If you are anything like me, with a constant urge to travel and see more of the world and yes, even live somewhere outside of your home country, a job offer or project abroad can be an amazing opportunity. Whether it’s teaching English, working on a nonprofit project with a large organization like Peace Corps, or just packing a backpack and hitting the trail, spending a year abroad is a life-changing experience. But is it the right thing for you? Don’t jump on the first opportunity you are granted without doing your research. I am fortunate to have had the experience of living in the Dominican Republic for a year, and I wanted to share with you how I made it through the year and some advice I wish I had known.
First, ask yourself: Why are you doing this?
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to move abroad, and all of them are totally valid! In fact, you don’t even need a reason. While many people are moving abroad due to work reassignments or personal commitments, this post is mostly for those who are considering a year abroad as a solo traveler. If that is true for you, it is wise to consider why you have the desire to live in another country. Is there something missing from your life that you cannot achieve in your home country? Have you always wanted to travel and never had the opportunity? Some experiences can only be had abroad, so if you are in the position to do so, then I hope you can make it happen for yourself. Living abroad isn’t easy, so really figure out why you want to move and then do it! If you understand your motives, then you will be better prepared.
As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said,
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Regardless of where you are in the world, find your own paradise.
What is your financial plan?
If you are thinking about living abroad, do your best to have a decent chunk of change in your savings so that you will never be stuck, if any emergency should befall you. Hopefully you won’t need to spend it, and it will be waiting for you if and when you return to your home country. It’s easier said than done, and for some people (with other financial obligations or student loans) it will be nearly impossible. But living abroad has its twists and turns and it’s better to have a buffer than to be in a foreign land without a dime, peso or euro to your name.
I worked hard for two years after graduate school and saved as much money as I could. At the time, there wasn’t anything specific I was saving for – I just wanted to save. And I’m glad I did. When I realized that I couldn’t live comfortably on my Dominican salary (I tried to, I really did), my savings paid for plane tickets home, low-cost trips all over the country and even to Puerto Rico, rent, and even basics like food.
I wanted to “aprovechar” or take advantage of my experience abroad and I didn’t want to let a few dollars here or there limit me (long weekends in remote parts of the island, overnight ferry to Puerto Rico, breathtaking horseback ride to Salto Limon waterfall). Of course, I wasn’t spending frivolously otherwise – I barely drank alcohol or shopped, and limited my use of taxis to after-dark hours and relied on public transportation, and found extra freelance work blogging to try to close the gap. I was fortunate that I was in the financial position to afford to take those mini trips and really enjoy my time there.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to dig too deeply into my savings, and a large percentage was still in my account when I returned to the US. I was fortunate to start working almost right away, and was able to move into New York City within weeks of starting a new job.
The main idea is that without my savings, my year abroad would have been limited to me cooking rice and beans and watching cars go by. Instead I had leeway to travel to beautiful places and get a fresh cup of juice for 50 pesos when I wanted (about $1.25, because I’m a big spender). I realize that I am incredibly lucky and that not everyone is able to do this, but if you can postpone your departure by even a few weeks and make a little cash, you’ll be glad you did.
What is your medical situation?
If you will be working abroad or are participating in a program, research the health insurance options before you board your plane. Look into getting secondary insurance in your home country. You don’t want to be in an emergency situation without coverage and having to pay out of pocket. In the Dominican Republic, you can walk into almost any pharmacy and get medications without a prescription. While I don’t recommend self-diagnosis, I was able to do so and knew when I was sick enough to need antibiotics. Before you get ill, ask around for recommendations of doctors and get their numbers. That way you know where to turn if you get sick.
During my last month in the Dominican Republic, I had an ear infection which I believe I got from swimming. I was getting ready to return to the United States anyway, but my Dominican friend brought me to the doctors before I left, concerned that getting on a plane with an ear infection could be hazardous. I didn’t have Dominican health insurance at the time, but the doctor waived the fee after understanding my situation. With her prescription, I was able to get the medicine I needed very quickly from a nearby pharmacy. I was fortunate to have a confidante and translator with me to help me navigate the system and recommend the doctor.
I am lucky to be generally healthy but if you have an existing condition, you can definitely travel and be successful but be aware of any possible limitations.
Additionally, make sure your vaccinations are current, and check the Center for Disease Control‘s pages or your country’s equivalent for additional information.
Have you done your research?
The country – I had been to the Dominican Republic three times before I spent my year abroad there. Even so, there were many aspects of the culture that I had to learn once I arrived. I’m glad that I was at least familiar with the food, music, history and general geography of the island before I moved. I had read many history books about Hispaniola, and had been living in a Dominican neighborhood, so I didn’t feel completely out of my element.
If you are going somewhere new, read as many books and blogs as you can so that you’re not blindsighted when you step off the plane. Try ExpatsBlog.com, which is organized by country for easy searching.
The organization or project – Do as much research as possible about the organization or program you will be joining. Search online for blog or forum posts. If possible, ask to speak to former or current employees. Better than that – try to work somewhere or volunteer somewhere that you already have a connection so you can get the real scoop. Don’t trust everything the organization tells you.
Regardless of whether you are working with a large organization or a small NGO, make sure you have all the necessary paperwork for Visas before you depart. This will save you much hassle later on. Get in touch with the embassy or consulate as soon as possible. I registered myself with the US Embassy, and they sent email alerts from time to time. I also followed their Facebook page for updates about events.
Who do you know in your host country?
This is probably a given, but if you are moving to a country where you don’t know anyone, try to make contacts before you arrive, even if just to get some good tips for restaurants and in-country travel. One way to do this is to crowdsource on social media and see if anyone has friends or family living in your host country. If not, connect through any alumni or organizational means you can – fraternities/sororities, volunteer organizations, et cetera.
Although I knew quite a few people in the Dominican Republic before I moved there, I was grateful to have been introduced via email to extended family friends. They invited me to their home for a wonderful lunch during my first few months in DR and brought me on a fantastic tour of the capital. I am thankful for their hospitality. Another friend even hosted me for a while and I am eternally grateful. I’ve made sure to pass on some connections I made to others, for example, my favorite taxi driver’s phone number (my driver was the best, and I am so glad I was introduced to him).
What will you bring?
So you’re going to do it, and you’ve bought the ticket! Now, what to put in the suitcase? When packing, less is more. I left for the Dominican Republic with one rolling suitcase, a travel backpack, and a purse. Halfway through the year, this had multiplied into a carload full of things (fan, full length mirror I bought from a coworker, pots and pans, towels). I definitely brought clothes that I never wore (again, the school didn’t tell me about a uniform until the week I was leaving… I would have brought different clothes had I known) but fortunately there were places to shop! I left DR with approximately the same amount as when I arrived… but left the things I had acquired behind with my Dominican friend to either keep or give away.
If you can contact current workers or volunteers where you will be living, ask them what they wish they had, and what you won’t need. For example, extension cords are helpful, if the country has the same wiring as yours. Sheets and towels are great, only if you don’t expect to go shopping your first week. Yet they take up lots of valuable space. I brought old ones and then left them behind. Pack toiletries sparingly. If they don’t use it in your host country, you probably don’t really need it, or you can find or make a substitute. Fun fact – nail polish sometimes does not do well in planes, lesson learned. Again, less is more. The only thing I’d say to bring the most of is underwear, and socks, in case you don’t have access to a laundry machine.
Lets wrap this up…
I hope this post was informative if you are about to move abroad or are just thinking about it. Personally I found lots of great advice on other blogs before I left so I wanted to contribute my two pesos. If you have any questions feel free to reach out in a comment! Additionally if there is anything I missed please let me know.