Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Handy tips for making the "big move" to live long-term in Sri Lanka

The most popular question I receive by email from foreign expats is about moving to Sri Lanka to live permanently or medium to longer term. I can still recall the myriad of emotions with my own impending move to Sri Lanka almost six years ago. It ranged from feelings of anticipation, excitement, fear, anxiety, expectation and more. 

One could liken some of it to going on holidays to some exotic and far off foreign country and stepping off a plane and feeling lost in a new culture and place. Except, in this case, the huge difference is you're not on holidays, but settling into a new country for the long haul. And for all intents and purposes, it is a daunting experience as you won't have your usual safety net (i.e. family, friends, colleagues and environment) to provide support and security. However, the leap of faith certainly presents different opportunities and challenges if you're up for it...

The feeling of anticipation and excitement usually comes from an inherent sense of adventure, and a gravitational pull towards all things new and shiny. This expands to feelings of optimism and discovery - an openness to embrace new things, places, people and culture. For me, these are all really positive qualities, because if you didn't have these, you'd never feel the compunction to leave the place where you're currently living. You'd convince yourself it'd be far easier and more comfortable to stay put and never seek out anything more. I always believe the hard work you put in to move countries pays off when you realize the opportunities to grow, change, embrace, learn and tolerate. It's a truly beautiful experience…

In a similar fashion, anxiety, fear and doubt stem from leaving what you know and leaping into the unknown. This is particularly heightened when moving to a foreign country where the people, culture and language are completely different to what you're familiar with. There is nothing wrong per se with these feelings. It's natural for them to arise. Essentially, it all comes down to how you deal with these feelings and all the changes that arise with the move. My view is to take these feelings and transmute them so you utilize the energy to get things done. And, remember to take one day at a time.

I have a few handy tips for the move to Sri Lanka. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but offers up some gems from my own personal experience (and some from my expat friends in Sri Lanka).


Valid travel documents

Ensure you have a valid passport, visa and relevant work documentation organized before arriving in Sri Lanka. It can be a real problem if you don't have these things in order and you'll find yourself camped at the Department of Immigration and Emigration ("DIE") trying to sort it all out. Consider yourself warned! In any event, ensure you have all the original documents as well as copies with you whenever you deal with DIE or any government department or agency. Having a few extra passport photos is always helpful.

What to bring (and not bring)

If you're planning to stay for a few years and will be shipping items to Sri Lanka, I'd definitely recommend packing some of your creature comforts from home i.e. personal items such as favorite furniture, pictures, clothing, electrical items, books etc. Bringing these items with you will help you settle in and feel at home. It can also save you the additional expense of re-purchasing these items in Sri Lanka.

When you're packing, do remember to consider the tropical climate in Sri Lanka, as certain items won't fair well or are not required in a tropical climate! For example, I'd advise not packing bulky winter clothing as you won't really need them in Sri Lanka and if you do bring them, it's likely they'll be eaten by moths and insects! Likewise, certain footwear isn't suitable in Sri Lanka and may be susceptible to mould, so think long and hard before shipping those across with you! Ask yourself… do I need to bring those skis with me? Will I need to pack quilt covers and wool slippers? The answer is usually no to wintery items!

When I relocated to Sri Lanka I shipped a whole box filled with kitchen items such as electrical, gadgets, crockery and utensils. This has been proved handy and has saved me having to re-purchase these items. And I also packed up my favorite pictures, paintings and my library of books, all of which I have never regretted bringing with me!


One of my expat friends on FB/Twitter, Anna, kindly contributed this advice on bringing your pet(s) to Sri Lanka.

"If you are taking your pets with you, make sure they are vaccinated and have all the documents with you. My dog didn't have to be kept in the quarantine (but the laws might have changed so it's best to do some research and contact the relevant authorities) but after arriving,they (the cargo staff) claimed that we had to pay a ''tax'' since the dog was a pure breed and that we were going to raise pups for business (Whatever!) so make sure to look up every detail and ask if you will end up paying extra fees."
The relevant website to visit is the Department of Animal Protection and Health - Sri Lanka or "DAPH". You should be able to access the most up-to-date information and relevant application forms, import duties etc, however, if you have concerns I'd contact them directly with your questions. Some government agencies do not promptly update their websites with regulation changes.

Based on the DAPH website, it indicates you'll need to complete an application form and provide an International Veterinary Certificate to the Director General of the DAPH at least two weeks prior to intended date of import. The International Veterinary Certificate should be obtained from your local veterinary government authority attesting to various vaccinations and health checks specific to the import of dogs and cats. Once your application is reviewed and approved, a permit will be issued by the DG/DAPH which will be valid for 90 days from date of issue. Upon arrival with your pets, ensure you have the original copies of your  International Veterinary Certificate for the Animal Quarantine Officer at Katunayake Airport. If there are any health issues, your pet may be quarantined for inspection.

Please refer to the DAPH website for specific import information and/or restrictions.

Motor vehicle(s)

If you are considering whether to ship this over with you, I recommend doing some research and reading up on the relevant import rules & regulations and customs & excise duties associated with bringing your motor vehicle(s) to Sri Lanka. Generally, as a foreign national the Department of Import and Export Control states:
"Applicant should have at least 6 months resident visa in Sri Lanka. The vehicle should not be older than 2 years and cannot be transferred or sold. It should be re-exported at the time of leaving the country
I previously wrote about buying a car in March 2013 in a blog post titled "The lowdown on buying a car in Sri Lanka" and this had some useful information including relevant websites. In some cases, if you're transferring to Sri Lanka with a multi-national or local company, a vehicle may already be included in your overall compensation package. Or, you may find you wish to lease or purchase a car in Sri Lanka. Please note, however, motor vehicle taxes or duties are relatively higher in Sri Lanka compared other western countries, so do your research before making a decision.


My tip is to get this organized as soon as possible. If you bank with a global bank this can be really handy as they can set up an account in Sri Lanka before your move. I had mine set up prior to relocating and was able to transfer funds from the UK to Sri Lanka with ease and obtained a local debit and credit card so I hit the ground running. Alternatively, you can set up a bank account upon arrival. The process is relatviely straightforward and the process is similar to that in other countries.

Driving License

If you have a foreign driving license, you will need to convert it to a Sri Lankan driving license. This only applies to light vehicle licenses. Your foreign driving license must be valid for at least six months and your Sri Lankan visa must be valid at least a month from the date of application to convert. There are other requirements and these are detailed on the Sri Lankan Department of Motor Traffic website.

Other things to consider:

Culture shock

Well this one is pretty obvious. Initially, you'll be dealing with the tropical heat (it'll hot you hard if you've been living in a dry climate or even one that has four distinct seasons). It won't be so bad if you've previously lived in a tropical climate. In my case, it was a shock to the system and I also had to contend with jetlag! Apart from the climate, the new environment, people, language, smells and sounds will certainly impinge on all your senses. Prepare yourself for it, at least mentally. 

Some expats get over their initial shock after a few weeks, others take a little longer to adjust, while a few think they've got a handle on it, only to find themselves freaking out when they least expect it. One thing is for certain, there is nothing to be alarmed about… Sri Lanka and it's people are genuinely friendly, particularly to foreigners.

Friends / Colleagues

If you have existing Sri Lankan or expat friends, colleagues or acquaintances in Sri Lanka, don't hesitate to seek help or assistance from them. I'm pretty sure they'd be more than willing to lend a hand and/or offer advice. When I moved over to Sri Lanka, some of these friends were immensely helpful and made my transition so much smoother. This was especially true when it came to negotiating and finding out the best way to navigate through everyday matters. I also used them as "sounding boards" for how I which course of action to take when dealing with all kinds of decisions. They also proved handy to ensure I wasn't getting ripped off.

In addition to the people you already know, be sure to make new friends. Some of my very best friends are the ones I've met since moving to Sri Lanka - locals, expats, adopted family and more. They have all made my life experiences (and stories) in Sri Lanka richer and more colorful.


This may seem a little strange, but it's a very important tip. How you arrive and whether you survive, or thrive in Sri Lanka often comes down to your attitude. Expats who arrive with an attitude that embraces a good dose of openness and patience usually survive and, over time, thrive over here.

Sri Lanka is not perfect by any sense of the word (not sure there are many places in the world that are perfect all the time). And, living here long term, as opposed to holidaying, is very different. The everyday stuff that may have been okay on holidays will eventually grate on your nerves when you’re living here long term. It ranges from traffic to behaviors to weather to politics and so much more. However, if you’re open and patient, you’ll eventually find your feet with it all. And I can personally confirm that openness and patience pays off in the end.

We're conditioned to judge and compare all the time, but I've found it easier to wait and see, learn a bit more about situations and cultural differences before jumping to conclusions. It's pretty important in a country like Sri Lanka. And I think you generally gain more respect as a result of it too.

Making mistakes

As someone who has made plenty of mistakes I can confirm it's quite okay to make mistakes in Sri Lanka. I made a whole heap of them when I landed, and still do. I constantly remind myself that it’s ok and just laugh at myself. For example, learning sinhala has been filled with mistakes - but it has helped improve my grasp of the language. Not to mention... I’ve put my foot in it a lot and gotten into some hairy situations with police, officials and others. Those haven't been as funny, but I've learnt a lot from those situations as well.

The important thing is learning from those mistakes and creating more ease living in Sri Lanka. These are priceless gems you can't learn from others unless they've found themselves in the same predicament. Undoubtedly, there is a certain amount of personal freedom with the knowledge and acceptance that it is okay to make mistakes. So, go forth and live!

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One final thing…

What’s the worst that could happen?

Mmm... maybe you decide you hate living in Sri Lanka?

Well, it takes time and adventures to work this one through. Don’t worry too much about it. Take it a day at a time. Practically speaking, I’m sure you will have plenty on your plate, what with arriving, settling into your new home, work, environment and learning how to do things.

So, embrace the new, challenge yourself with the unfamiliar, remember to ask for help, make the most of your adventures, and enjoy the rollercoaster ride. Congratulations on taking a leap of faith!

* * * * * * * *

These earlier blog posts might also assist you... or you can just have a bit of a laugh!

An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 7 
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 6
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 5
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 4
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 3
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 2
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 1

And my expat page also has more posts on an expat's view of the life in Sri Lanka too!


Loubna TANJI said...

Hi Eva,
Coming closer to my departure I am now asking myself about vaccinations. I haven't heard anything about it anywhere.
Do I need any before I go?
Thank you in advance

Eva Stone said...

Hi Loubna,
I hope all your preparations have gone well and you're all set!
Interesting question about vaccinations, and not something I specifically took into consideration when I traveled and then eventually moved to Sri Lanka (though I ensure I'm up-to-date with my general vaccinations). However, very valid and important to consider in moving here.
I've done a little research and found the following links that should prove useful to you:
Most of the guidelines are provided by the World Health Organization, though I couldn't find the latest information on their website.
From a local perspective, the main concern in Colombo (and a few outskirt areas) right now is generally dengue. There are various management and prevention actions in place and they are looking at the possibility of a dengue vaccine by 2015. You can access information at this website: http://www.dengue.lk/
I hope this aids you in your preparations. All the very best!

Anonymous said...

Dear Eva,
Do you have any advice on health insurance? Do I need to get ex-pat health insurance before arriving or are there insurers in Sri Lanka who will provide cover for foreign nationals?
Great blog! Like your new checklist on turning Sri Lankan.
All the best.

Eva Stone said...

Hi Dushy,
Thanks for your comments on the blog, and very pertinent question.
From my perspective as a long-term expat in Sri Lanka, you don't necessarily need international expat health insurance. However, it really depends on your circumstances - age, health, work, lifestyle etc. When I initially moved here I wasn't sure how long I would actually stay, so I took out some travel insurance to cover me for the initial period. Plus, I was still young, healthy, my work keeps me in a safe environment and my lifestyle is considered healthy.
After staying in Sri Lanka awhile, I got to know the country a bit better. There is free access to public health services as well to private paid health services. You can easily take up medical or health insurance via a local insurance provider (eg. Sri Lanka Insurance, Ceylinco Insurance, Allianz Insurance, Janashakthi, Union Assurance, AIG etc...). I haven't felt the need to take out any expat health insurance or private medical insurance, but this is still down to my particular set of circumstances. If I get sick I visit my local GP and pay about Rs500-1000 for the consultation and whatever is required for medication.
I have expat friends who had health insurance included in their work contracts, which made things a lot easier for them. I also have expat friends who took out expat health insurance before coming to Sri Lanka from their home country through one of the global health insurers as they were having a baby and wanted private medical coverage; and other permutations of that.
So, I hope this helps with your decision-making.
Wish you the best.

Dushy Large said...

Hello Eva,
Many thanks for your reply. It's reassurinng to know that I can buy health insurance once in Sri Lanka. I hear that buying it over in the UK can be pretty exorbitant. Just read your latest blog about DIE - that's quite reassuring too!
All the best,

Eva Stone said...

Hi Dushy, glad to set your mind at ease. Yes, UK insurance premiums can be exorbitant! Good luck on your inward bound journey :)
Best wishes

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