11 Things No One Will Tell You about Expat Life

October 9, 2017

Flag of Mexico in the background


Many bloggers spend time talking about the differences between short-term and long-term travel, but many skirt over the longest and most challenging type of travel – expat life. “What is an expat?” you may ask. Well, the word expat is a contraction of expatriate, which derives from the Latin word expatriatus.  In medieval times, an expatriatus was someone who had left his or her home country to live somewhere else. In today’s culture an, expatriate has the same meaning; someone who lives in a different location than that which they were born and brought up.

While expat life comes with its challenges, some countries may be easier to adjust to than others. I’ve been living in San Luis Potosí, Mexico for a year now and will share a few things I have learned about expat life. Remember that all of the following statements are based solely off of my experiences and it is okay to have different experiences than me.

You have to relearn how to do ALMOST everything 

Since you are essentially starting your life over when you choose to move to a different country you often have to relearn how to do many things. This could include setting up a bank account, getting a driver’s license, buying a car, purchasing car insurance, along with other life tasks. You not only have complete these tasks but have to figure out how to do them in a country with a complex and long bureaucracy process.


Colonia Guadalupe
Every day is an adventure 

Relearning how to do daily tasks and errands means every day will feel like an adventure. Regular activities like paying a bill, taking a yoga class, driving home, or going to the grocery store suddenly feel much more exciting because you have never done them in your new country before. 



Your attitude will make or break you
You can choose to be positive and see each day as a new adventure or you can choose to look at your new life as a series of daunting events. I can guarantee you life will be different in your new country, but if you are constantly comparing them to each other you will only make yourself frustrated and disappointed. Learn to accept things the way they are because you likely won’t be able to change them. Choose to focus on the good and look at every experience as a potential learning opportunity. 

You will have really high highs and really low lows 

While your attitude will make or break your time as an expat, you cannot always avoid the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with expat life. One day I will find myself incandescently happy with life, as I drink my fresh green juice and soak up the sun in the park. The next I will be wallowing in self-pity as I work to get my car fixed and find that it takes 6 phone calls over the course of 6 hours to get my car looked at. Acknowledge your feelings, pick yourself up and keep moving!



It makes you smarter 

I have 0 scientific evidence of this, but doing life in a different country requires you to always be on your toes. I often find myself thinking about what I’m going to say in Spanish, or how I am going to get where I’m going. You learn so much as you figure out to navigate the culture and country you are living in.


Your stress levels will increase

I never used to struggle with anxiety when I lived in the US. Yet, when I first moved here even the smallest things seemed to stress me out. Tasks dealing with immigration appointments or driving to work would make me anxious. Shortly after purchasing my car I remember sitting in the driver’s seat and having to give myself a pep talk to drive to the grocery store. YOU CAN DO IT EEMMA! It seems silly now, as I drive daily and have become used to the unwritten rules of the road.


You will learn to be flexible

Things often don’t go as planned so learning to let things roll off your back is easier than allowing yourself to become upset. You probably won’t ever be able to completely understand why things are a certain way. It is good to remember that different cultures place a higher value on different things. Accept that it is not wrong just different. 



READ: 39 Things You Should Know Before Moving (or Traveling) to Mexico

It will be hard on your relationships

Living thousands of miles away can put stress on your relationships. It can be difficult for families, friendships, and your marriage. What’s more difficult than moving to another country you ask… moving to another country with your significant other!
When my husband and I moved to Mexico together we were quickly hit with the difficulties of being away from everything familiar. We both changed jobs and had to adjust to new roles. We had to grow accustomed to the change of work hours and often didn’t see each other for more than an hour every night – which is difficult for any relationship.  However, having to deal with such a big change has only made our marriage stronger. In regards to family and friends, your absence and lack of accessibility will show you who is truly important. 

You will miss things about home and that’s okay

We are creatures of habit which likely means you will miss doing things a way that is easy and comfortable. You will miss the small comforts of home like the wide variation of Oreos or being able to hop in your car for only an hour to see your family. It is okay to miss these things! But don’t spend too much time focusing on the things you miss when there are so many NEW things to discover.



You will discover new favorites in your adopted country

After a while, your new country will begin to feel like home. You will look forward to coming home to your couch and a cold Victoria. You will find a new favorite restaurant, a great hiking spot and make new friends. Before you know it will be time to move home or to your next country of residence and you will be wondering how you are going to make it through the week without immediate access to elote or tacos from the stand down the street. 

mexican breakfast

You get used to having friends from all over the world 

As an expat, you quickly make friends with locals and expats alike. There are many things better than sharing life with people that have so many diverse experiences and perspectives. Plus, you will have friends you can visit all over the world!


READ: 39 Things You Should Know Before Moving (or Traveling) to Mexico

Expat Life
While traveling short term and long term definitely have their differences, no type of travel really compares to expat life. Even digital nomads who live on location for months at a time do not truly experience the joys and woes of expat life. Expat life is a challenge, no matter which country you are living in and while some will be easier to adjust to than others, nothing is easy about starting life over in a new country. I’ve been living in Mexico for a year now and I am going to share a few things I wish I would have known about expat life.
More about Eemma Iseman

    1. Great post, and I appreciate the realism versus the typical look at expat life through rose-colored glasses.

      I think living in Mexico varies not only with location, but with your relationship status, financial stability, age, and health. You can get away with being a little less flexible or resourceful if you can throw a lot of money at a problem to make it go away. Being single is for me harder, in that I have no one to help with basic things, like hauling water jugs or taking a pet to the vet. As I’m single and also not retired, I’m left out of a lot of expat social events, where couples only want to invite other couples and festivities start at three in the afternoon. Many of the gringos in my area say they love Baja. Well, of course they do–they come for a few weeks at a time, and when they get bored or the weather is bad, they retreat to their other homes in Southern California. They don’t tolerate any criticism of real life here full time.

      I would add that many of those stresses and annoyances can add up over time, creating a cumulative impression of expat living that becomes less positive over time. What was novel and tolerable for me six years ago is now just downright exhausting. I’m tired of the petty theft, the scams, the noise pollution, the litter, the abominable treatment of animals, the corruption, and the poor infrastructure. I don’t like not being able to go out by myself at night because it’s unsafe, and I’m sick of having to battle my landlord to get the smallest repairs done. I wish I could afford to leave, but I can’t right now. Lesson learned: Latin culture and living in a third world country are definitely not for me.

    1. Incredibly written article above. I myself visited Zihuatanejo along the Pacific coast before ever deciding to live here. I first visited in Feb. 2000. At that time I still worked in the states. By 2008 the economy had tanked in Calif. & I saw the writing on the wall. In May 2009, I liquidated my AC business, loaded up the trailer and moved south to Zhuatanejo Mexico. Being a single man of 55 I still had to earn an income to servive. Earlier In 2005 I had started a small ice machine rental company in Zihuatanejo, and now it was my sole source of income. I was alone, I had no friends, and very little income. I suffered the same problems in the article above. Taxi & bus drivers that should be jailed for crazy driving, & I had employees that stole from me. I was learning a whole new way of thinking, and dealing with the problems while living in a 3rd world country. Flexico is what I called my life. If you did’nt flex, you would snap. Little time passed by until I adjusted to life in my little paradice. Business is good now. I will never leave Mexico until they plant me in the ground. I love my life here, and here I will stay.

    1. Very good post in reading it you can see and tell how much smarter and expreenice you’ve become . I hope this blog helps others as much as it has helped you’ve guys grow ! Life is what you make it ! And you two a e making a life !!

    1. Great, well written post. I Love the honestly in it! I agree with all of your points, I’m English but I 100% know that this is not the country I belong in! I love travelling and I hope I will feel at home in one of the countries I visit!

    1. What a great feature, thank you. We relocated many years ago from UK to Isle of Man, which whilst still English speaking, was an island that may have been thousands of miles away from the ‘mainland’ for all its differences in culture and lifestyle. Then deciding to live life on the road in our camper takes the idea of expat into a whole new concept – so I truly get everything you describe. In fact you have put something into context for me. People often think that travelling or being an expat is ‘lucky’ and ‘easy’, although I’ve found myself stressed living on the road and it has surprised me. Travelling isn’t a free pass from stress. You just need to find mechanisms to deal with your new challenges. So thank you it’s made a few connections for me and inspired a blog!

    1. As a fellow Michigan expat I can sooo relate to these things !! Even if I am in the UK which is completely different! Agree especially with the high highs/low lows AND the stress levels. BUT I also think my stress tolerance has increased over time haha… so now it takes more to get me stressed than it used to. Still can’t stand immigration appointments tho 😛

    1. Just wanted to chime in to say that your point, “your attitude will make or break you” is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. Sure, there are definitely external factors that have a big influence on your outlook and the experiences you have while living abroad, but by far, the most controllable and also ubiquitous influence on your perspective of your life abroad is your attitude. Alongside that comment is the idea that you learn to be flexible, or to just sometimes, go with the flow. If you try and control your life abroad, or at least get upset when things don’t pan out exactly as you’ve planned, you’re going to have a bad time. Flexibility is key to keeping the right attitude about yourself 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, I always love reading fellow expat/immigrant stories!

      – Tom @ Abroad American

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