How to Get a Work Visa or Permit When Moving to Another Country

Person holding an open US passport
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International moving can be difficult. Finding a job in another country, is even more challenging. Work permits are difficult to obtain, and even harder if you're in a two-income household; some countries only allow one spouse to be employed. Despite the rigorous entry requirements and stipulations to acquire a work permit, people are moving internationally to foreign places to seek new opportunities and to experience life somewhere else.

When to Apply?

Before you leave. Once you enter a country, it's more difficult to get a visa or work permit. If you do apply after entering a country, you'll probably have to leave then re-enter.

Who Gets the Permit for You?

The idea that someone can simply be eligible for a work permit in a country, receive a visa, and then look for a job is a myth. A work visa is always for a specific job that a company offers an individual. Some countries require only a written job offer from a company, while others require a notarized work contract signed by both you and your prospective employer. Although most work permits are issued by the respective ministry of foreign affairs, many countries require the approval of the labor ministry and/or the local employment office to make sure that there are no local people who might be better suited for the job. A good number of countries maintain a quota for each type of work permit, such as “highly skilled professional,” “seasonal farm worker,” or “academic researcher”.

Once the quota is filled, there is nothing you can do during that calendar year, above board, to obtain a work permit. Your sole recourse is to wait and apply the following year. In many countries the labor ministry makes sure that companies judiciously follow all requirements to attract local job candidates before allowing them to offer a position to a foreigner.

Once you have a signed work contract and the approval of the labor ministry or local labor department you can proceed with the application process at the embassy or consulate.

How Long Do They Last?

Work permits generally have specific time limitations. They are issued either for the maximum amount of time allowed by law, or they are for the duration of your specific job. If you are hired to build a pipeline in Brazil, then your work permit will last until the project is finished. If the work permit has a legal time limit, such as a year or two, you will be able to apply for an extension to remain at that job. Work permit extensions are usually much easier than the initial application and approval process. Work Permits are issued by the government and can be altered and revoked.

First Steps

The first step in finding out what you need to work in another country is to contact the consulate or embassy of the country you wish to work in. The U.S. Department of State provides links to embassies located in the U.S. that you can contact for visa and work permit information.

Project Visa provides information on visitor's visas and work permits for almost every country in the world. A free service, this site is a must for foreign travelers just passing through or people on the move.

Expat Exchange is a great place to learn more about the country you're planning on moving to. With resources listed by country or by subject, you'll find everything you need to make your move a little smoother.

A U.K. based organization, WorkPermit.com provides information on working in 18 countries, most of which are in Europe, the Pacific and North America. It's a great site that provides details and links to other services. There are even international jobs listed and online assessment forms.

Also check out WorkPermit.com's discussion forum where you can ask questions and find answers.

The final resource I'd recommend is a guide to working overseas. Originally just for Canadians, it's been expanded to include Americans who wish to find work internationally. A web version is available free (doesn't include everything from the paper "bible" version, but is still quite extensive) after you fill out a very simple survey.

Information also includes advice on relocating overseas, studying and volunteering.