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Get The Low Down On Working Abroad

A primer for working while traveling abroad.

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The following is a question from a reader named Nick about working abroad and the feasibility of earning a living on the road.

Hi Wade,
Is casual work abroad dead? Did it ever exist? I am considering employment to finance a 6 month trip to the Caribbean and South America (Trinidad and Tobago/Venezuela specifically). I have no degree but do have 4 years experience in IT – something that might prove useless as I would rather try something new, preferably away from an office. I have spoken to some of my more venerable friends who have already made trips abroad and they say “Get a job as a bartender/sales assistant/tour guide to earn your money” Fair enough – I am more than happy to do that.

I also get a similar impression of “just get up and go” from the “Becoming Unstuck To Travel The World” and “How Do You Know If Travel Is What You Want To Do With Your Life” entries. But when merrily reading through the guidelines for a T&T work permit I ask myself: “How do I overcome the clause in the application stating that the employer must give a reason why a non national has taken a job over a national?”. Minimal experience in any given field is sadly quite a common disposition and I imagine that it is not too difficult to find a bartender locally.

When reading “It’s True, A University Degree Creates Perpetual Travel Options” I feel that unless I have a degree in something difficult to pronounce my chances are close to 0? Even if I had a degree would that not limit me to whatever subject I read? Are you limited to (in your case to Archaeology/English teaching) when seeking employers in the next country to visit or have I missed a step? Is this a problem that only exists on paper and is ignored in the real world?

Should I stop my bitching and just drop my CV/resume on every virtual doorstep that I can locate? Or is self employment the way to go?

When it comes down to it, there are four classes of working abroad:

  1. Formal employment
  2. Informal or under the table employment
  3. Online employment
  4. Self-employment (online and AFK)

All four classes have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, but the savvy traveler will have a strategy ready to go for each.

Formal employment

These are the types of jobs where you get paid “on the books,” need a work visa for, and sign a contract of employment. These are jobs like teaching, managing, doing IT work, quality control, international trade, being a technician, security, working for a foreign company at an overseas location etc . . . These jobs generally require all the degrees, certifications, experience, and other credentials that they would in your home country.

Advantages: Good pay, job security, visas and residency permits, time to really learn about a location and make connections, work experience that you can use to later on, the opportunity to build a career.

Disadvantages: You need credentials, have to go through the work permit procedures, make a long term commitment, can get stuck in crappy places for longer than you want to be there, have to pay taxes, isn’t really traveling, can feel just like transplanting your home life to another country.

Informal employment

These are often temporary jobs that you can land “under the table” without proper working credentials when traveling. They consist of things like tutoring English, doing freelance IT work, bartending, working in a restaurant, working at a hostel or hotel, doing farm work etc . . .

Unless you have some mad skills that local employers find extremely valuable, this type of work generally doesn’t pay very highly and is pretty much just a way to earn your daily bread and a roof over your head. I recommend doing this type of work more for the interesting experiences that they provide and to obtain a closer level of interaction with a place/ people than for the money. To put it bluntly: if you must rely on informal employment to fund your travels you’re going to spend your time abroad doing little other than working and living hand to mouth — not how most people envision the traveling life.

Advantages: Freedom of movement, short term commitments, often in fun or interesting places, will get you what you need to survive, will provide a deeper impression of a place/ culture, will give you an identity in a community other than “tourist.”

Disadvantages: Low pay, no security, often illegal, no long term visa, bottom of the barrel grunt work.

Online employment

This is an excellent loophole in the global employment melee that many people are taking advantage of. You can now live in another country, travel, and still work for a company in your home country — just so you’re doing a type of work that can be done remotely via a computer and internet. This type of work essentially allows people to blend the traveling and the sedentary lives together, see the world while still having steady employment.

Advantages: You can travel and work for a company in your home country or another country that pays high wages, job continuity, high pay, a regular paycheck, no complicated tax procedures, the opportunity to build a career, a higher standard of living and more disposable income if you base yourself in countries that are cheaper than the country where the company that you’re working for is based in.

Disadvantages: No work visa, you’re still living the 9 to 5, you are still bound to a job, you are tied to places with good internet, internet connection problems can be financially perilous, you must spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen working when in amazing places, getting robbed could be the end of your employment, this type of work places undue value and dependency on your electronics (which could provoke you to do something stupid in the event of a robbery), additional travel stresses, demands tight travel planning, encourages long term stays in locations that you can work easily from, sometimes you make less money than your colleagues in your home country.

Self-employment (online and AFK)

There are many types of self-employment that travelers can engage in, and the possibilities are virtually limitless. Self-employment initiatives can span the gap between online and AFK work, and can consist of working purely independently, freelance, or by contract. Types of nomadic self-employment include blogging, webmastering, street vending, day trading, videography, various types of consulting, playing music, making and selling art, busking, making and selling artisan wares and jewelry, coding, freelance journalism, travel writing, import/ export, being an interior decorator/ painter, making food and selling, running a juice cart, doing massage therapy, photography, marketing, selling products on Amazon etc . . .

Every traveler should have some kind of a self-employment operation in place that they can always fall back on if other types of work don’t pan out in certain places at certain times. If a traveler is able to make enough money to travel working for themselves then they’ve obtained an additional degree of freedom and self-determination that employer-strapped travelers could never know. Believe me, cultivating self-employment initiatives is an essential part of long term travel.

Direct responses to questions

Is casual work abroad dead?

No, casual work abroad is not dead. In fact, it’s thriving as much as always. There are people bouncing everywhere doing all types of work. There will always be employment for the foreigner who can A) offer some skill or service that the locals generally don’t, or B) work for less than the locals are willing to. Option A seems to work best in developing countries that are more in need of skilled labor/ English speakers/ people who are permeable in traveler culture, while option B is better to ply in relatively expensive countries with high minimum wages and a population less willing to do shit work.

So their are opportunities out there for the vagabond looking to pad their travel funds, but, as I covered above, informal employment rarely pays more than what you need to get by day to day.

Minimal experience in any given field is sadly quite a common disposition and I imagine that it is not too difficult to find a bartender locally.

Finding work is often about matching yourself to the “culture” of the place you aim to work in. So you’re probably not going to land a job in a traditional Mexican cantina any time soon, but you could probably find work in a expat/ backpacker/ tourist bar. Being able to relate to/ communicate with the particular brand of client a business brings in is essential, so find your cultural niche and offer yourself up for work there.

Even if I had a degree would that not limit me to whatever subject I read?

This really depends on what profession you’re looking for work in. If you want a job in a technical trade, then yes, a relevant degree is going to be essential. But if you’re looking for work in management, teaching English, sales and marketing, etc . . . having a related degree will help immensely, but it’s often not essential. Generally speaking, unless going for a highly complex trade, you’re never really too hemmed in by the subject that’s printed on your degree — especially when looking for work abroad.

I have a degree in anthropology and journalism, but there is a wide range of professions that I could potentially work in all over the world. Well, if I wanted to — I’m pretty comfortable working for myself.

In terms of getting a visa, what’s printed on the degree is often negligible compared to the value of having a degree vs. not having one. Many countries now require a university degree in order to receive a work permit, but it often doesn’t really matter what it’s in. The line is being drawn between “educated professionals” and the rabble. No country wants the rabble anymore — even that from developed, “rich” countries.

Get that degree if you can. Seriously, more and more people from the USA/ Canada/ Europe are going abroad for work and people from developing countries are becoming more and more educated and skilled. As the world becomes more economically intertwined people are becoming more comfortable working outside their home country, and the competition for jobs abroad is getting stiffer.

While the bar is being raised on employment abroad the freedom of tourists to gallivant through the world is being lowered. Many countries are lessening the amount of time they grant for standard tourist visas, and staying places long term as a permanent tourist is something that’s getting more and more challenging to do. If you value your future as a traveler, get that degree.

An analysis of your situation

First of all, it is my impression that 6 months abroad is not enough time to even begin thinking about working. To be honest, by the time you’ve set yourself up with a job, a gig, or even an independent travel business it’s going to be time to go home. Really, working on the road is a longer term commitment, usually for those intending to be abroad for years. Formal employers are generally going to want you to sign at least a year contract up front, and even informal employers are probably going to want an extended commitment as well.

If you want to be able to actually travel around and check out much of anything on this trip — and not just go to some foreign city to work — you’re probably not going to want go down the employment road. Saving up some money in advance and enjoying your vacation may be a better option. Do some work exchange in hostels or on farms to cut down on expenses or get a short term temp gig in a bar at some point if you need to.

But if you do start working and making money on the abroad there may not be much of a reason to go home and you could extend your trip indefinitely — which I suppose is a good incentive for trying to land some jobs.

With your background in IT you really should look for remote employment or freelance jobs with European/ US companies rather than formal employment in South America. This will keep things simpler and have a higher probability of a good return. Working formally with a company in a foreign country carries a lot of hassles that’s best to avoid if possible, so rather than thinking about how you’re going to get a Trinidad and Tobago work visa you may as well start applying for jobs with UK/ European companies that will allow you to work remotely from another country.


There is an incredibly array of work possibilities out there for travelers. With a little creativity, guts, and determination, working your way around the world can be an obtainable reality. Like I said above, diversify the classes of work you are prepared to do, match your employment initiatives to the situations you find yourself in, have an bullet proof independent travel business ready to go, and have fun. Working on the road isn’t just about the money, it’s also about the experience.

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Filed under: Make Money for Travel, Travel Help, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Nick August 2, 2013, 1:52 pm

    Wow, I was not expecting such a detailed response so quickly. Thanks very much!

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