Over the years I have not only traveled to quite a bit, I have also moved to quite a few places. Moving seems normal when you are from a small German town with no university and not many career prospects. However, most of my high school friends moved away to nearby cities to study and came home every weekend to have mom do their laundry. Eventually, they would find a spouse and take over their father’s business in that small German town and move back there. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted something different. I wasn’t a keen traveler yet, but I had become obsessed with the idea to go to college in New York and even the thought of having to do my own laundry couldn’t deter me. Neither could the diminished chance of finding my future husband by going to F.I.T. (fashion schools always have really low numbers of straight men). I knew this school was simply a better fit for me than med school – there was no way I would take over my father’s urology practice anytime soon.

15 tips for moving abroad, by Annika Ziehen | travelettes.net

Four of the best years of my life followed until New York and I fell out of love and I moved to Cologne. I hated every one of the 312 days I spent there and moved back to NYC, almost running. In 2007, our relationship was finally over and I decided it was time to do (and live) the polar opposite – so I went to Cape Town. I planned on staying for two months and stayed for seven years. Last year I moved yet again because was craving some German weather in Hamburg for a while. So far so good, but I’m not sure the moving streak is over for happily ever after.

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Throughout the years, I was always asked how long I planned on staying wherever I was at the time. I never had a better answer than saying I would stay as long as I liked it and as long as I didn’t think I would like it better somewhere else. And when people asked me why I just picked up things, moved and left everything that was familiar and dear to me to begin with, I would simply answer ‘why not?’. I find it a liberating notion to know that I can go and live (almost) anywhere in the world; whether I chose to do it or not, I like to have the option. Realizing this, I also realized that many other people have the option to do the same, they just chose not to. There were always people who called me courageous and I honestly don’t know if that is the right word to describe my life choices, I never felt particularly brave in doing what I did. I always moved when I just couldn’t bear to stay anymore and sometimes that was hard, but it just had to be done.

I have been lucky enough to have an amazing supporting network of friends and families that is by now literally all over the world. But still uprooting your life is never easy in terms of emotional and practical logistics. If you are thinking about moving to a foreign country but aren’t quite sure how to handle the ifs, buts and hows, read on. These are my tried and tested tips after moving over 25.000 miles – on where to start, how to get by and why you should master the art of doing your own laundry before.

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1. Why move…

I think all reasons to move to another country are valid. Did you fall in love? Great! I have a friend who followed a guy to Bonaire and has been happily living with him for four years on a sailing boat. You found a great job? Cool! Ask them if they will pay for your move and pack your bags. Another friend of mine got an offer from his company to be transferred to San Francisco and he hesitated for a long time. Life was good where he was at and people would ask him why he would give it all up and go. Eventually the only answer to the question ‘why?’ he could come up with was ‘why not?’. He didn’t give anything up, he just decided on a new path for a little bit and that was good enough reason for him to do it. Personally I’m a big fan of going with your gut. I moved to Cape Town because I watched an Oprah episode about South Africa which reminded me of how much I liked the country and thought I should check it out.

2. …and why not to

The only exception of reasons to move is to get away. While wanting to get away when things get tough, just remember that you take yourself with wherever you go. So make sure you are okay with yourself, because being stranded in a foreign country with just your own company for the time being is tough enough; make sure you like yourself and to have your emotional baggage sorted.

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3. Nothing is forever

Admittedly selling everything, giving up my entire New York life and moving to Cologne only to move back a year later wasn’t the smartest thing economically or emotionally. But it was something I had to try, just so I could cross it off my list. When you make a decision to move sometimes it feels more monumental than it actually is. Yes, there is often a lot of work, effort and tears involved, but just remember that nothing is forever or irreversible. A thought that always helped me to keep things in perspective and to make a decision more easily – I always knew I could move back wherever I was coming from if I truly couldn’t cope at the place I was going to.

4. Field research

How do you decide on where you want to live? Do you check it out before or do you just go? The answer here depends entirely on your personality and situation. I am a bit of a planning freak so I went to New York first for a holiday before I decided on the school and had also been to Cape Town before. Mind you, they were still impulsive decisions as being somewhere on a holiday is hugely different from living somewhere. Do a bit of basic research beforehand to eliminate the chance of finding yourself stranded with a one-way ticket in a place you hate. Do you want to be in a big city? What will that mean in terms of living costs? And as romantic as your safari vacation was, could you actually manage in rural Zambia with different sanitation standards and no pizza delivery service? Regardless of where you go, I can guarantee you that there will be enough surprises and adjustments, so check the basics beforehand.

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5. Parenting skills

We have been getting a lot of questions on our facebook group on how to deal with parents who are unwilling to let you go. I was lucky in that regard that I always had a mother who supported my endeavors of going into the world. But I also had a father who refused point blank to let me go to New York at first. It took a lot of talking, a few tears and, of course, a kick-ass power point presentation (yes, I really made one!) to convince him to let me apply at FIT. A few days before my departure I hadn’t gotten confirmation for my dorm space yet and my mother panicked, wanting to get on a plane with me. It wasn’t necessary in the end, as the letter arrived just in time with my room allocation, but I realized then that parents will always worry more. And that is okay, it’s their job.

So to get them on your wanderlusting side at any age I recommend to involve them in your plans early, agree to check in at specific times, make sure they know where you are staying and how to contact you. And while I tell my parents pretty much anything, I have also learned that it is less stressful for everybody if you keep certain things to yourself – your parents do not need to know how many jello shots you did last summer.

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6. Laundry day

Now that you have decided to venture into the unknown without your family, you gotta prove your independence. With that said, learn how to do your own laundry before you move away from home – it is not that hard, just do it. It will make you feel clean and empowered!

7. Kiss the cook

Also, learn how to cook at least a few dishes. Yes, most students learn how to survive college on 2-minute noodles (or the country’s equivalent, but they really do exist everywhere!), but I am proud to say I didn’t have to. Unless, of course, you are moving to Thailand – there is no good reason to cook your own food if you can have pad thai from a street food cart every day.

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8. Pack your life

A lot of times, I got by with just an extra piece of luggage on the plane. Many airlines will allow extra baggage for smaller fees if you sign it up before your departure. If you have more to ship like boxes or furniture and a bit of time at hand, I recommend a proper cargo company who will get you a space on a container ship. If your moving volume is somewhere in the middle I recommend Seven Seas who will also ship smaller quantities, deal with customs and deliver to your new door at reasonable rates. Regardless of which option you chose, get rid of your books and buy a Kindle. The first few times I had to leave my ‘library’ behind it actually broke my heart a bit (and my back), so I decided that I will rather have an allocated book room once I’m all grown up and have a house. Until then my Kindle is my way of making friends with movers all over the world.

9. Language barrier

Most universities will require you to do a test if the spoken language is not your native one. For English, that is often TOEFL, but there are equivalents for most other languages as well. Obviously it will still mean some extra studying once you are admitted, but I can honestly say that nothing beats just talking with natives and speaking a language in its country. I learned that lesson when I was 13 and sent to Malta to improve my English grades. With everybody around me speaking English and being much older, I had no choice but to suck it up and just talk as much as I could. While I still needed to build up my vocabulary I learned that it is most important to not be afraid to make mistakes and just talk.

If you plan on working it might be a good idea to attend some extra business language classes beforehand as you will probably need a vocabulary that you didn’t learn in school. If you have the possibility, I recommend going for actual classes, but that is obviously a financial consideration. The good old audio&book version works if you have enough discipline or you could find a study buddy whom you teach your native language in return. When you are on the go I like apps like Duolingo.

Find out more in Frankie’s guide to learning a new language.

Learn Dutch Window photo by Frankie Thompson

10. Workforce

Do your homework if you are planning on working at your new destination. A lot of countries these days, really try to clamp down on immigrant workers and getting a legal work permit is not as easy as the movie Greencard would have us believe. Even over ten years ago I was surprised to find myself in New York and unable to find any part-time job while I was at college. No bar or store would hire me (not even under the table) and all I could do was babysitting. Similar scenario a few years later in South Africa – you will not be able to get a visa without a job. Other countries are a bit more giving with their work permits if you only want to stay a limited time. Check out Sophie’s awesome guide on how to find work in places like Australia.

If you look for a more permanent job, you will usually need to find a company that is willing to sponsor you for a work permit. That is obviously easier organized once you are already there and can meet with potential employers. When negotiating for your salary do ask if they will also pick up the tab for an immigration lawyer. They don’t come cheap, but are seriously handy.

11. The nitty gritty

It may seem a vicious circle – no bank account without a residence, no residence without a job, no job without a cell phone contract and so on. But fear not! In most countries, there will be at least one bank that will allow foreigners to open an account even without permanent residency. In South Africa, only one of four major banks would take me and it wasn’t my first choice, but at least I got a basic account. Same goes for cell phone contracts, there is usually one company that will take foreigners though the rates might not be the most favorable and for everything else there is prepaid.

As far as finding a flat is concerned Airbnb or only-apartments is your friend for the first few nights. For most flat rentals, you will need to show proof of income and bank statements and a good credit history or have someone to co-sign with you. Until you can get a job and bank sorted I recommend checking local websites for a room first. Usually, those are easier to obtain with being your charming self and a deposit. Whichever option you go for, as per usual, recommendations are your friend – so announce beforehand to friends, family and the world that you are looking for a place to stay.

Inside Apartment

12. Healthy living

I will admit that it is probably due to my father being a doctor that I could never not have health insurance. But I am still surprised by how often people ask whether they should fork out on it while traveling. You need health insurance, simple as that. It will be the best money you ever spent and even if you (hopefully) never have to use it, it will buy you the oh-so-priceless peace of mind. Also remember that whether you are traveling for a long time or relocate somewhere permanently you will need regular doctor’s checkups: dentist, gynecologist and ophthalmologist (if you are a mole like me) at a minimum.

Do compare options though for the country and the time you are planning to spend there. I only found out two years into my South African insurance that having a private, extended travel insurance from Germany was a lot cheaper and a lot more comprehensive than the local option I had. But wherever you are in the world, don’t find yourself in a situation where you compromise your health because you didn’t want to fork out for insurance – after all, you need that body of yours to conquer the rest of the world.

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13. Creature of habit

As much as exploring new places is the best, sometimes it got a bit much for me after a move. Deep down, I am a creature of habit and being taken out of my routine makes me super anxious at times. Being a little bit out of my comfort zone is fine, but chances are if you are moving to a new country there will be plenty of it. As someone who previously suffered from full-fledged anxiety, it is not something I want to deal with when a new life needs to be discovered. With that said, I love creating routines and rituals even if they don’t remind me of home. As long as I have a supermarket to go to, a yoga studio and some places where I feel like people may soon know my name, I reckon I will be fine pretty much anywhere in the world.

14. Friends in the making

The question that people ask me most is how I make friends every time I move. The truth is, I have no perfect recipe for that, probably also for I am not someone who is the most social person. I did realize though that while I don’t consider myself a typical German I tend to connect easiest with other Germans and Europeans. It was never a conscious choice, in fact, I much prefer the ideas to hang out with locals, but it just happen this way. I met my friend Marie during Textiles 101 in my first semester in New York because our professor introduced us to each other. We were the only Germans in class so he thought we should be friends. That was good enough reason for us to talk and it turned into one of my longest and most cherished friendships.

So while you are out getting acquainted with new people and new surroundings don’t underestimate how where you come from can create an instant connection. Your own country’s local pub – or in my case Biergarten – is usually an excellent place to start.

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15. Home is where the stuff is

One of the best part of moving anywhere is getting rid of stuff. Nothing is more liberating to me than knowing that I truly don’t need a lot of things. But while I gladly got rid of my complete wardrobe, my kitchen supplies and my book collection a few times, there are certain things that are too precious to me. I need them to feel home. Oddly enough that includes an ashtray a friend gave me (though I haven’t smoked in years), left over enamel chips from my sister in law’s jewelry collection (don’t even ask…), 2 white plastic toy animals, one leftover champagne glass and the biggest book there is in the world: The Travel Book by Lonely Planet. I do believe that 95% of the things you pack should make sense and the other 5% should just make you happy for no good reason whatsoever.

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Have you ever moved to another country and have additional advice on how to go about it? I would love to add more tips to this list!

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This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!