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What You Do Here, You Can Probably Do Overseas

By Bryan J. Estep and Becky Youman

Dawn of a new life working overseas

You can land just about any job abroad that you can in the United States; the secret is to go there. While a few lucky souls move with a U.S. contract in hand—including attractive expatriate benefits—many of us go without any guarantee of work on the other side.

The payoffs are worth the gamble. More than likely you will peg in at a higher responsibility level with greater mobility than with your job at home. This doesn’t necessarily translate into higher earnings, but nonmonetary benefits include development of language and cross-cultural skills and a global perception.

We are frequently amazed at the positions our friends hold and the activity stemming from their work. The people we know are no different from the people we studied with in college, except that they made the decision to work abroad. The professional community abroad is smaller, the contacts are at higher levels—and things just seem to happen.

Admittedly, the transcontinental jump is a challenge. Pulling up roots, convincing your family to accept a move to a foreign country, then sacrificing part of your savings for airfare and the job hunt is difficult. But through adaptability and determination, most of us succeed in making the transition.

Typical Work Arrangements

Work abroad falls into one of three categories:

  1. U.S. contract, paid in dollars by a U.S. company, usually with expatriate benefits

  2. National contract, paid in local currency as a resident of the country

  3. Self-employed and freelance.

U.S. Contract

The most desirable situation is to work as a U.S. contracted employee. The company will usually pay for your move and perhaps even include airfare home for the holidays. It may also subsidize rent, buy household appliances, pay foreign taxes, arrange working papers, and provide other expat benefits. Sometimes the most important aspect of the arrangement is payment in dollars, which adds stability in countries with shaky currencies.

Working as a national in a foreign country means being paid in the local currency and in line with similar positions there. In developing countries this usually translates to much less than you would receive in the U.S. for similar work; however, the cost of living is usually lower. In developed countries compensation is usually comparable with similar work in the U.S., but the entry barriers are likely to be higher because of a ready supply of nationals with similar education levels and the difficulty of obtaining a work visa.

The self-employed either start a business in the foreign country or freelance as consultants, journalists, and models. Many have at least a few years of experience in their field and begin generating income immediately.

Targeting Your Country

The first step is picking a deadline six to 12 months down the road to make the move if the stateside search doesn’t produce results. In this time you can collect a lot of useful information that will help you choose your target country. Equally important tasks include making contacts in the target country, improving your language skills, and saving money.

Begin with the region that interests you, then narrow down the countries by available opportunities. You can glean macro-economic information from the international sections of periodicals like Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As with all secondary research, your web browser and local librarian are your best friends. Personal interests can be as important as macro-ecomonics.

The Search From Home

Interestingly enough, you use the same tools and strategies in an international job search that you would use in a regular job search, the most of important of which is getting the word of your interest out through your personal contacts.

Let’s say you’ve picked Seoul, South Korea as your prospective destination. If in every social occasion you mention off-handedly, “I’m hoping to make a job move to Korea in about six months,” you will be amazed at the references you get. The contacts may range from a friend to show you around the city, a prospective host to stay with upon arrival (this is a huge benefit), or perhaps even an employer.

If the referenced person seems worthwhile, you should send a cover letter and resume informing her/him of your goals and requesting an informational interview. If that person doesn’t feel responsible for giving you the job, the meeting will probably be more productive.


Real jobs frequently start with internships (see the Internships Abroad section of this site). One frequently tried avenue to overseas employment is to look up companies that have operations in the target country and send resumes to their personnel departments. However, the likelihood of this even leading to an interview is small. It is worthwhile, however, to learn all you can about business activity in your target country and to bring along a list of companies to contact upon arrival. Going Global offers such detailed information, by country, for a fee.

Another route is to take a job in any capacity with a multinational corporation in the U.S. and try to work your way into an international slot from the inside. Many large companies fill overseas positions from within the organization, but there is no guarantee you will be moved abroad.

Making the Move

Few people land a job without first going to their target country, usually on a tourist visa. Working papers are arranged once a job is found. Before you fly into town with nothing more than a couple of suitcases, some savings, and gutsy ambition, try to talk to enough people to know the cost of sustaining a 2- to 3-month job hunt. Your budget should include roundtrip airfare, initial hotel costs, rent, food, transport, and health insurance.

The first priority is to avoid an expensive hotel stay. Ideally, before leaving you will have lined up a personal contact with whom you can stay for a few days. If not, the first task at hand is to find a place to unpack your suitcases at a monthly rather than daily rate. The English language newspapers often have classified ads from people looking for roommates. You’ll also want to check the want ads.

As much as you may want to “go local” immediately and completely immerse yourself in the new culture, meeting other expats is helpful. Look for the watering holes and gyms where they congregate and start the personal networking immediately. This is the most likely way to find a place to live and a job.

Finding the Job

The most efficient onsite job search follows a 2-pronged strategy: The first is the direct route of targeting firms in your area of interest and leaving resumes with decision-makers contacted in earlier phone calls. The second is letting as many people as possible know that you are looking for work and eager to get to it. You should be well practiced at this because you did it when you started your search from home.

The American Chamber of Commerce sometimes has a bulletin board of companies that have contacted them looking for bilingual personnel. The member companies themselves are good targets.

Starting out on a student visa in the foreign country is another option for gaining a longer-term legal status. A few manage to transform the study experience into a job experience.

Working for Yourself

The self-employed—entrepreneurs, journalists, consultants, models—follow much the same route as those looking for national contracts. Most are freelancers who live from assignment to assignment and struggle until their business base is established. Their previous experience usually helps them beat down the learning curve a bit. But stubborn determination remains the biggest asset. Remember that if you are self-employed you have the added challenge of setting up an office (editor's note: location-independence is more possible than ever due to the Internet, and an office can be almost anywhere). That means wrestling with business taxes, lawyers and accountants—the same as for entrepreneurs at home, but more difficult in a foreign environment. The possibility of working overseas is not a pipe dream. In fact, with the globalization of the world's economies, U.S. employers are in a position to benefit from professionals with cross-cultural experience. If you make the move successfully, all the talk about global strategies, trade wars, and the common market begins to involve you. Amazingly, you realize that you are one of the actors.

Bryan J. Estep founded a trading company with offices in Mexico City, San Francisco, and Santiago, Chile.

Becky Youman moved to Mexico City where, through a chain of contacts, she landed a job as country manager for a U.S. company in Mexico.

Charlie Morris is a writer and computer consultant. He has worked throughout Europe and lived in Switzerland, Norway, and England.

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