As with any big change, moving abroad with kids involves risks and opportunity costs but millions of families do it every year. In many ways, it’s easier to move abroad now than ever before. These days, all the work in finding a job, getting a visa, and enrolling in school can be done from your kitchen table.
For your kids, there is plenty of upside to go along with the anxieties and challenges of starting a new school in a foreign country. They will learn a new culture and maybe a new language. They will make international friends and it will lead to interesting opportunities for the rest of their lives. There will be all manner of exotic foods for them to reject in favor of chicken nuggets.
If you don’t have a job and visa lined up, then these will be the threshold issues. However, many countries have a shortage of foreign workers and so getting a job and visa might be easier than you think.
Of course, there are a million ways for a move abroad to go wrong: you don’t feel safe there, the kids don’t like the school, you miss home, someone’s mega-allergic to something in the air, etc. But you’re adaptable and your kids are adaptable and most of the time foreign moves are joyful and expanding for the whole family.
I would start with some preliminary visa research to see what countries are in the realm of possibility. The country you’re coming from, your education, and professional skills will all be factors in where you can relocate. Here are a few countries that have great visa policies to attract foreign workers.
Australia has traditionally been a good destination for skilled workers. If you can get an Australian business to sponsor you, it should be pretty straightforward. Alternatively, if you are willing to work in a less populated area, you will likely be able to get a regional visa provided that you score high enough on the Australian points system. The points system gives you a ranking based on your age, education, work experience, etc.
If you work remotely or could work remotely, you might think about moving to Estonia. Estonia is a pioneer in electronic residency and they have launched a Digital Nomad visa. You can work for up to a year if you work remotely for a company or clients and have a monthly income of at least c. €3,500 ($4,000).
No visa is required for the first 180 days of a trip to Mexico if you’re a citizen of the US, Canada, Japan, or most of Europe. Even if you’re not from one of these countries, business visas in Mexico are reportedly easier and faster than for many other countries.
Nicaragua is a popular destination for expats. For residents of many countries, no visa is required for the initial visit. For longer stays, Nicaragua offers visas if you can demonstrate that you don’t have a criminal record and that you have investment income of $750. There is also a path to permanent residency for investors in Nicaragua. You have to establish a business and invest $30,000 in Nicaragua.
Of course, visas for your spouse and/or kids are another piece of the puzzle. Again, these countries want you to come and work there, so obtaining visas for your spouse and children is perfectly attainable.
Finding a job in a foreign country is mostly the same as finding a job domestically. Your chances improve if you apply to a lot of jobs, stay flexible about the description and salary, deal with rejection with good humor, and work through the process steadily and enthusiastically.
LinkedIn is probably both the easiest and best way to find a job abroad these days. Once you have a profile, it takes two minutes to search for the precise role you’re looking for in the precise location you’d like to do it. And most serious employers will post on LinkedIn, even if they cross post on job boards or elsewhere.
If you’re not a LinkedIn fan, you can search through the job boards, like Monster.com or Glassdoor, which both have plenty of international jobs. Expat Network also has a job board, although it’s less searchable than the bigger sites.
English speakers can find language-teaching jobs pretty easily. If you’re not already a teacher with qualifications and experience, it might be hard to support a family with English teaching gigs. But don’t rule it out if it sparks an interest for you. Japan and South Korea, in particular, have pretty generous positions even if you don’t have teaching experience.
Similarly, gap-year type jobs like barista and volunteer work are usually pretty easy to get. If money is not a problem for you, those are great ways to integrate into your local culture.
Start looking at schools early because classes fill up and, in addition, it might be difficult to enrol your kids mid-semester.
A lot of expats choose international schools for their kids and you’ll likely be able to find at least one of these schools wherever you are. These schools are populated by the globetrotting kids you would expect: the sons and daughters of diplomats, military, academics and businesspeople. It’s not just Brits and Americans but also all the people who are comfortable in English and don’t have a local school in their own language.
International schools are expensive, sometimes as expensive as college. The other downside is that turnover tends to be high. The students and faculty are travelers by definition and so there are a lot of new faces every year. It can also be hard to find qualified teachers in the first place. As a result, international schools sometimes have a more ad hoc, disorganized feel than you may be used to at home.
Many international schools follow the international baccalaureate curriculum. It’s exam-based and schools must be authorized by the International Baccalaureate organization, based in Switzerland.
Or you could send the kids to local schools. This is what we do, although we’ve been living abroad for a long time, don’t plan to move, and have gotten comfortable with the local schools.
There are lots of advantages to local schools. The school is close to your house. Hopefully, the kids will make local friends, integrate into the culture, and learn the language. It’s usually free or inexpensive and the learning environment might be more stable than the international schools.
On the other hand, integration into local schools might not be as smooth as you’d like. The kids might have a hard time fitting in and you, too, might not be able to pierce the parent cliques that have grown up over the years. In addition, the learning transition might be choppy – maybe the local curriculum doesn’t line up with what your child was doing at home or what she will be doing in the next stage of her life like college.
Finally, some parents choose to homeschool when they move abroad. The US State Department provides some information on this for their own employees, including links to the Home School Legal Defense Association. A threshold question is whether homeschooling is even legal in your new country, and the HSLDA provides some preliminary country-by-country guidelines. If it is legal, then there are lots of well-developed options to consider: curricula and resources for all ages, accredited providers, remote and local tutors. If you homeschool, you’ll have to find social events for your kids, like extracurricular activities and sports.
Talking about the move with kids
Preparing your kids for the move may be the most challenging part of the whole process. Some kids seem to enjoy moving to a new country or at least don’t mind it. There will probably be something positive that the kids can fix on, like the new apartment or some local attraction or some new privilege. In addition, moving always involves a lot of junk food and television; it’s usually a fun adventure where the normal rules don’t apply. For younger kids, in particular, family provides everything they want or need, so it’s usually not a big deal to move abroad with little kids as long as they get plenty of attention from you.
But some kids will be unhappy about the move. They’re leaving their home and all their friends and they might not have much of a say in the decision. So, in lots of ways, they’re within their rights to oppose the move. If you’re doing it anyways, then you have to mitigate as best you can.
The internet is full of good ideas for making the move easier. Here are a few explainers that I thought were useful: parents.com, pods.com, neighbor.com, aetnainternational.com.
The top lessons seems to be:
- Give your kids as much time as possible. More time will help them process the move and get comfortable.
- Talk to them openly and realistically. Spend a lot of time listening. It’s okay to pitch the move enthusiastically but don’t pretend that the lousy parts aren’t lousy.
- Visit beforehand if possible and make that first trip a fun one: playgrounds and ice cream.
- For younger kids, pack up their old room last and set up their new room first.
- Plan it out. It’s a lot of work to move even without kids. Schedule the move week, pack overnight bags, etc. When you move abroad, most of your stuff will take six weeks to come over on the boat, so you’ll need to pack your big suitcases carefully.
- Guide the kids into new friendships in the new location. Go to organized activities, visit the local community center, look for other newcomers, etc.
- For older kids, involve them in the move. Give them choices if you can, from where to live to how to decorate.
- Find agreeable ways to say goodbye. A party if they want one. When I moved abroad as a teenager, my parents let me bring a couple of my best American friends to spend the summer in Europe. These were the halcyon days and we still joke about that summer when we get together all these years later.
- Keep up contact with old friends and visit home when you can.
Finally, there are lots of logistics to moving abroad. Setting up utilities can be slow and painful, since you’re not in the system already. You’ll need to get insurance, although this has been easier than utilities in our experience. In some countries, you need to register in the region, even if you already have a visa.
It’s worth connecting with your local embassy or consulate. They often have good resources, like checklists, or ways to connect with other expats, or distribution lists for updates and local news.
It’s also good to follow a local blog before you move. Most countries have one or two expat bloggers that can give you a good boots-on-the-ground sense of the country. Even if they’re just talking about changes to the trash collection times or whatever, blogs can be the best resource for getting into the local vibe.
It’s never the right time to move abroad with kids, so don’t let that hold you back. People have been moving abroad since humanity started and most of the time it goes just fine. And if it doesn’t, well, at least you got it out of your system.