Going global

Before you pack your bags, some advice on how to prepare for a foreign assignment.

1. Relocation

Take advantage of relocation support specialists hired by many companies to help employees with everything from selling or leasing their homes to obtaining a driver's licence or credit card in their host country. Most employers cover the cost of relocation within reasonable limits. Plan to visit your host country before you relocate for a lay of the land, and talk to your firm about arranging an “on the ground” orientation once you arrive. Ask about where to shop for groceries and how to take public transit. And don't forget to consult a company lawyer about obtaining any necessary travel or work visas–without them, you aren't going anywhere.

2. A place to call home

Putting a roof over your head can be expensive. International employees are often posted in high-rent neighbourhoods in big cities close to lots of other expats. In Tokyo, the average monthly rent for a furnished, two-bedroom apartment in a typical expat neighbourhood is about $US5,000. In London, it's US$3,200. The good news, according to Mercer Human Resources Consulting, is that 81% of North American companies provide a housing allowance covering the difference between an employee's old and new digs. Before you move, meet with a local real estate agent and take a tour of some of the neighbourhoods you're considering.

3. The value of a dollar

Depending on where you're posted, you'll need to figure out how far you can stretch your dollar. Costs for food, clothing, transportation and utilities vary widely in different locations. If you spend $100 for a “basket of goods” in Toronto, you might pay $142 for the same stuff in Tokyo or $83 in Kuala Lumpur. In order to ensure your purchasing power doesn't change, or to keep you “whole,” many companies hire consultants to adjust your pay package to keep up with the cost-of-living differences. Unlike housing allowances, which are often paid to a landlord, these differences are usually applied directly to your salary.

4. Don't get hit by tax surprises

Identify any Canadian or foreign tax implications related to your move. Talk to an accountant about your eligibility–and the pros and cons–of declaring non-resident status. Even if you're living in another country, your employment income may be taxable in Canada if you're still an official resident. You'll also be liable for tax on any services performed in your host country. By severing residential ties to Canada for tax purposes, you are deemed to have disposed of your assets at fair market value. However, this could trigger a significant departure tax and prevent you from contributing to your RRSP. Research expat tax treaties with other countries.

5. Look to your health–and the kids

Insist on comprehensive health-care coverage for yourself and any dependants by using a reputable insurance carrier that specializes in expatriate benefits. Make sure you're covered for routine checkups, emergency procedures and pre-existing medical conditions. Your employer should also have an evacuation plan in place in the event of natural disaster or political uprising. If your kids are tagging along on your foreign assignment, you'll want to find the best place to send them to school. More than half of the global firms surveyed by Mercer said they provide education benefits up to, but not including, a post-secondary or university education.

6. Hit the ground running

Adapting quickly to a new place can mean the difference between success and failure for many globe-trotting executives. Many firms provide cultural briefings and language training to employees and their spouses before they leave. Ask for on-site training once you arrive to help familiarize yourself with organizational structure, local business etiquette, new customer groups and foreign markets. Don't forget to network outside the more traditional expat community. Joining cross-cultural groups such as local trade organizations can bring you up to speed on local issues and help you to build an important list of client and professional contacts.