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What to Know About Visas for Living Abroad

A passport and visa stamp are required for visas of all kinds.
We get repeated questions about visa requirements. Many Americans and international citizens want to know what types of visas are available for them to live overseas.

We have outlined the primary visa options for those interested in living abroad, from short- to long-term, for work, study, residency, and retirement.

Tourist Visas

Most countries allow visitors to stay as tourists for up to one to three months. Here is a great place to start on the path to getting a visa to live abroad, as we recommend visiting a country long-term before even considering moving abroad. As long as you prove that you have sufficient funds, you can extend your stay. Some countries require an extension every month, others only every three months. Except for a few retirement havens, such as Central America and the Caribbean, most countries have strict laws about how long foreigners can stay in their country as tourists, rarely allowing stays over six months.

In Western Europe, Americans can spend three months in the 27 European countries that have established a standard immigration policy (also known as Schengen countries, named after a Luxemburg town where the treaty was signed). They can apply for a 3-month extension, provided they can prove that they have enough funds to support themselves. Non-European citizens, however, can only stay in the Schengen area for up to six months in any given 12-month period. The Schengen Agreement means your stay will be illegal if you want to stay in Europe for over six months in a calendar year, with no more than three months successively. Since Americans don't always get a stamp on their passport when arriving in a Schengen country, it isn't easy to prove that you have overstayed.

Work Abroad Programs and Au Pair Visas

Several countries offer Working Holiday visas. Australia and New Zealand have a unique short-term work program for young Americans, a flexible work permit for several months. Canada and the U.K. offer work programs for U.S. college students and recent graduates, allowing them to work for up to six months. Many European countries have made working as an au pair easy without applying for an official work permit. Still, you may be required to enroll in language classes or university courses.

Long-Term Work Visas

Work visas are hard to get, no matter where you intend to work. It would be best if you had a job offer from overseas, and your potential employer needs to prove to local authorities that they have advertised locally and that you are the best candidate for the job. After the local authorities have approved your employment, you can apply for a work permit at the respective consulate in your home country. If you change jobs, you need to start over with the visa application process.

Permanent Residency and Citizenship

Permanent residency status is usually only granted after someone has legally resided in a country for several years with a temporary residency visa. If you have legally worked in a foreign country for several years, you may be eligible to apply for permanent residency. The same applies to people with a temporary residency permit because of retirement. You can also apply for permanent residency if a relative of yours (parent, spouse, or child) is a citizen of that country. A small number of countries (including Ireland and Italy) offer special ancestry visas, making it easier for foreign-born descendants of citizens to claim citizenship in the land of their ancestors. Once you obtain permanent residency status in a country, you can eventually apply for citizenship, although the waiting period for citizenship varies from country to country.


If you can prove that you have enough retirement income from your home country, many countries will open their doors to you and award you a temporary residency permit, as long as you are not planning to look for work. The required monthly income varies from country to country. It is reasonable in Mexico and Central America but high in Europe. Remember that the bureaucracy for such residency permits can be daunting, and you should hire a local consultant or lawyer to help you with this task.

Volunteer and Internship Visas

These visas are easier to obtain than work permits since they do not involve paid employment. Although most short-term volunteers and interns (up to three months or so) usually perform their work with a tourist visa or permit, many countries require an official visa for volunteer work or internships. An official visa is a good idea, especially if the period of your stay exceeds that of an ordinary tourist permit. Remember that visas other than tourist visas or permits often have a substantially higher application fee and take longer to process. Always apply for the appropriate visa in your country of residence well before departure.

Student Visas

For most language courses, students do not require a student visa, but if you intend to enroll in a high school or university overseas, you must get a student visa. Once a school abroad accepts you, you need proof that you can afford both tuition and room and board to get a student visa. With a few exceptions, France, for example, most countries do not allow international students to look for paid work. Make sure you find out the details. Student visas are usually for one year, and you may often extend them.

For more information:

The websites of embassies of most countries provide visa information, as do many private agencies, for a fee.

Please check out our list of global and country-specific expatriate websites, many of which have detailed information and first-hand stories, forums, and articles on getting visas for living abroad.

Related Articles and Resources for Visas
How to Get Work Permit Visas Abroad
Living Abroad and Expatriate Resources
Global Expatriate Websites

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