I get asked this question a lot because I was lucky to be able to intern abroad, so here’s my general answer. There are two likely paths I recommend:
A. Find a startup on AngelList that would be willing and able to provide a temporary work visa. This will usually involve a mixture of desperation from the startup’s side (typically if there’s a lack of specific domain expertise in that geographic region) and demonstrating that you’re highly skilled. This is harder for non-domain specific work like generic app development or social media marketing, since those things can be somewhat easily executed remotely and there’s more likely to be local talent in those areas.
B. Work at a big company that has international offices. This will usually involve interning there at least once already to show that you’re worth the investment — it can be their play to convince you to accept a return offer — OR having an insane amount of leverage from strong competing offers that may also be located abroad. Two specific examples of this that I’ve heard about: Someone who interned at a “big 5" once, got a return internship offer, then asked for their London office. Another person that interned at a large company, got a return offer in their London office, then used this to negotiate an offer with a competing company to work in their Zurich office.
Which camp did I fall into? Well, I interned at a startup, but didn’t get the opportunity through path A. Instead, I met the traveling CEO of the company at a hackathon by pure chance when they were looking for a team to join. At the beginning of the hackathon, there was a team formation session where every project lead pitched their idea to the participants. I pitched something really dumb (it was the SXSW Music Hackathon in 2016). I think it was an app that “recommends indie artists for you to listen to while you’re in a Lyft on your way to a concert, and lets you donate cryptocurrencies to them using blockchain technology.” A few hundred lines of backend API code in Python and 36 hours later, I received this email:
I couldn’t turn this down! I mean, it’s machine learning for CRISPR genome editing in London... But I didn’t want to renege on an offer I already had for that summer, so I requested for it to be pushed to the fall. I ended up having more time and two amazing, completely different experiences in the Bay Area and London.
So for me, luck was a huge factor. Lessons learned from this?
Getting internships from networking at hackathons is a real thing. But I wouldn’t place it under a third, “path C” for this question because the probability of getting an internship from a hackathon times the prior of that opportunity being abroad is already pretty low.
Working hard and showing up can maximize your “opportunity surface area”! I wasn’t looking for another internship at the time, but I applied skills that I’d worked hard on regardless of that. To be honest, I went to that hackathon mostly due to peer pressure from my friends, and I’m glad I showed up that weekend.
You should try interning or studying abroad. Few experiences in your life will change the way you think or expand your life’s perspective as much as spending some time living abroad. If you’re working, you’ll get paid to do it, and if you’re studying, you’ll be surrounded by a lot of peers.