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The Lowdown on Work Permits Abroad

By Volker Poelzl
4/2012

Charles de Gaulle airport by
Charles De Gaulle Airport Terminal by Thombo2.

When I first started traveling around the world in my 20’s, travelers everywhere were talking about work permits and how to find a job under the table to replenish their travel budgets in order to stay abroad as long as possible. The Kibbutz I worked at in Israel was filled with foreign travelers, drop-outs, students, and unemployed youth from all over the world, mainly because Israel was one of the few countries in the region where foreigners could work without a work permit. Similarly, in New Zealand nearly every foreigner I met was looking for one way or another to get a work permit, or find work under the table, no matter what the type of work, as long as they would earn some type of income. I met people from South Africa, Malaysia, the UK, the U.S. and many other countries all working together in kiwi orchards, as fruit growers, and as flower exporters with the same goal of making money abroad. Nobody had a work permit and we were lucky that the immigration service closed their eyes to the influx of foreigners in those early days because there simply were not enough locals to pick all the fruit and harvest all the flowers. Today things are at once a bit easier and a bit more difficult when it comes to working abroad. Increased globalization and global mobility have forced governments to formulate mutual agreements regulating the exchange of workers. There are now many ways to work legally as a seasonal worker in agriculture, for example. Many countries have signed working holiday agreements allowing young people to work and travel in within their borders for up to one year. On the other hand, well paying jobs and careers are more firmly protected from outsiders and are impossible to come by without a lengthy and often discouraging work permit application process.

In this column I am focusing on the confusing and often misunderstood work permit, to help readers get a better idea about what these permits can and cannot do, and how to prepare yourself to get one in the country of your choice.

What Exactly is a Work Visa?

Many countries have complex laws and rules that regulate the influx of foreigners into their countries. In some countries a work permit or work visa entitles you to live there, whereas in other countries you need to apply for a separate residency permit once you have been approved for a work permit. If this sounds a bit confusing, brace yourself, because it is. There are almost as many variations of work visas as there are countries who offer them, but I have outlined below a few basic characteristics that all work visas share:

  1. Work permits are dependent upon a job offer or contract from a company.
  2. Work permits are for one specific job from one employer only.
  3. Work permits have a predetermined time limit.
  4. Work permits are issued at the discretion of the government and can be changed and revoked.
  5. Most countries require applicants to apply for a work permit from their home country and not after their arrival.

1) Work permits are dependent upon a job offer or contract from a company.

The idea that someone can get a work permit in a country and then look for a job is a myth. A work permit or work visa is always for a specific job that a company offers an individual. Some countries require only a written job offer from a company, while others require a notarized work contract signed by both you and your prospective employer. Although most work permits are issued by the respective ministry of foreign affairs, many countries require the approval of the labor ministry and/or the local employment office to make sure that there are no locals who might be better suited for the job. A good number of countries maintain a quota for each type of work permit, such as “highly skilled professional,” “seasonal farm worker,” or “academic researcher”. Once the quota is filled, there is nothing you can do during that calendar year to obtain a work permit. Your sole recourse is to wait and apply the following year. In many countries the labor ministry makes sure that companies judiciously follow all requirements to attract local job candidates before allowing them to offer a position to a foreigner. Once you have a signed work contract and the approval of the labor ministry or local labor department you can proceed with the application process at the embassy or consulate.

2) Work permits are for one specific job from one employer only.

One element that regular work permits have in common globally is the fact that they are issued for a specific job with one specific employer. In most cases, if you lose that job or would like to change jobs you will have to start the work permit application process all over again.

3) Work permits have a predetermined time limit.

Work permits generally have specific time limitations. They are issued either for the maximum amount of time allowed by law, or they are for the duration of your specific job. If you are hired to build a pipeline in Brazil, then your work permit will last until the project is finished. If the work permit has a legal time limit, such as a year or two, you will be able to apply for an extension to remain at that job. Work permit extensions are usually much easier than the initial application and approval process. Work Permits are issued by the government and can be altered and revoked

4) Work permits are issued at the discretion of the government and can be changed and revoked.

Work permits are not a given right or legal entitlement. They are issued at the discretion of the government and can be revoked and changed at any time. This means that holding a work permit does not entitle you to anything other than the right to work until that right is revoked by the government. If you lose your job, you also lose your work permit and you will likely have to leave the country. Having a work permit does not automatically entitle you to unemployment benefits, social welfare, or a pension. It does not guarantee you a long-term visa, permanent residency, or citizenship either. Although it makes economic sense for a government to extend the work visa for a foreign employee that has does good work for a company, you do not have the right to an automatic extension. If unemployment increases drastically in your host country, you could find yourself out of work when your initial work permit runs out.

5) Most countries require applicants to apply for a work permit from their home country and not after their arrival.

There are some exception to this rule, but most governments want foreign job applicants to apply for a work permit at the respective consulate or embassy in their home country, mainly because work permits are the responsibility of the ministry of foreign affairs and governments want work permit applicants to go through the entire application process in correct order and by following the correct procedures.

How Do You Get a Work Permit?

Now that you have a basic idea of what work permits are intended for and what they entitle you to, we can now discuss the key issue: how do you get a work permit? The magic words for obtaining a work permit in a foreign country are “needed skills.” If your profession is in highly sought-after fields such as health care, IT, banking, engineering, etc., then you are in luck. There are probably several dozen countries where these professions are on their occupational priority list, which means that foreign work permit applications are marked for quick approval. Only the most sought-after professions make it relatively easy to get a job offer from overseas and have your work permit approved. Still, with the exception of those countries that offer fast-track visa approval for jobs in high demand, the work permit application process for most jobs in most countries is still tedious and time consuming. You can expect the process to last anywhere from 3-6 months, depending upon the country’s bureaucracy and efficiency.

Another way to work legally in another country is through a direct transfer from your employer in your home country to an overseas branch or subsidiary. Since you won’t be paid by a local company in that country, you are technically not employed there, and approval of such transfer visas is usually relatively quick. But being posted overseas depends upon a lot on luck, smart planning, and networking to ensure that you will be the one asked to staff the company’s new headquarters in your dream country. A more logical approach may be to follow a career path with an international outlook. Research the types of college degrees and professions in greatest demand in the countries that interest you the most. Also keep in mind that many fulfilling career paths do not necessarily lend themselves to a successful international career. A good psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist may have great job prospects at home, but due to cultural differences and poorly funded health care in many countries, these professions may not be in high demand everywhere. These healthcare professions also require a high degree of language proficiency and cultural knowledge, which many foreigners simply do not have. So if you are interested in a career that can lead to an extended overseas work experience, keep in mind the cultural environment and ambiance in which you will be working. English is the international language of IT and finance, and you very likely will have no language problems at work, even if you accept a job in Shanghai. In contrast, working as an agricultural expert in rural Mongolia, you would be faced with completely different cultural and language requirements in order to be successful. So if an international career is your goal, carefully plan your field of expertise in accordance with your talents, interests, and cross-cultural abilities.

In addition to choosing a career that is in high demand overseas, it is also important to show familiarity with a country and culture before applying for a job there. A great way to get work experience in a country of your interest is to work there as an intern just before or shortly after you graduate from college. This gives you a chance to learn about the local culture, language, and allows you to even get your foot in the door at a company that interests you.  In the end what matters most in order to get that job offer from an overseas company is your ability to show that you are a perfect match for the job and that you are well ahead of other applicants, foreign or domestic. To get to this point requires a bit of strategic planning over a number of years. Get your internship lined up, learn the language, make local contacts that can serve you as a professional reference later, and continue to scan overseas job postings to recognize trends and learn about specific work experience and knowledge that may help you land an overseas job more quickly. Another important step is to research companies offering interesting jobs and finding out where these jobs are located. There are many international job boards available online, and the more you make it a habit to scan them for jobs in your fields and learn about the specific job requirements, the better you will be prepared when the time comes to write a cover letter and send out a resume. The more competitive your education, skills, cross-cultural experience, language proficiency, and work experience, the more suited you are for competing for a job offer and work permit in a very competitive global employment market.

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research, and work.

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