Feature Friday: Moving to Colombia

Since the beginning of travel, people have considered living in a different country than that of the place they were born or call home. I know for me personally, I have considered and definitely do want to live in France at some point in my life. When we’re younger, we think it’s as easy as getting a passport, packing your bags, and purchasing a one-way ticket. Haha – oh how we were wrong. With so many people pursuing the option of moving to a different country nowadays (I’ve seen several people on my Instagram relocate to Mexico), I think it’s important to recognize there is a lot of planning and consideration that goes into moving countries. And who better than Alia to talk to us about her experience moving to Colombia!

1. Alia, thank you for deciding to be part of Feature Friday. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi! I am currently a student pursuing an MBA at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Before I started my MBA I worked for about 8 years in international humanitarian work for NGOs like Oxfam and American Refugee Committee writing grant proposals and managing projects. After graduating from USC, where I studied International Relations and French, I have lived and worked in the UK, Thailand, Indonesia, Senegal, Jordan, and most recently Colombia. I love traveling because it gives me the chance to learn about how other people live, experience new foods and celebrations, and expand my own understanding of humanity and of myself. 

2. Have you always wanted to move abroad?

I did always want to move abroad – in fact when I was 12 my mom took me to Paris and pretty much sealed my fate. I left Minnesota when I was 18 to move to Los Angeles, and then moved to the UK right after graduation for grad school – as soon as I possibly could! That first experience of going to Paris left a huge impression on me. Basically I felt like I had seen something new, something amazing, a new way of life, and I wanted more of it. 

3. What kind of research did you do when you realized moving might become a reality?
Alia in a restaurant in Colombia. She is wearing a white mask that is decorated in the fashion of Day of the Day, with a row of paper teeth hanging down from the mask. Alia is wearing a gray dress, has one hand propped on her hip, and the other hand is holding a red receiver of an old fashion dial phone.
Alia at a restaurant in Zipaquira, Colombia

As I’ve gotten older, I do more research now before I move to new countries, but in the past I would just pick up and go. I would always make sure to talk to any of my friends or work colleagues who had visited/lived in the country I was moving to, in order to gain as much of their knowledge as possible before I got on the plane. Things that were important to know were how could I dress as a woman (shorts, tank tops, covered hair, etc), and what kind of security concerns exist for foreigners, especially women.  I love history and culture, so before I would move somewhere I would always research its history and try and understand its current political/cultural environment. Making sure you know what to expect is a good way to reduce your risks when you arrive in a new country – you want to make sure you know what religions people practice, how people dress, do people speak English, and how to be polite. 

Before I moved to Colombia specifically, my main source of information was my boyfriend who had already moved there a few months before me. He was able to talk to me about what to expect at the airport, what to pack/not pack, how the visa process would work when I arrived, what the weather was like. He also gave me a “security briefing” about Bogota, and what to watch out for when I was out in the city either alone or with him. I also found a few expat blogs online about Colombia, they were able to recommend restaurants, parts of the city to live in, and how to stay safe. 

4. What made you choose Colombia?

I chose Colombia for purely personal reasons, my boyfriend at the time had been recruited for Country Direct job with an NGO in Colombia, so when I finished my contract in Jordan I moved to Colombia to be with him. I thought Colombia would be quite interesting for me because, other than a few trips to Brazil in the past, I hadn’t been to South America before. I also had never studied Spanish, so I was looking forward to it being a good opportunity for me to learn some Spanish and to take a little break after living and working abroad for 7 straight years. 

5. Were there things you had to do before relocating, versus after relocating?

I was quite lucky, in that I didn’t have much I needed to do before I could relocate to Colombia. I was able to get a visa on arrival, so I didn’t even need to apply for that before I arrived. Mostly I just needed to pack the right kind of clothes in my suitcase, have an unlocked phone, and arrive with some cash. I did alert my credit card I would be in Colombia, so I was able to use it without a hold being put on my card. After I arrived I needed to figure out how to get around the city – how to use Uber, where to get cash, what areas were safe for me to walk around alone – and to get a SIM card so I could use my phone when I was away from my apartment.  Next I needed to learn the layout of the city and figure out where grocery stores were, what was within walking distance of my house, and where the pharmacy was. 

6. Did you experience culture shock? If so, what did that look like?

I didn’t experience culture shock when I moved to Colombia, but I did when I first moved abroad outside of the US/Europe and moved to Thailand. Culture shock felt like tiredness, stress, and anxiety for me when I first arrived. It felt overwhelming to so clearly not belong somewhere, so it took a lot of emotional energy for me to leave the house each day and confront hundreds of things I had never seen, heard, or tasted before – and to feel so visibly foreign. To deal with it I just made sure I had a lot of time back in my apartment where I could feel secure and “normal.” I slowly acclimated and became more bold and comfortable as the number of new things each day started to decrease. For those considering Colombia, the country has a lot of similarities to cities in the US and Europe, so it probably wouldn’t be as much of a shock to many Americans or Europeans. That said, getting used to hearing a language spoken around you that you don’t know is something that always takes a little while to get used to. 

7. What kind of visa did you have? Was that the only visa available to you, or was it just the best option for your situation?

The first visa I had was just a tourist visa on arrival that was good for 90 days, and could be extended for another 90 days once a year. However, when that visa ran out I got on a partnership visa with my boyfriend (who had a full working sponsored visa through his office) and was able to stay for another year and to legally work in the country. If I had come to Colombia with a job that was sponsoring me I would have had a full residence visa, like my boyfriend had, but because I didn’t have a job I was just on a tourist visa. 

8. Logistically speaking, how difficult was it (if you had to) to change/choose a different phone plan, bank, etc.?

Getting a phone was not that difficult, though all of it had to be conducted in Spanish, which was difficult. If a person was moving to another city in Colombia, like Medellin or Cartagena, they would probably be able to find someone in the phone store who spoke English because there are more tourists there. Unfortunately, not many people in the service industry speak English in Bogota, so that would be more challenging if you didn’t speak Spanish. As for bank accounts, I would never recommend bothering to open an account in a foreign country unless it is a requirement of your residency or visa. Usually it is very difficult, and frankly unnecessary because American credit cards and bank cards work abroad so you will always have access to your money that way anyways. 

9. What did you do with all your stuff before moving? Did you bring it, sell it, or keep it stored somewhere?

I just keep my stuff stored at my Mom’s house in Minneapolis when I live abroad. If I didn’t have this option, I think I would either sell everything I didn’t want to take with me, or get a storage locker. Unless you have job who will pay for relocation for you, as in the shipping costs of your stuff, it just isn’t worth it to bring a lot of stuff with you when you move abroad. Bring the clothes you want, and anything you don’t think you can get in your new country, but really don’t bother with anything else. Its usually easy to find furnished apartments in new cities so you would never need to bring furniture, and anything you need not only can you buy it for cheaper than it costs you to ship it from home, but also it will probably be cheaper than what you paid for it back in the US anyway. 

10. People are seriously considering moving abroad, including myself (one day). Are there any pieces of advice you might have?
Alia is standing in a National Park in Colombia. She is wearing purple pants, a light blue rain jacket, and dark sunglasses while smiling into the camera. There are beautiful mountains behind her in the distance and brightly colored plants, in the shades of red, orange, and yellow directly behind her.
Alia in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, Colombia

I think there are two types of moving abroad: 1) when you move for a job opportunity with a sponsored visa, and  2) when you move somewhere without a job/sponsorship visa. When you move for a job, your company will be a tremendous help both logistically helping you prepare and move, and in settling into a new country. Most companies will facilitate the visa process, they will provide you with at least temporary housing when you arrive, and will help with logistics like travel and getting a SIM card. It is very nice to be picked up by a person with your name on a sign when you first arrive in a foreign country and know exactly where they are taking you!

On the other hand, if you move to a country where you don’t intend to work, or where you plan to find a job once you get there, you will need to navigate the process on your own. Also, it is been very hard to find a job once you are already in a foreign country because most companies won’t hire people in country who don’t already have authorization to work there. However, if you are looking for volunteer/internship opportunities, showing up in a country can be a good way to get those.

The last thing I would say is that it is extremely important to understand the racial/class/gender/colonial issues at play in a country before you move there, and how those interact with your own identity. Moving abroad alone as a woman is a different thing than moving abroad as a man, just like moving abroad as a white person is different than moving abroad as a person of color. I needed to understand cultural expectations and safety concerns that only applied to me as a woman. For example, I needed to know how covered up I needed to be when I lived in Jordan and Indonesia, and I needed to understand my security risks when I lived in Senegal and Colombia. In certain countries you may not want to call attention to your American passport, and in others it provides you with privilege and safety not afforded to holders of other passports. Also, as a white person it was very important for me to understand these countries relationship with race, to understand what kinds of risks my expat colleagues of color faced, and to understand what the identities of my local colleagues meant for how and why they did their jobs. Most of the time being a white American woman provided me with safety and privilege not afforded to others, but at the same time this meant that it was imperative that I understand how my identity effected the people working with me.

Thank to Alia for sharing her experience moving to Colombia. I definitely learned a lot of aspects to consider when it comes to moving to a different country. Good to know it’s harder to find a job once you move abroad versus finding one before your move. I never thought it would necessarily be easy, I guess, but I definitely had unrealistic expectations. Also, I love the emphasis on researching the country and the culture extensively before taking that leap. Of course we always think about the research that goes into making the move, but what about knowing how to navigate after you’re there?

As always, thank you for taking the time to read! I loved learning about Alia’s experience, and I’m curious to know. Are you considering moving abroad? Have you moved abroad? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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