Changing jobs and staying an expat

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

It's not always easy to change jobs but stay living as an expat. But it is possible, as Renée Cordes reveals.


It's a familiar scenario to many expatriates: You accept a job offer abroad and move — perhaps with a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend or kids — to a new country. All is going swimmingly, but after a while you grow bored with the position, or get laid off.

 One obvious solution is to go back to your native land and look for employment there, but suppose you adore your home away from home, have just put a down payment on a house or simply aren't ready to pack you bags? Human resources experts insist that in most cases it's possible to stay put and find another job, but caution that it's not always easy.

Multinational experience

Lilian Dauw, manager at Crown Careers employment recruitment agency in Brussels, said that expatriates with previous experience at a multi-national corporation would have the best chance of finding work at another international firm.

"There are more than enough (multi-nationals) in Brussels," she said. Indeed, more and more companies have their European headquarters in Europe's capital, but don't be fooled: for many firms it's just a matter of having a small representative office to lobby EU institutions.

Expats shouldn't even bother at McDonald's Corp. and Coca-Cola Co., both of whom mainly staff foreign offices with locals.

Proctor & Gamble Europe, on the other hand, opens its arms to expats. The company has about 54 nationalities working together in Brussels and 34 in Geneva, its two main western European offices. Iulia Stanciu, the firm's recruitment manager for western Europe, said P&G seeks qualified job candidates from all over the world regardless of nationality; the company even has a special user-friendly website,, with information about job openings and contact persons in each country.

Importance of languages

While speaking the local language is normally not a requirement, for some jobs such as consumer business development, sales and marketing it is essential, Stanciu said.

More generally, EU citizens looking to change jobs in a foreign country generally have an easier time re-entering the employment market, mainly because they don't need a work permit; residency might be more of a problem for those who haven't been in the social security system for any length of time. Still, employment experts said that those who speak the local language have a huge advantage in the job market.

Non-EU citizens with linguistic skills also have a better chance of finding work than those who don't. Nevertheless, there are number of other bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, like renewing a work permit, which is often tied to a particular position. What's more, the work permit is often a prerequisite for residency and vice versa; how is that for logic?

Once expats do find an employer willing to renew their paperwork, they should get this commitment in writing, recommends Bas Westland, managing director and co-founder of epeople, an Amsterdam-based employment agency that places people in information and communication technology.

Like Dauw, Westland recommends that expats focus their job search on international companies. Even so, he points out that not speaking the local language can be a serious handicap. "For a sales position it's almost impossible to find a job as a foreigner if you don't speak the local language," he said.

Taxation issues

Another downside expatriates face when changing jobs is losing the beneficial tax status they received when first hired. This generally means being taxed on a much smaller proportion of your gross income than citizens of the country are, provided you comply with the tax regime in your home country.

Expats who change jobs but stay in the country have to give up this coveted position.

"I recently had an American candidate on the phone who wanted to leave her company," said Dauw. "She wanted me to find her a job with an American company who would let her keep her expatriate status. But you don't find that in Belgium."

One British national based in Brussels got around the problem by moving his family back to England for several months, then re-establishing residency in Brussels.

If foreigners stay in a country long enough, they can of course have permanent residency status or become citizens. Westland also points out that this is offered if one marries a local —but only under one condition; "make sure you really love them."

June 2002

Renée Cordes is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.

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