Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Expat Once More: A Guide to the Ins and Outs of Moving Somewhere New

I've been flitting back and forth for more than 4 months now between Ireland and Denmark. I've probably spent more time in Dublin and CPH airport than some of the staff, and can get through airport security as efficiently as George Clooney in that travel movie Up in the Air. A number of Aer Lingus hostesses now recognise me and offer me free snacks, which, anyone can agree, is a rare thing in this cheap air travel age. I'd think of myself as quite travel savvy, I've lived in a couple of foreign countries and visited many more as a tourist, student or seasonal worker,and spent a lot of time in airports and weird, cheap hostels. I have to admit, though, the process is rendered a whole lot easier when you have a boyfriend that can photo memorise maps instantaneously, and a few friendly natives willing to show you the short cuts. Insider knowledge and quick wits are invaluable in these situations.

In three days time, just days shy of my one year anniversary of arriving in Denmark, I'm returning, for good. In my occasional absence my boyfriend has been a busy bee. He has gotten himself a job with a leading Danish bank, is taking Danish lessons so he can understand what goes on in meetings, and, possibly the biggest plunge of all, has bought an apartment. For those not familiar with the Andelsbolig way, it is an alternative ownership arrangement between outright private ownership, private rental, and social housing.

It means an individual buys a share in the housing co-operative and all residents in the building take a collective responsibility to co-manage the space and ensure it is a pleasant and safe place for all to live. It's a really excellent, thoroughly Nordic idea, and as someone who studied housing policy in college, I'm delighted to see how it works in practicality, in case its worth trying to pitch to the good people of Ireland. We're a jealously guarding our own private property kind of bunch, you see.

I'm so lucky that I have this handy living situation ready to go, as I know that accommodation is one of the biggest sources of worry for those moving abroad, and I'm currently job seeking and fairly low on expendable income. The other areas that, for me, were the most difficult to navigate, were getting a social security number, opening a bank account, finding my way around, and meeting new people.

So here I present you with a basic guide to navigating your way around the beginnings of expat life, with handy click through links for further perusing.

Allow IKEA to become your temporary best friend. Take photos of yourself relaxing in IKEA showrooms. It is fun.


So you arrive in a brand new country, and maybe you have a job or a course to study lined up, maybe you don't. If you're lucky enough to have temporary accommodation or a college dorm, excellent, and if not, what to do? It's always worth planning in advance, no one wants to be homeless if their plan to find a place after arriving proves very difficult. Couch surfing, Airbnb, or a cheap hostel can be your best friend, and help you to buy time on the cheap while looking out for that dream apartment. As an aside, renting out a spare room on Airbnb is a great way to make some extra dosh.

Prior to arriving in a new city it's worth exhausting every possible avenue on that wonderful worldwide web of ours. A variation of Gumtree or Craigslist exists in almost every country, so get investigating. Do your homework by contacting people, join Facebook groups for those home hunting, network, and do your best to secure at least short-term accommodation before you arrive.

It can be hard to convince individuals to rent to you before you're in the country. In Denmark, getting a legal apartment can be impossible without a CPR number, and in London you might end up doing a Harry Potter and sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs for £500 a month. Do your research, be smart, and don't hand over money unless you're 100% certain the person is legitimate. Please please please, exercise caution!

Sites for housing:

Once we moved our things using just a bicycle.

Legal Stuff

Every country has their legal hoops for you to jump through in order to become a legal resident. I would recommend, again, finding out absolutely everything there is to know about the registration system in the country you intend to go to. Any paper work you need to register abroad will be easier and cheaper to attain before you move, so make it your business to be prepared. File and document everything you will need, including payslips, tax certificates, proof of address, college transcripts and references.

It is worth checking out expat websites, forums and official government websites, as sometimes language barriers, untranslated sites or out of date information might leave you in the dark about a crucial item needed. If you need a visa, make sure it's sorted out long before moving day. If you don't have your passport with the correct stamp in it, you might find yourself sticking around a while longer. Pay close attention to the Dept. of Immigration websites for your homecountry and choice destination.

I've always moved to foreign countries; the UK, Sweden and Denmark, with the explicit intention to study, so I took letters of acceptance, academic references and my transcript of records from my Irish education with me, and was ready to show them to immigration officers, bank agents and landlords. As an EU citizen I was entitled to move freely within the EU so visas were not required, but if you wish to stay longer than 3 months in a Nordic country, you need a residence permit, and the UK migration authorities are notoriously difficult to deal with, so do your homework, and be prepared. It's always useful to have a few passport sized pictures of yourself to hand, you will inevitably need them for one form or another.


In most EU countries banking and having a social security number go hand in hand. If you're not a legal resident, you might find it really tough to get a bank account. In the UK I found it almost impossible, and that's in a country I live mere miles way from! Proof of address and a social security number are the minimum requirements to open a basic bank account in many countries, and it's probably becoming blatantly obvious how important paperwork and careful form filling is.

As sense would dictate, it's always a good idea to contact the bank in your home country before the move, and check if they have branches in the country you are moving to. Maybe they will be able to speed the process of opening an account for you. They can also provide you with costs and charges you might incur if you use your card abroad. This is always something to consider, because you will inevitably have to use your home card for at least a few days.

It might be useful to check the conditions of SEPA to be aware the changes in charges you may incur. It's risky to travel with large quantities of money in an unfamiliar country, so transferring large quantities of money safely through a currency exchange service is one effective solution. This can often be cheaper and less stressful than a visit to the Bureau de Change and can be done from the comfort of your own computer. Some companies need to verify your location in advance, so take time to become familiar with this service before you need to do a transfer.


Getting Lost Creatively

I have a pretty bad sense of direction, if I'm being honest with you. The first few times I used the tube alone I got lost more times than I'd like to recall, and it's just as well that I had given myself a lot of extra time. Travelling around a new city can be hell. You have to deal with a different currency, a foreign language, a potentially poorly sign posted route (Dublin has no indication of where you are on its buses, I still have to ask the driver to shout for me when I'm going to a new place. Ridiculous), an alien ticketing system, and maybe dodgy characters that might give you hassle because you have a backpack and an expression of sheer uncertainty.

Do your research before you go, find out what the cheapest ticket system is. If you can buy an Oyster card or equivalent, do so. You'll save money, and the card might be refundable too. If you want a map that is a little bit different, for some creative fun on the weekends or while you're still job hunting, Herb Lester and Associates have beautifully designed and informative maps for a number of different cities.

My favourite thing to do when I get to a new city is seek out the place where the cheap bikes are sold. They usually aren't in great shape, and in some of the dodgier places they might have been stolen mere minutes ago. But you can use your own discretion, and if you're lucky you might get a good deal. Then, get a map (a Google map, if you're so inclined), and just go. Nothing beats finally ditching the buses and trains and getting out onto the streets. I find my way around every new city like this, sometimes with my GPS turned on and my Maps helping me along the way.

If you can't cycle, learn, and if you think the weather is too bad, buy weather-appropriate clothing. It's free, it's quick and it's the fastest way to get to know your locality, unless you have a chauffeur and it's something you never have to worry about. Which I hope not, because that would be terribly boring for you.

If you're not keen to buy, many cities do rental bike schemes, such as:

Everyone Needs a Good Map:

Making Friends

You have your temporary sublet apartment, your second hand racer bike, a debit card and a bottle of the strangest and most popular local tipple (Fisk, what are you?). Bad news is, it's a Friday night, and you have no plans, and only a few acquaintances. How do you have a good time, when you're just new in a city and don't really know anybody?

Quite simply, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You packed up all your things and moved, didn't you? You're not about to sit at home and gaze longingly at what all your Facebook friends are eating on a Friday night, oh no! Get out there, join clubs, societies, groups, go on dates, go dancing, be open to new possibilities. The time to siphon out the good stuff from the mediocre comes about a month from now. Whittle away at the friend list once you have a friend list to work with.

Join and go on as many fun activities as you can. Be open, ask people about their stories, gravitate towards people you build a rapport with. If you feel a connection, ask for a Facebook or phone number and suggest you meet again. Don't be a creep, and take social queues. But put yourself out there. The worst they can do is decline your Friend Request. If you have housemates that seem up for it, go out with them for a drink, be polite to anyone they introduce you to. By opening up your world you might meet some really cool people.

I think the internet is an invaluable tool, so if you have a college class with a fun bunch of people just once a week, make a Facebook group and suggest cool things you can do on the weekend. Post on message boards for new expats and go to any networking events offered. Join a language class and make an effort to get to know the others. When I studied in Sweden, I took a folk dancing class, and ended up becoming the best of friends with a few people in it. We started going because it was kind of corny and kitsch, but ended up loving the experience and being the most loyal attendees.

Make Some Friends:

So there you have it, a short guide written from my own world view. Hopefully it’ll be useful to people similar to myself; young, with little ties and obligations, motivated to work hard, be successful and have fun. I recently contributed an expat tip to the new Expat Tip Page on the HiFXwebsite. There you'll find lots of Expat tips from seasoned travellers, and there is a link to each contributor if you want to delve into their world. Click on to mine and others' tips! I encourage everyone to move very far away at least once in their life. Even if you eventually return to the place you come from, you'll come home with opened eyes, a set of new experiences and opinions, and a different take on the world.. Happy travelling!


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