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Road Work: How To Live Abroad (Legally) Without Going Broke

If you want to stay somewhere longer than a few weeks and you aren't independently wealthy, the problem of money will always come up. Fortunately, several countries have plans where Americans -- not all Americans, but some Americans if you're the right American -- can work and travel.

In late 1997, I felt like I needed to get out of the country. I'd traveled abroad before, but I wanted to get a true perspective of what it was like to settle outside the US, at least for a little while. So I packed up, moved to London, and got a job.

If you want to stay somewhere longer than a few weeks and you aren't independently wealthy, the problem of how to make your food and housing money will always come up. You may not want to emigrate, but at least you want to feed yourself. Fortunately, several countries have plans where Americans -- not all Americans, but some Americans if you're the right American -- can work and travel.

I'm going to zip past three ideas. First, this column isn't actually about immigrating to foreign countries. Second, if you fall in love with and marry a foreign citizen, you'll probably be able to work in their country. And finally, it's possible to find illegal work in many countries "under the table." I'm not going to help you with those.

Working Holidays

Five countries have working holiday programs for Americans. For two of the programs in New Zealand and Australia, you can apply on your own; for all the rest you need to go through an approved educational exchange operator, of which the oldest and most reputable is BUNAC (

In order of declining value, they are:

New Zealand's visa is the most marvelous. Pretty much any childless American between the ages of 18 and 30 can work for a year in New Zealand, at any job or jobs they want. That's it. Period. It's a wonder not everyone does it. For more information, head to If you're over 30 or want to work for two years, BUNAC has access to a "special category working visa" that covers ages up to 35 for a year, and can be combined with the other visa. Get details at

Australia offers two options. The brand-new Work and Holiday program lets Americans between 18 and 30 who are either in college, or have a college degree, work for a year down under. Get details on it at The "416" program lets anyone age 30 or under work for four months, even if they don't have a college degree. For that you need to go through an official operator such as BUNAC, so check it out at

If you're a full-time university undergraduate or graduate student over age 18 (with no upper age limit), you can work in the UK or Ireland for up to six months on the "Blue Card" program. You don't have to go to school in the British Isles -- you can just take time off from your US course. Grab details at

Finally, full-time university students under age 31 can work in Canada for up to six months. You'll find details at

Oh, Canada!

Canada may seem like the 51st through 60th states, but Americans and Canadians can't work freely in each others' countries -- with some exceptions.

If you seek true north, the luckiest folks are those in the "NAFTA professions" -- a list of professions starting on page 16-13 of the North American Free Trade Agreement ( If you're an accountant, architect, graphic designer, hotel manager, librarian, social worker, university professor, pretty much anything in the medical or scientific fields, or a dozen other professions, you're eligible for a "NAFTA visa" making it very easy for Canadian companies to hire you. You usually have to have a relevant college degree and some job experience to travel this path. The bad news: you still have to find a company to hire you, so start scouring the job listings.

There are other professions in demand in Canada, with special programs to attract temporary workers and immigrants. For instance, elementary and secondary school teachers are welcomed by the Teach In Ontario program ( You can find more details by drilling down into the Canadian immigration website at

Few Skills Necessary

Beyond the working holiday and NAFTA options, things get really complicated. One terrific resource is Transitions Abroad, a huge Web portal chock full of articles on how to get jobs in other countries and negotiate the legal hassles involved. Find the lifestyle you seek at

If you don't have your heart set on pursuing a certain profession, two popular ways to make your board abroad are to teach English and to work as an au pair.

Teaching English is a well-established way for Americans to work for a while in Japan, Korea and China. It's pretty easy to find schools that are hiring, even schools doing recruiting tours throughout the US. But if you head over to work for one of these operations, you belong to them body and soul -- so it's important you know what you're in for. But if you want to go this path, consult with other teachers first to make sure that you're going with one of the good schools, not one of the shadier operators. Job board Web sites like Dave's ESL Café, at, and can help.

Young women interested in child care can also become au pairs in 10 European countries. Remember, this isn't a casual gig -- you'll be living with a host family and subject to their whims, and you'll be responsible for taking care of a child. Transitions Abroad has an extensive webpage for potential au pairs, and an entire book on the issue, available at

Finally, you can go to school in a foreign country. Even joining a language school, in some countries, gives you limited permission to work -- and remember, knowing the local language makes you much more marketable.

Working In Your Profession

It's not impossible to get a job abroad in your chosen profession. It's just complicated.

The ultimate shortcut: if your grandparents were Irish or Finnish, you may be eligible for an "ancestry visa" to work back in the motherland. Hey, we've got a lot of people with Irish grandparents in this country.

For everyone else, here's the one minute summary. Generally, you can't do casual work in most countries: you have to get a "real job." When you get a job, your potential employer has to jump through hoops to get you a work permit. It's a pain. But there are exceptions. In Europe, a growing number of countries have "skilled migrant programs" or "eased work permit" programs. Eased work permit programs mean you still have to get a job first, but the paperwork is less terrifying. They generally apply to any job where you're making more than a certain amount of money, which can range anywhere from $40,000 on up. Skilled migrant programs, such as the one for folks with MBAs coming to the UK, don't require you to get a job first.

If you're interested in working professionally in Europe, American expat Joe Freeman has summarized all of the regulations, choices and chances in his e-book The Totally Ultimate Guide To Working In Europe For Non-EU Citizens, available at his website,

Finally, if you do a job which can be done on a freelance or consulting basis, you might want to try what I did. Back in 1998 when I went to London, I incorporated myself in the US, maintained my legal residence in the US, and deposited my checks for my work into a US bank account on which I paid US taxes. In other words, in the eyes of the law, I was still working in the US -- I was just visiting the UK while I was doing it. I later did the same thing in South Africa. That's still an option.

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