Internships abroad: Compensation, opportunities, and pitfalls

  • young intern
Published on 2023-11-07 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Many students dream of finding an internship abroad. Indeed, it's a unique opportunity to discover different aspects of a new country and even to consider long-term immigration. But are internships abroad always paid? What should you consider before embarking on an internship adventure overseas?

What are your chances of finding a paid internship abroad?

Internships abroad tend to be unpaid. However, each country has its own definition of internships. Interns abroad are subject to the laws of the host country, and their internships are governed by the principles of the country in which they work. In France, for example, the law stipulates that all internships of over 2 months must be remunerated. Despite some abuses (interns doing the same work as employees, but without the corresponding salary), French law is considered more protective than other legislations.

In the UK, internships are considered a form of support for employees. They are generally unpaid, but otherwise, the trainee may be remunerated as an employee. In Australia, internships are defined as observational learning. Interns are not expected to perform tasks, let alone take on the role of an employee. This definition of internships explains the absence of remuneration. China, Italy, Mexico Canada and the United States have a similar approach to internships.

The importance of internships abroad

The absence of remuneration does not make internships abroad any less attractive - on the contrary. The United States distinguishes clearly between internships and employment. An intern cannot take on the same tasks as an employee. Above all, interns are there to learn. This learning period is crucial as it can open the door to a first job -- which is a good thing for international students, many of whom aim for their first job abroad. Internships in the most prominent sectors, such as Tech, banking and finance, are particularly popular with international students. In the USA, paid internships are more common in these sectors, although they are difficult to find.

Internships are not only meant for young students. Non-student adults can also perform internships abroad, whether they're employed, looking for work, retraining, or planning to set up their own business. These internships can take the form of immersion in a company, an observation period, alternating between an assignment in a company and a course. Adults have the advantage of experience as they've already worked in a company. Of course, corporate culture varies from sector to sector and from country to country. One job will not necessarily be the same in a different country, just like the definition of internships varies from country to country. However, experience is an asset for adult professionals. It can be technical and interpersonal skills, qualities sought after by companies.

Where are you most likely to find a paid internship?

As we've mentioned above, there are two schools of thought regarding internships. In some countries, interns are, first and foremost, trainees. They are therefore paid "for their experience". Or else, they are trained and are even less likely to receive any remuneration. Other countries, on the other hand, provide compensation based on a number of criteria, including the duration of the internship.

In countries with a strong internship culture, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, you're more likely to find internships. However, you won't necessarily be paid. In France, compensation depends on the duration of the internship (minimum 2 months) and the intern's status (student or not). In the Netherlands, it's possible to carry out a long internship without being paid. In practice, it's up to the employer to decide whether they will pay or not. In case of no remuneration, there can be some other form of compensation, for example, reimbursement of transport costs.

The best cities for paid internships

For better chances of finding a paid internship abroad, consider cities and business sectors. In 2022, a report by Business Name Generator, a branding consultancy, ranked the best cities in which to look for an internship. Only one European city stands out amid a majority of American cities that occupy the top 3. Los Angeles ranks first, Austin 2nd, and Ann Arbor 3rd. Manchester ranks 4th, followed by Chicago (5th), London (6th), Paris (7th), San Diego (8th), Montreal (9th) and Gainesville (10th).

Regarding finance, the United States remains in the limelight, with several cities offering the best remuneration packages. In San Diego and Ann Arbor, a student is likely to earn up to $4,000 a month and between $3,000 and $3,700 if they complete an internship in Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston. You'd have to travel to Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, or Canada to find comparable offers. A student will earn around $ 3,700 monthly in Sydney, $3,600 in Zurich, $3,300 in Stockholm and $3,200 in Montreal.

Of course, these figures should be taken as a guide only. They relate mainly to a few very specific professional sectors, such as Tech, which is quite generous. But Tech is a vast sector, and not all fields offer such high incomes. Aeronautics, banking and finance are other sectors that are quite rewarding.

Internships: Companies and remuneration

Here again, offers vary from company to company. The very popular GAFAMs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), for example, can offer very attractive bonuses, along with possible compensation (travel expenses covered, etc.).

Other large companies, such as Michelin Group, Orange, Adobe, LinkedIn, Lidl and Nestlé, are also known for their generous packages for interns.

Thanks to their brand image, these large companies continue to attract as many interns as ever. Their international status is a bonus for foreign interns. However, finding a place can be challenging. Focusing on multinationals can mean missing out on an offer that may be less competitive but just as high-quality. In general, when there is no remuneration, companies can offer to cover interns' travel expenses (as in the Netherlands, for example). The compensation may seem low compared to those offered by major groups, but it can sound appropriate for offers that are easier to find (with unpaid internship offers). Multinationals' sky-high salaries remain the exception.

Internships abroad: What to expect

What are the conditions for performing an internship abroad? First, you must find out how your host country defines internships. Are internships compulsory, and if so, who are these intended for?

Germany distinguishes between compulsory and non-compulsory internships. Compulsory internships are a prerequisite for graduation. Paid internships are, therefore, intended for students and must be governed by an internship agreement. Non-compulsory internships are not necessarily paid. But when they are, they can offer attractive remuneration when they exceed 3 months. In principle, German law treats interns in the same way as employees regarding remuneration: like employees, interns are entitled to the statutory minimum wage. The exception is compulsory internships, which are not covered by the law. France also distinguishes between compulsory and non-compulsory internships.

Beware of the internship agreement: it may contain confidentiality clauses, preventing the student, for example, from disseminating sensitive information in the internship report. If in doubt, ask the employer before signing, specifying what the internship report should contain. The internship agreement defines the relationship between the student intern, the company and the university. It acts as an "employment contract" for the intern and must be signed by all three parties. It's, therefore, essential to check its content, as the rules governing internship agreements can vary from country to country.

Paid or unpaid internship: What you should watch out for

Whether your internship is paid or unpaid, it's a good idea to gather all the necessary information before you leave. Only look for an internship abroad if taking into account the particularities of the foreign country. Some countries, like Japan, don't have an internship culture. While it's not impossible to find one, it can be challenging. Other parameters need to be considered (language spoken, cost of living, etc.); planning your finances is even more important in the case of an unpaid internship.

Beware of tempting offers

Some companies take advantage of their location in a tourist country to attract international students. Others take advantage of ignorance of the law to get foreigners to work outside the legal framework. Internships are thus transformed into full-time jobs but without remuneration and protection. To avoid these pitfalls, it's essential to be clear about your missions. The company must clearly define the intern's tasks and scope of work. The advertisement must also be clear and not simply "seeks intern...". A well-informed international student should read the internship contract (or agreement) carefully before signing.

Beware of certain recruitment agencies

Are you using an agency to find an internship abroad? Just as there are recruitment agencies for expatriate professionals, there are also agencies that facilitate internships abroad for international students. However, beware of scams. For example, avoid agencies that promise the ideal internship against a "small" financial contribution by bank transfer... Unfortunately, renowned organizations, such as Erasmus+, are regularly targeted by fraudsters. One of the most recent reports claims the existence of an "Erasmus+ Canada" program, which doesn't exist, as pointed out on the official Erasmus+ website.

Tips for a successful internship abroad

Once you've set foot in your host country, you can expect a potentially turbulent period. This is the famous "culture shock" encountered during a first move abroad, but not the only one. Seasoned travelers may be more prepared, thanks to their previous experience. But every country has its set of surprises in store. Moreover, discovering a country as a tourist and living there as an intern are very different things.

To make the most of your internship abroad, it's essential to have proper planning. As with any move to another country, you must prepare for your internship abroad. Which city are you moving to? What type of accommodation is available? What is the cost of living like? Is transportation accessible and affordable? While you can take breaks to discover your new surroundings, you must remember the main reason for the trip. Avoid choosing your internship solely based on location (you're already imagining yourself on vacation) or the presence of large companies (smaller companies also recruit interns). On the contrary, you'll want to pay close attention to the nature of the assignments and the potential for career advancement.

An internship abroad is an excellent way to kickstart your international career. If you are already a professional, it can even boost your career, thanks to the contacts made on the spot. Not only does it enhance your CV, but it also enriches you on a human level by discovering another culture, expanding your circle of acquaintances, and learning from others and about yourself. It's as much a human adventure as a professional challenge.