Moving abroad is a life-changing experience, but it’s not without its challenges. While settling into your new life as an expat or digital nomad, you are likely to experience some of the most common disadvantages of living abroad.
Thankfully, every problem has a solution, and this includes the disadvantages of living in a foreign country. In this article, we’ll go over the most common issues expats encounter, and look at some of the ways to help you overcome them.
In this article on disadvantages of living abroad
The disadvantages of living abroad
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, developed in 1967, lists the following things as some of the most stressful life events we can go through:
- Major change in living condition and place of residence
- Major work readjustment or changing job entirely
- Major change in finances
- Moving to a new school
- Major change in social activities
- Major change in eating habits
When you move abroad, it’s likely that you will encounter many of these forms of stress at the same time. Changing school or job, coming to grips with a new culture and managing your finances are some of the many disadvantages of moving abroad.
However, if you experience any of these disadvantages, it’s good to know there are always solutions to your problems. We take a look at the most common disadvantages of living in a foreign country, and some of the ways you can overcome them.
1/ The language barrier
One of the biggest disadvantages to living abroad is that it can be hard to communicate in a foreign language. This is often known as hitting the ‘language barrier.’
Learning a foreign language is one of the hardest parts of becoming an expat, especially since it takes many years to master a new language. A recent study found that learning to speak the local language was the #1 biggest challenge expats faced when moving abroad.
Furthermore, even if you speak the native language of your new home country to a high level, you may still find local dialects, accents and slang stop you from understanding the language like a local. Not only will this mark you out as a foreigner and make it hard to connect with locals, it can also make it hard to communicate your needs.
Getting medical treatment is one such instance. The New York Times found that non-native English speakers in the USA required up to three times as long to communicate with doctors.
What can you do about it?
Achieving fluency in another language is almost impossible past a certain age. Researchers found that our language-learning ability declines sharply past the age of 18.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve a very high level of fluency with enough practice. You just need to be persistent.
Better still, learning a foreign language is an enriching experience that many expats find highly fulfilling, and you could make friends through your language classes.
Of course, some languages are harder than others, but no language is impossible to learn. The US Department of State advises their diplomats on how long it takes to learn foreign languages. They rank languages in categories according to difficulty, and estimate how long it takes for English-speakers to achieve basic fluency in those languages.
Here are some of the examples they give:
Hours practice needed for basic fluency
Immersing yourself in a language is the best way to learn, so get out there and give it a go! You’ll break through the language barrier in no time.
2/ Culture shock can affect anyone
Another disadvantage of moving abroad is culture shock.
Culture shock is the feeling you get when adapting to the way of life in a new country. Local customs, laws and traditions may make you feel uneasy at first. They can be difficult to understand as an outsider, especially if they feel very different to the ones you are used to back home.
Culture shock is a very normal process that almost every expat goes through. One study at the University of Hawaii found that 85% of international students had experienced cultural shock.
Culture shock can sometimes be so severe that it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. You may start to feel like you don’t belong in your new home, or that you’ll never fully integrate.
What can you do about it?
There’s no point trying to run away from culture shock. Instead, you should be prepared and deal with it in your own way.
Remember, culture shock is a normal part of the integration process. Once you’ve gotten through it, you’ll never experience it again. Kalervo Oberg, who first defined culture shock, wrote that the whole process usually lasts 6–12 months. After that point, you can expect to feel integrated into your new home, and happy to take part in these local customs yourself.
Many expats combat culture shock by hurling themselves into the language, culture and social life of their new countries. They accept that it takes time to learn about their new culture, and try to enjoy the process as much as they can.
But if culture shock becomes overwhelming, you may want to reach out for expert support. It’s important to look after your mental health as an expat, especially if your new culture is making you feel depressed or anxious.
Many people underestimate homesickness. While it can be hard to define, expats who have experienced homesickness describe it as a sort of melancholy feeling, a sense of being ‘out of place’, and a longing to be in a place that is familiar and safe.
Homesickness can affect any expat. Research has found that around 48% of expats have experienced homesickness at some point, with different countries producing different results. As many as 80% of expats in the United Kingdom say they have experienced homesickness.
Homesickness is not something that just ‘goes away’ either. One study found that 51% of expats who experienced homesickness still struggled with it three years after emigrating.
As an expat, you should be aware of the signs and symptoms of homesickness. These can include:
- Depression-like symptoms (low mood, sadness, stress)
- Low productivity
- Lack of sleep
- Loss of appetite
What can you do about it?
It’s important to know that homesickness is very normal. If you are experiencing homesickness, it is not a reflection on you or your mental strength. Rather, it is simply one of the disadvantages of living abroad.
For many expats, feelings of homesickness will pass naturally. You can overcome feelings of homesickness quicker by throwing yourself into the culture of your new home. Getting out and about and taking part in activities will keep your mind off feelings of homesickness. Making new friends and feeling part of a community is especially important.
Another way to fight homesickness is to stay in touch with your homeland. This might involve taking regular trips ‘back home’. If that is too difficult, you can stay in touch via social media, by watching television shows and movies from your home country, or by subscribing to newspapers and magazines.
If your feelings of homesickness become overwhelming, you may also want to seek mental health support. Practising good mental hygiene can help – try keeping a gratitude journal or taking mindfulness exercises to help build your resilience.
4/ Making friends and building community is hard
Moving abroad unfortunately means leaving your friends and communities back home.
Once you land in your new home, you’ll need to go out and find new friends. This can be hard, especially in a new country where you may not speak the local language or understand the local culture.
Indeed, one of the most commonly-reported disadvantages of living in a foreign country is that it can be very hard to make new friends and join new communities: around half of all expats say they find it difficult to make friends overseas.
In the worst case scenario, being unable to make new friends could lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. You may start to feel like you don’t belong in your new home. These feelings can be particularly acute around Christmas and other holidays.
What can you do about it?
Fortunately, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel – it just takes time to reach.
The first and most important rule when it comes to making friends abroad is to get stuck in as much, and as often, as you can.
This means getting out and about, trying new things and being open to new opportunities.
Here are some tips we’ve heard from expats about the best ways to make new friends in a foreign country:
- Look for language exchanges – a great way to improve your language skills while meeting new people
- Try a local dance class
- Join a sports team, especially if it means trying a sport that’s popular in your new home
- Attend after-work socials with your colleagues
- Join the parent-teacher association at your child’s school and get to know the other parents
- If you’re single, don’t be afraid to try dating – even if you don’t meet a romantic partner, you may still end up making friends
To help you get started in your new home, you may want to look for other expats, especially those from your home country. They can help you to bridge the gap between your old and new cultures. Apps like Meetup are a great way to find social events with people from your home country.
Most importantly, remember that finding friends takes time. Be mindful of the symptoms of loneliness, and don’t be afraid to reach out to a healthcare provider if you find yourself experiencing depression or anxiety.
If you are looking to become an expat in 2023, you may be interested to know our 5 friendliest countries in the world:
5/ Bureaucracy and paperwork
As an expat living in a foreign country, you may find yourself constantly filling in forms and ticking boxes. This is because, unfortunately, bureaucracy is one of the universal disadvantages of moving to another country.
Not only will you need to make sure you have all essential documents from your home country, you will need to know local laws to understand how these documents translate into your new home country.
You will therefore probably find yourself asking a lot of questions. For instance:
- Will your foreign driving licence permit you to drive certain types of vehicle?
- How long does your visa allow you to live and work, and how do you renew it?
- How do you apply for residency and how long does it take?
While moving and settling in to a new country, you may find yourself having to keep on top of the following things:
- Visa applications (giving you the right to live and work)
- Employment contracts (which you may need to open a bank account or rent a property)
- Tax laws
- Bank accounts
- Tenancy and property ownership agreements
- Residency applications
- Birth certificates and passports for you and your family
- Driving licences
- Yours and your partner’s marriage certificates
- International health insurance, life insurance and income protection insurance
Depending on which country you are moving to, you may need to call on any of these documents at any time, so you should always keep them close at hand.
What can you do about it?
There’s no easy way around bureaucracy and paperwork for expats. You will need to be patient and organised, and accept that being an expat comes with an added layer of responsibility.
The good news is, once you have grown accustomed to the paperwork, it will become second nature. Eventually, you may even decide to apply for citizenship. After that point, you won’t need to worry about expat paperwork. Until then, be sure to stay on top of things.
Top tips for staying organised
- Keep a file on your laptop full of essential documents
- Always keep a backed up of this file!
- Store any hard copies of documents somewhere safe in your home
- Mark important dates on your calendar
- Start application processes early (for instance, if you need to renew a visa)
Remember: government and other official departments in foreign countries may be much slower than you’re used to back home.
6/ It’s expensive
It’s no surprise that the cost of moving and living abroad can be very expensive. While settling in to your new home, you are likely to encounter a number of up-front costs that could put a dent in your finances.
- The cost of visa and residency applications
- Find the best options for international health insurance, life insurance and income protection insurance
- Paying the deposit on a rented property, or fees associated with buying a property
- Buying essentials for your home
- School fees
Some sources estimate the cost of moving abroad to be between US$1,000 and US$10,000 depending on where you move, the size of your family and how much stuff you intend to bring.
We also recommend putting some money aside to cover surprise costs. You may want to think about having as much as 6-9 months salary set aside in case you run into any financial difficulty.
What can you do about it?
Moving to a new country is expensive in the short-term, but you will likely be able to recover those costs before too long. According to the HSBC Expat Explorer study, 74% of expats increase their income when moving to a new country. Better still if you move to a country that has a lower cost of living.
There are also lots of ways to cut costs when moving to a new country. For instance, when it comes to moving your prized possessions abroad, be sure to choose sea freight rather than air freight. Air freight may be faster, but it can be 12-16 times more expensive, according to the World Bank.
Another way to save money is to take out a comprehensive international health insurance policy. The price of healthcare in some countries can be very high for expats, especially if you need emergency healthcare, major treatments or ongoing care. With international health insurance, you and your family will be able to access high-quality, affordable healthcare when you need it most.
7/ It can be difficult to find work
Having a stable income is one of the most important things for people living abroad. Not only will you need finances to pay your rent or mortgage, bills and living expenses, you will also need money to take part in many of the cultural activities that make expat life so worthwhile.
Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of moving abroad is that you will have to navigate life as a foreign worker. This often involves extra hurdles to jump through when it comes to finding, or staying in a job.
One of the first things you need to know when moving abroad is the visa laws in your new country. As a foreign worker, you will probably need to apply for a special type of working visa, or a new type of digital nomad visa.
Some countries have special laws dictating who can and can’t apply for these visas, and even if you can get one, it may only be valid for a limited time.
You may also need a permanent address and a bank account in your new home country before you can even apply for a job. In other words, you may need to apply for several things, and even be living in your new country, before you can begin your job hunt.
Also bear in mind that labour laws in other countries may be less comprehensive, meaning you could be released from your employment with little or no notice, and with no legal recourse.
This includes situations where you may be unable to work due to long term sickness, injury or disability. Many countries do not have adequate sick pay laws, meaning your income could be affected if you are unable to work.
What can you do about it?
Before moving to any new country, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the employment laws. You will need to such things as:
- How to get a working visa, and when you will need to renew it, or upgrade to permanent residency status
- Which boxes you’ll need to tick to apply for a job, e.g. a local bank account, a permanent address, or a language test
- The local employment laws, and how to seek legal help if you need it
- The state of the local job market – is unemployment high in your field? Would it be easy or hard to find another job if you needed one?
- What are the sick pay laws in your new country? If you get sick or injured, will your employer provide a safety net?
If you think your employment could be at risk, or it may be hard for you to find stable work, you may want to consider global income protection insurance. It could provide a cash windfall if you fall on hard times, helping you and your family to stay afloat until you’re back in work.
Be sure to vet any employer you choose to work for overseas. You need to understand their policies with regard to your contract of employment, especially when it comes to sick pay.
Some employers may be willing to support your visa application when you choose to live abroad, and some will even help you find a residence and open a bank account, which could make it easier for you.
In any case, staying on top of your finances is very important when living abroad. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have cash set aside in case you find yourself between jobs.
8/ You could experience discrimination
Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, ageism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are unfortunately common to every country around the world. As an expat, you may experience one of the worst things about living abroad in the form of discrimination against yourself or your family.
The severity of discrimination can range from nasty comments from certain people and being excluded from certain social groups, to direct threats against your personal safety.
You may also encounter certain laws that forbid you from doing the same things you could do in your home country, based on your race, gender or sexuality.
According to survey website IndexMundi, these are the 10 countries that report having the biggest issues with racism:
And according to World Population Review, the countries with the lowest gender equality and highest gender gaps are:
There are also 68 countries worldwide that criminalise homosexuality. These are:
What can you do about it?
The most important thing to remember is that discrimination happens in every society – so, if you experience discrimination in your new home, it’s not necessarily a reflection of how the whole country feels about you. Rather, it’s just a handful of people trying to make themselves feel powerful at your expense.
Even so, you should familiarise yourself with local laws about discrimination. If you or your family are targeted, you may be able to seek legal recourse.
On the other hand, if your way of life is affected by certain laws, you must be mindful of these. You may not like them, but breaking the law in foreign countries could lead to deportation, fines, or even prison sentences.
If the problem gets particularly bad, you may also want to speak to local charities that specialise in discrimination. They may be able to seek legal help on your behalf.
9/ Access to healthcare can be difficult
In 2021, HR Director reported that healthcare was the biggest concern for expats living and working abroad. Indeed, our expat community regularly tells us that getting sick abroad is one of the biggest disadvantages of living in another country.
Medical treatment can be extremely expensive depending on where you move. And, as an expat, you may not be able to take advantage of state healthcare, meaning you will need to pay for treatment out of your own pocket.
In 2021, the average medical claim was a staggering US$2,580. The most expensive countries for medical treatment without health insurance in 2021 were:
Average cost (US$)
Furthermore, getting access to the right treatment can be difficult. Many countries have poorly-funded and inadequate healthcare sectors, which can make it hard for expats to access high-quality treatment. Check out our list of the countries with the worst healthcare in the world.
What can you do about it?
The first and most important step is to choose the healthcare plan that best suits your needs.
If you only intend to stay in your new country for a short time, ordinary travel insurance may be enough. If you intend to stay much longer, you may be able to take advantage of local health insurance. Or, you may want to take out international health insurance to guarantee the best quality healthcare when you need it.
To make sure you get the best quality healthcare for your needs, you’ll need to:
- Understand the type of healthcare system(s) in your new home country
- Know the local laws affecting expats
- Be aware of your tax and residency statuses, and how this affects your access to healthcare
- Consider any pre-existing conditions and how they affect your choices
Next, you’ll need to think about the type of coverage you need. For instance, you may need health insurance that covers your whole family. International health insurance providers also offer various tiers of support, with optional add-ons. These may include:
- Mental health support
- Maternity cover
- Major treatment cover and advanced diagnostics
- Dental care
- Personal accident cover
- Medical evacuations
It’s best to speak to an international health insurance provider to understand your options.
It may sound like a lot, but once you’ve found the right cover for you and your family, you can rest easy knowing you’ll always benefit from the best quality healthcare.
Wherever you move, go with total peace of mind
There are many advantages and disadvantages of living abroad, but with William Russell you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Speak to us today to find out how international health insurance, life insurance and global income protection insurance could help you settle into expat life.