How to Work Abroad & Live the Life of Your Dreams: 8 Tips You Need to Know

How to Work Abroad

One of the questions I get asked most frequently by readers is: how do I get a job in another country?

They want to work abroad, but they’re not sure how to make it happen. And that’s understandable; the idea of packing up your stuff, moving to another country whose language you barely speak and landing a job can seem like a fantasy scenario.

How do you convince a company in another country that they should hire you rather than someone who is actually from there? What about the visa stuff… will a company actually pay for that? What if you don’t speak the language?

When I was 24 I moved to Mexico City not speaking a word of Spanish and not knowing a single person there. Actually, I had never even been to Latin America. Nine-months later I had a full-time role at a tech-focused nonprofit, and then I went on to be in charge of marketing at one of Mexico’s most well-funded startup.

So, I actually launched my career in another country.

Working abroad is definitely possible, but it requires you to be adaptable and scrappy. You will probably start out in a crappy job that pays you next to nothing, but if you build relationships and dive into the culture and day-to-day life of your new home, you can transition into your dream job over time.

Here are my top 8 tips for anyone who wants to work abroad:

1. Be Open to a Starter Job

Don’t expect to land your dream job immediately after arriving to your chosen destination. Many people I know, including myself, spent their first few months of their life in a new country working at a bridge job (a job that helps you get on your feet and gives you time to find something you really want to do).

I made about $350 USD a month as an intern at a nonprofit for the first six months I spent in Mexico. Making that little money was really difficult, but I spent the time taking intensive Spanish classes and understanding the culture so that I could get a better job.

And it definitely paid off. I got a full-time job at the nonprofit, and then, two years after moving to Mexico, I was put in charge of marketing at one of Mexico’s most well-funded startups.

Here are a few common starter jobs for expats:

  • Teach English (either as a private tutor or at a school. In Mexico City there are several elementary and high schools that teach entirely in English, and they are often looking for native speakers).
  • Work at an embassy (both the British and American embassies in Mexico are always hiring; I suspect it’s similar in other countries).
  • Work at a hostel for room and board (a friend of mine is doing this right now; they give her a bed to sleep in and feed her two meals a day in exchange for being at the desk for about 20 hours a week).
  • Be a babysitter / au pair.

2. Or, Save Money So You Have Time to Look for You Ideal Job

Another approach is to save enough money to get by for the first few months (I’d plan for up to six months) so that you have time to search for the kind of job you really want.

I know a few people who came to Mexico City and spent several months interviewing with companies until they found the right fit. One got a job in sales at Google Mexico; another, BizDev for a social enterprise.

More inspiration: Brooke Saward, who writes the awesome travel blog World of Wanderlust, spent time living at home after college so that she could save up enough money to travel around the world for an entire year. Towards the end of her year of travel she landed in Berlin, and now she’s running her blog and business full-time as an expat.

3. Find Companies that Have International Offices

Many larger companies have a presence in cities around the world, such as Google and consulting firms like McKinsey. In Mexico, these companies are often looking for talented expats to join their team.

Most expats I know who work for international corporations in Mexico City got their jobs by contacting the company’s local offices and going through the interview process after moving to Mexico (as opposed to starting the process in their own country). So, I still recommend going to your new country on a tourist visa and either getting a bridge job or living off savings while you look.

One exception is journalists: I know a lot of journalists who were brought to Mexico by their company, and many were later transferred to other countries like Brazil.

4. Learn the Language as Fast as Possible

If you move to a country whose first language is not your own, please don’t be one of those expats who never bothers to get really good at the language. Living in another country is the best chance you’ll ever have to become fluent in a second language; take advantage of this!

Also, being able to speak the language well will make it a lot easier for you to get a job you’ll really enjoy (and you’ll probably get paid more).

Let’s face it: American schools do a pretty crappy job of teaching us second languages. I took like 10 years of French and can’t remember a word.

Sign up for intensive language lessons the minute you arrive. Just dive in and learn as fast as possible. I waited a few months to take classes after moving to Mexico because I thought I would just pick it up naturally (silly notion), but I quickly realized that unless you already have a strong grasp on the basic grammar and vocabulary of the language you want to learn, you won’t get very far without classes.

5. Understand Why Expats are Valuable Employees

When searching for a job in a foreign country you might feel like no one will give you the time of day or that the odds are stacked against you, so it’s helpful to recognize what makes you a competitive candidate. Being bilingual is a huge strength, as is bringing a strong work ethic and unique perspective to the table.

However, there’s also a dark side to this eagerness to hire foreigners: In Mexico it’s often a symptom of malinchismo––the idea that people from foreign countries are superior to Mexicans.

Malinchismo penetrates Mexico’s cultural psychology in a big way, and I’ve seen it cause a lot of tension between between foreign employees who receive special treatment and Mexican employees. I imagine there are traces of this in other countries as well.

This isn’t a reason to play down your strengths when looking for a job, but expats should try to understand the cultural dynamics that influence how they are treated in the workplace.

6. Pick a City that is Up-And-Coming

The way in which I wound up living in Mexico City was completely haphazard, but I later realized how lucky I was to have moved to a city that was not a widely-popular expat destination (at least not five years ago when I arrived).

The past five years have been really exciting for Mexico City: tons of startups and social enterprises have emerged, and the art and culinary scenes are flourishing. This means there are a lot of opportunities to find cool work and be a part of a quickly-changing metropolis.

For a while Mexico City felt like one of the best-kept secrets I had ever discovered; it was this incredibly beautiful, romantic, surreal city with a ton of interesting stuff going on, and not that many people knew about it.

More recently, publications like the New York Times and Vogue started highlighting Mexico City and Tulum as must-see travel destinations, but Mexico City still feels like a fringe destination.

The great thing about moving to a city that is on the verge of becoming a hub for business and creativity is that there’s less competition in the job market and a ton of opportunity to be a part of a cool projects and companies.

7. Don’t Worry too Much About the Visa (at First)

When you first move to your new country, don’t worry too much about having a work visa. I recommend just going there on a tourist visa and then figuring it out as you go along. Doing a little research about how visas work in your chosen country before you make the move is definitely a good idea, but if you really want to stay, you’ll find a way.

You can get the inside scoop on how visas work in your new country by finding a few expats who live there and reaching out to them online. Look for Facebook groups for expats in the city you’re going to move to; I’m part of a few Facebook groups for expats living in Mexico City, and they’ve been an invaluable resource.

The United States is one of the strictest countries when it comes to granting work visas to foreigners; there are many countries that are not nearly as strict. Getting a work visa in Mexico used to take about three months; now, as a result of changes in the immigration process, it takes between six and nine, but if a company is willing to sponsor you it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get a visa.

Here are some great resources about getting visas to work abroad:

  • I used Bunac to get a work visa in London right after I finished college
  • The Working Abroad website has a ton of information on job listings and permits
  • This site has basic information about tourist and work visas in a long list of countries
  • I haven’t used the USIT site, but it seems like it has a lot of useful information on opportunities to work abroad

8. Reach Out to Your Network

The way I got my first internship in Mexico City was completely random. Actually, my dream at the time was to go to Africa and work with a nonprofit that helped disenfranchised women. A friend of mine knew I was looking to work abroad and reached out to a few of her business school friends. One of them had just begun a social enterprise in Mexico City with a nonprofit arm, and they needed some help.

Previously, I had no desire to go to Mexico, but I thought, why not? So I got on a plan to Mexico City, thinking I’d stay three months.

I never imagined reaching out to this friend would actually result in a job in a country I would stay in for nearly five years. But that’s how networks are; many people don’t realize they have contacts that can connect them to something completely life-changing and amazing.

All you have to do is ask.

So, start talking to friends and family about your dreams of working abroad. Maybe they’ll know about a cool opportunity.

And don’t be afraid to reach out to people you don’t know via email or Twitter; I love getting emails from people who are thinking of moving to Mexico.

Get Going

Moving to a different country was hands down the best decision I’ve ever made. As a result, my 20s have been a decade full of experiences I never imagined I would have: I became bilingual, made incredible friends, fell in love, visited amazing places and immersed myself in a culture that is entirely different from my own.

If you’ve been thinking about moving to another country use these 8 tips to help make it happen. Feel free to email me if you have any questions along the way.

Now I’d like to hear from you. What country do you want to move to? Why haven’t you done it already?