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I graduated from university in March. I'm a U.S. citizen and software engineer in Southern California. I love my job, and expect to be at it for at least the next few years.

However, I'd really like to travel. I have a fantasy of working at a job for 2-5 years, then switching to another country and living it up there for another 2-5 years. Rinse and repeat ten or so times, until I'm a sixty-year-old who can honestly claim to have really seen the entire world, much of it when I was young and clever. Something like California-Sweden-France-Korea-Finland-Germany would suit me quite well.

Is this a feasible career path? The salary I'm making right now is more than enough for me (I'd be happy staying at it for good, as long as my work remained fulfilling), and I have no debt. No plans for a family (I'm also quite sterile), so I can do what I like. Are software engineers in high-enough demand that this plan would actually work? Would I be able to have progressively more responsible roles, or would I be dinged as a job-hopper and find it difficult to find work? Would visas be harder to navigate than I think?

Thank you!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 17 '16 at 3:25
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    As a US citizen working in Japan, I'd say it's an experience worth having, but what you suggest is less a "career" than a series of jobs that will result in little to no salary progression unless you're contract instead of full time, which can mean no visa prospects in some places. And as mentioned below, though not often enough, your savings will be at the mercy of relocation and taxation costs, and it's unlikely you'll be establishing investments like owning property that might otherwise help when you attempt to retire. I'd say try living elsewhere, but don't plan to see the world that way. – kungphu Jun 17 '16 at 3:45
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    I've been doing exactly this for the last 15 years. Totally recommend it. – dan-klasson Jun 17 '16 at 5:38
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    While I respect your fantasy, I don't see the connection between "ten or so times" and "seen the entire world". I have worked in almost 10 cities in Germany alone, but that does not at all qualify as "seen whole Germany". (I've seen even more cities and countries on vacation of course, but I couldn't be further away from stating "seen whole Germany/Europe/Northern Hemisphere") – phresnel Jun 17 '16 at 10:45
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    This is probably easy as a single but gets complicated when you have family, especially with children. – Reinstate Monica - M. Schröder Jun 17 '16 at 10:58

15 Answers 15

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YES

This is pretty much what I've been doing. I've lived and worked in 4 different countries so far (Poland, Finland, Norway, UK). The relevant difference is that I'm an EU citizen, which grants me a visa-free access to many job markets. Nonetheless, I have met people from other places (non-EU) who led a similar lifestyle. Here are some tips:

  1. There are organisations which can help you get a job abroad, especially if you're a student or fresh graduate. I've used the Erasmus programme (Europe-specific) and AIESEC (worldwide) to get 2 of my jobs.

  2. If you're willing to try a different job (at least temporarily), there are many opportunities for English teachers worldwide, and especially East Asia. You can get a significant help with visas and other formalities if you apply through an established organisation / company. A job of a teacher doesn't have to be full-time, and you could possibly work on some IT stuff in your spare time.

  3. If you're willing to reside in a single EU country for over 5 years, you could apply for citizenship which will grant you access to the EU job market (given the political situation doesn't change).

  4. IT experience is transferable between developed countries, so your US work experience should be deemed relevant in EU, Australia, etc., but your experience from Vietnam may be looked down upon depending on the circumstances. You should be able to get some career progression going on even when moving around.

  5. Getting a job for an iternational corporation and moving around is possible but not very likely for a software engineer (based on my experience). Mind that even if you can transfer, it may not be to the location of your choice.

  6. If you can get a job that's ok with working remotely, it's definitely possible to continue your usual work while living somewhere else (e.g. in a foreign country of your choice). This is, in my opinion, a better option that international corporation.

  7. If you work a salaried job, it may be seen as a disadvantage to change employees very often. It could possibly benefit you to start a 1-person company and work as a consultant on a contract basis. In most developed countries, starting a company is pretty straightforward and inexpensive, but it will require some extra effort from you, especially if the paperwork needs to be done in a foreign language.

  8. As a US citizen you'll be still liable for US taxes, even when living abroad. I know some US expats and they all complain about it, so be prepared.

  9. The working language in many IT companies worldwide is English. You can get by in many countries in Europe without speaking the local language, but it can be problematic sometimes in everyday life e.g. getting paperwork done, visiting doctor, or just meeting new friends.

  10. Visas can be problematic, though experiences vary. Plan your next step well in advance (where I'm going to move next) and have a plan B in case the target country denies you a visa (do I stay where I am and apply again? Go to another country or maybe return home?).

  11. I would recommend that you save significant amount of money as a safety net in case something goes wrong and to get started in a new country. The costs of moving, renting your first flat in a new place, buying all necessities can be larger than expected.

  12. Mind that your credit rating etc. will most likely not transfer to another country. You can have problems to get anything else than the most basic bank account every time you move, let alone credit cards or loans. Another reason to have a money cushion. Be prepared.

I hope you find those tips useful and good luck!

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    For #6 it is important to note that there are still visa issues related to the country where you live. In many cases moving to a country for remote working is even harder than moving there to take a local job. – user45590 Jun 15 '16 at 12:01
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    For #3 it's worth investigating local law before, it does vary quite a bit. 5 years is a common threshold (France, UK, Netherlands...) but it's 8 years in Germany and 10 years in Italy and then you also have to meet other requirements (e.g. command of the local language). – Relaxed Jun 16 '16 at 9:34
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    #8 is a real thing and I was horrified to discover it. You'll want to stick to countries that have tax treaties with the U.S. to avoid double taxation, otherwise you will end up with an IRS bill of potentially tens of thousands of dollars for income that you've already paid tax on. (speaking from very recent experience here) – Mark Henderson Jun 16 '16 at 11:07
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    @Relaxed in UK it takes 6 years to become a citizen: 5 years to get permanent residency, then one more year before you can apply for citizenship. Also a recent change in the law means you can't even get permanent residency after 5 years unless you meet an income threshold. – user45590 Jun 16 '16 at 11:28
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    #8 you only pay US taxes on income above a certain threshold (I think it's about 100K currently). So it is not a real issue for many people. – user45590 Jun 16 '16 at 11:30
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There are barriers to working internationally as you propose, mainly:

  • Legal restrictions on work in other countries. In most locations you will have to get some sort of work visa, and this often means your employer has to jump through extra hoops to hire you. This makes you less desirable as a candidate compared to someone local.
  • Language. Not being able to speak the local language puts you at a disadvantage as well. How much depends on location. Working while only knowing English is possible in many European countries, but again, it makes you less desirable than a local candidate. And outside Europe, language may be a much bigger barrier.

However, these barriers can be overcome. If you are good at your work, and you are willing to prioritize location over other factors like income, it is perfectly feasible.

I don't think job-hopping will be a big concern, especially if you have some employment that is at the long end of the "2-5 year" period. (Also, who knows what you will want ten years from now? Later on in your life most likely your priorities will change. This isn't a criticism of your idea--just speaking from experience.)

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    The language is a barrier which is worth to mention, but: you will find software jobs all over the world, where the company language is english. It's more a limitation than a barrier. – Sempie Jun 15 '16 at 8:08
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    The real language barrier is some clients will want you to program in javascript! ;) – Loofer Jun 15 '16 at 9:59
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    Also, make sure to save for retirement. While being a permanent resident in a country, working there your entire life guarantees you a pension (in European countries), this is not the case when you move around. And you are unlikely to receive much if any money from the countries you work for a short while in. Since you are from the US, you should already be aware you need to save the money yourself for retirement. Just please consider what you'll do after 60 as well. – Hampus Nilsson Jun 15 '16 at 19:14
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    ^ this. Although you'll owe US taxes when working abroad, and therefor be paying into and eligible for social security, US social security will need to be 'topped up'. – Jared Smith Jun 16 '16 at 1:35
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This is definitely something you can do.

Visa

From experience, this is not particularly difficult to find jobs. The complicated part is the visa requirement.

I'm European so I don't have any visa issues in Europe, so going to London and working for few years was really easy.

I then went to Australia. Not having the visa actually makes it harder. In Australia, I needed to find a company that was willing to sponsor me, meaning that the company would pay for the visa and do all the paperwork. This can severely limit the number of companies you can apply to.

Let's say you managed to find a company that pays your visa. You will find that you will tend to be paid not as much (they paid for your visa after all), and depending on the country, you might have very limited rights (See Qatar for instance).

Because you will need companies to trust you and invest in you (this can be heavy to pay and do the visa paperwork), you definitely need to have an history of staying at each company for a decent amount of time. 2-5 years is sufficient, though.

Language

Of course not speaking the local language that might impact your employability. When you start your career, this will not be such a big deal because you will just spend your time coding, not interacting much with other colleagues. And all the resources for developers are in English anyway. The code tends to be in English too, but not always.

But after a few years, you will start taking on some management tasks (whether it is mentoring juniors or purely management roles). In those cases, you will be required to be understood, hence making the language barrier important.

This doesn't mean this can't be achieved, it just means that each time you will go to a country with a new language, you will need to get a more junior role than what you could get otherwise.

A good way to mitigate this issue is to work for an international company, they tend to have international teams, hence making the use of English the common language. This will give you the time to learn the language while keeping an interesting job.

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    "Visa" is not an acronym. You don't have to write it in all-caps. I blame it on the credit card company that people keep doing this. – Szabolcs Jun 15 '16 at 7:31
  • Your assessment of language as a limiting factor is correct for some companies but definitely not all. Many international companies have adopted English as the "company language" and not being able to speak the local language will not be a limiting factor there. This is especially true for consultancies or for highly technical profiles that have expert domain knowledge. – Lilienthal Jun 15 '16 at 8:08
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    @Szabolcs: Visa Is Seldom an Acronym? – Lightness Races with Monica Jun 15 '16 at 11:55
  • The part about language is not true. I knew people in positions as high as CEO with zero knowledge of the local language. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Jun 15 '16 at 14:28
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    @JonathanReez This is what I said, for big companies or international companies, it doesn't have to be a restriction. But nobody in your team can understand you, you are unlikely to be the manager... – dyesdyes Jun 15 '16 at 23:05
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This would be easier to do if you join a big corporation with many offices across the world. You can try to join a team in a different part of the world every few years. Probably, there is not a single company that covers all the countries you would like to live, so you might still need to change jobs after some point but it should give you a good start.

The challenges you mentioned should be less of a problem in this case. No problem with being tagged as job-hopper and many countries have special visa types making intracompany transfers easier. Moreover, speaking English will probably be enough for communication at work.

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    Even if you are in a company with multiple locations in all countries where you may like to live in the future, is changing teams to another office located in a different country really going to be significantly easier than finding an open position at a different company where you'd like to live? – Brandin Jun 15 '16 at 9:43
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    @Brandin The visa / right to work issues will likely be less for internal transfers (e.g. L-1 visas in the US), or at least, your employer is more likely to be willing to jump through the hoops for you as you're a known quantity. – Philip Kendall Jun 15 '16 at 10:25
  • @PhilipKendall yes, but on the other hand, you're at the company's mercy as to whether they are willing to transfer you. I think on the whole, it is not a good plan to join an international company in the hope that you can move to their office in another company. – user45590 Jun 15 '16 at 16:11
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One thing you didn't consider in your career path is retirement savings. Actual rules vary from country to country, but in general case you should be prepared to lose your supplementary pension rights if you don't stay in one country long enough, even if you had to contribute to retirement insurance there. Example:

Anna worked 4 years for the same employer in country A before moving to country B where she remained definitively.

When she retired, she applied for her supplementary pension from country A, but the insurer refused, arguing that payment was only due to people who stayed in the scheme for over 5 years.

Your plan sounds great as long as you stay young and healthy, but I wouldn't do that "until I'm a sixty-year-old" if I were you. You may end up in a difficult financial and personal situation by that time, unless of course you make enough money to save for your retirement yourself and find a partner who will be ready to share your lifestyle, in which case everything ought to turn out great.

  • If you can save some extra money and invest it in real estate or shares whilst you are young, you easily can offset the loss of future retirement income. – vikingsteve Jun 17 '16 at 11:57
  • @vikingsteve Of course you can. I'm just pointing out that the OP will lose money compared to someone staying in one country for a long time. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 20 '16 at 8:42
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Yes!!

I did this for 8 years and never looked back. A few things however.

You will need work visa for every country you go to (and this can be a pain) but I.T. professionals have special status in many countries and it's easy to get a visa. Maybe you have a grandparent that is from Europe? Having an E.U. passport can make things a lot easier.

Secondly, you might find short-term contracts, 6-12 months, as a "freelance contractor" are more suited to this type of work + travel + see-the-world combination.

Thirdly, become a specialist in a particular product or technology. Specialist roles are more likely to employ foreign consultants.

My story: for 8 years I looked on jobserve.com and moved from country to country. I lived in Sweden, France, Belgium, England, Ireland and Norway.

You are young, no family, nothing to tie you down - do it now, whilst you're young and able!

PS. last suggestion: always try to negotiate a company apartment when you take on contracts. Not having to pay rent means you can save all your money for travelling and whatever else.

  • If you did it for eight years but aren't doing it anymore I don't think it makes sense to say you "never looked back..." – Casey Jun 17 '16 at 1:34
  • Well now I am married and settled, so obviously things are different. It was an awesome experience to live in 7 different countries and to learn 5 different languages, Im just glad I did it when I could. – vikingsteve Jun 17 '16 at 6:51
  • Yeah, I don't object there... I just mean that the expression "never looked back" suggests you never stopped. – Casey Jun 17 '16 at 13:56
  • Not necessarily. When you "never look back" from something - do you have to do it until you die? Or is 8 years long enough ;) – vikingsteve Jun 17 '16 at 14:01
  • Never looked back in this context means no regrets or no worries as the Aussies say. – Namphibian Sep 29 '17 at 1:40
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There are companies like StackExchange, Automattic or basecamp that don't care where their workers live. I would expect that the number of companies that allow people to work from all over the world grows rather then shrinks as time goes on.

  • StackExchange Jobs also advertises 100% remote positions. But, generally, the pay isn't as high as you would get in USA or continenta Europe. The flexibility however seems very positive. – vikingsteve Jun 16 '16 at 20:21
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As someone who lived and worked in five European countries, I would say it is feasible. Since your profession is highly demanded, you just have to find proper companies willing to employ you. After you sign a contract, visas and the rest are not a problem.

The only problem may be with a language, but there are many companies where English is the official language.

3

I have a better idea. Why not simply telecommute? This is what I do. Find a good software job in the USA that you enjoy, is stable, not too demanding and allows you 100% telecommute.

Then keep that same job and live in any country you want in the world. All you need is a fast internet connection.

You will need discipline to save money at first. Plane tickets are expensive, and hotels, and most rentals will want 2 months in advance.

Getting a visa requires research. You can stay in most countries without visa for 3-6 months. If you overstay your visa, you have to pay fines in order to leave (Yes, I've done that) but they are usually not high.

EDIT: Many companies do not like to hire 100% telecommute. However if you take a job on-site and build a solid reputation in the company, it is much more likely to let you try telecommute. And you will be happier, because you already have good relationships with your co-workers.

  • That's a really good idea since you are earning in dollars and perhaps if you live in low cost of living countries (e.g. Thailand? India? Russia?) then your quality of life will be quite good. Having said that - you do miss out on the social interaction that you get from working in a workplace in a new country. – vikingsteve Jun 16 '16 at 20:21
  • This is illegal. Your right to work is in the country that you are physically located in, not where your client or employer is. Here is an example from Thailand johnnyfd.com/2014/09/live-updates-immigration-crackdown-in.html – MDLNI Jun 16 '16 at 20:32
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    @MDLNI Your source actually says the opposite - that Thai authorities aren't interested in telecommuters "good news so far is that they aren't targeting digital nomads... It turns out that the reason for the raid wasn't because we were working online, it was because they thought PunSpace was illegally hiring western staff without work permits." and "If you are a 'digital nomad' running your own business on the internet, the immigration office says you can do this on a tourist visa." – bain Jun 18 '16 at 11:21
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Few flies in the ointment:

  • As a US citizen, you are required to pay US income taxes even on income earned in other countries. Depending on agreement between work country and USA, income tax in work country might, or might not, count against US income taxes. And you may need to hire tax accountant who understand interplay between taxes in both countries. Expat exchange has many questions about this. Some people even renounce their US citizenship to free themselves of US taxes. Just sayin'.

  • If you work less than 10 years in USA, you will get no social security. Nada. So returning to retire in USA might be hard (no Medicare either). Such lifestyle will be fun but retiring after it might be less so, unless you plan right.

  • You may face different complications when receiving retirement income from one coutry while living in different country, again depending on mutual agreement. Will you bet your retirement that agreement now in place will be still there 40 years from now when you need it, and cannot work to fill the gap anymore? And such income might be hard to consolidate, so you will have to keep up with income taxes/requirements of all the countries who send you retirement income. From time you worked there till retirement, to fulfill all requirements to receive such income.

  • If you plan to retire in some "cheap" country - will it be still as cheap 40, 50 years from now?

2

I don't know how much this is really going to add to what is above, but I've worked on 2 other continents now (one job being in Iraq on a US military base, so that only sort of counts), and interviewed for jobs in both Amsterdam and Singapore.

It certainly IS possible to have someone else pay you to travel.

Both Amsterdam and Singapore have business cultures and laws that encourage the hiring of non-citizens.

New Zealand and Australia also seem to be fairly easy places to get a work permit if you're in Software Dev or IT.

They are also beautiful places to visit. If I were going back down under I'd aim for NZ over AU, but only by a thin hair. Both are really cool places.

One thing you might want to try is to get into the Defense Industry--if you've got a clean background and don't use illegal drugs it's fairly easy to get a secret or top secret clearance. There are then a reasonable number of jobs in Europe (Germany, a little in Italy), some in Australia etc. Check Clearancejobs.com

I didn't really care for working in that sector, but I'm a Unix Admin, not an "Engineer", and some people love it. The nice thing about it is you usually get paid US style wages plus cost of living, they USG moves your stuff etc.

Also if you know French and can get a secret clearance you can look at NATO.

Finally, if your parents or immediate grandparents were European Citizens who immigrated you might be able to get citizenship in their original country and hence EU citizenship, which would mean you wouldn't need a work visa. If you don't need the work visa, then f* it, learn to bar tend and go travel. Good bartenders are in demand almost everwhere.

Oh, and someone above mentioned a "working holiday" visa. Those are great, but at least in AU weren't the sort of thing Software Engineers would come in on as the expectation is you're going to be working part time and holidaying part time, getting a part time job to extend your finances as you party, and move around a bit (and there is a big culture of that in AU, you work a waiter job for 2 months in Brisbane, then piss off to Melbourne for a while, then maybe to Alice for the winter and etc.)

A software engineer isn't usually for a month or two (at least) after getting all his tooling set up (from desktop to tool chain access etc.) and that can take anywhere from a couple days to a month in some really bad shops[1]. As such you might be able to get work that way, especially short term or small project work.

[1] I had one place I worked for 6 months and the mangler wouldn't approve me getting added to the production authentication domain. Had to ssh as me to the bastion host and ssh to production servers as root. No, really. Quit laughing, it wasn't...no, it is funny.

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It is not necessary the language barrier but what is expected from each position and what the mentality of a business culture is. This is as stated in other answers more important as you are becoming more managerial. What makes a good manager in Britain is different than in Australia even if both countries are linguistically almost identical. I am one of the most extreme cases I know, I have done historically really well in US based companies, very bad at UK based ones. If some self-promotion is allowed I've posted my experiences here: http://www.mistriotis.com/why_i_will_never

How to mitigate this: As other suggestions, you can easily move if not managerial which translates either in Jr/Sr positions. Another way is to try to be "the" expert on a very specific field, say UX for wearable devices, AI for electric cars (I made these up). Then you will move around because of your skills in that field.

Another option is the one described in the book "Remote". Find employers who will allow you to work remotely. They are becoming more and more in the software industry as Silicon Valley becomes progressively more saturated. A friend is working in one of them and he only needs to be in the US for a yearly event and in a place somewhere else for another one. Maybe you want to find one of these companies, join start relocating after a couple of years.

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Absolutely no problem here. If you really like to be abroad without changing the (official) place you live, try International Software Consulting or even Sales. In these jobs you will be constantly on the road and live mostly in hotels.

If you like to write code, I recommend working as SW Engineer for a company with international facilities, e.g. big manufacturers with facilities in different countries and try to get a position as an Expatriate. Also, there are SW companies who are doing long-term projects for customers all over the world, but I would go for Expatriate if I would like to stay more than a year abroad.

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    I do really like writing code, and I'd hate being a tourist. The point of staying somewhere an extended period would be to really understand the place. Accrue wisdom and perspective. – user49529 Jun 15 '16 at 6:14
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    "even Sales...live mostly in hotels". Maybe I am misreading the tone, but this answer comes across as sarcastic. – user45590 Jun 15 '16 at 6:21
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    If you like to write code, I recommend working as SW Engineer for a company with international facilities, e.g. big manufacturers with facilities in different countries and try to get a position as an Expatriate. Also, there are SW companies who are doing long-term projects for customers all over the world, but I would go for Expatriate if I would like to stay more than a year abroad. – Acroneos Jun 15 '16 at 11:13
1

This is a slightly different answer to your question. I am currently working for a US company that does engineering project work on a global basis. And industrial control systems and materials handling systems (which is the companies bread and butter) all run on software these days. It may not be cutting edge but it can be interesting.

Through this company I have personally worked in Australia, USA, Italy, and Russia for extended periods of time.

Next week I fly to Vancouver, CA for a bit. I should have gone to a job in the Bahamas but the client there bailed. Later in the year I will spend a lot of time in the UAE, while other colleagues are headed to China, Peru and Chile. I have gotten over my jealousy of my colleagues who spent a lot of time in Spain and Brazil.

The beauty of this system is that they pay you to go to these places. The airfares, the accommodation, the food and all the legal and visa costs. (and in fact right now I have about 3 or 4 people currently organizing all the paper work for me for CA, all I have to do is turn up at the airport and get on the plane)

There are still US companies that build big engineering stuff on a global basis. Getting employed by one of them can allow you to travel AND not have to worry as to how you travel or organizing stuff when you get there.

1

Others have mentioned that this is possible but I would like to expand on a few more practical suggestions.

If you are under 30 and a US citizen, you can obtain a work holiday visa for multiple countries (Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, to name a few). This will make it very easy to work abroad for short periods of time.

Another option (since you mentioned Paris) is working for the OECD. The salaries may be slightly lower than what you will get at a tech company, but this means working in Paris without having to obtain a visa.

Also, as others have mentioned, some employers allow transferring between offices. A simple Google search will let you know if an employer that you are considering has such policies. Google and Amazon are two famous companies that allow internal transfers to any office including abroad.