Finding Employment Abroad

Understanding Work Visas and Permits As An Expat

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by Cyrus Kioko


Grasping the ins and outs of work visas and permits can be a real head-scratcher. Each country seems to have its own wild ride of eligibility criteria and specific work visa/permit types, never mind the ever-changing immigration policies and the mountain of paperwork you have to deal with! Lucky for you, you’ve just landed on the only guide you’ll ever need to understand work visas and permits as an expat. 

Work permits and work visas are legal documents that grant foreign nationals authorization to work in a specific country for a certain period. There are different types of work visas and permits available for expats, each with varying eligibility criteria and validity.  

In the rest of this guide, I’ll break down the subtle differences between work visas and permits and explain their implications for expats. I’ll also walk you through the different types of work visas/permits, the application process, the costs involved, and pretty much anything else you need to know to work legally abroad without a hitch. Let’s dive right in. 

A Primer on Work Visas and Permits

Before we get knee-deep into today’s discussion, let’s make sure you understand what the terms work visa and work permit mean. People often use these terms interchangeably, but they might refer to different types of paperwork in some countries. Honestly, though, I understand the confusion because both documents grant expats authorization to work in a foreign country.

So, what’s a work visa, and how’s it different from a work permit?

For clarity purposes, let’s define each term before we summarize the differences. 

What is A Work Visa?

A work visa is a type of visa that allows expats and other individuals to enter and stay in a foreign country solely for the purpose of working. You’d need to apply and get approved for one before you arrive in your host country.  Otherwise, you won’t even be allowed to enter the country. 

Some countries like the US and the UK require applicants to present a sponsorship or a specific job offer from an employer to qualify for a work visa. Others like Canada, Germany, and Australia don’t have this requirement. But even in countries where a job offer isn’t a pre-requisite for a work visa, having one can drastically boost your chances of landing a job and getting your visa application approved. 

Ultimately, whether you need a sponsorship or a job offer upfront comes down to your host country’s immigration policy. If this is a requirement in your host country, your visa will likely have a restriction on the type of work you can engage in and who you can work for.

Work visas are typically valid for a specific period. If yours expires, you can always renew it before you leave the host country. Don’t leave with an expired work visa if you’re interested in coming back in the future. If you do, you won’t be allowed back into the country even if you have a valid work permit. 

What is A Work Permit?

A work permit is exactly what it sounds like: paperwork that gives you the legal right to work in a certain country for a specific period. You don’t need to get one of these to be allowed into the country; you can enter on a different type of visa (including a work visa) and then apply for a work permit. 

Work permits usually aren’t tied to a specific job or employer. So if you have one of these, you likely won’t be restricted to a specific employer, job, or field; you can work pretty much anywhere, for anyone. That said, immigration policies do vary from one country to another, so it’s worth checking with your host country’s immigration authorities just to be sure.  

A Work Visa Vs. A Work Permit: What Are the Differences?

You’ve probably picked up on some of the differences between these two types of paperwork already, but here’s a table summarizing them for easier comparison. 

A Work VisaA Work Permit
Allows you to leave or enter the host country, provided it’s not expired.Doesn’t grant you permission to enter or leave the country.
Must be obtained before entering the host country.You can apply for one when you’re already in the host country.  
Often ties you to a specific employer or field of work.Allows you to work in any field, for any employer.
Often requires a valid job offer or a sponsorship from an employer in the host country.Doesn’t require a job offer or sponsorship.
A table showing the differences between a work permit and a work visa.

These technical differences might not seem like a big deal, but they can make a huge difference in your level of preparedness as an expat.

For instance, knowing the difference between a work visa and a work permit can help you determine whether you need one or both types of paperwork to work and live in a foreign country. Having this information in advance helps ensure you get the necessary paperwork, saving you from legal consequences such as deportation, hefty fines, or bans from re-entering the country.

Some countries allow expats to work with either a work permit or a work visa, while others require both types of paperwork. 

For instance, US-based expats need both a work visa (e.g., H-1B, L-1, or E-3) and a work permit (Employment Authorization Document or EAD) to work legally. On the other hand, their Germany-based counterparts only need an EU Blue Card, which doubles up as a work permit and a residence permit. These are just a few examples; I could go on and on, but you get the point. 

Knowing the differences between a work visa and a work permit can also help you figure out the following aspects of working as an expat:

  • Your employer’s obligations. Most countries require employers to sponsor expats for a work visa or permit. If you don’t know what type of paperwork you’re getting sponsored for, it can be tricky to figure out whether your employer has followed the right procedures to get you into the country. Being able to tell is important because working for an employer who used underhand methods to hire you can land you in some serious trouble. 
  • Your scope of work. Being able to identify the type of paperwork required in your host country tells you whether you’re restricted to certain jobs/ industries or a specific employer. This can help you operate within the legal boundaries of your employment and avoid run-ins with the immigration authorities. 
  • Renewals and extensions. In some countries, work permits may have different validity periods from work visas. Being able to tell what type of paperwork you have can help ensure you plan for a renewal or extension accordingly. 

Overall, knowing the difference between a work permit and a work visa goes a long way to help you navigate the complexities of working abroad with confidence. This translates to less stress and uncertainty about your legal status, giving you the peace of mind to focus on your craft.

Types of Work Visas and Permits Available to Expats

The specific types of work visas and permits available to expats may vary depending on the host country, but they generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Temporary.
  • Permanent.

Temporary work visas and permits are more common among expats. These remain valid for a certain period, which can vary depending on:

  • The host country’s immigration policy 
  • Employment duration, especially if the permit is tied to a specific employer.
  • The demand for the holder’s skillset, particularly if the work visa was issued under a program designed to attract highly skilled individuals to a specific industry/field. 
  • How long the employer is willing to sponsor the work visa holder (this only applies to sponsored work visas/permits).
  • The holder’s experience and qualifications; the more attractive these are to potential employers, the higher the chances of qualifying for a longer-term work visa and permit.
  • Bilateral agreements between the holder’s host and home countries (only applicable if the agreements include offer provisions for work visas with longer validity periods).

Examples of temporary work visas available for expats include:

  • The H-1B visa and J-1 Visa (United States)
  • Skilled Worker visa (UK)
  • Working Holiday visa (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, etc.)
  • Schengen visa (Europe)
  • Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa (Australia) 
  • Temporary work (short stay specialist) visa (Canada)
  • Post-study work visas
  • Intra-company transfer visas.

Permanent work visas and permits grant expats the legal right to live and work in a foreign country permanently. More often than not, these serve as pathways to citizenship. Examples of such visas include:

  • The Green Card (United States)
  • Permanent Resident (Canada)
  • Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) (United Kingdom)
  • Permanent Residence (Australia, Germany, and Japan)

Many popular work destinations such as the UK, the US, Canada, and Germany have additional work visa categories for uniquely talented individuals, entrepreneurs, and expats interested in starting new businesses (especially if the start-up is unlike anything already on the market). The specific names for these visa categories may vary from country to country, but they’re commonly referred to as entrepreneur, business start-up, and talent visas, respectively.

How to Get a Work Visa/Permit As An Expat

Minor technicalities aside, the steps for getting a work visa and a work permit are pretty much the same. For that reason, I’m not going to have different sections outlining the specific steps for each type of paperwork. Instead, I’ll provide a general overview of the application process for both.

Here’s a walkthrough of what you need to do to get your application approved:

1. Determine the Type of Work Visa/Permit You Need

Most countries have different types of work visas and permits available, and ensuring you choose the right option can save you a lot of trouble down the line.

For instance, the UK has over 20 types of work visas for different persons and circumstances. Meanwhile, the US has up to 10 work visa options 一 seven for temporary workers and three for those eyeing permanent residency. Similarly, Canada, Australia, Germany, and other popular work destinations for expats have different types of work visas/permits.

Choosing the right visa type can be a bit of a pickle, so take your time to explore the various options your host country has available and pick what best aligns with:

  • The nature of your job.
  • The duration of your employment.
  • Your skills and qualifications.
  • Other personal considerations, such as whether you’ll be traveling solo or with your family.

One of the craftiest ways to determine the type of work visa and permit you need is to look up the most in-demand type of work visa/permit in your host country and see if it meets your needs. Such permits are popular for a reason; they meet most foreign workers’ needs, and chances are they’d be ideal for you.

To kick-start your research, here’s a table showing the most sought-after work visas/permits in the UK, the US, and other popular work destinations for expats.

Country/RegionThe most in-demand work visa type
The USThe H1B work visa.
The UKA Skilled Worker visa (formerly known as the Tier 2 General visa).
CanadaThe 3 immigration programs managed via the Express Entry Pathway.
AustraliaVisas that are part of the General Skilled Migration (GSM) program (the Subclass 189 Skilled Independent Visa is arguably the most popular choice for expats). 
EuropeThe EU Blue Card.
Popular work visas/permits for expats.

2. Check Your Eligibility

Once you figure out the type of work visa you need, the next step is finding out whether you qualify for it. Head over to your host country’s official immigration webpage (or anything along those lines) and review the eligibility criteria for the chosen work visa category. Pay attention to specific requirements such as

  • Educational qualifications.
  • Work experience.
  • Language proficiency.
  • Sponsorship.

While on the website, poke around to see if you can find an eligibility assessment tool or a questionnaire. Many countries’ immigration websites have one of these functionalities built in. 

If this is an option on your host country’s website, be sure to take full advantage of it because it can take a whole lot of hassle out of the process of checking whether you qualify for a specific work visa/permit. Simply key in your details, and the tool will evaluate your profile against the eligibility criteria for your specific work visa/permit and indicate your eligibility status. 

If you can’t find the eligibility criteria for your work visa online or have complex circumstances, enlist the help of a professional. This can be an immigration lawyer or a qualified immigration consultant. They’ll provide personalized advice based on your specific situation and qualifications.

3. Find a Sponsor

This step will only be necessary if your destination country’s immigration laws demand it. If that’s not the case, you can skip it. Otherwise, you’ll need to secure a job offer from an employer or organization with a valid sponsor license. 

The process of finding a sponsor isn’t too different from searching for a job in a foreign country.  It’s up to you to figure out the best channels for finding job opportunities in the country you’re looking to work in. My recommendations are:

  • Online job portals.
  • Company websites.
  • Relevant professional networking platforms.
  • Reliable recruitment agencies.

As you go about your job search, understand that there are scammers out there looking to take advantage of job seekers. So don’t give out your personal information willy-nilly, and steer away from “employers” asking for “processing fees” or anything else along those lines. You might also want to read up on common job-related scams. Here are some useful guides:

Once you find positions you’re qualified for, narrow down your options to those that explicitly state they sponsor work permits/visas for international applicants. These are your best bet for finding a sponsor as an expat. 

If you’re already employed in a multinational company with a subsidiary or branch in the foreign country you’d like to work and live in as an expat, you can always ask for an international transfer. This is a much easier way to find a sponsor for a work permit/visa than crawling the international job market.

4. Prepare Supporting Documents

The supporting documents required for a work visa application may vary depending on the host country and the specific type of work visa you are applying for, but there are some common denominators:

  • A formal job offer letter from the employer in the destination country.
  • A valid passport with an expiration date that extends beyond the intended period of stay in the host country.
  • Recent passport-sized photographs that meet the specific requirements of the country’s immigration authorities.
  • Educational certificates, degrees, or diplomas that demonstrate your qualifications and eligibility for the job.
  • A comprehensive CV that outlines your work experience, skills, and relevant employment history.
  • A signed employment contract between you and the employer, outlining the terms and conditions of your employment.
  • A police clearance certificate or criminal record check from your home country or any other country you’ve lived in for an extended period.
  • Medical examination results showing that you’re in good health.

Some countries also require proof of language proficiency. This proof is usually in the form of a certificate showing that you’ve taken and passed a standardized test that examines your ability to communicate effectively and comprehend your host country’s official language. Most English-speaking countries use the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to examine expats’ language skills.

Other countries have their own official language proficiency tests, and they’re almost always accessible online. Just make sure you use authorized testing websites to register for and take your language proficiency test. Otherwise, your certificate will be rejected, potentially denting your chances of getting approved for a work visa/permit.

Not sure how to prepare for the test? I’ve got your back. I’ve done a whole post on the quickest ways to learn the local language in a foreign country. Click here to check it out.

Last but not least, countries like the UK may demand proof that you have enough money to support your life expenses throughout your stay. This will likely be the case if you’re seeking a work visa/permit that’s not sponsored by your employer.

5.  Figure Out the Application Fees

Different countries have various fees attached to work permit/visa applications. The exact figure may vary depending on the issuing country and the type of work visa/permit you’re applying for.

To give you an idea of what you can expect to pay, here’s a rundown of how much it costs to apply for the most sought-after work visas/permits in popular work destinations for expats. 

  • The Skilled Worker visa (the UK):  The application fee ranges from £625 to £1,423, depending on your occupation, experience, and other individual-specific factors. You may also be required to pay an annual Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) of £624.
  • The H1B work visa (the US): The standard filing fee is $460, but the total figure you and your employer end up paying can run as high as $6,500 depending on things like the employment criteria, optional fees such as premium processing, and attorney fees. 
  • The 3 immigration programs managed via Canada’s Express Entry Pathway: The processing fee is about $850 per person, with an additional $515 for those seeking permanent.
  • The Subclass 189 Skilled Independent visa (Australia): the base application charge for the Subclass 189 visa currently stands at AUD $4,045. This figure doesn’t include additional costs such as health assessments and police clearances. 

If the country you’re looking to work in isn’t featured on the above list, visit its immigration authority’s official website and do a quick search. If you still can’t find the application costs on that website, you might have to consult with a certified immigration professional.

6. Attend An Interview and Provide Biometrics (If Applicable) 

In the UK and many other countries, you may be required to attend an interview when you submit your application. Do some research and find out whether that’s a requirement in your case. 

If an interview is part of the application process, prepare by familiarizing yourself with commonly asked questions. This shouldn’t be too hard to do; simply Google ”(insert your host country here) work visa interview questions and answers.” 

Some countries may also ask for biometric information at the visa application center. This typically includes fingerprints, so make sure you don’t have any cuts, scarring, or dermatological issues that might distort your fingerprint patterns. 

7. Submit Your Application and Wait For a Decision

With everything in order, you can finally submit your application and wait for it to be processed. The processing time can be anywhere from a few weeks to months, so be patient. If curiosity gets the best of you, you can always check the progress of your application online. 

Keeping Your Work Visa/Permit Valid as Expat

Getting approved for a work visa/permit is important, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle as far as the legalities of working abroad go. You still need to ensure that you stay on the right side of immigration laws by keeping your work permit/visa valid.

There are two ways to go about that:

  • Renewal. This refers to applying for a new work visa/permit after the current one has reached its expiry date or is almost expiring. If you choose this option, you’ll follow the same application process you used for the initial work visa/permit.
  • Extension. With this option, you file a request to push the expiry date of your current work visa/permit forward. If you take this route, you’ll need to file your request before your current work permit/visa expires. 
Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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