"I Was Humbled": 9 Hard Truths I Wasn't Prepared For As An American Living Abroad

With the election around the corner and the political decisions in the United States becoming increasingly precarious, we'll probably hear the age-old "I'm moving to Canada" reaction once again. Some people have already done it, and I suspect more have it on their conscience.

A comedian on stage performs a stand-up act. The text in the image reads: "A lot of Americans mad about what’s happening here and they’re like, 'I’m just gonna move to Canada!' as if you can just do that."

I hate to scare anyone away from the gorgeous Canadian soil (it truly is lovely), but as someone who has made the move, it's not as easy as you might think. It's not IMPOSSIBLE, but you can't exactly just cross the border and call yourself a Canadian (sadly).

A Mountie interacts with a border officer at a booth covered in snow. Text on the image reads: "I'M GOING TO CANADA NOW."

Let me back up, though, and introduce myself! Hi, I'm Alana, and a few years ago, my partner and I moved to Canada (Montréal, Québec, more specifically). My partner was moving for his PhD, and I joined him on an open work permit (more on that later). Here we are, newly moved in with our bbs:

Two people, one with a large fluffy white dog and the other holding a cat, are smiling in a cozy living room
Alana Valko

Now, before I get to the point of this article—which is about the unexpected things that came up for me as an American abroad—if you have the chance, you absolutely SHOULD live abroad. Being around new people, ideas, and customs expands your worldview and makes you a more informed, understanding American. Just make sure you're doing so respectfully.

Lily Collins sits smiling at a round table in a stylish room with a fireplace and various art pieces
Netflix / Via youtube.com

All that being said, let's get into all the things I ran into that kinda caught me off guard as an American abroad:

Note that everyone's situation is different, especially depending on the country you're in, but this is my own (and my partner's, who helped me collaborate on some ideas!) experience, specifically in Québec, Canada.

1.You still need to file US Taxes.

Text on document: "Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Austin, TX 73301-0003. Official Business, Penalty for Private Use, $300."

2.Healthcare isn't really "free."

A medical bill for a $230 CAD urgent care visit, showing a discount and taxes, with a caption reading: "$230 urgent care visit for the doctor to tell me I was bit by a spider."

3.Getting health insurance (or becoming a resident/citizen) might be harder if you have pre-existing health conditions or a disability.

A stamped envelope with "DENIED" in red text is placed on a wooden surface next to a keyboard

4.You won't have credit history in your new country.

Illustration of a person in a suit pulling an arrow on a satisfaction meter from sad to happy

5.You'll constantly compare what is and isn't like the US.

Four travel scenes: A restaurant table with gourmet dishes, a street view of colorful row houses, a person walking past street art, and a lively outdoor market

6.Which leads me to this... you should try to speak the language local to the region.

Person in a red hoodie and black hair bun sits in a classroom facing a whiteboard with a projected presentation

7.Some things will be better than the US... which may make it hard to want to move back.

Man and woman smile for a selfie in a snowy forest, each wearing red hats. Trees and snow visible in the background
Man and woman smile for a selfie in a snowy forest, each wearing red hats. Trees and snow visible in the background
Sun shines over a quaint street lined with small shops and blooming flowers. This image captures the charm of a sunny day in a picturesque neighborhood
Sun shines over a quaint street lined with small shops and blooming flowers. This image captures the charm of a sunny day in a picturesque neighborhood

Alana Valko

In Montréal, I noticed a lot more efforts towards "social good and well-being," if that makes sense. There are shared amenities like public parks (SO MANY parks) and pools that are well-maintained and completely free. The city puts on a ton of free festivals and events in the summer (even in the winter, when they can). Much of the streets are shut down for pedestrians and have programming, like music performances and live mural painting to enjoy. During the winter, there's a park where you can rent out snowshoes and cross-country skis — completely free.

Also, one of the best parts of Montréal is its huge network of protected bike lanes — biking is one of the primary ways we get around the city (they even kept the Bixi rental bikes up last winter...)! Some bike lanes extend outside the city into national parks and nature, too — there are nearly 3,300 miles in one network alone (La Route Verte).

The city also has a committee for each neighborhood that organizes programming for the area. In the neighborhood where I lived, the city gave out free flowers during the spring to plant! Once, someone from the city came by and asked if they could plant a tree in our yard to make the street greener (no cost to us or the landlord). I just never experienced such evident acts of "social good for the citizens" as prominently in US cities (and yes, taxes are higher).

8. You might be humbled.

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Via Twitter: @ghoul_alert

Americans, especially those who are not immigrants, people of color, or of a marginalized community, tend to have a "grass is greener on the other side" romanticization of other cultures and countries. As left-leaning Americans, my partner and I would both talk about the US, particularly the political and social climate, with a bit of disdain (rightfully so), but we were often humbled. And I don't mean to say this to negate what's going on in the US — from devastating political decisions from our highest court to a cost-of-living crisis affecting millions, it's dire — but I think we sometimes forget what's also happening outside our country lines.

Living as immigrants or temporary residents in a new place, we tended to be around other immigrants and temporary residents, whether it was at school, in French class, or in a meetup group (Montréal is extremely diverse). Compared to the US, our friends in Montréal are from all over the world (partially because Canada is the easier country to immigrate to in North America). Both my partner and I have friends who've fled Ukraine or even have family members still within war zones. So, when we complained about the state of the US, our reality kind of got checked. Two things can be true — the state of the US and the unrest elsewhere — but also, as white Americans who grew up in the safety of suburbia, we've been pretty safeguarded (so far) from the political unrest and displacement that our friends in places like Ukraine, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, and Venezuela have and continue to see, which was a humbling check of our privilege.

And lastly....

9.Getting into a new country can be confusing... and challenging.

Canadian Immigration application form for permanent residency with a maple leaf and pencil placed on top

Phew! Ok, that was a lot of chatter, so that's a wrap from me. While I just spent many minutes talking to you about all the "hard things" I realized as a US citizen living abroad, I don't want this to discourage you! If you're considering or have the opportunity to live somewhere new, absolutely go for it. I am so thankful for my experience, and at the end of the day, all these hard truths were far outweighed by the positive experiences I had living "abroad" (I know, I know, it's Canada) — like immersing myself in a new language, meeting people from all over the world, and falling in love with the best city in the world, Montréal (seriously, it's my favorite, favorite city).

A man in a gray shirt and a woman in a one-shoulder white dress smile in front of Marché Bonsecours in Montreal, with a caption reading "We love you, MTL!"
Alana Valko