A Realistic Plan
Everyone has three goals when they move to a new city:
- Get Familiar
- Get Settled
- Make friends.
Instinctively, you want to do all three as fast as possible.
Realistically, it doesn’t work that way. Every time you try to do all three at once you accomplish nothing but stress yourself out. At least, that’s what we’ve learned from experience.
And we have a lot of experience moving to new cities. Between the two of us, we’ve moved to Toronto, Barcelona, Lyon, Mexico City, Dubai, Panama, Geneva, Medellin, and Valencia.
Next up: Cape Town, South Africa.
Using our move to the Mother City as an example, let’s go through the step-by-step process for moving to a new city, getting familiar, getting settled, and making friends.
Step 1 of 3:
Spend your first week playing tourist to get to know the neighborhoods and main attractions of our new city.
- Plan extensively in advance
- Hit the ground walking
Plan Extensively in Advance
Just as we would for a holiday, we did a bunch of research about Cape Town to be fully informed and extra excited upon our arrival.
This involves the following:
- Read all the guidebooks cover-to-cover, tons of blog posts, and some non-fiction and fiction books. Trevor Noah’s book and The Covenant were excellent for South Africa.
- Watch a movie and a couple of travel shows about the city you’re moving to. Anthony Bourdain is our go-to.
- Posted on social media that you’re moving to ask for tips and connect with friends and friends of friends who could show us around. Facebook was most useful for us. Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn can help too.
- Save maps to your phone and star all the restaurants and attractions you wanted to see on them. We explain this in detail in our post on how to unleash the full potential of Google Maps Saved Places.
- Join expat groups on Facebook to get answers to common questions, ask your own, and discover upcoming events.
- Book an Airbnb in a convenient, central part of town for your first week. Even if it’s in an area you won’t want to live, that’s fine. You’re playing tourist for now.
Check out our top travel tips and tricks for more on how to get familiar with a city.
Hit the Ground Walking
The best way to get to know a city is by walking everywhere. In the first week of our move to Cape Town, we did at least twenty thousand steps a day.
Where to Wander
- Do a free walking tour to get the basics on the city’s history, what’s where, and to have a local guide to answer all our specific questions.
- Walk from one point of interest to another that you’ve marked off on your Google Map. Discover unexpected spots along the way and note down where grocery stores and cafes are located.
- Walk into gyms and studios. Take advantage of the free trials at various gyms around town. These classes are a good way to meet people and get a feel for what type of people live in each neighborhood. Kim ended up signing up for classes at our soon-to-be buddy Bauke’s gym, The Station.
- Ride a hop on, hop off bus to explore the areas that are too far to walk to. We don’t recommend this for every city, but Cape Town’s hop on, hop off bus was surprisingly good.
- Get up high. Go any mountains or tall buildings to get a bird’s eye view of the city and get a grasp for what’s where. Thanks to our Facebook post, we were invited to join a group on a hike up Lions Head.
Step 2 of 3:
Now that you have a general understanding of the city you’re moving to and what’s where, it’s time to get serious and face reality:
- Find a home
- Get your ducks in a row
Find a Home
Some tips for this most crucial component of moving to a new city:
- Don’t rent any house or apartment before arriving in the city you’re moving to. We’ve heard enough horror stories to know that the risks are too high that you won’t like the neighborhood, the place won’t look like the photos, or that it’s a scam.
- Spend a few days in any neighborhood you’re considering living in. We thought one neighborhood, Sea Point, was the ideal neighborhood for us. But then we spent a few days there and got bored. We then tried another neighborhood, Green Point, loved it, and focused our apartment search there.
- Know which local listing sites are best. Everyone renting and looking for apartments in Cape Town uses the Huis Huis Facebook group and Gumtree website. Whatever city you’re moving to will have it own sites.
- Use WhatsApp. In most cities around the world, agents and landlords are faster to respond to WhatsApp messages than to emails.
- Consider an agent. Real estate agencies were completely useless to us in Cape Town, but they can be your only hope if you don’t speak the local language.
- See everything you can. Don’t be picky. The more places you visit, the better you’ll understand the market and the better the chances are you’ll end up paying the right price for the right place.
No matter which city you’re moving to, you might find a couple helpful tips (or warnings) in our 10 Steps to Finding a Furnished Apartment in Cape Town.
Get Your Ducks in a Row
- Make sure your passport doesn’t expire soon. Obvious, I know, but double-check just in case.
- Get a SIM card. Get it at the airport or as soon as you can. Be careful with who you sign up with. Kim’s provider, Vodacom, ended up costing about 30% more than the one I signed up with, MTN.
- Arrange transport. This was easy in Cape Town because Uber’s abundant an cheap. We also got a prepaid bus pass. Depending on the city, you might need to get a car, get a bike, or sign up for a car or bike-share system.
- Bank account. Since we were only in Cape Town for six months, we didn’t do this. We got by with using our no foreign-exchange fee credit cards.
- Ensure you know your visa status. As tourists, we were only given 90 days in South Africa upon entry, so we had to go through quite the process (outlined here) to extend for another 90 days.
- Ensure you’re covered by health insurance. Don’t expect your home country’s healthcare system to cover your ass if you break it and your credit card will only cover you for your first few days or weeks.
- Set up your internet. This is often a nightmare. One way to mitigate the horrors and meet your neighbors is to ask kindly if you could pay them some money to use their WiFi while you work on setting yours up.
- Stock up. Even though we rented a fully-furnished place, it didn’t have a lot of the things we needed like hangers, specific kitchenware, extension cords, and plants. We managed to get most of the stuff we needed for cheap with one big trip to the city’s main flea market. Your new city likely has something similar.
Step 3 of 3:
Now that you’re reasonably settled, get out there and start integrating into the expat and local culture to make friends.
- Don’t rush it
- Get involved
- Don’t reinvent the wheel (or yourself)
- Make the first move
- Don’t forget about friends and family back home
Don’t Rush It
At the time, we felt bad about not being more social during our first while in Cape Town.
But, in retrospect, it was a good choice. We wouldn’t have been fully present and might not have made the best first impressions had we tried to be too social too soon.
This was especially the case for me. As an introvert, I need a lot of energy to meet people and make friends and I didn’t have it while we were busy and stressed getting settled.
Once we settled in, we reconnected with the people we’d already met through social media, drop-in classes, and serendipity. They didn’t care—or even notice—that they hadn’t heard from us for a week or two and were keen to hang out.
By far our biggest source of friends and social life in Cape Town ended up coming from something we’d never done before:
Cape Town’s beaches are bonkers beautiful and Kim and I love sports, so it made sense to combine the two. Kim found a group, Beach Bums, that did regular lessons, we joined it, and the rest is history.
Other Ways to Get Involved
Here are some more ideas that have worked for us and our friends in the past when moving to a new city. Focus on only one or two.
- Coworking spaces
- CrossFit boxes
- Language schools or regular language exchanges
- Sports clubs
- Faith-based groups
- Regular MeetUp groups
- Learn something else new: cooking, dancing, Toastmasters
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel (or Yourself)
We’ve learned to stop trying to act super cool and be friends with everyone when we move to a new city. It didn’t work for us at the start of high school and university, and it still doesn’t work now.
Instead, we simply focused on befriending the few people we’d met who seemed to have the most in common with us.
Make the First Move
We’ve learned the hard reality that people won’t line up to be our friends when we move to a new city.
They’re settled, they have friends already, and they don’t need us.
Plus we’re not that cool.
So we took it upon ourselves to be friend-worthy on our move to Cape Town. Here are some of our strategies:
- Be in the know. We subscribed to newsletters of local events sites and did some research to find cool things to do that we could then invite others to join. Locals are often mired in a routine and appreciate your ability to find and propose these types of things.
- Be down for whatever. People like to be friends with others who are always down for whatever, not the types who are always busy or never fully commit in case something better comes up. And if we really can’t make an invite, we’re quick to reciprocate with an invite of our own.
- Host blind taste tests. We’ve already sung their praises in our kick-you-out-of-complacency Consider This newsletter, and written about the cheese, coffee, local liquor, and beer ones we did in Medellin. In Cape Town, we did many more, mostly with local wine because it’s so good, so cheap, and so fun. Read our blind taste guide to conduct your own.
- Share a taste of home. Kim loves cooking and people love tasting some of her favorite Japanese dishes that her mom taught her, especially okonomiyaki. We also brought some local delicacies from home, like smoked salmon and maple syrup since we’re Canadian, to gift to our potential new friends.
Don’t Forget About Family and Friends Back Home
Admittedly, I suck at keeping in touch with family and friends. Even my parents have to send me, “Are you alive?” emails from time to time.
But Kim excels at it.
Regular Skype or FaceTime calls with her friends back home keep her from feeling lonely early on and ensure she won’t have to work at re-establishing or repairing friendships—and catching up with all the gossip—when she goes back to Vancouver.
Resources to Help Your Move to a New City
- Global Affairs Canada gives a helpful Canadian perspective on sometimes subtle but important differences in dress, punctuality, displays of emotion, and social taboos. Your home country probably has a similar site.
- 6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to a Foreign Country By Myself is the best of all the other blog posts I found when researching for this post.
- Unsettled and Remote Year are worth considering if you’re a digital nomad, don’t know which city you want to move to or want to travel a lot, and are worried about being alone.
The Travel Tips and Tricks That Will Change the Way You Travel
Find some tricks to you get to know any city better in our mega-post of all our best travel tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years.