Moving Abroad – 3. Keeping Your Cat and Your Sanity

In this third post in the series about moving internationally (here are the first and second posts in the series), I will endeavor to give Useful and Practical Advice™ for not losing your sanity, your cat (dog, hamster*, tank of pet jellyfish**), your offspring, or your luggage while moving to another country.

A little background for those just tuning in – I am currently in process of arranging my and my significant other’s relocation to Norway, which will be the seventh country in which I have lived so far, and the third one in which we will have lived together.  The first couple of international moves I participated in happened to me in my childhood/teens with the family as more-or-less sentient luggage, but all the recent ones are of my own volition and on my own shoulders, and thus I write about these things from actual, personal experience.

I have concluded the previous installment of this series with making the point that not all the cost of an international relocation is going to be financial, although that, too, is something you cannot get away from entirely.  Today I will discuss how to minimize some of the financial costs, planning the actual move to reduce chances of dropped stitches, and discuss some of the peripheral paperwork.

  • Landing Zone

So, you have your residency permit and/or visa, and you have the money to afford the movers, and to satisfy the immigration requirements.  What you need next is what I like to refer to as the landing zone – a place where you can arrive to.  If you are lucky enough to be moving in with friends, relatives, or a significant other, that’s problem solved.  If you are coming over for university studies, there are typically student accommodations available, but you will have to book them months (in some cases as long as over a year) in advance in order to make sure they are available when you need them, because I have seen entirely too many people posting on various expat groups in the week before semester starts along the lines of:  “I need to be/going to be in City Z in three days, but there aren’t any apartments available, please help!”  Don’t be that person – for your own sake, because the only one this inconveniences is you (or anyone moving with you).

If you fall into none of the above categories, you need to arrange for your own landing zone, and unless you are one of those people who can just buy a house or apartment outright (and most of us aren’t, and it’s also a bad idea to buy a house in a foreign country without living there a while and figuring if real estate in that particular place is a good investment), you need to find a place to rent.  As in case with arranging student accommodations, you want to start in advance, because unless you are lucky, it will take a while to find something that you like, can afford, and that will pick you to rent it to when you do.  The latter clause is worth mentioning because not every city in every country is a renter’s market, and in a lot of places there are more people wanting to rent than there are places available.

While we are on the subject, you may have to show letters of recommendation from previous landlord/lady demonstrating that you have paid rent on time, don’t cause neighbors to hate you, and haven’t set fire to the floor in the living room to grill some hot dogs.  Why?  Because you are not from around there, and these people have no frame of reference about what is acceptable behavior in rental apartments where you are from.  And naturally they want to rent property to someone who will take good care of it, and not be someone they have to evict in 2 months because there’s moldering garbage in the stairwell, and the neighbors are fed up with the loud parties every night.  I am not saying that this is what you would do, but that these people have no idea about you or the place you come from, and they don’t know that you wouldn’t.  This isn’t prejudice against foreigners as such, merely not knowing whether you know the local laws and regulations (no noise after 10pm in some countries, handling of garbage and what is acceptable and not acceptable disposal of it in others, whether smoking is permitted on balconies and patios surrounding a public building, etc.).

Here’s another important aspect to renting a place – deposit.  The amount of renter’s deposit varies wildly even from one Nordic country to another.  In one place it could be as little as 1/3 of the monthly rent, and in another as much as 4x.  This largely depends on the local renting laws, and how much protection they give to the owner vs the renter (less protection = more deposit, normally), as well as the locale and the desires of your prospective landlord/lady (if renting from a private person).  You need to check the renting laws and customs in the target location and be prepared to put down the appropriate amount.  Haggling is unlikely to work in most of the Western world, and I wouldn’t bet on it working in South America, Middle East or Far East, either.  Being surprised with several months’ rent worth of an immediate upfront expense is not pleasant.

Once you have secured the Landing Zone, you need to know whether it has something in it for you to sleep on (bed?), or be prepared to sleep on the floor or an air mattress, or to rent a hotel room until you have arranged for a bed in your apartment and made it otherwise livable.  Quite often apartments are rented out already furnished or part-furnished, and sometimes they are not furnished at all, and it is your responsibility to check this.  Remember that you will be in a foreign land where you may not know anyone on whose sofa you could crash for a few nights while sorting this out.  Plan appropriately.

  • Relocation Movers

I’ve mentioned the expense associated with relocation movers.  It is important to note than when you move your household items from one country to another, you must have an inventory for tax purposes – not of each item, but of categories (i.e. 2 boxes of pots and pans, 3 sacks of clothing, 2 armchairs, 1 dog crate), because if customs don’t have an inventory, they will either not clear your luggage, or will charge you for inspection and making said inventory (that will cost, a lot).  If you pack your own stuff, make sure to write the inventory to hand the movers who will be dealing with the customs office.  Alternatively, the movers will be able to make an inventory for you, but they typically also charge (a lot less than customs office) for it.  If you are moving on a slightly larger budget, you can also pay for packing service, which will include the making of inventory, and is absolutely worth paying for if you can afford to.

If you are packing your own luggage, an important thing to remember is that the movers may require that each box does not weigh beyond a certain weight (due to their health&safety regulations).  You must check with your moving company regarding the appropriate dimensions and weights of boxes, or they may not load specific boxes.  If, for example, you have packed a giant crate of books which now weighs 250kg, they are likely to either refuse to handle that, or charge you extra for special service and equipment to move it.  Make sure heavy items are either packed in smaller boxes, or are padded with blankets and such so that they do not take up the entire volume of the box.

Other points to check will be whether the movers’ fee includes delivery once in the target country, whether it’s to the door or just to the parking lot (will they carry it up the stairs for me?), and whether it includes tax.  And yes, I realize this is beginning to sound terribly expensive (and it isn’t cheap), which brings us to the other moving option – which is both, less expensive, and easier than the one described above, but has its own complications – the two-suitcase method.

  • The Two-Suitcase Move

First of all, I have to admit that I have only done this once, and it was neither comfortable, nor nice.  Second, it does make a lot of things cheaper and easier, because you can save on movers and all that.  Third, it does mean that unless you are planning to go back to where you come from in a foreseeable future, you need to give away or sell or otherwise get rid of all your stuff.  Or well, the overwhelming majority of it.  The two-suitcase method means literally that – you have two suitcases that you can drag on your own, plus a backpack for your laptop and electronics or cat (cat and electronics do not share the same backpack space well), and you only take what fits into those suitcases, and get rid of the rest.

What this does entail, is buying all the things you need – from a garbage bin and a frying pan to the mop and bucket and a chair and a bed and the bed sheets, and you get the idea – once you arrive.  That’s not to say it will be prohibitively expensive – a lot of things can be bought secondhand and cheaper in a lot of places (but I prefer new mattress and bedding for my use), but it is something to keep in mind:  the money you save on moving and get from selling anything you manage to sell is not your spending cash, it will have to go to acquiring all of those things you need in a household once you have arrived.

  • Your Hamster, Dog, Jellyfish Tank, or Cat

If you own a pet that you are not wiling to part with, the harsh reality is that this may or may not be up to you if you are intending to emigrate to a country – it’s up to that country’s rules and authorities.  Some varieties of pets cannot be imported/exported across the border except by licensed pet traders, but thankfully, dogs and cats can typically be imported – however, usually that means considerable costs and potential distress for you and your pet.

What I mean is that, depending on the country you are moving from and to, there will be different requirements.  If you are moving from one country in EU to another, or from one country in a rabies-free zone to another, those requirements are less, and typically involve a microchip, a rabies vaccine, and usually an antibody test to make sure that the vaccine took effect and that the animal is rabies-free and otherwise certified healthy.  If your pet is being imported from the EU to another EU country, it has the right to an EU passport (yes, that’s really a thing, and you can see what it looks like by googling ‘EU pet passport’), which can be issued by your vet provided all the requirements for it are met.  If you are crossing more restrictive borders, you are likely to run into more detailed requirements, and often a quarantine of up to 4 months to ensure the animal is, in fact healthy – a quarantine which you would have to pay for.

As with all other requirements, these vary from country to country, and since they concern not only where you are moving to, but also where you are moving from, you really will have to contact the relevant authorities (typically the public health authorities are a good place to start, but it may be agricultural authorities or others that handle import of live animals, and that varies), and verify what the specific requirements for importing Fluffy from country A where you are to country X where you are moving will be.

A word of warning – even in case there is no quarantine, the process of vaccination and testing may need to be started months, sometimes up to a year before the relocation, so you will need to start checking into this and planning accordingly

*, ** – I do not actually recommend attempting to move either a hamster or tank of jellyfish internationally, but if you decide you cannot live without it, the relevant authorities to contact will still be the ones mentioned above.

  • To Your Health!

While we are on the subject of health checks – some countries require the same of you.  A friend of mine and his partner are currently moving to New Zealand for work, and I hear from them that the visas as well as the blood tests and chest X-rays (my guess is that they are making sure they don’t carry tuberculosis) have cost them a non-negligible sum of money so far.  When applying for an American Green Card, a similar procedure will apply, and in fact, last I heard, you wouldn’t be able to go to your own doctor even if you area already living/working in the States – you have to go to an INS-registered and approved doctor, and get the tests done there, wherever that may be.  Not all countries require such things, so again, like in the case with your pet, start by checking this well in advance of the planned move.

Another matter to mention is that, depending on your country of origin and target, you may be required to pay for and carry a private health insurance while you are resident in said country and until you become either a permanent resident there, or a citizen, and therefore qualify for state health care (if Country X has such), or be prepared to handle your own health expenses forever if it does not.  United States of America is an example of a country in the developed world which does not offer a good public healthcare option, and while a lot of employers may have such, if you are moving there as a student, this will be something you will need to verify with your university (do they provide student health insurance?), and potentially acquire prior to arrival, or, in some cases, prior to being granted a visa.

  • Keeping Your Sanity

If all this sounds involved, that is because it is.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am not writing this series to make people build air castles and decide they just want to move to Country X because it’s awesome over there, and they could totally like living there – I am writing this for people who are seriously considering an international move, in an attempt to explain what is likely to be involved in said move, and to help them consider angles which they might not have known or thought about, before it’s too late.

All in all, unless you are moving to a country where immigration requirements for you are not an issue (as Nordic citizens moving between Nordic countries, it’s one of those situations), you will have to plan your move a year or more in advance if you want to keep your sanity and not have the move fall through because you promised an employer you’d be there 3 months before the immigration authorities would issue your visa.  Time, in most cases, is a non-optional investment because of juggling the many authorities and their permissions that are involved.  We are able to move on incredibly short notice (December-March) precisely because the health checks and immigration are a non-issue in this relocation, and also because this time we can afford to pay for certain things (professional packing and inventory, for example), but the first thing I still did once the decision was made, was make a vet’s appointment for Valkyria (our cat), to make sure we have time to get the blood tests run in a government laboratory, and to have microchip insertion heal, and to have a passport made out for her to ensure she can be transported when we do relocate.

Right now I am personally struggling with the hurdle of trying to secure a rental apartment in a small rural settlement which does not have many such apartments, which does not have a rental agency I could contact, and which is far enough removed from where I am located that I can’t just pop over to view an apartment and sign the lease on short notice.  In a few weeks I will be traveling there with no purpose other than to view any available apartments, and to sign a lease on one of them, which incidentally involves airplane/train tickets to get there and back, accommodations while there, and meals out while I do all this (see the installment about financial cost of a relocation).  In terms of keeping my sanity, I cannot book our relocation movers until the lease is signed, because I need someplace for them to move our belongings to, which will leave me less than a month between lease-signing and the move.  I have contacted them and have tentatively requested removal and delivery dates, but nothing is sure until I am sure of when and where they will do this.

Not ending up in a dorm room or in a hotel with our belongings having to be stored in a warehouse space we are simultaneously having to pay for while looking for someplace to rent and get them delivered to is my current and primary objective.

Keeping a number of lists with things I need to do/make sure of/get rid of/arrange/acquire helps somewhat, but it cannot solve the problem of having to wait on one thing before I can book/arrange another things, while a third thing must be done at any point while those are done, but before the actual relocation date.  Staying organized is a great help, but as I have mentioned, having enough time to make all the arrangements in the correct order is imperative. Where it comes to international relocations, time really is money, and running out of the former will literally cost you a lot of the latter.

In the next post, I will talk about some things which must be done in order to settle in in the new place from a legal residency standpoint, as well as offer a few hopefully helpful tips about other things I like to do on arrival to a new locale which tend to make my subsequent life there much, much easier.

Image:  Our IKEA-branded standard moving boxes (with weight allowance listed) from a recent move, a visiting kitty.

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