Packing Up: Things to Consider When Preparing for Living and Working Internationally

The minute you receive confirmation that you have landed a position abroad, your mind is going to start racing. What do I need to do to prepare? What should I bring? Your to-do list can quickly become overwhelming. Some of the things you need to do are obvious, but there may be a few things that you haven’t considered. Since hindsight is 20/20, I put together the things I would go back and tell myself as I was preparing to move abroad now that I have been through it (twice!).

Pack Light

One of the things I have realized from living abroad is that life, in any practical sense, does not require that extensive a wardrobe. It is amazing how little of the clothing in your closet you actually wear. I packed light to come abroad (two bags) and I wear probably only 40% of what I brought.

working abroad working internationally
Your morph suit was funny in college, but you can leave it at home this time around.

Living and working abroad is an opportunity to break away from the feeling that you have to have tons of crap. When you are settled for a long time at home, you end up accumulating tons of stuff, of which very little you actually need, use, or wear. Like an episode of hoarders, use packing for your new life abroad as an opportunity to evaluate what you really need. Be really judicious. Do you need three pairs of heels? Do you need four pairs of jeans? Do you really need to bring your Morph Suite? Be honest with yourself, and giveaway the good stuff you don’t want, and chuck the rest.

You will be surprised by how freeing living out of two bags is; I have continued to try and maintain the feeling that if I wanted to run away to Portugal or Ecuador tomorrow, I could do it in a heartbeat. Something about not being buried under and furniture and shelves of knick-knacks and clothes I don’t wear is exciting to me. I bet you will feel the same.  

Check Debit/Credit/driver’s license and Passport

Currently, I have an expired American debit card, an expired American credit card, and my driver’s license is expired. Granted, I have been gone for more or less three years, but being on call with Wells Fargo from Vietnam trying to get a replacement credit/debit card mailed over here has been, at best, annoying.

Luckily, I have been in Vietnam long enough that I have a Vietnamese bank account that has cash in it, so I am fine until my American cards get here.

But if you are first starting out abroad, the last thing you want is to realize upon landing in a foreign country is that you are under the clock because your credit cards are going to be expiring soon or your identification expires in six months. Being stuck abroad with no easy access to a backup cash funds is the type of risk I don’t suggest taking. Which brings me to…

Setup an Internationally-Oriented Bank Account

When I use my Wells Fargo cards in Vietnam, they charge me $5 for every ATM transaction! I don’t think it is a secret Wells Fargo is terrible, but international fees are something I didn’t think about before coming overseas. Luckily, because of my Vietnamese bank account, I don’t have to use my US cards very often, but when I have, that $5 fee has been a nice little jab to the heart.

Before you leave, go meet with your bank and tell them that you are going overseas and that you need a debit card/credit card that will minimize transaction fees. I am no “travel-hacker,” but I am sure you can also find cards that maximize frequent flyer benefits and other things (you can tell by my use of “things” this is not an area of knowledge for me). If you are interested, here is a list at NerdWallet of the best banks for international travel.

FBI Background Check

If you are going to be applying for any sort of residency or work permit in your new country, you are likely going to need an FBI background check. The process for doing this is fairly straightforward, you just need to go to your local police station and ask for one. You may be required to get fingerprinted, so this is an opportunity to take care of that as well.

Why is this important to do before you go? Because trying to get an FBI background check from abroad is a train wreck. Personally, I had to do the background check process from Hong Kong because I was working there when I landed a job in Hanoi, and an FBI background check is required for obtaining a work visa in Vietnam.

Almost $200 USD of my fees (and a lot of stress) would have been avoided if I had been able to do the FBI check in person.

I had to have my dad go to the police station for me back in Portland, request the background check, and then express mail the paperwork over. Then I had to have the background check notarized at the Hong Kong American Embassy. And then once in Hanoi, I had to have my fingerprints taken and have those notarized by the American Embassy in Hanoi along with documents provided by the Vietnamese government (and also a copy of my passport) notarized. Each notary costs $50 USD, and that is on top of other processing fees. Almost $200 USD of my fees (and a lot of stress) would have been avoided if I had been able to do the FBI check in person along with my fingerprints.

Moral of the story: make sure you ask if your employer requires a background check and try and take care of it before you go.     

Special Medication/Obscure Items

Do you use a special type of lotion because you have an allergy? Do you have special medication? Do you wear a specific type of contacts?

I would recommend stocking up on and packing any obscure necessities you require before you go. You can likely find all of these items in your new city, but they can sometimes be difficult to find. If you want to avoid scrambling to try and find a quality pair of contacts or battling the language barrier at pharmacies for medications, try and bring enough to last you awhile until you are settled and are able to more easily navigate the trickier aspects of settling into life in a foreign country.

Jail Broken Phone

Before you leave home, you want to make sure that your cellphone is able to use local SIM cards for when you arrive in your new country. Why? Because depending on where you are, you can get local cell service for almost free. I pay $3.50 USD per month for (sort of) unlimited 3G, some number of SMS texts (which I don’t use) and some number of calling minutes (which I also don’t use).

Why don’t I call or SMS? Because when you get a new SIM, you get a new number and handing out a new number which will likely change (I have changed numbers a few times for reasons that could not be explained to me) doesn’t make a lot of sense. And with services like Whatsapp (which lets you use your US number), Viber, and Skype, there really is no need for traditional cell phone service with an unreliable number.

To use a local SIM, you either need to have an iPhone 5 or iPhone 6 OR jailbreak your current phone. Jailbreaking your phone essentially just means hacking it so it can use any SIM card.  I am not sure if this is the case for all carriers, but before I left, I called T-Mobile (my carrier at the time) and they sent me the jailbreaking code for my phone. I jailbroke it in Portland, and then once in Hong Kong, I got a local SIM card and walla! Cheap cell phone service. If you have Verizon, you can check out this FAQ all about jailbreaking Verizon phones.

You Will Get Food Poisoning.

First things first: if you are headed to a street food culture, EAT THE STREET FOOD. Don’t be afraid of food poisoning You are as likely to get food poisoning on the street as you are in a nice restaurant; three weeks ago I got destroyed by food poisoning from pork katsu I ordered at an upscale mall. Not eating street food will just cause you to miss out on awesome culinary adventures and you will still end up on the toilet at some point anyway.

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Street food is amazing, so eat away. And then download Angry Birds. You’ll thank me later.

I don’t actually have any advice for this to prepare you before you come. My only wisdom is that food poisoning is a fact of life, specifically in developing countries. Eat away, and buy a good book for when street food fights back.

Learn the Very Basic Basic Basic Local Language

Everyone speaks English. Obviously, this the generalization of the century, but many (if not most) of the local people in most places you are going to end up working will have some level of English proficiency. Having said that, in the words of Simon Schaefer said about Portugal, “…really, if you are a decent human being, you should be learning at least a little bit of the local language.” These can be the basics, but while you are preparing to leave, you should learn some useful words and phrases to have in your repertoire.

Keep in mind, I am talking about the most basic basics. Something along the lines of:

  • Hello!
  • How are you?
  • Yes
  • No
  • You are welcome
  • What is your name?
  • How old are you?
  • How much is it?
  • Numbers 1-10

These may seem ridiculously simple, but you will be surprised by the reactions you get if you are able to do even the bare minimum speaking in the native tongue of your country. People really appreciate the effort, it is a great conversation starter, and in local markets a little schmoozing in the native tongue can help you get better prices.

Special Goodbye to Friends

Depending on what your arrangements are for your new job abroad, leaving to work internationally can make for a very uncertain goodbye. Working internationally often results in new opportunities or a local love connection or just an enjoyment of living abroad and these can keep you abroad for much longer than you originally anticipated.

As I wrote about in What It Is Really Like to Leave It All Behind I had an amazing girlfriend when I left for Hong Kong. I didn’t really know when I would be back, but I could have never expected to end up in Vietnam or being gone for three years. I saw my dad two years ago, and when I said goodbye then, I had no idea so much time would pass before seeing him again.

As you prepare to leave, I would strongly suggest making time for close friends and family, especially the ones you are fairly certain you will stay in contact with once you are gone. As certain as you are that it will “just be a year” or “you will be back soon,” there is really no way of knowing. And by the time you get back, you and your friends may all be different people. When I left, one of my closest friends was single. Now he is married. Another of my friends has had a kid!

Time goes very quickly, especially when you are so far away, so treat the goodbye as a big one, even if you end up returning on time or sooner than expected.

(Mostly) for the Ladies, Sexual Health and MakeUp

For this one I have recruited a French female friend of mine who lived in Hanoi when I was there. She was in Hanoi as part of a Master’s program in Environmental Studies and previously lived in India, so I asked her what women should consider when packing before heading abroad. Here is what she told me women should think about before leaving:

“In France it can be difficult to get a supply of birth control pills for longer than even just six months, so make sure that you plan ahead if you are on the pill. Also, both when I lived in India and in Vietnam, finding tampons was sometimes difficult depending on where in the country I was. So make sure at the very least, you have a backup supply in case you end up not having easy access to them.

Regarding medications, and this might just be a French thing, but I needed an agreement from the doctors council in France to get more than a 6-month supply of my asthma medication. Again, just something that I needed to plan for ahead of time. But I always make sure to go to the doctor, dentist, obgyn before leaving abroad for an extended amount of time.

Also important: local makeup brands are always terrible, and Western brands are really expensive abroad. Before you leave, stock up on both makeup and any of your skincare products because you never know what you will be able to find in your new country.”

Bring Work Clothes from Home

Depending on the country you are working in, fashion sizing and style can be a big hurdle to clear. Surprisingly, Vietnamese clothing stores often don’t carry clothing for 6’2’’, 190lb men. They also don’t carry size 11.5 shoes. This, for me, makes buying work clothes off the shelf impossible. Women, it seems, have less of an issue with sizing, but can have trouble with fit and also liking the local fashion styles available.

Working abroad living abroad
Pack enough work clothes to get you through the first month or two, and then look into tailor-made business clothing.

There are two solutions for this. If you are headed to a developing country (Vietnam, Thailand, India, etc.) you can have your business clothes made once you are there. This is a good solution, even great, but it requires some upfront investment and also requires that you navigate tailors/pricing/language barriers right at the beginning of your time abroad, which can result in some unwanted stress.

This is why I would suggest, if possible, that you prioritize work clothes first when packing. It is much easier to find weekend and workout outfits than it is to find fitted professional clothing. Once you are there, you will at least have enough professionals to hit the ground running, and then when you are more settled you can look into having clothes made.  

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, and there may even be a part II of this blog post. There are so many of those little things you don’t think about being a possible complication until you are gone and then really regret not planning ahead for once you are a thousand miles away. Hopefully this gets you thinking about things that you may not otherwise think about if you are preparing for your first time living abroad for an extended period of time.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.