The Four Types of International Worker — #1: The Adventurer

ATTENTION:  This is a pretty long, thorough, detailed post with lots of good information (over 9,000 words and counting)!  Accordingly, I’ve added internal links to the various sections of the post, so that you can navigate more easily.

So, here’s a brief outline of where this post will take us:

1.  Introduction to the Adventurer

2.  The Pros of the Adventurer Life

3.  And…the Challenges

4.  How to Get Started

5.  Other advice, including some things to watch out for

6.  Conclusions

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1. Introduction to the Adventurer (return to top)

In an earlier post, I identified the four basic categories of people looking for international work, according to whether the person was looking for (A) a short or long-term international experience, and (B) whether they were looking for for-profit or government/non-profit work.

The four categories are, based on the chart below:

  1. The Adventurer:  short-term experience, for-profit work
  2. The Volunteer:  short-term experience, non-profit/government work
  3. The International Businessperson:  long-term experience/for-profit work
  4. The Altruistic Professional:  long-term experience/non-profit/government work

The Four Categories of Working Abroad

The 2×2 matrix:  the consultant’s (and your) best friend.

Today we will explore the first category together:  The Adventurer.

Broadly speaking, the Adventurer seeks (at least initially) short-term international jobs with the intention of making money.

For many Adventurers, the goal of the international job is something other than the job itself.  Instead, the job is a means to an end to finance other experiences, often travel, activities (think surfing, skiing, trekking, etc.), or just the cultural and life-enriching experience of being abroad.

This makes the Adventurer the most flexible of the four types.

Since the job is largely a vehicle for funding other activities, many Adventurers are flexible as to location, the type of work, the hours, and so forth.

That’s good news for those of you who fit this category.  Most people, with enough motivation and persistence, can find something that suits their needs.

We’ll get to the particulars in a moment, but often the best approach for an Adventurer is to just put themselves out there in areas where there is a demand for short-term labor.

And the best part?  The Internet has made finding a short-term job SO MUCH EASIER than it used to be, and you can set up a tremendous amount of groundwork without ever leaving your home.  (Before this era, in many cases you had to take the plunge and visit the place you were looking to work in to find something.  Wild, I know.)

Moreover, if you speak English, you have a big leg up already.  Many short-term, for-profit jobs cater to an international community, like tourism.  As English is the international language of choice, even among non-native speakers, if you speak decent English, you are good to go in many places.

This is especially true in large international tourist destinations.  Knowing the local language is a bonus, but often not a requirement. Plus you can pick it up as you go if you put your mind and time to it.

A quick note/word of caution:  working without a special work visa in many places is illegal, even though in practice many employers turn a blind eye.  I recommend doing your research on work permits before you travel, and of course do not recommend breaking the law.   Even if enforcement is spotty, it does exist, so if you do decide to buck my advice and go down this path, know that you are assuming the risks.  Plus, there are a lot of ways to get temporary work visas in certain parts of the world, such as the BUNAC temporary work visa program, which I’ll go into detail about later on in this post.

Another note:  I generally exclude “digital nomads” from the Adventurer category, and generally from the “working abroad” category at large.  That’s not because I’m an asshole (although I certainly can be sometimes) — instead, it’s because the work digital nomads do can, by definition, be done anywhere.  They could do the same job in their home country, but they would prefer to do it overseas because of lower cost, adventure, etc. 

“Digital nomads” also often (but not always) don’t face some of the major challenges people working abroad face, like work visas.  These folks usually come and go as tourists — and with tourist visas — and their work is all done online through businesses located elsewhere.  (Interestingly, at least one country, however, have started to offer “digital nomad” visas.)  So the digital nomad overseas experience isn’t really linked to what one does to make money.  Rather, it is more of a living abroad situation, since the digital nomad could move from India to Romania from one day to the next and their work life wouldn’t change.

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2.  The Pros of the Adventurer Life (return to top)

There are four basic upsides of the Adventurer’s path to working abroad:

  • Great way to see the world while paying your own way
  • Great way to meet other travelers
  • Relatively easy to find gigs in large international tourism centers
  • Allows for a more flexible lifestyle

2(a) — First and foremost, short-term, paid work abroad is a great way to have an adventure that pays for itself.

(Thus the name “Adventurer”….)

A lot of folks, especially those right out of school, are long on time and wanderlust, but short on money.

Makes sense, right?  You have all this energy and ambition, but no savings or income stream.  And if you aren’t lucky enough to have a family with deep pockets willing to pay the bills, your travel money needs to come from somewhere.

That’s where the Adventurer’s life comes in.  These short-term paid jobs often yield enough to live on, with a bit of money to spare.

That extra cash can then be used for anything, including funding side travel on your days off or whenever your short-term job wraps up.

So if you want to travel, but don’t have the money, this can be a great way to do it.

2(b) — Second, the Adventurer’s lifestyle is a great way to meet other folks in your same situation.  The places many Adventurers end up working in (e.g., large international tourism destinations) are full of other Adventurers like you.

That means an easy way to make new international friends, have new international travel buddies, and get to know people from around the world.

(In fact, two people I met on my own short-term work visa stint in London have become lifelong friends.  I went to their weddings.  I see them as often as time and distance allows.)

2(c) — Third, short-term work in large international tourism centers — particularly if you speak English — is usually pretty easy to find.

The need for labor in these areas is generally intense.  There is also a ton of turnover, partly because some of the need is only seasonal (think ski resorts) or people aren’t there for the long term (many ESL teachers working abroad don’t turn it into a career).  Thus, businesses are constantly on the lookout for new talent.  (This is also why a lot of these short-term work visa programs exist.)

So, these sorts of short-term gigs are usually a LOT easier to find than a career-focused overseas work experience.

And, as mentioned before, the Internet has made it so much easier to locate and land a job remotely.

2(d) — Fourth, the Adventurer’s experience allows for a much more flexible lifestyle than the more career-focused options.

Most Adventurers are looking to expand their horizons, instead of being more focused on a career trajectory.  Sometimes it is something they do between degree programs, or as a prelude to a more permanent career path.  Or sometimes it is a way to figure out what they want in life.

Regardless, the more short-term nature of things — both with these goals and with the types of jobs Adventurers usually have — means maximum flexibility with their experience.

If their job doesn’t work out, it’s often no big deal to leave early.  Many short-term visa programs even let you switch jobs during your stay.

Or if you want to just start traveling or return home early, you can do so.  And since the jobs usually aren’t career-focused, the fact that your five-month stint at the pub in Leeds didn’t work out well is unlikely to have any serious career consequences.

All told — being an Adventurer is a great way to experiment and explore.

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3.  And…the Challenges (return to top)

Of course, just as every cloud has its silver lining, every rose has its thorn.

that 80s band

Also a classic 80s rock song, for you millennials out there.

I see five basic challenges to the Adventurer life:

  • Pay can be low, hours unpredictable, and work tedious
  • May not provide a strong career-building experience
  • More vulnerable to exploitation by employers
  • Generally does not include benefits — e.g., health insurance is often not covered outside of more structured work programs.
  • Work visas in certain situations may be hard to acquire/work may not always be legal (check with an attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction to be sure)

3(a) — First, these short-term, non-career jobs are not always the most glamorous of gigs.

This ought to be obvious, but waiting tables, working a reception desk, or cleaning floors in Spain will be quite similar to the same jobs in your home country.

You are unlikely to be making a fortune, the work can be dull, and you may work weird hours.

Even the JET Program (a formal program for U.S. citizens to teach English in Japan, which offers one-year contracts renewable up to five years total, and is thus one of the longest-term and most stable “short-term” experiences out there) only pays about US$30,000/year at the start.

So if those things would trouble you, think twice before an Adventurer experience.

After all, this sort of work is generally just a means to the end of having and financing an overseas experience, getting to know cool people you’d otherwise never have met, and learning about another country.

That’s the one big upside of waiting tables in Edinburgh instead of in Calgary — you’ll be working with non-Canadians, making friends with them, and experiencing Scottish life and culture up close.

There are folks who have worked in local UK pubs where the job also involved living above the pub in the owner’s apartments.  Now that’s an experience you won’t get every day, even if the hours are odd and the pay so-so.

3(b) — Second, your Adventurer jobs are not likely to be a big career-builder.  And that’s perfectly OK — so long as you don’t have those expectations.

Again, your time waiting tables may not be a direct stepping-stone to a job in international finance.  But that’s not the reason you are there.

So just make sure you understand your expectations before getting started.  Not everything you do work-wise has to be laser-focused on a career, especially when you are 21 years old.

Note:  this is also why most short-term work visas are for younger people (the upper age limit is usually around 30-35 years).  This usually works out, as most people above that age range need a more stable work life and income because, well, life and family and other responsibilities happen. 

3(c) — Third, you can be more vulnerable to exploitation by your employers.

Like most people in lower-paying, temporary jobs, you have a lot less leverage with your employers than longer-term employees.

You are often pretty easily replaceable, and the employer knows you aren’t going to be around for the long term.

Most employers aren’t cruel or abusive.  But for those bad apples who are, this is a situation that opens the door for bad behavior.

This is where having the appropriate work papers in the country you are in becomes really important.  If you are working illegally, you pretty much are out of luck, short of just walking away.  It can even be an opening for really mean employers to threaten to tell the authorities about your illegal status if you don’t do what they want.

On the flip side, if you are working through an official short-term work visa program, you often have the option of reporting the problems to the visa office and getting their help.

And even then, of course, an employer can make your life miserable without breaking the law.

The downside is that your short-term status makes you more disposable and less risky to treat poorly.  But the upside is that your flexible lifestyle also makes it easier for you to walk away.  Just be aware.

3(d) — Fourth, short-term gigs often do not include health insurance or other benefits.

As you might expect, health insurance and other benefits do not usually come with short-term contracts.

Some more formal short-term work visa programs like BUNAC do offer travel insurance that covers medical issues, but even in those cases, the policies are one-size-fits all.  So if you need, for example, coverage of pre-existing medical conditions, many of these policies won’t cover that, and you’ll have to buy your own coverage.

Some countries with single-payer health care systems will, of course, provide coverage for free or at a low cost to visitors.  But keep in mind that some nations with fewer resources may not provide health care with the level of quality that you want.

And if you are in less-developed regions, treating serious health conditions well may require evacuation — a VERY expensive proposition.  Like, tens of thousands of dollars expensive.

So do keep this in mind.

Because of all the risks of travel out there, the biggest by far — and I mean BY FAR — is being injured in a car accident.  And as those of you that have been in an accident already may know, a car accident can yield some pretty serious injuries.

So don’t forget to think about what would happen if you were seriously hurt when your taxi gets into a wreck.

Would you have access to good health care?

Would you need to be evacuated somewhere?

Would any of those expenses (hospital, evacuation) be covered by any insurance?  (Note:  standard health insurance generally does not cover medical evacuations.  You usually need a separate policy or a special rider on a standard policy.)

I talk more about medical insurance in the last part of this post — I seriously recommend you read it, as inadequate precautions with health insurance is one of those easily-addressed risks that too many people ignore.

3(e) — Fifth, work visas in certain situations or places may be hard to acquire.

Not all countries offer short-term work visa programs, and not all short-term work visa programs are open to people from all countries.

This means that if you have your heart set on working in a specific place outside the reach of these programs, you may find an uphill climb in getting a work visa.

That’s because these visas usually require an employer to sponsor you for the visa, which generally means they have to pay some money and prove that a local cannot fill the job.  (Check with a qualified attorney here to understand the law in your particular situation — I’m emphatically not providing legal advice here or anywhere else on this website.)

That’s expensive and cumbersome, and often employers aren’t willing to do that for someone they have never met.

This is where the temptation to work illegally can come creeping in.

Most English speakers can probably go to a major international tourist destination and find an illegal, short-term job pretty quickly.  But you are opening yourself up to mistreatment and all the legal consequences associated with that decision.  Which is why, again, I recommend you don’t break the law.

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4.  How to Get Started (return to top)

In general, I recommend a three-step process for Adventurers:

  • Find the work visa program(s) that are right for you
  • Do your due diligence on the places you’d like to work
  • Find your overseas job!

The reason I leave the actual job search to the end is because (unless you are going to work illegally, which I don’t recommend), your work visa program may place limits on your job search.  As detailed below, some work visa programs require employers to sponsor you, which usually translates into looking for work with companies that already participate in that visa program.

So with this preface, on to the details…

4(a) — Find the work visa program(s) that are right for you.

If you’re interested in looking for an Adventurer experience, one of best (and easiest) ways is to get started is to explore formal short-term work visa programs.

After all, you will generally need a work visa to work in a foreign country, so starting with an examination of your visa options makes sense.

Keep in mind that each such program is generally limited to specific nationalities, and for working in specific countries.  For example, the JET program is specific to U.S. citizens that want to teach English in Japan.  Nonetheless, there are some programs that accept people from large swaths of the world, like the BUNAC program, which is for students or recent graduates of any nationality except those in the European Economic Area (EEA) to do short-term work in the United Kingdom.

Some of the better-known programs include, at the time of this post:

  • British Universities North America Club (BUNAC) — for students and recent graduates of all nationalities except those inside the European Economic Area (EEA) to do short-term in the United Kingdom
  • U.S. J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program (especially the Au Pair, Camp Counselor, Intern, and Summer Work/Travel programs) — for all nationalities that can are able to obtain a U.S. visa (e.g., you still have to satisfy all other U.S. visa requirements). Note that there are a lot of other J-1 visa programs for more specialized professionals, like professors, physicians, and teachers, but these are not “Adventurer”-style programs.  Rather, they are focused on established professionals looking to advance their careers. 
  • U.S.-Ireland Working Holiday program — for Irish citizens to work in the United States, and U.S. citizens to work in Ireland
  • U.K. “Youth Mobility Scheme” — short-term work program in the United Kingdom for citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Taiwan…and British overseas/overseas territory citizens and British nationals living overseas
  • Australia’s “Working Holiday Maker” program — reciprocal program between Australia and a ton of other countries (at present, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Argentina, Austria, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, United States, Uruguay, and Vietnam)
  • Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program — for U.S. citizens, to teach English in Japan
  • Japan-U.K. “Working Holiday Scheme” — for British citizens who are resident in the United Kingdom to do short-term work in Japan (interestingly, “participants are strictly prohibited from working at places that are deem to affect public morals, such as bars, cabarets, nightclubs and so on,” so if you want to work in a bar, you are out of luck)

(Have any other recommendations for this list?  Email me at jeff@howtoworkoverseas.com.  I’d love to hear from you!)

Also remember that these programs usually don’t just give you a job along with your visa like the side of fries that came with your hamburger.  You’ll have to line that up yourself.  (The JET program is a notable exception, where — if you are chosen — they will place you with an employer.)

Still, BUNAC and many other visa programs do have paid placement programs that help you with your job search, even if they don’t guarantee a job.  So if you don’t have something already lined up on the side, you can use their resources to move things along.  Some people like this service; others don’t think it is worth the money — depends a lot on your situation.  (See, for example this discussion group thread for a back-and-forth on the topic.)

Short-term work visa programs can also vary in terms of whether you are required to have a job before getting the visa.  Many require a sponsor in advance, but some do not.  Do your research in advance so that you know what the story is BEFORE you waste a lot of time in a fruitless search.

On the other hand, to participate in U.S. J-visa program (even the shorter-term Summer Work Travel program) you must have a sponsor for your visa before the U.S. government will issue the visa. Now, that said, many employers — especially in seasonal industries like tourism — have their own formal, well-organized programs for sponsoring J-visa applicants for these short-term jobs.  So it’s not as tough as it might sound.  You just need to understand the terrain before you start wasting your time running down metaphorical dead-end streets looking for work.

(Finally, note that in most countries — even the ones that lack short-term work visa options — you can always try to just wing it and convince an employer there to sponsor you for a longer-term work visa.  Nonetheless, this usually ends up as an extremely challenging process that is I generally do not recommend.  That is because the amount of time and money an employer has to invest in sponsoring such a visa — and proving that a local cannot do the job in question — is way too high for a short-term job.  So you can certainly try this, but you’re unlikely to have much luck.

Additionally, keep in mind that visa issuance is not a guarantee even if you are the right age and nationality; usually, criminal histories and other factors can have an impact on decisions to issue a visa.  This probably doesn’t apply to most people reading this, but it is worth mentioning just in case some folks have youthful indiscretions in their past.)

4(b) — Do Your Due Diligence on the Places You’d Like to Work

Once you have identified the possible short-term work visa programs that might be right for you, it’s time to do a little due diligence and groundwork before you start the actual job search.

More specifically, you need to have a basic idea of the following, for each of the places you are considering, before you can make a decision about a job.  (Note that I said a basic idea, enough information to make a good decision, not something exhaustive.)

  • How much will your expenses be?  Think of everything you reasonably might spend money on:  travel to and from the foreign country, visa fees, housing, cell phone, transportation, any insurance you might buy, food — and, if you are looking to save a little extra money to travel, how much that would be.  And please, be realistic.  If you are 21 years old, you likely aren’t going to live like a monk, even if you will be living on a budget.  You will go out for beers and food with friends sometimes.  And if you are a big scuba diver, you will likely want to start diving when you arrive in Phuket or wherever you will be.  You will need some sort of cell phone service.  As for the planning, a simple Google spreadsheet will suffice. In other words, don’t get fancy, just handle the basics.
  • Are there any additional expenditures or contingencies to consider?  Do you have any other expenses back home you will still need to cover (car payments, student loans, etc.)?  Any money you would want to reserve for an emergency ticket home?  Any special travel experiences that you really want to do that will cost extra?  Just make sure you aren’t forgetting to include these things in your budget.
  • Finally, based on those expenses, how much money will you need to make, at a minimum and after any taxes, to make the experience worthwhile?  Don’t forget that you will likely be paying taxes on your income.

Some good news: the Internet makes all of this so much easier than it used to be.

You can often start in online forums focused on traveling and working abroad.  Look for threads from people who have been to those places recently — or even better, are living and working there now.

Message the people who seem to know what they are talking about.  Tell them up front that you aren’t writing to hit them up for a job, so they don’t feel defensive, but rather are just doing your due diligence.

Ask them about living expenses.  What is the overall cost of living like?  How expensive is a place to live?  Is it easy to find short-term accommodations?  Are there good places to look for roommates or sublets?

If they worked (or are working) there, ask them about their job experiences.  What were wages like?  In their experience, how hard is it to find work there?  Who is good to work for and who should you avoid?

Ask them about the place in general.  What did they like about living there?  What didn’t they enjoy?

Ask them about the short-term work visa process.  How did they get their visa?  Do they have any advice?

Ask them if there is anyone else they would recommend you talk to.  (This is a highly underrated question — it’s how you grow your network.)

Learn, learn, learn.

And then, as a courtesy, follow-up with them a few weeks later to thank them for their advice.

If you come across as serious, responsible, and respectful of people’s time, folks will want to help you.

This is also a great way to find roommates and other people doing the same thing in the places you are interested in, so that can be a support network when you arrive.

In short, work your networks. Ask people who have worked there. Visit and participate in discussion groups. Figure out the cost of living.

Learn, learn, learn.

This is the advantage of doing this sort of thing in 2018 instead of 1998 when I was that age. The Internet has changed everything.

This is also how you build relationships.  You will find that good networking and learning may lead seamlessly into scouting out potential job offers.  (See the next section for more on that issue.)  The thing is, if you come across as serious and responsible, people will want to hire you or will want to recommend you to others who may want to hire you.

One of the secrets of hiring people is that people generally rely on networks of people to find trustworthy employees.  It’s usually safer and better to hire someone that comes recommended by someone you trust, rather than someone off the street.

The following list contains links to a few resources that may help you get started in this effort!  Note that it is by no means exhaustive and constantly being expanded, and if it gets large enough, I’ll move it to the bottom of the post with an internal link, so it doesn’t disturb the flow of this post.  Also, I’m not endorsing any particular site here — just providing a list to help people get started in their due diligence efforts.  And if you have any recommendations to add here, please write me at jeff@howtoworkoverseas.com and let me know!

So here goes:

  • InterNations
  • Nomadic Matt (his site is geared much more for people just traveling/young budget-conscious tourists, but even so, there are lot of good articles and advice for Adventurers, as they are also often living on a budget overseas)
  • Lonely Planet ThornTree community
  • TripAdvisor Travel Forum (seriously, although this site is mainly aimed at tourists, there are sometimes good threads on their discussion board on problems like finding a doctor abroad, etc., that both tourists and Adventurers confront, e.g., this thread)
  • Expat Woman (for women and travel issues particular to women)
  • Tales from a Small Planet (focused on U.S. diplomatic life overseas, but still very useful generally for getting a sense of new places…also because the articles are written by folks who have often spent at least 1-2 years in the place they are writing about, the information tends to be pretty detailed)
  • Nomadist (a forum for “digital nomads,” but information about what it is like to live short-term in various cities can be helpful to Adventurers, as well)
  • ExpatForum.com
  • ExpatFocus
  • TransitionsAbroad.com (less of a forum and more of a collection of articles)
  • Expat.com
  • Expat Exchange

4(c) — Find Your Overseas Job!

Once you have scouted out your visa programs and done your due diligence, you should now have a pretty good idea of the place or places that seem promising and interesting for you to work in.

You should also now understand the limitations that any relevant visa programs place on the sorts of jobs you can have, including whether or not you need an employer to sponsor your visa.

(This information will directly impact your job search, which is why in most cases I recommend researching visas and doing your due diligence first.  Yes, I know that there are exceptions, in which jobs serendipitously fall into your lap, but let’s not allow the exceptions to make the rules here.)

Because there are so many variables with respect to how the various short-term work visa programs restrict work, here is some general advice that will apply to most situations.  (Yes, I know we are all special snowflakes here with our own situations, but in most situations the following will help.)

  • Network, network, network. 

You can extend your due diligence efforts towards finding a job once you have determined what restrictions any required work visas impose, and how much money you will need to live on.

As noted above, in a lot of international short-term work hotspots, there are hosts of online resources and discussion groups about finding jobs.  Use your networking skills to start looking for what companies might be good fits and are looking for employees.  Talk to former employees.  Find out what they are looking for.

You will find that if you come across as respectful and competent, are persistent without being pushy, and don’t give the impression that you expect people to find you a job, that people will often help you out on their own accord.

I’ll say it again — a lot of employers rely on their personal networks to fill positions.  And the hard truth is that it is really, really hard to get an overseas job without networking.  If people don’t know who you are, and what you are looking for, you probably won’t get very far.

  • Informational interviews: 

A good way to build and leverage this network is asking people who have worked where you want to work for “informational interviews” over Skype or the phone.

Again, make sure they understand that you are NOT asking them to offer you a job or find one for you.  Nothing turns off other people more quickly in this context than a stranger asking you to find them a job.

On the flip side, a LOT of people are happy to share their experiences with someone who is curious about learning if a work abroad experience is right for them.

A couple of good phrases to consider using are:  “I’m interesting in hearing about your experiences in [X city or X company] in general, to understand whether I should consider looking for work there, or whether I should explore other options.”

“I’m not yet looking for a job, but am more getting a sense for the market out there to see if it might be a good fit.”  

And don’t forget the magic question at the end of every informational interview:  “Is there anyone else you would recommend that I speak with?”  

This last question is a gold mine in terms of broadening your network!  If you do this right, you may also be surprised about who refers you to other people!

In fact, I got an interview for one of my best overseas private sector jobs ever from an informational interview.  The other person thought highly enough of me that he told his former employers that they should check me out — without me ever asking.  I don’t think this would have happened if I had not placed him at ease from the beginning that I was not looking for any sort of recommendation.

  • Have a good resume ready to go. 

This may seem basic, but if you are looking for work, please just take the time to ensure that you have a strong resume and (if this applies to you) a work portfolio ready to send to anyone who might ask you for one.

Many short-term jobs won’t ask for a resume, of course, but some will — and you don’t want to get caught flat-footed if that happens!

Also — please make sure your resume is good (or at least not crappy).  I have a lot of resources on putting together a strong resume, especially for folks looking for international work — just follow this link for the good stuff!

  • Consider a site visit, if your finances permit. 

Sometimes, as other experts have also very ably suggested, sometimes the fastest way of finding an overseas experience is just heading out for a week or two to the place(s) you are interested in and asking around about work.

With options like sharing a room via AirBnB or CouchSurfing, you can often do this on the cheap, at least with respect to your expenses once you arrive.

The reality of this world is that people are far more likely to hire you after meeting you in person.  In-person meetings build trust, and allow employers to get a good sense of whether they will get along with you and want you on their team.  They also are a good way for you, the employee, to see if you will like your employer, and also to talk to other people that work there about their experiences.

Plus, a site visit allows you to scout out potential places to live, roommates, and so forth.  It may not be within everyone’s budget, but if it is, consider doing it.  It worked for me when finding a great volunteer experience that, although it was not paid, was an awesome job and in this aspect is not that much different from the situation in which Adventurers often find themselves.

The beauty of doing this in the Internet age is that, if you have done your due diligence, you can generally line up a LOT of interviews and conversations in advance over the Internet, so that you have a full schedule when you arrive.  No formal job interviews?  Do informational interviews!  Breakfast, lunch, dinner.  Coffees until you get sick of coffee and have to drink herbal tea to avoid caffeine overload.

And if you can’t fill your evenings with meetings, fill them with social events in the area to meet other people, or hang out at places where other expatriates go and meet people.  Leverage that modern technological advantage to get as many meetings and meet as many people as you can.

tl;dr:  If you have downtime during your site visit, you’re doing the site visit wrong.  Remember, you came to hustle, so go hustle!

  • Take ownership of the visa application process as much as possible — even if you need an employer to sponsor you. 

As someone who has applied for a number of work visas, I have a lot of first-hand experience here.  Make sure you are organized and on top of your visa application process from Day One.  Read and re-read the rules.  Make checklists and put deadlines on your calendar so you do not make any mistakes with your paperwork.

Visa offices are notoriously inflexible about even small mistakes or missed deadlines, so for God’s sake don’t throw it all away by submitting the wrong documents or blowing a deadline by a day or two.  

This holds true even if your employer is handling a lot of the visa application as your sponsor.  Although they may be responsible for some of the paperwork independent of you, it is still ultimately up to you to make sure that they submit their documentation correctly and on time.  Even if they are the ones that make the mistake, you will be the one that pays the price.

So please, please, please, make sure you maintain contact with your employer and check in with them before deadlines to make sure everything is on track.  Help them help you realize your goals.  Moreover, your future employer’s opinion of you will benefit if you are organized with respect to the visa application process.  Every employer likes a responsible, prepared employee, and this situation is no different.

Finally, to reiterate a point made earlier, there are some visa programs that will issue you a short-term work visa before you have a job.  In that case, you can get the visa, travel to the country in question, and just look for a job once you are there.

This, of course, has its disadvantages — you’ll be spending money abroad while looking, with no guarantee you’ll find a job.  But if you haven’t been able to find anything remotely, and have the money to cover short-term expenses until you find something, the risk can be worth it.  I just always recommend that you try your best to lay as much groundwork as possible for finding a job before you travel.

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5.  Other advice, including some things to watch out for (return to top)

Finally, I want to round out this fairly lengthy post with a few more thinks to keep in mind as you go forward with your job search.

5(a) — Your health/health insurance

Seriously, get serious and responsible about your health — even when you are on a short-term work stint abroad.

This is a big deal (1) because injury and illness, especially injuries from car accidents, are probably the biggest risk for any traveler, and (2) thinking about and making arrangements for health insurance and possible medical problems feels mundane and boring to most people.

You’re very unlikely to pick up a copy of Condé Nast and see a front-cover mention of health insurance issues.  They aren’t sexy.

Still, getting injured in a motor vehicle accident is pretty much the most serious risk anyone faces overseas — more than terrorism, more than violent crime, more than natural disasters.

There is some solid data to back this up, so you don’t just have to take my word for it.

The U.S. State Department complies annual records of all reported deaths of its citizens overseas, basically with the exception of active-duty soldiers or other wartime deaths.  Essentially, it is a record of all non-military deaths of U.S. citizens abroad.

As you can see in the chart below, vehicle accidents (cars, bikes, buses, etc.) make up the largest fraction of deaths — almost 3 out of every ten.  And if you remove self-inflicted deaths (i.e., suicides), this percentage rises to almost 35 percent.

(Data from the U.S. State Department)

In other words, assuming that these percentages largely hold true for other nationalities, the risk of being hurt in a car/vehicle accident is far and away the most worrisome.

Compounding this problem for Adventurers is that they often overlook the need for medical insurance.  Researching and buying health insurance is often tedious and complex.  Plus, many Adventurers are younger, and may never have had to consider health insurance coverage before.

My advice:  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU WILL HAVE SOME SORT OF HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE OVERSEAS.

Those of us whose friends and family have been in serious car accidents can attest — one bad car/bicycle/motorcycle accident can ruin your body for life without the right medical care, especially in less-developed parts of the world.

If you are assuming that any health insurance coverage you have at home will cover you overseas — don’t make that assumption.  Call your insurer before you travel to see what the extent of coverage is.  Otherwise, you could end up like this person, who had a bunch of dental work done in Thailand, only to find that his Australian insurance policy didn’t cover it.

Also, while some countries do offer basic state-provided medical care even to visitors, the level of care you may receive could be far below your expectations.  At the very least, you should investigate the extent of this coverage before decided to forego a private insurance policy.

Here are some tips to make sure you resolve this issue before you leave:

  1. Call any existing insurance companies to check to see what coverage you have abroad.  Even if your policy does offer coverage, a couple of details are important to check.  First, do you have to pay up front for medical services overseas and then ask to be reimbursed (this is common in many countries)?  If so, you could have to pay a large amount out of pocket.  Second, will you need to pay to translate any medical bills into your home language before getting reimbursed?  Some insurers have their own translators, but many require you to do this.  Translating these yourself may not be too hard if you are translating into English from Spanish or Portuguese, for example.  But it’s a lot harder if you are in Thailand. (Do you know what “distal radius fracture” is in Thai?  Didn’t think so.)
  2. See if there is any state-sponsored medical care available in-country.  This may require asking other expats living there.  Some countries, like those in Western Europe, have very generous state-provided medical care to everyone, including visitors.  Others may have such services, but at a far lower level of quality or availability.
  3. See if your employer offers any additional coverage.  Most probably do not.  But under some short-term visa programs, like the U.S. J-1 visas, all J-1 visa holders must have coverage, and for that reason many of the sponsoring employers offer or even require their sponsored short-term employees to buy insurance through a specific insurer.  (Disney is one example; you have to buy coverage through their provider.)
  4. Decide if you need additional coverage, and if so, seek it out.  The first place to check for additional coverage is to see if your visa program offers health insurance.  BUNAC, for example, offers a policy (note that I have no idea if it is a good one or not — nothing I write here should be considered an endorsement of any specific policy).  You can also look at a wide range of other private providers, of which there are many.  Just remember some the important details of coverage, which include:  What is your deductible?  Are there coverage limits?  Are you limited to specific doctors/networks, or can you go to any doctor?  Do you have to pay up front?  Do you have to submit translated bills?
  5. Decide if you need medical evacuation coverage.  Health insurance coverage will help cover expenses for medical treatment in-country.  But it generally will not pay to have you transported back home if you are seriously injured and/or need treatment not available where you are living.  These policies are separate, and for good reason.  Medical evacuations are VERY EXPENSIVE, starting in the multiple tens of thousands of U.S. dollars and going up from there.  These same policies also (morbid topic ahead) often cover sending your body home should you pass away overseas.  You may decide you do not need this coverage — but at least consider it before you go.  In many cases, you have to buy this — and any other supplemental health coverage — before you travel.

An additional note on medical evacuation coverage:  The need for this will depend on where you are going to live, and what you are thinking about doing there.

A personal story to hammer home the point:  I spent two years living in Cape Verde (great place, btw), a country of nine inhabited islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Santiago island, Cape Verde

Santiago Island Cape Verde

Maio island, Cape Verde

Steps of abandoned fortress, island of Maio, Cape Verde

While I lived in Cape Verde, I learned how to scuba dive.  Part of the course included a warning that, at least at that time, there were no functioning decompression chambers in the country.  (It seems this still may be the case.)  That meant that if you got decompression sickness from surfacing too fast after a deep dive (commonly called “the bends”), you had to be flown on a special, low-altitude flight to the Canary Islands for treatment.

Basically, you get the bends because nitrogen that dissolves in your bloodstream and tissues at lower depths turns into bubbles at the surface.  These tiny bubbles can destroy tissue and are at best, unpleasant. At worst, the bends are excruciating, and can be permanently debilitating or even fatal.

The way to treat people with the bends is to put them into a pressurized chamber that simulates being deep underwater again, and slowly lowering the pressure so that this nitrogen slowly leaves your system without forming these little bubbles.  So, if you got the bends in Cape Verde, you pretty much had to fly to the Canaries to use that decompression chamber.  That special, low-altitude flight (the higher altitude of normal commercial flights make the bends much, much worse) was not cheap.

Thus, if you were in Cape Verde back when I lived there, and were going scuba diving, medical evacuation insurance was pretty much a no-brainer.  Paying out of pocket would have meant a massive out-of-pocket payment that many people may not have been able to afford.  But what makes sense in one circumstance may not make sense in another.  Just make sure you think about this issue.

P.S.  This is also why there were (and likely still are) tragic deaths each year in Cape Verde from people who go spearfishing.  Many of them, who often lack secondary education and are unaware of the bends, get their hands on some dive equipment, go deep, stay down as long as they can to fish, and then just swim back up to the surface.  They get a terrible case of the bends, have nowhere to treat it in-country, and succumb.

5(b) — Be super-anal retentive about your visa application

I have applied for — and, as a U.S. diplomat, processed — my share of visas.  (Processing visa applications is not exactly a glamorous task, but that is a story for another day.)  So I know what I’m talking about here.

Making a mistake in a visa application, no matter how trivial it may seem, can be reason enough to delay or even deny a visa.

That’s because sometimes you have the bad luck to draw a pedantic, officious visa officer who enjoys the power play of refusing to help you until you have everything perfectly filled out (sadly, these people exist, even if they are uncommon).  Or other times, the visa rules are just that inflexible and intolerant of even the smallest errors.

Case in point:  I was applying for a Brazilian work visa in the United States several years ago.  Part of the visa process required me to sign a document and have my signature notarized.  For those of you in the United States or most other common-law/Commonwealth countries, this does not seem like a big deal.  You go to your local bank, almost all of which have a notary public there, bring an ID, and sign the document in front of them.  You pay them $5-10, they make sure you are who you claim you are, and sign and seal the document.  Their signature and seal means that the notary says your signature is authentic.

Easy, right?  Not in this case.

You see, to have a notarized document accepted at the Brazilian consulates, the notary’s signature must also be certified by another, “official” notary who works as a state employee.  This certification of a certification is called an “apostille,” and requires you to take that nice notarized document down to the county courthouse, pay another fee, wait another couple of days, and then — and only then — take the certified-certified document to the Brazilian consulate.

But it’s not over yet — the Brazilian consulate still has to certify the signature on the apostille, charge you another $20, and put a nice sticker on the final product.  In other words, the final product is a sticker from the consulate that certifies the signature of someone who certified the signature of someone who certified your signature.  It’s like a human centipede of signature certifications.

Oh, and at that time, the Brazilian consulate only accepted money orders from the U.S. Postal Service.  Literally, that was the only way to pay for things there.  Show up without a U.S. Postal Service money order for the exact amount and…tough luck, chief, come back next time when you have the right money order for the right amount.

And if you happen not to realize that you need an “apostille,” well…let’s just say that you will waste an entire morning waiting in line to find out that you need to leave, spend another few days getting the apostille, and then coming back to wait in line for another few hours.

If all this had happened to me close to the deadline for submitting all my paperwork, I might have had to start all over…or possibly even lost the job offer.

An "apostille" certificate from California

An apostille certificate, wherein someone certifies the signature of someone who certified your signature.  Fun, right?

So be very anal-retentive about your visa paperwork.  Read the instructions carefully.  Keep copies of all the documents you submit.  Don’t wait until the last minute.  And be polite to the visa officers, even when you don’t feel like it.  They are basically masters of their little domains, and have a vast amount of power over what happens to you.  Don’t piss them off, even if they piss you off.

5(c) — Have a backup plan for the most common problems abroad

This relates to some degree to my thoughts on health insurance above.

It pays off to spend literally just half an hour or so thinking of and developing a plan B for the most obvious risks while you are abroad, like:

  • What if you get really sick or injured?
  • What if someone steals your wallet/purse?
  • What if someone steals your cell phone?
  • What would you do if you run out of money?
  • What if your bank blocks your debit/credit cards (happens more often than you would think overseas)?
  • What if someone steals your luggage, with your passport and all your clothing (happened to a good friend once)?
  • What if there is some sort of natural or political disaster and you cannot leave easily (think being near Phuket during the 2004 tsunami or in Istanbul duly the July 2016 coup attempt)?
  • Is there anything going on back at home that could require you to return on a moment’s notice, like a sick family member?  (Last-minute plane tickets are expensive.)

You don’t need to go full-survivalist and plan everything out to the last detail.

Rather, just spend 10-20 minutes thinking about the possibilities, and another 10-20 minutes making some general plans.

For example, this can (and should) include taking digital photos of your passport, visa, and other important documents in case they were to be lost or stolen, and making a list of emergency numbers that you email to yourself or have them backed up in your online contacts.  (That way, if your phone is lost or stolen, you can get this basic info quickly by logging on to a computer.)  It can (and should) include registering with your Embassy before arriving so they know you are there in case of a natural disaster.  And it can (and should) include letting your bank know you will be traveling during certain dates so they don’t think a fraudster is using your credit or debit cards.

In other words, nothing fancy — just the basics to make sure that you know what you’d do in the most likely scenarios.

It really won’t take you much longer than half an hour.  And it may save you a lot of time and agony later.

5(d) — Working illegally

I’ll say it one more time.  You can almost assuredly find illegal work in many parts of this world.  But you are taking a big risk, and you are also placing yourself at the mercy of your employer.  I’m not dumb, I know it happens all the time…just know that there can be a price to pay, which is why I don’t recommend it.

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6.  Conclusions (return to top)

For the Adventurer, working abroad can be a fun, liberating experience.  You have the freedom to not worry too much about making a career out of your job — but rather, have a self-sufficient and immersive overseas experience, and perhaps make a little extra money to fund more travel.  Plus, you will likely meet people and make friends with people you never would have met back home.

This flexibility is, of course, not without its own price.  These short-term jobs often don’t offer much in the way of concrete career opportunities, and can sometimes involve work that, in and of itself, is not particularly entertaining.  But it will give you an overseas experience vastly different from just going as a tourist, and also — if you plan things right — pay for itself.

For that reason, the Adventurer experience is for the adventurous souls out there who are willing to roll with the punches and go where the work and work visa situation leads them.  If this sounds like you, don’t hesitate to get started with your research!  There are a LOT more opportunities for legal, short-term work abroad out there than many people imagine — you just have to be disciplined enough to look for it!

Finally, if you have had an Adventurer experience yourself (i.e., short-term, for-profit work abroad), and would like to let me know about your experiences, please write me at jeff@howtoworkoverseas.com.  I’d love to hear from you!

1 thought on “The Four Types of International Worker — #1: The Adventurer”

  1. Pingback: What sort of international work experience is right for you? (Real, battle-tested advice from someone who has been there.) – How to Work Overseas

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