4 Things You Should Know Before Becoming An Expat

Written by Rossina Gitto, Founder @ The Humans of HR, August 2020

Moving abroad for work can be a great career move, but those that have been on an international assignment before know that the expat life is not as easy or luxurious as it looks on the outside.  

My first job in HR was in International Mobility, but that’s not where I gained my knowledge on expatriation. Above my professional and educational experiences, it’s my personal life experiences that have made me knowledgeable in the field. I started moving abroad when I was only 2 years old because of my family’s professional life and became what is known in the relocation world as a “Third Culture Kid.” By the time I was 25, I had switched cities, countries & continents 10 times, often going back and forth between them.

When nostalgia takes over after repatriation, people tend to forget all the difficult moments they went through, which is why we might not hear about the difficulties expats face very often. But I was exposed to these experiences enough times to not be blinded by nostalgia. I built a list of the top four things expats could encounter and should know about before moving abroad.

If you wish to be an expat in the future, here are the top 4 things you should be aware of before moving to a new country for work.


1) Once overseas, it can take up to 6 months or more to set up a new life.


Once you land in a host country, you will learn that setting up your life takes a lot of time & patience and you might realise that you took many things for granted back home.

One of the first things you need to do is find a home and sign your kids up for school (if you have any). You also need to get a local cellphone connection, a local bank account, a social security number, a local driver’s license and much more.

In addition…

  • It’s important to learn what to do in case of a medical or major emergency such a natural disaster, a threat to public health, war / terrorism, or criminal activity.
  • Depending on the country you go to, it might also be necessary to sign up to language classes to sharpen up your skills (or start learning the local language from scratch) if you want to get things done efficiently.

If you’re lucky, the organization that sent you abroad will provide some assistance, but it’s very likely that you will have to do most things alone.

Because of the instability experienced in the first months, it’s important for expats to be highly adaptable and to know how to deal with their stress and frustrations. Failing to do so could lead to an early repatriation and can come at a huge cost for your organisation and yourself.


2) Expats and their families can easily become targets of discrimination.

Whether it’s because of your national origin, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, or even your job title, you and/or your family members could become targets of different kinds of discrimination.

A. Housing Discrimination

One of the most common types of discrimination faced by expats and their families is housing discrimination. This kind of discrimination takes place when a person cannot rent or buy a home because of any of the elements stated above. In the case of an expat, it is mainly triggered by xenophobia, also known as the mistrust, dislike or prejudice against people from other countries. If the organisation that sent an expat abroad does not step in and help, housing discrimination can become an expat’s biggest source of stress. Trying to start a new job, set up a new life, and switch temporary accommodations every week for months on end is not an easy task.

B. Gender Based Discrimination

Depending on the host country, female expats might notice changes in the way they are perceived and treated at work because of their gender. They can become targets of negative gender based discrimination, but they can also experience the opposite, and perceive an improvement in how they are treated when being sent to a more gender-equal country.

C. Employment Discrimination

Possibly one of the most damaging kinds of discrimination faced by expat families happens to trailing spouses, specifically in the hiring process while job searching and when they are completely denied their right to work abroad. Trailing spouses (individuals that move with their life partner to another country because of a work assignment) can have an abnormally hard time getting a job. In some cases, they are simply not allowed to work in the host country and do not have access to social security. In a study carried out by Internations (2015), it was found that

84% of trailing spouses were women,

72% had to give up their career, and

58% could not find a job after moving abroad.

D. Other kinds of discrimination…

The list goes on when considering race, sexual orientation and other factors that could affect expats on international missions, for example, the local legal system and how advanced the host country’s human rights agenda is.


3) Children that move abroad with their expat parents become “Third Culture Kids.”

Although it’s not necessarily a bad thing, you need to be aware of how your choice to become an expat and raise children abroad will define and affect your children’s lives. Once raised abroad as a Global Citizen, it’s hard to turn around and live a local lifestyle.

Van Reken and Pollock’s (2009) book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (also known as the TCK bible) is a great educational resource for expats that wish to understand the challenges of a highly mobile upbringing.

“As an adult TCK, I have long wrestled with how I fit into this world. This book is the ‘bible’ for anyone who wants to understand the blessings and the curses of growing up multiculturally.”
– Wm. Paul Young, author of the #1 New York Times Best Seller The Shack

4) Upon repatriation, expats and their families could face Reverse Culture Shock.

Adapting to a host country can be hard, but sometimes re-adapting to a home country can be even harder.

As Kagan (2020) explains, reverse culture shock is a form of emotional and psychological distress that people experience upon repatriation after spending a significant amount of years abroad. One of the main characteristics of this experience is that there is an unexpected difficulty in the readjustment to the home country, its culture and its values. The degree in which it affects a person is understood to be proportional to the amount of time spent abroad. In other words, the longer an expat lives in the host country, the greater the shock may be when returning back home.

In Storti’s (2011) book, The Art of Coming Home, the author states that there are various variables that could affect the reentry of an individual that lived abroad for a long time:

  • Whether the move was voluntary or involuntary.
  • Whether the move was expected or unexpected.
  • The age of the person (a reentry is easier for older people).
  • If the person has had previous experiences of reentry.
  • The length of stay overseas.
  • The level of involvement with the host culture.
  • The reentry environment.
  • The amount of interaction with the home culture while aboard. And lastly,
  • The degree of difference between the host and home cultures.

Storti (2011) also explains that some of the effects of Reverse Culture Shock might be the following:

  • Criticality: being highly critical about the home country.
  • Marginality: feeling like a misfit and not fully comfortable back home.
  • Exhaustion: it also takes a while to re-adapt and go through what was stated in point #1.
  • Resistance, withdrawal and depression: many expats and their families resist the adaptation process, avoid contact with people form the home culture and dwell on the past. For this reason, suffering from depression is not uncommon upon repatriation.

As if all of this was not enough, the actual expat – the one that gets sent abroad by their organisation – will have to deal with readjusting to their local job after repatriating too. The professional side of readjustment is similar to the personal side, since an expat’s organisation, and expats themselves, are not the same anymore. Both employers and repatriated employees play an equal role in managing the readjustment process in a smooth manner.

So now that you know about the not so wonderful side of being an expat,

would you be ready to head over to the airport anytime soon?


Written by Rossina Gitto
About the Author
About the Author

Rossina Gitto is a Licensed Psychologist & holds a Masters Degree in International Human Resources Management from the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas. She is the Founder of The Humans of HR.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Humans of HR.


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The Humans of HR is a Digital Social Enterprise that is on a mission to humanize the world of work. We aspire to be recognized as a high quality International HR & Business media outlet for a diverse body of professionals from all over the world. Our Magazine currently reaches readers in over 80 counties.

We believe everyone is entitled to have access to professional content that is backed up by relevant sources, as well as the work of the global scientific community, no matter where they come from. That is the reason why we started writing, and also why we will continue to do so. In order to keep growing and keep our content open to our global audience, we would like for you to consider supporting our work.

Your contribution is highly appreciated.

The Humans of HR is a Digital Social Enterprise that is on a mission to humanize the world of work. We aspire to be recognized as a high quality International HR & Business media outlet for a diverse body of professionals from all over the world. Our Magazine currently reaches readers in over 80 counties.

We believe everyone is entitled to have access to professional content that is backed up by relevant sources, as well as the work of the global scientific community, no matter where they come from. That is the reason why we started writing, and also why we will continue to do so. In order to keep growing and keep our content open to our global audience, we would like for you to consider supporting our work.

Your contribution is highly appreciated.

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References


InterNations (2015). Expat insider 2015: The world of expat spouses, internations. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.internations.org/expat-insider/2015/expat-spouses

Kagan, J. (2020). Reverse culture shock definition. Investopedia. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

Storti, C. (2011). The art of coming home. John Murray Press.

Van Reken, Ruth E.; Pollock, Davic C. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.



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