Gift Guide for Expats (Or Any Long-Distance Family!)

I would have loved having a gift guide for expats when I first moved to China. You know why? Because my family still wanted to get us Christmas presents. And it can be hard getting a gift for your family that lives out of the country. You’ve got to deal with figuring out if your gift can even be shipped to your expat’s country, and if so, you’ve got super expensive shipping fees, then getting your gift through customs, long long long wait times, figuring out how to write out a foreign address, etc. Plus, expat families tend to be pretty transient. There’s no guarantee they’ll be in the same place for next Christmas, which means whatever object you get them has to pass the rigorous screening required every move (i.e. – Do I have space for this in my suitcase after packing in all the essentials? How much does it weigh? Is it replaceable or one-of-a-kind? How much would it cost to replace this? How much do I really like it?). Gah. Hard questions that I do not look forward to answering again. (Where my packing-haters at?! Hey-o!)

Yeah. Getting a gift for an expat can be tricky. (Giving a gift as an expat, however, is considerably easier. Thank you, Amazon and your gift wrapping services!)

Still, it’s not impossible to give a gift to someone living abroad. (Like, maybe you actually thought ahead and shipped a present months ago. ? If so, this post is not for you. Go be amazing somewhere else while the rest of us wait-till-the-last-minute types have a nice chat.)

A Gift Guide for Expats

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and some of the ideas are more of a jumping-off point than an actual item you can click on and purchase immediately, but I wish I’d had this kind of list years ago for whenever my family asked me “soooooo…what are we supposed to get you for Christmas???” You’ll find this list draws heavily on the “digital content” category. They don’t call it a world-wide-web for nothing, right?!


0-5 Years

Honestly, the kid likely won’t remember what you do or don’t get him/her during these years. And the things they’d like the most are probably big toys that are bulky and tough to ship. But there are still a few options for you.

  • Donate to their college fund! This can be done online, easy-peasy. And if the kid doesn’t yet have a college fund, don’t worry – you can create one for them! You don’t even have to be their parent. This article does a great job explaining what a 529 plan is (hint: it’s a college fund) and how to get started with one. Stick some cash in here for any birthday or holiday for the first few years of the kid’s life (before they even realize they could be getting a tangible gift from you) and it’ll really add up over the years.
  • An Epic! subscription. You guys. I am beyond excited about this. It’s awesome for everyone, but particularly brilliant for expat families. Let me tell you why. There is no library here in my city in China in which I can find books in English. Nor is there any English bookstore. And it’s tricky to ship an English book into China (thank you, communism). Which means the only books I have to read to my baby are the ones I have personally brought over in a suitcase. Given the fact that suitcase space is extremely valuable and highly limited, and that books are heavy (especially board books for babies) we weren’t able to bring over very many baby books. I just counted. We have 30 baby books. 30. (And that came from 3 trips to the US.) Sounds like a decent amount, except that we’ve already read all of them a billion times and he’s only eight months old. Without being able to rotate through library books, these are getting old preeeetty fast here. I imagine it’s the same for thousands of expat families. No access (or very limited access) to books in your language can be tough on book-loving families. (We probably should all create some sort of support group or something. #ineedbooks) Enter Epic! I just signed up for the free trial and am still finding my way around it, but the idea is that for $5 a month, you can access thousands of children’s books on any device. Not as awesome as reading a real physical book with my kid, but waaaaay better than being stuck with only 30 books for the rest of his childhood. You can stream them online or download them to access them offline. Plus you can have the book narrated to you if you’d rather. And bonus! They’re having a sale till Thursday for gift subscriptions. You’re welcome. #babyreadersunite!

6-12 Years

In addition to the gifts listed above, here are a few more that the older kids may enjoy:

  • A Hometeam Subscription. Another awesome service that encourages reading in young kids. This one differs from Epic! in several ways. It’s meant to bridge kids with relatives (or whoever) who live a long ways away. So, a grandma can read a book to her grandson using whatever device suits each of them best. Grandson can even be the one turning the pages while they both look at the pictures.  And once you’re done reading, you can move on to games! Play checkers across the ocean! Such a fun idea for kids who aren’t able to see their grandparents often. I mentioned it to my mother-in-law and she thought it’d be helpful for moms too. Grandma can read to one kid while Mom nurses the baby (or, ahem, takes a nap). Can you say YES PLEASE?!
  • A downloadable CD or movie. The iTunes store and Amazon both have an entire section of children’s music. I’ll let you browse through it and find what may be right for you (although Sandra Boynton’s songs that go with her books are a popular choice for young kids if you want a suggestion). And the DVD’s that every kid in America is growing up on right now may be out of reach for kids living outside the US. When I moved back from France as a teenager I was lightyears behind on pop culture. That’s far from being the end of the world, but it’s always a special treat to have a piece of your home country there in your host country. If the kids haven’t seen the latest Disney hit (or any of the old classics!) this may be a great option.


12-18 Years

Ah, the teen years. Such a wonderful time of trying to figure out what the crap is going on in life. Amplify that by throwing them into a new culture, and these so-called “third-culture kids” could probably really use a present. Trust me, I’ve been there.

  • A Spotify subscription. Is it just me or were the teen years the time to be into music? With Spotify, you can have all the music you want. Again, this one is particularly awesome for expat kids. I don’t even exaggerate when I tell you that one of my favorite things about our trips to the US each summer is listening to the radio in the car. Sometimes I just want to tell whoever is driving to can it so I can catch up on all the music I’ve missed in the last year. Usually politeness wins out and I pretend to listen to the conversation while throwing out an appropriate “hmmm” or “yeah” so they don’t realize I’m paying more attention to the tunes. ??
  • Cold, hard cash. My guess is these years are the hardest ages to not be getting a physical present for birthdays and holidays, although that’ll depend on the person. But if getting something they can actually hold is important to them,  why not let them pick out their own gift? Paypal is a super easy way to give cash to anyone. All you need is the recipient’s email address. How easy is that?!
  • Downloadable software, computer games, or apps. I can’t tell you exactly what app or game might be the right fit for your recipient, but just realizing that this is an option opens up a world of possibility. There are educational games, apps that are just for fun, software that’s especially suited for the budding artist, writer, architect, baker-extraordinaire, you name it. Most downloads are pretty easy to send as a gift. Again, usually all you need is their email. Be off to google with you now! Search! Find!
  • A kindle book or nook book. They don’t even need an actual kindle or nook for this (although, personally, I think that makes the experience a million times better). They can read from a phone or tablet or computer. For years all I’ve requested for presents from afar is an Amazon gift card that I use exclusively on buying kindle books for the rest of the year. All the books I want = heaven! You can get them a gift card and let them pick out their own book, or you can choose a book for them and specify that it’s a gift for someone else. You can have it delivered straight to their device!  The website will walk you through the easy process of sending it to your far-off friend.


Ah, what fools these mortals be. What kind of crazy person would willingly submit themselves and their family to living far far out of their comfort zone where they can’t communicate with anyone? #guilty. Whew. Living abroad is an adventure, for sure, but can be frustrating and exhilarating and exhausting all in one day. And living in a country where your well-loved holidays don’t exist is super hard. I try not to get on social media during holidays because it’s hard to keep my spirits up when everyone I know back home is celebrating together, and I’m changing a poopy diaper by myself while I wait for my husband to get home from working Christmas day (thanks, honey!). So don’t forget adults like presents too. ✊ (Especially this adult (although, this post is not meant to be a hint to all my US peeps to get me tons of presents (although, you can if you absolutely must ?…))) ? (Did I get those periods right within the parentheses?? Anyone??) Moving on:

  • A Scribd subscription for the reader in your life. (Are you sensing a trend here? Subscriptions = awesome long-distance presents. Reading subscriptions = even more awesome long-distance presents.) For about 9 bucks a month, you can have access to thousands of books on many devices. Personally, I don’t use this one and I’ll tell you why. I prefer to read on my kindle (when I can’t read a real book, that is) because a kindle does not have a backlit screen and is therefore easier on the eyes for long reads. Scribd is not available on an e-ink kindle. (If you have a kindle Fire, you’re good to go. Or a phone or tablet or computer or whatnot). If reading on a backlit screen isn’t an issue, Scribd would be an awesome gift.
  • Software! Again, this one’s kind of a jumping off point, and it will depend on what your gift recipient is into. For writers, I’d recommend Scrivener and/or Aeon timeline after that. Or, for the expat who does a lot of traveling (=most expats) and wants to remember their fun times with awesome photos, why not get them some photo editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom?
  • Make a donation to their favorite charity in their name. If you’re not sure what charities they may like, consider donating to a charity that helps with crises going on in the country where your expat is living.
  • A domain name! If your expat is blogging their adventure, they may enjoy their own custom domain name on the web. Then we be stylin’ like whaaa!! ?
  • Is your expat at a complete loss of words? If they’re in a country where they don’t speak the language, check out Pimsleur for language learning. We’ve used these before and really liked them. They’re just audio courses you can download to learn over 50 languages. Xie-xie, Pimsleur! Je t’aime!
  • Other online courses. There are a million things to learn out there and expanding on a hobby is always fun. I’ve been enjoying my subscription to Food Blogger Pro, where I’ve been learning all kinds of stuff about blogging, food, and photography. And for a long time I was using YogaGlo for online yoga classes that I loved. (I quit it when our internet connection became so bad I couldn’t get through a class.)


For the whole family

If you’re wanting a gift for the whole family, here are a few more ideas:

  • Tickets to some fun place in their city. This isn’t doable for everywhere (like, say for instance, my own city), but if your expat lives somewhere touristy, you may be in luck.  Check tripadvisor for cool things to do in their town. Make sure it’s not something they’ve done a million times (although you’d be surprised at how long it takes a lot of expats to see the big tourist attractions in their town – survival often takes precedence over touring). If you can purchase tickets or a gift card for the attraction online, you’re in business. If you can’t, there’s still Paypal to transfer money over via email. Just include a few cool pictures of what adventure you’re sending them on, and you’ve got a great gift!
  • A subscription to Netflix. I’m telling you, a little American culture can go a long way when you’re so far from home.
  • An airline gift card if you’re rollin’ in the dough. Many expats take advantage of their time abroad to see as much of the world as they can. If someone sent me tickets to Cambodia,  it would basically make my life. So if you’re in the contest for best gift-giver ever, this one = ?.
  • An Audible subscription. This is for audiobooks – especially nice for long train/car/airplane rides on said trip to Cambodia, no? ??✈️
That’s all I’ve got for you, folks! Anyone got any other ideas to add? Leave them in the comments!