Learning to Live in a Foreign CountryWhile preparing for IELTS, from time to time it might be useful to visualize your end goal with it: getting the certificate and the much longed for scholarship and/or visa for your dream destination or university course. This will keep your motivation up during the period of hard work, and make you feel a bit better prepared when you are finally given the green light.

When you arrive in a new country, perhaps even a new continent, chances are you will feel dizzied by all the cultural differences at first. Everything around you will seem new: the colors, the sounds, the smells, the people, transportation, food, and of course the language. To help you feel a little less overwhelmed psychologically, here are a few tips that might help you accommodate to your new surroundings.

1, Do your research.

In some cases it might be helpful if a few months before your relocating you do some research about the country, city, or university in advance on the internet. This might help you better prepare for the local characteristics of the place, its climate, the potential dangers (e.g diseases that you need a vaccination against; crime), or even so seemingly small but very important questions as what electronic adapters you will need to buy preferably while still at home, to be able to use your laptop immediately once you are at your new place.

Friends or acquaintances already living there could also serve with some useful tips about the special features of the place, especially if they a, live exactly where you are going (i.e in the same city/neighborhood, not just country), or b, if they themselves are travelers. The latter might be important because if they have travelled as a lifestyle before, they might better understand the type of information that you are after.

Do not go overboard with either the reading or the quizzing and fussing though, as you will really only see what (your) reality of the place is like once you get there. You can still keep asking important questions ‘live’, but having your eyes open too in the meantime to be able to tailor what you are told to what you see, perceive of the place with what you need. We are all different, have slightly different lifestyle needs and people who do not share the same habits might not be able to answer our questions satisfactorily, much though they would like to.

I remember moving to Australia years ago and trying to prepare for this radically new place for me in advance (having lived my whole life in Hungary prior), walking around in the biggest summer heat in the streets of Budapest, to ‘practice’ being exposed to the sun in the strongest summer month in my country. When a month later I arrived on the continent though, right into its chilliest winter weather, without any warm clothes, I was at odds as to how to dress up so that I do not catch a cold. So much for my preparing for ‘the extremely hot climate’ Down Under.
My first accommodation at the time was with a young Australian solider, who would go for a swim in the bay right below our house every morning and by his example convinced me that it was ‘no biggie’, it was safe, so one day I decided to go for a swim myself, but not seeing anybody else ever do this other than my roomie, I felt a certain unease the whole time and quickly got out of the water after a few minutes. A few weeks later I was invited to the local aquarium downtown and got to see the most horrendous, ugliest and deadliest see creatures there that lurk beneath the surface and realized that I probably should not have believed the solider that it was safe to take a dip there. I never ever risked swimming in the bay after that, although he kept his habit..
Before moving to Mexico (Cancún), years later I was bombarding a friend there about the weather too, the sun, crime, dangerous animals and any necessary vaccination. He was very patient and answered all my emails before my trip, but I could tell that he was a bit bemused by my questions. Upon arriving there I realized that although Mexico does have a high crime rate, the Yucatan peninsula is a peaceful place, so I really should not have worried as not even the locals bother to get themselves vaccinated against the typical diseases of the place. Trust own eyes/perception and learn to trust your common sense. Check what (the majority) of the locals are doing.

2, Have your traveling hacks, habits at the ready. (Or develop some.)

Again, you might have glasses, use some special medication, wear special shoes, any unusual personal needs that makes life and especially traveling a bit more of a hassle. You need to prepare to take these with you, and take them in such a way that they do not break, spill, catch a customs officer’s attention, etc.

Some concrete, packing tips:

  • Put underwear in socks to save space in your suitcase.
  • Avoid wrinkling of clothes by rolling them up instead of folding them.
  • Use transparent plastic bags to separate your things in the suitcase. Cosmetic bags of different sizes are nice, but they take up space, they weigh more and they are not disposable. You want to have as little stuff as possible and carry it with you in the most straightforward way possible. With less baggage you are freer, lighter, more mobile, become less tired and in some cases might actually even feel safer/less conspicuous.
  • Save travel size containers of your favorite cosmetic products in advance.
  • Do not forget to organize all your cables, rechargers for all your gadgets; buy the right adapter before the trip.
  • Be strict about the amount of clothing you take. As a rule of thumb, since I started my ‘nomad’ lifestyle, I have made sure that when I travel/move places, I only take with me
    • 2 pairs of jeans/pants
    • 2 skirts/dresses
    • 10 T-shirts
    • 5-5-5 pairs of different underwear
    • 2 jumpers
    • some elegant clothes
    • some sporty/comfortable clothes
    • 2 pijamas
    • 2 pairs of shoes, for different weather, plus my sneakers for running/walking, all in matching colors (in my case black)

I am of course not saying that this is the ultimate packing list, but I am saying that you should create your own, consciously considering your needs..

I also always make sure I take a textile bag with me on my trips. They are amazingly useful, because they take up much less space in a suitcase than a woman’s purse or a handbag would, they are lighter and foldable, and if you suddenly need to make another ‘bag’ at the airport (for example because your suitcase is too heavy after a trip due to all the souvenirs you bought which exceed the weight limit), you can pass it off as one. They also look cheaper and will not draw anybody’s attention on a day trip at your destination so much as a more expensive, flashy purse might.

You might also want to take a simple and loose fitting raincoat with you, especially if you are a woman. Other than protecting you from the rain it might come in handy when the air conditioning is too strong on board of a plane, train, or bus and if you do not want to draw attention to your body or your clothes underneath. Unlike a real coat or jacket, it also has the advantage that it takes up less space in your bag and is lighter and it does not matter if you put it on a bit wrinkled.

Speaking of practical minimalism, you also have to be prepared that you will not find all your favorite products, even food ingredients at your new place. If you are not going for long, not going far and the thing you use do not take up too much space and do not expire quickly, you might want to consider taking some stock with you. In any other case, however, it is best if you just give up on certain fixed habits of yours and try to look for alternative solutions in your new life to your necessities. A little bit of flexibility will take you far and will free up your mind from unnecessary worrying. You will be surprised how little stuff you actually ‘need’ in life.

When packing your suitcase, try to put the heavy objects near its wheels. This way it will be easier to roll it around and its contents will not get completely jumbled up during your trip.

3, Have a concrete plan as to who is going to be receiving you right after you arrive and where you will be staying in the first few days, weeks.

No matter how seasoned a traveler is, arriving somewhere new can be an intimidating experience. If there is someone there to meet you at the airport, put you up for your first few days or weeks in the new place and show you some of the ropes, you will feel much, much calmer and find your bearings quicker.

4, Buy a cell/SIM card, a metro card, a metro map; discover!

Once you are not reeling from jet lag anymore, the next item on your to do list is to get a cheap local cell phone, or a SIM card, so that you are can now be contacted, look into how local transportation works, get a (digital?) map and start discovering your surroundings. If your smart phone does not have internet on it, take screenshots of the exact surroundings of the place where you are going that day (e.g the city center). If your host does not have internet at home, you can do this in a nearby cafe too.

For example when I move to a new place, even if it is within the same country or city but a different neighborhood, I always look for: the convenience store closest to my apartment, a gym or park, a nearby cheap restaurant, and if my apartment does not have a washing machine, a laundry place. These are my ‘first things first’, that is to say, my initial settling in routine when I arrive somewhere new.

I normally walk as much as possible, to really ‘take in’ the new place better. While prowling the streets though, it is important that you dress, behave in a way that draws as little attention as possible. Dress very simply and comfortably, take the least amount of stuff with you and whatever you can hide under your clothes (e.g keys, documents, money).

5, Socialize, sign up for stuff, take part!

Even if you are an introvert, you must actively seek out ways to ‘put yourself out there’ in your new community. You need to talk to people, accept their help, ask for their help with concrete things, voice your needs as clearly as possible. In my experience people love to help a newcomer, but they sometimes need help by concrete questions and requests. You might want to consider signing up for sports clubs, book clubs, any other activities where you can meet new people and make new friends. You might also need a (part-time?) job, which can also be found best by putting out feelers in the community or going online.

6, Money, money, …money?

Other than getting used to always calculating prices in the new currency quickly in your head in the shops, you will also have to manage your money in different ways too. You need to be realistic about your resources and you might have to look for a subsidiary income as well. Either way, you need to have a very clear idea about what your budget is, and you must be extremely disciplined to keep to it on a daily basis. This can be best done by splitting your expenses into two main categories: fixed monthly expenses (e.g rent and traveling expenses), and daily costs (e.g food, laundry, any other added traveling costs, etc).

One of my ex students emailed me a while back, exactly regarding this challenge in his new life. With his permission, here is his letter and the advice I gave him via email.

“Dear Fatime,

After several months of hard work, last June I received my formal offer to study a PhD at the University of Bristol. Fortunately, I won a scholarship from the Mexican Government to study there including tuition fees and living costs. I am so happy, because this year I will go to England, it is a dream come true. Sadly, I don´t have any experience living abroad and I know you are an expert in that subject, because you have lived in many countries such as Australia, England, etc.
So I would like to know if you could give me some advice on how to survive in England without spending a lot of money, as you know life is very expensive in that country and I am scared about it. CONACYT will give me 770 pounds per month for my living expenses, do you think it is enough and how can I make sure I use that money best?.

Thanks in advance,


“Hey, dear Jorge,

Lovely to hear from you and congratulations!

Yes, I have lived in other countries and I have also lived in Hungary, the hardest of all, economically speaking. I have been financially independent for 16 years now but it is only recently that I really learned to handle my money very carefully; when I arrived in Mexico, actually! I was far from home, without any (local) friends yet to rely on, without any savings or a decent salary. I earned 8 000 pesos in my first job in Cancun, so I created a system for myself to help me survive. At the beginning of each month I always broke down my budget into basic categories (e.g rent 1 500, food and laundry and daily toiletries 5 500, miscellaneous 1 000), put the money into envelopes accordingly and insanely strictly kept to the budget throughout the month ahead. Of course sometimes I had to spend a bit more in a day on things, then I compensated by trying to spend less the next day, etc. This was possible, because I had a crystal clear idea about how much I could spend in a day (150 pesos). Sometimes I was hungry,, but all the while I knew that all this was to be temporary in my life, which it was indeed, as after the first half a year I got promoted and started to earn very well and felt increasingly confident and stable in my new country. To sum up, I think that

-learning the prices of things in the new country (–this’ll take a while and quite a few supermarket ‘field trips’ :)),
– breaking down your expenses into categories and daily budgets within that and then quite strictly keeping to them,
-learning to cook basic, cheap dishes (of pasta, vegetables, bread stuff…),
-and maybe getting a temp job, preferably connected to your academic goals

will all help you a lot.

The world is those who’re brave and life always pays them amply in the end. Patience, resilience, confidence, and this is going to be an amazingly formative period in your life.

Best of luck with it and keep me posted from time to time!”

Happy studying, happy traveling,