Being an expat during the coronavirus crisis

Moving overseas is a highly stressful experience at the best of times but the coronavirus crisis has increased many expats’ difficulties considerably.

Straight into isolation?

It’s hard to imagine how you’d feel if you had only just arrived in a new country, with very little idea about how everything operates there, only to be told to go immediately into self-isolation. How much harder would it be to handle this experience without a pre-existing social network of family and neighbours to help? Many are also facing delays in receiving their belongings now that removal and shipping companies have had to suspend their services.

There have also been tales where families have been threatened with separation, either because evacuation programs did not extend to dual nationals or dependents, or because one member of the family has moved ahead of their spouse and children and then realised they were trapped by flight cancellations and border restrictions. This has meant difficult decisions having to be made and has often prompted a mad scramble to make sure they are reunited.

Changing plans

An 81-year-old family friend had to postpone her plans to emigrate from Wiltshire to a retirement home in New Zealand and seek shelter with a friend in London, even though all her worldly belongings were already en route to a destination the other side of the world. This was particularly stressful as border restrictions were only put in place at midnight the day before she was due to fly, so she went to the airport to check-in, entirely oblivious of the new state of affairs, only to be turned away. Others, posted to less affected parts of the world, have decided to go ahead with their assignment but are having to self-isolate on arrival.

Then there are those, at the opposite end of their expat journey, who were due to return to their home country and have had to extend their stays unexpectedly. Thankfully many governments, including here in the UK, have offered to extend visas for foreign workers and students who might otherwise be in breach of the regulations. Equally, HMRC has told British expats who were back ‘home’ for a visit and then inadvertently got stuck here that they won’t face unexpected tax bills.

Different country, different rules

Even for ‘settled’ expats who have not (yet) had moving plans disrupted by the virus outbreak there are additional difficulties. At the best of times expats can easily feel disconnected from the culture and governmental policy of their host countries. Now their host country’s government’s response to the pandemic is directly affecting their quality of life and freedom as never before – testing their tolerance of being ‘an outsider’ to the limits and heightening their sense of vulnerability.

Helen, an American expat living with her British husband and their children in Chamonix, France is full of praise for the way Emmanuel Macron is handling the crisis in comparison to Donald Trump’s efforts. Nevertheless, she is struggling with French bureaucracy where she must download and complete paperwork before she can buy groceries or go out for a walk.  

Emma and her husband Greg, Americans from Portland, Oregon currently living in London with their three children feel anxious about what they see as a very lax attitude from the UK government in comparison to their home state (where the governor had ordered school closures a week before the UK). They are critical of the fact that schools in the UK remain partially open and that construction workers are still working on residential properties on their West London street.

In contrast, Georgia, a Londoner living near Cadiz in Spain, is finding the very strict lockdown regulations in Spain, where roadblocks and a military presence on the streets is the norm, somewhat threatening. Even dog walkers can only go 200 meters from their homes, those without dogs can only walk as far as the communal bin to put the rubbish out. The British version of lockdown where a family walk in the park is permitted seems like an unimaginable luxury to her.

Close to home

Additionally, when we feel threatened it is a natural instinct to want to be at home and be close to loved ones, so the fact that many expats are far from their families adds a further level of concern.

On the positive side, seasoned expats are generally used to dealing with ambiguous situations so those are used to moving around may well find they are better placed than most to weather this storm.

Helpful resources and references

Also, there are some interesting resources out there to help expats navigate this crisis. Parental Choice highly recommends the non-profit organisation FIGT (Families of Global Transition). FIGT was set up by expats for expats and offers a community of people familiar with the expat experience, as well as resources. A current example is a downloadable handout outlining the RAFT model, which stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think Destination. This was originally created for TCKs (third culture kids) to help them move between cultures but can be used as a model for expats navigating the current crisis.

As Linda Janssen of FIGT explains, “Reconciliation” means recognizing and acknowledging disruption, stress, tension, uncertainty, concern, turmoil, and loss associated with the evolving COVID-19 situation. “Affirmation” involves appreciating and acknowledging who and what matters to us, and recognizing we can identify positives, even during challenging times. “Farewell” is where we focus on what we’re leaving behind: the way we had hoped things would be, the positives we’d been looking forward to, and as much of the negative feelings we’re experiencing as possible. Only after doing all this can we reach “Think Destination” – where we attempt to think of what one or two small ‘next steps’ we could take to help move us along to a better place.

This four-step process may well resonate with many expats, and indeed all of us, during this unprecedented time.


Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds (3rd Ed), by David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken and Michael V. Pollock for Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017

The Parental Choice international team is highly experienced at helping families who are relocating overseas in APAC or EMEA, or who are repatriating into the UK.  We help private clients looking for schools and can work with companies on global mobility programmes for employees are relocating.  Our global mobility programmes for families include orientation, childcare and education searches.

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