Are you thinking about moving abroad? Or, perhaps you’ve already decided to move and are trying to figure out what to do next? Moving abroad is an exciting adventure but it takes a lot of work upfront. I’ve moved abroad (from the U.S.) twice in the past 10 years with my husband Jeremy. In 2010 we moved to Vientiane, Laos for 1.5 years; in 2017 we moved to Hong Kong where we live now. And I know how overwhelming preparing for the move can be.
In this post, I’ll provide a checklist of the things you should do when moving abroad. I’ll also include some tips and stories from my own moves. It's pretty much everything you want to know (and more)! I hope this guide helps you as you plan your own move abroad!
Since this is a long post, use the Quick Navigation to find the sections that interest you. If you have any questions for me about moving abroad, please leave me a comment below or send me a message.
Why Are You Moving Abroad?
Starting a new job? Perhaps taking a long-term break? Or, have you decided to become a digital nomad? Both times Jeremy and I moved, we were moving for one or both of us to start a new job. Since that has been our experience, I’ll be writing primarily from that point of view. And, because I’m a U.S. citizen, you'll find some of the checklist items will be U.S.-specific. Hopefully the majority of them will be relevant for your home country too.
Background on Becky's Moves
Even though both times we moved abroad we were relocating for a job, the circumstances were very different. In 2010, we moved to Vientiane, Laos to work with a small development organization. Jeremy and I both had positions with this organization for a specific length of time. The positions weren't quite volunteer positions - but almost. We received a small monthly salary that we could put into a bank account and spend how we liked. But most of our compensation came by way of the organization covering certain daily living expenses for us - such as food & household, limited travel, transportation.
Our move in 2017 to Hong Kong was a normal move for a new job, with an international twist thrown in. Jeremy applied to the job online, interviewed, and was offered the position – just like as if he’d gotten a job in another city in the U.S. This time, there is no specific end-date for his job. So when we moved abroad, it was for an unknown time period.
Despite how different our moves were from each other, we used essentially the same checklist to prepare.
1) Take a Hard Look at Those FINANCES
Probably the biggest consideration when moving abroad is your finances. Whether you’re relocating long-term to a new city or taking a 6-month sabbatical to live on a beach, you should have a financial plan in mind before you decide to go. A couple things to keep in mind as you're budgeting...
Budget for Unexpected Expenses
As you’re coming up with a budget, throw in a line item for unexpected expenses. They'll always crop up and sometimes when you least expect it. If you plan for them ahead of time and have a nest egg, then you can feel confident in your finances while abroad.
When we moved to Laos, we knew we’d be working with an organization that would cover most of our daily expenses. However, one expense we didn't think enough about was our student loan debt. Even though our monthly payment was low due to our income level, the interest continued accruing each month. Watching the amount owed increase each month was an uncomfortable feeling. It eventually caused us to terminate our contract early in order to save our long-term finances.
When Jeremy was offered the job in Hong Kong, I didn’t have work lined up. This time around, though we carefully considered our finances before moving. Did we have enough to get by or even live comfortably? Would we have enough if I didn’t get a job? Would there be enough to travel? We laid out a budget, estimating to the best of our knowledge anticipated expenses, taxes we’d have to pay, etc. Which brings me to the next point...
Don't Forget About Taxes
If you're earning money abroad, you will likely have to pay taxes not only in your home country, but also in your country of residence. We pay taxes both in Hong Kong and the U.S., so everyone gets a cut!
In the U.S., it's the law to file your taxes, even if you don't make much money. U.S. citizens living abroad can deduct a certain amount of foreign income from their taxes. This may take their income down to US$0.00, but they still have to file taxes. There are also other deductions which you can take when you live abroad. If you don't feel comfortable filing yourself, especially the first year after moving abroad, I strongly recommend consulting a tax professional.
Research Expenses in Your New Country
It’s also a good idea to have an idea about the expenses, especially those you’ll have to pay soon after arriving. Knowing these before you move allows you to make sure you have enough funds in your accounts and/or that you bring cash with you to pay them.
For example, in Hong Kong, in order to rent an apartment (long-term), we had to pay 1 month's rent upfront, plus a security deposit (2 months' rent). Also, a half a month's rent went to the agent that helped us find our apartment as commission. Depending on how much your rent is, this quickly adds up to thousands of U.S. Dollars that you need to shell out within the first month or so of arriving in country.
2) What To Do with Your Home?
If you’re renting an apartment – this one is easy. Give your 30-day notice (or whatever your lease requires) to your landlord and you’re all set. This is why I love renting – just tell them you’re leaving, and you’re out! That was all we had to do when we moved to Laos.
If you own your place, you have a decision to make. Do you rent it out while you’re away or do you sell it? If you rent out your place, you’ll need to have someone that you trust, or a management company, based in the same city who can manage your property for you. I know several expats who went this route. It's great for them because their mortgage is getting paid down while they’re abroad.
For a variety of reasons, we chose to sell our house instead. As soon as Jeremy accepted the job offer in Hong Kong, we contacted our neighborhood realtor and got the process started. We were incredibly lucky that our house sold within a couple of weeks. We didn’t make a profit, but we probably broke even. That's the best you can ask for after only owning a house for 2 years!
Selling quickly was the best-case scenario and we were lucky it worked out. But we had considered what we would do if we couldn’t sell right away. Maybe I would have had to stay in DC and continue working until we could sell it. Maybe we would have had to consider renting it out until it sold. We thought of many options that luckily we never had to play out.
3) What To Do with Your Car?
If you know you’re moving abroad for a short period of time, maybe you decide to keep your car. If you decide to keep it, some U.S. states require that you have basic insurance on it, even if it’s just sitting in a garage. You never know - the garage could catch on fire or have a tree fall on it! If you plan to leave a car behind, check your state's laws to determine what type of insurance you need (or don't need).
Maybe you decide to lease the car to a family member to drive while you’re gone. Keep in mind that accidents happen so make sure you or your relative has it appropriately insured.
My favorite option is just selling the car. It’s one less thing to worry about while living abroad. Moving to Laos, we tried selling our car on Craigslist but didn’t really get any interest. Eventually (after a few months of us being abroad with family trying to sell it for us), we sold it to a family friend. We insured it for those months in case anything went wrong though.
When we moved to Hong Kong, we sold our year-old Subaru Outback back to the dealership where we bought it. We scheduled an appointment to go in and sell it. This enabled us to keep our car up until the day before we left so we could move out of our house, complete last-minute tasks, etc. But in the end, we still got rid of the car before we left the U.S. This was a great option for us.
4) Moving with Your Pets
When we moved to Laos, the organization we worked for did not allow us to bring our cat with us. That was almost the end of the conversation of whether we would accept the jobs. Luckily, my in-laws stepped in and said they’d watch her while we were away. We knew that we would only be gone for a couple years, so this separation seemed doable. I knew she’d be taken care of while we were away... and I got regular photos and updates!
When Jeremy accepted the job in Hong Kong, we knew we’d take our 2 cats with us. The job this time is open-ended so there’s no telling how long we’ll be here. I couldn't leave my fur babies behind for an undetermined amount of time!
Check Pet Regulations
When getting ready to move pets, it’s important to check the regulations for the country where you’re moving ASAP. Certain countries will quarantine pets upon arrival for a certain length of time. Others only quarantine animals from specific high-risk countries or if the animal doesn’t have the correct shots.
Luckily for us, Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is that cats coming from the U.S. only need to be quarantined if they haven’t received a rabies shot within a specific time period. We ensured both of our cats did, so they did not have to be quarantined when they arrived.
How to Move Pets
We worked with a pet relocation company (PetRelocation.com*) to move our cats which made everything easier in the final days before we left. It’s somewhat expensive, but worth every penny if you can swing it. Some companies consider it a relocation expense and cover it in their relocation package (as Jeremy’s did).
*PetRelocation was great to work with and I'd highly recommend them. See our cats' story featured on PetRelocation!
It’s also possible to move your pets yourself. They can either in the cabin with you or in the bottom of the plane depending on the airline, length of the flight, etc. Research the airlines and flight routes thoroughly before booking your travel if you plan to take animals with you on the flight as each airline has specific rules and regulations.
5) To Ship or to Store Your Stuff?
This depends largely on how much stuff you have, how long you’re planning to live abroad, your budget, and the place where you’re moving. Both times we moved, we chose to store the majority of our stuff after donating and/or selling items.
Storing in Relative's House
Moving for a short contract position like the one in Laos, we didn’t want to take a lot of our stuff with us. We knew we’d be back in a couple years, plus, our organization provided us with a furnished home and other household goods. So we stored our things in various relatives’ houses, loaned furniture to younger siblings, and gave away some things. Most of our stuff was stored in one relative’s attic though. This was a great option because it was free – which fit our budget perfectly! But, our stuff was subject to temperature fluctuations and occasional bugs.
Climate-Controlled Storage Unit
When we decided to move to Hong Kong, I didn’t want to store things in family's attics or basements since we didn’t know how long we’d be gone. What if the relative moves while you’re away? But, we didn’t want to ship it to Hong Kong either. Even though we’ve lived in relatively small places by U.S. standards, we heard that Hong Kong apartments are TINY. Sometimes expats who ship their furniture from their U.S. homes have trouble fitting it into their Hong Kong apartments. As a result, we decided to rent a climate-controlled storage unit.
We pared down our things – sold some of it, gave some of it away. In the end, we filled a 100 sq. ft storage unit in Pennsylvania (close to family). It’s a low monthly rental price (much cheaper than if we’d rented one in DC) and saves us from having to worry about our stuff.
Think strategically about what to bring with you
We ended up taking 4 large checked suitcases and 2 carry-on suitcases with us to Hong Kong. Plus, we shipped 2 boxes via regular mail (shoes and books mostly). The boxes cost ~US $50 per box to ship from Washington, DC to Hong Kong.
Pro Tip: Don't bring electrical devices with you that don't have dual voltage. Many techie items have dual voltage, like computers and phones. However, cheaper beauty appliances, like hair dryers or hair straighteners, won't necessarily be dual voltage. You should leave those behind and plan to re-buy them in your new home.
Since outlets will likely be different than those you used at home, it's just easier to buy electronics once you arrive. This reduces the number of items you'll need to plug into an adapter to use or charge.
6) Check Visa Requirements
If you’re relocating for a job, then you’ll most likely work with your company to get a work visa. They will instruct you on how to enter the country properly for this visa. Sometimes you’ll enter on a tourist visa and then your company will process your visa once you’re in-country. Other times, you’ll bring a letter from your employer and get a work visa when you arrive. Just remember to print out all the paperwork that you might need and carry it on the plane with you. Be ready to show all your documents at immigration.
7) Health Check-ups and Vaccinations
Before moving it’s a good idea to visit all your doctors one last time before your health insurance expires. I’m terrible at finding new doctors (even in the U.S.) so at least I know I visited before I left. Of course, it’s been over a year now that I’ve lived in Hong Kong and I still haven’t found a new doctor...
Some of the doctors you may wish to visit include:
8) Decide on Permanent Address
Whenever you move, you need to leave a forwarding address for your mail. You should also do this when moving abroad. Along those lines, you'll also need to decide on a permanent address in the U.S. to use while you're abroad. Many companies, such as banks, require you to have a permanent U.S. address in order to have an account with them. Even though you'll probably open a local bank account once you move, you'll probably still want to keep your U.S. accounts.
We have used both my parents’ or sister-in-law’s address as a forwarding/permanent address. This person should be someone who you trust to open mail, such as bank statements, and who can scan important papers to send to you as necessary. Unfortunately, they may also receive your junk mail for decades to come….
Once you decide on your U.S. permanent address, be sure to update your address with your banks, credit card companies, investment companies, etc. You should also leave that address with the employer that you’re leaving so they mail your tax forms to the correct address.
9) Bank Essentials - Check Your Fees
Since you're moving abroad, you'll want to check if your bank is international-friendly. If the one you currently use is not, I recommend opening an account at a new bank before moving abroad. Some things to look for are:
Credit Card with No Foreign Transaction Fees
We have a couple cards that we use that do not have foreign transaction fees - the CapitalOne Visa and AmericanExpress Gold. Even though we have Hong Kong credit cards, we still prefer to use our U.S. credit cards when traveling.
Debit Card with Low Foreign Transaction Fees and/or Refunds on ATM Withdrawal Fees
Like with credit cards, you want to have a debit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees or has low ones. We found out the hard way when we needed to withdraw cash for our apartment deposit (yes, this was in cash!) that our U.S. Citibank debit card charges a percentage fee when withdrawing foreign currency. Our PNC debit card charges a flat fee so when withdrawing large amounts, it's better to use that one. Lesson learned.
Another great feature our PNC debit card offers is ATM withdrawal fee refunds. It refunds us 2 international ATM withdrawal fees per month. This comes in handy when we travel. Our local Hong Kong debit card does not refund fees so we use our U.S. debit cards when traveling.
Free or Cheap Global Transfers
If you're going to open a local bank account when you move abroad, it's important to think about how you'll transfer your funds back to your home country. Unless you plan to live in your new country forever (and maybe you do!), you'll probably want to send money to your home bank at some point. Sometimes transferring money can be really expensive so finding a bank that allows you to do it for free or cheaply is important.
I recommend opening a U.S. account at a global bank, such as Citibank or HSBC, before you move abroad. Then, open a local account at the same bank after you've moved. Once you have the two accounts set up, you can link them online and transfer your money between countries easily.
10) Book Initial Housing in Your New Country
Both times we moved abroad, our organization/company took care of the initial housing arrangements for us. In Laos, we stayed in the organization's guest house for a couple weeks and in Hong Kong, we stayed at a serviced apartment for one month.
I recommend pre-booking 2 weeks to 1 month's worth of accommodation in your new country before moving abroad. This allows you to show up with a place to stay, recover from jet lag, and settle into a new place before looking for long-term housing. A serviced apartment is a great place to stay initially since it's a furnished apartment and often has a kitchenette where you can cook basic meals. Ours also had a daily maid service so I didn't have to clean!
Pro Tip: I strongly recommend against signing a long-term lease without viewing (or having someone you trust view) the place first. Photos can be very deceiving in terms of size, upkeep, and general feel of the apartment/house. You should also check out the neighborhood where the home is located to be sure you feel comfortable there - during the day and at night.
11) Cancel Mobile Plan & Unlock Phone
If you're moving from the U.S. and have a U.S. mobile phone plan, I recommend canceling it prior to moving abroad. You could switch to an international plan with a U.S. company, but if your contract is up or you're on a month-to-month plan, it's easier and cheaper to terminate it. Just remember to get your phone unlocked if you intend to use it internationally.
Most international mobile plans are easier to sign up for and cheaper than in the U.S. Or, you can get a SIM card which you reload with data and minutes as you use them. In Hong Kong, we have a phone plan bundled with internet for our apartment. It’s much cheaper than our U.S. phone plan was by itself. When we travel, we sometimes purchase SIM cards and swap them out with our Hong Kong SIM cards.
12) Cancel Monthly Payments
Think about all the monthly payments you have – magazine subscriptions, Netflix, Hulu, etc. If you have electronic subscriptions, maybe you’ll keep them. If you have print magazines or newspapers being mailed to you, cancel them. Hulu does not work outside of the U.S. so unless you have a VPN, cancel it.
Netflix does work in certain countries, so you should check to see if the country where you're moving has Netflix. Otherwise, you may want to cancel it. I still have access to Netflix in Hong Kong, but sometimes the movies and shows are slightly different. I see more international TV shows appear on my list than when I lived in the U.S.!
13) Check Baggage Requirements for Airline
Moving your life abroad with you requires a lot of weight in the suitcases you’re taking. When we moved, we flew Cathay Pacific Premium Economy for the flight, which allowed 60 lbs per piece of check luggage at the time. However, we had a flight on Jet Blue from Washington, DC to New York first, which only allowed the standard 50 lbs.
Because of the lack of communication (or cooperation?) between the airlines, we ended up having to pay US $100 a piece for three out of our 4 checked pieces of luggage in overweight baggage fees. I’m not sure if there was a way around this or not, but this is why I recommend checking the baggage allowances before your flight.
14) Saying Good-byes
This one seems like a no-brainer, but everyone will want their chance to say good-bye to you. Especially relatives that won’t be traveling abroad to see you. It’s hard when you’re super-stressed with last-minute details to think about getting together with people. But these good-byes are important so plan a time for them when you feel like you can be present in the moment.
When we moved to Laos, I had a whole month in between quitting my job and leaving the country to say good-bye to everyone. When we left for Hong Kong, I had 2 days. And in those days, we moved our stuff to storage, sold our house and our car, and packed up the rest of the stuff to move with us. So, anyone not based in DC, helping us move, or living near our storage unit did not get a good-bye. Instead, I returned to the U.S. a few months later to see some of my family that I didn’t get a chance to visit before moving.
I know this is a lot to take in and seems overwhelming. I’ve been there – twice now! Even though it’s a lot of work to pick up and move to a new country, each time I’ve done it has been completely worth it. Let me know in the comments or send me a message if you have any questions. I’m always happy to connect with anyone who needs advice or has questions!
Good luck with your move!