Immigration Around the World

Immigration, and its sister emigration, have never been of greater interest. As I update this post in July 2018 we remain in the throes of a huge global migration triggered by the various wars and conflicts in the Middle East.

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Over 50,000 asylum seekers have landed in Europe by sea since the start of the year, and this is nothing compared to the peak of the crisis in 2015, when I first wrote this guide – well over 1million landed that year.

Yet there is nothing new about migration and there is nothing new about there being huge peaks and troughs in the numbers of people moving around the world – including refugees.

Migration – most of it not related to refugee status – has been a growing feature of international life for the last 50 years or more. It has become easier with the arrival of cheap flights, better education and pan-national entities (such as the European Union) which allow members of one state to live in another without special formality. It has become more popular as increasing numbers of people find out that they already know other people who have successfully moved to another country to live, work or retire.

It is now commonplace for a graduate from a (say) British university to have a first job working in another country and then to develop an international career and this trend is likely to grow strongly over the next few years.

At a different level, workers in low-pay countries know that they can earn three times as much elsewhere and have networks of friends and family members who are are already doing this successfully and profitably: 10% of the population of Romania – and a much bigger percentage of its young people – have left the country.

And, of course, many millions of people in deprived and war-torn parts of the world dream of peace and prosperity elsewhere: typically in Europe, only a short boat ride away.

The basics

In 2017, according to the UN, there were 258million people living outside their country of origin. This is up from 173million in 2000.

Most migrants go to another country for a better lifestyle: better economic or social opportunities, often coupled with a better climate.

There is hardly a country in the world that does not now have significant numbers of foreigners living and working in that country. The number of people of foreign origin varies enormously from country to country. In China, it is well under 1% of the population; in the United Arab Emirates it is nearly 84%.

In both of these cases and in most others the large majority of immigrants have moved to the country using the regular processes required of people wanting to live, work or retire in that country rather than under the process for refugee status or asylum.


The first thing that needs to be said about moving from one country to another is that, in most cases, the process is complex. It is definitely an area where you will need good professional advice.

As with so many features of living and working internationally, concepts that you think that you understand from your time ‘back home’ turn out to be rather different from what you’d expected. Words and phrases – even simple and basic words such as ‘visa’ – have different meanings in different countries. Add to this the fact that almost every immigration system in the world operates in a different way and you have a recipe for instant confusion!


We generally talk about immigration but, of course, every person who is an immigrant (who moves to another country) is also an emigrant (who is moving from a country).

In most cases the process of immigration is more complicated than the process of emigration.

In this guide we do not consider the process of emigration.

Different types of immigration

Whilst every country in the world has a different immigration system and processes that have different twists and turns, there are some basic themes that flow through the majority of the world’s immigration systems. In particular, immigrants tend to be divided into broad classes or groups with different rules applying to each group.


In most countries, tourism is not thought of as immigration but it still tends to be controlled by the immigration authorities because of the risk that tourists can extend their stay or simply leak into the local community.

In most countries, tourists who intend to stay in the country for no longer than 90 days face a very much simplified immigration procedure. Often, they need to do no more than turn up in the country with a passport and (frequently) a visa fee. Whilst the state has the right to refuse entry and will do so in cases where the immigration officer suspects that the person is not a genuine tourist but intends to stay in the country, in most cases the tourist is simply admitted.

For tourists who wish to stay for periods over 90 days there is usually a slightly more complex process involving the obtaining of a visa before you leave your own country.

In many countries a person who arrives as a tourist cannot then apply to stay in the country in some other capacity. If they wish to do so they must return home and make a fresh application from their home country.


Studying in another country is fast becoming a regular part of student life. Some courses now require students to spend a term (semester) or a year abroad.

For immigration purposes, in most countries a student will be any person attending a course of education whether they are eight or 28 years of age. However, the vast majority are of college or university age.

International student numbers worldwide are around 5million. The OECD predicted in 2011 that international student numbers would reach 8million by 2025, although a number of factors they have since highlighted might slow that growth.

Almost every country has specific requirements for people wanting to study in the country.

Most countries will impose minimum educational standards on those seeking to travel to another country to study. Most will require the student to prove that they do not intend to remain in the country at the end of their studies. Almost all will require the student to show that they can support themselves during their studies and that they have adequate medical insurance. Some will allow students to work to help pay for their time in the country but the right to work is often limited.


In many countries any person wishing to travel to the country as a journalist requires a special type of visa. This requirement is often ignored, with the journalist simply travelling as a tourist. This can sometimes backfire in the most painful way.

Short-term business trips

The world’s countries are pretty evenly split between those who view short-term business trips – holding meetings, visiting customers etc – as something that can properly be done under a tourist visa and those who insist on the person obtaining a separate type of business visa. Once again, many business people travel on a tourist visa even when visiting a country where they should have a business visa.


Travelling to another country in order to work is probably one of the most difficult challenges facing the international traveller. Many people want to do it but most countries want to protect their own labour market.

As a result, it is almost always necessary to get a special visa if you want to work in another country; and that visa is both complicated and difficult to obtain. Generally, there are only certain types of jobs for which you will be able to obtain a visa and you will need to show that you have the necessary qualifications and experience to do the work.

In many countries the basic approach is that an employer can only seek permission to employ a foreigner if he can show that there is nobody in the country who is capable of doing the work required. Often, the key to obtaining the visa will be that the work requires advanced language skills or advanced technical skills – often, in both cases, with the need to understand the culture of the customers for whom the work is to be done.

See our individual country guides for detailed requirements for work visas in the countries of interest to you. You will almost always have to obtain a work visa before you leave your own country.

One important exception to the requirement for work visas is the European Union. Any citizen of any EU member state has the right to seek work in another EU country, without prior formality. Of course, if they want to carry out work that requires special qualifications (such as work as a doctor or pilot) they will need to show that they have those qualifications. This ability to travel freely within the EU has led lots of people of European extraction to investigate whether they are entitled to an EU passport. Surprising numbers are.

Self employment

Many countries draw a distinction between working for somebody else as a paid employee and working for yourself.

Curiously, it is often easier to obtain a permit to go to those countries to set up or pursue your own business than it is to go as an employee.

Typical businesses might include being a hairdresser, a plumber or a property manager. Of course, in each case, if the local law requires people to have qualifications to carry out the work then the foreigner wanting to set up such a business will have to have those qualifications as well.


If you wish to open a business in the country and employ local people you are likely to find it relatively simple to obtain the necessary visa to do so.

If you are a key employee of a large business that already employs lots of local people your employer will, equally, usually find it relatively simple to obtain a visa for you to work in that country.


Around the world, millions of people have decided that they want to spend their life post-retirement in a country other than that in which they were born. The paperwork needed to do this varies significantly from country to country as does the complexity of obtaining it. In most cases it is relatively straightforward provided that you can show that you have enough money to support yourself during your retirement, a place to live and adequate health insurance. Again, see our individual country guides for details.

Family reunion

Most countries make special arrangements for people to join their families.

The most common of these is a visa permitting you to live in the country if you are married to a citizen of that country or a visa permitting a child to join its parents in that country.

In some countries, special arrangements are also made allowing elderly relatives to join younger members of their family.

The detailed rules for family reunion probably vary more from country to country than the rules relating to most other categories of immigration.

Again, see our individual country guides for details.

Residence by investment

Increasing numbers of countries permit you simply to buy the right to live in their country. The details vary enormously but you might have to invest, say, $500,000 in a qualifying investment in the country. That investment will give you the right to remain in the country, subject to certain rules, for as long as you hold the investment.


Most countries have other classes of visas permitting other people to move to the country. Often these will be work-related. For example, a special category of visa for visiting priests or sportsmen. Other special visas apply to diplomats and their families, the families of visiting service personnel, visiting aid workers and their dependants, etc.

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