International Nursing

Choosing to work abroad

Nursing is a great career for those with wanderlust and a UK nursing qualification could be the passport to a life overseas  

By Erin Dean 

One of the reasons that Josie Gilday wanted to study nursing was the range of opportunities it offered to work abroad. The HIV nurse specialist planned her career carefully so that she had the right skills to work for an international charity, and it has paid off with work in countries such as Chad, Haiti, Myanmar and South Sudan.

Working abroad is part of the plan for many people when they join the nursing profession. There are many countries and international charities where the skills of UK nurses are in high demand. But when are new nurses ready to make the move overseas? The RCN recommends that nurses gain at least six months’ experience before heading off abroad. 

‘It will be an opportunity to consolidate your education, access preceptorship and make the transition from being a student to being a registered, accountable practitioner,’ the college’s advice on overseas working states. ‘A prospective overseas employer will be able to request a reference relating to your ability as a qualified nurse. It will also be easier for you to provide references to overseas employers if you already have experience.’

Many employers outside the European Union (EU) have specific requirements about post-registration experience. Employers in the Middle East, for example, usually require at least two years’ post-registration experience; Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) requires between three and five years’.

Ms Gilday, who has worked overseas with the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, recommends that nurses who plan to work overseas should obtain some experience first. She learned French, became an HIV specialist and took qualifications that would prepare her to travel to remote locations. 

‘I would recommend that newly qualified nurses get a couple of years’ experience under their belts,’ says Ms Gilday, who has just finished a master’s degree in public health in developing countries. ‘Working for a
non-governmental organisation abroad is often not hands-on nursing; it is about training, teaching and managing local staff, so you need to be competent and confident in your skills before you go. Working in areas such as emergency nursing, HIV and surgery are useful preparation.’

British Red Cross international recruitment officer Kim Goodall says: ‘For ward nurses, we look for about five years’ professional experience preferably with two or three years in general, orthopaedic or trauma nursing. The team will always answer questions from students and newly qualified nurses, so we encourage people to get in touch.’

Other ways that students and new nurses can prepare themselves for such an adventure include taking a diploma in tropical nursing and learning a foreign language, she says. Experience of working in remote and challenging locations, such as working as a medic with gap-year organisations such as Raleigh International and Trekforce, can also be useful.

There are also plenty of opportunities to work abroad in clinical facilities similar to those in the NHS, while enjoying the experience of new cultures. Every year, thousands of nurses leave the UK to work in Australia and New Zealand, elsewhere in the EU and the Middle East.

Any nurses planning to move overseas need to look into the paperwork some time before they want to move. Most countries require nurses to be registered with their equivalent of the Nursing and Midwifery Council and to obtain a visa to work there; both can be lengthy and complex processes.

The RCN recommends researching a country and its health system thoroughly before making any decision about going there by checking on the website of the International Council of Nurses, with the local nursing association and the country’s profiles provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the World Health Organization.

One well worn route for UK nurses is to spend some time in Australia or New Zealand, where a nursing shortage and lack of language barrier for English speakers means that they are in demand.

As an Australian migration expert, Anna Gorna is contacted by many nursing students and newly qualified nurses who are keen to work there. There is a great appetite among new nurses to work overseas, although many jobs require some experience, says Ms Gorna, a consultant for Emigrate to Australia at Taylor Hampton Solicitors, London.

‘The level of experience required varies a lot between jobs and depends on the employer. In Sydney or Melbourne, employers have more choice so are likely to want more experience. But in remote areas they may be prepared to consider someone with less experience.’

There are different visa options when it comes to moving to Australia, but Ms Gorna says that many newly qualified nurses head there under a working holiday visa and pick up temporary nursing work while they are there. This visa, which is only open to those under the age of 31, can be arranged in a few weeks, and works well for those who would like to combine employment with travel.

All nurses who want to work in Australia still need to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, which takes between two and four months.

Other visa options include a skilled migrant visa, which involves accruing points for qualifications, experience and other factors such as age. This allows nurses to work for any employer and takes up to nine months to sort out, while a visa granted through sponsorship from a specific employer takes two or three months.

Jan Dewing, Sue Pembrey chair in nursing at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, has been travelling to Australia for the past decade for two or three months a year as a visiting professor at the school of nursing at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales. She suggests that nurses who are thinking about working in the country should plan to spend at least three years there. In this way, they get the most from the experience and the Australian health service gets a return on the investment it makes in overseas healthcare professionals. 

Newly qualified staff should spend a year working in the NHS and consider carefully where to work in Australia before making the move, Professor Dewing says. 

‘Think about what the consequences may be in terms of your social life, and what it may be like being so far away from family and friends,’ she says. ‘Don’t rush into it. It is a life move so take some time to think about it properly. For nurses thinking of living in Australia, there are fantastic opportunities and benefits, like lots of sunshine and a more outdoor, active lifestyle. But work is just as busy and demanding as in the UK.’

Issues to consider when moving abroad

Language: prospects of employment are generally poor for nurses who do not have a good command of the language of the country they wish to visit

Qualifications: the UK nursing qualification that is generally transferable to every other country is the registered nurse: adult. Not all countries have equivalents to the UK qualifications in mental health, learning disability and children’s nursing

Level of experience required: this varies between jobs and employers, although many will want at least some experience after qualification

Visas and work permits: these vary a lot between countries and can be complicated to arrange. Work permits are usually obtained by the employer from the immigration authority of the host country.

Registration: most countries have their own nurse registration authority and nurses are usually required to obtain registration in the host country before taking up employment

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