How to Move Abroad When You’re Broke and Clueless

How to Move Abroad When You’re Broke and Clueless

When I made the decision to move abroad, I was working in a shop trying to make ends meet in Chicago. Now, working in a shop is not an easy way to make ends meet in Chicago. Once I decided to go abroad, I picked up a second job waiting tables at a pizzeria. Neither of these were glamorous jobs. Neither was what I wanted to be doing. More than once I had to remind myself why I wasn’t ordering takeout with the extra money I was making at my second job.

Once I was offered that first contract, though, let me tell you, it was tunnel vision. I kept enough money to cover my expenses, and everything else went into a savings account. Even so, I was still what most people would call broke. At the time that I boarded a plane with naught but my cat and a single suitcase, I had less than $5000 to my name.

So, yes, folks, it can be done. Here’s how:

Pick a Place

First of all, you have to decide where you want to go. Some people choose to move to a place because they speak the language. For example, someone who speaks Spanish might want to go to Central or South America or Spain. Others choose a place because of ancestry. Their ancestors came from that place, so they might have an easier time getting a visa or a residency permit. Yet others want to go someplace that’s completely foreign to them, where they don’t speak the language, know the food, or understand the customs. For them, the whole point is to learn something new.

Personally, I was a mix of several of these. When I first moved abroad, I went to Poland. That decision made itself for me. The school in Poland was the first place to offer me a job, and I was chomping at the bit to book plane tickets. Of course, it was a happy bonus that I am ethnically Polish, so I was able to live in and travel around the ancestral homeland. My second jaunt abroad was more directed. I’d studied Italian at university, and I wanted to go back to Italy for an extended period to improve my Italian. Next up was Scotland, and I moved there because I found a master’s program there that I wanted to attend.

The bottom line is that this is a personal decision. You’re sinking time and treasure into this move. Make sure it’s to a place you’re going to be reasonably comfortable and interested in. No one else can make that choice for you, so work out a decision-making paradigm for yourself!

Questions to Consider:

  • What is the average cost of living?
  • What is the average salary? (In other words, If I get a job there, will I be able to keep a roof over my head?)
  • What is the climate like?
  • What language do the people speak?
  • Do I have any skills that are in demand there?
  • How safe is this place? (This is especially important for all my single lady and LGBTQ friends out there!)
  • Can I take my pet? (You’ll note that this is an actual question that I asked.)

Decide What You’re Going to Do

What do you want to do while you’re abroad? Work? Study? Write your novel? This is important to know, because it’s going to affect what kind of visa you can apply for, how long you can stay in any one country, and what public institutions (i.e., welfare or the healthcare system) you have access to. There are tons of options. but you have to know how to find them. I’ve highlighted three of the most popular options here:

Teaching English

I opted to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. This certificate is good worldwide and allows me to work as a professional English teacher anywhere. There are a couple of different certificates to choose from. Which one you choose to get will depend on where you want to go and what kind of school you want to teach in. Generally, schools associated with Cambridge English or the British Council will prefer a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). Most schools and language centers, however, will hire either TEFL- or CELTA-certified teachers.

When looking at a certification program, don’t just look at the price. If it looks cheap, that’s because it’s not worth anything – accredited programs are going to be more expensive. Consider it an investment in your career. Look for the accreditation level, what accrediting body issues the certificate, and how many hours of coursework and practicum (student teaching) are required. An accredited teaching certification program will require a minimum of 120 hours in the classroom, and a CELTA requires 6 hours practicum, while a TEFL requires 20 hours of practicum.

Check out this website for more information on how to choose a certification program. (Full disclosure, this is where I earned my certificate! No, I don’t get kickbacks – I just think they’re great.)

ESL teacher
Me, teaching English as a Second Language


The world is rife with volunteering opportunities. A lot of people shy away from volunteering because they think that they can’t afford it. However, don’t dismiss the possibility altogether. Any reputable travel volunteerism program will provide room and board, and possibly a few extracurricular excursions. That means that your two biggest expenses – housing and groceries – are taken care of. Other programs might provide a stipend for you to live on.

The premise is simple: You move into a community and help them with something they need done. You might be digging wells, teaching in schools, helping on a farm, or assisting in setting up fair-trade businesses. The possibilities are endless. To find a volunteer matchmaker, just do a Google search for travel volunteerism. (I was going to list a few sites, but there are so many organizations that it’s just easier for both of us this way.)

My caveat here: If it were me, I would go through an organization. I would also make sure to have a contact person in that organization who actually responds to me. I strongly recommend that you do not take volunteering opportunities that are not facilitated by a third party. That’s just asking for trouble. Make sure that you have a person in your corner in case you need to terminate your agreement early or just get the heck out of there.

Find a Job Once You Get There

Some countries have this awesome thing called a working holiday visa. If you are under 30 years old, you can apply for this visa and start packing. This allows you to enter the country – legally – and apply for jobs once you get there – legally. If you’re wondering how to move abroad without any special certifications or qualifications, this is the way to go. Generally, it’s going to be lower-wage jobs that will hire people with this visa – hourly employees at various places, things like that. Don’t expect to get a job in mid-level management with this visa.

Visa agreements differ from country to country, so be sure to check with the government of your destination country to see if you can get one. Usually, these visas are good for two years, or one year with an option to renew. I have a few friends who have taken advantage of this scheme, and they absolutely loved it.

Start Saving Up

Okay, I know I said I’d tell you how to move abroad when you’re broke. The sad truth is that you need some start-up money. Even though it’s possible to do this with very little, it’s good to have a bit of ready money at your disposal. Whether you’ve got a job lined up or you’re going to have to find one, you’ll need money for the first few weeks. After all, it takes a few weeks for you to get on the payroll and rack up some hours. Even then, you might be paid on a monthly basis. Make sure you have enough money to get you through at least a month in a new situation.

With that in mind, you’re probably going to have to make a few sacrifices. Like Grandma always said, every penny counts! You might have to skip your weekly take-out order. You might have to take a second job. No, it’s not glamorous, but it’s also not forever. Keep your chin up, and make it happen!


This is probably the most painful part of the process. But, it must be done.

There are services which will move your belongings abroad, but they’re super expensive. Unless you have a job with a company that will pay for that, it’s probably out of reach. That means that you’ll be moving abroad with what you can carry. For me, it was one suitcase, one backpack, a fabulously large handbag, and a cat carrier. That was it. That was what I could manage to wheel through an airport on my own.

Luckily, my dad agreed to make space in the garage so that I could store all my good stuff while I was abroad. I had a very nice set of dishes and about 1000 books that I just couldn’t live without. So, I didn’t have to downsize as much as other people. A friend of mine had a similar collection of books which, when he moved abroad, he gave to his friend as starting inventory for a second-hand book store. Barring friends needing start-up inventory, there are always internet marketplaces for you to sell on.

If we’re being completely honest, you need much less than you think you do. I lived very comfortably out of a single suitcase for three years. Most of my books are still in my dad’s garage. You acquire things when you go somewhere new, and you leave some things behind. Some things you find you never needed in the first place. Let’s face it, this probably a healthier way of approaching material goods.

moving abroad
A girl, a cat, and backpack, moving abroad

Start Doing Your Research

So, maybe you’re not sure about moving abroad. Maybe you have some things to take care of before you jet away somewhere. Maybe you’re already saving up money, and have a goal amount in mind before moving. No problem. Just because you’re still in the contemplative stage of the process doesn’t mean you’re not in the process.

On your day off – or your odd morning off, if you’re working multiple jobs – take some time to start researching. Make a binder or a notebook with all the information that you want to consider when the time comes. It’s a big decision, and it’s not made all at once. Take some time and really consider the matter.

Things to Research:

  • Currency
  • Climate
  • Food
  • Language
  • History
  • Work Culture
  • Legalities / Illegalities
  • Safety (This is especially important for all my single lady and LGBTQ friends out there!)
  • Lightening Round: What will my parents ask me about when I tell them I’m moving abroad?

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