So you’ve decided to move countries. Congratulations! Science, after all, is an international collaboration. Some say that science is a calling, and now, you have heard that call. You have decided to take the plunge and follow the science to somewhere you don’t call home.
Before you arrive, the best thing you can do is prepare. Prepare like crazy. The earlier you can start the better.
Some things you can expect and plan for. Some of them you can’t.
Having moved countries twice, I wanted to share some of the best advice to make the transition as painless as possible.
1 Get your visas
If you need a visa, especially one that involves a visit to an embassy. Do this. Do this now! Embassies are notoriously difficult. When I needed to get there, the Israeli embassy in London was open Monday to Thursday, mornings only, except all Jewish religious, Israeli national and British national holidays. Which at the wrong time of year (which it was), meant it was open for about 3 days that month.
2 Learn some local dialect
If you’re moving to Germany and you don’t know any German, GET LEARNING GERMAN! It doesn’t matter if the institute you’re going to works in English. Your life outside work, your social life, your supermarket, even the admin and support staff will work better in German. Or at least, if you show that you’re trying, even if all you can manage is “Hey! How’s it going?”
If you can, get some classes. If you can’t get to classes, download yourself some audiobooks (I recommend the Pimsleur sets) and aim to do at least half an hour a day. Get yourself a Lonely Plant style pocket phrasebook, for the times you get adventurous and leave the tourist areas.
Bare minimum, learn a few useful phrases. The “hi, how’s it going?”, “where are the toilets?”, “do you have English menus?”, “do you speak English?” phrases will be lifesavers.
A bank like HSBC has branches in most countries around the world and can provide services to help you set up accounts and even get your cards before you move. With some countries, this just isn’t going to be possible.
In which case, make sure you have a credit card that works overseas and make sure it has enough of a credit limit to make a trip home in an emergency. Make sure your debit card can make cash withdraws from abroad. Finally, make sure you take cash. Cash is accepted everywhere, an American Express card, not so much.
Setting up bank accounts will take a few days. Most will want to see proof of income (letter from your institute) and your legal status (i.e. social security number and/or visa) before you can open anything. Even then it typically takes a week for cards and cheque books to come through.
4 Plan for survival until you are paid
Many countries pay in arrears – that means they pay you for the month you worked, only after you worked it. If you turn up just after a payroll deadline, you’ll have to live for nearly 2 months in your new country before you actually get paid. Make sure you enter the country with enough cash to cover your expenses.
5 Finding somewhere to live
If you are lucky, then your host institute will tell you about accommodation ahead of time. Some places will offer you accommodation, or a half-way house where you can stay for the first 2 weeks.
If you’re not so lucky then the internet is your friend. Research here is your best friend. Head to the free-ads site of your choice (i.e. Craigslist (North America), Gumtree (UK), etc.). Join local Facebook groups. You’ll find people advertising rooms to rent or empty properties. But, remember DO NOT put any money towards a place until you’ve seen it in person. Scam artists are all too happy to take deposits for places that don’t exist.
The internet will give you a feel for the city. Certain areas will be university friendly, some areas will be arty, some will have a nightlife. Do you want to live further away (cheaper rent) or downtown if the public transport options are good? Either way, you’ll get an idea of typical rent for an area and whether you’ll need your own furniture.
Don’t be afraid to turn up without somewhere to live. Many hotels offer “resident rates” or “extended stay rates” if you’re staying for 14 days or more. Short stay (holiday style) rentals are often very well priced for 2 to 4 weeks outside peak tourist season.
6 Don’t forget the rent
Rent everywhere, needs to be paid in advance. If you don’t have a bank account set up already, then the deposit and first month’s rent needs to be in cash.
In North America, a deposit is typically one month’s rent. In Europe, it can be more like 6 weeks rent.
7 Creature comforts
When you arrive, you’ll have only what you bring with you. Make sure you pack a towel so you can shower once you arrive. If you’re not going into a hotel, pack some sheets so you can sleep on something the first night. Late night arrivals and timezone differences can throw your body clock, so make sure to have some cereal bars for snacking and/or breakfast on your first morning. Make sure you have travel adapters for your power sockets. Load up your phone with credit so you can phone home and tell your parents you got there OK (it’s stressful for them too).
Moving countries is scary. A million things will be going through your head. But the truth is simple. The better you prepare, the more your mind will be at ease. This will be the best decision of your life. It will be difficult and taxing, but remember, so long as you’ve got a credit card and your passport, everywhere is surviveable. Just don’t forget to have fun!
Morgan Bye is a British science writer, based in Vancouver, Canada, dedicated to helping scientists better communicate their science. He holds a Masters in Biochemistry and a Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry from the UK, before working as a research scientist at an Israeli research institute. Check out, morganbye.com for more articles discussing the biggest topics in science.