The expat guide to working in Europe

The countries which make up the European Union are attractive to expats because of their culture and history, scenic sights and generally high standards of living. Whether it’s Italian art and wine, French cuisine or German nightlife that attracts you to the continent, there are key things to know and to remember if you’re planning to move to Europe and work.

From working holidays to seasonal work, fixed-term contracts and permanent relocations, some aspects of moving will apply to everyone. The most important considerations are things like visa requirements, language skills needed and what rights you’ll be entitled to as a worker in the EU – but to get the most from your expat experience, it’s worth getting taking notes on overall lifestyle as well. Here are a few areas to focus on when readying yourself for relocation.

Worker’s rights

The European Union has strict guidelines on worker’s rights, and it’s their regulations on things like working hours, health and safety and equality that appeal to some people working in countries without the same guarantees.

While the USA fails to offer a minimum legal amount of paid holiday leave or paid maternity leave for employees, EU countries are legally required to offer a minimum of 20 days paid holiday alongside 14 weeks of reasonably paid maternity leave if needed. And while countries such as China and India often make headlines for putting worker’s physical safety at risk, the EU commands a high standard of workplace health and safety legislation across member states.

EU directives have also ensured that part-time workers can still access the same rights as their full-time counterparts, and that people are treated as equals – so you can’t be discriminated against on the grounds of your race, gender, sexuality or religious beliefs (among other things) while working or seeking work within the EU.

Visas: EU vs Non-EU Citizens

While EU citizens have the right to live and work in other EU member countries without the need for visas and work permits, the same ease of employment isn’t available to people moving from outside the EU. Most EU countries are part of the Schengen Agreement, meaning that you can use a Schengen visa to enter and move around between countries. Check to see whether you need to apply ahead of time, or whether you can simply obtain this on arrival, as it does vary and outside of commonwealth countries you may need to plan ahead.

Schengen visas usually last for 90 days from entry but are not working visas. If you’re planning to secure a job after moving abroad rather than ahead of your arrival, you can use the 90-day period to job-hunt in preparation for applying for the more long-term European Blue Card or a country-specific visa and work permit.

The European Blue Card is a good choice if you have either a Bachelor’s degree or five years of work experience, along with a job offer guaranteeing your first year’s work in a participating country. Of the 28 EU member states, only the UK, Ireland and Denmark are not covered by a European Blue Card. If you don’t meet the criteria needed, you’ll need to focus on country-specific paperwork, which will usually mean securing a combination residence and work visa or permit.

Note that some countries have rules in place which state that employers can only hire foreign workers if they can prove they’ve been unable to hire locally. If you are planning to move without a job lined up, be sure to leave plenty of time for job hunting and have savings aside to pay for accommodation and bills while you find work that will provide with enough income to remain living abroad.

Learning languages

There are some European countries where you will absolutely need to speak the local language in order to find work, and others where you may get by with English and a few basics in the native tongue. Naturally, if you’re moving to the UK or Ireland it’s unlikely you’ll come up against any language barriers as an English speaker. 

Your reliance on a new language will depend to an extent on the industry you plan to work in, however it goes without saying that you’ll have an easier time settling in and feeling at home in your new location if you have a good grasp of the language and can communicate easily. While Scandinavian countries, and places like Luxembourg and Germany, are populated by bi- and multi-lingual citizens who will generally have no problem communicating with you in English, the workplace can be another story.

Priority in job vacancies will often be given to people who can speak the language of the country they are in, but if you’re seeking work in hospitality or childcare, or specifically in language teaching, you may get by without being bilingual. Before you pack your bags for a move, make the most of language apps like Babble and Duolingo and if you can, invest time in real-life language lessons to brush up your skills.

Local lifestyles

Europe is a diverse continent, offering bustling cosmopolitan cities, picturesque remote villages and sweeping coastlines to choose from. When preparing to relocate with work in mind, consider your location and what it can offer – and familiarise yourself with the local lifestyle.

While Spain is known for offering a relaxed living style, with siestas in the daytime and relaxed evening meals that go long into the night, Germany can offer a faster pace – with lively nightlife and a bustling start-up business scene.

If you aren’t committed to a particular destination, take the time to explore and find out which part of Europe can offer the most when it comes to your professional and personal needs. Do you need somewhere that’s fully accessible, or somewhere with a thriving finance industry? Using country comparisons like HSBC’s expat insider survey or Numbeo’s costs of living can be a good place to start.

Wherever you decide to move to, a working relocation to this diverse continent is sure to bring exciting opportunities. Armed with a few language skills and the relevant visa, Europe’s rich cultural heritage and expat-friendly communities might just make it the perfect region for your next adventure.


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