12 min read

Staying in touch with relatives abroad

The World Bank estimates that between 4.5 and 5.5 million Brits live abroad1, and other studies2 have found that over half of us have family or friends living overseas.

A grey-haired couple looking excitedly at their laptop screen.

Whether seeking somewhere to settle down and retire, or just searching for a new start on different shores, it’s not uncommon for British people to up sticks and move across the world. But keeping in touch with relatives abroad can be difficult.

Fortunately, technology has made it much easier in recent years than it used to be. Snail mail and expensive phone calls have been replaced by Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook. While low-cost airlines mean many can now afford to visit more often.

Where do people move?

The most popular destinations for British expats are Australia, Spain, the US, and Canada. All of which have well over a quarter to half a million British immigrants. Australia has more than a million, making that almost a quarter of all British expats in one country alone.

 Country  Number of expats
 Australia  1,277,474
 United States of America  758,919
 Canada  674,371
 Spain  381,025
 New Zealand  313,850
 South Africa  305,660
 Ireland  253,605
 France  172,806

Data source: statslife.org.uk

We interviewed a focus group about the difficulties and the practicalities of having relatives abroad, to find out how it’s affected them, and their relationship with their families.

While plenty of our interviewees had relatives who had settled in those parts of the world, the full list was far more varied. It ranged from as close as Ireland and Malaga, to as far afield as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Why do people move?

A move abroad is one of the biggest life changes imaginable. Uprooting and heading across the world, leaving friends and family behind. It’s not a decision that anyone undertakes lightly.

The biggest reason people told us they move abroad is for work. For a specific job that sponsored the move, pursuit of different opportunities, or more attractive tax laws. If it’s not for work, then it’s often for the lack of work. Retiring somewhere nice and sunny is a popular choice for Brits who have lived with unpredictable weather.

Charlotte told us her brother,

“Worked in London and had had enough of the hours, lifestyle and commuting,” so moved to Australia. Their sister, who worked as a teacher in Leeds, found herself feeling similarly stuck, and so followed suit soon after.

Matthew’s dad, John, works all over the world. So Dubai is just the latest place his parents have settled since first heading overseas in 1999. However, the nature of the work regularly brings them back to London for short periods.

And John’s not the only one. Only 16.5% of the 8.2 million people living in the UAE are native Emiratis3. And half our focus group mentioned the better tax rates that come from working abroad, particularly in the UAE where there is currently 0% taxation4. But with Australia, Spain, the US, France and Canada all having higher top rates of tax than the UK, it wasn’t a big factor for every expat.

Relationships were also a common reason for leaving, as was the pursuit of sunnier climes.

Time zone issues

You might think a six hour time difference would make it complicated for people to stay in touch. But people with relatives living abroad often find a way to make things work.

We expected Skype to play a major role in this. However it seems like many are moving to WhatsApp, now boasting 900 million users worldwide5.  The messaging service works exactly like texting on a phone but it uses only Wi-Fi, so it’s  free. It also offers voice calls. Facebook, too, is so integrated into everyone’s lives that it can be hard not to stay in contact with someone through it.

Lizi’s family live in Spain, Denmark and Germany, so although the time differences aren’t massive, it can still be hard to put time aside to catch up. Fortunately, social media means it’s easier for families to stay in contact in a more flexible way, dipping in and out of each other’s lives as they please.

“It’s tough to keep up consistent relationships without social media,” she says. “I find that social media allows me to feel like I ‘know’ my family better as I can see what they’re doing and they can see what I’m up to.

“It’s difficult that we can easily go years without seeing each other, but thankfully we’re the type of family where we just pick up where we left off. Social media is definitely a big part in keeping in touch with relatives abroad as it requires minimum effort on both sides.”

Social media

Using social media means it’s much easier for people to keep in regular contact, even with hours between them. It was rare for people to say they went more than a week or two without contacting their very close family. Although cousins, aunts and uncles are usually contacted a little less regularly.

However, actually speaking to each other – by which we mean, hearing the other’s voice – is much harder. Even for those who message back and forth every day. Craig told us that even though he messaged his sister in Tenerife the day before, he hasn’t actually heard her voice since December 2014.

Social media can also be an effective way of tracking down long lost friends or relatives.

Should we do better?

The question that always seemed to make people think the hardest was “do you wish you talked more?” The majority of people said yes, with most blaming things on time zones, or on the expense of visiting.

However, some are happy with a weekly call and an annual visit. Whereas others have just got used to rarely speaking to their relatives abroad, and their relationships work fine that way. For example, Matthew told us that his parents have “been abroad for so long, it’s normal now”.

The biggest challenge

Finally, we asked people for the biggest challenge that comes with having relatives abroad. Here’s what they said, in their own words:

Annie: “Having a meaningful relationship, and remembering to send Christmas cards on time.”

Charlotte: “Not being able to call them when you need to speak to them. If something happens and you really want to talk to them, it’s hard when you have to wait until they are awake! And having to wait so long to see them because it costs so much to visit.”

Chloe: “The biggest challenge is us not being together on special occasions like my 21st birthday, or Mother’s Day. Luckily, I do fly out there for Christmas, so I’ve never missed that with them. Also, it’s difficult to not just be able to call them for a natter after work, we generally have to plan when we are going to speak.”

Beth: “Not being able to just pop round and see them when you feel like it. For me, it’s also no longer having a family home in England, so while I still rent a flat I can’t go anywhere nice to just chill out and feel at home or raid the fridge.”

Meghan: “For me it’s not being there when I’m needed, like when my grandma became ill a few years ago. I’m not a very good support network when I’m a seven-hour flight away.”

Georgia: “The main thing is missing them, and to not be able to see them in person. I am very lucky to have visited the countries they all live in on multiple occasions. We’re lucky to live in a time where Skype, iMessage, social media and Facetime exists.”



1 http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTLAC/Resources/Factbook2011-Ebook.pdf

2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2818748/Out-sight-mind-Half-Britons-friends-family-living-abroad-two-thirds-don-t-bother-keeping-touch.html

3 http://www.theguardian.com/money/2012/nov/26/uk-expat-guide-uae

4 https://en.santandertrade.com/establish-overseas/united-arab-emirates/tax-system

5 http://www.techinsider.io/whatsapp-user-base-chart-2016-1

Note: Whilst we take care to ensure Talking Finance content is accurate at the time of publication, individual circumstances can differ so please don’t rely on it when making financial decisions.