From time to time, people reach out to me for advice on how they can move to a different country and kickstart an international career. I usually tell them that there’s no one tried-and-true trick to moving abroad; most expats I know, myself included, have had to carve out our own unique path after a fair bit of stumbling around in the dark.
While that is technically true and every person needs to be responsible for doing their own share of the research and legwork, I also think those of us who have “made it out”, so to speak, have the opportunity to inject more transparency and openness into this conversation by sharing our own experiences and knowledge.
To give an example, when I was applying to college back in 2009, no one in my family or immediate circle could give me any advice on how to get into an American university or how to even prepare my resume throughout high school to gain the right extracurriculars and awards. I was lucky in that I ended up in a decent school ultimately, but this is just one instance of how people from immigrant or underprivileged backgrounds miss out on valuable opportunities due to a lack of access to mentors and networks. How can you achieve working fluency in French if your high school never had the resources to offer it as a course of study? How can you afford to take an unpaid internship with the UN if your family literally does not have the funds to support you for three months in New York City? And so on.
It took me two years to figure out how to move abroad. I’ve done a fair amount of research on this topic — enough to the point where I think I can at least provide a high-level, preliminary guide to many of the different channels and resources out there. To be clear, the list below comes with three caveats:
- A plurality of the expats I know were able to move abroad because they married someone from that country or region. I have no experience with this, so I can’t comment, but know that getting married is the easiest way to bypass visa and residency challenges.
- Many Americans are eligible to gain a second citizenship through distant ancestry, such as having a foreign-born grandparent from countries like Ireland, Italy and Germany. As a Chinese-American, I have no desire to gain Chinese citizenship, so I also have no pointers related to this.
- There is a popular lifestyle being pushed by many bloggers and freelancers called digital nomadism: the idea is that you work remotely from different cities around the world, moving whenever your visa is up or when you’re in the mood for a new locale. While this practice itself is not illegal, the way that it’s currently being carried out by many is highly questionable and unethical. Many digital nomads do their work illegally in developing nations on tourist visas, taking advantage of the highly affordable local resources and infrastructure without paying local taxes. There are in fact legal ways to work as a digital nomad, and I cover them in section #8 below.
With those three scenarios out of the way, here is a(n incomplete) list I’ve compiled of the ways in which Americans can move and live abroad. I’ve loosely ranked them from easiest to hardest, based on personal opinion.
- Youth mobility schemes
- Au pairing
- Teaching abroad
- Going to grad school abroad
- Getting an internal transfer via an international company
- Getting a job with an NGO or IGO route
- Government-funded programmes abroad
- Freelancer visa
- Getting a job with the US government
- Other immigration opportunities
1. Youth mobility schemes
There are currently five countries that offer Working Holiday Visas for U.S. citizens: Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea. Requirements vary by country, but usually they require you to 1) be aged 30 or younger and 2) be a recent graduate.
I personally can vouch for the New Zealand Working Holiday Visa as being completely simple and painless to obtain. I applied for one in early 2019, when I was going through a major depressive episode and was seriously contemplating moving to the South Island to shear sheep for a living, and all it took was filling out their online form with my passport number and checking a box affirming that I wasn’t a criminal. No essays, no questions about my savings account. It took only around three business days to receive the visa in my inbox. I’d recommend exploring this option once borders re-open: as an American who visited in 2018, I found New Zealanders to be welcoming, relatable, honest, and (darkly) funny.
Ireland is a little trickier: based on my research back in 2019, they usually receive such a huge volume of applications each year that you need to be prepared to send in yours on January 1, the day applications open. You also need to have graduated from college or grad school within the last year.
2. Au pairing
Au pairs are not nannies, contrary to popular belief. They move to other countries under a cultural exchange visa scheme, living with local families and helping care for young children on a part-time, equitable basis while also taking the time to learn about the local culture and language. Families are usually required to provide au pairs with separate living quarters and tuition payments for language classes, among other benefits.
The unfortunate reality is that many au pairs will be exploited or even outright abused by their host families. There’s also a great deal of discrimination against male au pairs as well as people of color. (Don’t believe me? Go to the search page on Au Pair World and run two separate searches — one identifying yourself as being from Senegal, and the other as being from Switzerland. Many families make it very clear in their lists of acceptable countries that they’re really just looking for someone who’s white.)
However, many au pairs also have great experiences and find themselves bonded with the families for life. This blog, written by a former au pair, features tons of resources and interviews with people who have au paired in different countries.
3. Teaching abroad
There are three main ways of teaching English abroad, as far as I’m aware. Oneika the Traveller elaborates on two of them in this blog post: teaching English as a second language at a local school, or teaching English (as well as other subjects) at an international school. The former has a lower barrier to entry and often does not require a teaching or English degree, but also tends to pay a lower salary and come with less job security. The latter will require much more experience, degrees and certificates, but pays significantly better and is better suited for people who see teaching as a career, rather than a stop-gap job to pay the bills.
A third way is to teach English through a formal government programme. Japan, for instance, has the JET Programme. Spain has the Auxiliares de Conversación programme. France has TAPIF, which is similar. Selected candidates spend up to a year serving as teaching assistants in local schools and receive a stipend and benefits such as health insurance. You can also teach English abroad via the U.S. government, which I expand on further in section #7.
4. Going to grad school abroad
For people who do not come from privileged backgrounds, graduate school is probably the most feasible opportunity to pursue studies abroad, if one can afford it. There’s the opportunity to work for a few years between college and grad school to save up for tuition and living costs (unless you work for nonprofits like I did). While tuition rates vary greatly among European countries, I’ve heard that countries like Austria, France and Germany are comparatively more affordable, while Scandinavian countries will charge much more for non-EU students. It’s fairly easy to find masters programs that are offered entirely in English, even in non-English-speaking countries.
Geographic proximity is a huge factor in getting desirable career opportunities. When I lived in DC, I observed that it was easier for students who attended less ‘prestigious’ DC-area universities to get hired for internships at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, even compared with students who went to Ivy League universities, simply because they could come in and start working any time of the year. I have an American coworker who attended grad school here in Geneva, parlayed that into a consultancy with one of the UN agencies here, and then turned that into a full-time job with our current organization. You stand much better chances of getting hired if you’re already here.
5. Internal transfer with an international company
Hiring from abroad is both expensive and time-consuming: not only do companies have to pay relocation costs for new hires to move themselves, their family members and their dogs, they often also have to justify to the local government that no one else in the country would have been more qualified to perform this job. In Switzerland, for instance, private sector employers have to prove that not only were there no qualified Swiss citizens for the job, no one from the entire European Union could have done the job. As a result, only around 8,500 non-EU work permits are handed out a year by the Swiss government.
However, if you’re already an established and valued high-performer at your organization, they are going to be much more willing to invest the time and resources needed to move you around. This holds true for nonprofits as well. When my previous employer, an NGO, got permission from the Canadian government to open a second office in Montreal, our Chief Operating Officer extended an open offer to anyone from our office to move up to Canada. My manager at the time decided to take him up on it; it took less than 6 months to complete the paperwork and the move, and of course all of the moving expenses were reimbursed. Another friend was able to relocate from DC to Cairo when an exciting opportunity opened up in a different department at her nonprofit, and she had a cheerleading squad of former managers and senior colleagues in the organization endorsing her candidacy for the role.
6. Getting a job abroad via the NGO or IGO route
It’s definitely possible to find a full-time job in a different country without an “in”. I found my job at a nonprofit in Switzerland when I came across a public posting on LinkedIn and submitted an application through the talent portal. There was no secret ingredient or backdoor entrance for me: I had a good CV, interviewed well, and performed well on the skills assessment.
That doesn’t mean it’s not hard. It’s tough to get your foot in the door, especially when you come from a disadvantaged background, because you are judged heavily on the calibre of the places where you’ve worked previously. The international development sector — and more broadly the nonprofit sector — is really toxic in this way: you’re expected to “pay your dues” by submitting to exploitative labor conditions as a consultant or intern, often with the lucrative promise of a full-time position dangling in front of you for years. Sometimes that comes through, and sometimes it doesn’t. But the silver lining is this: the experience that you’ve gained along the way does help. You grow, and you take on more responsibilities, and ultimately you accrue enough experience to be considered for competitive jobs.
Based on my knowledge, which is heavily concentrated on the development and environment sectors, here are some examples of non-governmental employers that hire globally, often without the need to comply with government hiring quotas.
- The UN Secretariat, but also agencies and subsidiaries such as the UN Environment Programme, FAO, UNESCO, UN University, ILO, IOM, UNOPS and many others
- The World Bank and its private sector arm, the IFC
- Regional development institutions like AfDB, ADB, PAHO, Green Climate Fund
- Nonprofits such as the World Resources Institute, Gates Foundation, FHI 360, DAI, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, WWF, Amnesty, and many other smaller NGOs
The UN offers the opportunity to volunteer around the world for a modest stipend that’s enough to cover rent and living expenses, and then some. While you are technically a “volunteer”, the level of work involved is equivalent to a full-time white collar job; rather than building houses and raising cattle, you’re doing things like data collection and analysis, writing white papers, and supporting local staff with admin work. It’s essentially the UN’s way of getting cheap professional labor without having to pay for benefits, retirement, etc. While that part is questionable and a reflection of how unsustainable the sustainable development field has become in recent years, at least the process and expectations are reasonably transparent.
7. Government-funded programmes abroad
Fulbright is probably the best-known programme from the U.S. government for this type of work. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be an English teacher to take advantage of this programme: there are also opportunities for journalists, artists, scientists, historians, storytellers, and really anyone who’s interested in diving deep into a subject in another country and doing interesting, valuable research on it.
There is, of course, also the Peace Corps. I’ve always sensed something vaguely cult-y about them because everyone I know who is a “returned” Peace Corps volunteer seems to regard this singular 27-month experience as the cornerstone of their identity, but hopefully that just means they all had a really fulfilling and interesting time. This is also an institution that would benefit from far greater representation of POC volunteers, to better reflect the wonderfully diverse country that is America.
8. Freelancer visa
Referring back to the discussion earlier about digital nomadism: there are several countries that offer visas for digital nomads and anyone who just wants to work remotely without taking a job away from a local.
Some examples: Estonia has begun offering a Digital Nomad Visa for remote workers who want to do their work in a legal, transparent manner. You can stay up to a year. The country of Georgia provides work permits to qualified freelancers. Barbados has also recently introduced the Barbados Welcome Stamp for remote workers.
For established freelancers who have legally registered businesses and solid income streams, there’s also a way to apply for freelancer visas in The Netherlands (thanks to the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty) and in Berlin.
9. Jobs with the US government
Working for the U.S. foreign service (or any foreign service, really) offers incredible opportunities for seeing the world. One of the most well-known avenues is through working as a Foreign Service Officer, which involves a long and complex recruitment process: a written test, personal essays, oral assessment, security clearance and all sorts of background checks. It can take two years, easily. This is definitely a solid career opportunity — as long as you keep it brewing quietly in the background as “Plan C”, instead of something you can land and make happen in the immediate short term. Other more junior positions include working as Foreign Service Specialists and Consular Fellows.
USAID also recruits for a large volume of jobs internationally. In addition to full-time staff, there’s also the opportunity to work as Personal Services Contractors, who are not technically government employees but essentially perform the same function. When I liaised with a USAID employee in Colombia as part of my graduate thesis research, I learned that she was working under this type of contract, yet there was no surface-level distinction: she reported to the U.S. embassy for work every day, had a USAID email, and a USAID officer job title.
10. Other immigration opportunities
This is a catch-all for notable opportunities not mentioned above.
Spain offers a non-lucrative visa for long-term stays. You need to have a certain amount of savings (the number changes from year to year, but should be around 25,000 euros currently) and cannot work for any Spanish employer, but this seems like a good opportunity for those who are retired or who work remotely for non-Spanish employers.
Austria offers the red white red card for non-EU nationals who are eligible for high-skilled jobs. Using the table on this page, I calculated my point total as 66 — just short of the 70 points needed to gain a job-seeker visa. However, if I had gone to grad school in Austria, I would have gained enough points for a long-term stay. Goes to show how important it is to try to plan in advance.
Taiwan offers the gold card for highly skilled foreign professionals. I visited Taiwan in 2017 and it remains one of my favorite places; the climate is lovely, free speech is highly valued, and the country has clearly done a stellar job of handling COVID. I’m currently looking into this as a potential retirement option for my parents, but this also seems like an ideal opportunity for people who want to work for both Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese employers.
Anything I’ve missed? Feel free to send corrections or other suggestions to me in the comments or via the contact form on this blog. I’ll try to keep updating this post as I discover more evergreen opportunities that will hopefully open up again.