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How to Emigrate - A PRACTICAL Guide

None of the following is legal advice. It's not guaranteed to be accurate and you had better do your own research. Even if I've gotten some of my facts wrong, you are responsible for ensuring making sure that you know what you're doing and how the law applies to you.

A few years ago, I wrote an entry about how to move to the UK. As an American having lived in the UK for several years (altogether I've lived in four countries), gotten a lot more experience and met a hell of a lot more expats, I think it's time for a more general overview of the topic. This is general information about emigrating to another country, not just the UK. And while some information is aimed at Americans, it's not specific to them.

Also, I'm going to assume that you don't already have dual-citizenship, family sponsorship, some foreigner to marry, tons of money to buy your way out, or any other "easy" way in. You're reading this because you want out and you don't know how. The good news is that it's possible if you really try. The bad news is that you have to try. No one is going to just walk up and hand you a plane ticket and a work permit for another country. You have to make it happen.

Before you leave

Motivations

The single most important question you need to answer is "why are you doing this?" You have to have an answer that you really believe in. That's because emigrating is hard. It's hard legally, financially, and emotionally. It's hard legally because, let's face it: countries usually don't want you. It's hard financially because moving overseas can be expensive (but sometimes a company will pay for your move). However, it's the emotional pain which is truly difficult and unless you really, really believe in what you are doing and why, this will be your biggest stumbling block if you get out.

Consider witness protection programs. You don't get put into one because bad guys will call you names. You get put into one because bad guys will kill you. However, even briefly reading about witness protection program murders reveals that the witnesses who get murdered do so because they went home. Think about that. If homesickness is so bad that people are willing to risk death rather than face it, it must be a hell of a lot worse than people think. Can you really walk away from all of your family and friends? Phone calls and email don't cut it. I've been down that road several times. I've found myself sitting alone in a Dutch internet café and messaging old friends and hoping for a conversation. It's very hard wondering what you'll do on a given day and know that you can't just call Bob to head down to a bar for a beer. Many of the expats I've talked to have said this is the most difficult challenge they face.

That being said, I am assuming you'll ignore this because everyone does. Hey, adventure is fun! Of course, an adventure is often more fun in the telling than in the experiencing, but I'll stop there. I ignored this problem, too (and it was part of the reason I left Amsterdam several years ago).

Permanently leaving?

So you know why you're leaving and you're sure you can handle not seeing your friends and family, what now? First, you need to consider if you want to leave permanently or not. For example, in the unlikely event you land a job in Switzerland and decide you want to live their permanently, finding out that it takes 12 years to get Swiss citizenship can be a shock. On the other hand, it only takes five years residence to get Japanese citizenship, but you have to give up any other nationality you have. Different countries often have wildly different laws regarding permanent residency and naturalisation, so you'll want to look into how those will impact you. Even if you only want to get out "for a little while", if you decide to stay, it might be hard to do if you've chosen the wrong country.

Also, Americans should be aware that leaving the US doesn't mean you leave behind the IRS. The US is the only major world nation to tax its citizens overseas. If you get a good job, you might find it harder to get a bank account overseas because the US is trying to force foreign banks to report to the IRS. What's worse: the US even claims the right to tax you if you've renounced your US citizenship! Just to give you an idea of how bad this is, I know of one individual (I'll call him "Alex") who claimed US citizenship because one of his parents is a US citizen. However, Alex has never lived or worked in the US, nor has he ever worked for a US company. Alex does, however, make a ton of money. When looking at US immigration possibilities, he was informed by his lawyer that he owned tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes to this country he's never lived or worked in. Needless to say, Alex decided not to pursue that opportunity.

Make it easy to leave

Simplify your life. If you had a way to move to Turkey but you had to leave next Monday, could you? Do you have a car? Do you have a household to pack? If you have a partner and children, what impact does that have? And sorry, you probably can't bring your beloved dog or cat, but there are sometimes exceptions. The sad truth is, if you want to emigrate, a single person with no pets, children or belongings has the best chance of emigrating. That's not saying you can't do it otherwise, but there will be more obstacles. If you seriously start looking into opportunities and one falls in your lap, you're going to be very upset if you can't instantly take that opportunity. Moving abroad takes planning.

Where are you going?

Read up about your target country. If you decide to teach English in the Philippines, do you know anything about that country? Do you know its history? Its culture? What's the government like? The more you know about your target country before you go, the easier it is to start getting integrated when you land. And even if, like Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, be prepared to learn the native language. You simply cannot appreciate a culture if you can't speak the language.

Of particular interest for those who love travelling is the European Economic Area, or EEA. As a general rule, if you have citizenship in any of those countries, you can legally live and work in the others. There are limitations, particularly as you go further east in the EEA. However, if you can get into one of the EEA countries, there are tons of opportunities for you.

European Free Trade Association Council of Europe Switzerland Albania Armenia Liechtenstein Iceland Norway Azerbaijan Schengen Area European Economic Area Bosnia and Herzegovina Croatia Austria Germany Malta Georgia Belgium Slovenia Greece Portugal Cyprus Eurozone Moldova European Union Finland Italy Netherlands Spain Sweden Republic of Ireland Montenegro France Slovakia Luxembourg Lithuania Macedonia Poland Hungary Bulgaria Denmark Russia Czech Republic Romania Latvia Estonia Serbia United Kingdom Ukraine European Union Customs Union Monaco Turkey San Marino Andorra Vatican City International status and usage of the euro#States with issuing rights
A clickable Euler diagram showing the relationships between various multinational European organisations.

Also note that if you've heard of the European Union's Blue Card, a card similar to the US's "green card", note that it's plagued with political problems and may not be very useful. However, if it stabilises and is widely adopted, not only will the US receive fewer skilled immigrants, but I expect more skilled Americans to start heading to Europe. There is an infrequently updated European Blue Card blog which provides a bit more information.

Getting Out

A warning to women!

Be vary wary about "hostess", "au pair", or other positions that offer you an exotic overseas job, particularly if they seem to be specifically recruiting young women. There is a huge, worldwide sex slave industry and if your job offer seems too good to be true, just assume that it is. Being a forced prostitute in a Bratislavan brothel is probably not what you're looking for. Do research on your employer and check them independently. If you check the references they give you, you can't trust them to be honest. Check with local embassies, Web sites, chambers of commerce and good old-fashioned Google searches (is using "Google" old-fashioned now?). If you want to know more, The Trafficking Project is a good place to start.

Teaching English Abroad

Do your research here as this is your best bet unless you have specialist skills. In fact, I've read a number of accounts of people just buying a ticket to a target country and finding this work under the table. Due to the popularity of the English language, there's a huge market for teaching English abroad. There are various certificates available for teaching English as a foreign language and you probably want one of those as it will open up career paths, but failing that, many people report simply being able to go abroad, scan the papers and get a job. You really want to do your research on this one. Allegedly, Hong Kong prefers British English and Japan prefers American. Some countries have a higher demand than others and presumably a higher tolerance for you staying past your visa time

Teaching English
Photo by Neale Bryan.

One good resource for teaching English is the ICALwiki. Though it's affiliated with an organisation which offers ESL certification and is thus commercial, it still has plenty of high-quality content. You may be specifically interested in their country files. See their wiki page for teaching English in China for a good example.

Also, I've heard anecdotally that this book is a great guide to teaching English overseas, but I can't actually vouch for it.

Volunteering

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer to work abroad. Many non-profits welcome volunteers with little or no experience, but you often have to pay your own way. If you're looking for a short-term break and have some cash saved up, why not do a good deed and help out? The problem is that there are many scams out there and even volunteer opportunities which are not scams can be expensive. Here's a great article explaining what's going on and good international volunteering blog.

Working Remotely

Next, consider "work anywhere" jobs. These are becoming more common, but they often require an internet connection or phone line (something hard to acquire if you've just bought a plane ticket and jumped on). There are plenty of positions available as freelance writers, translators, medical and legal transcription, data entry and so on. If you have programming skills, there are tons of remote jobs available. Many of these jobs require special skills, but others do not. Also, be aware that some are scams and they'll pay little or no money, but if you can get a remote job, many people just travel from country to country, simply leaving before their visa time limit expires.

High demand/low supply skills

I'm sure there are many areas for which this is true, but I mostly know the tech arena, so I'll focus on that.

If you know much about the "dot com boom" of the 90s, you know that to get a good paying job in tech, often all you had to have on your résumé was HTML. Today HTML is like typing: it's taken for granted that you know it. However, there are still plenty of opportunities here. For example, COBOL is easy to learn and it's still the most widely used programming language in the world (though it doesn't get much press). As a result, there are COBOL jobs all over the place and many companies desperate for COBOL programmers will import them. My specialty, Perl, is another good example. Due to a silly Perl is dead meme going around, some programmers aren't going into the language, but there's still a huge demand for it when compared to many of its major competitors:

"perl developer","python developer", "ruby developer" Job Trends graph

"perl Developer" jobs - "python Developer" jobs - "ruby Developer" jobs

Thanks to this, I get to travel all over the world. Perl's still incredibly popular, but due to a weird technological culture shift, demand has dropped relative to supply. That will change again, but for now, it's a great opportunity (and if you're curious, you can see that it's remained one of the 10 most discussed programming languages for many years).

What this "high demand/low supply" strategy means is that you can take advantage of this. Get a bit of experience in your field and if something starts getting popular fast, learn just enough about it to put it on your CV/résumé and start contacting recruiters/companies abroad. For a while, Ruby on Rails seemed like the hottest thing in tech and companies were even contacting me for Rails jobs, even though I didn't know Ruby (this happened twice). A programmer with Rails "experience" could have a chance at converting this into a legitimate job overseas. It's not easy, but you can do it.

To learn more about the general high demand/low areas for your target country, try searching for "shortage occupation" for said country. You might be surprised. For example, the UK shortage occupation list (pdf) has social workers in child and family services, but who would have thought that "social worker" is a high demand job?

A Few Strange Examples

There are a number of areas around the world where it's easier to get in than you might think. This list is not exhaustive. It's just here to show you how that there are opportunities out there, so long as you search for them.

Australia

Have you checked their Skilled Occupations List lately? These are "high demand" occupations which make it much easier to emigrate there. They have the normal occupations such as "neurosurgeon", but "carpenter", "tiler", "bricklayer"? There are plenty of countries which have strange shortage lists. Keep looking and you can find them.

Belize

Are you an American, Canadian, or British Citizen 45 years old or older? Have a pension worth at least $1,000 a month, or any other income worth more than $2,000 a month? You can live in Belize. Tax free on foreign income. Oh, and did I mention that Belize is the only English-speaking country in South America? Seriously, Belize should be an attractive option for many world travellers.

France

I'm almost loathe to mention this, but it will get you French citizenship in 3 years (if you use your real name). Unless you're desperate, you don't want to do this. If you are desperate: are you male? In relatively good health? You can join the French Foreign Legion! Free room, board and clothing is provided immediately. You can only join in France, so buy a ticket and go. It's that easy, except for that fact that not everyone is accepted. Start running, doing pull-ups and sit-ups and make sure you are in halfway decent shape. You don't even need to speak French (you'll be taught). If you sign up under your real name, you can eventually get French citizenship. The downside, of course, is that you may die. In fact, Légionnaires are probably more likely to see combat than regular French troops and many of the people you serve with might be, um, a bit dodgy. Use this route only if you have a very high tolerance for adventure. The Legion has a high mortality rate, with one in ten dying over the last century.

Svalbard

For a really strange thought, due to the Spitsbergen Treaty, citizens of many nations can just up and move to Svalbard, a Norwegian island</a>. However, even though it's technically part of Norway, you apparently cannot use time there for Norwegian residency or citizenship. And it's tough to get work or housing there. Still, it's an option. If you have a remote job, this might work, but the difficulty of obtaining housing could also be a problem here. And there's always the chance you'll meet a Norwegian partner to marry ...

Note: I'm not recommending Svalbard. I'm just pointing out that there are weird opportunities all over the planet.

Conclusion

If you really want out of your country, for whatever reason, you can. You just have to remember that it will take time, effort, and research. Read other traveller's accounts of their adventures. Some people just drive down to Mexico and work under the table. Others work study for a TESL certificate and start applying like mad to any place which will sponsor you (or they fly to their target country and start working). Still others find jobs they can do remotely or save money to travel around India for a few months. You can make this happen, but you have to make it happen. Wishful thinking is the start of the process, not the end.

Good luck and happy travelling!

Good article, but...

you may want to add that while Svalbard has ZERO unemployment it's because if you can't support yourself, you're expected to leave.
No unemployment benefits or anything.

Also, if you can't or won't fire a REAL gun, you're usually not allowed out of town. Sometimes you're not even allowed outdoors...
(With a real gun I mean something capable of taking down a polar bear. And no, an AK-47 won't do. A M-16 is borderline. 7.62x51 NATO rounds or stronger is recommended)

It also helps if 6months of 'night' doesn't bother you.
(Or 6months of 'daylight'... )

Incidentally, it's the only place in Norway we Norwegians need to show a passport or similar when travelling.
I really want to go there one summer.
Kayaking along the coastline is supposedly a spectacular experience.

And finally, check out Dave Freer's LJ.
Not only is he a great author, but he also wrote a lot of posts about his move from South Aftica to Australia, including the trouble of transporting pets, fluctuating exchange rates and all kinds of other stuff.
Can't even call them Latin American, can we?
And here I thought Guyana was the only English-speaking country in South America.

... what with Belize being Mesoamerican / Central American. ;-)
A shortage of skilled labor such as carpenters, masons, etc. is actually not that uncommon, according to something I heard on NPR recently.
Thanks for that. Its amazing how people succeed even when it looks impossible for them to leave a place.
I know you didn't write this for me, but I can be all egocentric for a second and pretend you did.

And since this is LJ, I'm not going to spare you as I would on other fora.

I plan to check out Europe over the next 5 years. M and I pretty much think moving out of the country (either temporarily or permanently, we don't know) will be possible once our cat dies of old age, because bringing her with us is probably not an option and we understand that. That said, the emotional attachment to our cat would be the thing that keeps us here the most. Yes, that's odd, but it is true.

As far as leaving friends/family: my dad is going to retire in another country (I hope Thailand, but maybe Belize will do) and I'm pretty gregarious; I could scout us new friends wherever. We're not tremendously close to our families and her sisters live all over the place already, so it isn't like there's a central base. Portland is a collection of orphans, none of which we're ridiculously close to. For those who we are close to, they will understand and it will be an excuse for them to visit Europe.

I've got my eye on three locations for relocation thus far: London (or somewhere in the Midlands maybe?), Amsterdam (because of its low unemployment and renewable energy and energy efficiency industries), and Barcelona (due to the weather and food). Obviously, the latter isn't going to happen in the near term since everyone is unemployed there, which will depress wages, as well. Maybe four: Copenhagen also seems as if it may be a possiblity (again, due to industry), but it seems to me if we're going to move, a more California-like weather would be a good idea just because that's how M likes it.

I'm not sure that I want to live in a major city: I grew up in LA, and I've visited Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Cairns, AUS. Out of all of those, I liked Bangkok and Cairns the best, I would say. I like the second-tier, B-list cities, I think. Cairns was a bit too small, but a 2M-person city (or at least the neighbourhoody feel that Portland exudes) would be great. It is the impersonality and rudeness inherent in large cities I don't like; there are probably cultural drivers that may nullify that in some places, maybe...

We will have some income from the house that will help us to make ends meet (I'm guessing between 400-800$/mo), especially in places that are relatively economically weaker (dollar-to-Euro(local) ratio). I don't know if that place exists in Europe other than in the east, though.

Thanks for reminding me to keep tabs on this. I am trying to make those plans.

One thing you forgot about homesickness: You're less homesick if you convince your friends to move closer to you (your underlying plot!).

Edited at 2010-09-01 04:32 pm (UTC)
30% Ruling
One thing to consider: become an expert in a field. If you do and you move to the Netherlands, you may be subject to their 30% ruling. This effectively reduces your taxes by a huge amount (limited to your first ten years in the country, but you should be on your feet by then).

Plus, in the event that you and M break down and decide to have puppies, Dutch children are the happiest in Europe.

Oh, and there's also the fact that The Netherlands are going to start closing prisons because they don't have enough criminals. Prior to that, they were selling extra prison space to Belgium.

All things considered, the Dutch seem to have a pretty damned good handle on how to do things (they're not perfect, but they're doing better than many other countries).
Re: 30% Ruling
Well, that throws that whole liberal(capitalist)-democracy-is-the-only-means-for-successful-society argument that keeps getting pounded into Americans from the Right out the window, doesn't it? Social programmes, liberal social policy=exactly what I've been searching for.

It's interesting how much money you save when you decriminalise certain drugs.