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How to Find a Business Internship Abroad

Skyscrapers in Mexico City.
Skyscrapers in Mexico City.

Many college students aspire to careers in international business, yet most summer internships abroad often fall outside of the private sector. How, then, can a business-minded college student land herself in the offices of a global capitalist? By tossing aside those work abroad guides and invoking two of the oldest — but most intimidating — tricks of job hunting: cold calling and networking.

During my sophomore year in college, when work abroad guides and email cover letters were still in their infancy, I sent a mad flurry of faxes to Mexico. I was determined to find a summer internship that would teach me a bit about business in Mexico.

I dug up a list of business associations in Mexico and started faxing, followed by some telephone calls. After several weeks, the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico finally agreed to bring me on board to help it write a guide to business in Mexico in the post-NAFTA era. A chamber of commerce wasn’t really business, though, so I dug up a list of Mexican subsidiaries of U.S. businesses. The faxing started again, and eventually I convinced Brockman & Schuh Mexico, an insurance company, to let me work for them two mornings a week.

Feeling like my luck was running high, I tried to apply the same methodology the following summer to finding an internship in Brazil. This time I started with the American Chamber of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro. “We don’t offer internships,” the return fax read, “but send us your resume and we’ll circulate it to all of our members.” A few weeks later, I received a phone call from an executive at the Brazilian subsidiary of Unisys, a multinational computer company that needed an extra hand building a marketing database.

I certainly had my share of luck, and the world has changed a lot over the previous 20 years, but it mostly has changed in ways that make it easier for college students to land business internships abroad. A few practical tips:

  • Start with associations. The U.S. and Canada have chambers of commerce in many countries abroad. These groups may offer internships in their own offices or even help connect you with their members. Start searching at American Chambers of Commerce Abroad worldwide directories. Other informal groups, such as newcomers clubs for expatriates, maintain email listservs and may be open to an emailed introduction with a résumé attached. Job classifieds for dozens of countries appear on local expat websites. And, this magazine’s website,, maintains a list of links to expatriate sites where you can network online or set up in-person interviews.

  • Work through your college alumni network. International alums of U.S. and Canadian colleges may be eager to get in on the job-hunting give-and-take that happens between alums and students back in the U.S. and Canada. These alums often occupy positions of influence in their companies overseas and might be able to arrange an internship more easily.

  • Consider offering to work unpaid. It’s worth asking for a salary, but if that’s not opening doors, nothing sells like free labor. A willingness to work for free not only eases the legal process (e.g., neither you nor your employer will have to deal with work visas), but it also shows how committed you are to a private sector internship abroad. Many employers will reward you with free housing or a small living stipend, and it’s reasonable to ask for these.

  • Lose your inhibitions about cold-calling on the telephone or networking via LinkedIn. Email makes it easier these days to make that first contact, but, in many countries deals generally close only once a personal connection is made.

  • Take no for an answer but ask, “who else can I call?” Not everyone will warm to your charming phone calls, but many have friends and associates who could be interested. It’s always worth asking.

  • Take a risk and travel to the country first. Once you arrive abroad, you will meet locals and expatriates alike who may be willing to take you in for an interesting project in the office. You can keep cold calling once in-country, and a face-to-face follow-up is more likely to firm up an internship.

All this is easier in the information age. The web is open to all, most of the world’s gross domestic product comes from the private sector, and most large and medium-sized firms are somewhere out there on the Internet.

Landing an internship in that huge private sector is easier than it seems, particularly when the search itself becomes part of the journey.

Related Topics
Internships Abroad

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