Living and working overseas may sound like a dream to you, or something that you are planning to do. But it’s not for everyone. As an expat myself moving overseas has tested me in ways that I never expected, and I can say with certainty that it has changed me in some respects.
The fact is, to be a successful expat, you need more than some money in your pocket and transferable skills. Having read lots of articles about what it means to be a successful expat, and what the characteristics of a successful expatriate are, there are certain traits that crop up again and again.
These are, what I believe, to be the 9 most important personality traits expats need to have to live overseas successfully.
1. Be Brave & Adventurous
If you are thinking of living overseas, then I will assume that you are an adventurous person. Are you comfortable and willing to take risks? When you first move abroad, regardless of how many months you spend planning your move, you really do not know what awaits.
You are going to be in unknown territory where literally anything could happen. This is a significant risk, especially if you are very happy in your home country.
I had a great life in the UK in terms of career, a nice home, good finances, and great friends but I wasn’t even vaguely happy really so I was willing to take a big leap of faith knowing that I could always go back to the UK if it didn’t work out, but it is not for the faint-hearted.
The most effective expats are the ones who embrace the risks, are able to acknowledge that the move may not be permanent, and want to sample life abroad regardless of how it pans out. To move overseas you have to step into the unknown and let life take you where it will.
2. Be Flexible
Every country has a unique way of doing things. Particularly in your early days overseas, you will have to be flexible about everything. From where you live, to what you do for work and what you eat, everything will be different from your home country and you will have to just go with the flow a little because nothing is going to be exactly as you want it to be.
Local laws, language, cost of things, and culture will all be different and there will be things that make you roll your eyes or leave you perplexed. So you will just have to navigate everything with an open mind.
Your days of routine and staying in your comfort zone are gone especially when you first arrive, and the only way to settle gently into your new home is to be as flexible as possible especially when it’s uncomfortable. Ultimately Flexible expats just pick their battles and don’t sweat the small stuff.
3. Be Resilient
This is one of the most important characteristics of a successful expatriate because moving overseas can be really challenging. You will have to be able to roll with all the punches that come at you.
For instance, It took me several weeks to find a permanent home for me and my cat Lily so I was rapidly facing the prospect of sleeping on a new friend’s floor. I spent time every day searching for rentals, going to view places, and walking the streets looking for ‘for rent’ signs. One particular time I went to see a place and the lady told me not to bother because I was British, and new to the city.
There were multiple instances of crying on park benches or in my Airbnb wondering what on earth I was thinking to leave my stable life and move overseas. I could have easily gone back to the UK but I persevered and am still in Vancouver 3 and a half years later.
If you want to live overseas you have to be strong and resilient to get through the tough moments in your adventure. You’ll have to put any unexpected difficulties down to bad experiences and quickly move on to find out what else your new life overseas has to throw at you.
There is no doubt that you will experience low points when you feel frustrated or lonely and just want to get on the first flight back home. Being a happy expat means accepting that sometimes you will feel sad. The work you put into making a new home for yourself abroad will be rewarded many times over and every challenge you overcome will make you feel stronger.
4. Have A Sense Of Humour
This may actually be the most important trait because there will be so many moments where if you didn’t laugh you would cry. One of the most common traits of all my expat friends is that they are able to look at the funny side of everything.
Whether it’s your latest living overseas disaster, or stark cultural differences that make you uncomfortable, you need to be able to joke about it and let it wash off you. I had so many instances, especially when I first arrived, where locals would ask what language I spoke. I would have to put on my best Canadian accent to say things like water and mayonnaise (it got old real fast lol).
I had to navigate a job market where I didn’t have Canadian work experience and sometimes encountered people who didn’t like Brits, so I had to learn really quickly how to navigate any prejudices or challenges I encountered. Humor was the easiest way. All my bad experiences became funny stories to share with friends.
All of the successful expatriates that I know have this characteristic in spades. They are all able to see the funny side of literally any situation to get through it.
5. Be Curious & Willing To Learn
Being interested in and excited about new cultures is essential. If you have a passion for meeting new people and an urge to learn about the world, you’re more likely to be happy living abroad.
Successful expatriates embrace the culture and traditions of their host country and look for ways to learn about their new home. Instead of moving overseas and only forming connections with other expats, they are ready and willing to mix with locals and get involved with local events.
Expats who last overseas have a desire to integrate into the community, and it means that they can start adjusting to their new home quickly.
Simple things like learning the language of your new home country or learning about their history and culture will really help you to settle in, and it will show local people that you genuinely want to integrate and get to know people.
They will learn as much as they can about their new home by questioning locals, and other expats, and seeking professional advice. Successful expats never stop learning.
6. Be Sociable
Making friends in a new country will be more difficult than it is at home, and you will have to be sociable and willing to get out of your comfort zone because you will need to network.
There are lots of ways to meet new people, but it also means that you will be talking to a lot of strangers. I’m a reasonably social and outgoing person but this was one of the ways that moving overseas tested me.
From Facebook groups and friendship apps to expat organizations, professional associations, and networking events, you will be putting yourself out there online and in person (when we are not in the midst of a pandemic) if you want to make friends.
7. Be Willing To Ask For Help
Being independent and resourceful are important traits for living overseas as an expat, but equally, there will be times when trying to do everything yourself will get you nowhere. I learned very quickly that I just couldn’t figure out everything by myself so I went to a lot of professional organizations that supported newcomers and jobseekers.
I also asked for help when finding somewhere to live and I found my apartment because a new friend was the first person to see the Facebook post about it and tagged me. Everyone needs help and guidance sometimes.
The sooner you start to approach others for insights into life in your host country, the quicker you will be able to learn about all the idiosyncrasies associated with it and how to avoid unnecessary obstacles.
I’ve found that expats are generally very friendly and welcoming, and they are always happy to help new arrivals.
I’d recommend joining online expat networks and social groups as soon as you arrive (or in the run-up to your arrival) and introducing yourself as a newbie. Feel free to ask all those burning questions that you have, and you’ll find that people are happy to share their pearls of wisdom with you and show you the ropes. You will save so much time and energy by asking for help, and you could easily make new friends in the process.
8. Have Self Awareness
From everything I have read, a lot of experts say that successful expats develop a particular characteristic that is crucial to their success. That characteristic is self-awareness. Most expats are people who are leaders rather than followers.
They are able to create a life for themselves that is designed around their personal pleasures and the things that are important to them.
Successful expats are aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths and tend to be glass-half-full optimists rather than pessimists. Along with being self-aware, they are also generally emotionally intelligent and learn to adapt to different communication styles, social cues, and non-verbal communication.
9. Be Organized
One of my top tips for moving overseas would be to get organized. There is loads to think about to prepare for a move abroad and being organized will significantly reduce your stress levels. I left lots of things till the last minute and it meant that my last few weeks, and especially my last few days, were SO stressful and overwhelming.
Planning ahead will remove a significant amount of stress from the process of moving abroad and it will help you to settle into your new home much faster. Remember that you are planning for two major events at the same time; leaving an old life and starting a new one, and both of these require a great deal of attention.
When you first start to plan for international relocation it will probably feel overwhelming and you may start to question if the move is even possible. The best advice I can give you is to divide your plans, and all of your to-do’s into small manageable chunks.
Do you agree with this list of characteristics of a successful expatriate? Do you think I’ve missed any important traits? Let me know in the comments!
Gemma Lawrence is the creator of This Brits Life. Born and raised in England, she has been living in British Columbia, Canada as a permanent resident since 2016. A solo traveler for the past 9 years, she hopes to inspire and help others to enjoy solo adventures too. As someone who has always struggled with her self-confidence and mental health, she also shares tips and inspirational stories relating to self-love, self-care, and mental health.