The View From Over There
Many Americans Dream Of Moving Abroad — Here’s How 3 Families Actually Did It
What it’s actually like to leave the U.S.
If you are parenting your way through the first part of the 21st century in America, you may regularly tap into an always humming and sometimes throbbing collective anxiety. There’s political anxiety about anti-democratic forces, insurrectionists, losing civil rights, and a future of more ugly and divisive politics. There’s economic anxiety about child care, health care, inequality, and the ballooning costs of college and student debt. And there is our anxiety about physical safety — we’re emerging from a public health disaster that’s killed over 1 million Americans and we must face our country’s other ongoing sicknesses, like racism, anti-semetism, and gun violence.
There’s no country on Earth without its problems, but perhaps what continues to fuel our collective American parental anxiety is a general feeling that nothing is changing — and that our country is not headed in a better direction for our kids’ future. There is a unique horror to how we’ve normalized some of America’s woes. “When you’re reading the news [of the latest mass shooting] and then you have Facebook ads targeted to you for bulletproof backpacks, it is just really too much,” says Dana Publicover, an American mom of two now living in Germany. “You see that this country’s doing absolutely nothing to stop these things. Other countries have tried and succeeded.”
Beyond anecdotal chatter, it appears more and more Americans are ready to make a big change: They are ready to move abroad. InternationalLiving.com, a resource hub for people interested in moving abroad, reports that during the period between June 2020 and May 2021, it experienced a surge in traffic to content relating to leaving the United States — a 158% growth over the previous 12 months. They cite the build-up to the U.S. elections, the Capitol riot, and general unrest as driving factors. After the official Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, traffic ballooned 4,000% over the previous week, with pages about moving and LGBTQ-friendly lists getting the most attention, as people began to question if same-sex marriage would be the next right to go.
“In the U.S., it just became very clear that there was no help that was going to come for me. The village was nonexistent.”
While recent IRS-gathered tax data isn’t available yet to confirm exact numbers, David McKeegan, who runs Greenback Tax Services, which advises Americans filing taxes from overseas, said April 2022 was the best month ever for his company, with new client registration up 118.5% over 2019. They’ve been swamped with many Americans filing for the first time from abroad.
But what is it really like to make the leap? Romper spoke to three families who recently left the United States about the unexpected benefits and drawbacks to their new lives abroad.
In search of a more affordable place to raise children
Dana Publicover and her husband, Jim, always dreamed of living abroad. After the 2016 election, while she was pregnant with twins, they started talking about it more seriously. “Everyone always said to us, ‘you’re overreacting, it’s not going to get bad,’ but we always had in the back of our minds that we could have a more enjoyable working life if we lived abroad,” says the 39-year-old owner of a sales agency. Then 2020 happened. “At the start of the pandemic, we were watching how our friends in Europe were experiencing it. In North Carolina, we had no child care during the pandemic, and we stopped leaving the house. We were super nervous and nobody around us was taking precautions. We were working in shifts. We made a matrix of all of the must-haves for a move, and then we lined that up with all of the countries that could possibly give that to us.”
Dana is able to run her business remotely and has many clients and contacts in Europe. “Germany was not at the top, but I had a client there who convinced us to consider it,” she says. In the summer of 2020, Germany was enjoying low Covid-19 rates, and it seemed like the country had a much better handle on things, public-healthwise; plus it’s more affordable than the United Kingdom, which they’d also considered. The Publicovers chose Hamburg, which Dana describes as “like the Seattle of Germany.”
Without having ever visited the country, Dana and her family relocated in October 2020.
While politics certainly played a role in many families’ desire to move abroad, everyone I spoke to mentioned the considerable financial pressures of raising children in the United States. For their part, the Publicovers had long felt that life stateside was financially unsustainable. “We are objectively middle class, reasonable income earners. [In the United States,] we weren’t eating out. We didn’t spend carelessly. We didn’t go on vacation,” Dana says.
“When you’re reading the news and then you have Facebook ads targeted to you for bulletproof backpacks, it is just really too much.”
Even though they lived in an affordable city, she felt like it was impossible to get ahead financially. “It took my husband until age 41 to pay off his student loans. We didn’t want that for our kids,” she adds. Another reason for wanting to leave was the cost of medical care. “We had twins in the NICU that were premature. And then the same year, my husband had to have two emergency surgeries. We had about $75,000 in medical debt that took us about three years to pay off. It was preventing us from being able to buy a house and being able to live the kind of life we wanted to.”
Like Dana, Victoria Wilson, 34, a real estate agent in the Florida Keys and mother to a now-4-year-old, was fed up with American politics. She had lost friendships over her more liberal views, but it wasn’t just political disagreements that made her want to leave America. The decision was also economic. Even as a real estate agent, “home ownership really eluded us in the States,” she says. “We lived in the Florida Keys. Your average home price is $600,000 to $700,000 — and that’s the low range. Realistically, it just wasn’t wasn’t feasible for us.”
Victoria and her husband decided to go on an exploratory trip to the Azores, a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean that’s part of Portugal. While visiting, she was offered a job there with her current employer, helping Americans and Canadians looking for property in the region. She decided to take the job, and about a month after arriving for good, she and her husband realized their own dream of becoming homeowners. In 2022, they bought a recently renovated three-bedroom row house in downtown Ponta Delgada, the capital city, for $225,000.
For Blessing Adesiyan, 36, the social isolation and the cost of raising children in America was a big factor in her return to Nigeria after nearly 20 years in the United States. When she got pregnant with her first child as a college junior in Florida, she had a ton of extended family support to help her transition to motherhood and get started in her career as a chemical engineer. But when her second child was born nine years later, she and her husband were living far from family. “This was my first real American experience of motherhood,” she says. “I had no support. We decided we're going to stagger our miserable allotment of parental leave, so here I was, all by myself, cooking, cleaning, taking care of a 9-year-old and a newborn. I had complications with my C-section, so I had to go back all by myself to the doctor. It just became very clear that there was no help that was going to come for me. The village was nonexistent.”
After adding a third child to her family, transitioning to full-time entrepreneurship, and struggling to find reliable child care during the pandemic, their life in Texas was unsustainable. When Blessing’s father passed away in September 2020, she and her husband decided to take the whole family back to Nigeria for the funeral. And then they decided to stay. Despite Blessing’s grief, she describes Lagos as “heaven.”
“The family was nearby. We finally had child care. The kids’ school is close by. Everything is in the neighborhood. It’s easy to raise kids here,” she says.
The challenges are real.
To be sure, moving abroad is not without its complications. While the Publicovers have no regrets about their decision to move, Dana and her husband faced plenty of hurdles getting settled and are still negotiating challenges in their everyday lives.
Language continues to be a formidable barrier. “We definitely underestimated how critical it was to speak German,” she says. “Even though this is a country of immigrants and it’s very international, the important stuff is not in English. Trying to navigate the paperwork is exhausting.” The Publicovers take German classes, and through her business, Dana has been able to hire a personal assistant who speaks English and German. “She’s like my bureaucracy assistant. She comes with me to my immigration appointments and even to some doctor’s appointments.”
In the Azores, the Wilsons have also faced challenges. It took many months for the international shipping container with their belongings to arrive, during which time they lived in a mostly unfurnished house. Additionally, while Victoria found a professional place to land, her husband, Shaun, a commercial photographer, has had to rebuild his career from scratch, finding a whole new client base in their new home.
Additionally, the Wilsons do have qualms about being so far away from their aging parents, and Victoria recently succeeded in convincing her father to join them living in the Azores. The Wilsons anticipate having dual citizenship in about five years.
For Blessing, who was already a dual citizen, even with plenty of family and friends around, there are still things she misses about living in the United States. “I don’t like to call Nigeria a third-world country, but in Nigeria things don’t work. Some roads are not good. You don’t always have access to WiFi. You can’t just order Whole Foods to get broccoli delivered right away.”
Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that moving internationally, as they have done, requires both money and privilege. But all three families have found that their overall economic outlook is rosier abroad. In Greensboro, North Carolina, the Publicovers were paying $2,000 a month for their twins’ preschool — and “that was only three days a week and ended at 4 p.m.,” Dana says. In Hamburg, everyone is entitled to five hours of preschool every day completely free, eight hours if you work in a traditional 40-hour-per-week job. Since Dana is a freelancer, they pay extra for an eight-hour day, about 400 euros a month. However, as residents of Hamburg, they are also entitled to a 500-euro-per-month child allowance to spend however they like. They come out 100 euros ahead every month.
“I’ve started to adopt a more European attitude about work, which is really different for me as a textbook workaholic entrepreneur.”
Blessing’s child care costs in Houston were about $5,000 a month. In Nigeria, where she welcomed her fourth child in 2022, she’s easily able to afford two nannies for the four kids at a fraction of the cost of American child care. She recognizes this is a unique privilege, but it’s one she’s grateful for. “I’m proud that we are creating good jobs for people and that we are also taking advantage of our time to really do all the things that we love and make the impacts that we want to make in our careers,” she says. Her child care situation has freed her up to devote time to growing her business, MH, which is a work-life care benefits platform for employers and employee caregivers.
Because she has reliable child care, Blessing can take more international trips for work, and when she’s home in Nigeria, the support from her nannies frees her up to spend more quality time with her kids because she can take things like laundry and dishes off her to-do list.
The German health care system has also made a meaningful difference in the Publicovers’ quality of life. As a freelancer, Dana pays 800 euros per month out of pocket for the entire family. The premium is by no means cheap, but “it really covers everything,” she says. Her husband’s recent surgery was considered outpatient in the United States. In Germany, doctors recommended he stay for four days so he could fully rest and recover. The Publicovers fretted about the cost. “We’re nervous and scared,” she says. “The total bill ended up being around 30 euros. It was six euros a day for each day he was hospitalized.” This was a very pleasant surprise after their U.S. experiences with medical debt.
Dana also appreciates the different approach to work culture. “The work-life balance has been a real dramatic shift,” she says. “I’ve started to adopt a more European attitude about work, which is really different for me as a textbook workaholic entrepreneur. This year, I didn’t work for the entire month of July and I never would’ve done that in the U.S.; it was my first break from work in nine years. People here just do not think about work when they’re not at work.”
Victoria has also noticed this difference in living in Europe. “There are so many bank holidays and family days where everything is closed. It really forces you to take a step back,” she says. “When we first got here, I was frustrated because there were so many things to do and it felt like things were always closed. But then you start to deprogram yourself from that normal American grind of having to go, go, go all the time.”
In addition to better work-life integration, all three women feel a decrease in distinctly American forms of anxiety. “Living in Texas, we were always so afraid of guns,” Blessing says. “We stopped going to movie theaters and malls because of all of the shootings.” She concedes that Nigeria is not considered the safest country in the world, but in the areas where she spends time, she says feels totally safe. “They don’t have guns and mass shootings in the same way here,” she says. “The schools don’t have lockdown drills.”
She and her family also regularly experienced racism living in the United States. “My daughter was called names at school and singled out and not invited to birthday parties,” she says. “I would feel it when I’d go to nice restaurants. Even all dressed up, people would treat me like, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I told my husband that one of the things that I’ve realized is that in America, it almost doesn’t matter how much you accomplish as a Black person. You will not be respected.”
Dana has also experienced a drop in daily fear and anxiety. “We had [anti-semetic] bomb threats called in to our kids’ Jewish preschool, which was something that really shook me,” she remembers. “I had started to consider pulling them out and putting them in public school, but then I thought, OK, well then in public school, they’re going to get shot. Do I want them to have a potential bomb or do I want them to get shot?” Dana says she never has to worry about this anymore.
As I was speaking to each of the three families, now happily settled in their new homes, I realized they had each pursued their version of the American dream — a safe home in which to raise their children. They had just looked abroad to find it.
How to move your family to another country.
Are you wondering how to take the leap from fantasy Googling to actually exploring the nuts and bolts of an international move? I spoke with Myriam Clouët des Pesruches, a “relocation coach” who runs the company Tips4ExPats and advises individuals who are looking for practical help on relocating. Her first step is to get people into a “relocation mindset.” This can include tailored advice on planning and to-do lists, and helping to prepare spouses and kids emotionally and logistically for the change. She lays out the seven most important questions to consider as you plot a move abroad.
- What will you do for work? If you can get your current company to sponsor your move, this is by far the easiest and least expensive way to move abroad. The next-best option would be to get a job offer in the host country. Moving without a job is possible, “but this is something to really prepare in advance,” particularly if you are considering a country in Europe, Clouët des Pesruches advises.
- Where will you live? If you are comparing different locations or think you’ve settled on one, Clouët des Pesruches recommends doing your homework on housing costs. In Amsterdam, for example, prices have skyrocketed, and there’s a shortage of rental units available. Markets around the world have changed a lot in the last few years, so be sure you have up-to-date information.
- How will you get a work visa? There are many ways for Americans to get work visas, residency permits, or shorter-term tourist or digital nomad visas, which might make sense if you are trying out a move abroad, even without company sponsorship or previous ties to a country. It is definitely possible to work toward EU citizenship in this scenario, but will likely take at least five years, and involve trips outside the country, lots of paperwork, and plenty of patience. (Here’s a list of five European countries that have visa programs for freelancers and entrepreneurs.)
- Where will your kids go to school? Many countries around the world have heavily subsidized child care infrastructure available to expats. However, if your children are older than kindergarten age, you may need to carefully consider your educational options. Local subsidized public schools may not be a fit due to educational and language differences, and sending your kid to an international school can be very costly. “People often ask me, ‘What is the best school?’” says Clouët des Pesruches. “There’s no best school for all kids. There’s the school that is the most adaptable to the family needs and to the kids’ needs.”
- How much does it cost to move abroad? It can be different for every family, but Clouët des Pesruches warns that far and away the biggest cost for many people is international shipping. Bringing your furniture with you may prove prohibitively expensive. “I’m seeing more and more people just not bring any furniture, only bring suitcases on the plane, and then just completely start over with buying things,” she says. Having recently completed her international move from North Carolina to Germany without corporate support, Dana Publicover says she’d recommend budgeting $15,000 to $20,000.
- How will you make friends? Both Dana Publicover and Victoria Wilson have had great experiences making connections through local Facebook groups, especially ones aimed at parents and/or expats. Dana describes herself as extremely extroverted, which she says helps a lot. She’s been willing to chase, literally, potential friends wherever she can find them. “I was at the grocery store and I heard someone yelling at their kids in English,” she says. “So I tracked her down through the store, because I was so lonely for human contact. But now she’s one of the best friends I have here.”
- When should you NOT move? Clouët des Pesruches says that when couples approach her with a scenario like, “We’re been really having a hard time together and we’d like a change of scenery,” she strongly advises against a move. “Relocating is going to really challenge you as a couple.” In other words, it probably isn’t a good solution to marital problems.