Moving Internationally for the First Time

family looking out from airport

By Kari Steffen

If it’s the first time your family has lived in another culture, you likely have much to look forward to as you step into this new adventure. But that adventure will also be a challenging time of adjustment. Your family will face a lot of changes — in culture, housing, relationships, school, language, food, currency, and more.

Learn more about the phases of adjustment your family will experience at the World Family Education page about Transitions.

Adjusting as a Family

Involving your children in the planning process will help them significantly with this life change. The more you can communicate with them about your plans and include them in the decision making, the better. Ideally, a visit to your new location would be the best way to help your family visualize what their new living situation will be like. That would also be a good time to visit potential schools for your child. This isn’t realistic for all travelers, and if you can’t make an in-person visit, then online research is your next best option.

Most kids love a great adventure, so your attitude toward this experience will go a long way to influence their response as well. As you communicate with your child about your plans, are you excited? Your children will probably be too. Are you anxious and insecure about the many unknowns? Then your children will probably reflect this feeling as well.

A great article at CultureBound describes the cultural learning attitudes people tend to adopt when they live internationally and how these attitudes are absorbed by our children. Parents model the attitudes, and children often imitate them.

You will need to be flexible with unexpected changes to your plans. As you “go with the flow,” your children will see your flexibility and will learn to adapt too. This will keep your family relaxed and focused on enjoying this new experience to the fullest.

Most kids love a great adventure, so your attitude toward this experience will go a long way to influence their response as well.

Other Suggestions:

  • Explore the many online sites that provide help with the practical aspects of moving abroad, no matter what your nationality is. These include:
    • International citizens — Advice, news, and tips about living, working, and retiring overseas.
    • ExpatInfoDesk — Relocation guides to multiple cities around the world.
    • Expat Child — Practical information for moving a family to another culture.
  • There is much to prepare for, and you are likely spending many hours planning for your transition. It sounds simple, but making checklists is a great help toward organizing yourself as you prepare to travel. Daily, weekly, and monthly lists will allow you to track each step you need to take as you pack, and many online moving companies provide comprehensive checklists for free if you do a quick search. Examples are at Expat Info Desk and Aetna International.
  • Learn about the typical disorientation you will feel after moving to a new location at the World Family Education page about Culture Shock. Culture shock is normal, but when it lasts beyond a few days or weeks and/or affects relationships and daily functioning, it’s probably time to seek help.
  • Read the World Family Education Getting Started section for identifying the best educational options for your time living internationally (beginning with A Good Plan.) You should also research schools (international, local) at your new location.
  • Attend a cross-cultural transition seminar in your home country before you leave. Learn more about organizations that provide Transition Seminars & Support at the World Family Education page.
  • Seek out online community before you leave. Many expat groups are found on location around the world and many more are on social media. Do a search on Facebook with terms like “expat” and the location where you’ll be going, and you’ll likely find people like you — living in a culture that differs from the one stamped in their passport. Some other online communities include:
    • I am a Triangle — A community for anyone who has lived for more than six months in another culture.
    • ExpatWoman.com — Forums and community for several locations worldwide.
    • ExpatForum.com — News and forums for expats in more than 20 locations worldwide.
    • ExpatExchange.com — Forums, guides, and resources for expats worldwide.
  • Focus on your child and learn how to identify when pressure and anxiety are too much for them.
  • Above all, embrace change, learn to adapt, and enjoy the adventure ahead.
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