Logistics of International Work–Part 1

Nefta, Tunisia  image: Erik Mustonen
Nefta, Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
–Saint Augustine (AD 354 – 430)

My previous post, Getting Started in International Work, covered how to prepare for international work generally. This two-part addition covers logistical considerations for working in a foreign country based on my own experiences in Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Conditions vary greatly between countries, within countries, and over time, but this should at least give you an idea of what to think about. I look forward to hearing other people’s experiences as well. Part 1 deals with the logistical issues before you go. Part 2 will cover issues relevant while there and after you return.

1. Where to Go/Not Go

Merdeka (Independence) Day parade, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  image: Erik Mustonen
Merdeka (Independence) Day parade, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

As you probably already know, going to work in any country with an active war, rampant terrorism, or raging epidemics is not advisable. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are definitely no-go areas, and some countries or parts of countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have gone up and down in danger level over the years. It is important to follow world news closely and talk to people who have recently been in the places you are considering.

For some scary reading, there is a book, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, by Robert Young Pelton. Last published in 2003, the current 5th edition is seriously out of date for details on specific countries, but the general guidelines, for everything from kidnapping to land mines, are instructive. For up-to-date travel advisories and warnings for specific countries, you can check with government websites like the U.S. Department of State’s Alerts and Warnings page and Canada’s Country Travel Advice and Advisories and Latest News and Warnings pages.

2. Passports, Visas, and Permits

Passports image: Erik Mustonen
image: Erik Mustonen

A passport is now required for Americans traveling even to Canada or Mexico. For travel by air and to be able to have visas added, it must be a “passport book,” not a “passport card.”

Processing time for applications can be up to six weeks, and if visas must be applied for in advance of travel, you may need ten weeks or more. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs also recommends that you apply for a renewal passport at least nine months before your existing one expires, and some countries will not let you enter if there are less than six months left on it beyond the date of your trip. There should also be enough empty pages to accommodate visas – a single work/residence visa takes up an entire page.

Check the rules about drivers’ licenses. You may be able to use your regular one – perhaps for a limited time only – or you may have to supplement it with an International Driving Permit (available from automobile associations). Or you may need to get a relevant national license, which can be difficult and/or expensive.

Some sort of official permission to work – paid or unpaid – in a foreign country is always required. Your employer will generally sort this out, but investigate the fine print carefully. You are normally restricted to working only for the employer who initially sponsored your application. For work in some countries, notably in the Middle East, there is an important distinction: a “business visit” visa allows you in for a short period (usually one month) and then you have to leave; a resident permit, however, means you have to apply for an exit visa in order to leave – even on vacation. If your employer wants you to stay to complete something or for whatever reason, you’re stuck! (Outside of Arabian Gulf countries, this is usually not an issue.) Most expatriates have “war stories” about visa problems.

3. Employment Options

Foreign and foreign-trained professionals, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  image: Erik Mustonen
Foreign and foreign-trained professionals, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

The issue of what it means for a nation to be “developed” or “developing” is controversial. For the purposes of this article, the assumption is that “developed” includes North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and in some respects (too complicated to get into here) Japan. It is really a dynamic issue because some formerly developing nations have developed enough – both generally and with respect to the profession of landscape architecture – that the line is becoming blurred.

The job you find, either by networking or direct application, may be one of several types. In the hierarchy of international work, the highest and most expensive people (for the clients) are professionals from a developed nation, sent over on a temporary basis by a firm with an international reputation. Their pay is generally at the standard of the home office, perhaps with an overseas/hardship allowance depending on where the assignment is. Benefits usually include local accommodations, the use of a car (if appropriate for the country involved), annual (or more frequent) flights home, and perhaps other perks. The frequency of paid flights home may vary depending on whether the person is single or married with spouse accompanying or not accompanying.

Next down the hierarchy would be a professional from a developed nation working directly for a local firm. The pay may be less (perhaps considerably less), and the benefits are very negotiable depending on the level of experience and responsibility. It would be good to talk to other expatriates, perhaps at international conferences, to get an idea of what is appropriate.

From the point of view of foreign employers and clients, next down the ladder would be foreign-trained local professionals and, finally, locally-trained professionals. The reason for using people higher up the hierarchy is because the prestige they bring may impress clients, or in some cases, the skills that are needed are not yet available locally. This tends to change over time as formerly developing countries become developed and produce their own professionals. Then the foreign professionals are perceived as “carpetbaggers” who are no longer welcome.

4. Health

Denture shop, India image: Erik Mustonen
Denture shop, India
image: Erik Mustonen

If you are going to anywhere outside North America and Europe, start researching at least three months in advance about the immunizations required and other health information. You should have an International Certificate of Immunization, a passport-sized folded card issued by a clinic, with a record of your shots. This is both for your own benefit and because some countries will not allow people to enter unless they have the locally required shots.

If you require any prescription medicines, check on getting a traveller’s supply (a larger than normal quantity) and look into the availability of refills at your destination. In some countries, locally available medicines may be counterfeit or expired versions. It would also be a good idea to have a dental check-up before you go.

5. Money

Local bank, Malaysia  image: Erik Mustonen
Local bank, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

Credit cards are gaining wider acceptance overseas than used to be the case, but they are still not welcome everywhere. Fortunately, overseas bank ATMs can be used to get money from your home account in local currency (but beware of skimmers). This avoids the trouble of traveller’s cheques and money changers, but talk to your bank beforehand to make sure your bank card and credit card will work in overseas machines (mainly an issue of having a suitable PIN number). Be sure to also inform your bank of your travel plans or they may put a hold on your card, thinking it was stolen if it starts being used in exotic locations. Inquire about foreign exchange charges for credit card purchases overseas; these vary for different cards.

If you are going to be working overseas, investigate how you can transfer money back to pay bills. When I first worked in Malaysia in 1984, I had a Malaysian bank do a letter transfer back to my Canadian bank – that took 7 weeks! The next time, I had them do an electronic transfer – that took 3 weeks! With that in mind, when I was returning to Malaysia in 1992, I first opened an account with Hongkong Bank Canada (now HSBC) beforehand. Then I opened an account with Hongkong Bank Malaysia, and the transfers happened immediately. You need to deal with an international bank, and you will probably have to shop around to find one with the services you need. Also be aware that opening a bank account in a foreign country (even Canada) is usually complicated.

Another money issue is your pay. If it is by direct deposit, as is often the case, make sure it is actually being deposited into an account that only you control. There have been cases of people working for foreign employers having their pay deposited into an account that was mysteriously emptied at the end of their contract before they could get at it. This may begin with the offer of a scam for avoiding tax by depositing the pay into a tax haven.

6. Income Tax

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia image: Erik Mustonen
Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

Make sure you know the income tax rules – both for your home country and where you are considering working – before you work in a foreign country. If you are away long enough, establish foreign residence, are paid by a foreign employer, and are taxed by the other country, you may have to pay little or no tax to your home country. You may still have to file every year, however, and this is always the case for U.S. Citizens. If, however, you do not meet the requirements of foreign residence, or if it involves a country that does not have a tax treaty with your home country, you may be subject to dual taxation. For example, a Canadian worked in Australia for 6 months then returned to find she owed tax on the same income to both Australia and Canada, so she ended up with only a third of her pay. Filing taxes in other countries can be relatively simple (e.g. Germany) or difficult (e.g. Malaysia) and you may require assistance. The forms are in the local language of course, and you may need to get a certified translation of the foreign filing to submit to your home country.

7. Vehicles

Hawker (vendor) in traffic, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  image: Erik Mustonen
Hawker (vendor) in traffic, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

Transporting your car overseas is usually not feasible. If you are relocating within North America you may be tempted to take it. This can be difficult, however, so you should check on taxes, permits, re-sale restrictions, etc. Canadian safety standards are higher, and some U.S.-made vehicles do not comply.

8. Import Restrictions

Fountain in Dubai  image: Erik Mustonen
Fountain in Dubai
image: Erik Mustonen

Customs restrictions can vary dramatically from country to country, and can make transporting certain items impractical or inadvisable. Alcohol, for example, is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, where customs inspectors may go to the extent of sticking their fingers in fancy chocolates to make sure there is no “liquor” inside. As for drugs, Malaysian tourist brochures advise, “Trafficking in drugs is punishable by death.”

European countries generally have very relaxed standards for images and printed matter, but this is not the case in Asia or the Middle East, where anything perceived as pornography is banned. DVDs are carefully inspected, and even issues of Time and Newsweek magazines may have some photos blacked out by marker-wielding censors. Material perceived as politically unacceptable is blocked by many countries, and Saudi Arabia does not permit the importing of Bibles even for personal use. For country-specific information on the different rules and requirements, see the U.S. Department of State’s Learn About Your Destination page.


Once you determine which country or region you will be working in, detailed research and specific preparation can help you to avoid a lot of grief from sources you may not have thought of. Travel guidebooks, the internet, and discussions with people who have been there will get you started. For more information, see the U.S. Department of State’s Travel website and Canada’s Living Abroad website.

by Erik S. Mustonen, ASLA, CSLA, RLA (CA + MN), CLARB, LEED AP-ND, International Practice PPN Chair

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