12 Tips for the Expat Life

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A reader recently commented that she and her husband would be moving abroad and asked if I’d share a bit about my experience as an expat. I lived in Switzerland from 2004-2006 and my British husband lived in the U.S. for nine years, so while we were familiar with life abroad, Scandinavia has been something entirely new to us both. Below are some tips for expat living I’ve gathered from our experience thus far.

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#1 – Research your new homeland. I had such fun reading about Denmark and the Danish people prior to our move. If you’re curious about Scandinavia, I highly recommend The Year of Living Danishly and The Almost Nearly Perfect People. They helped prepare me for life in Denmark and gave me strong sense of what to expect upon arrival. There have been countless times here that I’ve turned to Simon and exclaimed, “It’s just like in the book!” We also watched lots of Danish films and tv shows with English subtitles (we became addicted to Borgen, The Killing, and The Bridge). Simon spotted one of the actors at a cafe this summer and totally geeked out at his Danish star spotting.

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#2 – There will be a lot of paperwork. Sharpen your pencils because you’ll be filling out lots of important forms. Luckily for me, Simon is an EU citizen (though due to Brexit, not for long…) and is working in Denmark so the process wasn’t outrageously complicated, but we still made several trips to the immigration office. Pay attention to detail (like when your residence permit expires, oops!) and get tons of passport photos taken (you’ll need them, trust me). It also never hurts to have multiple copies of your birth certificate, passport, and marriage certificate. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but Denmark has graciously extended my residence permit for five years.

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#3 – Don’t ship anything priceless. We’ve learned this the hard way. Boxes get lost and things get broken in transit. If there’s anything you own that you simply can’t live without (your grandmother’s locket, your first edition copy of Eloise in Paris…), carry it on you. This goes for important paperwork too. When it comes to fragile items, go overboard on the bubblewrap. You’ll be glad you did. Label every box with your name and the box number. Keep a detailed inventory of what is in each box. This is crucial for both customs and insurance purposes.

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#4 – Bring your pet. Tons of people have asked how we got our pug to Denmark. It was tricky with Alfred because he’s too tall for the small carriers that fit under the airplane seat and pugs typically aren’t allowed in cargo because of their breathing issues. In the end, we obtained paperwork allowing me to bring Alfred into the cabin as an emotional support animal. He was such a good boy and sat on my lap the entire flight. I’m a nervous flier in general (turbulence is not my friend), so it was comforting to have my cuddly best bud with me. Be sure to check the rules of your specific airline as pet and service animal policies vary greatly. We are in the process of obtaining an EU pet passport for Alfred (amazing…) as there is also a great deal of immigration paperwork you need filled out when transporting an animal from country to country. Triple check that your vet has filled out the correct paperwork for your specific destination and that you’ve had it validated by the correct parties in the States prior to your departure.

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#5 – Get settled. Even though we’re in a rental, I’m doing everything I can to make our Danish apartment feel like home. Paint the walls (we love our new pink hue!), hang your favorite art, and make things cozy. Coming home each day to an inspiring space that feels like your own can help ease the shock of a transition abroad (our living room, above, is a work in progress…).

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#6 – Learn the native tongue. This has been a struggle for me because Danish is a very difficult language. There are countless words I simply can’t pronounce (much to the amusement of my new friends and neighbors). While most Scandinavians speak near flawless English, knowing even some Danish would undoubtedly give me more access into Danish society and culture. I’m working on it.

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#7 – Accept that simple tasks may feel complicated. I still don’t understand why our Danish bank requires me to go to the post office to make a cash deposit. Or why when I went to the mobile phone store yesterday, I was sent to the post office to pay my bill….? It makes no sense to me, but it’s just the way it is here in Denmark. I’ve had to once again accept that stores aren’t open 24/7 (capitalism be damned…) and that things move at slower pace than they did Stateside. Learn to adapt and have patience. The more you fight the differences, the more frustrated you’ll become. Things won’t be the same as they are back home. Try new things and venture outside your comfort zone. Indulge in the local delicacies (even if they include smoked herring) and do your best to embrace your new culture.

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#8 – Befriend locals. The greatest reward of being in Denmark is definitely the friendships I’ve formed. Upon arrival, I was lucky to meet people through this blog and my instagram. We’ve also become close with our Danish neighbors. Thor, their 3-year-old, stops by daily to terrorize his beloved “Alfie hund,” play hide and seek, and have Gangam Style dance parties (he taught me all the moves). We can’t understand a word each other says, but we have so much fun. If Simon and I get pregnant here, Thor’s mom, who is my age and a midwife at our local hospital, will deliver our baby. Our friendship with this wonderful family has taught us countless things about Danish tradition, parenting, and life. I am so grateful.

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#9 – Play tourist in your new city. I’ve had such fun exploring Copenhagen and have made a big effort to see/do things I wouldn’t want to miss if I were here on vacation. I still have lots of places to visit, but I’ve covered a fair amount of territory (Frederiksborg Castle and the Louisiana Museum have been highlights). I’ll be sharing a Copenhagen city guide with all my favorite places soon. Exploring your new city will help integrate you in your new culture and help you to appreciate its complexities.

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#10 – Accept that it can be lonely. Living in a foreign country (especially when everyone speaks a different tongue) will inevitably feel alienating at times. Simon works long hours at his new job in the private sector so I spend a lot of time alone. Combined with our infertility struggles and the fact that I suffer from depression, there have been some rough weeks. Do what you can to combat any isolation you may feel. I’ve tried to keep myself busy by reading more books, taking Alfred for walks in the park, and spending time with my new girlfriends.

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#11 – Keep in touch with everyone back home. FaceTime dates with your friends and family are a must. It’s been difficult keeping in touch with my girlfriends because by the time they’re off work, I’m asleep. Luckily, my mom and older brother are both entrepreneurs so I can call them any time of day. Being in touch with everyone back home in California has helped to alleviate my homesickness.

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#12 – Travel to neighboring countries. One of the best parts of living in Denmark is its proximity to so many other fascinating countries. Traveling by air is extremely affordable in these parts. Since we moved abroad in February, I’ve visited Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin, London, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. My direct flight to Marrakech in three weeks was only $85. Last month I flew round trip to London for $12 (I’m not sure how this is possible, but it happened). Take advantage of your new geographic location and all its surrounding areas. You won’t regret it.

I hope this information was useful to anyone interested in living abroad. Simon and I have found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. Should you have any specific questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments below!

(all images from my instagram)

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12 comments on “12 Tips for the Expat Life

  1. Cathy M.

    Thank you so, SO much for this! (And sorry to be a pest about it.) Thankfully, my husband is also an EU citizen (German), and so some of the paperwork should be a little less (the company he’s with is handling a lot of it for us as well). It didn’t occur to me (or us, rather) to get several passport photos and make copies of important paperwork, so I’ll add that to my list of things to do before we leave. It looks like we’re expected in Luxembourg in late January, so I have a bit of time to get things in order.

    As far as your pup goes (adorable pic, btw) – how did you have him certified? I’m very nervous about the airline denying us letting her on board. She had a seizure in April (hasn’t had one since,) and so with the stress of the trip, I’m afraid to put her in cargo. I was just planning on going to my therapist and asking her to write a letter for me, stating that she is my ESA. I suppose I’ll also be looking into getting her an EU pet passport since my husband’s family is still in Germany and we’re likely to visit often.

    Thank you so much for this – I feel a little less daunted about our upcoming move.
    Wishing you and Simon the best of luck in starting a family. I wish I could return the favor and supply some soothing advice. The best I can do is send a prayer up for you both.

  2. Katie Armour Post author

    Cathy – Happy to help! So excited for you! Your therapist should be able to write the letter. There are lots of examples online. Also, I would call the airline you’re flying before you’ve even booked the tickets and just confirm exactly what paperwork they’ll require and let them know your dog will be on board. There are sometimes a limit to how many ESA animals can be on a flight (assuming they allow them at all). We flew Berlin Air and had no problem. I’m sure you’ll be fine! Best of luck!!! xx

  3. Ali

    Love this! I visited Copenhagen around the time you moved there–I love following your photos I miss it so much! Even though I’m not planning on moving there, it’s fun to day dream :) Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Abby

    Hi Katie!

    Long time reader and first time poster. I have always loved your sense of style!! So chic!
    I moved with my husband to London last year and have had a similar experience. It has been such a rewarding experience getting to know a new way of life, new friends, jobs and all of the travel!! I understand the loneliness too. My husband works very long hours. I never thought I would spend so much time just ME. Anyways, we are actually going to Copenhagen with friends over Thanksgiving! So so excited to check it out. I have heard nothing but rave reviews. If you could post your recommendations sooner rather than later that would be fantastic :)
    Also…. I grew up in SF and graduated from Catalina in 07′ ;)

  5. Katie Armour Post author

    Ali – I’m so glad you enjoyed your visit to Copenhagen, it’s such a special place! Thanks for saying hi! xx

    Abby – Will try to get the CPH post up next week! Love hearing from a fellow Catalina girl. There’s actually a good chance we’ll end up in London after Copenhagen (fingers crossed!). If so, we can hang out and keep each other company!! xx

  6. Shauna

    Very real post. I like that you talked about being lonely at times as this is definitely something that most people skip over. Thank you.

  7. Jamie

    What wonderful advice and your living room looks lovely – that pink hue is great. I just got back from a month in London and keep dreaming about moving there after grad school (still a few years away). It’s nice to see the possibilities / realities of ex-pat life while it’s still a pipe dream. And of course, it’s been fun to read about your Scandinavian adventures!

  8. Katie Armour Post author

    Shauna – Trying to be more open on blog! Glad it’s appreciated. Loneliness abroad is a real thing, indeed. xx

    Jamie – Ohhh how fun. I hope you make it back to London! We’d love to end up there someday. Such a wonderful city. Best of luck to you finishing grad school! xx

  9. Courtney

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Katie. It isn’t easy to be open about the hard parts. Please know that your posts are always appreciated by this long-time reader. :)

  10. Veronica

    Katie- I loved this post! I lived briefly in Esbjerg, Denmark in 2014. I was a newlywed and didn’t speak any Danish, and I relate to so much of what you said here. I had a mishap with the cell phone company as well. We had set up my phone bill to draft automatically from my husband’s Danish bank account, only the cell phone company didn’t tell us that we were supposed to authorize the autopay in person at our bank for the first month. They sent us an email after the first bill didn’t clear; I ignored it because I thought it was a survey. After my cell service got cut off, we went to the store and were smugly told what we had done wrong, and given the bill to go pay at, you guessed it, the post office. At the time, I was so embarrassed because I felt sure that the post office employee thought I was an idiot. Maybe she only thought I was just another American :) Kishaps aside, I loved Denmark. I’m happy to read that you are enjoying it as well.

  11. Katie

    This is great Katie! I moved with my husband to Europe last year and we brought our dog as well (she is a small chihuahua, so luckily she fits under plane seats). We got her an EU pet passport (very easy and cheap!) and we’re able to move freely around Europe as well as re-enter the US! We’re thinking of coming to Copenhagen in early March, so I’d love to see your city guide! And as a fellow ex-pat, if you want to meet up and compare notes (or just talk about puppies!), I’m in! :)

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