to come stay with us, but we won't be able to travel with you." Or you can explain: "We'll be happy to give you a list of local activities and have dinner with you a few times, but we prefer that you stay at a hotel."

It may sound extreme, but it’s better than the misunderstandings that can occur if you don't set expectations in advance.

A lot of people have said that they thought it was strange advice at first, but they realized later that it's best for everyone to clarify from the beginning who pays for what, how self-sufficient guests will have to be, and how much time you will be able to spend with them.

8. They communicate openly about everything, including the challenges and difficulties

An exercise we like to do with couples before they move abroad is to have them identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Look into the future and identify three strengths that will support you during the process and three challenges you think you will face. Then do the same for your partner. We ask participants to do this separately and then compare their notes.

This often leads to incredibly touching and powerful discussions.

Someone might say to their partner, "I'm afraid that you don't know anyone, and I worry that you'll be lonely at home. I think it will be a big challenge for you."

Maybe their partner will respond, "I can see why you would think that, but I've actually been preparing mentally for exactly that, and I think I'll be okay. Instead, I'm concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle."

By sharing these perceptions about yourselves and each other, you can become more aligned and work better as a team. It's also great to acknowledge the positive traits your partner brings to the table during this complex process.

It clarifies a lot: what will be a challenge, how can we support each other, what should we do if we need help?

This exercise is also valuable for the family as a whole.

Think about how you can support your children and how your child's personality will fit into the local culture. It gives you a chance to let your children know that not every day will be perfect, and some things will be difficult, but that they have your support and understanding.

Want to learn more about how to have a successful relocation?

This blog post is the first of a three-part series on successful relocations for expat families. You can find links to all parts of the series here.

Are you preparing for an international assignment? Read more here about our cultural training for relocation or contact us to chat about how we can help with your specific situation.

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