11 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Got My First Job Overseas

March 21, 2022

I can remember the excitement of getting on the airplane and heading overseas for my first international job. I had been working towards this day for some time and it was finally here. 

I was nervous yet excited.

How was it going to be? Was I going to like it? What would happen if I hated my job? Will I like the food? Will I have any friends?  So many questions running through my head, yet this was something I had always wanted to do.

Fast forward 20 years. I am still working overseas. I love it. However, there are definitely a few things I wished that I had known before I stepped on that airplane the first time.

I hope that you will find these 11 things helpful before you set off on your first overseas employment experience. 

1. Culture isn’t weird, it’s just different

I wish I could claim this as my own. Such wonderful advice. This short but powerful piece of advice was shared with me in the latter part of my international work life.

Often when we first move overseas, we are looking at everything through our home culture glasses. Our new host culture does things differently. We begin to judge others or classify them as weird. When we do this, we can begin to take a negative view of the host culture.

If we can learn to see the differences in the cultures as “different” and not “weird”, we can begin to understand and appreciate them more. Perhaps there are some underlying reasons why they do things the way they do them? Maybe their “different” makes more sense in this local environment.

Learning to appreciate your new host culture can be a huge step in life satisfaction & even job satisfaction. Perhaps you might want to make a list of the differences & find ones you can celebrate and quickly embrace.

2. Local language opens doors & hearts

As you look to head overseas, you will most likely be confronted with a new language. Yes, you can find English speakers to talk with but learning some of the local language will go a long way.

My advice – learn as much of the local language as possible. Start with learning some of the local greetings & then move on to simple conversations.

A simple greeting in the local language will bring a smile to peoples’ faces. Walls will be brought down & doors opened.

The more language you learn, the deeper you will be able to go into relationships with your local friends.

3. Make sure you have clearly defined your work expectations

In your excitement of getting hired for your new job, don’t forget to ask clarifying questions regarding your new work. From my experience, when your expectations are not aligned with reality, problems start to arise.

You will want to understand things like:

  • What are the number of hours of work expected & overtime procedures?
  • What are your precise responsibilities at work?
  • Who has the final authority?
  • Are you free to do anything you want during your non-work hours?
  • Are there any unspoken restrictions regarding movement, relationships & even religion?

As much as possible, it is wise to try to clearly define your work environment & expectations.

4. Understand your housing situation

As you move overseas, you will start the process of making your new home. Your house or place of residence can make or break your experience.  What do I mean?

There are a number of key issues to consider when moving overseas. You will want to know:

  • Are you living alone or with roommates? 
  • Are you living in a gated community or in a normal neighborhood?
  • Can you have visitors over to your house?
  • How far is your place from your work site?
  • Is your housing furnished?

Each of these questions could be a point of aggravation as you look to make your new home. They don’t have to be BUT if your expectations are not set appropriately, these can easily get under your skin.

Let’s take the example of visitors coming over to your house. One of my landlords told me that I wasn’t allowed to have any local friends in my apartment. He was very upset when he saw me bringing friends up to my place for tea. He actually threatened to kick me out if I kept having friends visit. I was ready to move to a new place because we loved having local people in our home. 

5. Understand the gender issues in your local culture

You can quickly get yourself in trouble if you don’t understand how to relate to someone of the opposite gender. Every culture has its rules. Don’t start off on the wrong foot because you assume the norms are just like your home culture.

Often in the work environment, you will develop relationships with the opposite gender. It is extremely important that you quickly understand what is appropriate and what can be perceived as “inappropriate”.

In one of my jobs, I worked in an office with 4 single ladies. I had to be very careful how I interacted with them. Because I lived in a fairly conservative country, it would have been inappropriate for me to go out to coffee alone with them. 

The same holds true for single women working in a “man’s world”. When you are being kind & serving, this can be perceived as flirtatious. Just be careful & be aware. 

6. Find & invest in local friends

This one is super important. We all need friends! Oftentimes foreign expats tend to stick together & not socialize with local people. Perhaps it is the lack of language, but it is very important to make local friends.

Not only is it fun to have friends, they can be a huge help to understanding the local culture and context. Over the years, our local friends have taught us so much. They have been our eyes into the local life and culture. 

We have found that if you are friendly and ask for help (see below), you can quickly and easily find people who are ready to be your friend. 

7. Is your host culture based on honor & shame OR guilt & innocence?

A lot has been written on this topic, so I am not going to go into a lot of details. I wish that I had known that different cultures view rules & social behavior differently.

In many cultures around the world, honor & shame play a huge role. People are not so concerned about doing something right or wrong unless it is going to bring shame to their family or bring honor to them. 

8. Try to find fun things to do in your local culture

Something that I always tell people moving overseas is you need outlets to have fun. Try to figure out what are the fun things to do in your city or village. 

Don’t get stuck comparing your home country to the local culture. There will be different fun things to do in each place.  

Do you enjoy sports? What about different foods? Do you love the beach? 

You might even need to step out of your comfort zone & try something new. Who would have known that I loved going to the local baths with my friends. What a great place to hang out & just relax. 

I would encourage you to find fun things to do with your expat friends but also with your local friends. 

9. Ask for help

I think it is very important to ask for help from your local hosts. You don’t need to be the “know it all”. Coming as a humble learner will help you develop relationships & trust with your new local friends.

Early in my time in North Africa, a German friend of mine encouraged me to ask for help from my local friends. Perhaps I was depending on him too much or perhaps he saw the value of asking for help. It was great advice.

My local friends were willing and ready to help me get my phone number, install the utilities, buy a car, learn the best way to get around town & even how to go to the local baths. 

10. How do you get your money out of the country?

Often people move overseas because there is an opportunity to make some good money. Perhaps the salaries are not as high as in the USA.  However, since most of your expenses are covered (housing, tickets etc), you can return home with a nice chunk of change.

The thing to remember is that you can only carry so much cash with you out of the country. Some countries even have laws about taking out local or foreign currency.

Make sure you research the different methods of getting your salary out of your new country. 

  • Can they pay you in foreign currency in your home country? 
  • Can you wire money out with a service like Western Union? 
  • Will your employer provide you the needed documentation?

11. What are the world wide tax implications?

One thing that we rarely think about when moving overseas are the tax implications. Some countries, like the USA, give a foreign-earned income exclusion. This sounds pretty great…you don’t pay US taxes on any money you make overseas (up to $108K).

There is a small detail to remember…actually it can be pretty massive. Many countries in the world require you to pay local income tax. Remember – this is normal. You may also be required to declare worldwide income & pay taxes on that.

Make sure you totally understand the tax implications of working in your new country. Quite often, taxes will have little or no impact. However, in some cases, they can add a lot of hassles and even extra expense.

If you are in the exciting preparation stages for your new job overseas, that’s wonderful!  Enjoy the anticipation.  We also hope you take some time to think through these 11 tips.  Then you won’t have to say, ‘I wish I knew…’. 

Curious about what it would look like to take your job global? Explore our global jobs board or connect with a coach on a 10-minute Discovery Call!

Written By: Sean German

Sean is our Scatter Coaching Supervisor and Senior Coach with over 20 years of experience living and working in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

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