Preparing to Work in a Foreign Country

This guide is about the steps you need to take when preparing to work in a foreign country. It covers both people seeking international jobs and people being sent overseas by their employer. It details the preparation needed by the employee and also looks at the things that should be done by the family of someone who will be working abroad.

1. Early preparation
2. Researching or choosing the country you want to work in
3. Before you move, make sure you…

Working in a foreign country is a dream for many people and an unfortunate necessity for others. Whichever group you fall into, your life will be made much easier if you take some basic steps before moving to work in a foreign country.

Some of you will be lucky enough to work for companies that provide good training, great materials and ongoing practical support for people who will be working abroad. Others provide nothing. The good news is that today, thanks to the internet, you can access some of the materials and soak up some of the knowledge that the better employers have so expensively acquired. See the links at the end of this guide for some useful places to look if you are preparing to work in a foreign country.

I wish I had had access to materials like these 30 years ago when I started to work in foreign countries. On my first assignment abroad I went with nothing. No background information. No advice. No prior preparation. I survived but was like a lamb to the slaughter. This certainly didn’t help me do a good job and, believe me, the ‘adventure’ of having no idea what is going to happen next is much overrated!

Try to enjoy it

Most people who travel to work abroad are attracted to the idea of working in a foreign country and international life. Most want to enjoy the experience. If you are not in that group, try to enjoy your time working overseas. Make the most of the opportunities, learning about new cultures and broadening your work experience. They will all prove invaluable later on in life; often in ways you can’t now imagine.

Some of the people I know, who went reluctantly to work in a foreign country, did not embrace the experience, became deeply depressed and had to be sent home. That is good for neither the employee nor the employer.

Don’t forget your family

Are they as keen as you to embrace international living and working in a foreign country?

How will they adjust to the new place? Life in an exciting, far-flung place, often in a country with poor infrastructure, can be difficult for families – especially if one of the parents is not working.

Prepare not only for yourself but also for them. Better still, get them doing some of the preparation. They will then start engaging with the project.

Early preparation

Some preparation for working in abroad can be started very early on: before you have even decided which foreign country you want to work in. Early preparation is a great time saver and can take a lot of the stress out of your move to work abroad.

You will find out that, once the time comes and you find a job, the days and weeks race by and you will be hard pressed to get everything done in the time available.

Get your paperwork in order

You will, inevitably, need some paperwork in order to find work abroad or to travel to your new job in a foreign country.

Passport

Is your passport about to expire?

Does the photograph still look like you? In many foreign countries they more attention to border control than you might see “back home”.

Driving licence

Is your driving licence about to expire? If it is a photo-licence, is the photo up-to-date?

If you have points on your licence but they are long out of date, get them removed if you can. You will suffer fewer problems if stopped by a police officer who does not speak your language.

Will you be allowed to drive on the strength of you ‘home’ driving licence? Do you need an International Driving Permit (“IDP”)? An IDP, which is slightly larger than a passport, is a multi-language translation of your driver’s licence, complete with your photograph and other information about you. It is recognised in most countries and allows you to drive using your ‘home’ licence.

Will you be required to take out a local driving licence? If so, will you need to pass a medical or a local driving test? In most countries you will only need a local licence after you have been a resident for a certain time: typically two years.

European Health Insurance Card

If you are a citizen of an EU country and you are going to work in another EU country, it is a good idea to get a European Health insurance Card (“EHIC”). This covers you for emergency medical treatment, but only whilst you are a ‘visitor’ to the country. As a worker, you will be a resident and so need different paperwork. See our guide to healthcare for the country where you will be working to see what you will need. However, the EHIC is still worth having for when you first arrive.

You obtain an EHIC in your own country. You can usually do it online. It is free.

Medical records

When travelling to work abroad, it is a good idea to get a copy of all of your medical records, including the drugs you are taking. Many of those drugs will be described using brand names, which may be different in the country you are going to, so it is a good idea to get them ‘translated’ into the generic drug name. A doctor will usually do this for a modest fee or you can do it yourself online. It is worth doing this even if you are going to a country where your language is the first language.

If you have a complex medical history and you are going to work abroad in a country where your language is not their first language, in it is a good idea to have your medical records translated, to keep a copy yourself and to give a copy to your new doctor. Translation is not cheap: Absolute translations, for example charge about £700 (US$1,000) to translate 5,000 words of medical records from English to Spanish. However, this is far better than a fatal misunderstanding with your doctor!

Educational & professional records

You never know when you might need to produce your educational and professional qualifications. It is not worth translating these unless you are specifically asked to do so.

Power

It is a good idea to give someone “back home” a wide ranging Power of Attorney so that they can deal with things – particularly the unexpected – on your behalf. This is not usually expensive. See our Guide to Powers of Attorney for the country where you live for details of how to do this.

Note that you will usually only need a ‘local’ Power of Attorney (one of the type you would use if you were still living in the country) rather than the much more expensive ‘international’ type. See our country-specific guides for more information about Powers of Attorney in the country where you need to make it.

Will

I don’t want to sound pessimistic but now is a really could time to make – or update – your Will. If you are working in a foreign country, especially if you have property and possessions in more than one country, if the worst happens a will makes dealing with your affairs far simpler, quicker and cheaper. If you have children or a complex life involving divorce, two families or a gay relationship making a Will becomes almost essential. See our country-specific guides for more information about making Wills in the countries of interest to you.

CV in local format

More optimistically, you will be looking for a job. You could just use your regular CV/resume, just like you would do at home, but you will get far better results if you have one prepared in the format to which employers are accustomed in the country where you are going to be working.

It may come as a surprise to learn that CVs/resumes are different in different countries. They vary a lot – as do the questions you will be asked at interview. For example, in the US it would be a really bad idea to put your marital status, the number of children you have and your religion on your resume. In France (and many other countries) it would be strange if you did not.

Get yourself in order

Medical

See your doctor and get any routine checks carried out before you go. Even if they will be covered by your health insurance, it will be much easier to do this “back home” and, of course, if there is anything wrong it could affect your plans.

Similarly, get your prescriptions sorted out. It’s a good idea to take three month’s supply of all your medications to give you time to get set up in the country where you will be working abroad.

Vaccinations

If you already know where you are going to be working abroad, now is a good time to find out what shots/vaccinations you are going to need and to start having them.

Dental

A visit to your dentist is also a good idea.

Language

If you know which country you are going to be working in, learning the language – or brushing up your skills – is a good idea. The sooner you start the better. Speaking the language, however badly, will greatly improve your experience of working abroad. Speaking it well will transform it.

Get your possessions in order

Most of us have possessions. Often too many. You will need to decide what to do with them.

Car

If you have a car, are you going to sell it or keep it – perhaps allowing a member of your family to use it? Most people sell but, if you are only going to be away for a year or so, keeping it can be more economical and, of course, if it is a special car it could be very hard to replace.

Furniture

The same applies to furniture. This also ties in to your decision about accommodation – see below.

Personal effects

“Stuff”. We all have too much of it. What are you going to do with it? What can you get away with that won’t lead to divorce? Five years ago, when I last moved, we put masses of “stuff” into storage. It is still there. Most of it we will never use. Storing it has cost me over US$10,000! At least I am still married.

Get your finances in order

Funds

You will need some money.

If you are going to move to another country looking for work, you should really have enough money to keep you and your family going – accommodation, food, bills, everything – for at least three months. Longer is better.

If you are going at the request of your employer and your employer is picking up the tab you will need less but moving to work in a foreign country is always expensive and you will always need much more than you think. We suggest enough to keep you going for a month.

Reserve

It is really important that you do arrive with reserve money in the bank.

It’s highly likely something will go wrong.

Perhaps you won’t get your first pay cheque for at least a month. You might need to pay a security bond for your new apartment. You may need to furnish it. You might want to buy a car – and you won’t be able to get credit as somebody who has just arrived in the country.

You will also want to enjoy yourself and explore the place.

Banking

What arrangements are you going to make about banking? Are you going to use your bank “back home” as your main bank? Perhaps, if you are still being employed by somebody in your own country, having your salary being paid into it and then transferring what you need to the foreign country where you are working. Or you may decide – or be forced – to have you salary paid into a local bank account in the country where you are working.

Either way, you are likely to need a foreign bank account (in the country where you are working) and a bank account “back home” to deal with your ongoing expenses there (storage charges, insurance etc) and to receive any money to which you are entitled (maybe your final salary cheque of a tax refund).

See our Guide to International Banks and Banking for more information about your general banking options and our country-specific guides for more information about banking in the country where you want to work.

Accommodation options

Rent + rent

If you are living in rented accommodation, it is pretty simple. You will probably also rent in the country where you will be working. However, a few people – especially if they expect to stay for a few years and if they come from a place where they were renting because they couldn’t afford to get on the property ladder – will decide to buy a property in the country where they are going to be working.

Sell + rent

Others will sell their apartment or house “back home” and rent in the foreign country where they will be working.

Is this a good idea?

It depends upon what you are going to do with the money you get from the sale. However, generally and in most countries, property prices are on the increase whereas the income you get from leaving your money in the bank or in an investment is small. Also, the cost of selling the house – Realtor/estate agents’ commissions, taxes, legal fees etc can be high. Even higher are the costs of buying another property when you return home after you finish your period working in a foreign country.

All in all – unless you need the money from the sale – you are likely to be better off renting out your home and renting in the country where you are working.

Sell + buy

Some people like the idea of buying a property in the place where they will be working. Some nationalities – for example, the British – have a bit of a fixation about owning their home and so this appeals to them.

Granted, if you buy, you get the benefit of any increase in house prices and you are not only in control of repairs and redecoration but you also get any financial benefit that arises from doing them. However, unless you are going to be staying for several years, buying is an expensive option. In many countries the cost of buying a home – legal fees, taxes etc – is about 10% of the price. The cost of selling it tends to be about 5%. Renting, in a city, may involve paying about 4-5% of the value of the property as rent. So for the cost of buying and selling you could have rented for three years and your money could have been employed elsewhere.

Unless you live in a place with rapidly rising house prices – and where they are likely to keep rising for the next few years – it is seldom a good idea to buy if you are likely to be working abroad for less than five years. Unfortunately, the places where prices have traditionally risen strongly – for example, London and Paris – have very high property prices; often out of reach for people moving to work there.

Options

It is worth spending a bit of time with your calculator before making this decision. Get it right and you could make more form the property than you do by way of salary. Get it wrong and it will cost you a lot of money.

See our country-specific guides on buying property and on the property markets in those countries for information about the place where you will be working abroad.

Insurances

You will almost certainly need some insurance if you are going to be working in a foreign country.

Property

This will be for any property you retain “back home” as well as the place you are living in the foreign country where you are working.

Remember that, if you are letting (renting out) your property you will usually need a different type of insurance from that which you would have used as an owner-occupier. See our Guide to Insuring Investment Property and our country-specific guides for more information about insuring investment property in the country where you want to work.

Health

In many countries you will need to produce proof of health insurance before you can get a visa to work in the country. This may well be a cost your employer will be picking up. See our country-specific guides for more information about health insurance in the country where you want to work.

Car

If you are leaving a car “back home”, this will probably need to be insured, as will any car you buy in the country where you will be working abroad. See our country-specific guides for more information about insuring cars in the country where you want to work.

Contacts

Make the most of your contacts. You will probably be surprised how many friends or friends of friends have already lived or worked in the foreign country where you will be working.
Make use of them. Contact them. Add to them. Build a network before you arrive.

Research before moving abroad

This general preparation will be pretty much the same for each foreign country where you might work. So how do you choose which it is to be? If you are being sent to work abroad by your employer then, obviously, you will have no choice but if you are pursuing your own dream the world – or most of it – is your oyster.

Research will help you decide which is the foreign country where you want to work.

If you are being sent to a country by your employer, a bit of research will help you settle in – and may persuade you to ask for a pay rise.

Immigration & visas

Check this out first. You may not be able to work in this foreign country legally. That puts off most people – but not all. Working illegally is risky.

See our general guide to Global Immigration.

See also our country-specific guides for more information about immigration to the country where you want to work.

Job market

What is the availability of jobs for foreigners? Some places are very difficult, others easy.

A quick look at www.overseasjobs.comwww.transitionsabroad.com or www.anyworkanywhere.com can give you an idea of the state of play, as can contacting recruitment agencies in the country in question.

Finding work

If you are clear about the sector you want to work in and have experience, direct contact by email, phone and visit is often a good starting point. See our country-specific guides about how to find a job.

Local employment conditions

Take a look at the working hours, notice period, holiday/vacation entitlement, dress code and business culture that you are likely to encounter. What will be the tasks expected of your role?

Employment for family members

If you find work, will your family members also be permitted to work?

Safety

How safe is this place? Nowhere is totally safe but some places are way more risky than others. Do you want to expose yourself and, possibly, your family to those risks?

The level of risk will vary depending upon your nationality. See your own embassy’s or Dept of Foreign affairs website for their assessment of the risk in the country where you will be working. However, wherever you come from, you can always get caught up in some random act or an attack directed at someone else. This is particularly so if, as is often the case, you are living in an area with many foreign residents.

There are measures of Country Risk – notably that produced by the OECD. However, this really refers to the risk of doing business in a country. Whilst this takes into account some of the factors of concern to you, it doesn’t quite hit the button when it comes to judging your personal safety. However, it’s still worth a look. You can access it via Wikipedia.

There are also surveys of places where tourists are least safe. However, once again, these don’t quite give you the information you need.

InterNations, a really useful expat website listed at the bottom of this guide, has produced an index assessing 64 countries’ desirability as places to work abroad but it doesn’t deal specifically with physical risk. Malta comes top, Greece bottom – but there is no mention of lots of popular destinations.

The OECD produces an index of personal safety, assessing your risk of assault etc in about 40 countries around the world.

In 2017 the Economist Insights Unit produced a Safe Cities Index covering an interesting selection of 60 cities: Tokyo, Singapore, Osaka, Toronto, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Sydney, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Zurich, Frankfurt, Madrid, Barcelona, Seoul, San Francisco, Wellington, Brussels, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, New York, Taipei, Washington, DC, Paris, Milan, Dallas,  Rome, Abu Dhabi, Buenos Aires, Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Athens,  Shanghai, Santiago, Kuwait City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Istanbul, Moscow, Jeddah,  Delhi, Lima, Mumbai, Bogota, Riyadh, Casablanca, Bangkok, Johannesburg, Cairo, Tehran, Quito,  Caracas,  Manila,  Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Dhaka, Yangon and Karachi.

This, again, takes into account factors other than personal safety.

Finally, the Global Terrorism Index and the Global Peace Index both, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, do what their names suggest.

A pretty similar picture emerges from most of these assessments.

If you have agreed to work abroad in a dangerous place, what precautions can you take?

The US Department of State produces volumes of information aimed at US diplomats and other government workers being posted to work in a foreign country.

IOSH has published a useful guide (PDF download) for employers posting their employees abroad which contains tips you might find useful. NERC have something similar.

Cost of living

What is the cost of living like in the place where you will be working? In particular, what is the cost of living like for a person living the way you live? This will probably be much higher than the cost of living for a local person.

The US, Australian and UK governments (at least) publish cost of living allowances, which give you some idea of the relative costs in the various places covered. See here and here.

Expatistan also has a useful – if limited – cost of living calculator, – which gives you a direct comparison of various costs between named cities where you might be working abroad, but it works on a relatively small number of data points.

Numbeo has a similar calculator.

Reassuringly, both come up with similar results and they are easier to use than the military/government cost of living allowance documents.

Talking to people already living there will also give you a good idea of costs.

Day to day living

These days there is a massive amount of online information from websites and blogs about the experience of living almost anywhere with a significant population – and some without.

One place to start is with one of the many sites specializing in country briefings, such as Expat ArrivalsExpaticaGoAbroad.comExpatistanExpat NetworkInternational Living and InterNations.

Country specific publications such as Expat Living in Singapore, FrenchEntrée for France or Indeal Spain for Spain. These cover everything from jobs, property and healthcare to culture, leisure, sports, education.

Look also at the online editions of the local newspapers. A lot are available in English: some in other languages such as German, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

See our country-specific guides for more information about living in the country where you want to work.

Earnings

Assuming you find work in a foreign country, how much can you expect to earn?

The internet has lots of detailed information about average salaries in various places. Dubai, for example. You can also look at a list of countries by average salary.

Just as important as the question of how much you can earn is the question of whether your earnings can be freely taken out of the country. Most countries permit this but not all.

Interview etiquette

Preparing for an interview always entails practising answers to potential questions but the types of interview questions you’ll receive vary by country. In the United States, being asked questions about religion or marital status is illegal, but in countries such as France such personal questions are acceptable – almost universal if you are working for a French company. In most countries you will, not surprisingly, be asked standard questions regarding your skills, experience and past jobs, but be prepared for slight differences within each nation. The interviewer will also usually be keen to establish your language skills, particularly relating to the field in which you will be working.

Before interviewing, research the country’s interview policies and etiquette so you aren’t caught off guard. How many people are likely to be on the interview panel? Do you shake hands? How do you address them: “Sir”, “Mrs Brown”, “Chairman” etc. What is the dress code? You wouldn’t want a simple cultural miscommunication to prevent you from getting your dream job abroad.

Housing

This will be your biggest expense. What will it cost you to live in the style that you will accept. In many places, a lot more than you thought.

Rental/letting agents are accessible online in most countries.

Healthcare

What is the standard of public and private healthcare? What will you be able to access?

See our general guide to Global Healthcare Systems.

See also our country-specific guides for more information about healthcare in the country where you want to work.

Education

If you have children, this will take a lot of time.

What type of education do you want to give your children? What is available in the area? How much will it cost?

The best solution will depend upon all sorts of factors but my personal opinion is that you can give your children no better education than to make them truly bi-cultural: at home equally amongst (say) Spanish and (say) English friends and in the Spanish and English languages. That can often be best achieved by enrolling the children in local schools.

Pets

Will you be able to take your pets? See our country-specific guides for more information about taking your pet to the country where you want to work, or look at pet-specific websites.

Taxes

Once you are living and working in a foreign country, what taxes will you have to pay in that country and what will you be expected to pay “back home”?

See our country-specific guides for more information about taxes in the country where you want to work.

Money

How will you transfer money from the foreign country where you are working “back home” – or the other way round. See also our general guide to Foreign Exchange and moving Money. See also our country-specific guides for more information about FX and transferring money to the country where you want to work.

Cultural issues

In some countries – particularly China & Japan – the cultural issues that face a foreigner newly arrived to work in the country are enormous.

Research before you travel helps a lot – as does flexibility, meeting people half way and not assuming that your system is better than theirs: a common problem with expats working in a foreign country.

See our country-specific guides for more information about cultural issues in the country where you want to work.

Language issues

Learning the local language is a key task for people going to work abroad. Doing so transforms your experience and their effectiveness at work.

Before you go, find out the various ways of learning – from online courses through to intensive one-to-one immersion programmes.

See here for a fascinating article about how US diplomats learn foreign languages.

See our country-specific guides for more information about learning the language used in the country where you want to work.

Expat communities

Research the local expat communities and make contact with them. You will find most expats extremely helpful and friendly.

See our country-specific guides for more information about learning the language used in the country where you want to work.

Travel

There are two big travel issues to think about and research before you go to work abroad.

How easy (and expensive) will it be to travel to and from your home country and what are the opportunities for local and regional travel? There are some outstanding bargains available once you arrive to work in a foreign country.

Many people working in a foreign country do not “waste” their entitlement to leave by flying home; they thoroughly explore the region and its neighbours. It is almost always way cheaper to arrange travel once you arrive than it is to do so from your home country.

The logistics of the move

Research the logistics of making your move. There is a lot of useful guidance – even if you are not a diplomat – on the US Department of State website.

Time spent doing this will be particularly well spent and save you a disproportionate amount of trouble and stress later.

Most people who move around a lot will tell you that the less you take with you the better.

Check out the Department of State’s Crisis Readiness Course. Most of it will help you.

Emergencies

Look at what you should do in the event of an emergency and create an electronic and paper resource to help you if you need it. We have created a free checklist for you to print out:

 

Keep your new resource somewhere safe and close at hand. Electronics, and the internet, often fail in an emergency.

Pre-move training

When you are appointed to work abroad you usually become acutely aware of certain limitations in your skills and knowledge: things you get away with “back home” because of the network of friends and informal contacts you can turn to when you don’t know how to do something simple.

How will you get away with this when those contacts are thousands of miles away and in a very different time zone?

Now is a good time to fill in some of those gaps in your knowledge and to bone up on facets of your job that you don’t deal with too much at the moment but which are likely to be important when you are working abroad.

Orientation visit

Do you have the time/money/inclination to visit as a tourist before you take up a job working in a foreign country? If so, this is a great idea. It helps with everything from finding an apartment to meeting your future colleagues and starting to build a network of contacts. Of course, in the worst case you could realise that there is no way you could ever live and work in this particular foreign country! That would be money well spent.

Accepting a job

You will, no doubt, be excited when your first job offer comes in. Before leaping into accepting it, take a couple of days. Is the job one that you’re really excited about? Is it in line with your ultimate career goals? Do you really want to live in the country/place where the job is based?

Things to do before you move abroad

Mail, email, telephone

Redirect your mail – either to your new location or, often better to family or friends near you where you currently live.

Redirect your land line phone and decide what you are going to do about your mobile/cell.

Tell all your contacts about your new telephone and email arrangements.

Voting

Register, if you can, as an overseas voter for elections in your own country.

Brief for family

Prepare a briefing pack for your family:

  • What you are doing
  • Why you are going
  • The length of time you are likely to stay there
  • Your address
  • Your contact details
  • Time differences
  • Copy of your passport and other key documents
  • Details of your health insurance
  • Details of your travel arrangements
  • How and when you expect to keep in touch with them – for example, weekly by email or Skype plus updating your Facebook page
  • Background information about the place you are going to
  • Background information about the company you will be working for
  • When they will be able to come to visit you
  • What to do in the event of a local emergency such as an earthquake or terrorist attack

If you have made a Will – which you should have done – give your executor (the person who will be responsible for dealing with your affairs) a copy of the Will and a more detailed brief including a full list of your bank accounts and other assets. Then keep it up to date. Tell your executor where to find the original of your Will and the up-to-date version of your list of assets. This is best kept in the same envelope as your will but NOT physically attached to it.

Packing

Prepare your immediate travel kit:

  • A change of clothes – remember the likely weather in the place you are travelling to
  • Toiletries
  • A month’s supply of all medicines & basic medical kit
  • Computers etc
  • The originals of all key documents: passport, travel insurance, appointment letter, visas or work permits
  • Copies of all important papers – passport, medical insurance, bank details etc
  • Credit cards
  • Cash – including some in the country you are travelling to. Although this is often best obtained when you arrive you need enough to get to your destination if all the ATMs are down. US$150, for me, is about right.
  • Details of your travel arrangements
  • Paper & pen

Pre-work break

Make sure that you have a bit of time after you arrive in the country where you will be working and starting your job abroad.

You will need this to settle in: possibly to find a place to live, to open a bank account and, generally, to become familiar with the place.

Everyone I know you has flown out on Friday to start work on Monday has thought this a stupid idea – and not done it on their next posting.

Ideally, you should try to have two weeks between arriving and starting work but, these days, many employers seem uncomfortable with this.

Adjustment

Keep an open mind about your new home. When I have travelled to or worked in a foreign country, I’ve considered myself to be a tourist for the first two months. It’s important to listen, learn and absorb as much as possible. Wait until everything sinks in before forming an opinion about the place.

Yes, you will have some preconceived notions about the way certain things should be done, both in and out of the workplace. Try and push those biases to the back of your mind and instead focus on learning new things. The fact is, there are many different ways to do things. This is a terrific opportunity to discover them.

Keeping in contact

Don’t forget your family and friends. The job will come to an end and you will need them. Plus, they will stop you from going totally nuts when things are going badly – which they will from time to time.

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