Many soldiers and their families have discovered that the military lifestyle can be the perfect preparation for settling abroad after leaving the Army. Kate Viggers talks to ex-Forces families who have emigrated…

It’s a cold, damp day when I phone Graham Kerr to chat about his experiences living and working overseas. I can’t help feeling a little envious when he tells me he’s just finished his regular morning swim in the outdoor pool…

‘We’d always wanted ‘a place in the sun’ and Cyprus had a lot of appeal for us,’ says Graham, who left the Army in 2004 after 37 years’ service. He and his wife Bridget built their own property on the island and moved there in 2006. ‘I trained here in the 60s and 70s and we had some fantastic holidays here when our children were teenagers. We like the weather and the lifestyle, and it’s in a part of the world which I enjoy exploring. It’s secure and easy living.’

Living the dream

‘There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-military people who have settled here,’ says Phil Robertson, AFF Director Cyprus. ‘UK goods can be found everywhere and there are shops specifically for the ex-pat community. We drive on the same side of the road so people bring their cars over.’

Of course, lots of people dream about living abroad, but for Forces families, who are accustomed to integrating into new communities and may have spent time overseas already, it can be a particularly attractive and achievable option.

‘Army life is a great preparation for settling in another country,’ says Lucy Park, who moved to Canada with her husband Brendan and their children. ‘You are used to moving your worldly possessions around, starting afresh and setting up a life for yourselves without typically having close friends and family around to support you. Personally, I think living within an Army community gives you the confidence and awareness that you have to get out there, meet new people and make meaningful friendships.’ 

Doing your homework

Families contemplating a move abroad must be prepared to carry out extensive personal research. The Army’s resettlement programme mainly concentrates on assisting its personnel into civilian life/employment in the UK, although a Service leaver can use their graduated resettlement time to undertake individual preparation in the country of their choice. It is obviously advisable to seek professional advice from UK authorities – and always deal with established and reputable lawyers, businesses and estate agents abroad.

Before leaving the UK, families should consider:

  • Impact on UK state benefits including pension
  • Access to UK healthcare
  • Portability of employment/educational qualifications (employment rights)
  • Immigration and nationality issues (visa requirements)
  • Support to and from family/elderly parents left in UK
  • Access for children/young people to statutory education and university
  • Tax/National Insurance implications.

Working out the finances is crucial; currency rates, private health insurance and the loss of financial credibility may affect your overall income, as Lucy discovered.

‘Even though we managed to get a letter from our UK bank confirming good credit history, we had to start all over again in the Canadian system. Initially we couldn’t find a car insurance company that would accept our no claims bonus,’ she recalls.

Seeking employment

Lucy’s move was also complicated by obtaining the necessary work permit. Her employer had to prove that they had tried to recruit a local candidate before appointing someone from overseas – a process called the Labour Market Opinion (LMO).

‘I got the job whilst in the UK then had a harrowing wait. Once the LMO came back positive I could apply for a work permit. Immigration lawyers had been engaged by my employer; I would definitely recommend seeking legal advice. We are applying for residency and help from our lawyers has been invaluable.’

Often the quickest route to settling in a new country is to secure employment there, just as Lucy did. Michelle Amos, who also lives in Canada, took the same approach:

‘Having a job really helps if you want to move permanently. We attended a Canadian careers fair, which can be useful if you have a trade or skill. These are usually organised in UK by WorkingIn.com. Look at the jobbank.gc.ca.’

Lucy adds, ‘Brendan attended an event recommended by the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) where he got information about pension transfer, freight costs and met an ex-pat from Calgary. He had to alter his CV so it was Canadian job-market ready.  Qualifications need to be ‘civilianised’ and appropriate for the destination, without acronyms and military terms which civilians, especially overseas, won’t understand. I feel potential UK employers give ex-Service personnel an automatic level of credibility; this isn’t necessarily the case abroad.’

The CTP has Employment Consultants (ECs) throughout the UK, who engage with companies both at home and abroad to source employment opportunities.

Matt Mock, CTP EC for the South East (UK), says, ‘Usually half the jobs I hold on file will be based overseas. Popular placements are Dubai and Australia, and also Iraq, Cyprus and the Far East. Foreign employers are attracted by the work ethic and sheer ability of UK Service leavers. For the ex-soldier, working overseas offers good earning potential and the thrill of adventure.’

Overcoming hurdles

On arrival in a new country, registering with local authorities and opening a bank account are some important first steps. Michelle arrived in Medicine Hat in January 2012 and was joined there by her husband the following October. ‘The first two days resulted in pure administration – driving licences, health cover, buying a car, insurance. I had to dig deep mentally to be in a foreign country alone; it would not have been possible without the 22 years’ practice created by hubby’s eight op tours. Skype was fundamental.’ 

The ease of communication afforded by modern technology means living at a distance from relatives and friends doesn’t need to be a painful emotional wrench; and of course, Army families become very practised during their years of Service at maintaining contact with far-flung loved ones. But as with any permanent and life-changing decision, emigrating is not without its challenges.

Sally Lumsden, who lives in Australia, says, ‘The primary downside [to being abroad] is that of significant illness or death of a close family member. We faced this situation within seven weeks of emigrating. You realise just how far away you are. It is wise to have an emergency travel fund, as returning home at short notice is expensive.’

Despite undertaking extensive research based on her family’s needs and aspirations, Sally found the process of moving to Australia frustrating at times.

‘Our emigration required a proof of Skills Assessment; the evidence trail was exhaustive and incredibly laborious,’ she recalls. ‘A polite but tenacious approach was required at all stages to drive the process forward!  The greatest difficulty was our accommodation; remaining in Service-housing for the final months, [then completing] an application for continued occupancy post-discharge, required a thorough grasp of military regulations and advice from the AFF Housing Specialist.’

Organising accommodation in your destination country can also present problems, as Lucy testifies. ‘We were planning to bring our Bernese Mountain dog, and they’re not small, so we hit a major stumbling block,’ she explains. ‘We struggled to find a rental property that would meet the family’s needs and with the timeframe being tight, we had to re-home her which was very sad.’

Embracing the culture and language of a new country isn’t always easy, either – confusion can arise even in English-speaking countries!

‘I have a whiteboard in my office for expressions which don’t exist over here. A day doesn’t go by without me saying something that foxes my Canadian co-workers.’ says Michelle.

‘I didn’t grow up watching the same programmes; mentioning Ant and Dec is pointless, as is a discussion about English politics. My husband misses decent cheese, I miss British chocolate and roundabouts! Bizarrely I am missing the concept of the NHS – private healthcare is included in my salary but it could really make a dent in your income.’

Different education systems

In addition to employment and housing considerations, families may need to investigate schooling.

According to Annabel Dwyer, AFF Director Germany, the majority of ex-military families who settle there usually make the decision to stay after sending their children to a German school during a posting. And the country has additional appeal: ‘The healthcare system is very good; one of my neighbours wants to stay for that reason,’ Annabel says.

Lucy adds, ‘The Canadian education system is recognised as one of the best worldwide and there are definitely some positives, such as daily PE, music three times a week and distinct science classes. Children start in the academic year when they turn six, so ours are effectively repeating a year. But Army children are used to being the ‘new kid’ and adapt successfully to different schools and social groups.’

No regrets

Excellent employment opportunities, a sunnier climate, a relaxed and healthier lifestyle – it’s no wonder so many military families are attracted by the idea of setting up home in a foreign country after leaving the Army.

It can be easy to romanticise the ideal of living abroad, so it is important to approach emigration with realistic expectations. Online forums are a great way to get a flavour of living overseas from ex pats who have been through the experience. Graham advises, ‘Rent in-country for at least six months before making a commitment. Do your homework and see it on a cloudy day!’

Those I spoke to certainly have no regrets.

‘Living abroad, we are ‘living’ more; spending time in family activities, trying new sports, immersing ourselves in this new community and culture,’ says Sally.

Michelle adds, ‘My six-minute commute across the prairies makes me smile every morning. We love it here; the Army taught us to make the most of wherever you are.’

Useful information

If you are considering emigrating, seek advice from these useful contacts;

www.gov.uk formerly Directgov

www.dwp.gov.uk Department for Work and Pensions

www.hmrc.gov.uk tax and benefits

www.education.gov.uk Department for Education

www.nhs.uk click on healthcare abroad

www.veterans-uk.info Veterans Agency

www.ctp.org.uk search for ‘moving abroad’ for guidance from the Career Transition Partnership

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