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After studying French for over a decade, I still couldn’t speak it.
I started studying French when I was eight years old. Five years in elementary school, two years in high school, and four years in university. And I still couldn’t call myself fluent.
I knew the language. I could read almost anything, and I could write with perfect spelling and grammar. But I couldn’t express myself verbally in the language, or understand it very well.
Most spoken French went way over my head. I struggled to follow French movies. And you don’t even want to know about the first time I tried ordering coffee in Quebec…
I wanted to speak French, so I thought about joining a French conversation course. Around the same time, my husband, Max, and I were thinking of ways to escape yet another freezing Canadian winter.
“What about a working holiday in Europe?” Max suggested. I’d heard of working holidays, but assumed they’d be too expensive and difficult to organise.
I looked into it, expecting to confirm my suspicions.
I’d been completely wrong.
I soon discovered that a working holiday is the easiest way to live overseas for a year.
So we went for it.
Did I learn to speak French? I’ll let you know in a moment.
First, let’s take a look at the practical side of organising a working holiday.
Where Can You Go on a Working Holiday?
Working holidays are restricted to citizens of countries that have reciprocal “youth exchange agreements” with one another. Because of the “youth” part, you usually have to be between the ages of 18 and 30 to take part in a working holiday.
The following countries have youth exchange agreements with at least one other country:
- Costa Rica
- Czech Republic
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- United Kingdom
- United States
Where you can go for your working holiday depends on your home country. For example, US citizens can only go to Australia or New Zealand.
Note: This list can change at any time, so check with your local consulate before making any plans.
What Jobs Can You do on a Working Holiday?
A working holiday visa gives you the right to work in nearly any fixed-term job in the destination country. Fixed-term means that your employment contract has an end date. This is necessary because your visa has a strict expiry date, and you can’t take a job that requires you to work beyond that.
For this reason, most working holiday travelers look for seasonal jobs – typically in agriculture or the tourist industry. These jobs are usually easy to find in countries that offer a working holiday visa.
Fancy working at a ski resort in the Alps in winter, or at a surf shop on a beach in summer? Many businesses in the tourist industry are very familiar with the hiring process for people who have working holiday visas. A good number of them also look for English-speaking employees who can interact with tourists who don’t speak the local language.
Here are some of the jobs that younger working holiday travelers typically consider:
- English-language tour guide at a tourist attraction
- Hotel customer service agent
- Restaurant server
- English (or other foreign language) teacher
- Unskilled labour in a factory or in agriculture
If you’ve already graduated from college or university and have specialised knowledge, it’s certainly possible to find a job in your field of expertise, especially if you know a bit of the language.
I got a job in web development and tech support in France. It was an entry-level position that wasn’t as challenging or as well-paying as my previous work back in Canada. But my goal was bigger than resume building. I wanted to work in a French-speaking job with colleagues who would later become my friends. I also wanted to travel a bit, and pay my way while I lived abroad.
The point is to be open-minded when you’re looking for a job. Try not to focus on the “perfect” place to work, or you might never find it. Get out there and apply anywhere and everywhere that you’d be willing to work.
If you don’t hear back from employers right away, don’t give up. You’ll find something eventually. Don’t be afraid to pound the pavement.
Working full-time, even in a job that requires you to use English sometimes, is a really effective way to improve your language skills. If you’re the shy type who tends to avoid making plans to go out and meet speakers of your target language, then you’ll need a new way to get out of your comfort zone and meet native speakers. A job is one of the best ways to do this. You’ll be pushed outside your comfort zone for eight hours a day.
Where to Stay on Your Working Holiday
Be sure to plan ahead for a temporary place you can stay while looking for a house or apartment to live in for the remainder of your working holiday. You don’t want to spend all your savings early on by staying in a hotel for weeks.
I found a short-term apartment rental on an AirBnb-type website. I had to book it far in advance. I needed to book it all in French. I had to wire money overseas to secure the reservation. It took a lot of planning.
There are easier ways to find a place to stay. For example, virtually every major city in the world has youth hostels that you can book online, in English, on relatively short notice. I’ll be honest: hostels aren’t my thing. I wish they were. It would have been one less thing to think about while planning my trip.
A hostel will probably be the most affordable place to stay while you look for long-term accommodation. But if they aren’t your thing either, then try some of these vacation rental websites for reasonably priced short-term rentals:
Wherever you plan to stay at the beginning, make sure it’s affordable enough to spend at least a month there. That’s roughly how long it will take to find a permanent place to spend the remainder of your working holiday. It took two months in my case, but again, I’m picky!
Looking for long-term accommodation can be tricky. Every country has its own websites for apartment rentals, and its own laws regarding leases and tenant rights.
One of the most useful websites I’ve found for getting advice on how to start house-hunting is Expat Forum. It has sub-forums for 22 of the top anglophone expat destinations in the world. I can only speak for the France sub-forum, but all of the members were incredibly helpful with all of my questions, including those not related to house-hunting.
Alternatively, learn how to say “apartment rental” or “house rental” in your destination country’s language, and do an internet search for websites. Most of them let you search based on your preferred criteria, such as furnished or unfurnished, sole occupant or a shared apartment with roommates, and price range.
How Much does a Working Holiday Cost?
The money side of things is what makes a working holiday so unique. You can travel for months (or even a full year) without first saving up tens of thousands of dollars. It’s earn as you go.
That said, you do need some seed money before you get on an airplane.
To get a working holiday visa, you need to prove, among other things (e.g. health insurance — check with your consulate for a complete list), that you have enough money to survive in the country until you find a job.
The amount of money required differs depending on the destination country. For France, it was $2,500 (Canadian) when I did my working holiday. The amount has since risen to $3,000. This does not include the cost of your flight or one year’s worth of travel insurance. Rather, it’s spending money for when you get to your destination country, to hold you over until you find a job.
This spending money requirement is a bare minimum. I recommend you have at least double that amount, especially if you plan to settle in a big city, which can be expensive. Remember, it needs to cover all of the following expenses until you find a paying job:
- extras (cell phone plan, internet, blankets and other miscellaneous items for your accommodation, etc)
You’ll also need to think about how to manage your money. It’s tough to get a job without a bank account.
It’s often possible to use your current bank account from your home country – though this could end up costing a lot in international money transfer fees. That’s why I recommend getting a local bank account. Having a local bank account will also make it a lot easier to cash your work paycheques.
My employer in France paid its employees exclusively through direct deposit into their bank accounts, and all of my apartment utilities were paid through direct withdrawal. So not having a French bank account wasn’t an option. To open an account, I needed to show proof of my home address in France. I used my short-term apartment lease as my proof of address. Not all banks will accept this, but for working holiday travellers, it’s probably the only official document that they have that proves where they live. If the first bank turns you away, try another. Some are much more reasonable than others.
How Do You Apply for a Visa?
As I said earlier, a working holiday visa is one of the easiest ways to live in another country. The application package for a working holiday should be available on your local consulate’s website. It contains a comprehensive checklist of all of the documents required to apply. These usually include:
- The application form
- Proof of sufficient funds to last in your destination country until you find a job
- Your airline ticket (some countries will waive this requirement, especially since tickets are mostly non-refundable these days. You shouldn’t be stuck with an expensive ticket if you get turned down for a visa!)
- Proof of travel health insurance for one year
- Official passport photos to be used on your visa (Careful! The photo requirements may be different from passport photo requirements in your home country. I had to get my photo done twice before it matched the dimensions required by the French consulate)
- A cover letter explaining why you want to do a working holiday
Go to your local consulate’s website to download a complete list of all requirements for a working holiday visa for your destination country.
The application fee for a working holiday visa is often free, or at least very cheap compared to regular visa application fees.
Do You Need to Speak the Local Language?
Even if you’re an absolute beginner in a language, you can still do a working holiday in another country. Your options will be more limited than someone who already has some language skills, but there will still be opportunities. You could work at a tourist attraction, an English school, or at a job where there are no customers (such as in a factory).
Once, on a trip to Paris during my working holiday, I ate at an American fast food chain. One of the employees there was an anglophone who spoke no French when he got the job. They hired him because so many customers were American and they needed a fluent English speaker.
Even so, his workplace wasn’t exclusively English-speaking. Many customers were French, plus all of his coworkers. When I ate there, he had been working there for two months, and his French was pretty darn good. So it’s possible to find work in an immersion environment even if you don’t speak the language.
That said, I recommend that you learn at least a little bit of your target language before you travel. There’s plenty of time to do this as for most destinations you need to apply for your working holiday visa at least three months before your departure date. You can learn a lot in just a few months. You’ll be motivated too, since you’ve got the hard deadline of your departure date.
Did I Succeed in Learning French on my Working Holiday?
On my working holiday in France, I created some amazing memories. it was also the best decision I’ve ever made for my French language learning. The only downside was that we couldn’t stay forever.
Working in France was the single greatest contributor to my fluency in spoken French. It really forced me to use the language on a consistent basis. I’m terribly guilty of cancelling my RSVPs to language-learning events. It’s not that I’m shy or I dislike people. I just find that it takes a lot of energy to interact with new people in a foreign language. And when I get home after a long day, getting dressed up and going out to meet strangers is often the last thing I want to do.
My job removed the opportunity for me to avoid meeting French speakers. I couldn’t very well cancel a day of work, could I? So every day, I would interact with French speakers all day. I got used to it, and soon, going out in the evening to meet a bunch of French people at a Couchsurfing event suddenly didn’t seem like such a daunting activity.
It also wasn’t long before my coworkers became my friends. Whenever I didn’t feel like hanging out with strangers, I could go out with my coworkers for a more comfortable evening of French-speaking.
How to Learn a Language While You’re Working Abroad
A working holiday will give you some of the best tools possible to help you learn another language.
Here are some of the ways that a working holiday will give you all the advantages you need to learn your target language.
You Get a Full 12 Months to Immerse Yourself in the Language
It’s not exactly easy to interact with a foreign culture, and see a foreign country as a local, if you can’t speak the language!
No matter what level you start at, a year will give you ample time to learn your target language to fluency — and still have plenty of time leftover to use it while living in the country.
If you live in a neighbourhood populated by locals, work at a job where you need to use your target language, and you put a bit of effort into it, you won’t be able to stop yourself from learning your target language.
Make friends with locals, participate in conversations with your coworkers, and get to know the servers in the local bar or cafe. Make a new world for yourself in your new country.
It won’t be effortless. This is especially true if you’re shy or introverted. If you have inhibitions when it comes to making friends in your home country, don’t expect them to melt away when you go abroad. Your attitude will be a huge contributor to your success (or failure) in this respect.
What I love about working holidays is how they set you up for success. They give you the tools to live, work, and eventually, speak like a local. Take advantage of these tools, and have the experience of a lifetime.
You See the Country From an Insider, Local Point of View
My mode of travel is different from that of the average tourist. Rather than short, purely sightseeing vacations, I prefer to make a new country my home for several months or longer. Before my working holiday, I managed to accomplish this through an international exchange program to Thailand in university, and a student internship in Hawaii for my degree program.
If you’re a university student, I highly recommend you take advantage of travel opportunities available through your university. But if you’re not, then a working holiday is the perfect alternative.
When you put down roots in a foreign country, you get more opportunities to improve your language skills than tourists do. Sure, tourists can create opportunities to practise their target language, but it’s just not as easy. Tourists already have a lot to worry about between relaxing, seeing all the sights, catching the next train or bus, and connecting with the friend or loved one who is vacationing with them – all in a couple of weeks.
A working holiday gets you as close to living like a local as is possible without actually emigrating there. You’ll live in an apartment or house instead of a hotel. You’ll say hi to your neighbours every day, and see your colleagues at work. You’ll become a regular at cafes and restaurants in the area. Unlike a tourist, your photo album will fill up with photos not of landmarks, but of all the people in your new life.
You’ll also learn to navigate the bureaucracy of your new country, from getting a bank account to figuring out how to pay your taxes there. (France has a reputation for its endless bureaucracy, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. And I learned lots of new vocabulary about finances to boot!)
When you settle into a routine like this, you’ll get endless opportunities to practise the language. You’ll actually get to know the people who make regular appearances in your life. You can get beyond basic pleasantries. You can use the language constantly throughout the day, even outside working hours.
Your whole life will be infused with your new language.
What are you waiting for? How about you start planning your working holiday today?
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