Leaving Well: 10 Tips for Repatriating with Dignity

TransitionIt’s that time of year again.  Leaving time.


This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day.  If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord.  Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.

Click here to see why expats hate June

If you are leaving, I feel your pain.  I was you exactly one year ago.  After 7 years in China we found ourselves packing up, saying goodbyes and downsizing the full sum of our family’s possessions into 8 suitcases.  To call it a high stress time doesn’t even come close.


Here are ten tips that we have picked up on the journey.


Tip #1:  Make a Plan

Seriously.  The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic.  Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out.  The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner.  You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.

It all works better with a plan.  Start as early as you can.  Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.

Take an hour.  A day.  A weekend.  Write it out.  Make a spreadsheet.  Draw a picture.  Whatever works for you but make a plan.


Tip #2:  Build a RAFT

One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock.  It’s called building a RAFT (genius).  Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving,  great memories or horrible regrets.  Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).

Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:

Reconciliation:  Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do.  Make it right.

Affirmation:  People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life.  Say it well.

Farewell:  Different people need different goodbyes.  Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).

Think Destination:  Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed.  Brace yourself.  Think forward.

Tip #3:  Leave Right Now

When are you leaving?  June 6th?  15th?  21st?

Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket.  Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.

Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.

You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home.  Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process.  Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.

You are leaving now.


Tip #4:  Give Your Best Stuff Away

What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue.  Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle.  Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes.  Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.

Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes.  Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship.  It’s not about price.  It’s about value.  Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached.  Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.


Photo BombTip #5:  Photo Bomb Everything

Go crazy with the pictures.  Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then.  There is no better way to capture great events.  More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves.  Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels.  Go to your favorite spots.  Eat your favorite foods.  Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.

You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.

Too crazy for your blood?  Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends.  Then go to dinner.

Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.


Tip #6:  Rank Your Friends

You read me right.  Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst.  Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them.  Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave.  In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.

Here’s an example but make it your own

Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend

Close friends — Go to dinner individually

Good Friends — Go out as a small group

Friends — Invite to a going away party

Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure

Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them

Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends.  Seriously.  What kind of person are you?  Jerk.


Tip #7:  Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof

Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?


Know what else is common?

Lack of emotion.

Strange I know but people are different.  Crying makes sense.  There is plenty to cry about.  However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal.  Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out.  Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there.  Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.

Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.


Tip #8:  Get specific

When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:

“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”

Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation.  Almost too mushy.  But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.

    • What have they done that means so much to you?
    • How has that impacted your life?
    • What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
    • What are some specific examples?
    • How are you a better person for knowing them?

THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”

People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how you feel.

Bonus Tip:  You get extra points for being awkward.  Make eye contact.  Go for broke.


Tip #9:  Do Your Homework

What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?

What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?

What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?

Does he need to be quarantined?  Before you leave?  After you arrive?

How do you close out your bank account?  Your cell phone?

What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline?  What’s the penalty for going over?

This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you.  But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.


Tip #10:  GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself

When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.

When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.

When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.

When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.

When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.

When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.

When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.

When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.

When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.

Leaving is hard.  There’s really no way around it.  People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things.  So will you.


If you are packing up, I hope this helps.

If you know someone who is packing up, please pass this on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?


Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride:  Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity

And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere:  Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind




  1. Thank you. As someone waiting for ex-pats to come “home” this really helped me to begin to appreciate the depth of their journey.

    • Hey Anonymous — I can’t tell you how valuable it is that you are concerned about receiving your friends well. It has been so crucial for us to have people who have made extra effort to intentionally help us transition well. Kudos to you.

    • There is something very strange about finally returning ‘home’ you’ve spent upto a year planning it, doing all of your lasts (last trip to favourite parks, restaurants, last brunch, last Christmas market, last summer outing) and then you get home, you can shop without grief, you understand the traffic, can make yourself perfectly understood but it soooo different, difficult to explain. Don’t forget all those goodbyes for kids are a bit like grief, especially if they keep asking when they are going home, it’s tough! My 3 year old spent three months asking when we were returning to Beijing. He’d never lived in England, thought we were on holiday. The eldest at 4.5 cried all the way to the departure gate, that’s harsh. He certainly knew he wasn’t seeing his friends and ayi again. Routine, routine, routine.

      Only yesterday (10 months on) we’ve left the UK and have just started to settle in the Middle East – we’ve been here 3 months – and the youngest found a picture of ayi from Beijing and cried for her. Heartbreaking.

  2. Don’t let Christians back home cause you to question your decision. That decision is between you and God and no reason is wrong if it’s what God is leading you to do. Also, goodbyes don’t just end when you leave the country, the mourning process lasts a long time. It was very difficult to transition back into my own culture and getting used to everyday life again. Excellent article, I am always encouraged when I read about other peoples experience. It helps to know that I am not alone, it also helps with contentment.

    • Thanks Katie — such good insight.

  3. This is all excellent advice….especially the Grace part! My husband and I lived in various countries overseas for 27 years. Our children grew up overseas and attended four different international schools in four different countries in South America, Asia, and Europe. Our family has attended various seminars on how to handle transition and we were basically taught the same points that are mentioned in the above article. Transition is difficult no matter what but following these suggestions have helped us and our kids (who are now young adults) a lot.

    • Anon — Wow! 27 years. What a rich rich life with volumes of stories to tell no doubt. Thanks for commenting.

  4. ……at the end of it all , your kids are ‘ Third- Culture ‘ kids growing up in different countries. Don’t fret. They are richer for the Experience , and you can’t get it through any curriculum. Be Positive and that’s infectious and will sail you through your process of goodbyes.

  5. Faz – Yes yes yes. We absolutely love the TCK experience that our kids have had. In fact I personally mourn that since we have moved back to the States as much as anything. Thanks for commenting

  6. Thanks for this! We are leaving for Nepal from the US in Sept., and I think these work beautifully in the reverse as well!

    • I agree! We are moving to Hong Kong in July from Seattle, and every single item here sounds like a good idea at the moment.

      • Hi Anonymous,
        I am a cross cultural trainer and could offer you support in Hong Kong. How would I contact you?

      • We lived in HK for 4 years and loved it! We personally found re-patriating harder than going. Everything in this article is true.

  7. Wow, thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. Now I must go close out my bank account!!! I mean, it’s not a huge one and I had absolutely forgotten! That realization would’ve hit me about 10 years from now. You rock.

  8. On our last repatriation (we’ve done 3) we had to leave our apartment and stay in a hotel for a couple of days to allow time to collect deposits, pay bills and close bank accounts. We chose a hotel in a part of the city away from our usual haunts and friends and said our goodbyes before we checked in. A couple of days “on vacation” and exploring areas we didn’t know well was not just welcome for relaxation but also gave us a mental pause and time to reflect before all the busyness of arriving in our home country. Looking back it eased the initial shock of transition.

    • Judy – Brilliant (which you should be after 3 repats). Great advice for anyone packing up.

  9. Thank you for your insight. Heading home after 18 years, 4 countries and 3 continents. We are approaching repatriation as yet another adventure!

    • Diana – Wah. Those numbers are so significant. Your perspective even more so. Blessings on the next part of your adventure. Such a rich life.

  10. Thank you for this article. We move internationally every 2-3 years (in not-home country #3 now, moving to #4 next year), and these tips may help make the next move the best yet.

    • Deborah – Thanks. I’ve got a theory on people who move every 3 years that I’ll write about someday. The basic thought is this. If you are landing well, living well and leaving well you’ve got a really awesome thing going. Excited for you.

  11. Close one Doni. Hard to imagine how many expat bank accounts are still floating around out there that will never be used again. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Thanks Jerry. Always glad to hear your take on things. We’ve repat-ed twice and each time felt awkward in our home digs. I gather that is why we’re back in the field – no one who has never lived abroad truly “gets” the ex-pat mind-set.

    We are now transitioning to become sudden empty-nesters and I see strong similarities in the RAFTing concept here too.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and for giving us this wise list of things we can do. We’re repatriating to San Francisco after 3 years in Nanjing, and though we’ve done this multiple times before it is easy to forget the “musts” in the midst of the morose. I will miss living internationally, but am reminded in your blog that I can take international mindedness anywhere and I will hang on to this. I am returning to my passport country, but it is also a place on the world map and a global hub at that. I’m glad to see so many global nomads reading your blog, and wishing to leave and land well.

  14. I was born in the States, immigrated to Switzerland, and now live in Qatar-at least I will until Aug when I’m moving back to Switzerland. So right in the middle of this. So many helpful suggestions. I shared it on my FB fan page and so many people have written me private messages thanking me for sharing it with them.

    About 4-6 weeks before leaving arrange a group meet up with your 15’s. Drinks at a bar, brunch, whatever. You don’t have to tell them it’s good-bye but you won’t feel so bad if it is.

    At this same time make sure you find someone in the new country to connect to that you didn’t know when you lived there. An expat group in your home country? Why not? Arrange to meet them soon after you arrive. It can prevent you from depending, and perhaps expecting, that your old friends, your family, will support you as you transition (they likely don’t know how).

    With selling/giving your things away, this time around I’ve decided to have a pay-what-you-can sale. 50% of the proceeds will be donated to a human rights group that I volunteer for.

    I love your photo bomb idea. I’m going to do that with my kids.

    • This is great advice Christine. Thanks for sharing. I’d love to see the photo bomb shots when you’re done. Keep me posted and all the best on your move.

  15. Thanks so much for this! We’re actually on the other side of this and watching our friends leave. About to blog about staying…thanks for your insight!

    • Jaime. I’ve been where you are. Not easy. I’m actually working on the next in this series, “staying well”. If you’re interested I’d love to link to your story when you’re finished.

  16. Check your link to the “Why expats hate June” – it’s missing the “:” between http and //. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the articles. We’ve been here almost 15 years and not sure we’ll ever be repats (at least not full time).

  17. Hi Eve here. Please may IO have your email to discuss immigration. Thanks (eve.epiphany@gmail.com)

  18. Anyone leaving that has a car for sale or to give away let me know. 🙂

  19. Wow! Some great advice. I am currently in the process or leaving the UK and having to go back to Oz and this really struck a cord with me. I feel still very much in denial about it even as I am in the middle of packing and making arrangements. I find it so hard as I can’t even begin to think when life will be like when I go back being that this experience has changed me so much! Even know I am online rather than dealing with the packing boxes.

  20. Where I am at, those leaving have started the tradition of a “bu yao”(don’t want) party… a free garage/ rummage sale where you invited other expats and friends to come pick out what they want from your house! As a participant in many of these parties it’s nice to be able to look around your apartment and see bits and pieces of your friends who have moved on. Plus, it’s a stress free way to download a ton of stuff quickly!

  21. Thank you this article. I am a mother of an expat who will be returning soon and I seem to say the wrong thing to her every time we communicate. She suggested I read this blog. As parents to those of you coming back I pray for a little grace for us as we have worried and prayed for your safety continually.

  22. Thank you. We are not repatriating, but we are members of the Expat Exodus this year from Korea to Saudi Arabia… and I have really been struggling with how to leave well. This is such good advice. Thank you.

  23. Thank you so much for your article. I wish it had been around and I had read it in 2010 when returning ‘home’ from 2 years as an expat. I regret some things (including not spending that time with my closest friends and making sure that they knew what they meant to me, and not taking nearly enough photos). I will be spreading your blog far and wide. Thank you for potentially helping many others not to live with the regrets that I do.

  24. I do like Number Six a lot!

  25. My dad was in the air force. Even though we moved every two to three years, we were moving from one American community to another, so the transition was probably not as hard as it might have been. Still, it was very hard to go to ten different schools before I graduated from high school. But one of the hardest things I remember ever going through was having to put our cat in quarantine for a month when we moved back to the US from Panama. We went to visit him when we could but he would just turn his back to us and cry. Poor kitty thought he had been abandoned. 🙁


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