This is the first of a series of posts regarding the Moving Abroad Checklist that business travelers, expatriates, or exchange students should do to make their life far from home much easier. We will start with a very neglected subject.
The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
John F. Kennedy, former U.S. President.
It is not common to board a plane and start a new life focusing on what to do if unexpected and unpleasant situations happen. Sometimes you prepare yourself for the difficulties you judge possible, like homesickness (if you are worried about it, check this article), not passing the probation time of your new employer, or not being approved at university. As much as my experience shows me, expatriates are often well prepared for the problems arising at the beginning of their life abroad.
However, time passes and you get more settled, more comfortable with your surrounding, and take things for granted. Therefore, this rule is more useful to anyone already living far from home for some time.
The type of surprises that can storm your life vary between countries.
- If you are living in the Middle East, you may get locked in civil unrest or geopolitical disputes.
- In South America, a hyperinflation cycle can destroy the power of purchase and make your salary worth much less than what you had before moving out.
- In the USA, if an accident not covered by your insurance happens, you might have a medical bill draining all your savings.
- In the seismic region knows as the Pacific Ring, lives can change completely in case of earthquakes or tsunamis (like the one of 2004 in Indonesia or 2011 in Japan).
Even when there is no geopolitical crisis or natural cataclysms around, there are still the typical corporate problems. These, in some locations, can assume a different dimension. In places like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, if you lose your job, you may have only one month to leave the country. In Singapore, it can be even worse, with a deadline of only two weeks to get out.
When I lived in Doha, Qatar, it was common to see used luxury cars on sale with huge discounts every time an oil company laid off personnel. This happened because their former staff had little time to pack the luggage and leave. Therefore, to sell their vehicles, even at a smaller price, was already a victory. That was the reason so many people there preferred to rent a car instead of buying one.
Moving Abroad Checklist: How to Make a Plan B.
When we start a new life abroad, sometimes we ignore the chances it might not go as expected. We want to keep our morale, confidence and spirit that this is going to be an exceptional year. This feeling increases when we didn’t witness any major problem recently, and our perception that nothing bad is going to happen inflates. It is the survivorship bias the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explained so well in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.
Don’t get me wrong here. It is essential to have a positive mindset, hope and work for the best outcome otherwise, you would never board the plane to move abroad. However, it is equally crucial to analyze the risks (even the rare ones) and find out viable alternatives.
Bottom line: The chances of happening an unlikely surprise increase across the years, and eventually the implausible event will knock at your door. So have a Plan B! And maybe even a C.
The best way to start a Plan B is to know as much as you can about your risks. This is possible only by talking to the people that experienced failure. I recognize it is difficult to make others disclose their misfortunes, but it is worth to try. The next step is to compile all the possible situations representing a hazard and work in their contingency. For this, you can also use the experience of other foreigners by asking them in social media, expat meetings and blogs.
Questions to ask
- What type of failures can happen?
- What they did to protect themselves?
- How they reacted when the event arose?
- How did they prepare for similar events in the future?
For natural cataclysms there are well-known standard procedures. In Japan, for example, there are earthquake emergency packs with water, canned food, blankets, etc. In Indonesia, after the tsunami, they build shelters in exposed beaches and hotels to speed evacuation.
While I would not recommend cooling down and take a breath if a hurricane or tsunami is approaching, with a crisis of sociopolitical nature it may be better to sit back to think and not rush in making decisions.
A good example is the tumultuous relation between North and South Korea, which often scares foreigners, but nothing serious happened in the last decades. A similar situation happened in Armenia in 2018, when major protests erupted in their capital, Yerevan. The city stopped and was relatively chaotic for a few days. I was there spending holidays, and even before I came back, everything already went back to normal. Of course, civil unrest may turn into a long crisis, and sometimes even wars. But surely most of them don’t go that far and should not be a reason for panic.
Putting aside natural and sociopolitical reasons, another risk is more individual-related. In countries where there is a short time-frame to leave in case of losing a job (or student status), it is important to ask to include in the main contracts (like rent agreement) a termination clause, which would make you exempt of any fines to the landlord in the case your job ended against your will. In most places nowadays there is also a variety of job loss insurances covering those situations.
Another personal anecdote
As personal advice, one thing that always worked very well for me is to live light, in the sense of not accumulate long contracts, obligations, or assets. While for a big family this may be a challenge, for singles or young couples it is a great alternative.
During my time in Chile, I never bought a car and the contract with my company assured me that if they dismissed me, they would cover any fine of my rent agreement. It was not the case in Qatar, but since I was sharing my flat there, after resigning from my job, I just needed to find someone to substitute me. I also didn’t need to sell any car because my flatmate Matteo had a nice deal with me, where I paid for part of his fuel, so he took me to and from work. Another very helpful strategy was to always rent furnished apartments, so I didn’t need to buy and sell furniture or worse, move it from one country to another.
It was good that I was living light since my last move was not smooth. I needed to use my Plan B, for a reason that is quite common and is still not in this article. Therefore, I ask again for your patience for a small personal story and promise it can be useful for you.
After achieving my desired promotion in Qatar, and saved some money to open a business in the future, I planned to live in an environment closer to what I wanted for the long-term, out of the big-corporation world. I looked for a job and one startup in Barcelona took my attention. We exchanged some emails, made an interview via Skype, and they asked me to visit their Spanish headquarters. There I talked to the CEO and solved some of those modern challenges startups apply to their selections. Few days and a call later, I got the job.
Simultaneously, I also had a job offer from a huge e-commerce corporation in Poland. Even though Poland was a pleasant country to live (and my girlfriend was Polish), I didn’t want to move from one big corp to another, so I refused their job and accepted the Spanish offer. A few days later, I gave my one-month notice period in Doha.
Only two weeks before I finally leave for Spain, they called me and told me they didn’t have the resources needed to apply for my visa. They told me I should do it myself, by my own resources and taking the risk of losing anything invested if the government rejected my working Visa.
I knew that changing my life and depending on the bureaucratic skills of a small startup (where the CEO interviewed me with a greasy NASA t-shirt) was risky. So even before I had their job offer, I was also working on my Plan B: to have my own business.
To be specific, I started working on a backup plan one year before, doing market research to decide which cities were the most attractive in Poland and contacting business owners wanting to sell their enterprises. Some of them showed interest in a deal. Therefore, when the NASA-Shirt CEO of the Spanish startup called me and gave me the bad news of their lack of structure, I jumped into the plan B. Immediately I made an offer to purchase a Polish business from a couple that wanted to live in a calmer place with their newborn baby.
However, a few months later this plan also broke down. After I move to Poland and just before I transfer them the money, they gave up selling it. So, I went for plan C: Open my company from zero.
Conclusion (and happy ending?)
After all those years, the company is still working, so even a plan C can be fruitful if you prepare it properly. On a side note, the move to Poland instead of Spain gave me other surprises, but this time they were very positive.
Maybe the advice of this article does not look plain as the others I wrote before, like the solution for the ANS syndrome. But at the end of the day, the most important to remember is simple: do not think improbable and unpleasant situations will never happen to you. Be prepared. After all, this may become even a greater opportunity, as I will explain in a future article of our Moving Abroad Checklist series.
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com and a best-selling author. You can check his books here and some of his articles here. This article was inspired by the content of his book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity: 11 secrets to make your expat life better than you imagine.
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