“There’s no place like home” isn’t just an expression of sentimentality; it’s also literally true. Life in a foreign land requires adjustment and flexibility.

First-timers traveling abroad naturally have some degree of anxiety about making such a big move. In fact, if you don’t feel a tinge of nervousness, there might be something wrong with you.

Here’s a handful of tips and reality-checks that ESL teachers often wish someone had explained to them before their departure date regarding the trials and tribulations of moving abroad.

You’ll probably wish you packed less

Less is more.

One of the biggest challenges as you prepare to set sail is which of your personal effects to tow and which to leave at home (or in storage). Depending on the severity of your hoarding tendencies, the pack-it-or-leave-it dilemma can be either a minor or major issue.

The bottom line is: if you think you can do without an item under consideration, you probably can. If it’s easily replaceable – for instance, a personal hygiene product – you can always wait and purchase it abroad once you’re settled so you don’t have to take your whole medicine cabinet with you.

Always remember: whatever property you bring with you is what you’ll have to lug around wherever you go – through the airport, from hotel to hotel, between accommodations. Chances are, no matter how light you pack, you’ll realize you could’ve made your life easier by slimming down your suitcase/backpack even more.

Culture shock is real

The phenomenon of culture shock – defined generally as “feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people may experience when moving to a new country or experiencing a new culture or surroundings” – is very real.

We naturally assume, often subconsciously, that the rest of the world is similar to the environment that we grew up in. That’s why culture shock most dramatically affects first-time travelers.

You should definitely find an expat support community

One of the best antidotes to culture shock is finding and befriending other individuals with similar cultural backgrounds as yourself.

The good news is that connecting with your fellow countrymen/women is easier than ever thanks to the world wide web. Check out these online communities dedicated to Americans abroad in Spain:

Language-learning apps don’t work super well

Language learning apps like DuoLingo are definitely helpful to a degree, but the reality is that once you hit the streets, the spoken language you hear from average people might not mirror what you learned in your formal language training.

Things like regional dialects and slang can really throw a monkey wrench in your language acquisition if you’re relying solely on academic language training. Nothing substitutes for real-world experience.

The tiny differences are what you’ll appreciate the most

Many people envision the big differences between home and abroad – the divergent languages, climate, and landscape – as the most meaningful.

In reality, though, in terms of daily living, it’s the little differences that will highlight the distinctions between here and there. 

Whether it’s adjusting to the metric system, military time vs. AM/PM, different shoe size scales, driving on the opposite side of the road, or the unfamiliar brands of beer, it’s all the small things, as Blink-182 sang about (sorry for the millennial reference), that really stick out.

Memorizing your info makes navigating bureaucracy easier

When you’re abroad, bureaucratic rigamarole is an unavoidable fact of life – visa applications, entry/exit documents, tax paperwork, banking documents, etc. It’s way easier to zoom through these formalities if you commit your most pertinent info, such as your passport number, to memory.

Also, it’ll help if you bring some important documents with you like:

  • Medical, dental, and immunization records
  • Birth certificate
  • School reports and transcript
  • Driver’s license

You might not need all of those. But if you do, you’ll be glad you have them on hand instead of dealing with the logistical nightmare of getting them Fed Ex-ed across the ocean.

Visas are a nightmare

Speaking of bureaucratic hassle, visas are the absolute bane of any traveler, complicated by language barriers. You really need to enlist the help of an organization with boots-on-the-ground local expertise – like RVF International in the context of teaching English in Spain – to avoid getting bogged down in the visa grind. Take it from an experienced expat: professional visa help is a godsend.

Not all who wander are lost

You don’t need a tour guide to have a good time. In fact, some of the most precious memories I have occurred in places with people who I never would have met if I had stuck to the beaten path.

Tour guides take visitors to tourist sites, which are, at best, only a small representative sample of what the host country has to offer. At worst, and more commonly, they’re tickets to overpriced and synthetic experiences that don’t represent the “real” vibes of a place.

Ditch the tourist circuit and take a journey through the back-alleys. You’ll be glad you did.

Planning for international money transfers will save some headaches in a pinch

Moving money across national borders is easier than it’s ever been, but it’s still no cakewalk. Different countries have different regulations governing capital flows that can make transferring money to and fro difficult.

Here’s a scenario: you lose your wallet and need cash ASAP. You have people (friends or family) back home who can lend you money in an emergency, but you have no plan to make that happen.

Get your contingency plan together. One recommendation, based purely on personal experience (they don’t pay me), is a little company called Wise (formerly Transferwise). They make sending money internationally super easy with reasonable premiums for their services.

PayPal Xoom and Western Union are also viable options depending on where you are.

English-speaking doctors are a rare commodity

Getting sick sucks, and it sucks way more when you can’t properly communicate with your doctor. This is especially true in more rural/less developed areas with lower populations of expats/foreigners.

The good news is that it’s possible to find a good English-speaking doctor in most countries with a little searching. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to rely on guidance from other expats, such as those in social media support groups like the ones linked above.

Enduring friendships are hard to maintain

By nature, traveling is not overly conducive to making lifelong friends. Chances are you’ll move on to a new location before you form any enduring bonds, unless you plan to settle in a single place for the long haul. This is not to say that making lifelong friends is impossible – just that it’s more difficult than making and keeping them in your hometown.

The expat lifestyle is addictive

What might start off as a yearlong excursion abroad with plans to return home very often spirals into a decades-long expat experience. Some of us never come home. It’s definitely not a sustainable lifestyle for everyone – but if you love novelty and despise routine, you might find that living abroad keeps you young in mind and spirit.

Travel will leave a lasting mark

Whether your experience is negative or positive – or, more likely, a mixture of both – what is unavoidable is that your journey will leave an indelible impression on your psyche.

Noted sojourner extraordinaire, Anthony Bourdain, said it best:

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful.”

Let RVF International facilitate your smooth transition abroad

We’re here to help ESL teachers make their transition to Spain as enjoyable and silky smooth as possible.

To learn more about what we can do for you as an American ESL professional skipping over the pond to Spain, contact RVF International.

Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. Contact him on Linkedin and check out his Portfolio.