If you're just out of college and uncertain what to do -- or even if you're well into your twenties and not sure about where to go next -- you may be dreaming about living abroad. Now is the time to do it, before you're tied down with a career, family or mortgage. With the right visa, you might be able to live abroad for up to a year, work any job you like, and use your earnings to travel in between assignments.
When I left my home in Toronto after university for a year in New Zealand, I signed up with a Canadian program called SWAP that facilitates working holiday visas for 18- to 30-year-olds (and sometimes older participants). It included an orientation session with SWAP's partner organization in New Zealand and access to a 24-hour emergency line should any problems arise throughout my trip. Other programs, such as the U.S.-based BUNAC, also offer help with applying for a visa and preparing for the trip, as well as on-the-ground support and perks after you arrive.
Having the support of SWAP helped me breathe easier during my travels, but the hand-holding will cost you. I spent a few hundred dollars on services I never used, such as their online job listings (I was able to cull the same kinds of postings from publicly available Web sites), travel discounts (which are available to most backpackers), and things I could have figured out on my own (such as how to fill out my visa application and how to file my taxes when my year was up).
You can save yourself some cash and learn from my experience. Here is what you need to know to thrive as a temporary expat:
1. Get your papers in order.
Unless you're lucky enough to claim dual citizenship through a parent, the surest path to legal temporary employment is a working holiday visa. Five countries allow U.S. citizens to obtain such a visa independently: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Korea and Singapore. (If you want to work elsewhere on your own, you'll need a proper work visa or sponsorship to get a job legally.) The relevant government Web site can explain who is eligible and provide instructions on how to apply (click on the country name in the previous sentence to visit each respective site; for South Korea, you must contact a consulate directly).
Read the conditions carefully because each country has an application fee and rules regarding age limits, educational requirements and length of stay. For example, Singapore only allows in graduates of a top-200 college as determined by one of three international rankings; to work in Ireland, you must be a current student or have graduated within the past 12 months.
You will also need a valid U.S. passport, a return or onward ticket (or proof of ability to purchase one), medical insurance to cover your stay, and evidence of "sufficient funds" in your account. For example, Ireland asks that you have a minimum of 1,500 euros (about $2,000 USD) with a return ticket or 3,000 euros (about $4,000 USD) without one. New Zealand requires $4,200 NZD (approximately $3,500 USD) with a return ticket. You don't necessarily need to bring all the money with you; I just requested a letter from my bank (which no one ever asked to see) stating how much I had in my account.
2. Sort out your finances.
The required "sufficient funds" is a good starting point for estimating your budget. This initial amount should cover you while you search for a job, but you might want to have more to be on the safe side - it may take longer than expected to find a decent position. For a better idea of the daily living expenses in your country of choice, check travel guidebooks and online forums, such as Lonely Planet, Frommer's and Fodor's. Travel blogs Tim Leffel's Cheapest Destinations and RTW Expenses and travel site BootsnAll.com also offer firsthand insights on costs in certain destinations.
Opening a bank account in your temporary country of residence will be easier than long-distance banking, which may involve high fees and unfavorable exchange rates. Before you take off, get instructions from your home bank on how to transfer money to a foreign account and how much it will cost. Then open your new account in person after you arrive at your destination. Your best bet will be a large, central bank with branches all over the country. In addition to being reputable and convenient, it will likely be used to dealing with working holidaymakers.
If you plan to earn money as you travel, you'll also need to obtain a local tax number and file your taxes when your year abroad is up; you could be entitled to a hefty refund. Check the country's internal revenue Web site for application instructions and apply as soon as you can after arrival; it may take a week or longer for your tax number to come through. (As a U.S. citizen, you'll still need to file a tax return back home, as well as a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts [FBAR] if you hold more than $10,000 in all your foreign financial accounts at any point during the tax year.)
3. Prepare for the job hunt.
The principles are pretty similar to finding employment back home: You need reliable communications, presentable clothes and stacks of resumes. Bring an unlocked cell phone from home or buy a cheap one when you arrive (my $50 basic Nokia lasted me perfectly well for 14 months abroad) and scope out different cell-phone plans in-store once you arrive. A no-contract, pay-as-you-go plan is the most flexible option.
Try the local library for free Internet access so you can polish your resume and search for jobs, or check out various hostels or Internet cafes to find the best rates. Research resume templates for your chosen country online and adapt yours accordingly. For example, keep an eye out for nuances in spelling ("organise" vs. "organize"), different terms ("referee" instead of "reference") or things that would be no-no's in the U.S. (such as including a photo or including your age and gender) that may be expected in other countries.
4. Look for temporary work in the right places.
Since your visa expires in a year, focus on short-term opportunities or industries with high turnover. Of course, you can search job listings on Web sites, such as Gumtree or Indeed.com. But for bar, restaurant and retail occupations, you'll impress hiring managers if you take the initiative to walk in (during a non-busy period), introduce yourself, and hand off your resume in person. I landed a couple of jobs in New Zealand with zero experience because I walked in at the right moment and quickly pitched my transferable skills and desire to learn -- something that is hard to express in bullet points on a resume.
You can also sign up with recruitment agencies to be considered for backpacker-friendly temp jobs. This work may include anything from data entry to project management to repairing roads and can last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Some agencies specialize in harvest work (fruit-picking, packing, pruning), which can be plentiful depending on the season. The tasks may be physically exhausting and numbingly repetitive, but a fun, close-knit social scene may help make up for that. Look for positions that pay by the hour -- not by the amount of fruit you pick -- and ask other backpackers for reliable names. Unscrupulous companies may try to rip off transient employees, so apply the same rules of logic and caution that you would at home.
If you're staying at a hostel (a great place to get your bearings when you first arrive in a foreign land), ask the manager, either after you've checked in or before you even book, about possible employment opportunities. Hostels will often hire backpackers to clean or staff the front desk a few hours a day in exchange for free accommodations and other perks -- and sometimes cash. When I stayed at a hostel in the south of New Zealand, I landed a job as a duty manager. Besides taking reservations and overseeing the cleaning crew (and once persuading eight burly Spanish guys to move their hard partying out of the hostel and into a pub), I booked guests on tours -- and got free admission to a Cadbury chocolate factory tour, a brewery tour, a penguin sanctuary, and a nature cruise to see albatross and seal colonies.
You can also check your hostel's bulletin boards, befriend the front-desk people for the inside scoop on local businesses, and network with fellow backpackers -- often the best source for insider info and tips.