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The Art of Adapting to Expat Life

Anna Nicholas Journalist British, living in Spain

As a long-standing expat who left Britain for the golden shores of Mallorca some fifteen years ago, many of the findings in HSBC’s Expat Explorer survey struck a chord with me.

As part of the survey, 16,000 respondents shared a word or a sentence which describes what expat life means to them; the results of which truly reflect the unique experience of living in a foreign country.

Those who responded largely offered a positive and affirmative view of expat life. The words that expats were most likely to use in relation to their experiences were great, challenging, interesting, exciting, rewarding, different, better, and difficult. Of these there are perhaps five which best illustrate the journey that expats go through.

Exciting: Great Expectations

It is generally accepted that during the honeymoon period, new arrivals embrace the wonders of their surroundings with gusto. I remember the thrill of swapping my central London apartment for a country house lying between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. How I marvelled at the abundance of olive, lemon and orange trees and the sound of sheep bells echoing in the hills.

Indeed, those precious first impressions can prove intoxicating if a little unsettling. One respondent from the Expat Explorer survey, a seasoned 42 year-old British female living in India, describes her early experience of expat life as ‘a crazy rickshaw ride: sometimes bumpy, often exciting, and occasionally frightening.’

A crazy rickshaw ride: sometimes bumpy, often exciting and occasionally frightening Female, Age 42, Living in India

Difficult: Culture Shock

In tandem with those initial feelings of excitement sometimes comes a sense of insecurity. Cathy Tsang-Feign, a psychologist and expat author of Living Abroad, points out that for some, a culture shock is often in store. She says that expats may experience ‘a series of emotions, ranging from elation to depression to infatuation to homesickness.’ Indeed, this view is reflected in the response of one 42-year-old British male living in the United States, who acknowledges the importance of taking the rough with the smooth: ‘Being away from family and friends can be tough, but the experience is rewarding’. Another Briton, a 44 year-old woman living in Australia, states that expat life is ‘great in most respects other than missing family.’

Being away from family and friends can be tough, but the experience is rewarding Male, Age 42, Living in USA

Different: A Learning Curve

Accepting that it takes time to adjust to a new environment is key and there is no doubt that having an open mind can make all the difference. When I first arrived in Mallorca I was frustrated by the relaxed time-keeping, but soon learnt to adapt. In fact, I’d support the view of a 35-year-old Dutch female respondent living in Ireland. She maintains that these experiences in particular help expats to ‘become more broadminded and open to other cultures.’

Niels Barends, a Dutch counsellor living in Slovenia, holds a similar view. He believes that expat life needs work, arguing that ‘people think it comes naturally, but it doesn’t. It comes down to communication and adjustment.’

People think it comes naturally, but it doesn’t. It comes down to communication and adjustment Niels Barends, Living in Slovenia

Challenging: The Road Ahead

One challenge which inevitably arises at some point is communication itself. I found that speaking even basic Spanish opened doors in Mallorca and assisted with my integration. Endorsing this view, an American male aged 26 and based in the Netherlands stresses that, ‘one should make a real effort to integrate into the culture and language.’

One should make a real effort to integrate into the culture and language Male, Aged 26, Living in the Netherlands

It is also vital that you take things one step at a time and acknowledge the difficulties or challenges you may face. Sebastian Eiche, a professor at IESE, the graduate school of Navarra University, advises not ‘being self-critical when trying to master a host-country language.’ Celebrating the small triumphs will help you to feel more able to take on other larger hurdles that might await.

Rewarding: Reaping the Benefits

Very often, conquering these challenges tends to lead to a sense of satisfaction. Feeling as though you’re integrating successfully is when many expats tend to feel most rewarded. Integration comes in many forms and can include simply engaging with neighbours, parents at the school gates, shopkeepers and bar owners. Joining local sports clubs and associations, and reaching out to colleagues and other expats all help to expand the radius of contacts. Assisting a local charity or the community at large is an excellent way to make friends. For me, it was teaching English to Mallorcan children in my spare time – doing this introduced me to a warm group of locals. As a 58-year-old female Australian living in Brazil insists, ‘you have to quickly find your community and embrace it. Give back.’

It would be unrealistic to claim that settling into a new country is a bowl of cherries but for me, a winning smile and positive attitude is key to success. Expat life is, as a 44-year-old Canadian in Jersey states, ‘one of the most rewarding life challenges.’ From my own experience, I wholeheartedly agree.

One of the most rewarding life challenges. Canadian, Aged 44, Living in Jersey

About Anna

Anna and her husband Alan and son, Ollie, have lived in northwest Mallorca for 15 years. She is the author of six humorous travel titles about rural island life and as a journalist, writes regularly for the Telegraph and other publications. More information at



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The Expat Explorer survey, is the world's largest independent global expat survey. Commissioned by HSBC Expat and conducted by a third party research company YouGov. In order to be included, each country had to reach a minimum sample size of 100 expat respondents.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are not the views of HSBC and are subject to change.