Working Overseas: International Employment Visas and Work Permits

Difference between Visitor Permit and Work Permit

Typically, the ability to enter, travel and reside in a country does not entitle a permit holder with the right to work. In most countries, entry, travel and residency fall into three broad categories:

  1. Visitor Visa

  2. Term limit or permanent resident

  3. Naturalization

With the exception of Naturalization, none of these categories typically provide the right to work. Governments often apply less stringent requirements to persons who want to temporarily reside in a country (vacation) or permanently move to a country (retirement, tax avoidance, etc). These persons put money into the economy without being dependent on the country for work or social services. These types of individuals are very desirable to even the wealthiest of countries.

The right to work is provided to immigrants by way of temporary or permanent right through either:

  • Temporary Work Permit

  • Permanent Visa

Temporary Work Permit

The objective of a temporary permit program is to provide a means for businesses to augment their work force with foreign workers when local labor is scarce. Each country has different work force needs and these change over time. Japan, for example, due to an aging population base, has a very open policy for low skilled labor; 2 – 3 day processing time, and freedom to move between employers within the same field. On the other hand, skilled labor visas are only given for very specialized workers within education, technology and engineering.

The names of temporary visas vary from country to country but generally have the following characteristics:

  • Fixed Term length – The term can be as short as 6 months and as long as 3 to 5 years.

  • Employer Managed –In many countries, the employer takes full responsibility for the employee. This can include housing, transportation, and training in local laws and customs.

  • Tied to a single employer – The employer owns the permit, therefore the employee is typically not free to change employment.

  • Minimum approval standards – Generally only a short application with health exam and police clearance is required.

  • No cost to employee – Since the employer owns the permit, the employee is generally not required to pay for any costs associated with processing the permit. In fact, it is illegal in most countries to pass on the costs for permits to foreign workers.

Permanent Visa

The objective of a permanent visa program is to increase the number of workers within a particular field over a long term. For example, most countries have a permanent visa program for skilled health care workers. Providing residency with the right to work on a long term or permanent basis is the most desirable form of work permit for a foreign worker. These permits are the most difficult to get, but provide the permit holder with the greatest level of flexibility and the least bureaucratic hassle.

  • Long term or permanent length of issue

  • Individual management – The permit holder is responsible for the application, payment and management of the permit

  • Freedom to pursue any opportunity within the country on par with a citizen

  • Stringent standards for acceptance

  • Implied or stated path to naturalization

The type of permit that you will apply for will be dependent upon your personal situation. If you are a student, then you will probably apply for a short term student visa. As a professional employee with a long term view, family and career, the decision may be to work towards a permanent visa or possibly have an employer manage the process on your behalf. Whatever the choice, it is extremely important to understand the programs available within the destination country.

Applying for a work permit

Unfortunately, every country has different rules for applying for permits. Some countries require that you apply for permits while outside of the country, others do not have this restriction. In some countries, companies are issued temporary work permits which they can distribute as needed, others require companies to provide paperwork to an authority for approval before a permit is given. Additionally, countries, in some cases, require entry and work permits to be applied for and received separately from different agencies.

Due to these confusions, applicants are often discouraged at the process. Here are a few suggestions to make the work permit process easier and more manageable.

  • If you are going to a country for the first time, try to find an employer sponsor. This will make the process go a lot more smoothly since your employer will do all the work. Additionally, your employer will more than likely provide you with travel, housing, transportation and most importantly – a job! The down side to employer sponsorship is that your permit will be tied to the employer. If the work or employer is not to your liking, than your options may be limited.

  • If you are going to apply for a permit yourself, it may be wise to have an agency or lawyer manage your application. There are a lot of scams when it comes to processing immigration paperwork. Shy away from anyone that is going to “guarantee” the most desirable permit or “has a friend” within the immigration department. What you are purchasing is someone to make sure that your paperwork is completed correctly, that the supporting documentation meets local standards and to track your application through the immigration process. When thinking about whether this would provide any value, consider the time that a piece of mail will take to arrive in your country instead of within the same city. Several correspondences between yourself and the immigration office can add weeks or even months of delays.

After you put in your application, you will typically have to wait anywhere from a week to several months for the result. During that time frame it is important to remember that your employment and relocation will be dependent upon an approval. So while you are waiting, you should think about and plan for the following things:

  • Don’t quit your Day Job. Do not quit your job until you have an approved permit.

  • Understand the immigration policies and permit conditions before committing to your move. What is the permit term? What restrictions does it carry? Can I apply for an additional permit? These questions will help answer how you handle your personal affairs in your country of origin. No sense selling the house and car if you are on a 6 month permit!

  • Understand the tax implications. Taxes can be tricky at the best of times. Finding help with international filing can be a daunting task. Take time to read about how taxation in your country of origin will be applied to you as a foreign worker.

  • Make sure that you have enough money to support you and your family during the transition. Moving abroad is expensive and depending on if your employer is going to assist, may run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Make sure that have at least 3 months worth of living expenses in cash to cover your move.

  • Be patient. It is important to understand the work permit process before embarking on an overseas work experience. The process can be daunting, but with a little reading, work and patience the goal of getting permission to work in a foreign country can be realized. To assist in research, we have included links to a few good reference books on working abroad as well as number of individual country immigration websites.

    The Project Diva highly recommends Get Ahead by Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-track Career Success

Country Specific Immigration Websites



Cayman Islands






New Zealand


United Kingdom

United States

last updated august 2013

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