So you want to go abroad, but you aren’t sure how.
In the past, I’ve had people come to me asking what their options are in terms of traveling abroad in a long-term way.
I myself was one of those people a few years ago and my research on ways Americans can go abroad long-term led me to my teaching gig in Thailand when I graduated university.
I’ll be honest: as Americans we don’t have as many options to work abroad as others do. (On the other hand, we do have a lot of freedom in terms of traveling on tourist visas.)
Whether you’re a recent graduate looking for a change of pace or you’re a young professional trying to plan your escape route in case Trump becomes president (post-edit: ugh), this guide will help you explore your options in terms of traveling and living abroad long-term.
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Backpacking, or a nomadic period of time in which you just travel (usually on a budget), can be can be a challenging, scary, enriching, empowering, eye-opening, frustrating, surprising – the list goes on – experience. It just depends what you choose to do and where you choose to go.
People love backpacking because almost no matter what, in the end, you’ll have a whole a lot of fun doing it!
If you have money saved (or plan to work and live at home and save money to travel), grab yourself a backpack and go have an adventure!
I think sometimes we think we want to go live abroad a la the experiences below (working, teaching, au pairing) because it’s hard to imagine not doing something ‘productive’, but actually what we want to do is take a break from work and school, and backpack, travel, see the world.
If you’ve never traveled before and you want to explore the world solo, do head for Southeast Asia. The trail is well-worn but it’s for a reason, I promise.
Southeast Asia is exotic and different, the people are friendly, the weather is warm, it’s affordable to travel, the food is spicy and delicious, the landscapes are breathtaking…Southeast Asia is really the best first travel experience I could wish for anyone.
Read more: My top 5 favorite places I’ve traveled to
I would recommend Central and South America for ‘older’ backpackers (the 25-30’s crowd) and for couples. It’s definitely not as cheap and not as wild (party-wise) as SE Asia. This article does a good job comparing SE Asia to Latin America as backpacker destinations.
Ladies, don’t think you’re the very special exception to the rule: I would NOT recommend traveling in South Asia (e.g. India) alone. Do go there – it’s incredible and will challenge you to grow in ways you never imagined – but go with a friend and, even better, a male companion.
Trust me. Been there.
I suppose the last region I would recommend for a budget backpacker is Eastern Europe. I’ve never been so I can’t speak to it, but I’m super curious about it.
Volunteering is when you spend time living in another country contributing to a cause for social good without being paid in return.
I’ve never volunteered abroad myself so I’m definitely no authority on the matter. It looks like you could either go through a big volunteer agency or directly contact an NGO you want to work for to secure a position. (If it were me, I would opt for the latter because I feel I would have more control over the arrangements, but the former tactic offers advantages too, like more accountability and perhaps structure.)
If you want to do service, here are some resources I know of:
- Peace Corps – Peace Corps is a program uniquely available to Americans and run by the American government which places volunteers in locations around the world to work on community projects for 27 months. The application process is intense and landing a Peace Corps position is considered very prestigious. I’ll be completely frank: I am not the biggest Peace Corps fan. I look at the Peace Corps sometimes and wonder if its only meaningful contribution is that it helps volunteers get jobs later because they have a prestigious volunteer position on their CV. Then there’s the whole bit about PCV’s being raped while completing their service and Peace Corps sort of throwing their hands up and saying “Eh. It happens.” But maybe I’m being too harsh about Peace Corps – after all, everyone who has been through it and made it to the end has loved their experience – but you would think with all the volunteers they send out each year, you would hear something in the news about a program developed in a community by a Peace Corps volunteer that is making a difference in people’s lives. I tried Googling this and just came up with a bunch of Peace Corps propaganda from the institution itself. But definitely do your own research and make an informed decision about applying.
- There are many Peace Corps alternatives that offer different types of volunteer work, shorter time commitments, etc. – just do a Google search and you will be inundated with options
- You don’t have just work with people: you could get a volunteer position doing conservation work for the environment and/or animals
- If you find a volunteer program but need some funds to get you there, FundMyTravel is a crowdfunding platform especially for volunteers.
If it were me, I would probably go for environmental conservation work.
But honestly I’ve never been super into the idea of volunteering abroad. Organizations seem to always ask you to pay them to volunteer and I’m like, okay I’m offering you my time and I have to pay you to do that?
The other main reason I’ve never volunteered abroad is that volunteering abroad can get ethically messy. If you are interested in doing service abroad, I urge you to read these articles beforehand and make sure you’re not signing yourself up for something that will do more harm than good for the community you want to work with:
House sitting has always interested me. I don’t personally know anyone who has done it but I see it recommended by bloggers all over the internet.
The basic idea is you sign up to watch over someone’s house (maybe water their plants, get their mail, watch their pets, etc.) in exchange for free accommodation in the house and perhaps a stipend. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
Kiersten from The Blonde Abroad spent some time housesitting in Ecuador and put together this guide on how to snag a housesitting job yourself.
A work exchange is when you offer a certain amount and type of work in exchange for a place to stay and/or daily meals. You are still volunteering your time but it might not be for a project for ‘social good’ (e.g. you could be working in a hostel) AND you get living expenses covered in return.
How to find work exchanges:
I have used Helpx before to do work exchanges in hostels in Israel and Germany while I was traveling. In both cases I helped out around the hostel for three weeks (cleaning, taking guest payments, preparing breakfast) in exchange for a bed in the hostel and a small stipend for groceries.
You have to buy the premier guest membership on Helpx ($25 for a two year membership) to have full access to the site’s capabilities. After you join, you can locate host profiles wherever you are planning to travel to and message them to set up a work exchange. It’s super easy!
Workaway works in a similar way but I found Helpx seemed to have more updated host profiles so less of a chance that you would be messaging a host profile that was set up 3 years ago and forgotten.
I’ve never WWOOFed myself but have heard good things about it.
The membership fee is a bit higher (more like $50 per year) and from what I’ve seen, you can get work exchanges on farms through Helpx but they might not be organic farms.
I know you might be thinking, But Michelle, I don’t have money to go traipsing around the globe for months at a time! Friend, I know the feeling. Here are some ways to make $money$ while living abroad:
Teaching English abroad is a very popular way to live abroad as Americans.
Teaching can be a million different things depending on your specific teaching position so I can’t make generalizations. But I’m sure there is an English teaching position out there for everyone as long as you love kids and you are into the idea of standing in the front of a classroom everyday.
I spent a year teaching ESL in Thailand and you can find all of my tips & thoughts about that experience here.
Work Abroad on a Working Holiday Visa
A working holiday visa is a special visa that allows young people to live abroad and work, usually in hospitality or restaurant positions while spending some time traveling and spending that money as well (hence the ‘holiday’ part).
A working holiday visa is not meant for finding permanent or serious career-type positions – and immigration policies do their best to make sure you’re not going to make their country your new permanent home by, for example, limiting your time at each employer to a few months.
As an American you can only work abroad in a handful of countries (if you’re from another Western country like Canada, Australia, or somewhere in Europe you have a LOT more options. Lucky you ;)).
Australia and New Zealand are probably the most promising options for a working holiday visa.
- Australia: The Australian Work and Holiday Visa (subclass 462) allows Americans ages 18-31 to live and work in Australia for up to a year. The visa costs $440 and you have to have proof that you have AUD$5,000 before you go. Australia’s immigration website is super user-friendly and easy to navigate so go have a search around and see what the visa is all about. If you want firsthand tips on how to apply for the visa, see my friend Kate’s article here.
- New Zealand: New Zealand’s Working Holiday Scheme is pretty similar: you must be between 18-30, you can work for up to a year, you must have proof of NZ$4,200, and the visa costs NZ$208 if my calculations are correct on their website (a little less user-friendly than the Australian one).
Tons of people do these working holiday schemes and go live in major cities working in hostels and restaurants or go live up north and work on fruit farms.
I’ve heard you get paid more doing the latter, but it can be quite the isolated experience (it’s just you and your team of fellow fruit pickers, who are likely also other working holidayers, in the middle of nowhere).
You really can save a lot during these working holidays since Australian minimum wage is quite high (about $20 an hour) but you will have to be careful about expenses and possibly live spartanly while there because Australia is, accordingly, extremely expensive.
The other working holiday visas for Americans have stricter requirements:
- Korea: Korea’s H-1 visa is for 18-30 years olds who are post-secondary students or recent graduates (within 1 year of graduation) and there are limitations of what types of jobs you can get (I’ve heard only hotels and tourism). Word on the street is you have to work part-time and can only spend 3 months with each employer. Note: You cannot teach English on this visa! For that scroll back up to the teaching ESL section. The visa application fee is $45.
- Ireland: Ireland’s working holiday visa is also for people who are post-secondary students or recent graduates (within 1 year of graduation). The visa application fee is $337 and you need proof of $4000 OR $2000 plus a return flight home. I actually don’t see any age restrictions so at least there’s that, right?
- Singapore: Singapore’s Work Holiday Programme requires that you be between 18-25 years old, a current student or have graduated in the last 12 months, and your university must be ranked in the top 200 for overall academic performance. You can work for up to 6 months on this visa. The visa is $150.
Honestly, judging by what I’ve seen in forums about the limitations of the Korean and Singaporean visas and the low pay in Ireland (versus, say, Australia), these programs don’t really seem worth it to me.
If you’re American and you want to do a working holiday, I would seriously consider Aus or NZ. You can save money there then go travel to South Korea afterwards if you want. Or Southeast Asia. Your money will go much farther in Asia than in Oceania anyways.
Work Abroad as an Au Pair
Being an au pair means you care for a family’s children usually between 20-40 hours a week, and in exchange receive a place to stay (which could either be in the family’s own home or in a separate apartment) and potentially meals or a stipend for living expenses.
This is not a money-saving gig; if you choose to be an au pair, you do it for the experience.
There’s a dearth of information on the Internet about how to become an au pair as an American because each au pair position is extremely unique; you will have to look for the specific job that fits you the best.
Where can you go as an au pair? Well, a lot of places actually.
Just briefly looking at the au pair hosts on AuPairWorld, it seems most opportunities for Americans are in Europe and Australia.
Keep in mind, the visa situation can be tricky – you will have to look into it for the specific country you’re interested in moving to – but some countries have special au pair visas for Americans. Others, like France, have student visas you can apply for (and a requirement is that you take classes while in the country, although I’ve heard the requirement is very lax).
The Blonde Abroad has the most comprehensive au pair guide I could find.
Phew! That was LONG. I hope I have answered some of your questions about long-term travel as an American. Now go travel – What are you waiting for?!