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What Expat Employees Think of Life Abroad — In Their Own Words

Findings from the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition show a clear trend that foreign assignees, international hires, and relocating spouses highly value their work experience abroad. However, the comments shared by the career expats that took part in the survey highlight that expectations about personal and work life abroad don’t always meet the reality — and this can cause frustration and unhappiness to international employees and their families. A Colombian relocating spouse living in Mexico states: “I expected to come to a very different place. I'm trying to get used to it but it's not easy.”

Settling In Abroad — From Culture Shock To Administrative Hurdles

Some survey respondents express their frustration with the hardship to deal with practicalities abroad. Along with administrative and bureaucratic hurdles, expat employees are often faced with the difficulties caused by linguistic and cultural differences.

A Polish foreign assignee living in Belgium states: “While I enjoy that Brussels has a central location in Europe, its cultural life, and the high-quality food, I dislike the bad bureaucracy, the slow administration services, and the fact that English is not widely spoken in many shops and offices.”

An Indian international hire living in Argentina says: “Processes tend to be very slow and become even slower due to the lack of English-speaking support in places like bank and government offices.”

An American relocating spouse living in Taiwan adds: “The differences in culture can be jarring and frustrating at times.”

Lost in Translation: Expat Employees Face the Language Barrier

Many survey respondents name the language barrier as the top aspect they dislike abroad, as it impacts their everyday life and limits access to professional and social opportunities.

An American international hire living in China says: “The language barrier is the most difficult part of living abroad. I don't feel self-sufficient because I can't always communicate with people so I have to rely on work friends to call for me or handle something for me, which I don't like.”

An Indian international hire living in Austria comments: “There is nothing I dislike about living here, except the language barrier. English is not commonly spoken even in a metropolitan city like Vienna.”

A Turkish relocating spouse living in Germany states: “Knowing the German language is more important than I expected. The language barrier represents a big hurdle, especially when it comes to finding a suitable job. It is difficult even for highly-skilled people, if they do not have an advanced level of German.”

A Belgian international hire living in Japan adds: “There is a lack of support in English while the local language is difficult to learn and too little courses are provided to foreigners.”

An Indian relocating spouse living in China says: “The language barrier prevents you from enjoying your stay in a complete way. Finding friends is also very hard.”

The Hardship to Make New Friends Causes Unhappiness

According to the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition, the lack of socializing opportunities represents one of the top reasons for unhappiness abroad for international employees and their spouses.

An American foreign assignee living in Switzerland says: “Forming a social network is extremely difficult. I do not feel a sense of community and was quite lonely for a long time.”

A Colombian international hire living in the USA states: “What I don’t like here is the lack of socializing opportunities. Finding new friends is really a struggle. I have not met or had any relationship since I've moved here almost three years ago.”

A Latvian relocating spouse living in Denmark comments: "It is not easy to find new friends here, especially with  locals."

Finding a Job Abroad Is a Hurdle for Relocating Spouses

While the difficulty to find new friends is a common problem for all expats types, the lack of professional networking opportunities represents the main reason of unhappiness abroad for relocating spouses.

A British relocating spouse living in Austria says: “I have struggled to find work in my field due to not speaking the language and have to rely on my partner to support me financially, which was never the case before.”

A Singaporean relocating spouse living in Australia adds: “Unhappiness abroad is a cycle of problems starting from unemployment; without even a casual or part-time job, it is difficult to have the means to go to social events and make friends, and I feel like I‘m not fully able to appreciate my new city for what it is.”

Socio-Economic Factors Affect the Expat Experience Abroad

To successfully integrate into a new company and culture, expat employees and their new families also need to adjust to different socio-economic environments. However, the survey comments show that many career expats and relocating spouses are unprepared and confronted with a reality that doesn't meet their expectation — which emerges as a disruptive factor.

A Portuguese international hire in the UK says: “I don't like the high degree of uncertainty in many aspects of life currently associated with Brexit.”

A German foreign assignee in Brazil states: “Political chaos makes me feel uncomfortable. It also caused lots of confusion and discomfort in my workplace.”

An American international hire living in China states: “I feel there is a lack of understanding of the support needed to work here.”

These and other comments shared by expat employees show a disconnect between expectations and reality. This could be an indicator to employers that expat employees need to receive well-rounded relocation support. This should include more information about the country they are moving to, practical settling-in services, as well as better access to language courses, socializing opportunities, and spouse support.

Download the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition to find out more about what kind of support expat employees receive and what they need abroad.


About the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition: The InterNations Expat Insider is one of the world’s largest surveys on life abroad — 20,259 expats took part. The Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition focuses specifically on global employees and their spouses — 10% of respondents were foreign assignees, 23% were international hires, and 7% were relocating spouses. Through detailed results, infographics, and expat quotes, the report provides insights that can assist global mobility and HR professionals in understanding the needs of expat employees better.

Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition

Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition

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