Living and working in a foreign country is a great adventure. Once you’ve landed an overseas engineering job, however, it’s not as simple as just packing up and shipping out.
We’ve already covered visas and finding out if your engineering credentials will be honored internationally, but there’s much more to consider: Will it be hard on your family? Which nation gets your taxes? Is culture shock real?
Relocating Overseas Can Stress Out Your Family
If you’re traveling alone, you only have yourself to worry about. If you’ve got a family, however, you have a whole bunch of potential problems to take care of, especially if you plan to keep moving from country to country.
You may have your job sorted out, but what about your partner? Will they be able to find work? It can be very depressing for a stay-at-home partner who can’t get a job, and separation is not uncommon. Or if they do have a job, what happens when your contract ends? Will you both be prepared to return home?
If you have children (or are planning to), it gets even more complicated. Education is a major concern, particularly if you’re pulling them in and out of different school systems. Virtual school, private tuition or specialist schools for expatriates may be an option, but that means they’re missing out on the opportunity to spend time with other kids.
If your children are born while you’re resident overseas, be aware of the potential implications for citizenship. Children of American citizens are entitled to claim American citizenship, of course, but you should check local laws to find out whether they’re also entitled to dual nationality.
You Can’t Take It With You
There are some things you can’t take with you. If you’re planning a permanent or long-term move, you’ll have to think about you intend to ship your possessions, which could be prohibitively expensive and involve a lot of bureaucracy. It may be more cost-effective simply to sell them and buy everything new when you reach your destination.
Even if you’re only going for a short-term contract, you’ll have to decide what to do with your belongings. If you have a house, you’ll have to decide whether to sell it or rent it, which involves selecting a reputable property manager. Other items – cars, books, clothes, furniture – will need to go into secure storage if you plan to keep them.
Many places won’t let you bring your pets into the country. Or, if you do take them, be aware that you may not be able to bring them back home. You can leave them with someone else, but be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to reclaim them later. They may form an attachment to their new home while they’re away, or, in the worst case, they could pass on.
Will You Still Have to Pay US Taxes?
In most cases, if you’re living and working abroad, and employed by a foreign country, you’re not required to pay tax on your overseas income. The US, however, is an exception.
Even when you’ve left the country, you’re required to complete a federal tax return and you’re liable for US taxes. Before you leave, you should consult an accountant who specializes in taxes for expatriates to ensure you’re not inadvertently evading taxes, or you could find yourself with a hefty fine when you return home.
Start Learning the Language NOW
English is an accepted language for business in most of the world, and your new co-workers will probably make some allowances if you don’t speak the language. You can’t, however, expect that to last long – learning the local language is critical when you’re relocating overseas.
It’s not merely polite: it’s essential for normal life. You’ll need to know how to talk to shop staff, bureaucrats, plumbers, doctors, landlords, neighbors, and, of course, clients. You’ll have to be able to read street signs, local paperwork, and food packets.
Simple tourist phrases won’t suffice for everyday conversation. You’ll need to learn to speak colloquially, perhaps familiarizing yourself with local dialects or creoles.
In some regions, you may need to learn several languages: in Arab countries, for example, Modern Standard Arabic is the formal written and spoken language, but for most informal occasions, you’ll need to speak Levantine, Egyptian, Gulf, or Maghreb Arabic, depending on where you are.
Which Vaccinations Do You Need?
Make sure you’ve had all the necessary vaccinations before you go. The Center for Disease Control will tell you what mandatory jabs you need. You may also need an International Certification of Vaccination or Prophylaxis booklet (ICVP): some countries require this as a condition of entry.
If you can’t have the vaccination for some reason, your doctor who may be able to issue an exemption and advise on preventative behavior.
Foreign medicine is often as good, or superior to, American medicine, but don’t expect to be able to find chiropractors, acupuncturists, or other alternative therapists. In extreme cases, if you’re working in a remote area, you may be forced to rely on whatever you’ve brought with you or a medical evacuation in an emergency.
If you know you need specialist medical care or drugs, check before you go whether this is likely to be a problem. You may not be permitted to bring certain medications into the country, so make sure there will be a local doctor who can get you what you need when you need it, and arrange for any necessary paperwork in advance.
Culture Shock and Homesickness Are Real
Relocating overseas is an adventure, but don’t expect everything to be wonderful. At first, it’ll all be new and exciting. But sooner or later – it may take a few weeks or a few months – it’ll start to sink in that you’re truly away from home. You’ll begin to feel alienated and alone. Everyone may well be super nice and ready to help you out, but there’s a lot of painful adjustment you’ll have to go through on your own.
Inevitably, you’ll go through a stage where you realize you don’t fit in. You don’t get the jokes or the cultural references. You don’t know how to celebrate the local holidays. You don’t even know how to get a prescription filled or get your car fixed, let alone how to buy a house or whether you need a permit to go fishing.
Home may have its downsides, but at least you know how it works.
No matter how much you love your new home, you’ll miss friends and family, and you’ll start to miss your social life. You’ll miss your favorite TV shows and radio stations, your favorite comfort foods, and the places you used to visit. You’ll miss the holidays, the Superbowl parties, and the 4th of July fireworks. You’ll even miss the lousy weather back home and the commercials you hate. You feel helpless and stupid, and you’ll get depressed and irritable.
It’s tough. Every expatriate goes through the same thing. Most give up and come home within a couple of years. Those who stick it out often stay for the rest of their lives.
Preparation is Everything
There’s lot of planning involved in relocating overseas, but you’re an engineer. Work logically through these contingencies and be realistic about your expectations. Have an exit plan in case it all goes wrong and you need to get home in an emergency. The more you can do before you go, the less you’ll have to worry about when you get there.
Hopefully, we haven’t scared you off. In our first piece on relocation, we told you that working overseas is a challenge, but a rewarding one. It’s exciting, and however it turns out, it’ll be a time to remember.
So far, we’ve mostly focused on the opportunities for Americans going overseas. Next week, we’ll turn it around: what’s it like for an engineer to relocate to America?