Moving Abroad – 2. Immigration Requirements and Moving Expenses

So, you have decided that Country X has everything you want, and the things it does not, you can live without, and you definitely want to move there.  What hurdles stand between you and the cute little house on the hill with the red picket fence?

Picking up where the previous post left off, this is the second installment in the series (go here to read the first and third posts) about moving internationally.  In the first post, I wrote about the practicalities of making the decision to move, and the way to think about an international relocation in order to avoid uncertainty about making this major decision, and the so-called ‘culture shock’.  Today I am going to discuss the more mundane matter of finances, as well as those of residency and immigration.

If I had to use a couple of adjectives to characterize the difficulties of moving abroad (there are many many more to use for the pros, at least in my opinion), I’d have to say that an international move is invariably bound to be both, involved and expensive.

The ‘involved’ part is large, and I will split it for clarity.  I will talk about immigration and borders which are a part of it, today, and discuss the remainder of it (making arrangements and keeping one’s sanity) in a later installment.  By ‘expensive’, I mean expensive in comparison to either not moving at all, or to moving within the same city/country.  I am not going to lie and make you feel like if you can’t do it, it’s your own fault (it may be, it may not be, and I am not the judge of that – your mileage will vary).  Moving is expensive, even if you do it on the cheap (which makes it cost less, but doesn’t make it not cost a lot of money anyway).  Despite being costly, an international relocation may well be a good investment, if said relocation brings you to a place where you dream of living your life and would be much happier, or because you will have a better job or lesser expenses, or for a number of other reasons.  However, just because something is worth what you’d pay for it, doesn’t reduce the actual amount of money you have to pay to achieve it.  There are always ways to cut expenses compared to a comfortable mid-range solution, but there is no way to cut expenses below a certain point – immigration officials are not going to haggle over their fees and requirements, for example.

  • Immigration, Work Visas and Permits

Which brings us to the matter of immigration and border controls – the subject that, for some reason, doesn’t appear to be an aspect of an international relocation to which many people give a lot of thought before they ask me questions about how to move.  I have experience of immigration authorities in the USA and the EU, so these are the examples I will use here, but, with more or less minor variations, the visa/work permit system functions similarly in most of the world.  Some countries (Commonwealth of Nations in particular) also use the ‘points’ system where you may apply to move on grounds of your age (lower is better), and education (higher is better), and if it adds up to the minimum number of points or above, you (and your spouse and kids if you have any) are allowed in.  I do not have personal experience with this system, so if your target country is one of those, the rules for acquiring a work/residency permit will be somewhat different from what is described directly below.  The general principles, however, will still apply.

Without further ado – immigration requirements and rules are a thing that exists, not only in the United States and the United Kingdom, but just about everywhere.  In fact, most countries in the world have those, which means that no, you cannot simply “come to country X, get a place to live, and look for a job” because you want to move there because you like their architecture, nature, traditional dances, or food.  Looking for a job in a country (as opposed to looking for one prior to going to said country, which is a different thing that I will touch on below) typically requires already having a work or student visa (contingent on a job offer or university acceptance), or a work/residency permit on some other grounds.  I won’t go into further details of grounds on which one may apply for such, since there are many countries out there, I haven’t lived in all of them, and they all have their own immigration authority web pages detailing the conditions and requirements for the specific country in question.  Suffice it to say that while an American (for example) passport may allow you to visit a lot of places and stay for 1-3 months vacationing there without a visa (thanks to reciprocal agreements), said agreements do not normally cover permission to work.  ‘Reciprocal’ means both sides allow the same thing reciprocally, which is to say – no, random EU citizens cannot just come to USA, get an apartment, and look for a job – that requires the aforementioned residency permit or visa, and by same token, neither can a US citizen go to an EU country (or most other countries), and try to find a job without proper paperwork.

However, if you have a marketable skill that is special, there is always the chance that you may be able to find a job in the target country that will file for a work visa/permit for you.  It is not easy, and that has nothing to do with people at Company Y being racist/nationalist/hating foreigners or any such thing.  First of all, you have to be competing with all the people who know the local language.  Provided you do know it, too, you are still competing with people on the premise that immigration authorities (in general) will only issue a work visa for you on request of Company Y if Company Y can conclusively prove to them that you, the candidate needing a visa, is better than (not equal to, but better than) all the candidates from Country X, as well as from the rest of the EU (if Country X is happens to be a member of the EU) that they could find in the specified-by-immigration-authorities time slot.  The reason for the “rest of the EU” clause in the latter case is that citizens of other Member States of the EU will not need a visa to work in Country X, and if you are from outside of the EU, you will.

If you happen to be in a serious relationship with a citizen of your target country (which is probably why you are thinking of moving there if that is the case), a whole different set of rules which are individual to that target country come into play.  There exists a range of requirements for formalizing/proving the existence of the relationship (most countries require that you get married, not all do), and then there are financial considerations and requirements on the citizen of target country that must be fulfilled.  These rules are even more individual than the rules for work/study-based residency permits, and must be researched for each specific country in question.  The financial obligations are, however, likely to exist in most Western countries, and potentially others as well, which brings me to the next aspect of an international move – money.

  • Finances

The second aspect of moving to a country (any country, but it may obviously be less for those with cheaper living standards) is finances.  I am not talking about what you plan to live on once you arrive (get a job or go to school or whatever else), I am talking about the actual cost of relocation.  When moving over national borders, and especially overseas (or bays or other large bodies of water), nobody is likely to haul your stuff for cheap or free.  It is not something for which you can rent a van and ask a few friends to help you out.  So unless you are moving with two suitcases and your laptop (and I know people who have done that, and it’s entirely feasible, and does cut expenses by a whole lot – I will talk about that in a later post), you will need a moving company specializing in overseas moves.  You will also want to hire a decent one, because that one time I went with the cheapest option because I was cash-strapped, I nearly lost 4m^2 of my luggage, because it was left on a dock in Hamburg without any documentation.  Thankfully someone found a wet shred of paper with a phone number on it somewhere on the shipping container, and got a hold of me in Sweden and it had finally arrived – but it took over half a year, and some of it was water-damaged from gods know what.  Lesson learned.

Furthermore, you will need to budget on temporary accommodations, meals out while you don’t have your own kitchen, apartment deposit (typically 1-4x the monthly rent, depending on the target location), transportation to/from airports and trains, fees which may need to be paid for paperwork, and the like.

You can certainly minimize most (though not all) of these by using the two-suitcase method, but that does mean minimizing your footprint and getting rid of most of your stuff, not just a lot of it as in the other case, because trust me, it’s not going to be cost-effective to store it somewhere and go get it later.

The subject of finances ties neatly back into the first topic – that of immigration requirements.  Most places where you may apply for a residency permit on the basis of, for example, studies (but also of relationship, as mentioned above), will want you to demonstrate that you can afford to live there/that your local partner can afford to support you there for the duration of your residency permit, whether it is by showing them a work contract that you already have, or by showing them a printout of your bank statement with enough money in it to stay in country X for Y time – and the ‘enough’ amount is determined not based on what you think you can survive on, but a regulation amount the immigration authorities require per month per person/couple/child.  Why?  Because you aren’t their citizen, and the country is not going to take financial responsibility for you just because you are in it, not until you are a permanent resident (what is known as ‘Green Card’ holder in the USA), or citizen, both of which are something that comes later, and usually takes satisfying further requirements to acquire.  For more details, please refer to the immigration authority website for the country you are trying to move to, because they are specific individual to countries, even the countries within the EU.

Schengen Area and the European Union – while we are on the subject of the EU, I would like to point out that the immigration authorities of the countries within the EU are separate.  Unlike in the United States, there is no single “EU” work visa or residency permit – those are issued by the specific countries.  When visiting the EU, you may note the lack of guarded borders or passport control inside it – or rather, inside what is known as the Schengen Area.  A Schengen visa (or reciprocal agreement with the Schengen zone, which includes most of the EU but not the British Isles) allows you to visit it and travel around all these countries as a tourist, but the same rules do not apply to moving/work/study.  When you move to a country within the Schengen Area, the immigration paperwork must be sorted out between you and that country, and, if successful, will give you the right to live/study/work in that country specifically – not any of the surrounding ones (which you can obviously still visit).

So, assuming you have a job or student spot offer in country X, and you have the money to pay to bring yourself and as much stuff as you plan to, and to get accommodations for your stay, you are then past the largest, and arguably, the only actually difficult, hurdle.  Here is where the relocation gets complicated and involved rather than difficult – you have to make the arrangements and schedule a lot of things such as the delivery of your furniture/luggage, your arrival, immediate accommodations, more permanent accommodations, whether there is furniture in the latter, and if not, where you will sleep until there is, the need to register with local authorities (typically this has a maximum time limit from the day of your arrival, which varies from country to country).

This rather important part of the ‘expensive’ aspect of the relocation is not actually financial in its nature.  Even if you have the money needed for the move (unless you have so much money that you can solve a lot of these problems by simply throwing money at them – you can pay people do to just about anything, after all – in which case you aren’t necessarily in need of my advice), an international relocation is going to be hugely pricey in terms of time and energy you will have to invest – exhaustion doesn’t offer discounted rates.  I will write about making arrangements and attempting to keep one’s sanity through it all in the next installment, to come out in a few days, give or take, depending on the availability of my own free time.

My friend, the American expat in Finland mentioned in the first installment as the positive example, has just published a short post explaining some details about relocation to Finland specifically, as well as a podcast discussing it.  If Finland is what floats your luggage, or even if it isn’t, but someplace in Europe is, I recommend going there and taking a read and a listen.

Image: Ellagård, Stockholm County, Sweden

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