Exchange Programs for Students and Recent Graduates
The bad news about working abroad is that you can’t just hop a plane to any country and start looking for a paid job. To work would be illegal without a permit, which you cannot acquire without a job offer, and—Catch 22—very few employers will offer you a job if you don’t already have a work permit. The good news is that a number of organizations can help you cut the red tape and acquire a legal work permit or place you in a job.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to experience total cultural immersion, or to simply earn your way through an adventure abroad, here’s a good place to start. The emphasis is on exchange, since your participation in most of these programs enables someone from abroad to have the equivalent experience in the U.S.
The two main program types are 1) the CIEE and BUNAC Work Abroad exchanges, which enable students to get a work permit in advance, then look for a job on site with assistance from overseas offices, and 2) overseas job placement programs offered by a number of U.S.-based work exchange organizations.
Work Permit Programs for Students
Over 6,000 U.S. students and recent graduates work abroad each year in programs administered by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and BUNAC, the most popular option for working abroad and one of the few which does not require applying far in advance. You can get a work permit without a job offer, you can work at any job you find, and the application process is non-competitive.
BUNAC or CIEE can get you a work permit—otherwise virtually impossible for Americans to obtain—any time of the year for Australia, New Zealand, Canada (BUNAC only), Ireland, France, China, Ghana, Brazil, and Germany (CIEE only). Without a work permit, you could only work illegally, seriously limiting your options.
To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen (or permanent resident) and an undergraduate or graduate student studying in the U.S. and taking at least eight credit hours. Non-students under age 30 may participate in the Australia and New Zealand programs. (Student status as defined by the program continues for one semester after you leave school: spring and summer graduates have until the following December 31 to enter the country in which they will work, and December graduates have until June 30.) Participants in the France and Germany programs must have had two years’ study of the appropriate language.
This is a do-it-yourself program—you find your own job and apartment using listings provided by the overseas program office. The average time for finding jobs is around one week, depending upon the country. The initial investment includes the program fee, roundtrip airfare, and enough money ($1,000), to tide you over until you get the first paycheck. Most students report that they can cover their expenses.
The typical CIEE/BUNAC job is in restaurant, hotel, clerical, or sales work—but even these ordinary jobs provide a total immersion experience in the daily life of another culture, resulting in cross-cultural insights, friendships, and personal growth.
According to BUNAC and CIEE, less than a quarter of their participants arrange for a job or an interview in advance—not necessary for ordinary jobs such as pub and temp work, but a good strategy for getting a career-related internship.
As explained elsewhere, internships are available through special organizations such as AIESEC, or IAESTE, as well as universities, but these are competitive, have early deadlines, or require paying tuition in the case of “academic” credit-granting internships.
Rather than paying for someone else to place them, many students use their own initiative, combined with work permits from BUNAC or CIEE, to find a career-related job. You can email firms well in advance to request an interview upon your arrival. Try to be neither too general nor overly specific in your work objective. Send a one-page resume outlining your education, work experience, computer skills or organizational talents, and interests. Include a cover letter clearly stating that you will arrive with a valid student exchange work permit. Even if you have been unable to arrange for an interview or job in advance, contact the company again by phone just before or after you arrive and try again—chances are good that your persistence will be rewarded.
Bring your resume and references from previous employers or professors and a suit for interviews.
For applications and more information, contact CIEE Work Abroad Programs or BUNAC USA.
Accommodations. Take advantage of optional room reservation services offered by most programs. Otherwise, reserve a youth hostel ($15-$30 per night) in advance. Contact American Youth Hostel; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hiusa.org to find out how. You should find an apartment after you get your job to minimize commuting time. Some jobs include housing.
Insurance. Most programs require you to have your own health insurance. The International Student ID (ISIC) card, available from STA Travel, provides travel discounts and minimal health insurance. We recommend everyone get one. More comprehensive coverage is available from special agencies starting at $60 per month, essential if you have no other health insurance. Agencies include HTH Worldwide (www.hthworldwide.com), or Wallach and Company (www.wallach.com).
Study and Work. If you are going on a study abroad program, you may be able to combine it with a BUNAC or CIEE permit, allowing work before, during, or sometimes after studying. However, don’t expect to finance your studies this way. American students studying in Britain for more than six months are officially allowed to work part-time during the term and full-time during vacations. Those studying for only one semester still need the BUNAC work permit to work legally. In Britain you can only work before or during study abroad (i.e. during the first six months when you are in the country), but not after.
Getting a work permit overseas. This is nearly impossible unless you already have a job offer. Get the work permit before you leave, or use one of the job placement programs below which also arrange for work permits.
Other Work Permit Programs
The BUNAC/CIEE work permits cannot be extended or renewed, but the following organizations may be able to assist with a different permit—if you already have a job offer.
Work permit and placement programs are also offered by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, and Cultural Vistas.
If you would you rather be placed in a job than find your own, or if you want a certain type of job, these programs may make it easier. Agencies should be willing to furnish you with names and telephone numbers of past participants.
William Nolting is an Assistant Director at the International Center of the University of Michigan and former Work Abroad and International Educational Editor for Transitions Abroad.