Tips for Moving Abroad With Kids
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Moving abroad with kids has been one of the most exciting — and the most challenging — adventures that I’ve had to date.
To put this into perspective, I’ve lived in five countries and I’ve traveled to over 25 other countries. I thought I had this expat thing figured out.
Then I had kids.
Moving Abroad With Kids is HARD
We are a Foreign Service family, which means we move every two or three years. My husband and I met in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then we moved back to DC while he did a tour in Afghanistan. After that, we were off to Bogota, Colombia, where our first daughter was born. Then we did a tour back in Boston, where our second daughter was born, and now we’re here in Guatemala.
Our first move with kids (from Bogota to Boston) included just one child who was only fifteen months old at the time. While there were PLENTY of stressful components to that move — like finding work, finding a place to live, meeting friends, and sleeping in our dining room on top of an air mattress for nearly two weeks while we waited for our furniture to arrive — our daughter’s adjustment to life in America was not one of them.
This gave me false confidence for our latest move to Guatemala with a three-year-old and a five-month-old.
“I’m a veteran expat! This will be a piece of cake,” I thought.
It was not cake.
Tips for Moving Abroad With Kids
Sure, I’m a pro when it comes to the logistics of moving overseas. I know all about preparing our passports and visas, collecting medical records, preparing our pets for the move, and packing up the house. I know how to research and plan and find resources in our new city. I’ve got spreadsheets for days. I could find out that we’re moving next week, and I’d be fine — depending on the spider size in that country of course (#truth).
But kids complicate moves (duh). And what worked for one move won’t work for another, as these little people grow and develop.
But the benefits of traveling and living overseas with kids are almost too numerous to count. So despite these challenges, we keep doing it and plan on doing it for as long as we can.
Here are twelve tips for moving abroad with kids that I hope will make the process a little easier on all the members of your family.
#1. Get Your Marriage in Order
This is such an important topic that I wrote a whole separate post about it.
When you move abroad with kids, you and your partner will need to come together in entirely new ways. You will come to rely on each other more than ever before, particularly in that phase before you’ve made new friends or found your local community.
Kids are a weathervane for marital problems. Considering the extra stress that an overseas move places on the marriage, it’s doubly important that the two of you are a united team.
Before you move abroad with your kids, make sure you take some time to come up with a plan.
- Sit down and ask each other some tough questions about your goals, priorities, and plans for finding support if you need it.
- Couples therapy isn’t just for marriages in trouble — a few visits can help you learn new communication skills and address any nagging issues.
- Consider using an online therapist that you can continue to check in with after arrival.
- Do a dry run — head out for a short-term trip to help you prepare.
- Check-in with your partner routinely, either through regular date nights or just an evening chat before bed.
- Find a way to connect outside of the move. Take tennis lessons together or read the same book that you can discuss later. It doesn’t need to be a formal date night (although those are great!), just some way to remember why you picked this person in the first place.
#2. Join Online and In-person Groups In the Area
There’s an expat facebook group for nearly every country and most major cities. Just as you’d search out a Facebook group for playdates or for buy/sell groups in your hometown, there’s also a Facebook group for your new city.
I encourage you to join both an expat group as well as a local’s group, even if you don’t speak the language. Your internet browser/Facebook app will translate for you, and these insider tips are gold.
Expat groups are an awesome resource about where to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving or which dentist speaks English. They also understand the trials of life in your particular city from an expat’s point of view.
I encourage you to seek these groups out before actually moving abroad with kids. Hop online and ask questions about the neighborhood where you plan to live, about the commutes to the local schools, and what to pack for the climate.
Finding these groups in advance can alert you to any specific issues that might affect your kids, and will provide a source of friendship and community after arrival.
The social aspect can make or break your experience overseas.
Trust me on this one — don’t try to completely cut yourself off from other expats.
When I first moved to Sarajevo, I was 22. I was determined to be fully immersed, and I avoided making friends with other expats.
And I was really freaking lonely.
About six months into my time in Bosnia, I started participating in local groups, including the Hash House Harriers. I participated in a 5k hosted by the U.S. Embassy and started going to parties hosted by other expats. And I made SO many new friends, both expats and locals, and my experience of that country changed dramatically.
It’s also how I met my husband, so that just goes to show how important it is to keep an open mind. 😉
To be clear, I’m not saying that you should only make friends with other expats, either — a healthy mix is great. Each individual you meet will have a unique perspective and their own special take on life. Don’t pre-emptively cut yourself off by only seeking out a particular type of community, either because they’re familiar OR because they’re local.
For your kids, it is all about friends. Make sure your kids have opportunities to meet like-minded kids often and early.
Join Local In-Person Groups
Once you arrive, local community groups are an excellent place to ask about pediatricians in your area, vets who make house calls, or ideas for a family weekend away. The best groups will also host regular in-person events where you can meet new people.
There are some international parenting groups that you can look for in most cities. The American Women’s Club hosts groups in many cities (and you don’t need to be American to join). I was an active member of the group in Bogota, Colombia. This group was an amazing way to meet new friends, join playgroups, and find resources in the area.
MOPS is another option. Their meetings include time for moms while their children receive childcare. These groups usually have a Christian bent and are often hosted in local churches, so just be aware if that’s not your groove.
The Hash House Harriers is a running club that leans heavily towards the social/party side of the spectrum. The groups can be very laidback and casual, while others are more serious about their runs. Some are more family-oriented while others lean towards younger singles. They are a super fun way to meet like-minded people.
The nice thing about joining international groups like these is that there is likely a group anywhere you want to travel. Heading to Bamako for a few weeks? See if there is a Hash group meeting while you’re there. Planning a move back to your home country? Check if there’s MOPS branch in your new town. This can help ease the transition in both directions.
#3. Have a Goodbye Ritual For Your Kids
One of my Foreign Service colleagues described how her daughter’s friends threw her a goodbye party before departure, and what a positive effect this had for the whole family. During the party, they took lots of photos with friends. They brought these with them to display in their daughter’s room.
In my family, we have a tradition of visiting my parents every summer. We time these visits to coincide with our moves (either just before moving abroad, or just after returning to the US). Having something positive to look forward to and to take our minds off the move has been wonderful.
These types of experiences can fill us up with good memories and help the move start on a positive note, both for you and your kids.
I also personally feel that American culture, in particular, is sort of light on rituals and traditions around major transitions. From miscarriage to moves, we rarely have a formalized way to process or celebrate big life changes. Finding a way to recognize, acknowledge, and share your experience with your community can reduce feelings of loneliness and help everyone in the family process their thoughts and feelings about moving abroad.
#4. Research Your New Home
We were lucky enough to connect with a family who was already settled into our new country (through an online expat group!). I gave her the address of the house we had been assigned, and she gave me tons of details about the neighborhood.
I also reached out to the previous tenant (also an Embassy employee), and they gave me details and pictures about the apartment building and local amenities. It helped so much to be able to picture our new home and begin to plan what to pack.
If you have older kids, they can help and will likely appreciate the opportunity to learn more about their new home.
If you’re a homeschooling family, consider turning it into a learning activity:
- Make a travel brochure advertising the cultural highlights
- Make a PowerPoint about the history of the country
- Make a booklet with restaurants, shopping, and places to visit
- Create a “bucket list” for the new country
Places to find information:
- Zoom in on google maps, and activate “Street View” if available. Virtually “walk” through your area
- Within Google Maps, click on landmarks (restaurants, parks, shopping centers) around your new home, and see if there are photos available.
- Check out the wikipedia page for your neighborhood
- Read through Post Reports from Tales from a Small Planet
- For Foreign Service members, you’re probably familiar with the CLO or the resource center back at Main State. But did you know about the Toolbox for Americans Abroad?
- Buy one or two travel books about your new city or country, as well as a few history books. There are also some great picture books for younger kids, depending on the country. In Guatemala, we’ve enjoyed Guatemala ABCs and Rainbow Weaver.
#4. Prioritize Comfort Items in Your Suitcases
Even if you are moving with just suitcases, save a little space for comfort items that will help your new house feel homey right away.
- Stick-on wall decals to personalize kids’ rooms (especially great for older kids)
- Framed photos of family or friends back home
- A few favorite snacks from back home — you’d be amazed at how grateful you’ll be for a bag of Goldfish when the little ones are melting down on day 3 post-move
- A familiar night-light, blanket, or a few stuffed animals (for younger kids)
- A piece of family art
Just before our move to Bogota, I made a family coat of arms. My husband and I spent a long time discussing the themes that were important to us. We even came up with a family slogan (“Kindness, Curiosity, and Truth” — if you’re wondering). I pack this print in our suitcase whenever we move, and I immediately hang it up in a prominent place after arrival.
#5. Time Your Move to School Calendars, if Possible
One of the biggest stressors involved in moving abroad with kids are schools.
Be aware that school calendars can be different in different countries. Here in Guatemala, the local schools run from January until November. The international schools are on the American calendar and run from August to June.
If you plan for your kids to attend school while abroad, research the local school calendar, and then reach out to your online expat groups for advice about good schools in the neighborhood where you plan to live.
Send emails to the various schools, and be sure to ask lots of questions:
- How many kids in the school are international? What is the “language of play”? We sent our daughter to a Guatemalan preschool for a year, but there were so many other expats who also liked the school, that all the kids spoke English to one another. 🤦♀️
- What is the language of instruction? Is there support for second-language learners?
- What is the cost of tuition? Does it include bus fees or meals?
- What is the daily schedule? How long is the daily commute? In some major cities, it’s not unusual for even very little kids to sit on a bus for an hour or more, each way. Are there seatbelts or child seats on the bus?
- What kind of community events does the school host? Is there an active PTA?
- Does the school have a library? Are there English books? Can other family members access the library? (I’d give my entire stash of American toilet paper for access to a good English library!)
- What is the style of instruction? Is it mostly rote memorization or more play-based?
- When do you have to apply and how much does the application cost? Here in Guatemala, one of the schools required an application nearly an entire year in advance and it costs almost $300 just for the application.
- Do the kids wear uniforms?
- What is the outdoor play space like?
- What kinds of extracurriculars are available?
- How do they handle security? Are there guards checking IDs at the gate? Who can access the classrooms when the kids are in school?
- Are the teachers mainly expats or locals? What is the native language for most of the teachers? What is the turnover rate for teachers? Are most on two-year contracts, or are the majority long-term members of the community?
#6. Stay in Touch With Family Back Home
Before moving abroad with kids, it’s helpful to make a plan about how to stay in touch with family and loved ones back home.
Our family uses Tiny Beans to post pictures, share videos, and even little stories about our day-to-day lives. I prefer this to posting millions of pictures on Facebook. (I know this is unusual, considering how much of our private life that I share here on the blog.) But I am very conscious of the photos I share of my kids, yet I definitely need a place to share the cute bathtub picture of the kids.
We also routinely FaceTime or WhatsApp Video with family members back home. My kids are little, and it can be hard to get them to focus on a video chat, so we often do these over mealtimes. It keeps the kids at the table and helps them focus on the chat.
We’ve been doing these so often that even my baby knows who her grandparents are, and gets excited to see their faces on the screen.
Other ways to maintain ties with family back home:
- Send postcards routinely — we write one about once a month, choosing a new family member each time. It doubles as a homeschooling activity for us, aka #momwin
- Make physical photo albums to share, both with your kids and with family. I absolutely adore the books we’ve had made by Pinhole Press, and my older daughter loves looking through her book. I put a page of my daughter and each member of her family (so my daughter is in each picture), and she has slept with this album next to her bed for more than a year and a half.
- Set up a regular video or phone call with family members, and try introducing some ritual to the call — maybe sing a silly song or read a book together each time.
- Have family members record themselves reading books to the kids. My parents recorded themselves in storybooks like this one and this one. My kids LOVE the ones where my parent speak directly to the kids, or talk about the pictures in addition to just reading the words. Once, my mom recorded one of these books while my daughter was visiting, and you can hear them both in the recording. Months after we arrived in Guatemala, my daughter would fall asleep while listening to these books play.
- Take videos of family homes, neighborhoods, and restaurants (preferably with your kids in them). We love watching videos of the kids at the grandparent’s pool, or feeding the fish in our old house in Boston.
#7. Keep Your Child’s Room Consistent
If you have a shipping allowance, do what you can to maintain consistency in your child’s bedroom furniture. You don’t need to bring every piece, but it can go a long way to help them feel secure if they have a familiar rocker or their old school desk.
For younger children especially, I encourage you to maintain as much consistency in their home surroundings, at least for the first few months. When everything is new and possibly a bit scary, coming home to something comfortable and familiar can provide a bit of relief and help everyone recharge for the next adventure.
Older children might enjoy picking out a new set of bedding or some new artwork for their new room. But they will likely appreciate keeping a “memory board” with pictures of old friends and family, or possibly some framed family photos on display.
But also help your kids feel excited about their new room
Do they want to paint their room? Put up posters of their favorite team or band? Maybe some inexpensive wall decals or a few wall hangings?
As much as your space allows, create areas for kids to relax and unwind. In an ideal world, every kid will have a cozy place to read books and cuddle, an area for art and messy play, and space to move and burn off energy. When you’re setting up your new home, look to create these “zones” to help ensure your children are able to relax, create, and move their bodies.
#8. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Familiar Food
As expats who have lived overseas for the majority of our adult lives, we absolutely love trying new cuisine. Searching out new restaurants and trying new foods are fantastic perks of our life abroad.
But after a long week of navigating the local pediatrician’s office or trying to decipher the Cyrillic on the street signs, sometimes all I want is a good old American hamburger or the box of fake-yellow mac n’ cheese. (Don’t even get me started on the power of Ben & Jerry’s.)
I’m not suggesting that you eat solely processed American food. But don’t feel guilty if your taste for adventure (pardon the pun) gets a little oversaturated from all the newness in your life.
Especially for kids, having a few favorites stashed in your suitcase, or on order from Amazon, can help during the initial few months of transition.
Having these little pockets of familiarity and comfort — a weekly pizza night, books in English, a monthly game night with fellow expats — these things can help us recharge.
Living overseas often involves a constant stream of new: new information, new responsibilities, new challenges, new sights, sounds, and tastes. It’s a lot, even for the most outgoing of us.
You’re not selling out by choosing to keep select comforts from home. Frankly, I think it’s just smart self-care. And particularly for our kids, who don’t necessarily choose this life, familiar comforts can provide safety, security, and stability.
More so, even as an expat abroad, we never truly leave our home cultures. Be proud of where you come from. I mean, don’t be obnoxious about it, but at the same time, don’t try to deny what is naturally a core part of your identity.
One of the most beautiful parts of being an expat is creating a blended identity, choosing to incorporate into our own lives the best and most enriching parts of the places we visit.
Again, I’m not suggesting you go overboard or skip trying new foods. But just a few select favorites, reserved for those days when you just feel overwhelmed, can help with homesickness.
When I was a young Fulbright student in Bosnia, I’ll never forget the first time I visited an American expat’s home there in Sarajevo. They had so many American products in their house!
I was still in my “spurn all things America/must be fully immersed” phase.
Looking around at the Yankee candles on their mantle and the boutique hand soap in their bathroom, I thought “What’s the point of living abroad if you fill your house with American things?”
I judged them, hardcore.
This was 12 years ago (how is that possible?!), but now — I get it. When you spend your whole life living abroad, moving constantly, you just need those little reminders of home.
And if a bottle of Bath & Body Works hand soap does the trick for you, do it. For me, I order American toilet paper online, and I don’t apologize for it. I also hoard Ghiradelli chocolate chips, and I fill my suitcase with bags of these whenever I visit the US — a tiny handful of these are part of my nightly wind-down ritual. It’s just what I do.
P.S. I’m happy to say that these expats became dear friends, we’ve stayed in touch, and we’ve visited them in two more countries.
#9. Take it Slow
We received some great advice from our daughter’s preschool teacher in Boston, who was also an expat herself.
She told us not to rush into finding a new school or caregiver, and to just focus on settling in and finding our footing as a family before venturing into even more new commitments.
This is a fine line to walk.
Of course, we naturally feel pressure to get our kids “settled” and into a solid routine.
And like I mentioned above, it helps to move abroad with kids in cycle with the local school year, if you plan to send your kids to traditional school. Older kids will benefit in particular from meeting other tweens and teens their age.
But at the same time, there is a lot to adjust to when it comes to moving abroad with kids. Adding a new school, a new bus, AND a new sports team can add more stress than they’re worth.
With little kids, there is no rush to get them into school. They will catch up, I promise. Unless you urgently need childcare because you’re returning to work, I encourage you to give yourself a few weeks (or even a few months) to get your feet on the ground before you add yet another “new” thing to the mix.
For older kids, go slow with the “extras.” Start with school and maybe one favorite interest — piano lessons OR soccer team, not both. Kids who are learning a new language particularly need time to rest and synthesize all that new information.
Focus on the basics
Remember how much your baby slept when they were learning how to talk or to walk?
Moving abroad with kids, learning a new language, figuring out a new school — it’s like going through a huge developmental leap. Kids need more sleep right now. They need extra downtime to process what they’re learning.
This is also the time to focus on the basics — steady, consistent discipline, healthy food, plenty of exercise and sunlight (particularly if they’re going through jetlag), and quality sleep.
There’s a tendency for parents to “relax the rules” when going through a big transition, but I promise this will come back to haunt you. Kids have so much uncertainty in their lives right now, and they really need the consistency of solid family rules and routine to ground them as they acclimate.
Go easy on the “extras”
When moving abroad with kids, there’s some pressure to “make the most of it.”
As fun as it can be to start exploring your new home, consider limiting your outings at first. In the beginning, even a trip the grocery store can feel totally overwhelming. Feeling like you have to also get out every weekend for a family road trip or site-seeing trip is just too dang much.
When we travel for a few weeks on vacation, it’s much easier to throw ourselves into new experiences. We likely have a hotel concierge to help us book tours or send up room service, and we know that we’ll be going “home” after all this is done. Our tolerance for “new” is much higher.
But with moving abroad, there’s no easy out.
I think three months is the magic number for when the basics start to feel routine. (And it takes more like six months before the initial culture shock starts to wear off.)
Instead of worrying about “making the most” of your new home right away, spend those first three months finding a family doctor, figuring out transportation, and learning which grocery store carries the fresh milk instead of the ultra-pasteurized stuff. There will be time for the fun stuff later, I promise.
I’m not saying that you need to be a hermit — by no means. Go to the park, meet a fellow expat mom for a playdate, tour the local schools.
But be intentional about your outings, and be very aware of signs of overwhelm, both in yourself and in your kids.
I’ve written about how I made this basic mistake in my post about tantrums — we started a new preschool in August, had new baby in February, went on a month-long trip in June, jumped into an international move in July, hired a new nanny and started a new preschool in August….and, surprise surprise, my daughter started having crazy insane tantrums “out of the blue.” 🤦♀️
To be fair to myself, I really needed help with childcare at that point. But I wish I had relaxed a bit about rushing to start school on time and finding the right nanny – those things can wait.
In the meantime, focus on the most important things:
- time together as a family
- providing space to express big feelings
- moving gently and slowly with outings
- creating a cozy home life that serves as a refuge
- getting enough exercise, sunlight, healthy food, and sleep
- finding a new family rhythm
#10. Be Clear On Your Goals and Priorities
There are so many ways to be an expat.
Some families are constantly on the move, spending no more than a few weeks in each city.
Others settle into one place for the long haul, and only “travel” a few times a year.
These are all okay.
But it helps to know in advance what you want to get out of your overseas experience.
- How long do you plan to live abroad? Are you on assignment for work for a set period, or are you planning on staying until you get bored?
- Do you want to learn the local language? Do you want to be fluent, or is conversational enough for you?
- Will your kids learn the local language?
- How immersed do you want to be in local culture?
- How often do you want to travel and go on day trips?
- Do you have budget or savings goals? You can save a lot of money by living in certain countries, but this will also mean fewer weekend trips or extracurriculars for the kids.
- What do you want to learn about while abroad?
- What excites you about your new country?
- How do you want to remember this experience in ten years? How do you want your kids to remember it? What do you need to do to make that happen?
#11. Take Care of Yourself
Like tip #1 (taking care of your marriage), your kids’ success abroad is directly related to your own sanity and mental health.
There is absolutely no way that you can support your kids in the way that you want if you’re are consistently anxious, overwhelmed, lonely, or bitter.
You must set aside time, space, and money to take care of your own needs, for the sake of the whole family.
The number one reason that moves abroad fail or are terminated early are due to unhappiness in the “trailing spouse.”
- Find some way to achieve professional fulfillment. This is a huge topic — too big to cover here — but suffice it to say that practically everyone needs some personal job that fulfills them, from volunteering to part-time work from home. The work you find might not be ideal, but with a sense of humor and an open mind, you’d be surprised what you can do.
- Find your tribe. This is a huge priority — you need people outside of your spouse and your kids to talk to where you can burn off steam.
- Take care of your own needs for exercise, quiet time, and sufficient sleep. It’s impossible to function otherwise.
- Learn ways to deal with anxiety and stress — all expats experience this, but it’s the successful ones who find ways to manage it. Journal, yoga, meditation, hikes with the dog, long phone calls with your sister — make it happen.
- Talk to a therapist, if you’re struggling long-term. No one likes to admit they need help, but remember — you’re doing this for your family as well as yourself.
#12. Get Help If Needed
If anyone in your family is really struggling after a few months in your new home, don’t hesitate to reach out to a family therapist, a social worker, an experienced expat parent, or the school guidance counselor.
When I was really, really struggling with my oldest during our latest move, I spoke with a friend who is also a social worker that specializes in third culture kids.
I also had a one-on-one session with a parenting expert from Hand-in-Hand Parenting to discuss my concerns.
I shared some of our struggles on a few of my Facebook expat group boards, and I received so much love and support in return.
I am so grateful that I reached out when we were struggling — not only did I learn so many new ways to help and support my kids, but I also found support and validation for my own experience as an expat mom.
Just because your child is struggling, it doesn’t mean that the move was a mistake or that they need to return back home. But it might mean that you need a few new tools in your toolbox, or a few tweaks to the schedule to ensure that everyone finds happiness in their new home.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Forget about Repatriation
We expect moving abroad with kids to be tough. But funnily enough, moving back “home” can be even harder than moving abroad with kids.
There’s less excitement over a move back home. On the other hand, there’s a lot that can still be very new and challenging, especially if your kids have grown up overseas.
When we’re overseas, we almost inevitably stand out. We look different, we speak differently, we eat differently.
We often wear our expat status like a badge of honor and a shield.
Once back in America, our “third culture kids” look and talk like their peers. Their schoolmates don’t understand why they’re struggling with the bill at a restaurant (because they’re not used to American coins) or our teenager gets a parking ticket because they’ve never used a parking meter before.
Once home, kids can find it hard to relate to other children who haven’t had the same experiences. Unfortunately, friends and family back home don’t really want to hear all our stories about life abroad. When kids casually mention a trip to Egpyt or the summer the spent skiing in the Alps, they might get accused of snobbery or even of lying (that happened to me, growing up as a Navy brat, multiple times).
Don’t forget to keep all of these tips in mind when you return “home” from your time abroad. Work with school guidance counselors or a therapist who is trained in TCK issues. Give space and time for the adjustment, and keep the communication lines open.
Moving Abroad with Kids – Worth It!
Reading a long post about the challenges of moving abroad with kids can make it sound like it’s not worth the hassle.
But I promise that our decision to live overseas has fundamentally changed — for the better — who we are as a family.
We have more time to connect, to explore, and to learn while overseas. Our kids are learning new languages. Their playgrounds include 400-year-old churches and ancient Mayan temples.
The first few months are always hard. Moving ANYWHERE with kids is stressful. But moving abroad with kids? Worth every minute.