Many of us have heard the good old stories of the best expat jobs-expats on crazy compensation packages working abroad and exploring the world. It sounds attractive because the alternative is to choose between exploring the unknown on a small salary (if any at all) or selling our soul to a company and travel when we retire.
While we might be aware that those were the crazy times before the internet, the jobs still exist but they appear a bit secretive and no one is really sharing that information online. And while they are still available they are becoming more and more rare the more expat work (and life) becomes broadly accessible to everyone via the internet.
This article isn’t meant for you to find the exact job and company but to give you an overview and understanding of which directions are possible and which one is for you.
What the best expat jobs look like
I wanted to make this article a little different than what we expats are used to. Most of what we see when googling best expat jobs are generic dumpster lists of job ideas that aren’t useful for you if you want to build your career abroad.
Not only are they vague but they are pretty useless in actually helping you figure out what’s possible working abroad. Instead, I’ll do things a little differently here.
This article is written for ambitious and highly motivated expats and people who want to leverage moving abroad to leapfrog their peers and build their career. There are some jobs that are considered expat jobs from time to time but really aren’t. That means I will not be looking at
- Remote jobs as they usually doesn’t help with on-ground visa and relocation to the new country which is essential
- Volunteer work where you don’t earn money and sometimes even pay to go
- Jobs that are difficult to advance your career with such as teaching English
I will also not be looking at specific countries. It’s impossible to judge if it will be a good fit without knowing your specific situation as some countries favor certain industries for expats while others don’t. For example, in Thailand, expats can leverage the hospitality industry whereas software development or sales might not be attractive.
Instead, the meaningful criterias you and I will look at for best expat jobs are
- Salary, benefits and the most important one; savings rate (a measure to compare opportunities across countries with different PPP, tax, etc.)
- Career building opportunity (opening up for future opportunities, the responsibility you get e.g. managing a team)
- How easy it is to move and live there (and how the company will support with relocation)
Salary, benefits and a more important metric for the best expat jobs
The challenge with comparing different opportunities is that different countries have different costs of living, different tax rates and a different culture for salary among expats. That means to judge different opportunities we can’t simply compare the salary and cost of living.
I’ve found that the best lens to view it through is our savings rate – how much money we are able to save up every month after tax. In most countries, we’ll expect to need the same stuff and more or less the same apartment or style of living. You’ll need to make a list of what is important to you to understand your monthly living costs.
We might argue that remote jobs are attractive because we can move to a low cost country, perhaps lessen the tax burden or even travel indefinitely like a digital nomad. The reality is that constant travel is stressful, not as productive as it sounds and not having the (visa) papers in order is more stressful than the little extra we might save in tax. That’s why remote jobs are a good option for many but not for us that are more career minded.
Is it a career building opportunity?
The second criteria is that it is important to be able to advance our career with each new job we take, meaning that each one builds on top of the other.
That means that popular travel jobs like teaching English aren’t a good fit even though some teachers earn $100,000 a year in certain countries. In my research, I haven’t found a proper trajectory to go further from there.
The most simple way to look at it is how we can increase our responsibility as we tend to get paid more the more responsibility we have. After speaking with many teachers, some advance to head teacher or leading the teacher group at one of multiple schools but it appears to be rare to do that and even so, it doesn’t appear as if there is a clear path up from there.
At the same time, I understand that it’s challenging to increase the salary significantly after that. Of course that changes over time and if you have any meaningful insights to share, please comment below and I’ll update this for everyone’s benefit.
Relocation: how easy it is to move and live in the new country
For most of us, the relocation is a given and will be a breeze in terms of sorting out the paperwork because the company will solve most of it.
This might not be the case if you are early in your career as we tend to have less leverage but we should still expect them to take care of visa, tax, etc. I’ve added this criteria because it is usually black or white from the company’s side and that makes it easier for us to judge whether an opportunity is right for us.
Remote work is on the rise and fine if you are working remotely within your own country or a region where you don’t need to deal with paperwork. But most remote companies don’t help you with the paperwork when you travel so you’ll have to take care of that yourself, which is a pain. That’s why we’ll skip everything that doesn’t help us with relocation.
On top of that, there will be some countries (particularly in Africa and the middle east at the moment) where things can be pretty dangerous and so expats have to live and work in a hotel or gated community. Since that is a big change to daily life, it is important to decide beforehand if that is something you are comfortable with.
Five examples of the best expat jobs
Next, let’s analyze popular expat jobs using the criteria above to get an overview of the best expat jobs. The list of expat jobs we’ll look at are
- Diplomatic/NGO work
- Working at tech startups
Let’s dive in!
1. Diplomatic/NGO work
These types of jobs are typically working from embassies, consulates or diplomatic entities like the UN.
My understanding is that there is often an attractive tax exemption or deal in place for these folks. Because they tend to be hired from home, are representing their home country and government abroad, they are often paid well and have no problem saving at least 50% of their salary every month, not to mention the benefits like attractive relocation, housing, etc.
Not only does it make it easier to build a strong network abroad but it tends to open up for great opportunities down the road either at home, in the current country or another since they are necessary for the next many years.
Relocation opportunities are often among the best out there but some of these jobs are in countries that are challenging to adapt to. For example, certain African or Middle Eastern countries with war or instability might make it more challenging as roaming freely can be limited and things we take for granted like Nutella might cost a fortune to import.
On the other hand, these can provide a great opportunity, especially early career as we might get added responsibility and have an easier time landing those jobs as most people don’t want to take on the task.
Hospitality and tourism usually includes working at a hotel, resort or a similar property. Most jobs on the ground are reserved for locals and not relevant for us expats but it can become attractive as we reach a middle manager level and lead teams.
The salary tends to be lower than in many other industries and that is the big downside to this industry. But it’s exchanged for extra benefits like exceptional travel deals around the world and it is generally considered a stable type of work with longevity.
It is common to switch between for example different hotels in different countries and work your way up the ladder that way. Overall, the savings rate tends to be low compared to other opportunities but it is a sexy industry and it might be possible to build a side business around working there that can make up for the lower salary.
The Corona season has been the exception but that will soon be over and things will be back to normal. There are special task forces and corporate headquarters that work with several of the brands we as consumers see in the market. If you are interested in that industry, it makes sense to either start there or work your way up to that.
Often expat jobs in this space are as a general manager or leading a team in for example sales or marketing and the relocation packages are usually okay although it depends on the value you are able to bring. I have some friends that get their own apartment on the property and others that don’t, so it depends on the situation.
Outsourcing is a booming industry with the increasing globalization and tends to be limited to certain regions or countries as the main incentive for outsourcing is cost savings, even though you might hear something else occasionally.
That brings a huge challenge with it which is that salaries are on the lower end since cost is among the key factors. To give you a point of reference, when I moved to a different industry in the same country, I increased my salary to earn about the same as my former direct boss, being about ten years my senior.
The other main factor is communication and that’s where you come in, especially early career as you might go work for a company from your home country with a branch abroad. Often they like having foreigners who speak your native language to help with communication and selling to companies back home. Often that is some variation of sales or project management roles.
The career opportunities in this industry lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum as there are definitely opportunities to advance into management but for those of us who are more career focused, going the sales route appears more attractive.
Generally, sales can earn more since it’s more performance based than mid level management and you’ll be able to transfer your sales skills to a different industry and earn more. I’ve also seen people leverage it to move back home and leapfrog their peers into more senior roles with the same or a similar company.
Relocation is generally just fine without being amazing.
4. Working at tech startups
Working at startups is as broad as it sounds and is the big chunk of expat jobs for us that don’t have a life long dream of being a diplomat, work in hospitality or other classic expat jobs.
Honestly, it’s difficult to give you a deep dive in an article like this simply because there are so many tech startups that there will always be some that are horrible, with little value and with low pay while others are terrific and allows us to save up 50%-75% of after post tax salary.
One of the keys is to understand the founder’s motivation to figure out which value we can bring and thus the responsibility and salary we can take on.
I’ve found that relocation is often little to non-existent unless you are quite senior and hired for a specific purpose. In most cases, you’ll get these jobs through networking in-country but it depends on how late-stage the business is.
Depending on the startup and salary you are ok with, it can be challenging to find a decent job right out of university as many expats are often hired at a mid manager level to lead a team and bring a certain working style that we know from the west to the country and culture.
I’ve found that a background in finance, IT and engineering tend to make it easier in these industries than sales and marketing as many businesses sell to the local market and thus we need local knowledge. Of course that is flipped on its head if the business sells overseas.
Finance is a bit different from working in tech startups unless we look at fintech startups that for the most part would fall under the startups-section. And there is also the more old school finance industry working as a banker at home first before being transferred overseas.
Keep in mind that I haven’t worked as a banker, so take this with a grain of salt. Fortunately, there are some books out there that share the story of what it used to be like and while it isn’t exactly the same anymore, the overall idea is still similar.
It’s an industry with a particular culture that will not be fit for most people as it is extremely money-driven and male dominated. They tend to set the golden standard for relocation, salary, benefits and career opportunities along with some diplomatic jobs.
My understanding is that it is not particularly competitive to go abroad although there is a limit to the number of people who can go. But it is extremely competitive to take the traditional route as it requires that we do well at the job and in university at home first.
If there are other industries you are curious about, let me know in the comments.
- The key to leveraging working abroad to advance your career, is to understand the opportunity we go into before jumping in with both feet as most of the jobs abroad that has been advertised aren’t a good fit for career expats like us but there plenty of secret opportunities if you know where to look
- Most of the information you’ll find online isn’t catering to that and so it is easy to assume that it is very difficult or not possible at all since most of the people you want to speak with about this are abroad already and thus hard to get in touch with
- For most of us who doesn’t have a dream career path since childhood, working at a tech startup abroad is a terrific choice if you are comfortable with that type of work environment
- Alternative reading: read about the best tech jobs in healthcare