Why Australia, the USA and Canada remain top expat countries

Expat news
  • Brisbane, Australia
Written by Asaël Häzaq on 20 May, 2024
The latest trends in international mobility present a paradox. Restrictive immigration policies do not deter foreign applicants; on the contrary. The strong economic health of traditional lands of immigration and the positive image of economic powers are among the factors that encourage workers to try their luck abroad. Here's an analysis.

Australia remains the most attractive country for foreign workers 

According to the fourth global study on international mobility published in April by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), The Network, and The Stepstone Group (online recruitment specialists), Australia is the place to be. The report compiles data from 2023 and compares it with their first major study published in 2014. Overall, 150,735 workers residing in 188 countries responded to the survey conducted between October and November 2023. Among them, many workers live in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, China, and Indonesia (5,000 or more), but also in Canada, Argentina, Algeria, Morocco, Kenya, Spain, France, Turkey, Italy, Finland, Singapore, and India (between 500 and 4,999 respondents).

In 2023, Australia thus snatched the top spot as the best country for international mobility. Mobility is definitely back in full swing, with workers attracted by career prospects abroad. Australia has reached the top of the podium precisely because of its attractiveness: workers rank it as the number one country in the world for employment. Over ten years, the country has moved from 7th to 1st place. Australia has dethroned Canada, which was first in 2020 and has replaced the United States, which was first in 2018 and 2014.

A leading job market 

Australia maintains a robust job market despite a slight GDP decline (1.7% in 2023, 1.3% expected in June 2024). The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7%, which is much better than government forecasts. You have to go back to 2022 to observe the country's highest unemployment rate: +4.1%. Nevertheless, this rate remains well below that of other world powers. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, net employment jumped to +116,500 in February, compared to +15,200 in January. This monthly surge has not been seen in 10 years. Positive employment figures go hand in hand with a still tight labor market. Many positions are available in healthcare, construction, management, accounting, transportation, and agriculture. The government regularly updates its list of skilled occupations that are recruiting foreign talent.

An attractive destination despite the tightening of immigration policies 

Paradoxically, Australia is increasingly tightening an already restrictive immigration policy. On December 11, 2023, the Minister of the Interior, Clare O'Neil, unveiled her plan to reduce the number of new immigrants. Among the new measures are new requirements regarding English proficiency and professional qualifications. The state primarily wants to restrict entry to unskilled foreigners, focusing on graduates and foreign talent. According to her projections, her reform would halve the number of expatriates in 2024–2025. The country is facing a record number of foreigners: about 500,000 in 2023—a record figure, partly due to "catch-up" after the closure of borders during the COVID pandemic.

But faced with the housing crisis and soaring prices, the government understands the dissatisfaction of part of the population. Some analysts link the increase in the number of foreigners to the rise in housing prices, Like in Canada. Clare O'Neil recalls the essential role of immigration for the country's prosperity and speaks instead of "building a better-planned system."

However, immigration reforms in Australia haven't discouraged prospective expats. According to the study, those who chose Australia to speak of "better job opportunities," "a booming economy since the end of the health crisis," and "career-building options." They also discuss it as a "dream destination for many people worldwide."

Other attractive countries 

While Australia leads the pack of the most attractive countries for expatriates, the United States remains a heavy hitter in international mobility. According to the study, they rank just below Australia (having been at the top in 2014 and 2018). Canada comes in third. It was first in 2020 and 3rd in 2018 and 2014. The United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, France, and Spain round out the top 10. 

Singapore, which entered the rankings in 2020, retains its 8th position. Japan, which was 10th in 2018, rises to 6th place in 2023. However, France, 6th in 2014, has steadily lost ground, falling to 9th place in 2023. Spain, which dropped out of the rankings in 2020, returns in 10th place. New Zealand, which entered in 2020 in 10th place, is no longer in the ranking.

Germany remains a top destination for workers

Although Germany dropped one place compared to 2020 (5th in 2023), it remains a prime destination for foreign workers. According to the Stepstone Group, Germany would need more than 540,000 foreign talents. Two-thirds of business leaders consider foreign labor as a means to fill labor shortages and a way to innovate, become more competitive, and generate more profits.

The new third-world power continues to attract foreign talent despite challenging economic conditions. The German GDP contracted to -0.3% in January 2024. It had already declined to -0.2% in 2023. However, Germany remains an economic powerhouse in Europe, and expatriates commend its advances in immigration policy. Unlike the very restrictive French reform, the German reform tends to simplify visa procedures. Since March 1, the country has eased the visa rules for international students who work. The naturalization process will also be simplified and accessible after 5 years of residence (and even 3, in some cases), compared to 8 currently. This reform is expected to take effect in May 2024.

The United Kingdom is still popular among expats despite Brexit 

One might have thought that Brexit would put a definitive end to immigration to the UK. Although there is a significant drop in the number of European students in British universities, the United Kingdom remains attractive, even gaining points. The study reveals that after a drop in 2018 and 2020 (the United Kingdom, ranked 2nd in 2014, falls to 5th place during these two years), the country climbs to 4th place in 2023. Yet, the government is making significant efforts to reduce its migratory balance.

Countless measures have been introduced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reduce the number of foreign nationals. The points-based system introduced following Brexit already set the tone for the new policy. Since then, new restrictions have come into effect, including an increase in visa fees and the health surcharge, a 20% decrease in the number of shortage occupations, an increase in the salary threshold required to qualify for a visa (at least £38,700 per year, compared to £26,200 previously), an increase in the minimum income for spouse/family visas (£29,000, to reach £38,700 by 2025), and a priority for British workers.

The most attractive cities for expatriates 

Despite its openly restrictive immigration policy, London is the favorite destination of workers who responded to the study. The British capital edges out Amsterdam and Dubai by a narrow margin. In Amsterdam, the position of some politicians against expatriates deemed too numerous and "not Amsterdamer enough" does not seem to have affected foreign workers. Dubai continues to attract foreigners. To attract more wealthy expatriates, the city has lowered the investment amount to qualify for a Golden Visa: 1 million dirhams compared to 2 million previously (approximately $270,300 versus $545,000 previously). Abu Dhabi gains one point and arrives in 4th place. Despite a very high cost of living, New York climbs three places and ranks as the 5th most attractive destination. 

The American Dream is still alive for prospective expats

The study reveals another paradox. The United States remains a very popular destination despite the obstacles to securing the coveted work permit. This year is high risk for the Biden administration. While campaigning for re-election, the President must respond to attacks slamming his immigration policy. Biden made a statement by opting for a more humane policy that was far from the Trump era. Early in 2023, Biden launched legal entry paths, with a 2-year residency permit at stake for nationals from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Haiti. The initiative was a success, but other foreign nationals entering the country illegally kept on trying their luck. Tensions at the border with Mexico are at an all-time high.

The issue of undocumented foreigners revives that of the work permit. Several cities, including Chicago, propose to regularize long-standing undocumented workers on American territory. The processing times for applications are still considered too long. Some foreigners have been waiting for more than 20 years. They joined the protesters and demanded to benefit from the same program offered to Venezuelan expatriates at the end of 2023. 

Between immigration policies and attractiveness 

The Biden administration counters and blames the systematic opposition of the Republicans, ready to do anything to hammer his policy. It emphasizes its desire to attract foreign talent. On April 8, immigration services extended the work permits of 800,000 foreigners. Between January and April, the government also launched a pilot program to more simply renew the H-1B work visa. However, the processing times for applications remain another challenge for prospective expats in the United States.

Still, the United States can boast its good figures: +1.9% growth in 2022, +2.5% in 2023, and +2.7% in 2024, according to IMF forecasts. The slight rebound in inflation (+3.5% in March 2024) remains far from its 2022 peak (+9.1%). Like Australia, the US has a solid job market (barely a 3.8% unemployment rate) with an average of +231,000 job creations per month in 2023. Many sectors are recruiting in 2024: healthcare, IT, marketing, finance, information and communication technologies, human resources, etc. According to The Stepstone Group, the United States would need more than 2.7 million foreign talents.

Canada aims for a better welcome for foreign nationals 

Canada is undeniably one of the favorite destinations for expatriates, ranking 3rd in 2014 and 2018 and 1st in 2020 before returning to its 3rd place. But how will recent government measures affect relocation plans?

Canada's immigration policy has taken a major turn in March when Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced capping the number of temporary residents (students, foreign workers, and asylum seekers) to lower their number to 5% by 2027, from 6.2% currently. This is not the first step taken by the government. In January, it enacted a "temporary cap" on the issuance of study permits: 360,000 permits will be issued to foreign students in 2024, a 35% decrease.

Miller argues that he is acting precisely to improve the welcome given to expatriates. He reminds us that foreigners are not responsible for the housing crisis while emphasizing the importance of welcoming "more efficiently" foreign nationals and fighting against the actions of universities and companies with bad intentions.

A land of immigration, Canada claims to remain faithful to its principles. The executive can't do without foreign workers. With an aging population, the country relies on these immigrants to support its demographics and economy. The Ministry of Finance points out the positive growth figures: +3.5% estimated for the first quarter of 2024. Inflation dropped from 8.1% in 2022 to 2.8% in February 2024. The job market remains solid, with many sectors recruiting (healthcare, construction, education, administrative professions, accounting, industrial professions, etc.).

International mobility is on the rise

Interest in international mobility is gradually increasing. 23% of respondents to the study are actively looking for a job abroad. They were 21% in 2020 and 2018. 63% are very interested in working internationally. These prospective expats are between 20 and 30 years old, are graduates, and no longer want to limit their job search to their country. They believe they have more opportunities by positioning themselves in the international job market.

While young foreign talents (20-30 years old) are the most mobile (32%), senior professionals are just as much (30%). These more experienced foreign talents also intend to assert their skills abroad. Faced with extended life expectancy (and healthy life expectancy), some countries have already taken measures to encourage the recruitment of senior managers and executives. It remains to be seen whether these advances will be reflected in the immigration policies of countries that continue to favor young foreign talents.