How Can I Earn A Living Abroad?

Addressing the number one problem: economic survival


Ah, that is the big problem that most everyone faces who is planning to live abroad but who is not yet ready to retire. The problem of making a living abroad is the biggest hurdle to overcome if you are not retiring abroad, have an offshore job offer, or have a skill that is in desperately short supply around the globe. And let's face it, few of us have any skills that are so sought-after that they are causing overseas employers to fall all over themselves trying to hire us.

Another obstacle is the work permit. That's the foreign equivalent of the American green card, and it is tougher to get in most foreign countries than a green card is to get in the United States. The reason why is obvious - the government of the foreign country wants to preserve what jobs it has for its own citizens, and most countries take unemployment problems more seriously than does the United States. And for that reason, they make it tough for you to go out there and compete with the nationals of the country you are in. Therefore, don't expect getting a work permit to be easy. And don't even think of working without one - in many countries, that is a criminal offense that can land you in jail, and if it doesn't, it will almost certainly get you deported. Depending on the country, you may be able to bribe your way around this, but I don't recommend trying. An excellent resource for those seeking work permits in many countries is Workpermit.com

The principal exceptions to this are if you come in as 1) a political refugee, in which case it is assumed that you will need to find work. The foreign country will normally allow you to work if you are legally classified as a refugee, and 2) you are the spouse or parent of a national living in the country. Here, the assumption is that you are probably going to need to help support your family, including one or more nationals of the country you are living in, and so work is neccessary. But there are exceptions to this, too, so check out the law before you go. Simply marrying a national of the country you wish to go to doesn't work in many countries anymore (because of abuse) - many, including Costa Rica, now require that you be the first-degree blood relative of a citizen to qualify for a family visa. No more marriages of convenience. You need to be a parent, too.

If you cannot get a work permit, you can still, in most countries, start, buy or even rent a business (though you may be required to hire a certain number of nationals as employees, and this may or may not be an option, depending on the rules governing the category of residency you have. Check this out thoroughly before you apply for the visa if you plan to go this route!). In many countries, including Costa Rica, the rules are so loose you can even come to the country and start or run a business on a tourist visa - though I don't recommend it. Take some accounting software with you, and a few books on starting and running a business if you plan to go this route. Much of the strategic advice will be useful in any cultural setting, though the tactical advice may or may not apply to you. Be prepared to work your butt off (seventy or eighty hours a week) for the first two or three years - starting a business is much more difficult in a foreign country and culture than it is in the States, and getting a business license can be a difficult, frustrating adventure than can take months. Best to hire a lawyer if it turns out that the process is complex or opaque. Many of the "live abroad" guide books available have a wealth of ideas of businesses you can start, many with little investment. Here in Costa Rica, an American noticed a few years ago that he could not get bagels in the country, even in the capital of San Jose. So he started a bagel bakery/sandwich shop, and it was a big hit - the Costa Ricans as well as the gringos loved them. He now has a chain of them all over the capital, and has done very well for himself. Because of the difficulty of getting work permits and the low wages on offer in most countries, most expatriates needing to support themselves go the route of starting a business. To be safe, you should have enough money, not only to live and start your business, but to live for a year as if your business never made a dime in revenue - it will take a while to make it profitable, and you will need to be able to live in the meantime.

If you decide to work for wages, and, through some small miracle, you do succeed in getting a work permit, then you are faced with the problem of actually getting a job. Jobs are not exactly plentiful overseas, and you are competing with lots of people who have a leg up on you - the locals know the ropes and have the contacts, and you don't. Most employers prefer locals who know the culture, so expect offers to be well below your actual skill level as well. You are normally best off in looking for work in industries where your resume shows the most experience and best qualifications, but that may or may not be an option for you depending on your circumstances. Otherwise, there are a number of traditional types of jobs that Americans end up in when living in foreign countries, and they may or may not be available to you, depending on your circumstances.

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