The 5 stages of expat life

Expat: the word always sounded kind of “exotic” to me. I admired the people who dared to leave everything behind to start a new life abroad. It never really occurred to me to follow in their footsteps, but after 2 ½ years of being in a  long distance relationship, it looked like the expat life was coming my way…

In March 2013 I said goodbye to my friends, my family and my job to start a new life in Northern Ireland. It has been a year with ups and downs. Looking back and talking to a few other expats, it seems like we all have similar phases in our expat life. Phases of happiness, but also phases of pure frustration.

These are the 5 stages of expat life:

1/ The planning phase: between excitement and doubts

stages of expat life

Saturday, the 9th of March 2013: the day was written in bold red letters in my diary and as I turned the pages and the day was getting closer, so grew my excitement, but also my doubts. I was finally moving to Northern Ireland to be with Arnie, whom I met a few years before. The times when we hopped on a plane to be together for just a few days would finally be over! I was going to start a new life in a new country, I was going to make new friends, discover a new culture,… the world was full of new possibilities!
But this also meant that I had leave to my job behind, I had to say goodbye to the crazy parties I had with my friends, I would have to see my nephews grow up through Facebook or Skype. And oh God, not to mention the paperwork that I still needed to do!!

This is the most stressful phase. Luckily it only lasts a few weeks and you know that it’ll come to an end once you make the actual move. Hang in there! And if it all gets a bit too much, get yourself a box of tissues and a bottle of red wine and have a good old crying session. Nothing wrong with that!

2/ The “Everything is fantastic” phase

stages of expat life

That’s it, you moved, found yourself a house and unpacked your favourite stuff. Your new life is about to start! This first phase is like “being in love”: you get to know the person, in this case the city, and everything just seems wonderful!
I loved the friendly people in Belfast, I thought the latte’s and muffins were the best I ever had, I enjoyed the pubs, the TV shows, … This expat thing was a great decision and I was sure that I was going to feel at home very soon!

 3/ The frustration phase

stages of expat life

Unfortunately, just like in a relationship, this “honeymoon” phase doesn’t last. You start to see beyond the magic, little things start to annoy you, until they become bigger and bigger and you get utterly frustrated! This is where homesickness kicks in.
At some point, I started seeing everything negative: I didn’t like the food, I hated the fact that pubs close at 1am, I frowned upon people getting drunk all the time and the weather was horrible too!

This is the phase in which quite a lot of expats give up and go “home”. Trying to remain positive is the answer here… Knowing that this is a normal phase that everyone goes through might help. If not, refer back to the bottle of wine from phase 1!

 4/ The acceptance phase

stages of expat life

This is the part in which you start making friends, you start understanding the culture better and adapt some habits that you thought were unacceptable first (in my case eating pizza with French fries). Local politics/sports/celebrities are no longer unknown to you. You still find some things “weird”, but you accept them as they are. To cut a long story short, you found peace with your new country and your new self.

 5/ The “your new life”-phase

stages of expat life

You start living in your adoptive country like you did back “home”. You have a favourite café or pub, a job, colleagues, friends, … You are fully integrated and even if you will never be a native, you no longer feel “abroad”!

So, how long do these phases last, I hear you say? It’s difficult to put a time on them. Are you moving to a country where you don’t speak the language? Do you know anybody at all there? Is the culture very different from home? All this will play a role in adapting to your new home.

In my case, even with the support of my partner, I stayed stuck in phase 3 for quite a while. But once you get past this, expat life is an experience that I would recommend to everyone! You learn so much about a new country, new habits and even about yourself. And after all, isn’t this what travelling is all about?

What about you? Would you consider becoming an expat? Or maybe you are enjoying expat life already? I would love to hear your experiences!

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13 Replies to “The 5 stages of expat life”

  1. Amber Bailey

    I love this post. I am a Canadian native and moved to Scotland over seven years ago. I always wanted to live somewhere where no one knew me and thought it would be a great chance to reinvent myself. I always glamorised the idea of living abroad and when I finally did my reality was much different than what I had imagined. My first day in Scotland I remember crying my eyes out because never had I felt more alone in my entire life. I knew no one and honestly wanted my mum!!! I have experienced all the aforementioned stages and which have taken close to seven years to achieve. It’s been a constant emotional struggle for me but it’s also one of my greatest achievements. I now have two children and a soon to be husband and feel content. Although I miss my family terribly I can’t help but wonder if this life abroad is better for me. I still have doubts and I still often want to move home. I try to take it one day at a time.

    Reply
    • Els Post author

      Thank you Amber, for your personal reaction! It’s not always easy indeed, and being on a complete other continent must make it even harder! But as you say, it is also one of your biggest achievements. Being able to completely reinvent yourself makes you grow so much! All the best for the future!!!

      Reply
    • Sarah McCarthy

      Hi,
      My name is Sarah McCarthy. I moved to England in 1969, had 2 children lived in small towns for 4 years and then returned to the states. I was 19 then. Today I am 68 and am traveling to Ireland for the 3rd time in 4 yrs. I absolutely am in love with the place. Knowing how to move around understand the accents and being English speaking was a breeze. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. The first visit was 3 wks the Second the month of August . I hiked to Great Glen Way from Fort. William to Inverness in Scotland. This time Culdaff hopefully to see the Northern lights ,PortStewart to see a friend and the beach, Belfast for Genealogy, ,Dublin for fun. I always stay on hostels. I meet the greatest people. With my silver hair I get the best looks. The Irish government doesnt want me full time. they don’t want to look after me in my golden years, because I am retired. It’s been great meeting you.

      Regards,
      Sarah

      Reply
  2. Bailey K.

    Aw. Even though I’ve never been an expat, I’ve known many who are, and this post is just so sweet to me. Right now I have several friends in the “frustration” stage. 🙁 They’ll get there!!

    Reply
  3. Elaine

    Love it! When I first moved to a different country I was too young to notice but my last move followed those 5 steps! If only the ‘everything is fantastic’ phase lasted indefinitely!

    Reply
  4. Vlad

    I’ve never lived in another country, but I do believe it’s just like you have described it, a new relationship. How long has it lasted until you got to the last stage? 🙂

    Reply
    • Els Post author

      I think I’m only in this phase since about a month or so… I work for the local tourist information centre now. Giving out info and promoting my new city to tourists has helped me a lot!

      Reply
  5. Elaine J. Masters

    I used to move a lot and you reminded me that it would often take at least 6 months to feel like I was home. That was around the Western States of America where yes, there are different cultural norms but nothing like moving to a new country. Wise words about working through the frustration phase. Once you’re on the other side there’s a great sense of accomplishment that will never leave you. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  6. Tim

    This is a great post and one I can fully relate to. I have been through all five stages a couple of times but never thought to observe their consistency. It is a great help to see I was not experiences these phases as a solo participant. You gotta love the “Everything is Fantastic” phase. I found in this phase I didn’t even see things that later appeared as huge boils on the beauty of the city I was in. It took some getting used to.

    Reply
  7. Mandy

    This is great. I’ve never been an expat but I hope to be one someday so it’s good to be realistic about what the process will be like. =)

    Reply
  8. Samantha

    I went through all these phases and then some when I moved from my home town in England to Prague in 2013. I knew hardly anyone when I moved here and I really struggled with the language barrier and the lack of friends I was making due to unemployment. It really is a life changing experience that could go either very well or very bad. However my only piece of advice to people looking to move to a new country is “it is what you make it”. If you aren’t willing to put the effort in to learn the new language don’t moan that you can’t understand or communicate. If you don’t go out of your way to meet people don’t complain you can’t make friends….you as a new member of that country have to make the effort to adapt not the other way around 🙂

    Reply

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