Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tips for Future Expats

We've been expats for nearly a year and a half now, and I have some great tips for those looking to take on the expat life. Not everything will apply to everyone, but the following are some things we did that turned out to be great decisions (and some stuff you've heard me say again and again). This advice falls in the realm of "how not to lose your mind while living in another country." Because let's be real - when you move to another country, it's not always traveling and experiencing a new culture. A lot of it is the same day-to-day getting the kids to school, getting some work done, making dinner, paying bills tedium that you experienced ad nauseam in the States. 

  1. Get a Magic Jack. I always say how much I love my Magic Jack and it's so true. Cell service here is pretty expensive and I only call my husband. I have a cell phone, but I mainly use it for apps and only when I have wifi service. I do have a small pay-as-you-go plan with the company OI that costs me about R$10/month. That's just so my husband and I can communicate if he's at work or in case of emergency. I have no cell signal inside our house, so I really don't need much. The Magic Jack runs through our internet and gives me a US phone number, so I can call and receive calls from the US for free. (Well it's US$35/year for the line, but that's so worth it). I did have the Sprint Open World, or whatever they've changed the name to now, but the service was pretty bad and I had a lot of signal and connectivity issues - and I had to call every month to get my bill adjusted because they kept messing it up. 
  2. Keep a US bank account. I have an active savings account in the US and have a debit card linked to it. It's one of the "free" or "low balance" accounts. I have to keep $300 in it to avoid a monthly service fee, so that's about what I keep in it. We've had numerous occasions where we had to pay something in dollars or in the States, so the account has been super handy. 
  3. Skype/Facebook chat. Sometimes when the homesickness hits, a phone call isn't good enough. I have some friends and family members who use Skype and some who use Facebook, so I keep an account with both. It's nice to have a "face to face" conversation once in a while.
  4. Pay off all your debts. I know this seems so difficult and maybe impossible, but I promise you, if you're the average American, there's room for you to cut spending and increase debt payments. One of my most prioritized goals before we made our move was to pay off my student loan debt. All $52,000 of it. Because let's get real - I had an interest rate of 6.8% that compounded daily. Even if I secured a financial hardship deferral, I think the debt would have doubled or tripled by the time we returned to the States. Um, no thanks. I would rather gouge my eyes out than needlessly pay interest. I even saved a ton of money by paying the loans off early (future interest saved). And don't forget - student loan payments are a tax deduction! Maybe you have some credit card debt or need to pay back your brother or whatever - sit down and calculate your budget to the dime. I mean every quick $1 Dunkin Donuts iced coffee and all. I guarantee there is room for you to tighten the belt and use that money to pay off your debt. You do not want to move to a foreign country with debt hanging over your head. Especially if you're moving to a country like Brazil, where the exchange rate is drastically against you, and you know it's going to take some time to find a job. Another thing I did was to purge our house of items we weren't using and knew weren't coming with us. I listed those items on Craigslist, had garage sales, and used that money to pay for our plane tickets. Again, I didn't want the cost of our plane tickets to be a debt to be paid.
  5. Read expat blogs. Who better to tell you what you can expect? I read all types of blogs from expats living in Brazil. From them I discerned what we should bring and what we could purchase here. I am the type of person who needs to research, research, research before I make a move. They helped soften the cultural blow, much like I hope this blog will. (You can find a list of some of the blogs I read in the lower right corner of the page).
  6. Get a library card. Bring a Kindle if you like to read. Personally, I love to read. I forgot to renew my card before we moved, so I use my mom's card - thanks Ma! I use her library card to download e-books onto my Kindle and I have a never ending supply of things to read. If the area you're moving to does have a library, you might be hard pressed to find things in English. Bonus: most libraries have streaming movies you can check out! Might not be much, but it's something!
  7. Netflix. Netflix, Netflix, Netflix. This company is so wonderful. Really. I used to pay for an account and share with my brothers. But you know, with that exchange rate and um, lack of income, it wasn't something we could afford here. But, my wonderful brother shares his account with us. And here's the reason I love Netflix - they know people share accounts. They know it, and it's all good. And nearly everything here offers subtitles in Portuguese (we get the Brazil edition of Netflix) and audio in English. It's great for learning colloquial Portuguese. And my husband loves it because we can both fully comprehend what we're watching instead of one of us mostly getting it.
  8. Maintain credit cards. I have two credit cards with zero balances and a combined $10,000 limit for emergencies. You never know what's going to come up or when you'll have to buy emergency plane tickets. If god forbid there were ever a family emergency, I feel comfortable knowing I can get on a plane ASAP and figure out how to pay the bill later. I do make a few small purchases a year with the cards (birthday presents, etc.) and pay the statement off with my savings account. I don't want the cards to go inactive, after all. And I make sure to call each company yearly to request the annual member fee be waived. I've yet to have them deny that request.
  9. Maintain passports. The kids' US passports have a five year validity and mine has a 10 year validity, so those ones are pretty easy. Thank god, because our nearest consulate is eight hours away. The kids and my husband also have Brazilian passports. As dual citizens, they are required to have Brazilian passports to enter and leave the country. (BTW, when we registered their births with the Brazilian consulate in NYC, they automatically gained Brazilian citizenship, as we later discovered). They are not allowed to have a Brazilian visa in their US passport. There is no "renewing" a passport in Brazil. You simply obtain a new one. To do that, we have to file an application online with the Federal Police Department's website. Then print the application and bank document and take them to the bank to pay the fee. Then we schedule an appointment online. Then we take the application, bank receipt, CPF, and ID to the appointment - no photo needed, they'll take one there. The time that it actually takes to get the passport varies, and last year the "system went down" causing month long delays. There is no fast way to get a passport, so it's pretty important to keep a valid one ready - just in case. My husband's passport has a validity of 10 years, but it gets tricky with the kids. Alessandra got her passport at 9 months, so it was only valid for a year. Our son got his passport at the age of 4, so it was valid for 4 years. It works like this (don't try to make sense of it, it's Brazilian bureaucracy): 
      • Children up to the age of 1 = 1 year validity
      • Children age 2 = 2 year validity
      • Children age 3 = 3 year validity
      • Children age 4 = 4 year validity
      • Children 5 and up = 10 years validity


  1. It's 3 years later, and I'm curious to know if you still rely so much on your Magic Jack? I'll be moving to Valadares next (US) spring, and am soaking up your advice. I have T-Mobile and usually use WhatsApp with friends in other countries. I will have internet in my place in GV. I plan to bring my Kindle and Surface laptop, also maybe my Amazon Echo, if I can get it to work there. :-)

    1. I had written a lovely reply to your comment in detail andddd then it failed to upload. So, Viajanete, as you are known for now my friend, I'm going to do a whole "5 years into living in Brazil" update post for you!