I am a trailing spouse, because I am the tag-along when my husband accepts a job in another country. I have now moved countries twice. Here are my thoughts on preparation.
Expect the process to be extremely emotional. You may find that you start shutting yourself off from your current friends; knowing you will have to say goodbye soon makes it hard to keep being emotionally open. This also makes any goodbye parties really hard. Expect to cry. To see what this process looks like in sequence, you can read my posts on moving to Singapore and moving to Dubai.
Before You Accept a Job in a Foreign Country
- Budget carefully and conservatively. My husband and I created a spreadsheet for each country before we moved, showing a minimum cost, basic cost, and ideal cost for a home, car/pub trans, schools, utilities, groceries, insurance, etc. Some of this info is easy to find, some not. Try this website that lets you compare cost of living in different countries. Do not accept an offer that will put you at your minimum budget level unless you are desperate to move there, as there will be unexpected costs, it will take a while to figure out how to live frugally, and it can be extremely stressful. Budget to have some padding, especially for extra entertainment/sightseeing to help you enjoy the new country from the start.
- To get an idea of home prices in various neighborhoods for budgeting, look at apartment/home finder websites, like Property Guru in Singapore and Property Finder in the UAE.
- Determine the voltage in the new country, and budget to re-purchase your necessary electric items if the voltage is different. I use a voltage converter for my sewing machine, but we have broken other items by trying them out without one (my mother-in-laws electric toothbrush charger).
- Join a moms group (or expat group) on Facebook or Meetup.com for the country or city you are heading to. You will have a million questions, and these folks will be your best resource. You can often just search these groups and find every question already answered. Ask them about:
- good schools
- advice on good neighborhoods
- public transportation versus car buying or renting
- grocery store reviews
- great cleaning companies
- reliable fix-it companies
- Some cities have Facebook groups dedicated to education, where people just get school reviews from other people. Here is one for Dubai. Here is one for expats trying to get into local schools in Singapore (extremely difficult, budget for an international school, S$15,000-S$30,000)
- If you are moving with a pet, be sure to look up quarantine/shots requirements for your destination country. For Singapore, if I remember correctly, the process needed to begin months and months ahead of the move to minimize quarantine time. You can also call veterinarians in the destination country, or your current country, for help. Dubai Kennels and Cattery comes highly recommended.
The move process takes a while. After your spouse has accepted a job and signed a contract, the move procedure begins, usually with a company or two coming to your home to look over your stuff to quote the move cost. Be sure to mention any breakable items with a lot of sentimental value, like an old dollhouse or mirror; ask that the moving company crate them. They can build a crate to size for extra protection. They will usually build this into the pack quote. Feel free to ask them what the move timeline will look like. I think in the US the pack took two or three days. In Singapore, they packed one day then moved the next for a move within Singapore. Click here to see my entire move timeline to Dubai, from my spouse saying, “Hey, this company might want to hire me,” to Day 6 in Dubai.
Before You Move
- Measure your furniture. Make a list of every room’s furniture and measurements as you will need to know where you are going to put your furniture in your new home when the movers arrive bright and early on move-in day. You can plan all this out on paper and be ready if you have the measurements of your furniture. Otherwise expect chaos. These guys usually have decent size teams and move quickly, so you will be directing them all over the home.
- Be aware that in Singapore you will have far less square footage than in America. Big American furniture is often an inconvenience. Unless you are really attached, just buy smaller stuff from Ikea or a local shop.
- Add in the country code for phone numbers of the most important people in your phone. They will pop up easily on Whatsapp if the country code is at the start (+1 needs to be added to the front of US numbers). Make a habit of adding the country code for new people you meet when you move abroad.
- Try to determine what school you will want to send your children to, as this and the location of your spouse’s job will impact where you look for a home. Then start looking up blogs and info for the various neighborhoods in your new city. Look at property websites and start figuring out what properties you want to see to find your home.
- Think about what you will do once you are settled in. I had two home businesses and an aerobics teaching job that I had to abandon when we moved to Singapore. The hubs and I talked about it and we decided I would start a blog. It has helped me keep in touch with people back home, and it gave me a way to express everything I was feeling, along with a “project” to work on. I was 5 months pregnant when we moved, with a bad SI joint situation that left me unable to walk much. The blog was a lifesaver and helped me realize I want to pursue writing in the future. The larger issue is that you find your “place” in your new life. Moving issues and minutiae will keep you busy for 3 months before and after a move, sometimes longer depending on the country. But after that? It’s just normal life, but way way far away from everyone you love and everything you are used to. Major risk for depression. For me, having something to work at and pour myself into was important. If you love to work, the people facilitating your move should be able to help you find employment too. If you will be unable to work, try looking up charities with which to volunteer. A friend of mine started working as a docent at the National Museum in Singapore and loved it. Another volunteered for an animal charity. Another tried for two years to find a job before she found a match. Don’t count on anything specific, be open, but have some idea what you want to pursue, and rely on online groups on FB and meetup.com to help you get there. If a group doesn’t exist, start one. Ask your friends on FB if they know anyone who has moved to your destination country. Expats make friends with newcomers easily because we are used to being alone in a new place. It just takes a little courage to get on out there and try.
- Get your kid a scrapbook to help them remember their friends from home, especially if they are age 4 or older. The moves got harder for my daughter around then. I haven’t tried this one but it is the only thing I can find on Amazon. Dubai has a nice book you can find at the bookstores. Or make your own by getting a book with heavyweight paper pages, and dedicate each page to a favorite friend, with a photo and some info about them like their age, favorite things, fun playdates or experiences had together, funniest things they have said, space for the friend to write a little message, etc. I would advise not watching the movie Inside Out before a move (I made that mistake…), or any other movies that look at moves negatively for that matter.
Packing for Temp Housing:
Temp housing is where you typically end up when you move out of state or country. In general, I hate temp housing. Hotel apartments are small, the kitchen tools are limited, and you are in the thick of culture shock so no matter how great it is, it is still emotionally difficult. You will usually start out with only what you could pack in suitcases, and later an air shipment will arrive to your temp housing. Not all companies provide an air shipment. In Singapore, we were in temp housing for a month; in Dubai, two months. In Dubai, our air shipment took over a month to arrive. It can be quite hard to plan for all this, but definitely put things that can’t be sitting in a hot container on a ship for weeks and weeks (like tech items) in your air shipment. Remove batteries from toys because they often melt/explode while shipping via sea container. With many of the items I suggest packing, I am mainly suggesting that you have them in temp housing, like a dust-buster if you have kids. You can buy this in the new country if that makes more sense to you when taking budget, voltage, and plug types into consideration.
Suitcase Pack List:
- Plug adaptors.
- Flat toys (puzzles, coloring books, puppets, costumes).
- Homeschool items if you are a tiger mom like me.
- Clothes for everyone for a week and swim suits.
- Cookware. Temp housing often has very little with which to prepare meals, and usually has nothing for kiddos. See this post for my temp housing meal plan and cookware/kitchen pack list.
- Some office supplies like pens, coloring supplies for kids, scissors, tape, etc.
- Favorite bedtime books.
- Bring fave stuffed animals on the plane for comfort—or maybe the second stringer if you are afraid to lose it. Putting it on a leash-type-thing or making a necklace out of it for your kiddo may be a good idea to prevent loss when everyone’s hands are full going through the airport.
- Pack an airplane gift for your kids and tell them about it so they look forward to the trip and/or one to give them upon arriving in temp housing. It should be a sort of welcome present, something to help them feel positive about the move. It will be hard on them too if they have any awareness of what is going on. A great one for Dubai is some beach toys, especially if you are moving from a place where you couldn’t go to the beach.
- All valuables, important documents, currency collections.
Air Shipment Pack List: Be sure to find out if your shipment will be in any kind of temperature controlled storage so you can vouch for the safety of items. Also be aware that you will probably have to move everything from your temp housing location to your permanent home, so don’t go crazy even if they offer you a lot of space.
- More clothes/shoes. You get very bored with what you packed in your suitcase. If you are in temp housing for 60 days like we were in Dubai, one week of outfits gets old, fast. For your kiddos, if you have clothes for the next size up, pack them! My child outgrew her clothes while in temp housing—ill-timed growth spurt, but because I had purchased all her next size clothes at a thrift store and they were in the container, I was out of luck. Just had to buy new stuff at the store, going against my personal clothing philosophy, see here and here).
- Tech items that can’t survive the heat/humidity of a sea voyage.
- More toys and more bedtime books.
- Favorite foods/snacks/packaged goods you aren’t sure you can get in your new country (like a care package to your future self).
Container Pack List:
- Everything else.
- Take batteries out of kids’ toys. Many of ours melted/exploded in the container rendering the item soundless (that might be a benefit with some of the annoying toys LOL).
- Take the time to purge things you no longer want or need before you go. Not all countries have cheap haul away services (in Dubai, use Take My Junk, in Singapore, Salvation Army will come if you pay them). Determine the plug type and electricity for small electronics items so you know what will be useless when you arrive. Buy a transformer to be able to use expensive items with a different voltage; we use a transformer for my sewing machine, my back massager, and some of my husband’s stuff. The rest of our electronic stuff we sold and re-purchased in the new country.
While in Temp Housing:
- You probably won’t have a car, so ask the hotel staff or a FB group what grocery stores are good for delivery, and ask what else delivers. I was surprised to find out that nearly everything in Dubai will deliver.
- Find out the emergency numbers for the new country like fire, police, ambulance, or catch-all like 911. Add them to your phone.
- Update Facebook with your new country location if you want. Change over your Whatsapp number once you have a local number.
- Load up your phone with apps specific to your city or country. Ask for suggestions on a FB group or Google it. For Dubai, I recommend:
- Washmen-Dry cleaning and laundry delivery. Use code JENNIFER_JASENSKY1 to save 40 dirhams.
- The Entertainer-It’s a buy one, get one free app. I hesitated to buy this, figuring we just try to minimize eating out in the first place. But you do. And it also covers kids entertainment places, photography, safari trips, music lessons, yacht trips, and more. With the snow play park visit in Mall of the Emirates, it paid for itself in 1 month. Highly recommend. Get the Dubai Body app for mani/pedi’s, haircuts, dentist appointments, fitness, and more.
- Careem-Like Uber, but has kids’ car seats available.
- RTA-app for driving fines and such. You can pay for street parking via text to 7275: text your plate number, space, the code on the sign, space, then the number of hours you want to park. Example for imaginary plate number F11111, near a sign that says 373C, for 2 hours: F11111 373C 2
- Dubai Calendar: I haven’t actually used it yet, but when I had nothing to do as a new arrival, it would have been great.
- Blue Mart: I used this grocery delivery app when I first arrived. They would deliver between 40 minutes and 4 hours. Blue Mart is a convenience store with some fresh offerings too.
- Websites to know:
- Dubizzle.com will be like Craigslist in the US or Gumtree in Singapore. Buy/Sell anything.
- TimeOutDubai.com for info on anything: food, entertainment, top ten lists, etc.
- SassyMamaDubai.com for info on all things related to mom life in Dubai. Also available in Singapore and Hong Kong.
- DesertCart.ae or Souq.com for all your Amazon-like shopping needs.
- Try to enjoy temp housing. Be a tourist in your new country; see all the bells and whistles before “real life” starts up again. You will put off seeing all the touristy things, but then try to squeeze it all in when preparing for the next move, and that’s no fun at all. Just do it now and find all the reasons to love your new country. It will help you adjust.
- Find new friends. Go on meetup.com, join local business groups or country groups/clubs/organizations, or look in your FB groups to see who wants to meet up. I found one of my friends through a FB group by asking if anyone had a bored kid the same age as my kid; we started meeting weekly for playdates. Making friends as an adult, in a new country, can be daunting and emotionally fraught at first. You almost feel like a traitor to your friends back home. Here is how it went for me on my first move abroad, while pregnant. Be aware, adult women at playgrounds in Dubai and Singapore will be a mix of moms and maids/helpers.
- Be creative to help your kids have fun.
- Buy a magazine and cut ads into pieces to create new jigsaw puzzles.
- Ask the hotel staff or grocery stores for cardboard boxes to play in.
- Use trash to make new toys. Use old cereal boxes to make stand up “scenes” and characters. For example, I took an oatmeal box and cut out two panels, and taped along the diagonal to make a school room scene with two walls. Then we used those little pizza box “tables” as desks, and cut characters out of cardboard (fold a bit at the bottom so they stand up) so my kiddo could play little make believe games. It was a coloring/craft project for her and then a toy. You can also save all kinds of random “trash” that kids can use creatively. I especially like water bottles and toilet paper tubes for making rockets, advertisements for paper airplane competitions, and toilet paper tubes to make bracelets (or shouting tubes, if you ask my littlest one).
Pack List For Moving Day
- Measuring Tape.
- Clipboard, pen, sharpie, masking tape, some paper.
Get someone to watch your kids if they are little. Move day is chaos. You have to check off every box that comes in as there is a record for each one, you have to keep an eye out for damaged goods (though most companies will let you tell them a few days later as you finish organizing), and you have to get the movers to put everything where you planned to have it. It is incredibly overwhelming, as you will run out of room for boxes, there will be questions every 5 minutes, and you are anxious to get settled in. Our move to Singapore went smoothly, to Dubai not as much. I didn’t realize I needed to provide water for the crew as people are funny about drinking the local water here. It really depends on the landlord maintaining the water tank. To make the process go smoothly, use masking tape and write on it with sharpie to show the name of each room so the movers will know when you have directed them to put boxes in certain rooms. Numbers can be helpful too as not all movers are literate in your language. You can also use the masking tape to mark the floor, but that can be hard to get up once it has been walked all over. The wall might be easier, but really they will just rely on you to direct them around. Measuring tape is for last minute checking with furniture or changes of plans. Bring cash to tip them (if you feel like it) and for emergencies like buying water for all, food, who knows. Try to designate certain areas for the breakable stuff; my breakable stuff ended up being stacked every which way in a closet and I almost broke it all trying to move it out of there.
Don’t check out of temp housing until you can get the kids’ room and kitchen set up. For us, our temp housing was paid for by the month, and we had an overlap of a few weeks that saved us when we had no cool water to bathe in and recurring broken air con problems in Dubai.