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Working in Asia

By: Maggie Lonsdale BA (hons) - Updated: 21 Feb 2013 | comments*Discuss
Asia China Hong Kong Working Secondment

Working in Asia is a terribly exciting adventure. It’s so totally different to the experience of working in the UK that it is difficult to explain just how odd everything seems. It is so very exhilarating to be the other side of the world, learning about customs that are so completely different and gaining experience that will be invaluable for your future career.

There are three key areas to research and understand before you embark on spending time working in Asia. Visa requirements and potential issues, employment matters and cultural awareness are the main things to consider, all of which can make a huge difference to the enjoyment of your adventure.

Working in Asia is just as varied as saying ‘working in Europe’. This massive continent has some cosmopolitan cities, like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, as well as some incredibly old-fashioned, remote places that have barely seen a Western European person. Consequently, your experience of working in Asia will be entirely different depending on whether you stick to major cities or head to the countryside. For the purposes of this article, we’ll look at working in Asian cities.

Visa Requirements

The majority of people that go to work in Asia arrange their employment through an agency or organisation. Part of this deal is that the correct permissions are applied for by the organisation, which is a considerable benefit. If you’re seconded by your current employer, they should arrange your visa for you. Although you can apply yourself, it can be hard to gain a working visa (which you’ll need if you’re staying for more than three months, for less than three months you can simply fill in a tourist visa when you get to the airport, or they’re often given out on the plane) without a recognised company as your employer.

If you are planning to go to work in Asia under your own steam, you will need to start by contacting your nearest visa processing office (in Liverpool, Birmingham and London, which you can find by looking at the Government website for the Department of Work and Pensions.


The two most common types of employment for British people in Asia are either a secondment from your current UK employer to their Asian office, or as a teacher of English. While there are plenty of other jobs, such as bar work, it can be difficult to gain the correct permission to do this and it is usually ‘cash in hand’ type work that is not official.

Being seconded from your current job is a very exciting way to boost your career, and probably your income, as you will likely receive additional monetary benefits for subsistence and expenses.

Working as an English teacher in Asia often requires a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. This is worth gaining if you’re considering this as you are able to command a higher rate and are more likely to get a position in a recognised organisation.

Although the cost of living in Hong Kong and Tokyo can be very expensive, other cities in China and Japan can be more affordable, although perhaps less cosmopolitan. Salaries tend to reflect the higher cost of living, although you are also likely to have far smaller living quarters, especially if you are renting alone. Many young expats choose to rent shared flats.

Opportunities for expats are plentiful and can be very beneficial to your career progression when you return to the UK. You do need to be aware that you will be expected to work long hours and socialise with your colleagues more than perhaps you are used to.

Cultural Issues

The culture in Asia is very different to the UK. It would be very unwise to go to work in Asia without researching a bit about where you are going and what is the norm, especially as ‘bad behaviour’ is terribly frowned upon. However, there are also some things that are acceptable in Asia that you may find incongruous.

For example, how you greet a business colleague for the first time in Hong Kong or Tokyo requires an exchange of business cards. You will exchange cards with each member of a group when you meet them, starting with the most senior person. This needs to be done with respect and some ceremony. You need to accept the card with both hands, slowly and purposefully rather than while you're speaking to someone else, and then take a moment to 'study' the card. The point of this is to show that you've noted the name of the person and their job title.

Business cards usually have the Chinese or Japanese details on one side and the same information in English on the reverse - it is polite to look at both sides, then carefully put the card, without folding it, into your wallet or a business card holder. It is fine to put it into a jacket pocket, too, but it is not really polite to simply put it in your trouser pocket. It is worth buying two business card holders - one to keep your own cards ready for the numerous exchanges and one for placing clients' cards.

The concept of ‘shame’ for doing something wrong is prevalent, so understanding the correct etiquette for business card exchange is a necessary part of working in Asia. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution by acting as politely as possible. Always address people as Mr/Mrs/Miss Surname when you say hello and goodbye. In time, they may say to call them by their first name, but until then, keep formal. With all this polite behaviour, it can seem very strange that it is also perfectly acceptable for businessmen to get blind drunk and fall asleep on the street (although they’re never aggressive), as long as no one mentions it in the morning!

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