Preparing for a life overseas: Practical considerations
Last month’s article on the challenges of working overseas explored the importance of looking after your mental health. In the second of our two-part series, we examine some practical considerations. Most of us have packed for vacation but getting ready to move overseas is different. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or preparing for your first assignment we hope you find it useful.
GOVERNMENT / RED TAPE
Ensure your passport is still valid. It may sound obvious, but a surprising number of people still get caught out. As a general rule, passports should have at least six months validity and enough clear pages for a passport stamp or visa. It’s wise to make easily accessible copies of your passport (and other important documents). If it’s lost or stolen, it’ll be much easier to replace.
If your documents need to be notarized for your visa, be aware that this can take some time. Many countries are signatories to the Apostille Convention allowing for a streamlined process. Canada unfortunately, is not. This means a more convoluted and lengthier certification procedure. Canadian documents for use abroad must be certified at least twice: by Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa (although they don’t have to be done in person) and subsequently by the consulate of the receiving country. (1)
Check your home country’s travel warnings and advisories for the country you’re going to. To get a broader picture, it might be worthwhile looking at other government travel advisories too.
It’s a good idea to let your government know your travel dates and where you’ll be going so you can be contacted in the event of an emergency. The Government of Canada has a free online Registration of Canadians Abroad service. Other countries have similar programs too. According to the Global Affairs Canada website “the service enables government officials to contact you to provide important information in preparation for an emergency (such as a natural disaster or civil unrest), instructions during emergencies, important changes or updates to the travel advice and advisories for the country for which you registered, and more.” (2)
Get this right and you could easily save hundreds of dollars. Stick with the status quo and you could end up seriously out of pocket.
Having accepted your assignment you’ll want to find out what currency you’ll be paid in. If it’s US dollars and you’re based in the US, then you’re all set. If your situation is different however, you may want to consider your options. For example, if you live in Canada you have the option of opening a US dollar chequing account. If you want to use your bank to transfer funds from one account to another—say from your US dollar to Canadian dollar chequing account—the good news is that the transfer is likely to be free, but you’ll lose out due to an unfavourably low exchange rate.
What’s the solution? I opened a chequing account in the US and then used an online money transfer service to send funds to my Canadian dollar account. By now you might be thinking hang on a second, this sounds more trouble than it’s worth. Stay with me though. Opening a US chequing account was surprisingly easy. After hopping across the border, I opened a no-fee chequing account with only my driver’s licence as identification. I arranged to have my wages (paid in US dollars) paid into this account. When the time came to transfer funds from my US based chequing account to my Canada based Canadian dollar chequing account I used an online money transfer service called TransferWise. This is where the magic happens. It might not be the fastest service—the funds could take up to four days to arrive—but online money transfer services really came into their own with their favourable mid-market exchange rates. Remember that services like this can only work internationally, i.e. country to country. This means you cannot use the service to transfer from one account to another when both accounts are located within the same country. Here’s a simple example of how much you can save: At today’s exchange rate (October 16, 2018) if I were to use TransferWise to send US$1,000 from a US based US dollar account to a Canada based Canadian dollar account I would be US$27 better off compared to using my Canadian bank to transfer funds two Canada based accounts. The savings can really start to add up, especially when transferring larger amounts.
Becoming a non-resident of your origin country for tax purposes
If you’re going to be away indefinitely, and your home country allows this option it may be worth considering becoming a non-resident of your home country for tax purposes. It can be complicated though so it’s worth seeking professional advice before making a final decision.
Dealing with foreign currencies can often be a little bewildering. This is where a budgeting app can come in handy. There are many available. Personally, I’m a big fan of You Need a Budget (or YNAB as it’s more commonly known). There is an annual fee and a bit of learning curve, but once I mastered it I saved a lot of money (and continue to do so) compared to if I hadn’t used it.
Depending on where you’re going it might be prudent to visit your local overseas travel clinic as soon as possible. This is because some injections need to be spaced out over time while others need a waiting period before becoming effective. Costs can quickly add up though as travel vaccinations are not usually covered by extended health plans, but hey it’s better than getting sick. If you’re willing to wait, you can save money by getting your shots in the country you’re relocating to. This is what I did and saved a tidy sum compared to if I’d had them in Canada. Finally, it sounds obvious but don’t forget to make a note of what vaccinations you’ve had as well as the dates they were given. Try and get a vaccination booklet—and ensure this information is readily available.
It often comes as a surprise to many travellers that some commonly available medications in their home country are controlled or even illegal in others. (3) If you break the rules, you may be subject to a fine or even imprisonment. Here are some examples that may surprise you:
Medications containing pseudoephedrine—often found in many over-the-counter-medicines—are banned in Japan;
In Qatar, some over-the-counter cold and cough remedies are controlled and must be accompanied by a prescription;
In Indonesia, Japan and Thailand, many ADHD medications are illegal.
The best advice is to do your homework before you go. If you do plan on bringing controlled medication with you, check to see how many days’ supply you’re legally allowed to bring into the country and whether or not you’ll need a doctor’s note. Finally, always carry prescription medication in your carry-on rather than your checked luggage.
If you’re unlucky enough to require serious medical attention, costs can quickly add up. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Make sure you’re covered just in case the unthinkable happens. Enough said.
First aid kit
A well-stocked first aid kit is always a wise investment. Depending on the country you’re going to a disaster or emergency supply kit could also be useful too.
If you’re sensitive to air pollution you may want to consider buying a face mask. A flimsy cotton mesh won’t cut it though—better to invest in a quality mask with an N95 or N99 filter.
WHAT TO BRING
Try to be redundant and think very carefully about what you want to bring as it may be difficult or impossible to find where you’re going. It’s always a good idea to make a packing list, not just for clothes but for everything you’re bringing. This lessens the likelihood that something important could inadvertently be left behind.
Always thoroughly research the climate of your destination. You might be surprised at how different the weather is from what you expect. Will you need warm or cold weather clothes—or perhaps a combination of both? It’s a good idea to think about the material you’re most comfortable wearing too. Some people love natural materials like cotton because it absorbs moisture and is comfortable to wear: others prefer technical fabrics as they’re breathable, wick away moisture and dry fast. It’s usually best to stock up before you go, especially for those of us with a larger frame who may find buying clothes or footwear in some countries a real challenge!
Fewer than 6 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled in 2016. In fact, airlines are 70% less likely to lose a bag (4) than they were ten years ago. Although most misplaced bags are usually eventually located, waiting for them to arrive can be a real pain to say the least. That’s why prudent travellers pack a quick change of clothes in their carry-on (underwear, t-shirt etc.) so they don’t get caught out.
Here are a few of my favourites:
eReader: When you’re overseas, finding access to books in your chosen language can sometimes be impossible. Also, books can be some of the bulkiest items to fit in your luggage. This is where an eReader such as a Kindle can really be a lifesaver.
Wireless speaker: A music speaker is invaluable for listening to your favourite tunes. When combined with an online music streaming service subscription you can have access to millions of songs at your fingertips. Personally, I love the Ultimate Ears Megablast. It’s durable, waterproof and most importantly offers great sound. It’s also Alexa enabled so it can be fun to request music using my voice.
Battery pack: Great for long flights where you run the risk of running out of power on your smartphone or tablet. Battery packs offer peace of mind by augmenting your phone’s power. Remember that batteries must be stored in a carry-on. They are not allowed in check-in luggage.
Headphones: Essential for listening to music or podcasts. Noise-cancelling ones can also be soothing on noisy flights.
International adapter with surge protector: If you have a lot of USB connected devices, I recommend one with USB ports too. This means that you can charge multiple devices at once.
Extra-long charging cable: The charging cable that ships with your smartphone is usually short and not very durable. Fortunately, there are many quality alternatives better suited to the inevitable wear and tear they’ll be subjected to. A longer cable is also useful for those times when you need to use your phone when it’s charging but not be tethered to an outlet. I find that Anker is a consistently reliable brand.
Good quality flashlight: This can be a lifesaver—literally. It’s worth paying a little more for a product that’s durable, waterproof and with a powerful beam. In times of need you’ll be glad you did. Don’t forget spare batteries too!
Portable luggage scale: Airlines are becoming ever stricter about weight restrictions. This handy little device takes the guesswork out of how much your luggage weighs.
Make good use of any extra space in your luggage
When you’re working in the middle of Africa, that huge block of Parmesan cheese or bag of quinoa might be a little hard to find. That’s why it’s a great idea to stock up on your favourite items in your home country. Your local Costco can be very handy for this. If you have some extra room in your suitcase, why not? When you’re working overseas those little luxuries can make all the difference.
Some countries systematically block websites such as social media or news. Accessing them can be impossible—unless you use a virtual private network (VPN). Easy to install on your computer, a VPN is a service that lets you access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server and hiding your online actions.
Netflix / Amazon Prime / Music streaming service
It can be nice to have access to all your favourite shows and music away from home.
You can enjoy free online magazines too. Yes, you heard that right—free! Enquire at your local library about signing up for RB Digital. You can check out magazines, books and even audio books—all for nothing!
YOU’VE ARRIVED. NOW WHAT?
Stay healthy! The old adage “If you can't cook, boil or peel it, don't eat it” is a good rule of thumb. Avoid anything that might have been washed or cooked in local untreated water. Be cautious of ice in drinks, although these days many establishments (especially in tourist areas) use ice made from purified water. Talking of water, always make sure you only drink from properly sealed bottles. It’s not unheard of for some unscrupulous venders to tamper with them and fill them with tap water instead.
Whether it be low railings, or unfamiliar electrical wiring, you’ll encounter many hazards in other countries that you won’t find at home. One of the biggest can be traffic accidents. Always look both ways when crossing the road especially if vehicles drive on the opposite side from what you’re used to.
You don’t have to be paranoid, but it pays to be aware of potential cons. The internet can be a wealth of information. For example, when I was in Buenos Aires suddenly out of nowhere I found “bird poop” on my back. Fortunately, I’d already read about the stain-on-your-clothing-scam and quickly shooed away the would be “good Samaritans” who’d offered to clean the mess up (conveniently dispensed from a squidgy bottle). Their perfidious modus operandi is to cause a distraction with a view to what’s in the benighted victim’s pocket rather than the gunk on their back!
Hello! Bonjour! ¡Hola! Guten tag!
Learning even just a few words of the local language can have a huge impact on your effectiveness and how much you’ll be appreciated by those around you.
Although life on the road can be a challenge it’s also eye-opening and you can learn so much. Savour the experience and above all remember to have fun!
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
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(1) Wikipedia, Apostille Convention, Accessed October 15, 2018 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostille_Convention>
(2) Government of Canada, Registration of Canadians Abroad, Accessed October 15, 2018 <https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration>
(3) BBC News, Holidaymakers warned to check travel advice on medicines, June 7, 2018. Accessed October 15, 2018 <https://www.bbc.com/news/health-44330909>
(4) Travel+Leisure, This is how many bags airlines lost last year, May 4, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018 <https://www.travelandleisure.com/style/travel-bags/airlines-lost-baggage-2016>