How to find a visa to come to Europe

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How would American icons of the Lost Generation move to Europe if they were alive today? What kind of visas would be granted to a journalist like Ernest Hemingway, a bookseller like Sylvia Beach or a jazz legend like Louis Armstrong?

I asked myself the question as I navigated the challenges of planning a move overseas last year. For today’s creative and empowered people, the picture can be cloudy. Without a multinational sponsoring you or your wealthy parents to fund a “golden visa,” moving to Europe may be a far cry from the romanticized vision you may have read about.

But there are, in fact, many routes to Europe that don’t require generational wealth or the backing of a mega-corporation.

Over the past few years, I’ve researched the lesser known and less obvious ways to make the switch. I’ve spent hundreds of hours scouring social media and immigration websites in dozens of countries, and connected with freelancers and American entrepreneurs across the continent. Eventually, my obsession paid off; I moved to the UK on a self sponsored visa last summer.

If you’re “so bored of America,” as the Clash sings, I’ve got news: chances are 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 possessions in Portland, Oregon, and purchased a one-way ticket to the UK. Fortunately, a friend had moved to London several years before, so she had answers to my many questions. And as an international student adviser who works with UK universities, Leah Alexandria Rogers is certainly used to being 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 action.”

Start by sketching out a strategy. Define why you want to move and state what your career goals are. Documenting them will help you filter out opportunities. In my case, I kept a spreadsheet to track relevant visas in two dozen countries, then used my personal criteria to limit myself to a shortlist of visas in a few countries.

Next, you’ll want to budget a lot of time and money. It took me several years to put together a plan and my savings, but whichever route you take, you’ll need at least six months to sort it all out.

“I’m in some expats [Facebook] groups and there are so many messages with the air of ‘I want to move to country X on a whim. How?’ Unfortunately, many commentators react harshly due to the challenges they have faced,” says Rogers.

Undoubtedly, visas are the big hurdle. (That is, unless you are one of the lucky few to qualify for a German, Irish, Italian, or Polish passport by ancestry.) Fortunately, there are a few main DIY visa categories that share many traits. This makes it easier to compare options and determine which is best for you.

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

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

The French “talent passport”, for example, offers different courses depending on your discipline; this makes a move possible for accomplished technical and cultural professionals. Perhaps the most flexible but also the most selective visa program is the UK’s Global Talent Visa, which I did. It is aimed at professionals of “exceptional talent”, as well as early-career individuals who demonstrate “exceptional promise”, in academia and research, arts and culture or digital technology.

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

Since these visas are usually self-sponsored, you’ll 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 judge his candidacy — Tech Nation in his case — and read the many tips available online.

“It’s kind of like an intensive job interview or presentation to get a promotion at a big company,” he recalled of the Tech Nation 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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Independent visas are the best kept secret

EU self-employed visas can be one of the most direct ways to move. Most European countries have some form of it, from the widely blogged German Freelancer Visa to more obscure options such as the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty Freelancer Visa. These visas are for everyone, from freelance writers and artists to digital marketers and pastry chefs.

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

Despite initial concerns about collecting the right documentation, the visa gave her creative freedom. “Unlike a traditional work visa, I’m not tied to a company, so I’m not afraid that if I lose my job, my visa will also be lost,” she says. “I am able to function as a freelancer and create the company of my dreams in France.”

Of course, applying for one of these freelance programs comes with a set of challenges.

“The visa application process in Berlin can seem incredibly enigmatic,” said cultural journalist Michelle No, who lives in Germany on a freelance visa. “It’s crazy how much everyone depends on their fellow expats/immigrants to make their visa application a success.” Local Facebook groups are often the central node of these informal networks.

No advises finding a few relevant Facebook groups, which can help “cut through the chaos a bit.” Additionally, No says, “It also helps to empathize and rest easy knowing that everyone is going crazy over visa stress.”

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For entrepreneurs, look at start-up visas

If you’re interested in starting a business in Europe, then you’re the perfect candidate for the dozen or so start-up visas that countries like Estonia, France and Portugal have launched over the past decade. These programs “allow future entrepreneurs to relocate and start a business,” says Tegan Spinner, who moved from Silicon Valley to Copenhagen with start-up Denmark Visa.

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

“Applicants only need to have a business plan approved by a panel of experts,” says Spinner, who has launched several start-ups in Copenhagen and consults with entrepreneurs wishing to follow in his footsteps. “If successful, they can get 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 advice. This is something you will need; Spinner points out how starting a business overseas can add “an additional difficulty to an already difficult process”.

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What Americans wish they had known before taking the plunge

A better quality of life, easy international travel and, yes, health care are some of the reasons these Americans say they have no plans to return to the United States anytime soon. Despite the challenges they’ve faced along the way, they say it’s been worth it.

“We wanted to raise our children somewhere quieter, smaller and safer than the San Francisco Bay Area,” Gibbs says of what brought her family to Scotland more than two years ago. He is counting the days until he can, “hopefully”, get a permanent settlement.

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

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

She cites the logistics of finding a new place to live, navigating bureaucracies and finding new friends in a foreign country as part of the experience. And as a woman of color in Berlin, she also points out how “experienced by some casual racism” in Germany was “shocking”.

What would No like to know before taking the step? Give yourself time to find your community (“Wherever you go, there will always be someone 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 will help with your mental health as you get your money flying for the first few months,” she says.

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

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