Updated August 22, 2020
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.
Whether you’re a recent graduate looking for a change of pace or you’re a young professional trying to plan your escape in case Trump becomes president again, this guide will help you explore your options in terms of traveling and living abroad long-term.
This post may include affiliate links which means if you buy something through the link, I may get a very small commission. I only recommend products and services I have used/done myself and LOVE and think you’ll love too!
How to prepare for long-term travel or living abroad
The first thing I recommend doing pretty much no matter what is accumulating an emergency savings. I recommend putting away 6 months worth of living expenses in a high-yield savings account (they don’t really exist these days but should come back as the Fed raises interest rates again in the future). Online banks are great for this – I’ve heard good things about Ally Bank.
Withdraw cash with no fees abroad
You will need to be able to withdraw cash at ATMs in foreign countries. I recommend opening Schwab’s high-yield checking account (you have to open a brokerage account simultaneously but there are zero fees if you don’t keep any funds in the brokerage account).
Schwab is a fantastic bank in my experience. They have almost no fees for anything, and even reimburse any ATM fees you may encounter overseas. They are also super easy to contact through online chat 24/7.
Once you’ve narrowed down where you’re going, you can check the CDC Traveler’s Health site for any vaccine recommendations. (Of course, once we have a COVID vaccine, there will probably be more specific requirements around health to enter most countries.)
Don’t forget to fill your existing prescriptions for as long as you can before you go! It’s usually pretty easy to pick up scripts in other countries but I like to do this anyway so I don’t have to worry about it for a few months.
Packing and gear
If you want to be able to use your phone abroad, make sure it is unlocked. Apparently most phones are unlocked these days but it wasn’t like that a few years ago so I dunno!
You will need a passport with more than 6 months left before it expires (the longer the better).
Backpacking, or a nomadic period of time in which you just travel (usually on a budget), can be a challenging, scary, enriching, empowering, eye-opening, frustrating, surprising – the list goes on – experience. It just depends on 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.
Central and South America are also popular amongst the backpacking crowd but I’ve only been to Peru so far so can’t speak on the region. Looks amazing though and I have my sights set on Mexico once we can travel again.
- Check out flights on Skyscanner
- Shop my favorite travel gear
- See which countries have reopened to American tourists
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. You could either go through a big volunteer agency or directly contact an NGO you want to work 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. 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.
I’ve never volunteered abroad because 1) organizations seem to always ask you to pay them to volunteer and 2) volunteering abroad can get ethically messy.
Check out these articles before committing to anything 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 haven’t tried it myself but definitely would! I have a close friend who does a ton of housesitting through Trusted Housesitters and she loves it.
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.
- Look for housesitting opportunities available in your region of choice on Trusted Housesitters
- Check flights on Skyscanner
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 every day.
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. Of course, you can’t do any of this now as both country’s borders are shut but you can still plan ahead!
- 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 AUD$485 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 afterward if you want. Or Southeast Asia. Your money will go much farther in Asia than in Oceania anyways.
Read more: The American’s Guide to Working Holiday Visas from Go Abroad
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.
- See which countries have reopened to American tourists
Bonus: Become a digital nomad
If you’ve spent any amount of time researching ways to travel the world long-term, you’ve undoubtedly come across the digital nomad lifestyle. Digital nomads are people who either move abroad or travel while working online. There are many different “professions” you can do as a digital nomad: virtual assistant, virtual English teacher, entrepreneur, freelancer, blogger, and more.
I became a freelance writer in 2016 and achieved my digital nomad dreams the following year.
- Read my digital nomad FAQs and learn more about what this lifestyle is like in action
- Check my freelance income report: How I Made $5k in My Fourth Month as a Freelance Writer
- Check out my post 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Digital Nomad on the Digital Nomad Society blog
Phew! That was LONG. I hope I have answered some of your questions about long-term travel as an American.
It’s a pretty frustrating time in terms of not being able to travel but I’m confident we’ll be able to travel again in the future!