Expat Tips for Families: Before You Go

16 May 2016

Having relocated to England, moved back to Canada, and now preparing for our second relocation, this time to Germany, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned, though this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. There’s no substitute for talking to other expats about their experiences, so take note of number three and join some online groups!

Expat Tips for Families: Before You Go - Erin at Large

Research schools early – and decide if you’re going international or local

This was a big headache in our latest relocation to Germany. Our son was going into Grade 2 in Canada, in French Immersion. School fees weren’t covered in our relocation package, and the average International School (a school run on American curricula, and entirely in English) costs about 15k-25k a year per child in Europe. However, if your children are young, and you are going to be staying in this new city for awhile it’s worth researching your options. We found a private bilingual German/English school that runs the German curriculum, for a fraction of the cost of International School, plus our son learns German. If they are preschool or kindergarten age, it’s worth going the local (and free) route. Added bonus: they can translate for you in the grocery store until your own language gets up to speed.

Get an after-tax take-home salary estimate from your employer

It’s tough to figure out what your actual take-home pay will be when you’re talking about a country whose tax system you are unfamiliar with. You should be able to get an fairly accurate estimate of your take-home pay from your HR department. Things like pension schemes and mandatory deductions are hard to predict ahead of time. Getting an accurate take-home salary number makes it much easier to budget ahead, and figure out things like what kind of school fees you can afford, what you can rent, and all that stuff.

Don’t just throw out all your stuff

I can tell you from experience, you will end up re-buying half of it on the other side. By all means, do a thorough stocktake, and use this time to figure out what you really love, but don’t go crazy getting rid of everything. If you’re paying for your own shipping, question your shipping company thoroughly about price bands – partial container shipments are available, and sometimes it depends on weight and cubic dimensions, but not always. Sit down and do the math about what it will cost to replace things on arrival compared to shipping it. We have done this process both ways: paid container shipping and paying for it ourselves. In both cases, we wished we had shipped more of our things. If you’re not paying, ship everything you may think you need, even if you’re not sure (except electronics – see below!). It’s worth noting that if you’re shipping your belongings in a container, the shipping people will pack it for you. They don’t want you claiming insurance on broken dishes because you can’t pack well. It’s glorious having them do it though. It will spoil you for intracity moving forever.

Join as many expat groups as you can find

Search Facebook for ‘Expats in xxx’ for local groups, and often your own searches for other things around your new city will pop up with expat forums. A good one is InterNations, they have volunteer on-the-ground reps that organize events in many big cities around Western Europe. It’s a good place to get hooked up with another expat’s furniture as they move to another location.

Start figuring out which of your electronics work

Make a spreadsheet. This sounds ridiculous, but when you start walking around your place and looking at all the things you use that plug in, this rapidly becomes less silly. Check every device to see if it is dual voltage. Most devices with a big chunky block on the power cord are – things like computers are usually dual voltage. Most small kitchen appliances are not. If you’re going from 110v (North America) to 220v (Europe) you will fry anything that isn’t dual voltage. Literally, smoke comes out and everything. You can get step-down converters, which are very different from adapters and expensive, that allow you to get a North American plug straight into a European socket. All of which are different by the way, so you’re going to want to check. Eventually, you can get European power adapters for things like camera battery chargers, computers, and other dual voltage electronics. Big items like KitchenAid mixers and food processors with big motors are a lost cause however. The motor is so powerful, it will need a giant, expensive, and noisy converter to function, and most people say it’s not worth it.

Know some things will go wrong

No matter how many spreadsheets you make, schedules you prepare, and forums you read – things will go a bit pear-shaped at some point. You will sit on the bathroom floor of your new apartment, and wonder what the hell possessed you to move so far away. You’ll have a wobbly in the grocery store trying to figure out where things are. It’s fine. You’ll also have incredible moments when it seems unreal you’re living here. It’s a grand adventure.

Any other tips you’d like to share?

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