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How to find the right visa to move to Europe, from people who did it

Without the sponsorship of a big company, navigating Europe’s immigration rules can be a challenge

(Allie Sullberg for The Washington Post)
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How would the American icons of the Lost Generation move to Europe if they were alive today? What kind of visas would be granted to a newspaper reporter like Ernest Hemingway, a bookseller like Sylvia Beach or a jazz legend like Louis Armstrong?

I found myself wondering that as I navigated the challenges of plotting a move abroad this past year. For creative and self-starting people today, the picture can be opaque. Without a multinational company sponsoring you or rich parents to bankroll a “golden visa,” moving to Europe can be a far cry from the romanticized vision you might have read about.

But there are, in fact, many pathways to Europe that don’t require generational wealth or the backing of a megacorporation.

Over the past several years, I have researched the lesser-known and less-obvious ways to make the move. I have spent hundreds of hours poring over social media and immigration websites for dozens of countries, and I have networked with self-employed and entrepreneurial Americans across the continent. Eventually, my obsession paid off; I moved to the United Kingdom on a self-sponsored visa this past summer.

If you’re “so bored with the U.S.A.,” as the Clash sings, I’ve got news: There’s a solid chance you can make the move, too. Here’s how to do it, according to experts.

Define your strategy, then give yourself time

Last July, I sold my belongings in Portland, Ore., and bought a one-way ticket to the U.K. Luckily, a friend had relocated to London several years before, so she had answers to my many questions. And as an international student adviser who works with British universities, Leah Alexandria Rogers is certainly used to getting asked about moving across the pond.

Her general advice to those exploring their options: “Dream big,” she tells me, “but it’s not real until you start taking informed steps.”

Begin by sketching out a strategy. Define why you want to relocate, and outline what your career goals are. Documenting these will help you filter opportunities. In my case, I kept a spreadsheet tracking relevant visas in two dozen countries, then used my personal criteria to narrow down to a visa shortlist in a few countries.

Next, you will want to budget plenty of time and money. It took me several years to pull together a plan and my savings, but whatever route you take, you will want at least six months to get everything sorted.

“I’m in a few expat [Facebook] groups and there are so many posts with the air of ‘I want to move to X country on a whim. How?’ Sadly, many of the commenters respond harshly because of the challenges they’ve faced,” Rogers says.

Without doubt, visas are the big hurdle. (That is, unless you’re one of the lucky few who have rights to a German, Irish, Italian or Polish passport through ancestry.) Thankfully, there are a few primary categories of DIY visas that share many traits. This makes it easier to compare options and determine the best match for you.

If you qualify, ‘talent visas’ are the golden ticket

A handful of the most popular European destinations offer lesser-known “talent visas,” which provide greater flexibility without significant financial investments or employer sponsorship.

France’s “passport talent,” for instance, offers pathways that differ according to your discipline; this makes a move possible for accomplished technical and cultural professionals. Possibly the most flexible but also selective visa program is the U.K.'s Global Talent Visa, which is what I did. It caters to professionals of “exceptional talent,” as well as people early in their career who demonstrate “exceptional promise,” in academia and research, arts and culture or digital technology.

Computer programmer Noah Gibbs used the Global Talent after spending 2019 working in locations around the world with his family of five to determine where they wanted to put down roots. They relocated to the Scottish Highlands the following year.

Since these visas are typically self-sponsored, you will have an extra hoop to jump through: an initial application that proves you’re, well, talented.

To prepare, Gibbs researched which government-designated organization would be judging his application — Tech Nation in his case — and read through the extensive guidance available online.

“It’s a bit like an intensive job interview, or a presentation to get a promotion at a big company,” he recalls about Tech Nation’s process. “But once you have it, you can stay for up to five years.” After that, you can apply for permanent residency.

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Self-employed visas are the best-kept secret

Europe’s self-employed visas can be one of the most direct ways to make the move. Most European countries have some form of these, from the widely-blogged-about German freelancer visa to more obscure options such as the Dutch American Friendship Treaty self-employed visa. These visas appeal to everyone from freelance writers and artists to digital marketers and pastry chefs.

Molly Wilkinson describes France’s profession libérale visa as something she really only hears about “in whispered conversations between expats.” The Texas native runs an online pastry school and teaches pastry classes in Versailles.

Despite initial anxieties about gathering the right documentation, the visa has given her creative freedom. “Unlike a traditional work visa, I'm not tied to a company so I don't have that fear that if I lose my job, my visa will be lost as well,” she says. “I'm able to function as a freelancer and build my dream business in France.”

Of course applying for one of these self-employed programs comes with a set of challenges.

“The visa application process in Berlin can feel incredibly cryptic,” said culture journalist Michelle No, who lives in Germany on a freelancer visa. “It is crazy to what extent everyone depends on fellow expats/immigrants to successfully apply for the visa.” Local Facebook groups are often the central node for these informal networks.

No advises finding a few relevant Facebook groups, which can help “cut through a bit of the chaos.” Plus, No says, “it’s also just helpful to commiserate and rest easy knowing everyone else is going mad from the visa stress.”

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For entrepreneurs, look at start-up visas

If launching a business in Europe appeals to you, then you’re the ideal candidate for the dozen-plus start-up visas that countries like Estonia, France and Portugal have started in the past decade. These programs “enable would-be entrepreneurs to move and launch a business,” explains Tegan Spinner, who relocated from Silicon Valley to Copenhagen on the start-up Denmark Visa.

While they are far from easy, start-up visas typically come with helpful perks, he adds. Traditional business visas often require large monetary investments; most start-up visas do not. Some even let founders apply at the idea stage.

“Applicants need only to get a business plan approved by a panel of experts,” says Spinner, who has launched several start-ups in Copenhagen and consults with entrepreneurs wanting to follow in his footsteps. “If successful, they can obtain a visa to live, work and start their entrepreneurial journey in Denmark.”

Once you’re in the country, Startup Denmark connects you with free business guidance. It’s something you’ll need; Spinner underscores how starting a company abroad can add “extra difficulty to an already difficult process.”

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What Americans wish they knew before making the leap

Improved quality of life, easy international travel and, yes, health care are a few of the reasons these Americans say they have no plans of returning to the United States anytime soon. Despite the challenges they faced along the way, they say it’s worth it.

“We wanted to raise our children somewhere quieter, smaller and safer than the San Francisco Bay area,” reflects Gibbs on what led his family to Scotland more than two years ago. He is counting the days until he can, “with luck,” get permanent settlement.

“For me, it’s the easy access to continental Europe from the U.K.,” Rogers says of London. “Also, in my opinion, the [National Health Service] really is a dream come true as an American.”

While everyone I spoke to emphasized that it’s worth it, they also agreed on one point: “Moving to a new country in general is extremely stressful,” No said.

She cites the logistics of finding a new place to live, navigating bureaucracies and finding new friends in a foreign country as all part of the experience. And as a woman of color in Berlin, she also underscores how “experiencing some of the casual racism” in Germany has been “jarring.”

What does No wish she knew before making the move? Give yourself time to find your community (“Everywhere you go, there’s always going to be someone just like you”). And save more money than you think you need or are required to have — some visas stipulate a certain amount of savings, while others do not. “It’ll help with your mental health as you fly through your cash in the first few months,” she says.

“Moving abroad is a giant investment,” No says, “and it’ll be easier for you to think of it as a long-term one, not a short-term TikTok-ready vacation.”

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