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Working Abroad: Getting Organized
Working as an international graduate student or postdoc is a great experience - professionally as well as personally - but before you can fully enjoy your new environment you have to face some cumbersome formalities and practicalities. While some things can be arranged before your actual move, others can not and it usually takes some time before you are completely organized in your new country. The following information, although very general, may help you to make this
transition period as short as possible. Note that throughout the text, ‘home’ refers to the country where you normally live or where you are a resident of, and ‘new’ or ‘local’ refers to the country where you will be moving to.
- Visiting status
- Visa / residence permit
- Work contract
- Bank account
- Health insurance & social benefits
In dealing with many organizations in the country you intend to go to, it is very important how you are employed. As a postdoc, if your salary will not be provided by a local institution (but instead by an international organization such as HFSP or EMBO or by a research council or university from your home country), your local institution will be hosting you and will not employ you. You are only employed by your new university or research institute if this is the organization that is actually providing your salary. As a PhD student this is generally not an issue, but note that in some countries only undergraduate students are given a well-defined student status and that in this case PhD students are seen as employees.
Depending on your nationality and on the country you plan to go to, you may need a visa or a residence permit. There can be many different visas for a given country and it is important that you apply for the correct one. This will primarily depend on your visiting status: employed, hosted, or student. For details, contact the embassy or consulate of the country you intend to go to. Check the website of the relevant embassy in the country that you are a national of, as their information will be most useful. Be aware that visa applications may take days or months, are not free of charge, and usually require documentation from your new university and/or funding organization.
This document is provided by the institution where you are going to work or study, proving that you are listed in their administration and outlining your status (employed/hosted/student), your salary (if provided by this institution), and the duration of your appointment. Often this contract is made up after you arrive in the country. Be sure that you obtain it as soon as possible, as university administrations can be slow, and you really need it to get a local bank account and accommodation. For visa applications the contract will be issued too late, but the institution should be able to provide you with a letter of intent that will do as well.
Although it is easy to withdraw money from your old bank account and internet banking enables you to manage this account while living abroad, it is absolutely necessary to open a new local bank account. Not only is a local account often the only acceptable way of receiving your salary and of paying for utilities and other essentials, it also serves as identification in a variety of situations. As a visitor, you will be required to produce a lot of documents to open a bank
account, typically your passport, visa, work contract, a letter from the organization that is providing your salary (if you are hosted), and proof of address. The latter can be tricky when you only have temporary accommodation without a lease agreement. In this situation, proof of your last address in your home country may also be sufficient, so do take some bank statements and utility bills with you. However, banks in university towns should be used to dealing with foreign employees and students. In the US, a social security number (SSN) can also be required to open a bank account (see the US-specific internet links below for the range of situations in which a SSN is needed), and it can be difficult to get credit and debit cards when you have recently arrived.
If the university does not provide accommodation, which is common in Europe, you will have to go house hunting. Before you move over, inform yourself about the real estate situation in your new city: readily available or very difficult to find, relatively cheap or extortionately expensive. As you might have moved a couple of times in your home town before you found the perfect house or apartment, be prepared that as a new arrival in your new city you may have to start with something smaller, more expensive, or less favorably located than what you are used to. Of course, the reverse can also be the case! Most likely, a work contract and local bank account will be required to rent or buy a property. Be aware that things on the rental market might work differently than what you are used to: inquire about the minimal length of the lease, any fees that the real estate agents charge, and about your rights as a tenant. Especially in a new country, your home is your castle and it pays off to have a nice place, not only with respect to size but also to location. When you don’t know that many people as yet, you might consider living closer to the city center and entertainment area than to your work location. However, finding something really nice can well take some time, and if you are in unpleasant or expensive temporary
accommodation, you might prefer moving out as soon as possible. Anyway, the more you know about the local real estate situation, the easier the house hunting will be.
Health Insurance and Social Benefits
Again, these issues depend on the way you are employed. If you are paid by the local institution, you have to pay tax but you are also entitled to the local health insurance scheme and social benefits. When instead your salary is a fellowship provided by a national or international organization, it will not be subject to any taxation (because it is technically a stipend, i.e. a payment compensating you for your expenses), and consequently you have to pay the full rate for everything. Note that this stipend arrangement implies that you don’t have a formal employer (you are kind of self-employed) and that the funding organization provides no benefits at all, so be sure that you are well insured!
Managing Home Affairs
To avoid losing track of important mail, send out change-of-address notifications a couple of weeks before you move abroad. Most companies will be happy to send your mail to an international address. If not, a postal address (family or friends) in your home country is always acceptable, and this might also be a good option while you don’t have a permanent address abroad. Many affairs, for example with your home insurance company, can be handled by phone or email, and an actual signature will only be required for the final agreement or transaction.
If you set up internet banking for your home bank account you can manage this account and make payments in your home country without having to pay a surcharge for international transactions. International transactions require bank identification codes, and these can be obtained from your banks. Keep in mind that withdrawing money with your home bank card from a local ATM and subsequently depositing this cash at your new local bank is cheaper than transferring it from your home account.
Regardless of your employment status, be aware that your home country will still expect a tax declaration because you remain a resident. Although you will only have to pay tax over your salary if this is provided by an institution in your home country which is also formally your employer, you can still be taxed for savings or possessions that are based in your home country. Likewise, in your new country you only have to deal with tax declarations if your salary is provided by a local institution. Theoretically, you should never be taxed for the same thing in both countries, but you might have to point this out explicitly to the taxation office.
Generally speaking, regularly changing jobs is not the best way to secure retirement benefits. When on a tax-free stipend you will not build up any benefits at all, and when employed by a local institution, any pension-related taxation will disappear in the local system. Ask whether it is possible to get a partial tax return when you move back to your home country.
Check whether you are entitled to the local health schemes (see above) and what these entail. Even when paying local tax on your salary makes you eligible, you might still have to pay additional fees to obtain the level of coverage you are used to. Local insurance companies usually offer health insurance tailored for non-residents, but this is not cheap. It might be a better option to try to extend your home health insurance so that it covers you abroad as well. Find out what kind of health insurance you can get in your new country before you move over. You do not want to be uninsured anyway, and some visa or resident permits may also require that you have a valid health insurance from the first day of your stay.
If you are going to be paid by the local institution you will work at, your salary might be negotiable. Generally speaking, salaries are to some extent negotiable in the US, but not in Europe. In Europe, job descriptions are typically linked to a set salary, and you would have to get your job description upgraded in order to get into a higher pay-scale.
Science Next Wave reviews two sponsored sites that offer a lot of information for newcomers in the US, with topics ranging from green cards to phone cards:
Visa applications for postdocs moving to the US are discussed by Science Next Wave:
The European Molecular Biology Organization manages the Life Sciences Mobility Portal,
offering information about many European countries:
http://mobility.embo.org (click on the ‘Scientists Abroad’ module)
The European Union provides information for EU citizens moving from one membership state to
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What are your experiences? Please contact: Maurits de Planque at email@example.com.