1. Know your Visa & Working Rights
2. Learn the Language
3. Think Ahead. Get a Career, Not a Job
The most expats that I’ve met who’ve stayed abroad the longest are specialists in their fields who have had successful careers both domestically and abroad. They made the move after establishing their career in their own home country, which is the best way to move abroad. This is how my boyfriend was able to move abroad as well as most of our non-European friends. People often assume you need to be young to do this, but you can be ANY age. A good expat job often pays for moving expenses as well as a regular salary to pay the rent with. The biggest perk of working in your field outside of your home country is that your international experience should help you further your career even after heading home. Otherwise, you'll need to explain your job history, which can be really hard when there's not a pattern beyond earning an income.
4. Figure Out the Culture
The hardest things are the subtle things. It took me a long time to figure out that the “How are you?” greeting is weird. I’ve also learned how to interact at a work birthday, which involves three kisses and cake. As an American, it took me a while to get over the initial uncomfortableness of non-family members kissing me on the cheek, let alone colleagues. It’s good to be aware of what makes you uncomfortable as integration involves challenging your own assumptions of what is “acceptable.” I will admit to being shocked when I realized that I had to bring in enough cake for my entire department plus every colleague who had invited me to their birthday, however it’s someone else’s birthday the other 364 days of the year.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your behavior might not fall in line with the behavior norm in your new country. After hearing so much about bluntness as part of Dutch culture, another expat that I know from the US had assumed that he should be very direct with work colleagues. However, he was informed by his coworker that he was being too direct (although he didn't see the difference) and he was advised to be more careful when communicating. It takes time to learn these nuances, but the sooner you learn them, the better as not everyone will explain how you've offended them.
5. Make Friends
In my opinion, it’s important to find someone where you’re moving. I was lucky to have a friend in Amsterdam who was miraculously seeking a roommate. The reality is that you won’t know how a lot of things work and a savvy local is essential to figuring out the move/housing market. I suggest joining the local expat groups on Facebook, Internations, Meetup, Girl Gone International, and Couchsurfing to link up with some friendly locals. Classes (whether it's comedy or dance) are also a great way to make new friends abroad!
If you’re in a major city, it’s easy to meet people if you’re outgoing via the ways above. However, the expat groups often limit your circle of friends to fellow expats and I suggest branching out to others from your new country. It’s always harder for introverted people although focused group activities can be a good way to bond over a hobby, such as climbing, community gardening, hiking, or board games. At minimum, introduce yourself to your neighbors.
6. Challenge yourself and Don’t get too comfortable
I ended up needing to learn how to read Dutch for some aspects of my job. As I learned how to do my job, I used Google Translate to translate text, however I increasingly realized I’d be hurting myself long-term if I kept doing this. I ended up pushing myself to learn to understand Dutch in a business context, even if it meant looking up lots of words every day. I was surprised how rapidly I became comfortable working partially in Dutch and I still learn new words every day. I'm definitely far from fluent, but I can do what is necessary.
As an expat, it’s easy to reject things that are uncomfortable, strange, or unfamiliar, but push yourself to try to do better. Often what I think might be true based on my own experiences in the U.S. cannot be generalized and challenging yourself to learn how things ARE versus how I think they are is important. This often forces me to really listen to my friends/colleagues and admit that I don’t know. I think living abroad has the potential to make you more curious, appreciative, and receptive, but there’s two sides to it: you need to open yourself to new experiences.