I moved to the other side of the world during the pandemic – and now I’m moving back. Here’s what I wish I’d known beforehand.

a sunset view of the singapore skyline, including the marina bay sands hotel
The view of Singapore from my quarantine hotel in December.
  • I moved to Singapore in December to be part of Insider's new bureau in the city-state.
  • My nine months in the city-state turned out nothing like I'd imagined, with zero travel and a summer spent in semi-lockdown.
  • I wish I had adjusted my expectations about travel and a return to normal life.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In December, I checked in for a 14-day quarantine at a five-star hotel with a view of Singapore's iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel.

With the glittering city laid out before me, it seemed like the beginning of a grand adventure: a year (or longer) of living in the tropical island city-state, where the virus was under control and it was always summer. Most Southeast Asian countries had not yet seen their worst COVID-19 outbreaks, giving me hope for travel in the region in 2021.

seflie of woman with mask walking through airport
About to board my flight to Singapore.

Fast forward nine months later, and the farthest I've gone from Singapore was on a predictably underwhelming "cruise to nowhere." For much of the last few months, Singapore has been in a lockdown-like state where restaurants were closed except for takeout and social groups were heavily restricted, which made making friends a challenge. Our office has been mostly closed since early May.

Of course, in the scheme of the world and especially of the world right now, not being able to eat at a restaurant or spend a weekend on a beach in Thailand are small problems. I am lucky to be living in a country that has taken the pandemic seriously from the start, has one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the world, and has now fully vaccinated more than 75% of its population. But 2021 has been far from the year abroad I'd expected, and I'm now about to head back to the US sooner than planned.

With so many people untethered from working in an office and rethinking where they want to live, I'm sure I'm not the only one considering a move abroad - but the pandemic is far from over.

Here are a few things I wish I'd known before moving across the world to a country I'd never been before in a global pandemic.

Failing to adjust your expectations is a recipe for a letdown

If we've learned anything by now, it's that we can't predict exactly which path this pandemic will take.

Just because the virus seems under control in one location at one point in time doesn't mean it won't surge again and throw life back into flux - as is happening with the Delta variant in the US. I wish I had given this more consideration when preparing for the life-changing decision of moving to another country.

"You need to be flexible and you need to understand that things might not go to plan," Steve Burson, CEO of relocation company Relo Network Asia, told me on a recent phone call after I asked him what people should consider before moving abroad in the pandemic.

a hawker center in singapore with seating blocked off
The closed seating area at a Singapore hawker centre is cordoned off to restrict dining-in on July 23, 2021.

When I moved to Singapore in December, my plan was to explore the city-state and work part of the time in a physical office with my coworkers. At that point, Singapore was recording two or three new cases each day. Two weeks after I arrived, it became the first Asian country to approve Pfizer's vaccine. I was cautiously optimistic that I might get to travel to Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia - places that have since experienced their worst COVID-19 outbreaks in 2021.

My hopes were so naively high that it was even more disappointing when many of those plans turned out to be impossible.

In hindsight, had I adjusted my expectations about travel and a return to normality, I wouldn't have been so dismayed when it didn't turn out the way I'd envisioned.

Making friends probably won't happen spontaneously

Virus restrictions don't make it easy to make friends.

In Singapore, closed restaurants and restricted group sizes have meant that socializing has been limited to households and small groups of existing friends. You can't casually strike up a conversation at the bar because standing at a bar or mingling with other groups in public places is still prohibited.

This has meant I've had to be much more intentional about making friends. I asked friends and coworkers in the US to put me in touch with people they knew in Singapore, and I even met up with a couple of people after sending them random messages on social media.

If I had waited to spontaneously meet friends, I probably would've waited a very long time.

Keeping in touch with family and friends will be more important - and more difficult - than ever

Although I've lived at least 2,000 miles away from my family for seven years now, I've never missed them more than when I was in Singapore.

Part of that was because of how difficult it has been to make friends in a new city during this time. A big part of it was also due to the time difference. With a 12-hour difference from my friends in New York and 14 hours from my family in Montana, it was nearly impossible to spontaneously call or FaceTime someone like I used to.

If I had wanted to go back to the US for a visit this summer, Singapore might not have let me back in: It stopped approving entry into the country for most foreign workers. (It started loosening this restriction for vaccinated foreign workers last week.) Even if I were now granted approval to come back into the country, I'd likely have to pay upwards of $1,500 to serve a 14-day quarantine in a hotel.

The ability to visit family back home may be a key factor in people considering a move abroad right now, Burson said.

"My family's in New Zealand and I haven't been able to go back for couple of years now," he said. "I think it will improve as countries get vaccinated ... But I mean, right now, I wouldn't travel to New Zealand, do two weeks of quarantine, and then do two weeks of quarantine when I come back here [to Singapore]."

Embrace the unique pleasures of your adoptive home

I've tried to find the silver lining of my pandemic year abroad by focusing on the experiences I can have that are unique to Singapore, or at least that I wouldn't get to experience back home.

a paper plate of chili crab with white rice at a hawker center in singapore
One of Singapore's favorite hawker dishes: spicy chili crab.

Singapore's famed hawker food, for example, is every bit as affordable and delicious as I'd heard. I've experienced life in a new climate with vastly different wildlife, like monitor lizards and monkeys, from back home. I got to spend a day on a tiny island of 130 people that's somehow part of Singapore but felt like an entirely different world. And I will sorely miss having a pool in my apartment building.

Moving somewhere new in a pandemic means you may not get the full experience of the place for quite some time, but if you go into it with realistic expectations, flexibility, and patience, it could still be a worthwhile experience.

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