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…
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Hill’s Lessons Learned:
— “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.”
Managing Money Abroad
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.
“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.”