Doing an Internship Abroad: All you need to know
Author: Last update: 14 February 2022
Internships are a great way to gain relevant work experience during your studies. Even more so if you do an internship abroad. But finding internships in other countries is not easy - so read our guide to get answers to the most important questions.
This guide is written by Gerrit Bruno Blöss, Founder and CEO of Study.eu. In semester breaks during his own studies, he did nine internships, three of which led him abroad: from Germany to Italy, Austria, Finland and India.
Internship, placement, traineeship: What are the differences? 🤔
The words “internship”, “placement” and “traineeship” are often confused. Let’s clear things up:
- An internship is a temporary form of employment where students work at companies as interns. Internships usually last anywhere from 1 to 12 months, but most commonly between 3 and 6 months.
- A placement (or work placement) is essentially the same thing as an internship, only that this term often implies that it is mandatory as part of a study programme.
- A traineeship also commonly means the same thing as an internship, but is not to be confused with a “trainee programme”, which usually refers to entry-level full-time positions at large companies in which graduate trainees rotate through multiple corporate departments.
Why should you do an internship abroad? Reasons & benefits 👍
Getting the chance to work abroad for a few months is a fantastic opportunity you should not pass up. Here are the top reasons to do an internship abroad:
- Work experience: Employers today often require you to have initial experience when you apply for graduate positions. An internship during your studies allows you to get first-hand experience of a real workplace. Obviously, you don’t have to go abroad for that. But one thing is certain: It will look good on your CV or résumé!
- Intercultural skills: This is such a worn-out cliché, but it’s true: In our globalised, connected world, we regularly interact with people from all kinds of backgrounds. Living and working in an unfamiliar, foreign setting will help you gain new perspectives and let you develop your soft skills. This is one of the key benefits of doing an internship in another country. And you might get to improve your skills in a foreign language, which is another big plus.
- Global networking: Every job is a chance to grow your network, and guess what - interning abroad means that your network will become international!
- Personal growth: Any job comes with its own kinds of challenges and presents a growth opportunity for yourself. When you intern abroad, this is even more true, because you will be confronted with new and different obstacles that you would not experience “at home”. Overcoming those will make you more confident and independent.
- Seeing the world: An internship in another country isn’t a paid holiday, but probably as close to that as you can get! Use your time off to explore a country or region. And the fact that you have local colleagues means you will get insights you would not get as a mere tourist.
Are you going to earn a lot of money? Probably not. Even if you get paid a proper intern salary, you are facing travel and accommodation costs that will eat into your budget. Scholarships and funding schemes (such as Erasmus+ if you qualify) can help. But even if money is tight: The benefits more than make up for that!
Study programmes with integrated internships or placements 💼
Gaining work experience before graduation is a great way to improve your chances of getting a good job. Universities have realised this, and that is why you can now sometimes find study programmes that already include mandatory placements with companies.
Very often that is the case with MBA programmes, where business schools partner with companies to embed relevant industry experience in the degree. But study programmes with placements are also available in other disciplines. Specifically in the UK, you can find “sandwich” Bachelor’s degrees that last four years, including a one-year work placement in the middle. Check the programme descriptions in detail: This can be an especially attractive option if the university vets participating employers and ensures a certain quality level of the placements.
Find study programmes with integrated placements
How much should you earn as an intern in another country? 🪙
In an ideal scenario, money should not be the deciding factor: An internship is about gaining practical experience “in the real world”. That’s even more true when you go to another country for it.
But of course, an employer does not hire you simply out of good will. Your work will bring some value to them, and it’s only fair that - beyond what you learn - you also get compensated financially.
It’s impossible to generalise how much you should earn, but here are some pointers:
- Generally, interns earn substantially less than entry-level graduate employees in a similar role. A good rule of thumb in many countries and industries is a gross salary of around 20 to 40% of what an entry-level employee would earn.
- Many countries also have a minimum wage (see OECD) that may apply. But note that there are often exceptions regarding temporary employees like interns, or if an internship is mandatory as per your degree curriculum.
- It helps to search online for some data. Especially if you plan to do a traineeship at a large company, you might easily find out online what other interns have earned before you. Try searching in the local language if possible!
Should you accept an unpaid internship? 🤲
Most people would advise you not to do an unpaid placement unless you are volunteering for a charitable organisation.
I strongly recommend that you look for an internship that is properly compensated. A for-profit company that doesn’t want to pay you is clearly trying to take advantage of you. Even if it’s “common” in your subject area or industry that interns are not paid, that does not mean it’s fair. 🙅
However, there may be a few situations in which you might decide to accept an internship without salary:
- If you have little or no relevant work experience and are close to graduation, even an unpaid internship may be a good opportunity to improve your chances at getting a good job later on. After all, you will probably be competing with graduates that already have some work experience. But hopefully you will land a job with a less stingy employer.
- Also, if you lack work experience, even an unpaid internship will help you figure out what you want to do with your career. That could save you from bad decisions down the road. (And allow me to add the perspective of a potential employer: If you have no relevant work experience at all, they would run the risk of hiring you - only for you to find out that you hate that kind of job, and to leave them after a few months. No employer wants that because hiring and on-boarding is time-consuming and expensive.)
- There may be other benefits to an internship that can justify a lack of payment. For instance, you may be able to collect university credit points.
Should you pay to be able to do an internship abroad? 💸
This question is going to sound odd to a lot of readers, so let’s clarify this first: In some countries (and most notably the United States), it is somewhat common to secure internships through providers that connect interns with companies, guide them through the visa process and help them find accommodation, among other things.
If you are considering paying for doing an internship, ask yourself why, and if this is really the right choice for you. College credits may be one reason to go for it. But such service providers take a lot of the challenge out of the equation - and the challenge is half the fun!
Have you considered, instead, doing a student exchange to another country and then an internship in your home country? You would still get work experience, and the experience of living abroad, but might be much better off financially in the end.
Where can you find internships abroad? 🔎
Finding an internship abroad is not easy, but often easier than you think. If you already have a general idea of which companies you might want to work for, you could check what internship positions they are offering overseas. For this, make sure to have a look at the other countries’ recruitment sites. But keep in mind: Large, global companies often attract large numbers of applicants, which means getting a job with them is also more competitive, often with a more difficult and time-consuming application process.
Therefore it also pays off to look a little further and seek opportunities with smaller or lesser-known companies. You could try sites like Glassdoor, Linkedin or Monster and specifically search for internships in one country or city. And here’s a hint: If it’s in a non-English speaking country, but the listing is in English, chances are good you won’t need to speak the local language to apply. 🗣️
One organisation you could check out is IAESTE, a non-profit organisation that helps connect students with employers. Choose the site for the country from which you will apply; sometimes there is a small application fee.
To find internships to apply for in the Erasmus+ scheme, have a look at ErasmusIntern.org. Study.eu has been using ErasmusIntern.org very successfully as an employer, and we can really recommend it to interns. (Just stay away from dubious internship agencies that post dozens of positions every day, and focus on the actual employers there.)
Can an internship abroad replace studying abroad? 🏛️
Depending on your goals, working in another country may be a good alternative to studying abroad - and vice versa. Here are some thoughts on it:
- If you have already finished your studies, or are about to, and lack international experience, then an internship is a good way to make up for that gap.
- An internship is not going to replace a full degree from a good university. And a Master’s degree may be a better long-term investment in your career than an internship. So if you have to decide between those two options, I would suggest choosing university.
- It may be a different story if the choice is between an internship abroad and an exchange semester abroad (rather than a full degree). If you plan on staying in academia - doing your PhD, becoming a researcher and eventually a professor 🧑🏫 - choose the exchange semester; if you plan on a career in the corporate and business world, go for more work experience. 🏙️
Are there any downsides to doing an internship abroad? 😱
When you examine all the pros and cons of doing an internship abroad, you might spot a few potential downsides. But they aren’t disadvantages as much as they are challenges that you can master, or hurdles you can avoid, with the right preparation:
- No prior work experience: If you embark on an internship in another country with little or no prior work experience, you are setting yourself up for a potentially bad experience. Your existing level of skill and experience dictates to a large extent what kinds of tasks you can be given. I recommend you first try to see the inside of a local company, then follow it up with an overseas traineeship later on.
- Little knowledge of the working language: Make absolutely sure that you speak the language that will be spoken at your employer. This should of course be something that comes up in the interview process, already.
- Culture shock: When you stay in another country for a longer period, you may experience culture shock - and especially so if you have not yet travelled much. You might feel disconnected and overwhelmed by living in a culture that’s much different from your own. “Shock” is often the wrong term, by the way: It may sneak up on you and come and go in phases. But there are ways to handle it. For one thing, you can always connect with your fellow countrymen wherever you are through meetups, social media groups or local organisations.
- Homesickness: This is something that can hit you even in just another town in your home country. Everyone handles it differently; prepare for it mentally and make time for calls and video chats with friends and family. If your contract lasts longer and the distance is not too far, plan for trips back home.
Don’t let any of these things deter you! As long as you are aware of them and plan ahead, you will be fine.
How to get a visa for an internship abroad? 🛂
To go abroad for an internship, just as with any other job, you may need a visa or residence permit. This can get complicated and very much depends on your individual circumstances, but let’s look at a few key points:
- If you are an EU citizen planning to work in another EU country, you may need to register there, but that’s usually a simple formality.
- If you get sponsored through a scheme like Erasmus+, your visa requirements are usually taken care of, or greatly simplified.
- Similarly, going through organisations like IAESTE, they will be able to sort out visa requirements for you.
Otherwise it depends on the country you’re from, and the country you want to work in. If you have to sort out the visa yourself or with the employer directly, things can be complicated and time-consuming.
Therefore, Make sure to not waste your time applying to companies in many different countries, because visa regulations might be different. Instead, do research early on and concentrate your efforts on just one or two destinations. And - once you’ve made it past the initial interview - ask your future employer what you need to do and how they might help you.
Should you consider doing a remote internship? 💻
In a remote internship, sometimes also online internship or virtual internship, you work for a company remotely, for example from home. This kind of setup has become more common in recent years, and the number of such opportunities has grown. Thus, it may be an option worth considering when travel restrictions or visa issues prohibit you from actually going abroad, and if the tasks you would do are suitable for digital and remote work.
⚠️ There are caveats to consider when doing an internship remotely:
- A remote internship is only a good idea if you have some previous work experience, and ideally in the same or a related field.
- By their nature, remote internships focus mostly on easily separable tasks. This comes with two downsides: First, people often find it difficult to explain more complicated things via digital channels. To avoid any such problems, your superiors might end up giving you mostly simple tasks, limiting what you can learn. Second, a lot of what you learn during a “classical” internship happens aside from the tasks themselves: when your supervisors show and explain related (or unrelated) things, or share their experiences in other contexts. All of that is limited if you work remotely.
- If you do the virtual internship with a company that’s located abroad, you will have the chance to grow your intercultural communication skills - but it will in no way be comparable to actually living and working in another country.
- And that’s why, when you have done a remote internship, don’t lie on your CV! You would leave an extremely negative impression if your resume implied you’ve worked in a foreign country when, in fact, it was remotely, and the employer only learns that during the job interview.
So ultimately, there are benefits to doing a remote internship - but they are limited in comparison to a typical on-site placement.
Top tips for a successful internship application:
When you apply for internships abroad, there are a number of things you can do to increase your success and get hired. Having screened countless applications myself, let me share the top things I’m advising you to do:
- Choose with care where to apply: Limit yourself to just one or two countries, and make sure to apply only to companies and openings where there is a good fit. You will be much more successful by sending just 10 very strong applications than by sending 100 which you didn’t make an effort on.
- Consider application deadlines: Some companies hire year-round, but especially larger companies often have summer internship programmes for which you need to apply by a fixed deadline (often already in the winter). Otherwise, companies tend to hire for positions around 2 to 6 months prior to the start date.
- Write an individual cover letter: Tell the employer why you and they are a good fit. If you know who will read the application, address your message to them directly, rather than starting it with “Dear Hiring Manager...”. Trust me on this: If we see that an application is mindlessly copied & pasted, we reject it, and so do other companies.
- Include a relevant CV: Countless books have been written on this. But if I had to pick the #1 thing that many applicants get wrong and that you should get right, it’s this: If you already have some work experience, include meaningful bulleted lists about your responsibilities and tasks - and highlight those that are relevant to the internship you’re applying to.
- Plan ahead for your finances: You should get an idea of the cost of living, and match that with your potential internship salary. Getting a room in a far-away city is one of those things that can be expensive, so factor that in as well.
And, most importantly:
19198 Programmes in Europe
- Don’t be shy - go for it: Working abroad is all about gaining new experiences. Leave your comfort zone and you will be surprised how far you can go! 🙌