CHAPTER 1: IS THIS THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME
You will probably be among other expats and will not be alone. There will be others who will share some of their "learning experiences" with you, along with a list of dos and don'ts. Your company wants you to succeed-they are making a serious investment in you. They wouldn't be sending you if you couldn't do the job. Companies are sending their best and brightest. You should feel proud that you have been selected.
As you can imagine, there are many factors to consider in making the decision to go, in making the venture a success for everyone involved, and utilizing the experience to its fullest advantage. This book will help you and your family accomplish this. Even if you're working for yourself and not for a big company, many of the same issues will apply to you.
Obviously, any professional who has been offered the opportunity to work abroad needs to consider several issues before a responsible decision can be reached. First, is the overseas assignment in your best interest? If you accept the assignment, is there a competitor or colleague within your company who will step into your position while you're away and "make hay while the sun shines"? If you accept this assignment, what are your odds of success? (The ratio for not completing an overseas tour can be as high as 1 in 4 in some foreign assignments.) Will cultural differences, language, principles or work habits serve as opportunities or major obstacles? Chapter 2 of this book will help you think through some of the career ramifications of accepting (or declining) the opportunity to work abroad.
Chapter 3 discusses the importance of learning the fine art of cross-cultural communication. Learning to recognize and adapt to cultural differences will be critical to your success on this assignment. You will need to learn about such things as the rudiments of the foreign language, proper etiquette, correct dress code, appropriate manners, and how to avoid a cultural gaffe. Before you go, learn about the host country. Read as much as possible about the country where you plan to reside. Learning about a nation's culture, customs, people, and history will make your stay more meaningful. Keep abreast as well of the international news for the latest political developments in the country where you will live. Libraries, bookstores and tourist bureaus are good resources for this information. One of the best ways to learn about living in a foreign country is to get advice from US citizens already residing there. Countries with large numbers of US expatriates often have an American Chamber of Commerce, a bicultural organization, or an American social club that can give you information on living in that country. In countries with fewer US residents, you may be able to meet fellow expatriates through a local international club. The consular section of the US embassy or consulate may be able to assist you in finding these organizations.
The Department of State publishes background notes on countries around the world. These are brief, factual pamphlets with information on each country's people, culture, geography, history, government, economy, and political conditions. It also issues travel advisories to alert US citizens traveling or residing abroad to potential problems that could adversely affect them. The advisories are available through US passport agencies, travel agents' computer reservation systems, major airlines, and American embassies and consulates abroad.
The family who accepts an international assignment must be in unison with one another if the foreign venture is to be successful. By maintaining harmony, success is more assured at your new home and on the job. All your hopes for success abroad can come true, especially if your house is in order. Careful preparation and open, straightforward communication among all members of your family both before you leave and after you settle in are important keys to a good international experience. Some spouses experience difficulty and frustration in adapting to a strange country, especially if they had to leave a job where they were happy to follow their partner. Children, too, can balk at being uprooted from their school and friends. You will need to consider such questions as: How long will it take them to adjust to their new surroundings? Can they be enrolled in an American school? If the children are in high school, will the credits they earn in a school abroad be acceptable for college admission in the US? Chapter 4 is designed to help you and your family make the right decisions about going and help you prepare for your adventure if you accept. It will also offer some suggestions about making the best of your adventure in a foreign land.
Thinking about the well-being of yourself and your family will no doubt lead you quickly to questions about health issues in the proposed country. Does this country pose significant health risks? Will the hospital and medical facilities there provide the quality of care to which you are accustomed? Will you and your family be fully covered by insurance while abroad? Look to Chapter 5 for more about these and other health concerns.
The US Department of State can be of great help to you both before you leave by providing useful information about your host country and while you are living there. US consulates and embassies offer a wide range of services to US citizens living abroad, especially in the event of emergency. Chapter 6 outlines many of these services for you, as well as providing some other useful advice about legal issues you should consider. Don't limit yourself to seeking help only from the US consul. You can also find valuable advice from the consulates of other governments as well. For example, in the British Commonwealth countries, the British consular services may offer you the best advice on your host country. Similarly, in an African country that was once a French colony, you might turn to the French embassy there.
You will also want to look carefully at what impact this assignment may have on your personal finances. First, can you afford to accept this assignment? Will your standard of living be affected? How much of an increase in salary will be necessary in order to take the plunge? Will the additional allowances that are designated for housing, the children's education, auto, and other cost of living expenses be sufficient? What kind of compensation package will your company provide? What about the options regarding your home in the US? Should you sell your home or rent it out? Or should you keep your home and have it maintained but empty? Regarding your benefits package, will you be covered by Social Security as well as a pension plan? Chapter 7 discusses the many aspects of the compensation package that you should consider when discussing this assignment with your company.
Chapter 8 provides some information about taxation by both the US and your host country. While gathering information, you will want to begin asking such questions as: Will you need to pay income tax to that country? Is there an income tax treaty that exists between the US and the other country? Who will provide advice and prepare your tax returns for both the US and the host country? Will you be responsible for paying for this kind of tax expertise? It is in your best interest to find out beforehand.
If you have never traveled to a foreign country before, you may have given little thought to how the goings-on in international money markets can affect your everyday life. This will certainly change. Suddenly you may find yourself quite literally concerned about the price of tea in China! Even to manage your day-to-day expenses, you will soon learn to pay close attention to the relative values of the currencies you will be working with. Even before you accept the assignment understanding currency values will be useful, as you will want to know the answers to such questions as: What currency will you be paid in? If you are paid in foreign currency, is it a volatile or stable currency compared to the US dollar? What is its value relative to the US dollar? Answers to these questions may well affect your up-front negotiations with your company, and your financial planning for your life abroad. Chapter 9 offers a brief discussion of the factors that affect the value of world currencies and looks at how global fluctuations in currency values can affect your personal finances.
To manage your finances while abroad, you will also have to choose a bank to handle your financial transactions and possibly help you with your investments both at home and abroad. As an expat, you may well find yourself with more money to invest, and with more options available to you in terms of financial advisors, investment planners, and offshore banking services. Although the abundance of options is certainly an advantage, it can also be very confusing. Chapter 10 offers some advice to help you navigate these waters.
As the last part of the financial information offered here, Chapter 11 provides information and questions to consider regarding your insurance coverage and estate planning. It will walk you through such considerations as: Have you reviewed your insurance coverage? Will there be any problems if you file a claim outside of the US? Are there any restrictions in your health, life, disability income or property/casualty coverage? If there are gaps, will your company group benefits provide the additional coverage? Has your estate plan been reviewed? Should you consider having a foreign will for foreign assets? This is especially important if you own real estate in your host country. A lawyer and an accountant with expertise in both domiciles are highly recommended.
There is one aspect of living abroad that expats often fail to consider until it is upon them, and that is the "re-entry" experience. Not uncommonly, expats and their families discover that coming back home can be at least as difficult as moving to foreign soil. However, forewarned is forearmed, and Chapter 12 offers some advice about how to avoid some of this "reverse culture shock."
The last two chapters of the book are offered to you as tools to be used in preparing for your new adventure. This book is designed to be a launching platform for you, and its mode is Socratic. My objective is to start you off on the right road by leading you to the questions you may not have thought of and encourage you to do your homework in the areas of particular importance to you. There are many, many useful resources in print and on the Internet to help you. Chapter 13 offers a brief list of some of these resources, to get you started. No doubt they will lead you to others.
And of course, don't forget that often the most valuable resources are people you can talk to. Search them out, and don't be afraid of looking stupid-ask questions! As an example, when I arrive in a new city, or even in a city where I'm familiar, I find local business men for business information and to get advice. Their experience and knowledge of "their town and the people in it" have been of great benefit to me. If they don't know, they know who does know. Veteran expats, be they fellow employees of your company or club members, or neighbors, are also exceptionally useful sources of information, advice, and empathy. Some of the websites listed here offer chat rooms and bulletin boards so you can exchange information, questions, and experiences with expats from around the world. And don't forget the nearest US consulate. Remember that however rough it gets, you are not alone.
Chapter 14, finally, consists of a timetable and checklist you can use to ensure that when you have to leave to catch that plane, you will do so confident that you are as ready as you can be for the experience of a lifetime.
Every publication is a snapshot in time, and such is the case with this one. Times change, businesses evolve, and so will the subjects and information discussed in this book.