Moving to the United States – relocation or dislocation?

Relocating to the US can present unique personal and professional challenges to expat spouses. We take a deeper look at the potential obstacles and offer some advice to those relocating.

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Relocating to the US will result in varied challenges for spouses in getting their day-to-day lives on the road and also for longer term cultural integration. Relocation specialists Chamness Worldwide take a look a the most common challenges and offer strategies on how to turn them into opportunities.

Transforming obstacles into opportunities in the US

Highly qualified and accomplished professional expat spouses often experience a wide range of personal and professional challenges that directly affect the quality and outcome of their relocation experience to the US. A combination of visa issues and licensure matters, in addition to factors potentially leading to feelings of isolation and disorientation, can contribute to a sense of “identity crisis” for the relocating spouse. We will address some of these challenges, as well as strategies for ameliorating them and improving the chance for a successful international assignment.Note: Because the majority of relocating spouses are female, we will refer to the spouse in this article as “she” or “her,” but acknowledge that there are spouses who are male as well. We will also use the term “spouse” to encompass unmarried and/or same-sex partners.

Challenge: U.S. employment barriers for an inbound spouse – Visa Status, Credentialing Issues

When spouses relocate, they arrive with dependent visas which are tied to the employees’ visa. Unlike employees, who are generally authorized to begin working upon arrival in the US, spouses face delays and obstacles in the work authorization process.Dependents from many countries are eligible to apply for Employment Authorization Documents (EADs, often referred to as Work Permits). Spouses are not able to apply for them until they actually relocate to the US, and the documents typically take at least 90 days to be processed and approved. This means that the spouse, who arrives in the US prepared to search for work after a brief period of settling in, is often forced to delay her active job search until she has the EAD in hand. This can cause significant frustration particularly in cases where the spouse is highly motivated to seek employment and may even have connections to potential employers.Spouses who require sponsorship in order to work face even greater challenges in finding employment. Sponsorship entails financial and legal commitment, as well as considerable effort, on the employers’ part, which may make them less likely to consider these applicants. Small local companies may lack the resources, both financial and human, to manage the complexities of the sponsorship process and thus opt not to consider these applicants. Recent efforts to reduce the number of H1B visas issued to foreign applicants serve as an additional obstacle.Other types of dependent visas do not allow spouses to work in the US at all. These visas may even restrict the types of volunteer work they are permitted to perform. Spouses may not be aware of these restrictions prior to their relocation and experience a sense of loss at their inability to continue in their career path or even pursue career-related activities while here.These challenges can lead to serious consequences, both to the spouse’s career trajectory and to her mental health. If she is unable to work, her skills may erode, or she may find it difficult to keep up with new developments in her field. Further, her career path may be disrupted if opportunities for growth are not available to her. Significant stress and depression may result, placing her mental health at risk. This, in turn, puts the relocation itself in jeopardy.
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Foreign professional spouses with licensure may also face considerable challenges to securing employment in their field. Licensure in fields such as medicine, dentistry, law, psychotherapy, and nursing is not internationally portable, and not easy for an expat to obtain once in the U.S. The process generally requires a considerable investment of time, money, and education, as well as strong proficiency in English. Many spouses find this prospect prohibitive, especially if they are here for a time-limited assignment. Individuals who choose not to pursue this route face the prospect of skill erosion, as well as loss of status, career identity, and income.If these spouses are authorized to work in the US, they may choose to seek employment related to their profession that does not require licensure. They may pursue career training in another field that can lead to skilled employment. Some choose to explore hobbies or interests unrelated to their professions, using their time here as a sabbatical, or as an opportunity to “reinvent” themselves, at least temporarily. They may choose to continue their education (which generally requires credential evaluation by a reputable agency) or pursue new certifications to enhance their existing skill set. Many explore online education options, which provide flexibility and portability. Volunteer work is another option for adding skills and increasing networking opportunities – but spouses must be mindful of any restrictions their visas may impose.

Challenge: Cultural differences and isolation

Even spouses who speak the language fluently, or come from other English-speaking countries, often experience disorientation when they relocate to the US It can be difficult enough to move within one's own country but relocating to another country can feel scary and isolating, particularly if she hasn’t visited the US before, or is moving to an unfamiliar area of the country. A spouse from a cosmopolitan location who relocates to a rural part of the US may feel particularly unmoored. Moving here without extended family, friends, or other supports that she might have had in her home country can make the relocation experience especially disconcerting, and lead to feelings of loneliness and homesickness.Spouses in cities often experience a smoother transition than those in rural or suburban areas. Although cities may be overwhelming and confusing, they tend to offer more activities, cultural attractions, and transportation options. In addition, they are more likely to have a wide range of food, shopping, and social offerings connected to various international and ethnic groups. A spouse thus has a better chance of finding a “taste of home” in a metropolitan area, as well as people who speak her native language. This can aid greatly in her adjustment to her new locale and encourage her to participate in the life of her community. Similarly, moving to a town or area with a sizable population of people of the same ethnic or regional heritage can facilitate her acclimation to the new location.For those spouses living in less populous regions with fewer resources, however, the adjustment can pose greater challenges. Relocating families often purchase or lease only one car, which the employee may need to travel to work. This may leave the spouse isolated at home in an area with few public transportation options. If she is from a country with a mild climate and relocates to an area with four seasons, she may be unprepared for her first frosty winter. Factors such as these can lead to increased dissatisfaction, anxiety and boredom.There are actions the spouse can take to mitigate these feelings of isolation and disorientation. Connecting with other expats who have been in the US longer can be a source of emotional support for newer arrivals. Networking expat organizations or meet-up groups can be excellent resources. Public libraries often host community activities and meetings, including English conversation classes for immigrants and expats. Volunteering for a local organization can afford spouses the opportunity to meet people and increase their sense of belonging and contributing to the community. If they have children, joining "mommy and me" groups or volunteering at/attending school events can provide a sense of connection. There may even be opportunities to participate in multicultural education presentations if local schools welcome these activities.


While the international relocation process poses its share of challenges to the accompanying spouse, there are strategies that can improve the experience and promote successful integration into a new locale. Recognizing that the spouse is an equal partner in the relocation and addressing her professional and personal needs prior to the start of the relocation process can be a key factor in ensuring a positive outcome for the relocating family.Authors: Heidi B. Ravis, EdM, LMHC REA CareersGail Rabasca Executive Vice President, Global Solutions Chamness WorldwideFor related news and features, visit our USA section.Subscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all of the international assignments and global mobility news.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory

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