The Big Move


Diplomats Face Daunting Logistics of Relocating

Anyone who’s moved cities — whether over a distance of 200 or 2,000 miles — knows how much work it takes to settle in. But throw in cultural and language barriers and the dizzying logistics of overseas relocations, and things get even more dicey for diplomats.

The initial steps — packing up belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and arranging transportation — can consume a lot of time and emotion. But then comes the move itself, and you find yourself in new surroundings where everything from friends to favorite restaurants must be found. Next is securing a new phone number, meeting new colleagues, obtaining a driver’s license, learning different job responsibilities, finding good doctors, good schools, good grocery stores and … well, you get the idea.

Luckily for diplomats, many of the essentials such as immigration papers are handled by their embassies. Likewise, a number of corporations and NGOs contract relocation companies that take care of moving arrangements, housing and other big-ticket items for employees transferring to the United States.

But neither governments nor corporations take care of every last logistical detail. What do you do when it comes time to open an American bank account, find a good school for the kids — and then find a way to transport them to after-school activities? And what about all the non-tangibles like meeting peers and learning your way around the city?

We spoke with several diplomats, relocation experts and others who specialize in overseas transitions. Here are some of their tips for the most common considerations, as well as a handful of less intuitive ones:

Addressing Location For U.S. diplomats overseas, assigned housing is the norm in countries where security is a concern, but in Washington, D.C., arranged living spaces are reserved for select diplomats, as well as of course ambassadors whose residences provide proximity to downtown (if they’re not already a part of the embassy) and space for entertaining. Many embassies also provide a housing stipend for diplomats based on market conditions and family size, but you may be on your own when deciding how to put it to use.

For a majority of expatriates, renting is the way to go. Most landlords view diplomats as ideal tenants who are likely to make timely payments and take good care of the rental property. And recent increases in the number of unoccupied rental units means there are more, and better, choices than what may have existed a year or two ago.

To avoid getting overwhelmed, many expats opt for one of the Washington area’s many walkable communities, where work, schools, restaurants and daily errands are all a stone’s throw away (also see “District of Choice: “Washington, D.C., Offers Neighborhoods Galore for Internationals” in the December 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat). Others opt for rental homes located in suburban neighborhoods — an option that’s popular among families choosing communities based primarily on their schools (also see “Where We Live: Diplomats Explain Thinking Behind Their Living” in the September 2008 issue The Washington Diplomat).

The best place to get a sense of different options is online, and many realtors specialize in matching renters to apartments, condos and rental homes. Check with one of the established firms like RE/MAX, which is known for hiring seasoned real estate professionals.

Some temporary U.S. residents, particularly Europeans benefiting from a weak U.S. dollar, are opting to invest in residential property. But while many landlords are eager to take in diplomats, finding a willing lender is typically a different story. Many are hesitant to take on temporary alien residents because the United States has no jurisdiction over them and the banks would have no recourse in the event of payment defaults.

Still, many foreigners are attracted to investing in American real estate — and in turn many realtors are willing to work with foreigners on the particulars of buying and investing in properties. In fact, members of the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate recently named D.C. as their top city pick for housing purchases, above New York, London and Paris.

If you’re considering purchasing a home, plan time to find a willing and trustworthy lender, and be prepared to make a hefty down payment of as much as 50 percent of the total cost of the property. And don’t shy away from renting first to give yourself six months to a year to explore the area and its housing market.

But a word of caution: “People tend to be biased fans of where they live, so well-intended advice of a colleague may not always be the best,” said Ronald Huiskamp, vice president of marketing at Dwellworks, a company specializing in destination services. “The expat’s lifestyle choices and personal preferences may simply not match the characteristics of a certain neighborhood, so take the time to look around and get a sense for each place.”

Keeping Up With the Kids The term “third culture kids” (sometimes called global nomads) has become so commonplace it’s often referred to by its acronym, and with good reason: TCKs often come from highly educated, intact families and tend to be successful at adapting to new cultures. As parents of children who have grown up in more than one culture, you naturally want to give them the best, most consistent education available as they move from country to country.

Because finding the right school often comes before exploring neighborhoods, the sooner you start researching options the easier the transition will be.

To keep the search manageable, GreatSchools (, a national nonprofit that provides resources for local school searches, suggests starting with a written list of your wants. Do you want a small school that prides itself on lots of individual attention, or a larger one where your children will meet a lot of new peers? A public school where they’ll be immersed in the English language, or a specialized one frequented by students from your native culture?

“When you list what’s most important at the outset,” the organization says on its Web site, “you’re more likely to find the right school for your child.”

The organization’s site also offers a comprehensive database and parental reviews of the area’s public, charter and private schools, along with an entire section dedicated to moving with children.

Navigating Traffic In the Washington area, views on commuting also play a key role in deciding where to live. It’s consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top three metropolitan areas for the worst traffic, and many expatriates shudder at the thought of the two-hour daily commute that comes with living in some of the larger suburban areas in Maryland or Virginia.

As a result, most opt instead to buy cars and live closer to the downtown district. Many forego vehicles altogether, opting instead to rent condos or townhouses located within a few blocks of a Metro station that connects them to the area’s extensive public transit system. All three are viable options, so determine which one works best for you before selecting a neighborhood.

Moving the Money Handling finances in a new country is an area where a pro may come in handy. One of the biggest and least expected challenges for immigrants is the American financial system, in which everyone from service providers to automobile leasers use credit history in the United States as the basis for loans.

“Many diplomats and their families, while exceptionally intelligent and worldly, are simply untrained in many financial, legal and tax issues,” said Tom Conway, president of Connemara Family Office Management, which was recently launched to offer comprehensive assistance with personal banking, insurance and legal matters for international families. “As a result, important questions often go unasked and unanswered … and often considerable time and effort is consumed unnecessarily.”

In some cases, it’s simply a matter of systems and policies that don’t favor temporary alien residents. Huiskamp of Dwellworks cited the example of a simple mobile phone contract that may require a hefty 0 deposit to begin service.

“Maintaining a positive attitude will go a long way to dealing with these issues,” he said. “Expect to be faced with challenges, and accept that things work differently here and that it’s nothing personal.”

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.