“How do I find a job there?” is the wrong question

living working abroad

The question I get the most when talking about moving to another country to cut expenses in half is the one that shows how badly we’ve been programmed since childhood. It changes a bit from person to person in the exact wording, but it’s usually some variation of this:

“How do I get a job after I move there?”

Or the really wishful will ask, “How do I set up a job before I get there?

Sorry, but wrong question.

It can be done, of course, though usually not before arrival unless you have really in-demand skills. The problem is, the outcome will probably negate most of the benefits of moving.

When I first started traveling the world back in the mid-1990s, I stopped a couple times to work. When I lived in an apartment for a while and went to work in Turkey and South Korea, I did what a whole lot of people did then: I taught English. In Turkey we made just enough to get by. In Korea we saved a small fortune. In some parts of the world it was the best job available unless your company sent you abroad or you did a lot of business selling real estate to other expats. It was kind of fun and satisfying too: that’s a much younger me below supervising a skit from my youngest students.

teaching English abroad

Jobs like that still exist in the same quantity they did before, along with tour guides, dive instructors, bartenders, and the like. What has changed is, now we have the internet. So you can ignore the local options altogether and make a job instead of looking for a job. Giving yourself permission to earn money instead of asking permission to be paid.

Getting the Most From Arbitrage

In its simplest definition, arbitrage is buying low and selling high. You snag things at a garage sale that have more value than the seller realizes and make a bunch of money from them on eBay. Or you buy a stock when the market is in panic mode and then sell it when the market is euphoric. You buy used textbooks from broke college students at the end of their term for 10% of list value and sell them to new college students just starting the next year at 50% of list value.

When it comes to moving abroad, the big arbitrage play is to earn money in your home first world currency and then spend it in a country where that currency buys more than it did where you left. When I live in Guanajuato, Mexico I’m doing the same job I do in the U.S. and get paid from companies in the USA, Canada, and Europe. When I spend that money in Mexico, however, $2,100 is enough to support my family and go out to eat several times a month instead of just being enough to pay the rent on my three-bedroom condo in Tampa. I’m earning a U.S. salary but spending it in a country where the average salary is 1/4 or less of what it is in the USA.

If you try to “get a job” locally, you often lose this opportunity completely. You earn an amount that’s appropriate for the local economy, not what it would be in the country of your birth. You are competing with locals who have similar skills but lower expectations. On top of that you’re at a language disadvantage if you’re not bilingual.

running a business abroad

Make a Job or Work Virtually

So what’s the solution if you don’t already have a virtual job?

The flippant answer is to say, “Start your own business.” That way you have total control, you do what you love, and you’re working on something you care about. This can mean anything from starting your own blog to selling through Amazon to running some kind of agency to being an online coach. The possibilities are almost endless.

For some people that’s part of the problem though. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur and some simply lack the initiative to get a business off the ground. They need to get marching orders and work for someone else.

If that’s you then you need to steer a skill into the virtual world or develop one that can be done remotely. A lot of people are traveling around the world doing rather unglamorous jobs. It’s just that instead of doing that job in a cubicle they’re doing it from a chair by a pool or in a hotel room. Here are a few ideas from other things I’ve written.

My Lonely Planet article, Meet the New Digital Nomads

A guest post on this blog, Two Remote Job Options for Introverts Who Love to Travel

My Transitions Abroad article,  Why a Virtual Job is the Best Job for Working Abroad

My book that features dozens of expats working abroad, A Better Life for Half the Price

  1. Josh

    Thanks, Tim. By the way, nice picture at the top of the article. Beautiful landscape. May I ask where it was taken?

  2. Krystal

    You have a point. We have been conditioned from childhood to see working a regular 9-5 job as the only way to live. There are options for those who want to live their lives on their terms.

  3. Ana

    Hey Tim, thanks for all the advice. I’ve taught English in Japan and would love to go back, but now that I’m 63, that’s proving virtually impossible as that country has quite an age bias. So … I have a friend in Mexico and she also taught for years in Japan. I do speak pretty good Spanish (although I have to develop my fluency all over again as I haven’t used it in a while) and all I would need to do is find a place there that’s relatively safe as I’m an older woman alone.

    If you were me, with only skills in editing and writing — which as we all know are a dime a dozen — which skills would you learn to take with you?

    • Tim Leffel

      You could do both: remote editing and physical English teaching. The latter is not going to pay a lot, but it doesn’t cost a lot to live there either. Once you’re there for a while you may find other opportunities, but working remotely for dollars or euros is much better.

  4. Alona

    Very difficult to find a job for dollars ecspecialy you’re living in low devoloped countries. I know this service in UA https://www.indeed.com/l-United-States-jobs.html Had anybody used it?

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