Some people travel abroad to work, motivated to leave home by career opportunities beyond country borders. Others work abroad to travel, inspired to seek employment elsewhere by wanderlust and curiosity.
No matter the motivation, working overseas comes with plenty of practical considerations, like how to receive mail, access bank accounts and pay taxes – yes, you still have to file taxes overseas.
And there are many decisions to make. Should you set up a home base or change location every week? Work for yourself, a local organization or remotely for a company from your native country? Plan a temporary “workcation” or a permanent escape?
The logistics matter, and thinking about them in advance can help you enjoy the adventure.
Here, five workers who’ve taken different approaches to working far from home share stories and lessons from their months and years abroad. Even those with mixed feelings about their career experiences overseas learned a lot along the way.
Living as a Digital Nomad
Getting laid off from her job provided Kathryn Carlson with an opportunity she’d long desired: to work and travel abroad with her partner.
The pair mapped out a 10-week adventure through Indonesia, Vietnam and New Zealand. Carlson, a documentary video producer, planned to capture stock footage and seek freelance assignments, while Page West would continue working remotely as a developer and chief technology officer for a startup – after getting the trip approved by the CEO.
“He was already working as an employee in three different time zones, so it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Carlson says. “He needed permission to do this, but his company was super excited for him.”
They strategically divided their days to strike a balance between work and play. “We knew we were going to have to be working but wanted to be in some place cool to do it,” Carlson says. Changing location every week, Carlson and West spent four days working and three days having “incredible experiences,” such as hiking around volcanoes, scuba diving, swimming with dolphins and tracking orangutans.
They planned and budgeted for their “bigger, costlier” excursions in advance, but also left time for serendipitous exploring, like the days they spent in a Vietnamese national park with “incredible” meals, “insane” scenery and surprisingly fast internet.
Their working conditions varied by country. Free public Wi-Fi was scarce in New Zealand but abundant in Vietnam. Due to Indonesia’s visa restrictions, Carlson didn’t work on journalism projects there.
Each partner hoped to spend no more than $5,000 while earning enough income to cover their trip costs. They nearly pulled it off, except for the unexpected expenses Carlson had to pay to get a new passport after hers was stolen during the second week of the “workcation.”
One last experience offset the sadness of their trip’s end. During a hike in New Zealand, West proposed to Carlson, and she said yes.
In her new job as director of photography for a documentary production company, Carlson travels frequently, but her assignments feel very different from her freeing three-country excursion with her now-fiancé.
“We frickin’ loved every moment of it,” she says.
Carlson’s Lessons Learned:
- “Figure out what your big-ticket items are, the experiences you want to have, then fit your work schedule around that. If you don’t get to do the things you want to do in your heart of hearts, you’re going to regret it.”
- “Keep your experiences separate from work. I pitched an adventure I was going to have as a project, and that meant I was working through the things I wanted to do.”
A LinkedIn search for internships focused on maternal and child health connected Danielle Noriega with an opportunity to work for a nonprofit in Delhi, India. After nailing a video interview, the new college graduate bought a one-way ticket.
“I felt I was interested in global health, and the only way to actually [explore] that is to go work abroad,” she says.
The nonprofit had another American intern, who helped Noriega find a place to live 20 minutes from the office. The advice of fellow foreigners also proved useful for finding good food options.
Noriega’s unpaid duties involved conducting health evaluations and helping in clinics. It was tough to learn how to fulfill her responsibilities in a low-resources environment while simultaneously navigating a different culture and a new language.
“It was very stressful,” she says. “I ended up being very homesick.”
After six months, Noriega returned to the U.S. She made some time to travel throughout India and visit Nepal and Thailand first, though.
“It’s so easy to take a train and go to all of these different areas that are so diverse and so different,” she says. “I don’t know when I will ever be back in that side of the world; it was a great opportunity to take advantage of that.”
Noriega went to graduate school and now works in Chicago as a public health research analyst. Thanks to her time in Delhi, she realized “being abroad is probably not a priority,” she says. “It’s not totally for me.”
Noriega’s Lessons Learned:
- “Going to a place like Starbucks was the best. It’s a place to meet so many other travelers and expats. Everyone is willing to talk and share experiences. That was an unexpected networking place for daily life.”
Trading Salary for Experience
Several study abroad experiences made it clear to Franca Berthomier that her career path pointed away from her native France.
“Having this kind of small but super intense experience abroad, I kind of got addicted to it,” she says. “I liked to be outside of my comfort zone and challenged by the environment, having to learn, having to adapt.”
After finishing school, Berthomier landed a two-year job at the French embassy in Tanzania. With its easy access to the beach, low cost of living and large community of expatriates, Dar es Salaam quickly felt like “a piece of paradise that is a bit unspoiled,” she says. “You have access to services and hobbies I would never be able to afford in France.”
Career challenges have not eroded Berthomier’s determination to stay in the city. She had to leave Tanzania while reapplying for a work visa, and when she returned, she ended up in a job she didn’t like. She was excited by a new opportunity to work for the European Union delegation but hesitated to accept because of its low salary – and the fact that she’d have to pay for her own work visa, which would cost several months’ wages.
She decided the experience would be worth it.
“All the opportunities I got, I wouldn’t have gotten them in France, where I’d be competing with tens of thousands of people who graduated in the same year with the same specialty,” Berthomier says. “I get to manage projects, I get to meet ministers. This would never be possible in France for me, to have this degree of autonomy.”
Inside and outside of the office, Berthomier has had to adjust to cultural differences. Western standards of punctuality don’t apply to life in Dar es Salaam, she says, so outsiders considering jobs there should be “extremely patient,” because the pace of work proceeds much more slowly than they might be used to.
“People will not change for you. You are the one who needs to change,” she says.
Berthomier’s Lessons Learned:
- “Learning the language is definitely an asset. In a city like Dar, in the expat circle, you will definitely survive without Swahili … but you’re not going to connect a lot with locals.”
- “For most people, failing to adapt here is because they are applying their French or German or American mindset on the context that is culturally too different. You shouldn’t project your habits. How things work in your country, it’s not going to work in the same way here. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work; it means it works differently.”
[See: How to Take a Minivacation.]
Escaping the American Grind
With its long commutes and impersonal offices, American work culture had no appeal to Brenn Hill. The software engineer already worked remotely, but dissatisfaction with life in the U.S. still gnawed at him. He wanted to travel.
But he thought it wise to try training wheels first. So Hill embarked on a month-long motorcycle road trip across the country, figuring that would be “absolutely less stressful than changing countries every month,” he says. “If you can do that, you can move abroad.”
While moving from town to town and living out of hotels, he completed his projects on deadline and earned his company’s trust. He also gained confidence in his ability to make do with less and improvise when necessary, like the time he crashed 60 miles outside of Las Vegas.
Keeping his job, Hill moved to Vietnam, where he worked night hours to accommodate the schedule of the Ukrainian employees he managed remotely. After a year and a half in Hanoi, he and his Vietnamese girlfriend moved around within Cambodia, Thailand and Ukraine. When they planned to spend less than a month in a location, they’d stay in hotels. For longer stays, they’d live in short-term rentals.
To ensure he could always do his work, Hill carried two laptops, an extra phone and backup power supplies. In case anything was stolen, he stored information in the cloud and set up a system to erase his work remotely.
“If you’re being conscientious, it’s expensive,” he says of keeping technology safe while traveling.
Now the couple is back in Vietnam, in the city of Da Nang. Hill manages a team of local coders and lives behind the coffee shop his girlfriend runs. He credits his continued career success to the tolerance of software engineering companies.
“Those tend to be full of people who don’t like endless meetings and suits and ties,” he says. “Culturally, they lend themselves to people doing unusual things. They understand if your job is to type things into a screen, and the screen fits in your backpack, there’s no point in paying rent.”
- “Be on the road for a month. There’s a lot of stuff you need to learn about yourself. If you can’t do that, don’t even try [going abroad]. You’ll spend a lot of money being miserable.”
- “It’s helpful to have an anchor address in the U.S. with your family. Set up a remailer address from abroad. Get a Google voice number with an American phone number, because people are going to want to text you their activation codes.”
Working internationally can bring financial perks. That’s what Allyson Gometz discovered when she accepted an opportunity to teach English abroad at the University at Buraimi in Oman.
In the Middle East, sponsorship systems give employers, not workers, responsibility for obtaining visas, saving employees hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some countries require companies to pay for foreign workers to visit their home countries annually or every two years. Gometz’s employer covered her housing and transportation costs. And her pay was generous.
“As a teacher, I made more than double what I would have made in the U.S. as a starting salary,” she says.
Overseas work brings monetary complications, too. Gometz has had to learn the details of U.S. policies regarding paying taxes, storing money in international banks and investing in foreign markets.
“I’ve been struggling with the financial institutions to learn what I can and cannot do,” she says. “There’s a large fine if you don’t declare and you’re caught. That’s one of the harder parts, the financial mess.”
Gometz loved Oman, but the petite size of her particular city – and its limited expatriate social scene – left her feeling constrained.
“Life was really challenging, more so than I expected,” she says. “I got tired of the small place and the small number of people I could actually communicate with.”
Accepting a new teaching job in Doha, the large and diverse capital of Qatar, opened up her world. Thanks to Qatar’s proximity to so many other countries, she took weekend and holiday trips to many other nations while still maintaining a settled home during the workweek.
“I really did enjoy having a home base,” she says. “I made some fantastic friendships in my four years there that wouldn’t have been possible if I were constantly moving.”
Gometz’s Lessons Learned:
- “Depending whom you’re sponsoring, what nationality they are and the job they’re doing, there are different rules. It’s incredibly unequal.”
- “In a large international city, making friends was the easiest thing ever in my life. Everyone there is new or has been new recently or is constantly dealing with new people anyway.”
7 Secret Opportunities You’re Missing at Work
Career clues worth noticing
Opportunities to advance your career don’t always come hand-delivered and wrapped in a bow. Sometimes, discreet comments or special assignments from your boss contain powerful messages – ones you should learn to interpret.
Hidden opportunities can be easy to miss, says Lisa Lewis, a career-transition coach: “If you’re feeling underwater at work, they may not be things you’re necessarily paying attention to.”
That’s especially true because they often take the form of extra work, leading some employees to mistake them for burdens or forms of punishment.
Overlooking too many clues from your supervisor can take a toll on your prospects for climbing the ranks, because some managers use hints and special assignments to say “‘these are the types of things I’m evaluating in terms of who I promote, who gets this next great project and who makes the cut when layoffs come,” says Karen Chopra, a career counselor in Washington, D.C. “The employee who never responds to mentoring, guidance or suggestions” makes the boss think, “‘They aren’t responding to my management.’”
Learn to recognize the following situations as secret opportunities for success.
Your boss assigns you work that stretches your abilities.
When a big project lands on your desk, resist the tempting urge to conclude that you’re being punished.
“It’s really important to remember and assume that your boss wants you to succeed. When you look good, you make your boss look good,” Lewis says.
In fact, you’re probably being rewarded.
“If the project feels scary or overwhelming, if it feels it is way bigger than what you feel you can bite off, that’s a hint your boss sees something in you,” Lewis says.
That’s especially true if the project comes with a risk of failure, because those kinds of assignments show that the company has confidence in your abilities, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting.
“The most developmental job you’ll ever have is one like you’ve never had before, don’t want to do and you’ll be in big trouble if you screw up,” he says. “They often are not particularly attractive assignments.”
You get harder assignments than your colleagues.
Company leaders believe that some employees have more potential than others. Accordingly, “they don’t spread development across their workforce like peanut butter across bread,” Ruyle says. Rather, they invest more heavily and provide better chances to certain workers they think will succeed.
“When you’re getting assignments that are challenging that other people aren’t getting, that’s an indication” you’ve been marked as having high potential for growth, Ruyle says.
Your boss uses a ‘signal’ phrase.
In workplace jargon, some words mean little while others are loaded with significance. “Opportunity” is an example of the latter.
“Typically, the word ‘opportunity’ is a boss’s reframe of something” important, Lewis says. “Otherwise, they’ll just call it a ‘task’ or an ‘assignment.’”
Similarly, be on the lookout for the word “stretch,” which indicates a situation that will test your abilities and give you the chance to prove them. And if someone gives you a “stretch opportunity,” it’s definitely worth paying attention.
The word “should” is a clear indicator that your boss has a message for you, even if used in a context that sounds like a mere suggestion, like “You should get out of the office more to meet clients.”
“Any time a boss says ‘should,’ your ears should perk up and you should say, ‘Tell me more,’” Chopra says. “You really need to hear that and stop and ask, why is your boss saying that?”
You’re asked to collaborate with or present to colleagues you don’t know.
To advance your career, “the ideal thing is to develop relationships with people that matter,” Ruyle says. “Your influence extends to the degree that the people you influence are influential.”
In that effort, “your boss should be your biggest promoter,” Ruyle says. That means your supervisor may assign you to work with colleagues on different teams or make a presentation to other managers in your company.
If you get a meeting invitation “with a bunch of people whose names you don’t recognize, or they are two or three title levels above you,” you’re probably being given an opportunity to network and you should prepare adequately, Lewis says.
You’re sent to a training session or conference.
Company leaders often reserve professional development opportunities like skills trainings or industry conferences for employees they believe warrant that kind of investment.
“If you’re getting those invitations without soliciting them yourself, it’s likely that your boss thinks you’re a top performer with potential to grow,” Lewis says.
Leaders may also use those opportunities to appease employees who have shouldered heavy workloads or who may be considering finding a new job elsewhere.
“Getting invited to trainings can also be a way of trying to mitigate ‘flight risk,’” Lewis says. “Keep a close watch on how being asked to go to a conference feels: If your gut says it’s an awesome opportunity or an appeasement strategy, you’re probably right.”
Your boss asks you to do, well, anything at all.
“The key to career success is to do what the boss wants you to do, unless it’s illegal, immoral or unethical,” Chopra says.
That may seem obvious in the abstract. But workers often get so caught up in trying to fulfill their many daily responsibilities that they neglect to change course when the boss issues a new request.
“Don’t do your to-do list, do what your boss wants you to do,” Chopra says. “You need to focus on what your boss’s priority is and your boss’s boss’s priority is.”
Employees who keep this in mind, Chopra says, are the ones “who seem to fly up the ranks.”