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Work Permits

Work Permits

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What Exactly is a Work Permit Visa?

Many countries, including the US or your home country, have complex laws and rules that regulate the influx of foreigners. In some countries, a work permit is procured by the employer and entitles you to live there, whereas in others you need to apply for a separate residence permit once you have been approved for a work permit. If this sounds a bit confusing, that's because it is. There are almost as many variations of work permits as there are countries who offer them, but I have outlined below a few basic characteristics such permits generally share:

1. Work Permits are Dependent upon a Job Offer or Contract from a Company

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 permit 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 farmworker,” or “academic researcher.” Once the quota is filled, there is nothing you can do for that calendar year 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 carefully 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.

2. Work Permits are for One Specific Job from One Employer Only

One element that regular work permits have in common globally is the fact that they are issued for a specific job with one specific employer. In most cases, if you lose that job or would like to change jobs, you will have to start the work permit application process all over again.

3. Work Permits Have a Predetermined Time Limit

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.

4. Work Permits are issued at the discretion of the Government and Can Be Changed and Revoked

Work permits are not a given right or legal entitlement. They are issued at the discretion of the government and can be revoked and changed at any time. This means that holding a permit does not entitle you to anything other than the right to work until that right is revoked by the government. If you lose your job, you also lose your permit, and you will likely have to leave the country as well. Having a work permit does not automatically entitle you to unemployment benefits, social welfare, or a pension. It does not guarantee you a long-term visa, permanent residency, or citizenship either. Although it makes economic sense for a government to extend the work permit for a foreign employee that has done good work for a company, you do not have the right to an automatic extension. If unemployment increases drastically in your host country, you could find yourself out of work when your initial work permit runs out, though if you work for a multi-national company there will likely be some form of protection against sudden severance offered for a valued employee. Jobs in Europe are often hard to find, in part because laws against severance are very stringent as a result of the still-powerful tradition of labor unions.

5. Most Countries Require Applicants to Apply for a Work Permit from their Home Country and not After Arrival

There are some exceptions to this rule, but most governments want foreign job applicants to apply for a work permit at the respective consulate or embassy in their home country, mainly because they are the responsibility of the ministry of foreign affairs. Governments generally want those seeking work to go through the entire application process by following the correct procedures.

How Do You Get a Work Permit?

Now that you have a basic idea of the purpose of work permits and what they entitle you to do, we can discuss the core issue: how do you get a work permit for long-term international jobs?

The magic words for obtaining access to a work permit in a foreign country are “needed skills.” If your profession is in highly sought-after fields such as cutting-edge technology, banking, healthcare, teaching English, etc., then you are in luck. There are probably several dozen countries where these professions are on their occupational priority list, which means that foreign work permit applications are marked for a quick approval. Think of H-1B visa approvals in the U.S. for those with STEM backgrounds (like all issues related to long-term residency visas and work permits, there is always a domestic political component that increases and decreases demand from time to time). In similar ways, people with skills in the most sought-after professions make it easier to get a job offer while abroad and have a work permit approved. Still, except for those countries that offer fast-track visa approval for jobs in high demand, the work permit application process for jobs in most countries is tedious and time-consuming. You can expect the process to last anywhere from 3-6 months, depending upon the country’s bureaucracy, efficiency, and immediate needs.

Another way to work legally in another country is through a direct transfer from your employer in your home country to an overseas branch or subsidiary. Since you won’t be paid by a local company in that country, you are technically not employed there, and approval of such transfer visas is usually relatively quick and handled by your employer. But being posted overseas depends upon a lot of luck, smart planning, and networking to ensure that you will be the one asked to staff the company’s headquarters in your desired country. A more logical approach may be to follow a career path with an international outlook. Research the types of college degrees and professions in greatest demand in the countries that interest you the most. Also, keep in mind that many fulfilling careers paths do not necessarily lend themselves to a successful international career. A good psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist may have great job prospects at home, but due to cultural differences and poorly funded health care in many countries, these professions may not be in high demand everywhere. These healthcare professions also require a high degree of language proficiency and cultural knowledge, which many foreigners simply do not have.

So, if you are interested in a career that can lead to extended overseas work experience, keep in mind the cultural environment and ambiance in which you will be working. English is the international language of technology and finance, and you very likely will have no language problems at work even if you accept a job in Shanghai. By contrast, working as an agricultural expert or aid worker in rural Mongolia, you will be faced with completely different cultural and language requirements to be successful. So, if an international career is your goal, carefully plan your field of expertise per your talents, interests, and cross-cultural abilities.

In addition to choosing a career that is in high demand overseas, it is also important to show familiarity with a country and culture before applying for a job there. A great way to get work experience in a country of your interest is to work there on an internship just before or shortly after you graduate from college. This gives you a chance to learn about the local culture, language, and may allow you to get your foot in the door at a company of interest. In the end, what matters most to get that job offer from an overseas company is your ability to show that you are a perfect match for a given job and that you are well ahead of other applicants, foreign or domestic. To get to this point requires strategic planning over several years. Get your internship lined up, learn the language, and make local contacts that can serve you as a professional reference later. Continue to scan overseas job postings to recognize trends. Learn about the specific work experience and skills that will help you land an overseas job more quickly.

Another very frequently used option as a steppingstone to an international career overseas is to teach English. There remains a huge demand for English teachers, who often need only a college degree and a 6-week TEFL certificate that can be acquired online or in-country. The contacts you make while teaching often may lead to options via networking or simply creating your employment.

Another important step is to research companies offering interesting jobs and finding out where these jobs are located. There are many international job boards available online, and the more you make it a habit to scan them regularly, the better you will be prepared when the time comes to write the cover letter and send out an appropriate international resume. The more competitive your educational level, skills, cross-cultural experience, language proficiency, and work experience, the more suited you are to compete for a job offer and work permit in a very competitive and crowded global employment market.

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