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A Guide to Work Permits and Visas Abroad

From Initiating an International Career to Living as a Digital Nomad

By Volker Poelzl
Updated 1/12/2024 by Transitions Abroad

Airport terminal arrival to work abroad.

Imagine returning to the 1990s, when intrepid travelers whispered about secret under-the-table jobs to fund their journeys. I began my globetrotting adventures in my 20s during that era, encountering fellow travelers in search of these elusive work opportunities. From the bustling Kibbutz in Israel to the Kiwi orchards of New Zealand, we shared one goal: to make money and extend our travels. Work permits were a rarity back then, and the immigration service often disregarded our pursuits. Today, the landscape is more intricate, shaped by the country where you aim to work long-term. In this guide, we'll unravel the complexities and empower you to successfully secure a work permit or visa, focusing solely on these vital documents. We won't here explore the digital nomads' now near-endless job prospects abroad.

Short- and Long-Term Work Abroad: The New Frontier

The world has evolved, making working abroad more accessible yet loaded with nuances. Our globalized society has compelled governments to create agreements governing the movement of workers. Legal options for working include seasonal roles in agriculture and working holidays that permit young people to work and explore their chosen countries for several months to a year. Meanwhile, securing well-paying, long-term careers often entails navigating extensive work permit applications. Additionally, the influx of immigrants has sparked a resurgence of protectionist policies in some countries, counteracting globalization to some degree.

Demystifying Work Permits and Visas: Your Roadmap

This guide sheds light on the enigmatic and often misconstrued world of work permits and visas, clarifying their capabilities and limitations. We aim to prepare you for obtaining these essential documents in your country of choice, though each country has its own unique rules alone or as part of a regional agreement.

What is a Work Visa?

Countries worldwide have intricate laws governing the entry of foreigners. In some nations, employers acquire work permits, granting you the right to reside there. Conversely, you must apply for a separate residency visa in other countries after obtaining a work permit. The terminology may seem complicated, reflecting the diverse work permits and visas offered globally. However, specific characteristics are universal:

1. Job Dependency: A work permit always corresponds to a specific job a company offers. Requirements for obtaining one can range from a simple job offer letter to a notarized work contract. Approval may necessitate the labor ministry and local employment office endorsement to ensure all local candidates get their often legally required opportunities. Quotas, categorizing permits (e.g., "highly skilled professional," "seasonal farm worker," or "academic researcher") may limit availability, requiring you to wait for the next calendar year if they fill up.

2. Single Job, Single Employer: Work permits universally tie you to one specific job with one employer. Changing jobs often means restarting the permit process.

3. Time Constraints: Work permits typically have defined time limits, either aligning with the job's duration or adhering to legal timeframes. Extensions are usually more accessible than initial applications.

4. Government Discretion: Work permits are not an entitlement but a government-granted privilege that can be revoked or modified at any time. They afford you the right to work until the government withdraws that privilege, and job loss often results in permit loss. A work permit does not guarantee unemployment benefits, social welfare, pensions, long-term visas, permanent residency, or citizenship. These factors hinge on other factors, such as the current economic climate and government policies.

5. Apply from Home: In most cases, foreign job applicants must apply for work permits at their home country's consulate or embassy. This practice ensures compliance with correct procedures.

Obtaining a Work Permit: The Path to International Employment

Work permit form in French.

Now that you have an overview of the fundamentals of work permits and their privileges let's explore the crux of the matter: how to secure a work permit for long-term international jobs.

The Golden Key: "Needed Skills"

The surefire way to unlock a work permit in a foreign land is by possessing sought-after skills. Professions in high demand, such as technology, banking, healthcare, and English teaching, enjoy smoother permit applications. A variety of countries prioritize these professions, expediting foreign work permit approvals. Consider the H-1B visa in the U.S., where STEM professionals often find speedy approvals. However, for most, the work permit application process remains tedious, taking three to six months, depending on the host country's bureaucracy, efficiency, and immediate needs.

Alternative Paths: Strategic Career Choices

Another avenue for legal international work is direct transfers from your employer in your home country to an overseas branch or subsidiary. While technically not employed in the host country, such transfers typically yield faster approval and are managed by your employer. Nevertheless, this path requires luck, meticulous planning, and networking to secure your desired overseas posting. Alternatively, pursue a career with a global outlook, researching degrees and professions in high demand in your target countries. Some jobs may not naturally lend themselves to international work due to cultural differences and low demand overseas. For instance, fields like mental health professions necessitate cultural knowledge and language proficiency, often lacking in foreigners. Americans, in particular, should work hard to learn other languages if they seek to work abroad, as the country does not rank high in foreign language proficiency but is often seen as crucial even while the lingua franca remains English. English is the international language of technology and finance, and you will likely have no language problems at work even if you accept a job in Shanghai. By contrast, working as an agricultural expert or aid worker in rural Mongolia, you will face completely different cultural and language requirements to succeed.

Preparation is Key: Internships and Networking

Familiarity with the culture and environment of your chosen country is crucial. Consider working there on an internship shortly before or after graduating from college. An international internship allows you to immerse yourself in the local culture and language and may open doors within companies. To stand out among international job applicants, strategically plan your career over several years, secure internships, learn the language, establish local contacts for professional references, and continuously monitor overseas job postings.

Teaching English: A Reliable Gateway to a Job Abroad

Another very popular route used as a stepping stone to an international career overseas is to teach English. A college degree and a 6-week TEFL certificate, obtainable online or in-country, are often sufficient qualifications. Teaching can also lead to other opportunities through networking and establishing employment in your destination country.

Digital Nomad Visas for Work

As of 2024, 11 European countries currently offer digital nomad visas, with more contemplating such an option. Many more countries worldwide provide some form of this particular visa, with some listing 58 digital nomad working and living possibilities and growing. These special visas allow digital nomads to live and work in an EU or another country beyond the typical 90-day limit, often for a year or more if they can meet proof of income requirements or prove they have sufficient accessible savings. These countries include some beautiful places to work and live: Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. Most digital nomad visas require the holder to be self-employed or employed by a foreign company, work remotely, and be willing to provide proof of a minimum income level. In fact, since the pandemic, there has been an increase in digital nomads, and the digital nomad phenomenon had already been underway well before. Many international corporations need work completed, especially in technical areas, no matter where you complete your assignments, and as long as you have now very common high-speed internet access.

Research and Diligence: Your Allies

Research companies offering appealing jobs and the locations where they are based. Numerous international job boards are available online, and regularly monitoring these resources equips you for cover letter writing and international resume or CV submission when the time comes. The more competitive your educational background, skills, cross-cultural experience, language proficiency, and work history, the better equipped you are to compete in the global job market.

Transitions Abroad has a detailed section on short-term work permit programs available to Americans, often directed towards college students and post-grads. Finally, our section on the Best Expatriate Websites often includes resources, articles, and forums where the specific rules for the country you seek to work in provides information.


Gaining access to a work permit and living abroad long-term necessitates determination and patience. While there may not be a one-stop resource for all desired international careers, meticulous planning, searching, and networking will pave the way. Many reputable educational institutions provide valuable insights into work permit visas overseas, including work permit programs for students. With tireless commitment and diligence, your journey to securing a work permit visa and expanding your horizons abroad is within reach. Embrace the challenge, and let the world become your workplace.

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for He has traveled in over 40 countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research, and work.

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