It’s now been almost two months since Fiance and I moved to Cape Town, South Africa from Portland, Oregon. We learned a lot going through this process, and although I am by no means an expert, I thought I’d share with you what we learned in the process of moving to a new country!
Start the visa application process early.
Yes, I know you checked the website and it says your visa will only take 5-10 days to process. Yes, I know that you still have months and months before you leave. Yes, I know it seems pointless to start that drudgery now when you could be shopping for luggage and reading about the trendy new restaurant in your soon-to-be home city.
Start the application process the moment you’ve made the decision to move. Many countries require a mountain of personal documents that have to be certified copies. This means you have to pay a fee and order them, and they can take a couple of weeks to get to you.
To keep yourself organized while collecting these documents, group them by type (personal, finance, school, other) and staple a list with checkboxes to the front of a folder you can keep all the papers in.
There are plenty of other things that can go wrong during this process that you need a time cushion for (misreading a requirement, unlisted requirements, materials lost in the mail, etc.). You also need to have your passport in order to apply, so if you don’t have it yet, get it ASAP.
Some countries require that you have proof of residence in your country of choice before you make the big move (and yes, before you’ve even applied for your visas!). Start looking for residence, at least temporary, early.
Get tracking numbers for every piece of mail you send or are receiving.
I learned this lesson in such a hard way. If you send a piece of mail regarding anything that involves your application or move, get a tracking number. If it includes a prepaid envelope for return documents (which you will probably send when applying for your visa), get a tracking number for that envelope, too. If you are expecting to receive mail, request a tracking number. Keep every receipt for postage and envelopes.
Save more money than you think you’ll need.
Even if the budget you’ve laid out accounts for every little expenditure you could dream up, save more. Way, way more. Fiancé and I ended up having to fly to the consulate a few days before we left because our visas hadn’t come, and this was an enormous unexpected expense. This experience is not unusual. At one point we thought we had way more money saved than we’d need, and now we’re pinching as many pennies as we can.
Remember that you’ll also be spending money on countless application fees, postage, luggage & luggage fees, clothes for a new climate, airport food, taxies, take-out, and a dozen other things you didn’t think of.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
You can use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees anywhere along the way without having to worry about racking up a huge set of charges. This is safer than carrying around wads of cash and gives you a lot more flexibility.
Even if you’ve figured out exactly who you want to bank with in your new country, it could take you a lot longer than you expect to get everything set up. We’ve been settled for about six weeks and only now are completely set up with a bank.
It also gives you access to all your saved money without having to pay wire transfer fees to get that money into your new account. Make sure the card is one that will be accepted in your new country (most likely Visa or Mastercard). This is in no way a plug, just meant to be helpful: we ended going with Capital One no foreign transaction fees cards and they’ve been great so far.
Check out transportation options in your new city.
As in the US, not all cities are pedestrian friendly. Make sure you know if walking is a viable option for you. Look into public transportation. If it’s reliable and there are several good routes in your area, familiarize yourself with them thoroughly before you go. We thought we’d done that. We hadn’t. It turns out that it’s almost as far for Fiancé to walk to school as it is for him to get to a bus stop to take him there, BUT if he wants a ride home from class after 6 p.m., it’ll practically drop him at our front door. Funky.
If you’re moving permanently to a new country, you’ll likely be investing in a car if walking and public transit aren’t options for you. If it’s not a permanent move or you need time to get everything figured out before purchasing a car, look into long term car rentals. Many companies do them on a month to month basis and give discounts to students. We are renting a lovely little tank of an ’83 Benz, but hey, it gets us from point A to point B and for a very affordable price. This option will allow you to really make the most of your time and get out and see all you planned to. If we didn’t have the car, we wouldn’t have been able to do half the things we’ve done so far.
If you do end up deciding driving is for you, get a GPS and GPS mount before you go! This will be an absolute lifesaver for you. Most GPSs are only equipped with one or two sets of maps, so you’ll likely need to buy maps for your new country. Before you leave, make sure these maps are loaded onto your GPS and save important addresses (the hotel you’re staying at your first night, your new place, rental car company, internet company, cell phone store, grocery store, etc.).
Invest in several universal outlet adapters.
This is an obvious one, right? Here are the outlet adapters we brought with us, and they’ve been great. Know that not everything can then easily plug into your new home, though… Some high voltage devices may not work. I discovered this when I attempted to plug in a power strip and it then exploded. That was terrifying. My hair dryer also runs much hotter and harder here. I probably shouldn’t be using it, but I’m also too cheap to get a new hair dryer and it hasn’t exploded. Yet. Maybe peruse an electrics website for more info, I have no idea what I’m talking about and am only speaking from experience.
Bring everything you can, but…
Look into how many pieces of luggage your airline allows and what size and weight limits are. Make sure you look into this for every airline you’re traveling with. Just because Airline 1 lets you check two bags for free, doesn’t mean Airline 2 will be okay with that. Some airlines have stricter limits for carry ons, too (i.e., carry on OR personal item, not both).
Pack as much as you can before you get into fee territory, then really evaluate what you’d have to leave behind to not pay more. If it’s stuff you don’t need (get used to asking yourself this question), leave it behind. If it’s more clothing, you probably don’t need it. Fiancé caught me packing two dresses that are exactly the same but different colors and gave me a reminder of this. Something that has worked well for me was packing lots of basics. Solid color t-shirts, maxi skirts, flats that I know I like. They’re easy to rotate through and mix and match.
If your “it won’t fit pile” includes some more expensive items you’d have to replace when you got there, consider paying the fee for an extra bag, as they usually aren’t too pricey. If you leave too much behind, it’s going to cost you more than you think.
Keep in mind that you’ll be carting these pieces of luggage around airports and you may have to retrieve and recheck them during some layovers. Literally running through an airport with 200 pounds of luggage wasn’t fun, but I’m also glad I have everything that I packed now.
If you’re traveling a great distance to get to your new country, the only thing you’re going to want to do when you get there is shower and sleep. Even if you got yourself a furnished pad, most don’t come with linens. If you’ve got room in your suitcase, pack a towel, bed sheet, and small blanket. We ended up drying off with our clothes the first day and using sweatshirts as blankets. Not terrible, but a warm bed to crawl into after 35 hours of traveling would have been nice.
Don’t skimp on housing.
This is not the time to pull out your coupon clipping skills. If something sounds too good to be true, it is. When Fiancé and I were first looking at places, I found a gorgeous apartment for a relatively good price with incredible ocean views. I asked the landlord more about it and the location. We were concerned because it wasn’t very close to Fiancé‘s school, and were trying to learn more so we could look at bus routes. He then told me that it was near a very famous shopping square with lots of stops, so it wouldn’t be a problem. Even with my limited knowledge of Cape Town, I knew that this square was on the other side of the city. I asked him about this, and what do you know, he stopped responding to my e-mails.
Get thorough descriptions from the landlord, get lots of pictures, compare everything using Google Maps “Street View” if you can. It’s weird to rent a place from the other side of the planet: be thorough. It’s also incredibly nice if you’re able to get a place near grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, etc. because you won’t know the area well for awhile.
Make sure it’s a place you’ll be comfortable in. You’ll already be experiencing jet lag, culture shock, and homesickness; it’s best to feel like you have a home in this new place.
Things will go wrong, but everything will still work out.
I can’t tell you how many times Fiancé and I looked at each other, panic-stricken, and asked the same thing: “Will we still get there?” And whaddya know, we’re here. It was in no way easy, but we learned a lot through the turmoil and have never felt it wasn’t worth it. In case you want to read about the fun, I wrote a blog post all about it. Just take a deep breath, figure out what steps are in your control, and execute them.