How to Make Relocation Easier for Expats

by Expath Global Mobility

Global mobility is complex and can be overwhelming for both the expats relocating and for their employer. Find out what companies can do to make this process smoother and stress-free for everyone involved.

Note: This is a reproduction of the original interview published on HRNuggets on March 12, 2024.

Tell us about yourself, your journey and your current mission.

My name is Tia Robinson, I’m the Cofounder & CEO of Expath, and our mission since 2012 is to help expats in Germany settle in and find their place — whether that’s finding a job, becoming a freelancer, learning German, and so on. We do language training (mostly German) and immigration and relocation support.

What was your story of becoming an expat?

I studied abroad and taught English in Montpellier, France when I was 21 and realized that I fit in much better in Europe than in the US. I came back to the US, did an MA in Applied Linguistics (how to learn and teach languages, that’s what you study to do teacher training and lead language schools) and then moved to Istanbul for a year to teach.

Berlin came next, in 2007. My partner and I both did NOT get our first work permits — me because I was trying to apply with a part-time job making €800 and him because the immigration office just lost half his paperwork so nobody was processing his case for months until his company took back the job offer. Neither of our companies could or would offer us help in the situation, so we both had to start all over again with new jobs and applications. It took us around six months until we could actually start earning money. That negative experience really helped shape my mission to help others with German bureaucracy and empower them with an awesome school to teach them German.

What are the key moments that shape an expat‘s relocation journey the most?

In the world of Global Mobility we often break services up into pre-departure, settling in, home-finding and school search services.

  1. Pre-departure, people are often a bundle of nerves with 100 questions on logistics, because it is really a huge deal to move your entire life to another country! Expats often need to rent out or sell their home, put their stuff in storage, find all their paperwork like degrees and kids’ medical and school records, decide what they will bring or ship and how, where they will stay the first weeks, etc. That’s not even mentioning visas and immigration questions. So we try to help them organise and break down what they need to do when, calm them down with empathy and moral support, and do a lot of expectations management.

  2. The first week or two in Germany is a flurry of bureaucracy like the Anmeldung, opening a bank account, getting a Schufa, starting the flat search, etc. Those are the settling in services and they help expats orient themselves in their new home. And then starts the big task of finding a long-term flat, which can take several months and multiple applications in Berlin.

  3. I think other key moments are starting your new job (if that is why you moved here) and meeting your new colleagues, and then having your first interactions with Germans, especially in German public offices or places like the post office, because there will probably be some memorable culture shock moments in there!

  4. For me, I would also add my biggest Germany success moments — learning German (not actually one moment, it took many years and I am still learning!), getting permanent residency, and then becoming a German citizen in 2017.

Has Global Mobility in Germany changed in the last ten years?

In Germany many services like getting insurances and signing up for a bank account are digital and provided with excellent English customer service! Unfortunately this really highlights just how badly other parts of German bureaucracy are doing at digitization and customer service, like the immigration and citizenship processes. German public offices in Berlin and other big cities have massive understaffing and underfunding, zero available spots or months-long waits for appointments, etc. For example, in 2023 the situation outside the Stuttgart immigration office was so bad that people were waiting all night and the Red Cross set up camp to provide warm drinks and support. And the head of the Berlin immigration office was quoted in the German press as saying “We are on the verge of dysfunctionality.” I am curious to see how this develops in the next ten years because Germany actually needs ten times the present level of migration to keep the workforce intact.

Global Mobility started with executives getting assigned for two-three years to a different office of their corporation, and this involved calculating how to adapt their salary to the local market, how to move them and their families there and then repatriate them, etc. Today most of the people we relocate are not being transferred but directly hired by German companies, largely in tech roles. In Berlin, their companies are very international, like 40-50% non-Germans, and the company often has English as the official language.

Another major change is that so many companies are much more open to working from home, remote work and workations since COVID and I think this is a great development and something that won’t ever go away, I feel like many employees expect this flexibility as their right now!

Name three key things to consider before deciding to relocate.

  1. What is my tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity versus comfort and security? Am I excited about going into a situation where I won’t speak the language, won’t have my friends and family, have to do a bunch of crazy stuff to get set up, etc.? Does it sound interesting, or horribly stressful, to be in confusing new situations possibly every day, and have to learn completely new ways of coping with life?

  2. Work and immigration. What will I do to support myself in this country? Will I need a work permit for that? Is it realistic to find a company that will sponsor me and if not, what are my options? How much money will I need to have a comfortable life? Can I likely find a job making that much?

  3. Lifestyle. If the answer is YES to questions one and two, where do you want to go!? Somewhere hot or cold, beach or mountains, city or countryside? Somewhere far and exotic? Somewhere you can speak English? The world is your oyster!

What are the biggest challenges when relocating to a new country?

I’ve lived in France, Turkey and Germany, and for me the biggest challenges were:

  • France — making friends and feeling accepted by locals

  • Turkey — the language and navigating around Istanbul

  • Germany — the language and dealing with bureaucracy

Only in Turkey did I find it easy to meet and befriend Turkish people. In France and Germany, it was very easy to make other international friends but very hard to make friends with local people.

What are the best ways to prepare for such a relocation as an expat?

Definitely speaking the local language has helped me in all three countries, so I would recommend learning several basic everyday phrases early on! In Istanbul I never got beyond A1 Turkish, but it was enough to go shopping and take taxis, and Turkish people were delighted by my limited abilities!

I speak fluent French and German and no French or German people have ever been remotely impressed, but I can solve my own problems here 95% of the time and that makes me feel strong and independent.

What trends do you see in employee relocation?

I see HR teams really focusing on the employee experience during the relocation, and also expecting excellent digital service delivery, useful data and reporting. Many companies are using platforms to manage their employees’ moves, with content and “To Do” lists and an HR dashboard to see what the immigration or relocation status is, in real time.

And I expect to see a lot of AI-powered solutions and services coming to us ASAP that will help make relocation even more digital, streamlined and personalizable!

What are the best practices in employee relocation support programs?

The best employee relocation support programs take care of the employee and their partner and children. This includes initial visa support (getting them here) as well as subsequent residence permits and renewals they need after relocating. We recommend covering short-term housing for the employee for the first six-eight weeks in Berlin — this depends on how long the home search is going to take so for other cities or countries it might be a lot shorter! And finally, settling in, home search and childcare/school search services round out the offer. Booking support to help a trailing partner find a new job or re-orient their career (or sign up for language classes or other activities to help them integrate!) is also a really nice perk to offer, because if your employee’s partner hates the country, that stress will definitely affect your employee too!

Conversely, I can tell you some of the less nice things we see:

  • Companies supporting only the employee’s visa but not the spouse and children

  • Companies that don’t support immigration at all and have the employee do everything

  • Companies that support immigration but offer no relocation support

  • Companies trying to save money with digital-only relocation platforms that offer a lot of content but no one-to-one help from a real consultant

  • Companies that don’t support with the home search — in Berlin, your employee will spend dozens of hours and be incredibly stressed out for months if they do not receive expert support here!

Your top three recommendations to feel like home in a new country?

  • Learn the language — even a few words is going to help make your everyday life much smoother and more enjoyable asap! The more you learn, the more locals you can interact with, and the easier you can navigate life.

  • Get a support network ASAP. Just one group you where you feel at home is fine to start. Maybe you meet people at your new job, a sports or art class, a language class, find a local therapist, go to local expat bars, whatever — you just need one or two people to start, so you don’t feel alone!

  • Embrace the otherness! It does NOT need to feel like home, and that is what makes it so fun! Decorate your apartment with local art, go to local music shows, go to flea markets, try all the new foods and just go have a lot of fun exploring your new place!

Next Article

Relocating Employees to Germany?