NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- If you're thinking of moving overseas, you already know that it's a big decision. With big decisions come big worries, but which of your worries are likely to become a reality?

The Web site Best Places In The World To Retire conducted a survey of 389 expats (mostly people who moved from the U.S. and Canada to Panama, Belize and Nicaragua) to find the answer to this and other questions. In a study the Web site recently released, Expats: Expectations & Reality, there is a comparison of what respondents feared would happen if they moved abroad with what actually did happen after they moved. Some of the results may surprise you.

The Worries About Moving Abroad

Is your perception of expats that they are daredevils, without fears or anxieties? The Expectations & Reality study shows otherwise: Almost 80% of respondents reported one or more significant worries about moving overseas. The top three were: 

  1. I won't be able to learn the language or get by with English.
  2. The infrastructure will be too primitive.
  3. I won't be able to get access to high-quality health care.

There were also more generalized worries:

"Our biggest worry was that we might be making a mistake selling our house and most of the things in it. What was really hard was parting with items that for so long you felt you just had to have, like glasses from a cruise or a plate you bought while on a holiday..." -- Clyde Page, from Canada, living in Panama

Perhaps not surprisingly, women were more concerned than men that they would miss their family and friends too much (about 31% for women vs. about 18% for men) and that they would miss First World goods and shopping (about 23% vs. 16%). 

However, less predictably, men were twice as likely as women to worry about being treated badly by the locals (almost 8% to almost 4%) and more than twice as likely to worry about being treated unfairly due to corruption (about 26% vs. about 12%). 

Americans were substantially more anxious about social issues than Canadians. About 15% of Americans reported a fear of not being able to fit in socially and make new friends, while only 8% of Canadians had this fear. 

 

What Happened: Which Fears Materialized And Which Didn't

"All my suppositions were dead wrong and I am so glad. My expectations became more realistic the more time I spent here and I let myself experience the country as it is not as I thought it should be." -- female, age 65-plus, single, semiretired, from U.S., living in Panama for two to five years

When asked which of the items on the list of worries had materialized, a whopping 41.5% of respondents said none.

Among fears that were realized, the top one had nothing to do with language difficulties, infrastructure or even health care. It was shopping.

"I miss First World goods and shopping" was what almost 20% of respondents said had materialized. The surprise here is that while women predicted that they would miss First World goods and shopping more than men, there was a very similar percentage of men and women reporting missing it. 

"I didn't realize how much I miss the shopping in the USA until I moved here to Belize." -- Edward Banas, from U.S., living in Belize for two to five years

What happened to the more than 30% of respondents who had worried about language issues? The reality of having a language problem dropped to slightly more than 6% of respondents, a decrease of 80%. 

"Once in Panama, I found the local people to be very friendly and engaging. I met so many new people, both expats as well as Panamanians, and found myself learning Spanish as never before and living a new adventurous life I never had before." -- Danny Blank, from U.S., living in Panama

Very importantly, the fear of being in an unsafe place dropped more than 80% compared to the reality, from about 21% who feared moving to an unsafe place to less than 4% who reported being in an unsafe place. Contrary to what you would expect, it was the women in the survey who reported the least reality of safety problems. Even though slightly more than 20% of women said they had feared moving to an unsafe place, only 2% of women reported that they moved to one.

What happened to the roughly 15% of Americans who had fears of not being able to fit in socially or make friends overseas? The reality reported by the Americans was less than 2%, which happened to be almost exactly the same reality as reported by the less-worried Canadians.

"I miss my friends, but not enough to move back! It is sooo easy to make friends here in Boquete, you have to be a recluse not to make new friends!" -- Charlotte Lintz, from U.S., living in Panama

"Okay. I do miss great pastrami and corned beef." -- Philip McGuigan, from U.S., living in Panama

With the exception of missing First World shopping (where the worry and the reality were essentially the same), every worry respondents said they had before moving overseas turned out to be greater than the reality they experienced once there.

Does this mean that there is nothing that should cause you concern about moving overseas? Of course not. It just means that if you are like the survey respondents, your reality will likely be better than what you fear. 

To see the entire set of results, download Expats: Expectations & Reality.

 (The study summarizes the responses of 389 expatriates living in Central America, the vast majority of whom live in Panama, Belize and Nicaragua. The survey was hosted on SurveyGizmo and was conducted between April 17 and April 27. Among respondents, 73.5% said their home country was the U.S., while 12.9% came from Canada, 4.6% from the U.K., 3.9% from elsewhere in Europe and the remainder from other countries.)

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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