Advices from a veteran expat: how to prepare your international move
I have lived in 4 countries now and moved three times within South East Asia. My husband and I are veteran of moves, as we changed, even in France, cities on average every two-three years since we are children. I am preparing my third move in SEA back to Kuala Lumpur and I put-up this checklist to ensure I didn’t forget anything - and I hope it will help you prepare as well.
Since it's a rather long article - you can skip to the part that you are interested in:
Preparing the move out or Preparing the installation
The tips section covers: Preparation phase, finding the right location to live in, finding the right accommodation, How to move on the cheap, spring cleaning the house, settling down advice and finally what to bring in that last luggage
Preparing the move OUT of your current residence: make a checklist and research important leadtimes
- Gather documents needed for:
- Visa (work permit, spouse and children if any)
- Driving licenses
- Pet moving (if you have one)
- If the agent / your company is not doing it for you: prepare the translations and inquire about the recognized translator & necessary stamps to certify the translation.
- Check the lead time to close all sorts of contracts in your current residence:
- Credit cards
- Your bank accounts
- Telecom / Internet contract
- If you rent, your lease. If you own, sort out what you want to do with your residence.
- Electricity, water and other utilities
- Subscriptions ( newspaper, TV channels, gym etc...)
- Local insurances ( cars, etc…)
- Declare change of tax status (if relevant)
- If you are using a sim-locked phone and you want to keep it in your new residence. Look about to get it unlocked so you can use any SIM cards in the future. Back up all contacts.
- Tips: Check if your future country accepts unlocked phones from abroad. Some block them or require registration of overseas purchased phone to control parallel import of highly taxed goods. Example: Indonesia, Read this article.
- A quick message/search on a local Expat Facebook Group can give you that information.
- DO NOT Close your current residence phone until you have your new number activated in your new residence: WHY? All your two-steps security online requires always that you have the two phones with you to change the parameters!
- List all the apps and online accounts that have the two-steps authentication enabled:
- Your bank website & app
- Google, Gmail, Microsoft,
- Whats’app, line and other chatting apps
- Social media: Facebook, Instagram etc…
- Paypal, upwork, affiliate marketing websites etc…
- Any other professional softwares and app you use regularly
- Make a list of all that you need to throw away & sell. Selling a car can take time for example. It might be worth putting a lead time for such things as well.
- Research your tax status / your new tax status
- Research private medical insurances (if you company doesn’t provide one) & ask a few for quotations to compare them.
- If you have to handle the movers, start finding & contact international movers’ companies & get quotations.
- Call your bank and ask that if you have any payment card using 3D-secure system (where they send you that pin code on your phone when you buy online) to change from SMS to automatic phone call. SMS take FOREVER to arrive on roaming – most times longer than the 5 min you get to complete a transaction. Whereas the automatic robot call is usually much faster. This will save you a LOT of frustration when you will be in your in-between phase in the new country.
- Call your bank to tell them you will be abroad and possibly withdrawing a lot of cash or make loads of payment. (you don't want to have a frozen payment card - trust me) If you can, increase your foreign payments and withdrawals limits.
Then build a retro-planning & start the execution of the above tasks.
Preparing the installation and executing the above checklist
- Start to research:
- Possible housing area and average price of rent there. Time & traffic to get to important places (using google itinerary set up at rush hour time). You want to narrow down the residence hunt when you arrive.
- Contact in advance or make a list of contacts of agents or owners. If I have the chance to do a pre-trip there, I would walk-in into condos that I like and ask the management office for a visit or/and get the contact of the owners/agents if units are available.
- Ask friends/family who might know someone who lives/been there! The world is a small place – there is always someone.
- Search & Join local expat Facebook pages.
- Research best:
- phone provider
- internet provider,
- credit card,
- best local bank
- Usually I start the process of preparing an international move 3 to 2 months before (the lease is my usual starting point).
- I try to have a pre-trip to the country of destination 1 month before the move to:
- See if I can open a savings account in a local bank without work permit (sometimes possible – can be confirmed while researching) or open one if my work permit is already ready but I am officially starting later.
- Get a pre-paid local phone number
- Pre-visit residences.
- If the trip is long enough: I start getting some document translated / stamped by embassies for process like driving license ( which have to be done locally )
- If I don’t get a pre-trip. Then will do all the above once I arrive and I stay in a hotel for a few weeks.
- Once arriving in the country these are the elements that I do:
- Get a local phone number & install local life-saving apps for example: Grab (South East Asia) or Go-jek (Indonesia)
- Translate / stamp / collect all relevant documents (if necessary)
- Get registered to the local tax department (usually done at the same time as the visa)
- Open a bank account (if no residence, with my office as the address – can be changed later) & transfer money to it.
- Find a residence
- Open electricity / Water / Internet providers (when relevant and if not part of your condo already)
- Get the local driving license (when relevant)
- Then if some elements where not closed from my previous residence (like phone or bank), I would finish these processes now.
- Buy a new car / motorcycle. If you need it. Or get the local transport cards sorted (could be done earlier), like the octopus in Hong Kong, the Touch’n’Go in Malaysia or one E-money card in Indonesia.
So this above is not a full list, as everyone’s situation is different, you might have to watch out for more steps than the above.
More tips & first hand advice on how to prepare your international moves
Tips on the preparation phase
- When I am seeking information, many times a phone call is so much more efficient than hours on the internet. Remember that free international calls to land lines of many countries are usually included in your home internet package? It's time to use it !
- I don't have a landline so I personally use Skype and buy some credits. It’s cheap and I can call banks, embassies, agents etc… to get first hand accurate information for cheap from my mobile phone at anytime while preparing my move.
Tips on finding the right location
First, in countries where traffic is important and moving around is difficult, ask yourselves these questions:
- What is important to me on my week-end and daily basis? What activities would I normally seek?
- Do I usually stay at home & within my neighborhood? Or do I visit friends & move around a lot?
- Do I want to / have to own a car & drive? Or should I prioritize being close to public transport?
- Is my work / school accessible by public transport? What will it take to get there?
This is how it goes for me as an example:
I realized with time that I wasn’t so mobile on the week-end. I had that inaccurate image of myself of a socialite... but in reality I am just a total hobbit on many of my week-ends!
What was important for me was:
- to be within 45 min of work or less,
- if possible I prefer not to own a car,
- and in a neighborhood that has good enough restaurants of mid-range offering and local cheap street food,
- access to a cinema (I love going to the movie on the week-end !)
- and to have access to a supermarket that has a good selection of imported food.
- Additionally, the restaurants and the supermarket must be walking distance, because I manage only to do micro-grocery. I have issue with stocking food & tend to eat on a whim what I feel like!
With all of that in mind, it already restricts a lot the area I can look into!
It’s important to know what is important to you. You tend to reproduce the routine you had in your home country after about 6 months in.
Tips on finding accommodation
As a general rule across South East Asia, agent take 10% of the yearly rent value from the owner when you use one to find you a flat. It’s either in the form of a commission or as much as the whole first month rent (it depends on the general practice of each country). So your first year of rent is 10% more expensive than the actual rent. If you can avoid going through an agent, that is the price I would negotiate down to or ask for additional some repair / add furniture with that value bracket in mind. On the second year, if you have access to the owner, and if the owner is OK with dealing with you direct, you can also try to ask to renew the lease at a cheaper price arguing that the agent fee is no longer there. It doesn’t always work so you should try but not feel entitled to it!
Don’t disclose too much information to an agent. They are paid on commission so the higher the rent you accept to pay, the more they will earn. Overall, disclose your expectations and your maximum rent limit and be quite strict about it. If you disclose that your company is paying the bills, that you work in, like oil & gas, the position you occupy, etc… you can already see the dollar signs in their eyes. It’s why doing some good amount of research is important before getting there to already have an, as accurate as possible, rent bracket in mind.
Now that being said, we have had 1 very very bad agent in KL (but a great owner), and an amazing one in Bangkok (which was a recommendation from a friend). In Indonesia & Vietnam we went direct to owners by word of mouth and friend’s recommendations. So please follow your instincts as well – but exert a little caution.
Always check the cost of the utilities before accepting a flat! Sometimes the condos get horrendous amount of money by charging one unit of electricity double to triple the price of the actual rate (than if you were in a house and paying to the service provider directly) and this can vary greatly from condo to condo. Since in SEA, the aircon is a must have, it can add up to a pretty sum at the end!
Overall condominium utilities are always more expensive than a house. So you can’t get the same but if you are hesitating between two flats, this can be the difference that changes the balance. And if you are on a strict budget, it MUST be taken into account.
Horror stories flood the internet about owners, bringing up the rent at the last minute, like a day or two before your stuff arrive or that don’t give back the deposit etc… If the former, just pay some extra storage days to the movers & hotel and find a new place – starting a relationship with an owner that wants to screw you is already not good. For the latter, that’s were meeting the owner / word-of-mouth helps reduce the risk – unfortunately as foreigners, we are often at the mercy of such behavior. It never happened to us but it’s a possibility.
International move on the cheap: my experience
This is only possible if you don’t have ANY furniture.
We had to move from Malaysia to Thailand without any support from our companies and were quite flat on cash. Alexis started work early & we lived apart – so for 6 months we moved 60 kg++ at a time on every odd week-end trip as check-in luggage. We sold everything that could be re-purchased and donated/gave away the rest. In retrospective, that was probably not smart, because I realized that movers are not THAT expensive (especially on regional moves without furniture) and the extra luggage costs can sum up. It was bare cash flow management for us at this point. Most importantly, re-purchasing the new stuff IS expensive. Do not underestimate the cost of all the plates / cutleries and small knick knacks you take for granted around the house. If I was to give you one advice: I would take the slow sea or land route to save and use movers in the future.
However, the huge spring cleaning we had to do is actually a very good habit to take before every move. Which leads me to:
Tips on spring cleaning around the house to prepare for an international move
- Don’t bring a huge amount of kitchenware. Seriously do you really need 4 different services and 10 plates of each? The answer is NO.
- Read digital. That kindle is your best friend when it comes to move. Book are heavy & bulky!
- Just ditch all the food & alcohol.
- Keep most to all kitchen appliances (those are expensive to re-purchase) and fit them with adaptors when arriving to your new destination, unless they have different voltage. Then just start selling them before you go – voltage converters for some appliances are really expensive.
- If you move often, keep all the original boxes. It will be easier to pack safely on your next move. (we have a utility closet FULL of boxes ourselves)
- Heavy duties IKEA furniture, such as the famous Billy bookshelf, don’t last move than 2 moves. After so many rebuilding, transport and normal usage, it render them really wonky on the 3rd move. (and they end up full of nails to keep them straight)
Tips once you are settling down
- Make a list of must have and nice to have. Moving is expensive, buy in phases.
- Bit the bullet and WAIT for the shipment to arrive before buying duplicates. You will regret it later.
- Use all online delivery services available to AVOID your trip to hell: IKEA. That’s often the first place you go to as a convenient one stop shop. But if you think it’s exhausting in Europe, picture South East Asia will be crowded x10. If unavoidable, go EARLY (like before opening, their café often opens 1 hour before the shop) and stick to your checklist ( as much as possible…) to get out of there early as well.
What to put into your check-in luggage for the transition period ?
What to pack when you are doing that last luggage before the international move? The one that is going to support you while waiting for your belongings to arrive? You usually have to “last” 1 month to 6 weeks. It’s like a long holiday so we can try to pack light.
Usually we would rent an apartment hotel so we can cook or an AirBnB. They should have most of the cutlery that you need but in case you move in early to your new place, it’s good to have some spare with you.
This is what my check-in luggage contains:
- 5 days of working clothes ( that we will wash on the week-end and repeat the cycle for the following week)
- 4 week-end outfit / casual clothes (for evenings & week-ends)
- 1 or 2 sport set ( if you do sport regularly)
- 1 pair of working shoes, 1 pair of casual shoes, 1 pair of sneakers and 1 pair of flipflops
- 2 swimsuits.
- Underwear (of course!)
- 1 frying pan, 1 pan, 2 glasses, 2 plates, 2 bowls, 2 cups & 1 manual coffee pour-over, 1 carving knife and 1 wooden spoon, 1 small cutting board, 4 big spoons, 2 coffee spoons, 2 knifes, 2 forks, 1 colander. ( we are a couple with no kids - multiply to have enough for your family)
- A set of King size bed sheets + 1 flat sheet ( the biggest size you have so until your shipment arrives it can fit any bed you would end up sleeping in )
- Our pillows (if weight / space enables it in our check-in luggage) and their pillow cases.
- 2 Towels
- 2 Electrical extensions & adaptors (if usable in the new country of residence, otherwise we would buy them on arrival)
- Our desktop computer (we have a tiny tiny zbox nano which can be plugged on the TV ! so it’s so easy to travel with it) and the corresponding cables
- Any valuable electronics & cables ( cameras etc…) that you want with you
- Jewelry ( they will be forbidden in your international move anyway)
- All important documents / paperwork travel with us.
- 5-10 clothe hangers.
Ladies if you want to pack light: DRESSES ! They take 0 space.
Last but not least, take a deep breath – international moves are always a little challenging as many things do not work out the way they are supposed to. Patience, a good sense of humor and most importantly loads of research in advance can better prepare you. Using the help of professionals can make the journey so much easier as well – but personally if you are in for just a short few years expat experience: dish all the belongings and start anew. In many SEA countries, condominiums are fully furnished so start this new chapter of your life light ! Good luck !
Credit for the photo used in this post - all coming from Unplash:
Woman folding clothe: by Sarah Brown
Checklist: by Glenn Carstens-Peters