Visas and Immigration

When looking for a good software engineering job, you may often consider positions in the companies abroad. Of course, in this case, the question of visas and immigration pops up. How easy is it to move to that country? Which country may be the best for me? How various countries are different?

In this section, we will consider immigration and lifestyle differences in various countries to help you make an educated decision.

Disclaimer: a lot of information in this article is coming from other people's advice rather than from my personal experience, and a lot of information is missing. Help me make it better: found a mistake? think something else should be included? want to share how it is to live in your country? Write me on adilet.zxy@gmail.com. Thank you!

Immigration context

There are many ways and reasons to move to another country. You may move there for a job, for study, for tourism or business purposes, or just move there somehow to look for what to do next.

In this article, we will mainly consider the case of when you move to another country to start a job at a company you already have an offer with. This is important for several reasons:

  • If the company is inviting you to start a job with them, it most likely will also help you to get all the required visas and paperwork. In most cases, having the company do the visa for you is much easier than getting it yourself.
  • Depending on your citizenship, you may or may not need a visa to visit some other country. If you are moving somewhere for a job though, you will most likely need some kind of visa or permit to work and live there.
  • Getting a work visa is often quite different than getting any other visa type.

Another important factor here is that to get a work visa in a lot of countries, you should have at least a Bachelor's university degree.

That said, we will sometimes also cover other immigration scenarios and visa types in the text below.

What to look for

Here are some good questions you should try to answer when considering some country to move to:

  • How easy is it to get a job visa there? What are the possible caveats and difficulties?
  • What is the job scene in that country or city? Are there a lot of big software engineering companies there? Are there a lot of other jobs?
  • What is the average software engineer salary out there? What are the taxes? What is the cost of living?
  • What is the language situation? Is English enough? Should you learn some other language if you want to live there long term?
  • What are the living standards in that country? Is there standardized healthcare, maternity leave, pension? What is the typical vacation policy? Is the country safe? Is it good for families and kids? What is the weather?
  • What other immigrants are saying? How do they like the country? Is it a great place to stay long term?
  • Can you move there with your partner or spouse on your work visa? If you can, can your spouse work or study while being on your work visa?

Countries

Below, we will cover several countries and regions, and will provide some relevant information on visas and living there.

United States

The United States is probably one of the most popular destinations for software engineers. This can be explained by a lot of great software companies originating from the US, relatively high salaries, and the general popularity of the country.

When talking about moving to the US, most software engineers are probably talking about New York, California, or a couple of other cities like Seattle or Portland. These places are where most great engineering jobs and company offices are, and they can also be quite different from the rest of the country.

Living in the US

Here are some points about what it is like moving to and living in the US. These can be pros or cons depending on how you view them and what you are looking for.

  • English is everything you need in terms of the language. American English is also one of the easiest to understand, with little to no accent.
  • Because there are a lot of immigrants from all over the world in places like New York or California, it is very easy to blend in there. You won't really feel like you are not "local" in these places.
  • American salaries for software engineers are generally one of the highest in the world. The salary for a software engineer starts from about 100000$ a year – you can get more info on this on levels.fyi.
  • Probably with the only exception of New York, public transport is very bad or almost non-existent in much of America. You will most likely need a car to move around.
  • There is no standardized healthcare system in the US, but if you work in a good company, you will have insurance that will cover most of your needs.
  • Workplaces in the US are not obliged by law to provide workers with any amount of vacation days, and vacations in the US tend to be quite short. Typical vacations even in the big famous companies can be something like 15 days a year.

US visas

It's notoriously hard to get a US work visa. When you apply to the big companies that have offices in both US and other places around the world, you can almost always expect to be considered for a non-American office – it's simply much easier to get a visa there. And if you apply to the company that only operates in the US, you may often be rejected simply because the company doesn't want to deal with a visa for you.

Work visa. US work visa is called H1B. To get it for you, the company should apply for it before April, you usually receive the result (whether you got it or not) sometime in the late summer-early fall, and if you did get it, you can start working in October of the same year. An additional problem here is that the chance to get the visa is not even that high. No matter what company applies for you or what your background is, to get an H1B visa you enter the random lottery, and, depending on the year, your chances to "win" the visa are around 25-45%.

Because of the very long processing time (it takes at least six months to get an H1B visa), and rather small chances of success, many companies simply refuse to apply for it for the candidates, effectively making it very hard to get a US work visa.

Green Card. If you got lucky and got H1B, it's good for up to six years. After that, people usually receive a green card – a resident card that allows you to stay in the US permanently. Usually, your company applies for the green card for you.

The processing time of the green card varies a lot depending on your citizenship. It takes about two-three years to get a green card for most nations, but for the countries with a lot of applicants, like China or India, it can even take something like ten years to get the green card. An important thing to note here is that if your green card process has started, you can renew your H1B indefinitely until it's finished.

After about five years of having a green card, you can apply for US citizenship (but you can also never do it and stay on the green card forever).

Also, interesting to note that there is a yearly green card diversity lottery. Anybody in the world can apply, and you can win a green card with something like a 0.1-2% chance without any requirements.

Other US visas. There are many other US visa types. Here is a short overview of some relevant ones:
  • J1 visa allows you to work or do research in the US for up to 1.5 years. You can get J1 visas several times, but from different company or institution each time.
  • L1 visa, or so-called transfer visa. If you work in a company that has an office in the US, you can transfer to the American office of the company on the L1 visa. It's rather straightforward to get an L1 visa, and there is no lottery.
  • F1 visa is a student visa to study in the US. If you finished a US university, you can also work in the US for up to 1-3 years on the so-called OPT status without a work visa. Usually, recent graduates try to get an H1B visa during these 1-3 years to continue working in the US.

Read more

US visa system is very complicated, and the overview above is very simplistic and may omit a lot of details and difficulties. For further reading, you can read the Engineer’s Guide to US Visas or official information on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

Canada

In a way, Canada is pretty similar to the US in many aspects. At the same time, it's closer to Europe in other things like healthcare and social policies.

There are fewer IT corporations originating from Canada, but recently more and more big software engineering companies started to open the offices in the country. One of the reasons is that it's simpler to get a Canadian work visa than a US one. Because of this, many companies offer the candidates to work in the Canadian office, at least for some period of time.

Canadian visa

If you have a job offer from the company in Canada and a university degree, it's rather straightforward to get a Canadian work visa. The process still can take several months, but there is no lottery like in the US.

You can read more about Canadian visas and the process on the official Canadian immigration website.

Europe

Europe is also one of the most popular places to move to, as it's relatively wealthy and there are a lot of great engineering companies there.

When talking about "Europe", we will mostly talk about wealthy western European countries, most of them in the European Union, as these are the most popular places to move to. Many famous software engineering companies like Google, Facebook, and others have offices there.

Living in Europe

  • Engineering salaries in Europe are often 20-50% lower than salaries in the US (maybe with Switzerland as an exception). Still, it's possible to find a place with good pay.
  • Depending on the country, English may be enough for engineering work (a lot of engineering offices in Europe have English as the work language), but to truly settle down in the country you may need to learn another language like German, French, or some other one.
  • Again, depending on the country, the population there may be more homogeneous with fewer immigrants, so you may feel a bit alien at first. But at the same time, cities in Europe are becoming more and more open and diverse each year.
  • Taxes in Europe are quite high in general, with 40%+ being a real possibility. You should look up what is the exact rate country by country.
  • A lot of people think that the quality of life in Europe is often higher than in the US or elsewhere. You can expect free healthcare, good public transportation, social welfare programs, free education, and more with some variations between the countries.
  • People in Europe have a lot of vacation days by law. It's quite common to have 28-35 vacation days a year. In addition to that, Europe is an excellent place for travel and tourism, with cheap airfares and many small countries in the vicinity of each other.
  • Work-life balance is often great in Europe. In the US, people associate themselves with their work more and work longer hours. In Europe, people treat work as one of the many parts of their life – it's common for people to work strictly from 9 to 5, but rarely work overtime after that.

European visas

Work visas in Europe vary from country to country, but in general, they are straightforward to get if you have a job offer, university degree, and the company is doing the paperwork for you. You can usually get a work visa in 2-3 months.

You can read more about work visas and country specifics on each country's immigration website. For example, Germany, United Kingdom, and so on.

Read more

The information above covers only a small fraction of information about moving to other countries. To be better informed, it's a good idea to read more on the official immigration website of the country you are interested in, browse the forums where other expats discuss the country and immigration, or simply ask friends who may know better.

You can also check the following websites to get a lot of helpful information about almost any country:

Action Items
1. Research the countries you are interested in.
Even if you are not looking to relocate right now, it can be interesting and useful to research how it is to live in some countries you are interested in. Wikitravel has nice articles on most countries in the world, and you can learn a lot about culture, visa requirements, and living experience in different places.