Back in the day, a career overseas was reserved for the lucky few who dared to take the leap of faith and worked in the few jobs that paid well and came with amazing privileges.
That isn’t the case anymore. In this article, you and I will look at insights into the good and bad things about working abroad, why most people don’t do it, and where to start if you want to take a stab at it but don’t have one of the old school expat industries lined up.
The pros and cons of a career overseas
Before we dive into the barriers to consider, let’s look at the pros and cons of a career overseas and who it’s a good fit for.
1. We can advance our career and leapfrog our peers
By going where most people don’t want to, we get leverage. Contrary to what it looks like on paper, advancing our career is sometimes more a matter of being at the right place at the right time than following a well thought out plan.
This is especially true when we enter developing markets in the startup world where there often is no real structure and everything has to be built. Simply by being there, the situation might develop and with colleagues that trust us, extra responsibility can fall into our lap.
At one point, that’s exactly what happened to me as someone at my job had to develop reports for investors. Because my work was somewhat related, I jumped on the opportunity even though I didn’t have a relevant background and it turned out to be a great way to learn that I could use to ask for a raise down the road.
If we do that over and over again, we can stack our responsibility, and over time we can advance several stages past our peers at home who have to follow a more traditional route in established markets.
2. We can sometimes save up more
A common mistake when deciding on a job abroad is to focus too much on the salary. It’s a good starting point but because the situation varies so much from country to country, it makes sense to take the tax and cost of living into account as well.
Sometimes it makes sense to take a lower salary if the tax and living cost are proportionally lower because our disposable income or savings rate is higher than at home.
It isn’t talked about all that much, but some people work abroad to pay off their student debt or save up because they find an opportunity that is better abroad than the trajectory at home.
3. We might meet life changing friends
The craziest things that happened in my life came about because of stuff that I learned or discovered through friends. They know me well and suggested ideas or other people that they thought I should meet.
I discovered archery tagging, which is a game where two teams have to shoot each other with bow and arrow on an obstacle course, like in paintball. Or the time at work when my boss took our team wakeboarding and I discovered perhaps my new favorite sport.
4. The freedom to not worry about the usual stuff
This is one of those things that divide the waters. Some people can’t be away from their family and for them going abroad will probably be challenging, if not impossible.
For others, it’s a relief because the physical distance gives us a different way to think about our relationships, value them more and create a more meaningful connection with the people we already know. For example, if we don’t see people as often we tend to prioritize quality time with them rather than browsing Instagram like we always do anyway.
Of course it isn’t all rosy, so let’s look at the downsides as well.
1. We have to embrace something extremely different
This one is pretty obvious and the reason most people don’t go abroad in the first place. Things will be hella different and if that scares you without some level of excitement, building a career abroad probably isn’t for you.
There will definitely be culture shock and annoyances after the initial honeymoon period. That’s a part of the deal.
2. The transition period is stressful
The most annoying part is probably the physical move itself. Not the flight but the preplanning, gathering the relevant documents for visas and work permits, and settling in after the move. It’s exciting at the same time but often there’ll be a few months before and after the move where we have to figure everything out before things get fun.
Telling friends and family that we are moving is a bigger pain to those of us who have close relations guilt-tripping us for leaving. I’m sure that many do it because they’ll miss us but it is often toxic and egoistic behavior that we don’t benefit from being around.
3. A portion of our holidays are spent going home
This is a bit of an odd one if you haven’t lived abroad before. For many expats who live far away from their home country, a portion of their holiday time each year is spent visiting friends and family at home instead of exploring new places.
Some expats spend more time at home than others but it’s worth noting. We also tend to lose some friends because we aren’t home as often but I’ve found that those aren’t really meaningful or we wouldn’t lose them. On the other hand, I find that those we stay in contact with tend to build a closer bond and we become a more meaningful part of each other’s lives because we don’t see each other as often. Luckily, it’s easy to stay in contact via the internet these days.
Before moving on to what happens when we go abroad, let’s look at who this is for.
Who a career overseas is for
I find that working abroad is mostly for people who want to work hard to do something different in their life or those of us who are curious about what else is “out there”, as it is more challenging compared to just staying at home and following the “standard” path in life.
People who love the way things are, don’t want to change too much and aren’t a big fan of traveling probably won’t enjoy it. The same goes for people who value being close to their family above all else.
Why don’t more of us have a career overseas?
I like to think that there are two reasons why not that many people go abroad and make a career overseas:
- We don’t believe the career trajectory overseas is better than at home and/or we can’t leave friends and family behind
- We don’t know how to make friends or are afraid that they can’t (even if they don’t want to admit it)
Personally, I didn’t know that it was a viable option beside working at an embassy or a hostel, which wasn’t for me. If I had known what I know now back then, I would have probably taken a more targeted approach as it would have benefited my career greatly.
These days there is a bit of information on how building a career overseas works but it isn’t much and for most of us, it’s just difficult to figure the path out besides through painstaking trial and error.
Many are focused on our credentials which can be relevant (and especially has been in the past) but isn’t always as effective as networking our way to a job abroad. We tend to assume that it is extremely difficult and that there are only a few limited ways to do it like going through a large corporation after years of service.
Another challenge is that many of us aren’t sure what it’s going to be like living abroad and if we can even make good friends there considering a different culture and language. It’s not like we are taught in school or at home how to create a new social circle from scratch without the aid of school and years to bond.
It can feel a lot easier to stick with a situation that isn’t too bad than taking the risk and go for something truly amazing like the stuff we see in amazing videos.
It can feel scary to move abroad for work, especially as most of us don’t know anyone (or have someone close) who did it successfully before. There’s also a lot of uncertainty involved (high risk, high reward as they say) and we might even have to learn a new language that seems sexy on the surface but requires a lot of energy.
Where to start building your career overseas
Unless you have a specific type of job or industry in mind like diplomatic work, there isn’t that much information out there on where to start building a career overseas.
Overall, if your priority is to go overseas, the tech startup industry tends to be your best bet. We don’t always need lots of certifications and crazy degrees as long as we work hard and are proactive.
Tech startups usually work by the founder having an idea and raising investments to build it fast. Often there are a few competitors building a similar idea in the same country and many industries work in a winner-takes-all fashion, where the business that scales the fastest wins the game.
These ideas tend to be born from other markets where they are already established, if you have experience from a similar business it can be very valuable. I cover working at tech startups overseas in other articles more in-depth, so I’ll leave you with a counterintuitive idea to finding a job in that industry.
Many applicants looking for jobs are applying the old school way through job portals and recruitment agencies. It can work but especially in the startup world, we tend to get extra points for being proactive and reaching out to businesses on our own.
This is particularly relevant if we are already in the country, as we can meet them for coffee, learn about the business and what kind of challenges they face, that we might be able to help with.
If at all possible, I highly recommend selecting a few cities, finding relevant companies there and going for holiday first to see what the country is like and meet as many relevant people face to face as possible.
Showing up in person sends a serious signal and they get to see that we are not a crazy person (something that can be hard to judge over a zoom call). We can keep in touch online after that.
If you reach out with general interest in the business and potentially working in the city, most businesses would love to meet you, as no one bothers to do this and founders LOVE proactive employees.
- Building a career overseas is not a good fit for most people but can be highly rewarding for those of us who dare, as we can leapfrog our peers and advance our career faster
- There is surprisingly little information about that path available, so it can be difficult to figure out where to start if we don’t already know someone who’s done it successfully
- If you don’t have a clear industry or job lined up abroad, tech startups might be your best bet at a serious career job overseas