You may have read this in my about page by now but in case you haven’t I recently took the plunge and bought a one way ticket with my boyfriend back to his native land of Germany. For him the transition was fairly easy. He speaks the language, knows how the Germany system works and understands these little cultural nuances that might seem odd to an American like me. There will be many more posts to come about living in a foreign country but for now I want to share the logistical and practical things everyone should know and, more importantly, take care of before stepping outside their homeland indefinitely. Keep in mind my suggestions are from a US citizen’s viewpoint moving to Germany. While there may be similarities across the board please do the research as it pertains to your particular situation.
1. What To Do With Your Cell Phone Number
If there’s a chance you may move back to the States and you have a personal emotional connection to your cell phone number like I do (we’ve been together for 15 years and we’re very happy) then keep your number by porting it to Google Voice. For a one time $20 charge you can keep your number stored with Google and still gain access to messages with a Google number for free. The link above will provide all the instructions necessary but there are a few caveats to note before doing so:
- Complete this process at least 48 hours prior to your departure and within the States. I also recommend starting this on a weekday. I started my porting process on a Saturday evening and Google’s system was down (apparently a common thing on weekends). I tried again on Sunday – still down. My flight was that following Monday. I could not complete the porting process before leaving. Thankfully I have a tech savvy brother. I left my SIM card with him and he was able to complete the process a few days after I left. Google’s policy state that this has to be completed in the US. There are some blogs that say you can use a VPN that redirects your contact information to the US in order to complete this process, however, there are other blogs that dispute this claim. It would also require an international plan with your US number as you need to receive a call from Google to complete the process. My advice – don’t risk it and just do it before you leave.
- Be mindful of any websites where you may have your cell phone linked for verification login (i.e. financial institution sites, bank accounts, email recovery, etc…). While in Europe I had to access my Principal financial account to transfer money. They required a text message verification code, which I was unable to access because my number had not yet been ported. Fortunately there was a work-around that allowed us to complete the transaction but it was a lengthy process and required almost two hours on the phone with a representative. However, once my porting was set up I was able to access text messages from my US number by downloading the Google Voice app. Not the end of the world but a pain in the ass for sure. If you port your number ahead of time you shouldn’t have any issues with this. If you do not plan on porting your cell phone number you should change all login verifications that require text message codes before leaving the country. Unfortunately my boyfriend did not port his number and had several accounts linked to it. What could have been a quick text for verification has now turned into repeated phone calls to representatives with lengthy security procedures in order to gain access to his accounts. Not fun.
- In order to port your number and use your cell phone in another country with a new SIM card you need to make sure your phone is paid for in full and that your current cell phone provider will allow you to do this. Check with your provider before porting your cell number. If they give you the green light and your debt is paid with them then proceed with porting. Do NOT cancel your plan prior to porting your number. Google needs an active account to confirm the porting process. They will cancel the cell phone plan on your behalf once the porting is complete (but not a bad idea to double check with your provider that it has been canceled once Google confirms the porting process is finished).
- Download an offline Google map of the city where you’ll be staying and locate the nearest phone shop, grocery store and most importantly – directions to your home from the airport. If you won’t have any cell data when you arrive then this downloaded map will be your lifeline, especially since you won’t have access to wifi while venturing out into the world to locate these places.
2. Get Expat Health Insurance
Consider getting expat health insurance BEFORE you leave your home country. Even though it may be a top priority on your list to sign up for health insurance as soon as you arrive it will take longer than you think. You’ll have a million things to do to get situated like getting groceries, a SIM card for your cell phone, adapters for your electronics, navigating a new city all while trying to integrate into a new culture and learn the language. Don’t add one more thing to your plate.
I forwent getting expat health insurance ahead of time for the exact reasons stated above. Because we were staying in an AirBnB we did not have an actual address to register and therefore we had to travel across the country to my boyfriend’s hometown to register at his parent’s home. A registered address is usually required for obtaining health insurance. (Sidebar: It’s not always so straight forward in Germany. In order to sign up for almost anything, even trivial things like a gym membership you need to have registered your home address. Not only that but in most cases you need to provide proof of registration to these businesses unlike in the US where you can literally use any address you want when signing up for bank accounts, gym memberships, etc…). Thus, the process of getting insurance is already a bit complicated.
So this meant that for the first time in my 30 years of life I would not have health insurance for about two weeks. Fingers crossed. Well, Murphy’s Law. What can go wrong will go wrong. Two days after arriving I woke up with a stiff neck. I figured stress and poor sleeping were the culprits. I applied heat, popped some Ibuprofen and let it be. Two days later the pain spread and I struggled to move my neck and I was in tears every time I had to sneeze. My throat was swollen and I had pain in the back of my neck when speaking. My immediate thought was meningitis. Dramatic, I know. But I’ve had stiff necks before and never experienced anything like this. I was a little freaked out. To make matters worse it was a Sunday when this happened and our only option was the emergency room. (Germany does not really have urgent or immediate care facilities like they do on every corner back in the States). I spent 5 hours of my life and 200€ to have a doctor tell me I was unlucky to experience the combination of a cold that settled in my neck and lymph nodes (instead the standard head colds I was used to back home) and a kinked muscle at the same time. Then I was sent on my way. Three days later it fueled into a horrific sinus infection. Fun times.
While the 200€ is less than what I would have paid back home WITH insurance for an emergency visit it still hurt to give up that amount of money within the first week of arriving. You might be tempted to skip the insurance in an effort to save money or because getting it ahead of time seems like a hassle or you’ll foolishly believe nothing you won’t need it. My advice – don’t. International health insurance for expats is pretty affordable and you can usually buy by the month instead of a full year commitment. This is perfect to hold you over for the first month when you arrive. While my situation was very minor and I’m never one to go to the doctor unless it’s my annual checkup or I’m in extreme pain, I was genuinely concerned about my health. Should something more extreme happen like a car accident or appendicitis (major events you cannot prevent or predict) then you’ll be so thankful you bought that insurance to hold you over.
The travel health insurance options you can obtain vary significantly. Some will offer extreme medical coverage like being airlifted off a mountain top because you broke your leg skiing but they might not cover your wellness visits. Some insurance policies include personal effects coverage and travel protection. You can also find insurance policies specifically designed for expats that will you allow you to get routine wellness exams, dental care, vision, and emergency medical coverage, which is probably more in line with what you need if you’re moving to a new country. The few policies I reviewed range from about $60/month to $160/month. Much cheaper than any US plan. While I am not inclined to offer any advice on a particular company and coverage plan since I (stupidly) did not buy one it’s something I would highly consider looking into prior to your move. Sidebar: It’s not a bad idea to also obtain patient records, like x-rays, vaccination list and surgical procedures from your doctors just in case. Most doctors should be able to email you this information.
3. Document You Will Need for the Visa Process
Depending on why and how you are moving to a foreign country you may be on your own for obtaining a visa. If you’re moving for work hopefully they’ll have a department that can assist you with the process. The below is not a comprehensive list but just a few things to consider BEFORE leaving the country. I plan to post about my visa process once I’ve completed it.
- Job Seeker Visa. You’re going to need your college transcripts and your college diploma. As we know – obtaining official documents via mail can sometimes take several weeks. Plan ahead. In addition to these items you’ll need a blocked bank account with approximately 10,000€ (this number might vary city by city but it’s a good starting point). It should be separate from the account you plan to use everyday. This chunk of money is to guarantee your financial support should it take a long time to obtain a job. Essentially, be financially prepared for an international move. If you can have a German native write a statement vouching for your financial support then you can bypass this step. You will also need a few other items prior to obtaining the job seeker visa, which can easily be taken care of while abroad, but these are the items that you should obtain prior to leaving home.
- Marriage. If you plan on marrying your significant other for visa status (dear God, I hope this isn’t 90-day Fiancé for you) then you will need a newly issued (within the last six months) Apostille birth certificate. Apostille documents have been certified by a governing body and are internationally recognized by countries involved in the 1961 Hague Convention. In addition to this you’ll need a document stating you are not currently married, referred to as a Certificate of Free Status. From my understanding there is no document that says you are not married or of “Free Status” on a federal level, I could only obtain one for my particular county within Illinois. In the States you can get these documents by a joyful trip to the county’s circuit court (birth certificate and “Free Status” documentation) and secretary of state (for Apostille certification). All in all, I paid $15 for the first copy of my birth certificate (addition $4/copy after that), $15 for the “Free Status” (also known as a “No Records” document), and $2 for the Apostille certification. While it was not on our agenda to get married, we decided it best to obtain these ahead of time just in case.
4. Ask for the Drugs!
Okay, please don’t bring illegal drugs into a foreign country because that’s a sure-fire way to get yourself kicked out immediately. I’m talking about medications. If you have any medical conditions that require certain drugs like insulin, heart medication, or even contact lenses then make an appointment with your regular physician to discuss your move and how to go about receiving a long term prescription fill. Obviously you will be able to obtain these types of drugs in most countries but it might take some time before you’re able to establish a patient-doctor relationship to get your proper medication. There are different refill regulations for different drugs and you may not be able to get a large supply in advance but see what can be done to hold you over for a month or so. For me personally, I use Xanax for long flights. This is a controlled drug in the US and can be difficult to get in many other foreign countries (it’s kind of a joke how easy it is to get back in the States, but also a very sad commentary on our opioid crisis). Anyway, this means I had to make an appointment with my doctor early enough in the year so that I could collect my three refills (limited to once a month) leading up to our departure. This allowed me to rack up a large supply for upcoming flights over the next year or two. On the other hand, my doctor was able to write me a script for a six month supply of Spironolactone – easy. It just depends on the drug. Either way, talk with your doctor about your options.
5. Be Mindful of the Uncanny Valley Experience
Props if you know what the uncanny valley is, but if not here goes: It was a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori. Have I lost you already? Stay with me because the concept is actually pretty cool. Well, this dude basically says that our affinity, or liking, for robotics, AI and other humanlike objects tends to increase as the technology and therefore resemblance to our actual human selves improves, but only up to a certain point. When we reach that uncanny point our emotional response, or liking for our doppelgänger robot, drops (or creates a valley when looking at an XY graph, see graph above). This tends to happen when we come across really life-like prosthetics, robots, or even realistic animations where the movements are so close to human form but with subtle off-putting behaviors and movements. Suddenly we become uneasy, unsettled, repulsed and in many cases a little freaked out. But as those features improve and better replicate human behavior accurately, our likeness for robots increases once again. In terms of AI I don’t believe we are quite there yet with the technology where our likeness for robots and artificial lifeforms can match our likeness for actual human beings – in other words – we haven’t gotten out of the uncanny valley when it comes to AI/robots.
Cool, but how does this apply to moving abroad? Well, just like we have a rising affinity for robots, life-like animations, and so on, so too will be your affinity for moving abroad. It’s exciting. New. Different. An opportunity for cultural experience. Growth. Potentially a new job and definitely new friends. Your affinity for moving abroad goes up. But there will come a point when the uncanny valley hits. Societal norms are not the same. What’s considered common courtesy or polite back home may not be the norm in your new country, and therefore seen as rude. Language barriers can make everyday tasks like grocery shopping or asking for directions seem unbearable. You start to notice the subtle (or vast) differences that you didn’t before. Your excitement, and maybe even your happiness, will drop like the valley. But, remember. We are humans. Adaptability is our strong-suit. You will start to understand these nuances and accept them for what they are and most likely integrate them into your behavior. You will adjust, adapt and the excitement or enjoyment you once had for being in a new country will return – at least to a point that feels like your normal self. In other words, the once foreign place will eventually start to feel like home and your affinity for this place will return.
Be mindful that this process will most likely happen, probably several times. Do not over romanticize the idea of moving abroad. Do not underestimate the challenges on a logistical level or the culture shock and adjustments on an emotional level. Do your best to ride the waves – the highs and lows – and embrace it. While there is not much you can do to prepare for the uncanny valley you will undoubtedly experience when moving abroad, I think it’s helpful to be mindful of it and just enjoy the ride!