Karin Gallagher

Technical writing, editing, and features

Ten ways to prepare for an overseas move

Copyright 1999 Karin L. Gallagher

You've taken that big step and accepted a job overseas. All you've got to do is pack your bags and go, right? Think again. Moving overseas is not like moving across town. Not only will your moving expenses be higher, you'll have to do additional time-consuming tasks. Here are ten tips to help you get ready.

Leave your old car at home, buy locally.
Instead of shipping your car with you, think about buying a used one overseas. You'll save money and time for three reasons: First, to import your car you may be required to make some adjustments. For example, in Germany you must add side lights, which means fumbling with the electrical wiring and drilling holes in the metal. Second, shipping the car costs a minimum of $600 each way, and takes six or more weeks, depending on how long it takes customs agents to clear the paperwork. Third, if your car is not a common make or model, parts will be expensive or unavailable. One couple who had their Acura shipped to Germany sent it to a garage to make the repairs. Unfortunately, the garage had never worked on an Acura and let it sit for months while the couple rented a car. If you're overseas longer than a year, consider selling your car instead of storing it. You can leave the money in a mutual fund and buy another car when you return. If you do store your car, have someone drive it every three months to keep the movable parts from freezing and the battery from running down.

Store most things, buy the rest.
Don't take the kitchen sink. To start with, shipping is expensive, and certainly more expensive than storage. UPS charges $90 for a small box to Europe and a 40' container -- enough to ship a medium-sized household -- costs a minimum of $3,000, not including moving costs to and from the ship. A storage locker, on the other hand, averages $600 and up per year. Thus, pack only what you know you'll need regularly and immediately, such as clothes for work or a bicycle for transportation. It is probably cheaper to rent a furnished apartment than to ship your furniture back and forth. Second, there are certain items you won't be able to use. Do you really need your skis in Nigeria? Third, you may not have the space. In many cities apartment living is the norm, so you aren't going to be able to fit five rooms into two. Even if your company offers to ship your entire household overseas, do you really want your childhood photographs, eight kitchen chairs, and 50 extra pens?

Bring your computer but not electrical appliances.
The U.S. is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy computer equipment, so you'll want to bring it with you. Include a modem, modem cord, printer, software and backup disks, as well as accessories to adapt it for overseas use, such as a plug adapter, power strip, and power converter, if not built-in. If you recently bought the computer, work out the kinks before you go; calling back to the U.S. for customer support is expensive. Take a laptop instead of a desktop computer as it is easier to carry and use in small spaces. On the other hand, think twice before bringing your electrical appliances. Many countries run on 220 volts instead of 110 and have different plug shapes. VCRs use different video standards, telephone cords use different sockets. Ask yourself if you even need the appliance -- an electric coffee grinder does you no good if you can't buy beans or the power is on only in the evening. You'll save time and trouble buying small electrical appliances such as a waffle irons, extension cords, phones, irons, and blow dryers rather than shipping them. The exception to buying is if you're going to a place where the item is very expensive or unavailable.

Find a property manager to manage your house.
If you own a house, don't try to rent the house yourself or through a friend. Find a professional property manager who has dealt with hard-to-reach clients. Call the manager's references. You want a property manager who keeps the house rented with quality tenants and makes good repair decisions. Most property managers charge 7% to 10% of the monthly rental income.

Keep phone numbers, addresses, and paperwork handy.
Write down every phone number, address, and email address of every businesses and government organization you've dealt with in the last two years, including auto, health, and home insurance, computer technical support, doctors, magazine subscriptions, and the IRS. Include account numbers for mutual funds, bank accounts, frequent flyer miles, business license numbers, and serial numbers for any equipment you bring, such as computers, cameras, and bicycle locks. You never know when you are going to need the numbers. For example, you may need to transfer money from your U.S. account to your foreign one, you may lose the only key to your Kryptonite lock. Second, make copies of important paperwork, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, school transcripts, and old tax returns. To buy auto insurance at a reduced rate in Germany, you must get faxed letters from the insurance companies you've used in the previous seven years. As part of the work permit process, you must show a copy of your college and high school diplomas, no matter how long ago.

Get your bills paid automatically.
Instead of paying bills, such as mortgage and credit card payments, by mail every month, set up an automatic payment plan with your checking account. For credit cards that companies don't have an automatic payment plan, you can prepay. The drawback to prepaying is that if don't use your credit card regularly, the company may refund your positive balance and you won't think to prepay the next time you charge. Keep track of irregular bills, such as quarterly estimated taxes to the IRS and storage fees. Because mail to the U.S. takes at least two weeks, pay one month in advance.

Get a callback service and e-mail.
Calling from the U.S. is cheap. From other countries, calling anywhere else usually costs $1 or more per minute. Find a reliable callback service, which costs 15 and 35 cents per minute, any time. With a callback service, you dial a toll-free number that connects you to a computer in the U.S. The computer then calls you back, and you dial your destination number. You are essentially making a phone call from the U.S. to your location. Some callback services even offer a calling card. A good source for finding a callback service is the International Herald Tribune. Second, if you don't already have one, set up an e-mail account to contact friends, families, and take care of personal business. You can sign up with a local Internet service provider or use your existing service provider if it has international servers, such as AOL. However, be aware of added charges; AOL charges a minimum of $6/hour extra to use the account from overseas. If you don't have a computer, you can go to the local library or an Internet cafe, for $6 to $12/hour.

Forward your mail.
If you already know your foreign address, change the address for your most important mail, such as credit card bills and bank statements. Cancel mail order catalogs and magazines you can do without and change the address on the ones you can't. Otherwise, find a mail service, relative, or friend who will send you your mail regularly.

Learn a few words.
Take time to learn some basic words in the new language before you get there. You will establish good will by learning "Hello," "How are you?" and "Thank you." Then move on to questions that help you get information, such as "Where is the housing office?" Even though you probably won't understand the answer, the other person will know what you want and use nonverbal cues to help you.

Be patient.
It is a big effort to move. Before you go it feels like you are spending a lot of time researching costs and arranging things. This is only the beginning. After you arrive, you'll be running from office to office, tracking down missing shipments or arranging permits and services. Remember, you're in a new country and you have to learn to do things someone else's way. You'll miss office hours, not have that one important piece of paper, and listen to inconsistent information from officials. Be ready to smile and shrug it off. It's worth it -- living overseas is the adventure of a lifetime.

Copyright (c) 2005, Karin Gallagher