Can I Work While Travelling in Southeast Asia?

Is funding a trip this way just a pipe dream or a realistic prospect?
Can I Work While Travelling in Southeast Asia?

The idea of helping to fund a trip to South East Asia by doing some work locally as you go along maybe an attractive one, but it's a challenging prospect in reality. The first problem is that tourist visas and visa-free entry for any country in South East Asia always forbid any form of work or business (including volunteer and unpaid work), and you'll need to apply for a proper visa in advance.

That's trickier than it sounds, as getting a work visa usually means needed a confirmed job offer or company sponsorship letter first. If you start working without a valid work visa (effectively becoming an illegal immigrant), you risk detention, deportation and a fine if you get caught. The next problem is that casual and unskilled work is mostly legally limited to the locals, and the low wages and long hours also make it an unattractive prospect even if it were possible.

A shop assistant in Thailand will work 10 or 12 hour days for a salary of $250 a month for instance, and poorer neighbouring countries pay less than that.  Legal, high paid expat work generally requires a business to sponsor your application and to be for a position that requires a degree, experience and skill in a field where there aren't sufficient locals to do the job. As a general rule, it's not possible to legally work in positions when there are enough locals that could do the job as well as a foreigner.

Teaching English

That's not to say there aren't foreigners working in SE Asia though - there are, and lots of them in one type of job in particular. Native speaker English teachers are in great demand throughout the region, and a qualified English teacher can work just about anywhere. Wages vary depending on location, qualifications and experience but are generally pretty reasonable for the country they're located in. It's possible to get a teaching job without any qualifications or experience whatsoever, though anyone serious about this option completes a "English as a second language" teaching course such as TEFL, CELTA or TESOL beforehand too.

Having a degree and plenty of relevant experience is needed to get the best jobs, which can even pay up to US $3000 a month (a small fortune locally). Schools require teachers to sign months or year-long contracts (part of the salary is often paid on contract completion to enforce this), so this isn't really a good option for someone looking for short-term only work. Fluent but non-native speakers of English can also get work teaching English, but may find getting a job more of a challenge. Unfortunately, prejudice is alive and well in this part of the world and white-skinned foreigners will find getting a job much easier than those of black or brown skin, regardless of nationality or teaching ability. A teaching degree and plenty of relevant experience is needed to get the best jobs

If you can't or don't want a job in a formal teaching center, you can try going it alone and finding your own students. Put a bit of effort into advertising your services and you’re unlikely to find it too difficult to get a few clients, especially from among the university student community and from locally-based companies with an international focus.

Bear in mind though that it can take a bit of time for word of mouth about your teaching to spread, so you’re unlikely to immediately have a solid client base. If you haven’t got any teaching experience, you’ll also need to brush up on your English grammar and put a decent amount of time into preparing lessons.

Without an official center from which to give your classes, you will probably have to spend a lot of time travelling around the city to meet your students. And don’t be surprised if an alarming proportion of them cancel at the last minute, or simply don’t turn up. All these difficulties mean that, in the early days at least, you are likely to waste quite a lot of time, which will limit your earning potential.

Earn Money Online

Working online or freelance is another common option if your line of work is suitable for it. This falls in a bit of a legal grey area as to whether you're legally "working" there or not, but if you can stay under the radar (no local meetings, clients, payments or bank accounts) you'll be in a better position legally and very unlikely to have any problems. If you can arrange to live locally but get Western style wages, it's the best of both worlds.

If you've not yet got a freelance gig, you could instead try making some cash by setting up a travel blog – perhaps a bit like this one – on which you can write about your travels and try to make money from adverts, affiliate programs etc. This sounds like an ideal solution, in theory, and quite a few people have made it work for them in reality too.

The reality is that the overwhelmingly majority of travel blogs are not and never become profitable

The down side to this plan is that it takes a long time (months or even years) for site traffic to reach a level where you can start to generate a reasonable amount of income. If you do not have much pre-existing knowledge of search engine optimization and digital marketing techniques, or are unable to commit much time to the project, it is likely to take longer.

The reality is that the overwhelmingly majority of such travel blogs are not and never become profitable. After a couple of months of writing without making an income, most get frustrated and give up on the project before the money starts coming through. If you keep going, however, it is entirely possible to make at least some money from your site. This can potentially be enough to help keep you on the road a bit longer.

Other ways of earning money online offer more immediate returns. One such alternative is to investigate some of the online trading and investment platforms. Most of these require some prior expertise and involve a degree of risk. Some, such as eToro, have developed models which are reportedly less risky and more accessible to a layman.

Other ways of earning money online offer more immediate returns

An additional possibility available to UK residents is an activity known as ‘matched betting’. This is a technique by which you play two bookmakers off against each other in order to convert promotional free bets into hard cash. Providing you work the system correctly, there is no risk of losing money as you will win at one of the bookmakers, whatever the outcome of a particular sporting event.

SEE ALSO: How UK Backpackers Can Fund Their Travels with Matched Betting

Admittedly, matched betting can be a little tricky to get your head round at first and you should definitely make sure you fully understand the technique before betting. Some companies offer detailed information and support to those wishing to engage in this activity, as well as providing details of all the latest bookmaker promotions. While it’s not the most exciting of pastimes, it can potentially earn you upwards of £1,000 a month, which should be more than enough to fund a few more adventures.

Short-Term Work

Getting other tourist-friendly short-term work, such as a being a diving instructor, musician, model, actor or personal trainer, is sometimes possible with the right connections but generally difficult legally. If you don't mind working without the proper work permit, it's easier - and some people do this for years at a time - but you'll have no recourse if anything goes wrong and you never know when the next crackdown will come.

Or, as a Last Resort...

Go home, save and come back again.

This option is probably the absolute last one you’d like to consider; after all, the whole point of extending your travels is to prolong the return to reality for as long as possible. But don’t be too quick to rule it out altogether as, in some cases, it may be the quickest and most effective way to earn the money you need to finance your travels.

As you will no doubt be aware, salaries in your home country will almost certainly be far in excess of what you can hope to gain in Asia. Provided that you can stay with friends or relatives rent-free in your home country, you should be able to save quite a bit in a short space of time. A couple of months’ hard work there could be enough to pay for the return plane ticket, plus several months of budget travel.

Not the most immediately attractive option perhaps, but it could well be the most lucrative.


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