6 Unwritten Rules for Working Abroad You NEED to Know

by Aaron Horwath

Unlike becoming an accountant or sales associate locally, the path to working internationally is not well-trodden. Take a look around your group of friends and acquaintances and you will likely find very few have even considered the possibility of working abroad. Because of this, it can be hard to know what is “right” or “wrong” or “normal” when it comes to finding international work and being an international professional. But, that is what makes it exciting — you’re a trailblazer!

You can work overseas for a year, bounce between short-term seasonal jobs, or adopt the expat lifestyle entirely. It is all up to you!

6 Unwritten Work Abroad Rules You Need to Know

I found this out firsthand when I moved abroad. With no resources or guidance, I had to find my own way as I navigated countries I had never been to, learned how to network digitally to find (relatively) high paying jobs abroad, and established a life from scratch in Vietnam. I learned important lessons from these experiences. And while I think the sense of empowerment one experiences from figuring things out on your own is important, I wanted to provide a few “rules” for you to keep in mind as you begin your life working abroad.

Rule #1: Don’t Settle for Low-Paying/Seasonal Work

A big misconception about working internationally is that the only way to work abroad is to chase drunks around a hostel in Dublin in exchange for room and board or bale hay on an Australian farm under the blazing sun of the Outback. Thankfully, this is not at all the case. You can find high paying jobs abroad.

In countries around the globe there are work opportunities that provide valuable professional experience in your field. These positions will push you to take on challenging opportunities that you may not otherwise have back home. Not only that, they will likely take place in fast-paced start up settings and in new cultural environments that develop, test, and strengthen your flexibility, patience, and resourcefulness.

I know it may sound too good to be true, but opportunities for high paying jobs abroad really are out there, and young professionals are taking advantage of them all over the world. And, here’s how to find those high paying jobs...

Let’s assume you already know the industry and the country that you want to work in. Now, you need to start making connections with people in your industry and figuring out what opportunities might be out there.

Work Harder text glowing on a blank wall in the dark
Work a little harder, stay abroad a little longer, and you won’t need to settle for low-paying seasonal work at the pub (unless that’s what you want!) 

How do you do that? As someone who has landed several international jobs, run two internationally-focused blogs, an international eCommerce store, and been a freelance travel writer, I have found one effective way of finding opportunities is by creating a personal brand through content. Having a personal professional brand could involve writing regular content on Medium or Linkedin, or a personal blog, or interacting with industry leaders on Twitter.

Why is creating industry related content on these platforms important? Because creating industry related content does two things:

  1. It demonstrates your ability to think critically about your industry and communicate thought insights about the challenges, changes, and areas of growth in your industry and;
  2. It provides an excuse for you to connect with people in your industry and in the country you are interested in moving to. Asking them to be sources for articles or posts you are writing and chatting with them about your industry is an invaluable way to talk to industry leaders without them feeling like you “just want a job” from them.

While this is not the only way of making international connections, I really believe in content marketing yourself because I have seen first hand the doors of opportunity it can open up. It is an inexpensive, but powerful way to get your name out there and put your name on the radar of people in your industry and and the country you want to live in. Here’s a little more on how to use content to land international jobs.

Rule #2: Work First, Travel Second

After landing a position abroad and finding yourself in your host country, it is really easy to get caught up in the fact that you have *finally* made it abroad. There is amazing culture and food and drinks and sites to see and people to meet and oh look there at that building! Of course you are excited about making it abroad — and rightfully so — but working internationally isn’t like backpacking with your friends or living it up on a family vacation.

Woman in a bikini jumping into blue water
We all work for the weekend, just make sure you’re prioritizing work (we know it’s hard with blue waters calling you).

You are launching your career, and are likely going to have some unique professional development opportunities as an international staff member, opportunities you may not otherwise have had back home. It is crucial to take advantage of these moments when they are presented.

Pump your adventure brakes, put away your beer-coozie, and make sure that, at the very least, Monday thru Friday your mentality is career-first. Trust me, there is plenty of time for fun working abroad, but your first priorities should be the same as they would be in a first job back home: assimilating to your new work environment, learning the ropes of the office, and trying to find ways to make an impact in the company. 

And then, when Friday evening rolls around, crack open your drink of choice and enjoy, because, hey, you are working abroad! 

Rule #3: Don’t Forget to Save

There are a few personal finance traps that working internationally sets. They include:

  • The money doesn’t seem real. I mean, look at it, it’s so colorful!
  • Everyday feels like a vacation/special occasion so what the hell? We are working abroad, waiter, another bottle!
  • So many options to spend money on - new cuisine, sites to see, cheap flights to other countries, etc.

I point out these traps not so you can avoid them per se, but so that you are at the very least aware of them.

Of course you should enjoy your time, but living abroad, especially in countries with a lower cost of living, can present a good opportunity to sock some money away. Missing out on the chance to save some cash because you got caught up in the excitement, will leave you feeling regretful when you come across a situation where you could have really used those savings. Even without necessarily finding a high paying job abroad, you should be able to save some money. Nothing like feeling like a king or a queen in the long run!

Close up of coins falling on a table
Keep tabs on your finances. If you’re living and working abroad, at some point it’s no longer Treat Yo’Self day.

Rule #4: Manage Your Money 

I am a bit persnickety when it comes to spending, but this is the money management system I have found works for me abroad. Trust me, it’s not as boring as it sounds!

To ensure you are spending responsibly, or are at least aware of your spending rate, set a monthly AND weekly budget. Then, at the beginning of the week, take out your weekly allowance in cash (or segment between weekday and weekend) and stick to cash in your wallet as your allowance. This makes it really easy to control your money flow and ensures that you are generally sticking to your budget and saving some money every month. If you run out of money before the end of the week, you can quickly adjust your spending for the following week.

Every morning, I separate my daily spending allowance from my weekly allowance in my wallet, separated by receipts. You now have your weekly budgeting done and the only rule you have to follow is have to make the cash in your wallet last until the end of the week.

This is especially important because when you want to, for example, visit home, it is no longer a short drive away anymore. You are likely taking long international flights ($$$), so having some money gives you a little bit of extra breathing room. This also gives you a cushion against any unforeseen accidents or issues that can come up — no one wants to be short on cash in a foreign country.

Man taking notes and logging into laptop
Long term plans will open doors to the kind of jobs you actually want. Don’t be afraid of a longer term contract (you can still travel on the weekends)

Rule #5: Long-Term Plans to Live & Work Abroad = More Legit Jobs

The types of jobs that are available to you depend on how long you envision yourself being abroad – to get closer to earning the big bucks, you should try to work overseas for a year at least. If you are just looking at a short stint abroad (less than one year), your options will be limited to jobs like English teaching (under the table, likely), short-term hospitality jobs (working in hostels), etc.

If you are hoping to land more “professional” jobs (official volunteer positions, working in full-time hospitality jobs at four to five star hotels, or big wig business positions) you have to be prepared to make a more significant commitment, which often involves signing a contract to work overseas for a year. A company that hires you for a job abroad is investing significant resources to hire you with the expectation you will approach the position as a professional, just as you would a professional position back home would.

Truthfully, a long-term commitment is really the best way experience life abroad anyway. A  one year contract offers enough time to get settled into your new home, get integrated with your new company, and make significant contributions at work. Any shorter and there just isn’t time to get settled into life in a new country or make any sort of meaningful impact at your job.

Sticking to a position to work overseas for a year also gives you a more robust experience to draw on when your work contract comes to an end. After a full-year, you should have a good idea about how much you enjoy the culture of the country, the lifestyle, and/or your job. At that point, when the time comes to sign another one year work contract or move on to new adventures, you will be able to back on a full year's-worth of experiences and make a well-informed decision.

Browsing through Instagram photos
We get it, you’re working abroad and your life is amazing and perfect (even though we know it’s not), cool it a little with social media. Call your mom instead, she misses you.

Rule #6: You Don’t talk About Working Abroad (Too Much)

The sixth rule of working abroad is simple: don’t talk about working abroad. You know, like Fight Club.

One thing that people often overlook in their own excitement is how to handle their communications to friends back home. You have every right to be excited about your new adventure, but keep an eye on how many pictures, videos, and “omg look at this” texts you are sending back. Constantly hearing about a cool thing that we aren’t part of is no one’s idea of fun.

Put in some effort  to maintain some semblance of normal communication with friends and family. If they want to see more about your adventure, they can check it out on your Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Medium, blog...yeah, you get it. They know where to go to see more about your life abroad. Be cool, be conscientious, and of course have fun!

BONUS: Questions to Ask Any Employer Before Accepting a Job Abroad

Working abroad is a unique proposition, and there are a lot more moving parts than when you take the job that is down the street. Because of this, it is important to make sure all parts of your work contract are discussed and crystal clear with your employer before you arrive. To help you, here are a few questions to keep in mind when speaking with potential employers:

  1. What else is included beyond my salary — airfare, relocation reimbursements, accommodations, etc?
  2. What do I need to be aware of about my visa? Are there any travel conditions, re-entry concerns, or other pertinent information I should know?
  3. If perks like housing are not included, can you help me secure this abroad?
  4. What is the company / office culture like?
  5. Have you worked with foreigners before and, if so, can you put me in touch with one of them?
  6. If you have health concerns, such as mental or chronic illnesses, be sure to address them.
  7. How will payment be remitted? Cash, check, direct-deposit, online? In dollars or the local currency?

The above MUST make it onto your list of questions to ask your employer before accepting a job abroad. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a sticky situation (and we don’t just mean from melting gelato).

Now You're Ready to Work Abroad

If you ask these questions and keep these six rules in mind, your experience working abroad will be smooth sailing!

Ready to find a job abroad?