How to Move Abroad When You're Young and Broke
If you're going to be broke somewhere, it might as well be on the beach in Bali.
Photo courtesy of Erin Grover
In 2004, Erin Grover found herself in a common situation. She'd just graduated from college, had no job prospects, and was broke. So she did the only thing that made sense to her: She scraped together enough money to buy a one-way plane ticket to Afghanistan, a place she'd always been curious to visit, and moved there with only $100 to her name.
"It's funny because people thought that I must be wealthy," Grover told VICE. "But I'm just in the minority of Americans who understands how easy it is once you get out of the system."
By "system," she means America, the land of high-cost living and low employment for the young. At first glance, Grover's solution seems like little more than an escape from reality—a way to defer adulthood while she came up with a plan. Two weeks after she'd landed in Kabul, though, she'd not only adopted an entirely new way of living but also secured a job working as a photographer for the UN.
"I was on the job because I was there on the ground, and if I had not shown up, I would never have worked for them," she told VICE.
Moving abroad doesn't exactly seem like an obvious way to save money or improve job prospects, but more and more broke millennials are packing up and starting their lives elsewhere, according to MoveHub, a company that helps people move internationally. Relocating to another country isn't always glamorous or easy, but if you're going to be broke somewhere, it might as well be on a beach in Bali.
There are a few criteria for the ideal country to relocate to when you're young and broke: The cost of living needs to be low, the country needs to offer visas for Americans with relative ease, and there needs to be a reasonable expectation of finding work, since you need to pay for basic living expenses.
"I know a lot of people go to Chiang Mai, which is in the north of Thailand," said travel blogger Cheryl Ang. "It's a very popular destination for what we call 'digital nomads,' people who make their money online while traveling. It's really cheap, the weather is fantastic, and the food is fucking amazing."
Grover knows people who have expatriated to Cambodia and found work at local nonprofits. Korea has programs like EPIK that pay big bucks for English-language teachers. Israeli kibbutzs—basically communes where you can work for room and lodge—attract people from all around. And there are WWOOFing programs across the world, which offer free housing and meals in exchange for farm work.
Once you've arrived, the next step is making friends, which is key to tapping into the local economy. If befriending locals seems too daunting, or if language barriers are an issue, there are always expat communities.
"One of the keys to finding a job in any country outside the West is figuring out where the expats eat," said Grover. "Expats are in this very tight community—they need their own little micro-environment. It was easy to show up and meet people and go see them in their offices and get invited to things."
In fact, Grover said she found her UN job from a connection in the expat community in Afghanistan.
Local connections (whether expats or natives) can also be a valuable resource in figuring out where to hang out, where to find a cheap meal, and where to live without blowing your nonexistent savings. While sites like Airbnb are convenient, they're rarely the cheapest option for long-term housing, and English-language apartment listings will have you paying through the nose. The best way to figure out where to live, according to Ang, is to couch surf for a few weeks to save money while you get your lay of the land.
"Couch surfing is not just a couch," said Ang, who rarely pays for accommodations while traveling thanks to sites like couchsurfing.com, which offer free places to stay. "It's also a local that wants to meet foreigners and introduce foreigners to their home base."
If all that uncertainty sounds like too much to deal with, another option is to line up a job ahead of time. The Czech Republic, Spain, China, Indonesia, and Japan are just a few of the many countries where English teachers are regularly in demand, and teaching programs typically offer housing, a livable stipend, and a built-in community. And while teaching gigs like the JET program in Japan can be intense, they do provide a lot of stability, especially in expensive countries.
"It went well for me overall, but I would not give it a one hundred percent positive endorsement," said Alexander Hoare, who worked last year for the JET program. "Japanese office life can be very strict, and not great for people who can't accept blindly following orders." Still, it was worth if for a year in Japan, all expenses paid.
Of course, emigrating isn't as easy as getting on a plane. If you're planning to spend more than a few months somewhere, you'll most likely need a visa.
Tourist visas for Americans typically expire after three months (depending on the country), and work visas can be a bitch to get, especially in Europe.
"In Britain, it's fucking ridiculous," said Ang. "I don't know any other country [that] requires you to be earning £35,000 ($46,000) a year."
For most countries in Asia, you can get a work visa much cheaper; others have moved there on a tourist visa and hopped over the border for a "visa run" when it expires (though it's becoming harder to do in countries like Thailand). If you're looking for citizenship, Latin American countries like Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic each have a fairly quick process, which only requires residency in the country for a few years. For country-specific information about visas, immunizations, and other legal formalities for Americans moving abroad, check out this resource from the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
In the end, the only real limits are your imagination, not your budget. The more control you give up, the lower the price.
For Grover, the risk paid off. Besides her time in Afghanistan, she also lived in Nepal, India, France, and Cambodia, before ultimately settling down in Los Angeles, where she's a little less young and a little less broke.
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