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Career Coach

Good migrations: Avoiding mistakes as a new expat

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Dubai skyline, United Arab Emirates (Thinkstock)

Dubai skyline, United Arab Emirates (Thinkstock)

Hayley Spraggett’s first clues that working overseas would require a lot of attention to cultural differences and finessing her presentation came well before she ever got a job abroad.

For starters, her UK-friendly two-page curriculum vitae (CV) didn’t cut it down under. Instead, recruiters advised the British native to include every job she had ever held.

“In Australia, they want to see everything that you’ve ever done and don’t care if it’s five pages long, stretching back 15 years,” wrote Spraggett, a change management consultant, in an email to Career Coach.

She also realised the interview process in Australia might be painfully slow ― five or six rounds of meetings are not uncommon.

Deciding to make an overseas career move is exciting — but also fraught with opportunity for mistakes. Everything from cultural differences to the length of a CV or resume can quickly cause an international move to go awry. It doesn’t have to be quite so painful. The right kinds of planning and advance research can help make the transition a smoother one.

Do as the locals do

First, know the nuance of work of work locally before you apply for a job, and then focus in on it.

“Find out not only the legal requirements of the destination country but the local employment culture,” wrote Barbara West, a partner at Culture Works, a Melbourne-based intercultural consulting firm.

For example, in the US, international experience is highly valued. If applying there, “by all means play it up,” wrote West. But, on the flipside, in some countries, such as Australia, non-local experience can be viewed as suspect. “Try to get somebody local to put in a good word for you,” she wrote.

Take a trip

Once UK residents Michael Dennison and Lowri Llwyd decided Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was their top choice for an international relocation, the couple, both corporate lawyers, planned a visit so they  “would be on the ground to interview if need be,” wrote Dennison in an email. “This generally went down very well with the firms we were talking to as it showed real commitment.”

During their visit, Llwyd had a handful of interviews, set up in advance by the couple’s recruiters. “We also had hundreds of coffees with loads of contacts,” she wrote in an email. “We exhausted our network through Facebook, LinkedIn, etcetera.”

Visiting first is the best way to “get a feel for the place,” according to Natalie Murray, a technical recruiter with Irish software developer DemonWare. “Spend some time on the ground in the new location before making a decision,” Murray, who is based in Vancouver, Canada, wrote. “One big mistake is to leave home and expect your new host country to be exactly as your home country is.”

That kind of thinking can lead to serious homesickness, wrote Llwyd, who said there was one thing she would change about her move abroad: she would have prepared herself for it to take six months to feel settled-in. She also warned against returning home for a visit within that time frame.

“We came home far too early and suffered homesickness quite acutely on the flight back to Dubai,” she wrote.

Work and play

Another  aspect of the new life that took a little getting used to were the social patterns, wrote Dennison.

In the UK we tended to socialise with work colleagues during the week and non-work friends on the weekend; in Dubai the groups are much more intertwined,” he wrote. Weekends are a focal point and “are always busy socially”.  Meanwhile, he wrote, on weekdays people tend to work hard until the weekend.

Social media proved to be a lifesaver: It was a great way to meet people when the couple first arrived, he wrote. In their case, it was “friends of friends” who lived in Dubai. “We went on quite a few ‘blind friend dates’ as it were,” Dennison wrote.

Know the source

Advertisements for agencies offering overseas positions are everywhere — but that doesn’t guarantee legitimacy. “I would be cautious about paying any organisation that claims to process applications and paperwork,” wrote Dorothy Dalton, a Brussels-based career transition coach. “There are numerous dubious operators around, especially dealing with lower level positions.”

On one Australian job board, which appeared reputable on the surface, Spraggett kept reaching dead ends. “[I] found that the jobs were often ‘gone’ and the ads were really just a ‘hook’ to get you to register with the agency,” she wrote. “Quite often the recruiters were inexperienced and struggled to understand their clients’ roles and/or understand and interpret how my skills might be appropriate.”

Spraggett made the decision to focus on a few recruiters who she felt understood what she was looking for, vetting each of them by phone before submitting an application or registering with their agency.

“By investing a bit more time ‘interviewing' them about the positions they had, the organisations they work with, the reporting structure, the program/project objectives, it helped to identify [which ones] really understood their clients’ needs,” wrote Spraggett. “It also enabled me to gauge their general interest in me and my experience.”

Know your destination

As with any career move, “do your research,” wrote Culture Work’s West. And that means doing more than picking up a few guidebooks and perusing websites. Find people who lived there before or, better yet, live there currently.

“Talk to everyone you can possibly find about life in the new place,” wrote Llwyd. “Friends of friends, old colleagues, friends of your second cousin's boyfriend, etcetera. Get as many perspectives as you can.”

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

Making an overseas career move is exciting — but also fraught with ample opportunity for mistakes.