Working Abroad: Impossible? Or So Easy Anyone Can Do It?

Telling someone that you are interested in working internationally usually elicits one of two responses:

On one end of the spectrum, those who have not had luck finding work abroad will often quickly inform you it is “impossible” or that your chances are “slim to none” or that only “trust fund babies” can work abroad. For any normal person, they will say, finding an international position is simply a fantasy.  

On the other end, there are those who have made it abroad. They will often boast of how easy it is to find work abroad. They may say things like “oh man you have to work abroad! It’s like so life changing and anyone can do it!” or “There is no other way to live! You can totally do it, it isn’t that hard!” almost in disbelief that EVERYONE isn’t working abroad.

Both of these responses, unsurprisingly, are skewed based on the individual’s personal experience of trying to find employment abroad. Both perspectives are far removed from reality, representing only the most extreme outcomes of an international job search.  

As someone who prescribes to neither extreme, I think it is important for me break down the fallacies of both perspectives. I think there is a much more moderate (and thus accurate) perspective to take on the difficulty of finding work abroad. Between the two extreme viewpoints, I think there is a happy medium that accurately reflects just how easy or difficult it is to find work abroad. 

“It’s Impossible”

I feel bad for anyone who has been discouraged by their inability to fulfill their goal of working abroad. However, to say it is universally impossible completely misrepresents the difficulty level of finding work internationally and needlessly discourages those whose ambition it is work abroad.

To understand why someone may be likely to share such a negative perspective on international job prospects, it is important to understand where their negative perception comes from, and what their personal experience with the proposition of working abroad may have been.

The truth is, many people who “try” to find work abroad have unrealistic expectations of their chances of landing a position. Whether it be because of their education, qualifications, or work experience, they don’t frame their prospects of working abroad realistically relative to their value on the job market. This, coupled with often passive approaches to finding work abroad (e.g. simply stating they want to work abroad), leads them ultimately to failure and frustration. Luckily, this can be avoided by being honest with yourself about the value you bring to the job market.

Not Understanding Personal Professional Value

People tend to be incredibly unrealistic about many aspects of life: how attractive they are, how funny they are, the type of house they can afford, the list is endless.  

This inability to be objective about the self also hampers people’s understanding of their value on the job market.

The comments sections of articles about working abroad are filled with people who express an interest in working abroad while, upon being pressed, readily admit that they have few skills or qualifications that have value in the international job market.

Call it unfair if you will, but, for example, if you have a GED, been out of work for a year, have no savings and now want to work at a Startup in Europe, you are going to have a tough time landing a job abroad. This is just simple odds; with so many qualified and educated people in the world, lacking those basic qualifications makes it really difficult (or in this case, impossible) to land a position.

I recently had a reader of this blog let me know they wanted to work abroad and to do so they were going to go back to school to learn computer programming in hopes of joining a company abroad in the future.

The truth is that in this scenario, making your dream of working internationally a reality may require you to go back to school to learn new skills or gain new qualifications in your field of interest. You may even need to gain some work experience in your home country before you start applying for jobs abroad. I recently had a reader of this blog let me know they wanted to work abroad and to do so they were going to go back to school to learn computer programming in hopes of joining a company abroad in the future. That shows some awesome initiative and understanding of the hurdle outdated credentials can pose.

Now, is that a difficult, strenuous, resource intensive path to working internationally? Yes, of course. But if companies in your current country see your value in the job market as low, so will companies abroad. It is up to you to put in the time and effort to make yourself a high value candidate. Saying “I want to work abroad” does not qualify as actually trying to find work abroad.

Just as there are no shortcuts in weight loss, there are no shortcuts in landing jobs abroad.

In many ways, finding a job abroad is analogous to losing weight: everyone wants to lose weight until they realize that it requires that they watch what they eat, that they eat healthy food, and that they exercise. Just as there are no shortcuts in weight loss, there are no shortcuts in landing jobs abroad.  

Thus, it is critical to be honest with yourself about the position you are in to work abroad. Considering factors like your personal finances, your qualifications and your own ability and willingness to hustle and grind and network your way to your goal. It’s much better to admit your shortcomings as a candidate in the job market and to start formulating an attack plan than applying to jobs you know deep down you don’t have a shot at.

A Note for Recent Graduates

Obviously, the equation changes for recent graduates in many ways. After graduating, you have earned valuable qualifications from a university (your diploma) and you may even have internship or study abroad experience to help improve your appeal to foreign or international companies. If you have one or two years of professional working experience, that of course only helps increase your chances and potential opportunities.

It is important to note, however, that even with a shiny new diploma or a few years working experience, working abroad is still an ill-defined career path and it takes some hustle, some resourcefulness, and the willingness to grind a bit to network and get your face in front of the right people. While there are of course placement services or international recruiters, it will take a willingness to do your own homework into the countries you may be interested in, the companies operating there, and reaching out to make connections with the people at those companies.

There are a million ways to go about finding work abroad, but very few manuals or guides on how to do so. It will be up to you to be proactive and forge your path through the international job market.

“It’s So Easy Anyone Can Do It!”

The only reason anyone would say this is 1.) they want to make you feel bad because you haven’t done it 2.) They had an easy time of it for some unique reason (they had connections/got lucky) and they are extrapolating their success to everyone’s situation.

I think it is important to specify what “do it” even means. Many people who act like they are making it happen abroad actually aren’t. They may have a great looking Instagram, but they may not be “making it” in the way they would have you believe. And this is an important distinction to make. While it may technically be true that “anyone” can “work” or “live” abroad, what that means in practical terms can vary greatly depending on how you define “work” or “live.” Here are a few paths abroad that I have come across in my time in Asia:

Path One: The 4-Day-A-Week English Teacher/Drop Shipping Guy/ “Online Business”

I want to make it clear my intention is not to be condescending regarding this path; I subscribe very much to the to each their own perspective. I am simply peeling back the layers of “working abroad” and illustrating  what that can mean.

In this case, the person who teaches four days a week at a shady language center and gets drunk six nights a week or the guy with a “drop shipping business” are technically working and living abroad, and that’s great. But we have to be clear about what this often means in practice: Living in Chang Mai, splitting a house between four other people, saving no money, eating cheaply, and generally scraping by on $600 USD per month. Anyone, with teaching credentials or not, can work at a shady language center in Southeast Asia and get paid in cash, just as anyone can start a drop-shipping business from their living room.

So in this sense, yes, anyone can “work” abroad.

Path Two: Full-Time, Certified English Teacher

I have written about this previously, so I will keep this short. This is someone who has taken the TOFL/TEFL courses, likely has a B.A. or Masters in teaching and is working for a legitimate English center or school or even a university. Depending on where you are (think Seoul Korea), this can mean a great salary, awesome benefits (free housing anyone?) and the chance to save some money or pay off student loans. It also opens doors to other opportunities as you build relationships in your local community as a respected teacher.

If you have your qualifications, these jobs are not difficult to find. People all over the Middle East and Southeast Asia are looking for qualified teachers to teach English, and being Western educated with the proper qualifications really does mean it is fairly easy to find work abroad, especially in countries that do not predominantly speak English. So, in this case, given you have or are willing to obtain the qualifications, anyone can work abroad.

Path Three: Working for Startups/International Company/Corporation

Working for a startup, company or corporation is, in my opinion, the most challenging path abroad of the three. It is the most qualification intensive and the path to finding and securing a positions the most ill-defined (you could go online and find a thousands English teaching jobs in five minutes). This path also requires the most networking and self-motivated research into potential countries, companies and positions.. But, if you can land a position, it can mean invaluable professional development opportunities, great pay, and cushy lifestyle.  

Though I personally happen to fall under this third category, I am in no place to say whether one category is superior to the other. What is important to realize is that there is a significant increase in the amount of work required to land a position from Path #1 to Path #2, and an increase again from Path #2 to Path #3.  While it is true that as long as you can afford the plane ticket you could be “living” in Thailand tomorrow, there is a big difference between scraping by and working a well-paying job that helps you develop as a professional.

Where Does That Leave Us?

I have gone through the international job search twice (or three times depending on how you look at it). Just because I am comfortable with an awesome job now doesn’t mean I have forgotten what it has taken to get here.  

Firstly, you can work abroad, especially if you are fresh out of an undergraduate or graduate program or have a few years work experience. There are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs available to expats around the world at any given time, and that won’t be changing any time soon. Globalization is here, even if certain Western countries think they can stop it.

Having said that, it takes work. I worked two horrible jobs abroad before I finally found my current situation, sent out who-knows-how-many pitches and resumes and cover letters. And yes, it took some luck too. The fun part of working abroad is the sense of adventure, and the risk-taking, and doing things that you didn’t think you would do.

But you have to know yourself. Are you willing to grind? Are you willing to network with strangers? Do you have demonstrable skills? If you can be objective about yourself, it makes formulating your plan for finding work abroad far more simple and far more likely to succeed.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.