After working overseas for six years, I’ve discovered that there are things no one tells you about working abroad. From the nearly insurmountable amounts of paperwork for visas to the whirlwind of understanding a new culture to the absolute joy of exploring new countries, these experiences will challenge you, change you, and test you in ways you might never expect.
If I had known what it would take to make my dream a reality… I probably would have gotten scared, questioned myself, and mentally put that dream back in a box and forgotten about it.
Working abroad was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Looking back at the whole experience, the good, the bad and the downright ugly, I wouldn’t change a thing.
And here’s why.
Living and working overseas has blessed me with an amazing career, and the ability to see parts of the world I would only have read about in Lonely Planet guides.
It gave me the experience I would not have gained living in Australia. I was able to explore Europe with my husband and build a wildly successful career. You see, I’m a country girl at heart. One who grew up in a small, remote town where life was the same every single day. Heck, I was the first in my family to even have a passport!
Working abroad became a dream of mine in my twenties. I was at that stage of my career where I had some solid experience, I was a mid-level brand manager, and my life was pretty sweet. So, in 2011, my husband and I packed up our possessions and left the beautiful beaches of Sydney, Australia and traded them for the chic streets of Paris, France. Paris would no longer be a bookmark in my Lonely Planet book. It would become home.
When I look back at what it took us to get there, I really wish someone would have sat me down and had a frank conversation about what it would really take to work abroad. It was damn hard.
So today, I’m sharing five things you might not know about working abroad:
1. There is an immense amount of paperwork.
From visa applications, rental agreements in a foreign language, to proof of employment; get ready for the immense amount of paperwork you will need to complete. However, if your company offers employee relocation assistance, this will make the entire process shorter and simpler.
As you will be a new resident in a foreign country, the government, real estate agents, banks, and local councils will want to know all about you and your history. As you have no record in the country you are relocating to, you have to double, even triple prove who you are and that you are trustworthy.
And that means paperwork. Tons of paperwork.
When we moved from Sydney to Paris, the French government needed a form completed for even the smallest of things. We needed the company I was working for to be a guarantor for almost everything, even to open a bank account.
Top tip: scan all of your important documents like birth and marriage certificates, passports, and proof of residency, before you leave for your overseas adventure. Depending on which country you move you, it may be required to have these documents translated.
2. There will be cultural differences.
You may have a lot of experience in your job role, but you have zero cultural experience in your new home country.
What the new culture takes for granted can seem like a foreign language to you; and often times it’s just the simple things that you don’t know.
For example, from early childhood, French children are taught that it’s good manners to say hello and goodbye when entering someone’s home, a retail store or a restaurant. This is something that I did not get educated about growing up in a remote country town in Australia.
When I would walk into stores, or leave the office for the day, I wouldn’t necessarily always say hello or goodbye. Because it isn’t necessary or expected by Australians, we are pretty relaxed about it.
I remember shopping one day along Rue de Rivoli and when my friend and I entered a boutique store, she was mortified that I didn’t say hello and goodbye. As soon as we left the store she scolded me like I was a small child and insisted that my manners were appalling.
I was dumbfounded. I had great manners… but not to the standard of the French.
She explained that it was good manners to always say bonjour (hello) and au revoir (goodbye) when entering and leaving somewhere. That could be a restaurant, a retail store or the workplace.
Needless to say, those two words became ingrained in my vocabulary.
3. You can negotiate your relocation costs.
When working abroad, no one tells you that relocation costs are negotiable and most companies offer a relocation package to help you move countries and get set up. This is especially true if you are relocating via an inter-company transfer. Of course, this means you should consider all of the costs involved when relocating internationally before accepting the relocation package to make sure you’ll secure the best deal.
As part of a relocation package, you can expect the package to include return flights home and an allowance to either buy furniture or have it shipped. Plus if you are married or in a long-term relationship, the company will also pay for your partner’s flights.
One added bonus I had was two return tickets from Paris to Sydney to use when we got homesick… and we did!
4. The opportunity to work overseas can take a while to materialize.
Making the move to live and work overseas is a huge undertaking. It ultimately needs to be the right opportunity for you and it needs to be the right timing for both the company and you personally. For all those things to align, it can take some time.
And no one tells you this when you first decide to work abroad.
It took two and a half years from when I first had the inkling to work overseas to when we got off the plane at Charles de Gaulle.
At each of my quarterly meetings and annual performance appraisals, I always added it as an agenda topic. We would discuss it at each meeting and I would ask if anything had become available in the Paris office.
The answer was usually the same, “no, nothing has come up,” but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits. I would also discuss it with the Managing Director, HR Manager, and also with the HR Manager in the Paris office whenever we spoke or crossed paths. I was always asking how the team I wanted to work on was going, what changes were happening, and seeing if there was a place I would fit into.
Eventually, a role did come up. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was a good fit in the right department, in the right office, and it was in Paris!
So in short, a “no” today does not mean a “no, not ever.” It just means “not now.” Keep following up with your contacts so you stay top of mind if a suitable role becomes available.
5. Working overseas isn’t just about the job.
What I didn’t get told about working overseas was that it wasn’t going to be all about the job.
It was a whole new experience.
From trying to find baking powder in a strange grocery store, figuring out the ticketing systems for the Metro, and why lunches were two hours long. You will be experiencing a whole new way of living that is different to what you are accustomed to, so enjoy the little things and experience the lifestyle of your new home.
Enjoy the long lunches, take your holidays, travel, explore your new city by walking everywhere on the weekends. Eat the local produce, dine at your local restaurants, go away for the weekend, rent a bike, do the cheesy tourist tours. Take time to be grateful for every moment you get to live overseas because it’s not just about the job.
I’ve now been working overseas for six years, and these are the five things I wish someone had told be about working abroad. Immerse yourself into the new culture, lock in a relocation package, and never, ever give up on your dreams of working abroad.
Lisa is the CEO and Founder of lisavillaume.com and lives in London with her husband surrounded by beautiful lush parks. In her spare time, she gushes over shoes and researches her next travel destination.