International locum tenens 101: A beginner’s guide

Physician studying international locum tenens 101 for beginners

What’s your dream? Going to a foreign country and living like a local for several months? Putting your medical skills to work in a more laid-back environment? Living near the beach and surfing or swimming before or after your shift in New Zealand, Australia, the Bahamas, or another amazing location? All this can be a reality for qualified physicians who accept an international locum tenens assignment.

This guide for beginners will give you everything you need to know to get started on your first international locum tenens adventure.

The time commitment

The first step to making your locums dream come true is to ask yourself how long you can realistically commit. International locums assignments typically require much longer commitments than a domestic locums assignment because of the amount of paperwork and time involved for visas, licensing, and credentialing in another country.

pull quote about international locum tenens assignment duration

Some assignments, like to Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands, can be as short as three months, although these are trending toward a six-month minimum. Since it takes a while to get up and running in a healthcare setting so different from a typical U.S. mainland facility, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. all ask for at least six months — but often prefer nine months to a full-year commitment. Shorter assignments are possible, but your average assignment will have a longer duration.

Questions to ask yourself

In order to ensure a good fit and experience for you, the healthcare facility where you will be working, and your patients, here are some additional questions to consider.

Where do you want to go?

Scan our job listings and see which locations pique your interest. For instance, in Australia, a majority of the locations will be rural, since this is where the greatest need is. In New Zealand, assignments can be rural or urban.

Enjoying a walk on the wharf

Do you want to bring family?

If you plan to bring school-age kids, try to go for at least a year since school seasons in New Zealand and Australia start in January. Also, some of the more rural townships typically send kids to boarding school, so many of our physicians opt to homeschool their kids while abroad.

Do you have a pet?

If so, are you OK with leaving your animal behind in the care of a family member or close friend? If not, it’s important to know that your animal may have to spend time in quarantine.

A good fit is critical for a good experience

We’ve been placing physicians in New Zealand and Australia for more than 25 years, and many other locations for over a dozen years too. We know our clients and the locations well enough to ensure a good fit based on your skills, experience, credentials, desires, whether you’re bringing family, etc., and always work for the best outcome for all involved.

Important factors to consider:

  • Physicians arrange these unique opportunities in order to live like a local; to be able to travel extensively during, before, and after the assignment; and to put their medical skills to good use in places that need their help.
  • For U.S. physicians, an international locums assignment will often pay less than a domestic assignment.
pull quote about the turnaround time to start an international locum tenens assignment

How soon to get started

First, it’s important to understand the timeframe. Most international assignments have at least a four-month turnaround from the time a physician accepts a position to boots on the ground. This is in order to get through the visa, credentialing, and licensing processes.

So if you want to do an assignment within the next year, start having a conversation with us now, because our clients are advertising for placements six to nine months in advance. We are happy to talk with you as far as one year out — to answer questions, to get you started on gathering necessary paperwork, and to begin vetting opportunities.

In our first conversations with you, we’ll discuss your timing and learn more about your specialty, skills, and experience. Helping us understand your current practice situation and what you are hoping to get out of your experience is key to identifying which international opportunities will be the right fit for you.

Once you express interest in an assignment, the interview process with your prospective employer may take time as well. For clients on the other side of the world, it can take a couple of weeks to a month to complete the interview process.

There may be other factors that can cause delays. For example, New Zealand has especially particular reference requirements. You’ll want to make sure that you can provide these.

RELATED: What’s in a locum tenens agreement?

pull quote about how Global Medical Staffing specializes in international locum tenens

Different ways you can find an international assignment

There is more than one way to find an international locum tenens assignment. Global Medical has long-standing partnerships with health systems and individual facilities around the world, but you can also search for them on your own.

However, if you choose to look at job advertisements yourself, keep these factors in mind:

  • When facilities advertise locally, they are typically looking for physicians already licensed and registered in their country.
  • If they are willing to consider a foreign physician, they are not always willing to help with the licensing and visa processes or cover travel, housing, and transportation.

The advantage of going with an international locums agency like Global Medical is that we specialize in international locums and will walk you through the entire process. We know international facilities well and can help ensure a great fit. We also have deep experience and hold our physicians’ hands through the complex visa, credentialing, and licensing processes. We understand each country’s healthcare rules and regulations and how medical malpractice works in different countries.

Additionally, an agency will typically take care of the travel, transportation, and housing or provide a non-taxable stipend. Global Medical will even help you with setting up bank accounts.

Plus, it’s nice to have a safety net to help with anything that comes up while you’re on assignment.

a graphic list of five tips for international locum tenens success

Tips for success

The following tips will help ensure you have a great experience once you arrive at your destination.

1. Be respectful and adapt to your new environment

All of our healthcare facility clients are extremely grateful for the help, but they’re not looking for foreign physicians to come in and make changes. They have a system already. For instance, radiologists see backlog reads in New Zealand and need to be OK doing what they can do each day. They won’t catch up on the backlog and aren’t expected to do so. Although many things are similar, be prepared to be open-minded and collaborative. In most countries where we place physicians, the medical staff works in multi-disciplinary teams. Your colleagues may be on a first-name basis, so don’t be surprised if no one refers to you as “Dr. [Last Name]” but is more familiar than you are used to. Nurses, techs, and midwives are highly regarded and know more about the local healthcare system than you, so do your best to win them over and learn the ropes.

2. Recognize that it’s different out there

Understand that housing and transportation, and in some cases medical facilities, will be less sophisticated than you may be used to. The housing in New Zealand may not have air conditioning or central heating, for instance. Everything will be nice, clean, and comfortable, but may be more modest. Be open for the adventure and willing to go with the flow.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Our recruiters have a deep knowledge of these locations and can help you know what to expect. You can also read what people who have already worked there have to say (on our blog, for instance). We can even connect you up with physicians who are willing to speak about their experiences in the same place you are planning to go.

4. Do your research

Try to learn as much as you can about where you’re going. Find out what the cost of living is like, what types of goods you can and can’t buy, and what the exchange rate will be if you’re sending money back to the U.S. or digitally paying U.S. bills.

5. Plan for your absence

What are you going to do about what you’re leaving behind? Make a plan for your home while you’re gone. Are you going to rent it out, winterize it, or hire a house sitter?

New Zealand mountain view

Live the adventure

No matter where you decide to go, an international locum tenens assignment can revitalize your practice of medicine, offer new experiences, and perhaps lead to an entirely new life and lifestyle.

To get the process started, give us a call at 1.800.760.3174 or view today’s locum tenens job openings.

Updated April 28, 2022

  1. Amy hubert
    Amy hubert
    March 8, 2020 at 11:31 pm

    Any physician/emergency medicine opportunities in central or South America?

    • Alisa Tank
      Alisa Tank
      March 9, 2020 at 2:05 pm

      Hi Amy, we don’t often have assignments available in Central or South America, but do offer opportunities in the Caribbean. I would recommend getting in touch with a recruiter (either through our website or by calling 1-855-324-5566) to discuss details, as sometimes assignments come up that aren’t yet posted online.

  2. Aqdas kuraishi
    Aqdas kuraishi
    July 31, 2020 at 6:05 pm

    Interested in Europe Ireland Scotland New Zealand. Prefer costal. 6-12 month oh

    • Alisa Tank
      Alisa Tank
      August 3, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      Thank you for your interest! We’ll be in touch soon to discuss opportunities.

  3. Joann Somers MD
    Joann Somers MD
    May 9, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    Physicians in US are extremely underpaid & I can’t imagine being paid less living in a foreign country & sacrificing leaving your dogs or placing them in quarantine. Why are physicians who are highly educated & skilled paid so little? You will not get experienced, highly qualified physicians unless they are paid at least $400-$500,000 yearly.

    • Gerry Carpenter
      Gerry Carpenter
      May 25, 2022 at 7:35 pm

      Hi Dr. Somers. Many of our physicians choose to take international assignments for the experience of living abroad and practicing in a different healthcare system. Some assignments outside the U.S. (such as Guam) pay comparable rates to what you would earn working locum tenens in the U.S.

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