Finding Your First Visa Abroad

Tioman Island, Malaysia. The  Juara Turtle Project  protects Green and Hawksbill turtles.

Tioman Island, Malaysia. The Juara Turtle Project protects Green and Hawksbill turtles.



For most expats, they don’t' think of the card in your wallet, they think of the confusing, confounding, and often discouraging process required to let them enter or remain in their new country.

For many new expats, finding a visa can be extremely challenging, and finding a visa that fits your lifestyle aboard can be daunting. But have hope, most expats eventually end up in a visa that they find enjoyable, or at least one that they find helps them move toward their ultimate goals.

For most aspiring expats, they don’t have any idea of how the visa world works. This makes sense, since you don't need a visa to work in your home country. Consequently, when you ask a new traveler how they intend to stay in a new country, the ideas proposed are often unfeasible, untenable and at times, borderline illegal. They aren't trying to come up with bad visa ideas, but it just happens.

The idea of identifying, obtaining and maintaining a visa and all the paperwork that comes with it is overwhelming. Additionally the visa requirements vary greatly from country, so what works in one place isn't guaranteed to work in another. But if you start with a clear picture of the type of life you want to live overseas, and the type of work that you're suited for, as well as the goals you're moving toward, then finding an enjoyable visa is absolutely possible.

The best way to think of a visa is as a triangle. You're trying find the balance between the three corners:

  • High-Money

  • High-Flexibility

  • Ease of Execution

Generally, if you find a visa that pays well, it is not going to be "easy" work and probably not very flexible. Likewise, if you find a highly flexible visa that's fairly easy, it's probably not going to be well-paying. Now keep in mind that one person's "impossible" work can be another person's "easy." Scarcity needs to be factored into the Ease of Execution aspect. If you have a unique skill, it might be "easy" for you, but still have a high financial return. Finding the balance best suited to you between these three factors is important for long-term success and maintaining mental, relational and emotional balance while living overseas.

Your goals and your Visa

Your visa allows to stay in the country. But staying in the country isn't an expats ultimate goal. You need to have a good idea of what your priorities are, and why you live where you want to live. Weigh out the following:

Money - Some visas pay tremendously well, depending on a myriad of factors (more below on those factors). Others pay very poorly, but have other attributes that make them very attractive (more on that as well). Knowing how much you need to make from your visa automatically eliminates a number of options.

Flexibility of Schedule - Some visas require 9-5 engagement, others require 24/7. Some provide long vacations (student visa) and others provide none (contract work).

Lifestyle - This is one of the key items to consider. What kind of lifestyle are you hoping to have? If you want to be trekking through the mountains, having a visa that requires you to live in a large city might not work for you. Have an idea of the type of lifestyle you're pursuing can help you focus in on the types of visas you want.

Family - This is essential. If you're family isn't happy, then you're not going to be happy as an expat. Living overseas gels the family unit together in a unique way, and if your spouse and kids are happy and thriving, then you're going to be able to enjoy the challenges of living abroad. If they're suffering, not amount of exotic food or experiences will make for it. Be sure to find a visa that fits your family situation. This may mean avoiding visas that will require a lot of international travel or extreme time commitments for some people, but each family is different.

Your life stage and your Visa

As you look at your life, you should consider what you hope to get from your visa in terms of the larger landscape of your life. Depending on your stage of life, you will pursue different types of visas.

Exploratory: Student visas, tourist visas, language teaching, short-term relief and development work, internships, .

Learning / Experience: University student visas, teaching visas, research visas, .

Productive: - Business visas, teaching visas for private schools or universities, consulate staff visas.

Transformation: NGO visas, relief and development visas, religious teaching visas, USAID, Peacecorp, etc.

Financial: Business visas, private school teaching visas.

Enjoyment: Retirement visas, social visas or low-commitment teaching visas.

Your WORK Background and your Visa

When you're looking for your first visa, you need to consider your background and what that allows to you do in another country. Some skills are specific to a locality and are not easily transferred, others have a high degree of portability.

Education - Degrees matter, but not necessarily the way you think they do. Having a bachelors can be required to be eligible for a visa in the first place depending on your country. Having a master's degree might qualify you to be a elementary school teacher in one area, but a university professor in another. Regardless, having a college degree is important.

Experience - Many visas come with government established work experience requirements. Be proactive in getting experience before you go overseas.

Certifications - Certifications can be extremely helpful, especially for people who are looking to teach English as a foreign language, but don't have a background in education. Certifications vary in quality and usefulness, so do your due diligence before paying for a certification.

General Skillsets - The ability to teach in English, teaching English, French or Mandarin as a language, finance, medical skillsets (although some countries are very restrictive in who can practice medicine) are all often desirable work backgrounds for finding visas.

Unique Skillsets - Having a high degree of specialization can be very helpful, such as being able to a certain medical procedure, being a cheesemaker (sadly lacking in many parts of the world), a French cook, or being a humanitarian photographer are all types of specialization that can generate a visa.

Researching your Visa

Every country and every visa is different. Visa requirements vary dramatically.


Salaries - Consider how much you need to make (not want to make!) and which countries could potentially provide that income level. An English teacher in Bali isn't going to make what a teacher in Shanghai will make, but there are other trade-offs that make the lower salary worthwhile.

Cost of Living Variations - Singapore and Indonesia are geographically close, but the cost of living is quite different. Do some research about what this might do to your salary while working overseas.

Contract Length - Be sure to try for a short period of time before you sign on long-term. This will give you an opportunity to determine if you fit with your new country as well as your new employer and work assignment. Broken promises and unmet expectations can lead to a variety of problems down the road as you search for new work, so be sure to be upfront in your conversations about the time frame of your employment.

Age / Gender Restrictions - While in the United States and many other countries screening potential employees on the basis of age, gender, marital status and more is not legal, that does not hold true in all countries. (I'm certainly not saying that I agree with this practice.) Some countries have upper age limits on work visas, so be sure to know what your target country's requirements are before investing a lot of time in searching for a visa.

Maturity of Sponsoring Organization - Smaller sponsoring organizations are generally more flexible, but want to sponsor someone who is also "flexible." That means signing up for a teaching position might mean you help with curriculum planning, serving lunch and clearing the plumbing. A larger, more established organization generally has a specific idea of just what they want an expat to provide, and can be more clear around expectations.

Working for expats or working for Nationals - I put this because inter-cultural communication can be a cause of a great deal of headaches if not approached with the proper respect. Please don't make the mistake of assuming that since you speak the same language (ex: Australians and Brits and Americans and Kiwis) that you mean the same thing when you use the same word. Do yourself a favor and buy the Culture Map by Erin Meyers (here on Amazon). You can thank me later.

Building Relationships and your Visa

When it comes to finding visas, your connection to the expat community is vital. Many jobs are never posted until after a candidate is found, vetted, and an offer has been informally made. That means breaking into the network can be somewhat daunting, and that often it seems in order to obtain a visa you need to have a visa. New expats are an unknown commodity and at times people are hesitant to recommend them for a quality visa slot without a high level of trust having been developed.

Develop your expat network. Build relationships, get to know people. Before you need the visa. Asking people about their visa experiences, letting them know that you are keeping an eye open for visa opportunities, letting them know what kind of background you have is helpful, and it give people an opportunity to ask around without creating pressure on them. It's also important to keep in mind that there are many schools, businesses and organizations who would love to hire a qualified expat, if they could only find one!

Say Yes. To coffee. To tea. To school plays. To play dates. To day hikes. To vacations. To church. To attend weddings. The expat network is usually expansive, and once you start to meet people, you'll find that everyone knows everyone. Which leads me to my next point.

Never burn your bridges in the expat community. Seriously. This is very important. The expat community is generally tight-knit, supportive and tries to be inclusive. However, if you needlessly offend people, burn bridges or earn a negative reputation in that community, it can make finding employment extremely difficult. Like most small communities the potential for gossip is high, and the importance of keeping details accurate is low. So be polite. Be kind. Be tolerant. Most expats love the expat community and with good reason, they tend to be a fantastic group of people, but just be aware that everyone knows everyone.

Never burn your bridges in the non-expat community. The same holds true here. Just don't burn any bridges if you can help it, OK?

Ask an agent. Many countries use visa agents to process the paper work required for visa applications. Visa agents often know which companies have recently lost employees and are looking to rehire expats. Be wary though, the visa agents are looking out for themselves the hefty commission that they stand to gain by processing your paperwork. Consequently, I have them as basically a last resort, but they can be helpful in helping find potential sponsors if all else fails.