Considering a cheeky stint overseas? Moving abroad is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your career, but it’s a ride that definitely comes with its challenges. From the practical (paperwork, visa issues, logistics), to the visceral (homesickness, culture shock, the up and down emotional ride), there’s a fair bit to factor into the mix before you write your fresh chapter out in the great, wide world.
Shifting OS typically comes through a new gig or promotion; as a Gap year before uni or as a working holiday adventure. Two years ago, my girlfriend and I left Melbourne for a new experience in Berlin. We’d heard good things about the Deutsch capital – a creative hub with incredible history. We’d never been before, knew no one there, and spoke absolutely no German. Kind of crazy in hindsight. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but one that has changed our lives for the absolute best.
Before taking the plunge, I had to sort out a visa. Thankfully, Germany, and pretty much every other European country, offers Australians between the ages of 18 and 30 (inclusive at time of application) a chance to live and work as part of their yearlong working holiday visa programs. Lucky for us, Australians enjoy reciprocal work-holiday rights with 34 different countries around the world.
It ought to be said that working holiday visas have their limits – different countries have different conditions (for example, some only allow you to work for a fixed period within the visa length). Still, many use the working holiday as an ‘in-road’; a way of being able to stay long enough to set up shop temporarily, and find short-term work that might lead to a longer term arrangement (and a stable visa to go with it).
Getting the visa was an easy process: after applying for an appointment online, I went to the German consulate in Sydney, presented proof of a return plane ticket, comprehensive travel insurance for the length of the stay, and was in and out in 10 minutes. It’s worth noting some countries require additional documents, like letters of government support, and proof of tertiary education – check out the fine print here.
My girlfriend, meanwhile, with her ‘access all areas’ British passport, reserved the right to shack up anywhere in Europe she pleased, without additional paperwork (TBC with the whole Brexit thing).
Dual citizenship and working holiday visas are just two ways of going about the move. Check out the visa smorgasbord on the official state sites of your desired destination – you might be surprised at what’s available.
Saving the biccies
Most countries will also want to see proof that you can support yourself when you first arrive. No bucks, no visa. As a general rule, around $6 to $10K should satisfy the authorities, and keep you fed and housed. That’s a fair bit of coin to outlay on top of flights and insurance: budget, prioritise, and live as cheaply as you can until you head off. A savings plan is a good idea – I set up an account where I put away cash every fortnight, and conveniently forgot about it. Of course, if you’ve got a job offer sorted prior to moving o/s, this won’t be quite as much of a concern. Either way, a financial security blanket won’t go astray.
Purging your stuff
There’s nothing like the liberation that comes with ditching all your old stuff before shooting off. Plan a garage sale and junk what you can. Stripping things down to the very basics, with the knowledge that all you really need is a couple of bags of clothes and a few personal items is one step closer to pure freedom.
Securing work beforehand
Living overseas is awesome, but you’ve still gotta foot the bills. If you’re a ‘dot the i’s and cross the t’s’ type, you might prefer to go into the experience a little more prepped. For Melburnian, Sam Hunt, a shift to New York City earlier this year proved a far more methodical affair:
“A colleague of mine had a friend who worked (in America) and mentioned they were looking for new staff. After two rounds of Skype interviews, I was offered a job. My employer had a legal firm put together all the visa paperwork – all I had to do was set up an interview at the US consulate in Melbourne and prepare documents (passport, letter of employment etc).”
As well as a dream run, his ride, he admits, was a bit of an anomaly: “Most Aussies come over here without a job on a three-month holiday visa. Without a job you can’t get a lease, without a lease/address you can’t open a bank account, without an address you can’t get a job. So lots of people get stuck in a catch-22 loop of hurdles.”
Getting work afterwards
Though perhaps a little difficult in America (where the working holiday program is more limited) finding a gig after landing is far more commonplace elsewhere. In 2012, 372,200 of us left Australian shores with the intention to go ‘for good’; just over half had jobs sorted beforehand. For many, leaving home without job certainty is all part of the adventure. It can be challenging though, and while job boards, LinkedIn digests, expat groups and personal contacts will make all the difference, it’s always good to keep expectations flexible.
After moving to Germany with her partner Chris three years ago, Melbournian Merren McLean found the expat job hunt pretty cumbersome. “I tried my hardest to milk contacts back home as much as possible. Even though I was armed with my BA, other overseas working experience, and as many reference letters as I could muster, nothing seemed to stand up. Looking back now I feel I was rather naïvely optimistic.”
Lacking mastery of the local tongue and a professional network on the ground forced Merren to try new things. After a period of trial and introspection, she uncovered fresh opportunities in a totally different industry, running historical tours for students and travellers in cities all over Europe. “For me personally, it made me realise that now was the time to experiment with some kind of employment and lifestyle that made me happy, rather than going with the expectations of my degree and education back home.”
Learning the lingo
If the country you’re moving to doesn’t ‘sprechen the English,’ you’re in for additional culture shock. Language is a big deal: not having it can easily breed a brooding sense of expat isolation. We were lucky that Berlin happens to be an international melting pot, where English is flung about nearly as much as Deutsch. Even so, we’d landed in Germany, which, the last time I checked, speaks German – most locals are content to communicate in English but it’s good form to make an effort and learn the local ‘patois’.
When you land, enrol in a local language school and knock off an intensive month-long course or two. Understanding and appreciation of your new environment and its people will deepen immeasurably. Plus, there’s nothing as satisfying as that moment when the gibberish starts to make sense.
The emotional ride
Cultural immersion is a beautiful thing, but while it inspires and delights one day, it can make one pine deeply for home the next. While social media and Skype help alleviate the longing, the tyranny of distance can be a real thorn.
“Emotionally it’s a big decision to uproot, leave behind all the safety and security of home, friends, family and employment,” says Merren.
“I don’t really get homesick,” adds Sam (though he does yearn for his dietary staples: “dim sims, potato cakes, coffee, Big Ms”). More trying than that, no doubt, the break up with his girlfriend of six years. Suffice to say, the relationships you leave behind can be the toughest thing about the whole deal.
Josh Vansittart moved to Cambodia with his girlfriend Jane three years ago after Jane was offered a job in Phnom Penh. “I actually miss Melbourne more when I’m back visiting friends and family,” he says. “You have these great times catching up with everyone in a very short period of time and you start to ask yourself why you are living so far away.”
“I did have one moment of homesickness about three months after we arrived in Cambodia,” he adds. “It was the weekend of Meredith and I’d had a few messages from mates telling me about all the good times I was missing out on. I dealt with it by desperately trying to turn a quiet Friday night dinner with friends into a two-day festival – basically I just got super drunk and made a fool of myself. Wouldn’t recommend it.”
For Merren, it’s the company you keep that keeps the emotional troughs at bay. “Fellow expat friends are the best. They share your fears and worries and give you that touch of home that is sometimes all that’s required.”
What happens when one year isn’t enough? Most working holiday visas aren’t renewable, but there are usually other options. When my working holiday expired, I pivoted across to a Freelance Artist Visa, something I had no idea about before leaving Australia. It gave me two extra years in Berlin, renewable ongoing.
For others, an ongoing job sponsorship is the best way of prolonging the expat adventure. When in doubt, be sure to chat to an immigration advisor for the best info on what’s available. (Failing that, there’s always marriage).
Without getting too Eat, Pray, Love up in here, expat life really is the ultimate inner transformer. With new relationships, fresh confidence, and a widened, global perspective, even a year or two away can be a total life-changer.
As author Sarah Turnbull says, “It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.” The longer you’re gone, the more you take on the norms of your new environment – your inner world changes, and the more distant ‘home’ becomes. Reverse culture shock is a thing, and it’s probably incurable. It’s also totally worth it.
The expat lowdown
Neither my girlfriend nor I had jobs lined up before we left for Berlin. We intended to go for six months. Two years later, we’re both self-employed, living comfortably as freelancers, gravitating between Europe and Australia. It’s an exciting life, made entirely possible by the opportunities gleaned from our bold leap into the unknown.
In the din of Western expectation – working 9 to 5, ticking off the milestones – it’s easy to neglect the wild world of potential luring us from beyond the comfort zone of home. Yes, there’s a tendency to romanticise living overseas: it can be romantic – and epic – and sense-tantalisingly inspiring. But it’s also a loaded ride that’ll test you, as it dutifully overhauls your worldview, your sense of home and your identity. Few experiences in this life are more deeply gratifying. Save your bucks, sort that paperwork out, do what you need to do, and get amped – the big, wide world is calling your name.
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Cam Hassard is an international penman, sax-wielder and rogue wayfarer who writes for Junkee, Carryology, Huckberry, Caddie, Fairfax Media, Carryology, Intrepid, Peregrine Adventures and Europe Up Close. He’s eaten ant salad in Laos, hauled trucks from NYC to Vegas, and destroyed himself on the Camino de Santiago. Originally from Melbourne, he currently calls Berlin home.