The Challenges of Moving Abroad as a First Time Expat


I’m 24 years old and I have officially been living in Spain for six months. As I have just submitted my application for renewal to the Auxiliares de Conversacion program in Spain, I’m realizing how much time flies. It feels as if I just arrived a month ago. And yet, I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited 7 new cities in Europe since arriving (if you knew some of my expat counterparts, they’d probably find that number laughable). But I’m pretty damn happy with it. For those of you wondering how this adventure is going for me, or for anyone considering relocating abroad, know that this experience is one of a lifetime. To give you an idea of what it’s been like for me in terms of figuring it all out, I’ve listed the most challenging parts of my move abroad.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

I would think this is stating the obvious, but you won’t know how true this is until you’ve experienced it first hand. Moving abroad is not the same as a vacation. It is a commitment that comes with all sorts of unexpected responsibilities and a seemingly never-ending to do list. In the instance of Spain, it began with requirement number one: Obtaining a job. If you plan on going abroad for a long duration, you’ll need a visa in order to legally stay within the borders and set up shop in your own apartment. Generally, the way this works (aside from marriage, family connections or enrollment at a university) you’ll need a job in order to obtain a visa.

A little background:

I’m in Spain doing a program called Auxiliares de Conversacion. This is a cultural exchange program funded by the Spanish government, intended to provide a supplemental resource to public schools with bilingual programs in Spain. The supplemental resource comes in the form of native English speakers who have a desire to experience living in Spain for a year. That’s me! Basically, North Americans and UK citizens are tasked with assisting teachers for 12 hours a week in schools chosen for you by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. You fill out a lengthy application (in Spanish) and wait for what seems like a lifetime to be given a regional placement. Next up, apply for a Spanish student visa, figure out how to get to Spain, where you’ll live, how to get to work etc all on your own (and most likely, all in Spanish). No coddling here. The program provides you with the necessary paperwork to prove you’re eligible for a visa, healthcare, and 700 euros a month (with the exception of Madrid). Other than that, you’re on your own. There are countless details associated with this program that require repeated clarification. Even after having been here six months, I’m still figuring it all out myself!

There are 17 autonomous communities within Spain. I was placed in the autonomous community of Murcia, in the Southeast. To my delight, I was assigned to two schools about twenty minutes outside of the region’s capital, which is also called Murcia. It’s not the biggest city, but I was given the chance to live in Spain, therefore, I was over the moon. My placement would permit me to live in a city center and commute to work during the week.

The uncertainties of the Auxiliares de Conversacion program left me hanging until just a couple months before my official departure. In other words, I didn’t know I would have a job until June. I had two months to complete the visa process (which should be an entire post of its own).

Fast forward to my arrival in Murcia. It’s time to find an apartment, set up a Spanish bank account, set up a cell phone plan, begin the process of acquiring my residency card and sort out the logistics of commuting to my new job. Oh, did I mention, I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish when I first arrived? Quite the oversight on my part.

It’s not as simple as walking into the Verizon store and waiting for someone to shove a contract down your throat. You need a lease and bank account in order to set up your phone and wifi. You also have to have a bank account to set up a lease. Here’s the kicker – you may need to have a lease already in order to set up a bank account. Seems a bit conflicting and confusing, huh? Welcome to Spain!

I’ll just say, four months in, I was still in the middle of the process of obtaining my residency card, known as the TIE. Frankly, I couldn’t give you a rundown of this process if my life depended on it. People in my position have different experiences with it. We’re given conflicting information. All I know is, you have to be persistent. And probably have some Spanish speakers willing to help you (thank you to my lovely, life saving, bilingual roommate, Annie, who has made everything so smooth).

And yes, if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to have a great time (sarcasm). However, people will help you along the way. I quickly found an awesome new roommate through my program’s Facebook group. She spoke Spanish and made the process easier. Additionally, new friends I made while still stuck in the early AirBnB phase helped me with the apartment search. This brings me to my next glorious point…

Having to rely on the kindness of strangers

I found this to be one of the most difficult aspects (and greatest culture shocks) of moving abroad. Maybe it’s my cynical outlook on life, maybe it’s being an American. I was overwhelmed by how kind people were when I first arrived to Spain. When I flew into Barcelona and was hours early to my AirBnB check in, I found myself wandering around El Raval with a massive suitcase and 10 pound backpack. Some locals spotted me and offered me a seat at their cafe table to join them for coffee and relax for a little bit. All I could think was “are they going to steal my stuff?” “I was taught not to talk to strangers!” “This is how horror movies always start.”

An older woman on my first train to Murcia helped me figure out the right time to get off and insisted on helping me with my bags. She then communicated my destination and lack of Spanish to a taxi driver upon exiting the train.

My first stop in Murcia was a coffee shop. Suitcase still in hand, I needed caffeine to help me get my shit together. A barista recognized my poor attempt to order coffee in Spanish, then spotted my vape sticking out of my bag and drew me a map to the nearest vape shop!

The following week, this person helped me call nearly a million ads for available flats, took me to the viewings and translated between me and the potential landlords.

My fellow teachers have offered me rides from Murcia’s city center to school and the headmaster even drives me between the two schools I work at in the middle of the day! I began tutoring a sweet, six-year old girl, whose mother has found me more side work, made my lonely 24th birthday memorable and prepared a beautiful Spanish meal during every tutoring session.

When I got here, I was hesitant to allow anyone to help me too much – considering I wasn’t sure what they expected in return. The answer? Most of the time, nothing – or practice speaking English! This mindset took me awhile to adapt to and accept, but for the better, it has opened my mind to the idea that people can be good-natured (and that I needed to seriously reflect on the culture I come from).

New lifestyle

In fact, there are quite a few things that make me reflect on the culture I come from. While Spain is a pretty westernized country, it’s still a foreign culture that one has to adapt to. The general lifestyle and daily schedule is a major contrast. Starting with my work week. In Virginia, I was a workaholic. I grew accustomed to working a minimum or 40 hours a week, and a lot of the time, up to 60 hours. While this is generally the lifestyle of many Americans in the restaurant industry, my own reasons were A) money and B) thriving off of a day’s hard work. I don’t think I felt satisfied coming home and relaxing until I’d worn myself down. Even after 6 months in Spain, I still crave this feeling. Here, I officially work 12 hours a week. I have about 13 hours worth of private lessons (unofficial work) to supplement my income. And it’s not exactly churning out a hundred desserts and cleaning floors. Life is relaxed. Life moves slowly. Everything closes between 2 and 5 pm for siesta. Nothing is open on Sundays. I realize this sounds ridiculous consider this a ‘challenge’, but it is a unique type of adjustment.

The future

On another serious note: If you’re like me, one challenge will be worrying about your future. The fact is, I am not planning to be an English teacher for the rest of my life. I had never planned to be an English teacher before I learned that it was a path to traveling. I have goals of working in many different fields. But a lifelong career in education, even in beautiful España, is simply not in the cards for me. Thus, I am always consumed with questions about what’s next in life. Depending on how seriously you take yourself, this can become crippling. Spending time traveling is a wonderful experience, especially when the job market is tough back home. However, this job is what many refer to as a “band aid solution”. Consider this if you’re planning on becoming an expat but also have major career goals. Why are you doing it? What do you want to get out of this? Do you know what’s next? I’m not saying one should have all of the answers. But once you’ve gotten comfortable in your new life, you may begin asking yourself how long you want to be comfortable for.

Not having all of your possessions

It’s just not practical to bring all of your stuff across the world with you. Enough said. Generally, this forces us to realize how much shit we don’t need. But then again, I do miss my car like crazy. I haven’t driven in 6 months! I realize how much I used to depend on my car, and how fortunate I am to have one at home. Now, I depend on public transportation – fun stuff! Sometimes, planning my transport throughout Spain and other countries makes me feel like I could be a damn travel agent. Of course, reaching this point has required some critical foreign language skills. On that note…

The language barrier

I’ve mentioned it oh-so subtly multiple times, so now I’ll elaborate on my overall experience with this…

Upon first arriving in Spain, I was in for a rude awakening. I had not previously learned Spanish. Studied French. Studied Arabic. But Spanish? Nada.

I arrogantly thought I could get by without it. I have never felt more naive in my life. A large part of this is due to the preparation associated with relocating across the world. It’s so much more than just learning some Spanish. Moving out of your current apartment in the US, canceling health insurance, getting fingerprints and a background check completed, applying for your visa, packing, planning, and cramming in all of those extra work hours in order to save up money before your departure, becomes all-consuming.

I initially flew into Barcelona. The first few people I met did not speak English. I thought that was bad. I was wrong. One could get by much easier in Barcelona with only English at their disposal.

Murcia, however, is a whole different animal. One should understand that Murcia is not a touristic region. English hasn’t always been considered an essential here. Why should it be? Why would I expect the people of a foreign country to speak my language rather than their own?

I have been humbled by these past 6 months… my start was incredibly fun and full of new experiences, but with respect to leading a normal life by communication, it was more difficult than I anticipated. While the experiences have been incredible here, the bottom line is that I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers (and google translate) every single day for the first couple of months I was here in order to do the most basic daily tasks. Here’s a comprehensive list of things which can become unbelievably complicated when you don’t speak the local language:

  • Opening a bank account
  • Buying an international SIM card
  • Making calls to flat listings
  • Setting up wifi
  • Meeting your potential landlord
  • Asking for directions
  • Signing a lease
  • Buying cold medicine
  • Signing a job contract
  • Ensuring you’re on the right bus or train
  • Ordering a whiskey sour
  • Answering your apartment buzzer
  • Asking the cost of something and understanding the answer
  • Ordering from a menu
  • Mailing anything
  • Dealing with panhandlers
  • Getting your hair cut

But you know what? You suck it up. You learn the essentials. You get by making friends who have offered their time, assistance and patience. You return that with friendship and decency. And once you reach your breaking point, you’ll sit down with some makeshift flashcards and begin to teach yourself. For me, my breaking point occurred when I attempted to communicate my ideal haircut by saying “only the bitches” (solo los putas) in Spanish, when I intended “only the ends” (sólo los puntas) to a salon employee.

I hope this hasn’t scared you out of moving abroad. It’s not meant to. These are simply my biggest mishaps that could help you avoid, or at least prepare for the worst. And give my family and friends a good laugh in case they’re thinking I’m just sitting around on a beach drinking sangria all day… I’m not. The experience’s good outweighs the bad. I’m learning a language, I’ve learned how to relocate (so moving around in my home country should be a piece of cake one day), I’ve become comfortable traveling alone and have become a more effective communicator. My normal ‘problems’ and life at home have been put into perspective. I have awesome friendships and found a home in a foreign country. You can too. Not convinced? I’ll be sure to write about the wonderful side of moving abroad. But settle in – that will be a long post.

Seriously, anytime things are getting tough in Spain, just go dancing.

10 thoughts on “The Challenges of Moving Abroad as a First Time Expat”

  1. This was a great read. We take so much for granted being in our home countries but traveling is eye opening. This sounds like an amazing and character building experience. Safe Travels!

  2. What an adjustment! I knew about siesta time and that life is more relaxed, but to know about it and experience it are two different things.

  3. You are doing well and embracing this new experience with its ups and downs. The fact that you are renewing your contract and extending your stay shows this. I like that you are using the opportunity to also travel and have more experiences which is exciting.

  4. I moved to Australia after graduating college. A rewarding yet tricky experience! Spain would be an amazing place to live.

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