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Working in Europe: Skilled Workers Remain in Demand

skyscape of Frankfurt, Germany: A center for financial work

Europe is still an option for foreign workers who have skills that are in demand, as long as they play by strict EU rules. Nonresident workers are required to have a work permit for long-term professional jobs. While thousands work in Europe illegally and some employers may encourage you to work “black” to save them tax money and paperwork, don’t do it. If you are caught, you can be hit with hefty fines or even barred from the country. An acquaintance of mine fell afoul of the U.K. immigration authorities because he was honest (or foolish) enough to admit that he was entering the country to work and had no work permit. His passport now sports a “black mark,” and he will never be able to enter Britain again without proving that he will be staying only a short while.

Misinformation abounds, and calling the immigration authorities may leave you more confused than before. The best way to get the facts is from a lawyer who specializes in immigration law.

Work permits are generally issued for specific jobs. Technically, you are not allowed to enter a country to look for work, although you can’t help it if someone happens to offer you a position while you're on vacation.

In Europe, the process usually works this way:

  1. An employer agrees to hire you subject to a work permit being approved.

  2. The employer applies for a work permit for you; this may be a simple process or very complex, depending on what country the job is in, what country you are from, and what your skills and salary level are.

  3. If the permit is approved, you will probably receive a document to take to an official for processing and the payment of a fee.

  4. Upon arrival at your place of employment, you may be required to register with the local police and perhaps pay another fee.

If you change jobs you must start the process all over again.

Work Permits for Short-Term Jobs

Generally, a European employer who wants to hire a non-European Union citizen must demonstrate that they can’t fill the position with an EU citizen. Those with valuable skills stand a good chance of getting a permit, while those in lower-paid lines of work will not get one, except possibly for seasonal jobs in resort areas.

The employer does not have to prove that there is not a single qualified person in all of the EU, just that they have made a diligent effort to find one. This usually means that they have to advertise the position in a local newspaper for two to four weeks before the job can be offered to a foreigner.

Immigration law in the U.K. is complex, and much depends on what country you are from. If you are a citizen of a Commonwealth country (including Canada and Australia) and if your grandfather was born in the U.K., then you may not need a work permit. Citizens of non-EU and non-Commonwealth countries need a work permit, and your chances of getting one depend on your skills and salary level. Those seeking unskilled jobs can basically forget about working in the U.K.

Note: People who have location-independent businesses, such as those who run profitable websites, can stay in EU countries three months at a time, then must leave for three months before returning for a total of six months a year. Connections can be made during this period, so more and more independent travelers are taking this course to extend their time abroad.

Note: There are many agencies offering internships in Europe, though there is usually a fee involved, but it may lead to a permanent job or be very good for building an international resume for future employment overseas, as can study abroad.

Work Permits for Professionals

Even for those in high-paying professions, the paperwork and hassle involved can be a deal-killer. Fortunately, there are agencies that will handle the whole process for a fee. One good one is, one of the oldest and largest immigration consultancy firms. They will see you through the whole process, offer the latest news in immigration opportunities, and offer specific advice for a reasonable fee. Many employers assume that getting a work permit is tougher than it actually is, so knowing about a service like beforehand and mentioning it to your prospective employer can improve your prospects. The employer can make a phone call to the agency and get a good assessment of what your chances are.

I have worked in several European countries and have almost never encountered hostility because of it. But keep in mind this is a controversial issue for some people. Also keep in mind that the U.S. is one of the most restrictive countries in the world in issuing work permits to nonresidents, so you may meet people who resent that you can work in their country but they can’t work in yours. Be sensitive.

Work regulations can change often; the above is not the definitive word and certainly not legal advice. You'll have to research your particular situation to make sure you're in compliance. If you make a good-faith effort with your employer to comply with the law, you're unlikely to get in trouble.

Editor's note: Based on our experience, often the best way to work professionally in Europe is via a transfer from a multinational company you work for in the U.S. with branches or even headquarters in Europe. For example, work for a European financial institution or company based in London or Frankfurt, and look for internal job postings or network with those you work with at branches in Europe. If your knowledge and expertise is needed, and you have a proven track record, some companies will provide the needed sponsorship and paperwork for you, often with an expat package that can make working in Europe very lucrative as well as enjoyable.

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

Related Topics
International Careers
See the following articles for more information about working in Western Europe
Working in France
Working in Italy
Living and Working in Switzerland


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