What to do if you’re a Dev outside of the US, looking to increase your salary

Gui Carvalho
5 min readJul 6, 2021
Copyright Eric Chahi

If you work with software outside of the US, you’re most likely being paid between 2x and 10x less than folks in the SF Bay area. Don’t believe me? Most big tech companies are hiring new grads for north of $200k USD/year, right out of college. Even outside of the Bay area and outside of the top tech companies, most startups will hire with an initial salary of over $120k USD/year.

The cost of living does vary wildly from place to place, but accumulating capital is much easier if you’re making more, and that can change your life anywhere you live.

If you’re outside of the US, chances are you’re not making anything close to those numbers. So how do you shrink the gap? You have a few options:

Immigration

This is the hardest option to get, but also what will pay the most. To work here, you need a visa that allows you to legally live and work from here. There are many types of visas that allow for work on US soil, but there are two main routes to come, F1/OPT and H1-B.

F1 is a visa for studying in the US, and folks often take it to study in a US college for a bachelor's, master's, or graduate degree. After finishing your studies, you’re entitled to OPT which lets you live/work here for up to 3 years. After that, you need either an H1-B to keep doing so or a green card sponsored by your employer.

A few caveats here:
Higher education in the US is expensive. A degree can cost between $50k USD to $200k USD and the cheaper it is, the worse it’ll look like in your resume.
Getting accepted into great colleges is hard. Unless you’re really good academically, really great at some sport, or have great connections, you probably won’t get into the best ones.

H1-B is a visa that requires that you already have a degree, and can only be requested by US companies. That means you need to interview and get an offer from a US company, accept it, and then they’ll apply for you. This visa has a quota of 85k applications/year (65k for a bachelor's degree and up and 20k for a master's degree and up).

This visa opens annually in April, is processed until October and whoever gets it can move here afterwards. In recent years demand for this visa was 3–4x bigger than the quota, and the way the government has solved the problem is by lottery.

That means you need to interview for a position that promises to sponsor the H1-B visa, get an offer, accept the offer, and wait for the company to apply for your visa. This is already hard to do, but if you succeed, you still need to get lucky in the lottery. This year had 275k applicants for the 85k slots, or ~30% chance of getting selected. Nobody can predict the future, but it’s hard to imagine the odds getting much better next year, and they can also get worse.

If you decide to go this route, I suggest trying to line up interviews in January, to get offers around February so the companies have time to prepare your application (you’ll need to provide lots of docs to prove things) in March and have it ready for early April filling.

The company will either have a legal team to do everything or they’ll hire a specialized lawyer. However, if you need a recommendation for a lawyer, either to discuss your options or to investigate other paths, reach out to Nadia Yakoob. She handled my green card application and she’s great.

Remote work

When COVID hit, the industry was forced into remote work and to get used to a distributed workforce. Since then, many companies have become remote-friendly (ok with remote employees), remote-first (there is an office somewhere you can go work from if you wish), or remote-only (no physical offices).

However, if you look closely at “Remote” job openings, most of them require applicants to live in the US. This is because there’s legal risk in hiring someone from a country that knows nothing about their labor laws and compliance requirements.

No big company wants the PR nightmare of being accused of breaking foreign laws they don’t know exist. Smaller companies, on the other hand, tend to be less worried about that. Startups with 18 months of runaway will be more worried about not finding critical devs they need to improve their product and might not care about the risks.

Your mileage will vary here, there are great remote roles and shitty remote roles. You’ll have to engage to understand each opportunity. Keep an eye out for what’s the company policy around remote work, cultural red flags, salary bands, etc.

If you find a role, it’ll likely pay much less than in the US, but it’s probably still more than what the local companies pay.

Working for US companies that have offices in your country

Most big US tech companies have offices with engineering presence around the world. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Stripe, and Airbnb are a few that I know have foreign offices. If you poke around the careers page of such companies, you might find something for you.

Expect salaries in this category to beat your local market, but not by a lot. The main advantage here, however, is that if you join and spend a few years making your name there, you’ll have a lot of leverage to ask to be transferred to a different office, and with a transfer, your salary will be adjusted to match the location.

Another counter-intuitive thing is that changing jobs every few years is likely to yield more money than if you join a company and stay for a long stretch. In theory, loyalty should be rewarded, but in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

Best of luck in your quest and drop me a line on Twitter if you need anything.

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Gui Carvalho

Startup guy, engineer, product thinker. Currently living in Florida.