With the dollar so strong against the Turkish lira, it is no wonder many older Americans are thinking of moving abroad to Turkey. With the current exchange rate of 3.85 TL to one U.S. dollar, retirement here is very tempting, especially since the cost of living is more reasonable than in the U.S. The other type of American who is drawn to live here is the adventure-seeking youth just out of college for a few years and yearning to experience living abroad, while also adding some needed teaching experience to their resumé. With the number of two-year vocational colleges and universities opened each year, Turkish schools are always on the lookout for qualified native speakers of English. Thus, these two groups of people look toward Turkey as a means to their end. Keeping that in mind, there is some useful advice to know when contemplating making the move to Turkey.
If you are thinking about teaching overseas in a country like Turkey, have more than the fact that you are a native speaker of English going for you. Invest the time in acquiring a TESL Certificate, which can be earned at any number of reputable institutions in the U.S. and have it in your pocket when you board that plane. Even though Turkey has a need for native English speakers in their schools, YOK (the Turkish Ministry of Education) will not approve the hiring of anyone without the proper training and degree or certificate in the area in which they are applying. Even the many private language schools here require at least that certificate or the British equivalent: a Celta or, better yet, Delta Certificate. Those can be earned at many schools throughout the EU and in Turkey as well. Too often in the past, anyone who was native fluent would be hired to teach English even if their degree was in Business Administration, Economics, Philosophy, or even in Physical Education. That is not the case any longer, so invest the time in getting some proper teacher training.
If you are hired by a school, you will get a work visa which will allow you to live and work here for the academic year. This visa can be reissued every year of your employment and the school now does the application for you. But if you are coming here to retire, then you will need to apply for a year-long Tourist Visa, which can also be renewed each year and eventually becomes permanent.
The rules for what is required vary from year to year, but what is consistent is that you prove you have a place to live (a signed lease) and enough money in the bank for a year’s stay (currently $6,000 USD). There are many lawyers here specializing in residency applications for foreigners and I strongly advise utilizing a reputable one’s services. If a mistake is made, you could be forced to leave the country with a travel ban imposed from anywhere from three months to one year. Now apart from the residency issue, there are other things to consider.
You should get a bank account quickly after arriving. Many banks will not open one for you without a residency card, but there are some, Turkiye İş Bank, for instance, that pride themselves on being the expat bank and will allow you to open an account with just a valid passport.
Bank accounts are essential here and you will discover that Turks do not write checks but use their bank card (ATM card) for all purchases. If you have a U.S. credit card, don’t be too quick to cancel it because, again, most banks will not issue a Turkish credit card to foreigners, even ones working at schools here. Some private businesses have enough clout to help you get one, but that is the exception to the rule here. Since you will be using your U.S. credit card, it would be wise for you to keep a legal U.S. mailing address and a U.S. bank account.
Transferring money between that U.S. bank account and your Turkish bank account is complicated, so I recommend using your U.S. ATM card for cash withdrawals here and then redepositing the money into your Turkish bank. Also, have two accounts abroad: a Turkish lira account and a U.S. dollar account. This will prove very helpful as time goes on. That U.S. bank is also necessary if you are receiving direct deposits from your Social Security or any other funds, since it is again not easy to redirect money transfers from the U.S. to Turkey. Using your U.S. ATM card, though, solves the money transfer problem. Most ATM machines here will even allow you to withdraw U.S. dollars rather than lira if so desired.
Renting vs Buying
I would recommend renting at first, unless you have traveled abroad to Turkey before and know the neighborhood you want to live in. All three of the majör cities – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir – have diverse neighborhoods and one should really get accustomed to whichever city one decides on before buying any property. Istanbul, especially, is a city sitting on two continents that needs careful consideration before deciding on the best place to live, especially if one is working, since commuting can be a real hassle in this city with some of the worst traffic congestion you are likely to ever encounter.
It is also a very expensive city when compared to both Ankara and Izmir. All three cities have their own charm. As for purchasing an apartment here, and most dwellings are apartments in the cities, a foreigner normally must pay the full price at closing since very few banks will offer mortgages to foreigners. If you are retiring here, the best you can hope for is a four-year mortgage rather than the standard ten year mortgage citizens will be able to get, though most foreigners here are not seen as reliable risks since they are viewed as temporary. Even when renting there are landlords who will not rent to foreigners because they don’t think a foreigner will stay in one place very long.
Here, too, there are problems for foreigners. Though the gas and electric companies will generally open an account for a foreigner who has a signed lease in hand, the water company and the largest phone and internet company (Turk Telecom: TTNET) will not. One has to have a Turkish citizen open the account in these two companies for you.
Even though there are many large shopping centers being constructed all over Turkey, there are many small markets, clothing stores, pharmacies, cafés, and restaurants still in abundance throughout all the cities and towns where the owners and staff are extremely friendly and helpful. The famed Turkish hospitality is evident everywhere and foreigners are most welcome. You will often be offered tea (cay) or coffee when shopping and you can always count on that smile on recognition when you return.
These are some of the lessons I learned moving here. Hopefully they can help others to make a smooth transition when moving abroad to this historically rich, always fascinating, friendly country.
Leonard Durso is an American expatriate who currently resides in Izmir, Turkey. He is the author of Istanbul Days, Istanbul Nights – a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. For more information, visit www.leonarddurso.com.