How to land an overseas assignment

U.S. CPAs can gain international experience even if they don't work for a Big Four accounting firm.

Securing an overseas assignment may look like a daunting challenge to a U.S. CPA who isn’t working for a Big Four accounting firm with offices worldwide, but it can be done.

The JofA sought tips from three experts on how U.S. CPAs can gain international experience. Senior editor Sabine Vollmer talked to Paul McDonald; Pamela Parker-White, CPA, CGMA; and Jason Ramey, CPA.

The Panelists

Paul McDonald is senior executive director at Robert Half, a staffing firm that specializes in placing accountants and finance professionals worldwide.

Pamela Parker-White, division controller and business manager for Babcock & Wilcox’s small modular reactor program with the U.S. Department of Energy, was assigned to France for two years in the mid-2000s while she worked for the U.S. branch of Areva, a Paris-based company that offers technological solutions for nuclear power generation.

Jason Ramey, national managing partner in charge of international client services for Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd., is responsible for supervising Grant Thornton’s global mobility program. He worked in China and still travels extensively.

How difficult is it to gain international experience as a U.S. CPA if you don’t work at one of the Big Four accounting firms?

Ramey: It’s a lot easier than it used to be because the middle-market companies are expanding into growth markets like China, India, Brazil, and many other places around the world. At Grant Thornton we send a lot of people overseas and from all of our service lines. Large multinational companies also have opportunities all over the world. It’s just a matter of finding the right company, and the timing has to be right.

It can happen at any stage of your career.

If you work for a smaller CPA firm, a lot depends on the firm’s client base and if they have larger clients that are going into new markets. Over time, as the firm grows, it may have an affiliate in another country, which could create a short- or long-term opportunity. In the next five or 10 years there should be more opportunities.

McDonald: We’re seeing demand for U.S. CPAs from our U.S. clientele’s international divisions and subsidiaries, particularly in areas of compliance, tax, and regulatory reporting. For instance, if you have knowledge of U.S. GAAP and IFRS and you’re a CPA, you are in high demand right now at U.S. corporations either domestically or globally.

Do U.S. CPAs have unique skills that make them attractive overseas?

Ramey: The project-management experience you get out of a U.S. public accounting firm is top-notch. We really do a great job in the U.S. of developing our people for project management, and the partners in member firms around the world highly value that experience.

Forensics and investigative services, including experience with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), is a high-growth service line now for firms in the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] and the high-growth markets where there’s a lot of corruption. Other skills that may be transferrable to other countries include U.S. audit and accounting skills, transaction advisory and M&A expertise, internal audit skills, and U.S. tax knowledge. Also, transfer pricing can be transferable to some extent.

Grant Thornton and other large firms have shared-services centers in India and other parts of the world where certain work is outsourced. There could be opportunities in these centers requiring U.S. audit, tax, or advisory expertise.

Parker-White: The financial skills are probably comparable across countries, but U.S. CPAs tend to have a broader background. In the U.S. we used to be very focused on just closing the books, doing the financial statements. We’ve gotten away from being pure numbers crunchers. Now we do that plus we’re more general management and business partners, and that adds a valuable skill that you don’t necessarily get from more financially focused accountants.

What do employers look for on a résumé when considering hiring a CPA for an overseas job?

Ramey: If you have experience working for a public company listed in the U.S., it could be very attractive on a résumé. Experience with U.S. GAAP, PCAOB, and SEC rules, as well as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, can be really attractive to public accounting firms. Any internal audit experience is a good skill set to highlight. Obviously, any study abroad or any language skills would be important to note.

Significant knowledge of an industry can be helpful. For example, the automotive industry takes people from the U.S. to other countries around the world such as Germany, China, and Mexico. Energy experience could take someone from the U.S. to Russia or Canada.

McDonald: Technically, I would say IFRS, tax, government risk, and compliance. They are looking at your technical experience within their marketplace, where they want to do business. They are looking at certifications, such as CPA, the CGMA, or the CA [Charted Accountants]. If it’s in the banking world, they are looking at work experience with Basel III, the worldwide regulatory discipline within financial services.

Parker-White: They look for experience, and they are going to look for openness and cultural awareness. It’s not necessarily people’s technical competence, it’s more a matter of will they be able to adapt. So people who have already shown a willingness to travel and a curiosity about other cultures will have an easier time adapting.

How important is it to speak the local language or to speak a second language?

Ramey: It is nice to have a language skill, but it may not be as important as having the management or technical experience of a U.S. CPA. The lower level you are, the more important it is to have a language skill in the country you are working in. 

McDonald: It’s always a benefit to be multilingual. It’s not always mandatory for CPAs to be multilingual. The business language of English is global. But if you are in a social setting and understand what is being spoken on a casual or business-casual basis, it’s a plus. English plus Spanish. English plus some of the Asia-Pacific languages.

Parker-White: If you don’t speak a second language, it might be helpful to look at English-speaking countries. For example, you’ve got a country like India, and pretty much everybody speaks English.

Are some countries more suited for a U.S. CPA seeking work overseas than others?

McDonald: We’re seeing demand in South America. We’re seeing demand in Asia, Western Europe inclusive of the U.K. If we look at the Middle East, construction and health care are growing, and there is demand for CPAs with construction and health care backgrounds.

Is the interview process different for overseas jobs?

Ramey: The interview process is probably longer, more people are involved, and the questions might go into different areas than if it didn’t involve international work. It might not just be their technical skills, but there are going to be soft skills you’re looking for. Someone who may work in Brazil may not work in China or Singapore. So you have to drill down further.

It’s a huge investment, so it’s extremely important from a business-case perspective, but also for the employee’s personal situation, that you find the right person and that it’s right for that person’s career and family.

McDonald: Applicants for new jobs should always expect the unexpected when they go for the interview. Know the company the best that you can, and if there is information in the public domain, read up on it. Do your homework. Do your research as well to find out who’s in charge of finance, who’s in charge of the area you’re interviewing for. Are they a CPA? Where did they go to school? From there you have to be open for new information coming your way. You may have applied for one position, but you get there and they say, “Oh, not only do we have that position, but there is another position available that you might be interested in or qualify for.” So expect the unexpected.

Parker-White: They will ask different questions. For example, when I interviewed at Areva, at the time there wasn’t even a possibility of me working overseas, but they were a French company. My boss told me later that one of the reasons they hired me was because I had traveled to China, just on my own, and that not too many Americans did things like that. He thought that indicated a willingness to be open to other experiences. In an interview for a domestic job, why would they care where I go on vacation?

Is there any other advice you can offer a U.S. CPA who wants to work abroad?

McDonald: If you’re interested in working in a company that is involved in international business and you don’t have the experience in your current company, volunteer within your organization for project-related business that might give you the experience and the exposure.

Consider gaining language skills through an online course. Gain a certification. Understand and study up on any new regulatory or compliance impacts within the country or particular region of the world you’re interested in.

Parker-White: If you get international experience early in your career, then it will really help you with the rest of your career, no matter where you go, because everything is so much more multinational now than it used to be. At the end of your career, though, a lot of times it’s easier to go because your children are grown and it’s time for a nice adventure before you retire.

Ramey: If you want to work abroad, try to be patient and seek the right opportunity that works for your career path. It could possibly come early in your career or even at the end. For example, partners or employees who have retired from CPA firms can offer a lot of value, especially in developing countries where both management and technical experience is needed.

Sabine Vollmer is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at or 919-402-2304.


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