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So You Think You’re Ready to Work Abroad? Tips for Moving to Another Country for Work

By Mark Clifford | STC Associate Fellow

At some point in life, almost everyone either has to—or wants to—change locations for a career move. Whether it’s after graduation or later in your career, changing states or cities can be a real necessity to secure your ideal job. At other times, you might just think, “Wouldn’t it be great to live and work in another country?”

I’ve lived and worked in five countries, and being a citizen of a European Union (EU) country (at least for the moment) made the process a lot easier for me to get visas and work permits. The biggie was moving to the United States, and getting an initial L1 visa, followed by my Green Card. For most Americans, the same is true when moving to Europe for work. Many things are possible with the right approach!

I’m not going to discuss working holidays or jobs with volunteer agencies in this article. This discussion is for those who, like I did, want to move abroad for career enhancement and personal growth.

Here are a few tips to help you decide if life in another country is for you. It’s definitely not the definitive guide, more like food for thought or a “can I crack it” sketch with pointers.

Decide Where You’d Like to Live

As with all life-changing decisions, you must be realistic. A bad choice now will ruin the opportunity and might leave you scarred for life! Certainly, you can be adventurous, but you also need to choose wisely. Ask yourself some searching questions.

Am I risk averse? If so, pick somewhere that you feel confident about, maybe a country and city you have visited on vacation, or where you speak the language. Trying to acclimate to a new job and company can be hard enough. When you add new language, new culture, new social scene, new schools, and so on, the stress and pressures can really mount up. Look for a country you will feel at home in. If you have family in a country, they can often ease the burden, at least for the first months while you settle in.

Will I, and my family, be happy there? Unhappy families can be a big problem in a new location. Your focus will be on work, and while you’ll spend as much time as possible with the family, they’ll have to cope all day, five days a week. For your own peace of mind, you’ll want to ensure that you and your family are settled and comfortable in the new environment.

Research Those Countries

Involve the family in the initial discussions and planning. There’s probably nothing worse than dropping a bombshell like, “I’ve accepted a great job in Luton, England,” and then listening to the stunned silence and the almost certain, accusatory question, “Where the heck is that? I’ve never heard of it!” Guaranteed, you are off to a rocky start.

If you’ve been offered a job already, sell the location to them, but be realistic, and don’t over sell it. Get them doing research on the place, so they can discover what’s good about it, and they will sell it to themselves.

The Web is a wonderful place to get information on countries, their cultures, infrastructure, and schooling—including the downsides. Inside 10 minutes, the family will likely know more about Luton (or wherever) than you do!

As part of your research, check requirements for your spouse or partner to work if required. This is important!

After job availability, the biggest concern will be money, especially that thorny issue of cost of living (CoL). Think of it like moving from Maine to California in the United States. Your earnings may be higher, but does that compensate for higher costs? How far will my local salary go here? What about my standard of living? And if your partner won’t be working, what is the impact of that?

As an indicator, Luton has an approximately 23 percent lower CoL than Boston, MA in the United States. The average technical communicator salaries are $45,000 and $68,000, respectively. Cambridge, UK (salary: $55,000) is 19 percent higher than Oklahoma City, OK (salary: $42,000).

The next consideration is language. Unless you’re moving to an English-speaking country, a working knowledge of another language is imperative for your survival. You may not need to speak another language for work, but you and your family will need to use it every day!

Younger children will soak up a new language, but for teens and adults, learning is harder, so lessons are a must—both before you go and after you arrive in your new home.

Talk to people you know who have made the move already. Use their knowledge to ease your own transition. Listen to their comical horror stories; they may seem funny now, but at the time, I bet they were causing heart failure!

Make a plan, allow plenty of time, and don’t expect overnight miracles.

Move with Your Current Employer, or Do It Yourself?

The easiest way, from the visa/work permit aspect, is to move with your current employer. Here are some things to consider if you take this route.

What will your employer cover or help with? Benefits may differ depending on whether it’s your request or their desire that you relocate. The heyday of the expat package is long gone. Unless you’re working for the government or military, visa sponsorship and relocation are probably the most you can expect.

If your company wants you to move, you may be able to negotiate a better deal, possibly including things like property rental costs, school fees, or similar large scale costs, especially if you will be on a local salary base.

Finding a Job Before You Move

This can be a time-consuming activity. You will need sponsorship from a prospective employer. When searching job boards, look for those with “applicants who require a work visa welcomed” or similar wording. These companies have a positive attitude toward immigration and sponsoring visa applications. It won’t make the process quicker, just smoother.

Depending on your relationship with your current employer, you might want to let them know your intentions—but don’t give up your job before you’re ready to move! If they are considering you for training, promotion, or similar, and you’re leaving, that could impact their decisions. It could even give them ideas for employing you in your new location!

You should be also prepared to fund a trip, either for an interview or to scout the place. Phone or Skype interviews may take place initially, but a face-to-face interview is usually required.

Use all your resources to find a job. The main job boards like Monster, Indeed, or Glassdoor will have overseas jobs, but try their country extensions (.co.uk; .nl; .de) to get to the locally advertised jobs. As part of your research, look up other indigenous job boards. A Google search of local technical writing jobs will usually give you several job boards, a few agencies, and a number of direct job advertisements.

You can register with local employment agencies, but don’t get high hopes that they can do anything quickly. Agencies depend on their clients’ willingness to sponsor applicants, and such companies are few.

Use your network, as well, whether personal contacts, LinkedIn, or the multiplicity of social media channels now available. You never know who might know of a perfect job available in your preferred country.

Getting a Visa

Whether you’re working the “corporate nine to five” or you’re lucky enough to be a digital nomad working from a Wi-Fi enabled beach hut, you will still need to have a valid work visa.

Visa requirements can be a minefield. Although some countries are easier than others for U.S. citizens to relocate, to most will have complicated and lengthy visa application processes.

The easier countries for extended stays (not work) include: Sweden, Mexico, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, and Svalbard in Norway. (However, you may not wish to consider Svalbard!)

Interestingly, several countries offer freelancer or digital nomad visas.

My simplest advice is:

  • Check government websites for working visa criteria.
  • Make sure you have all the necessary certificates—birth, marriage—and qualifications.
  • If necessary, talk to an immigration lawyer.

One of the easier ways to get a visa is to claim ancestry rights via a parent or grandparent born in that country. Criteria for this is usually on the government website. Not all countries offer this, and some restrict it to the paternal side only.

Where to Live

Once you know you’re moving, you’ll need to decide where to live. Unless you have a real aversion, my recommendation is to pick a reasonably sized urban area. Transport infrastructures in rural areas can be erratic, and without a car (if you’re commuting to work in it), just getting to the local supermarket is virtually impossible.

Regarding shopping, you can expect to pay more for your food than normal while you settle in. All those new and exciting foods you’ll want to try, even if (like Marmite) it’s only once. I’ve found this lasts from one to three months, depending on your culinary adventurousness.

Eating out is generally more expensive in Europe. It may be good quality, but portion sizes will be smaller too.

If your relocation is permanent, you might consider purchasing a property, but I recommend buying after you’ve been in a location for at least a year and you know that your family is settled. If you buy straight away, and then for whatever reason, things don’t work out, you’ll have the added hassle of trying to sell a property in absentia. Again, not an easy thing to do!

Here are a few additional things to think about when considering a move like this.

Trailing Spouse/Partner

From experience, I can tell you that forgetting the needs of your spouse or partner can be a deal breaker. If they work now (and assuming (s)he is not a digital nomad), chances are they’ll not be working when you move, at least not in the short term.

Schooling

If you have school-aged children, this is a big consideration. There will generally be a wider choice of schools available in urban locations. International schools may be available, but they can be expensive, and they tend to be located in major cities. If you are in a non-English speaking country, I suggest local schools for younger children (under 8 years), as they’ll pick up the language really quickly. Up to 13 years, it really depends on the abilities of the child whether they will learn quickly or need to go to an English-speaking school.

Pets

My advice is leave pets behind. With the exception of dogs and cats, it is extremely difficult to import animals. Quarantine is really traumatic on animals—and just as stressful for the owners. Many rental properties will have animal exclusion clauses in their contracts.

Once you’ve moved a family of six, two dogs, a cat, and two parrots from Europe to Texas, you’ll understand!

My Stuff

Rent out your house; sell or store your car/boat/RV and all your other stuff. With the exception of laptops and PCs, most United States electrical devices won’t work in Europe, for example. You may not want to ship all your furniture, but remember you could be furnishing a new home when you get there.

And Uncle Sam will still want a slice of the pie! Talk to your accountant, broker, etc., to get a clear plan for reporting double taxation, your ongoing U.S. tax liabilities, and what to do about pension, 401k, etc.

Don’t Be a Wallflower!

Socialize! Get out and about, and mix! It’s okay if you’re single to rely on work as a social scene, but if your family’s with you, then you need a social circle. School-aged children tend to generate their own social life locally, but you and, more importantly, your partner will need local friends and acquaintances, or madness and homesickness can set in.

Again, language can be a road block to socializing with the natives, so take lessons and practice. Alcohol can loosen your language inhibitions, but don’t argue football (or soccer) when you’ve had a few too many brews—it can get heated quickly!

Settled In?

You made it! You’re coping with roundabouts and wonderful new food! Now prepare for visitors, and look forward to becoming an unpaid tour guide!

Resources

Country government websites for work visa and immigration resources:

For digital nomad and freelancers:

MARK CLIFFORD (mark@cliffordsells.com) trained with BAe’s Publications Department and is a graduate of University of Luton’s Business Program. He has worked as editor, writer, manager and recruiter, primarily with publications consultancies and service companies across Europe. With three of these companies he held Board level positions.

He is an STC Associate Fellow, and was Society president 2008–09.

Mark runs Clifford Sells (www.cliffordsells.com), an Information Design and Recruitment company that provides consultancy and resource solutions for European and U.S. clients from offices in UK and the U.S.

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