Many years ago (when I was young and naive), I accepted a job offer (rejecting two other offers, with some acrimony from one of them) and moved to a new country (Chile) in order to take the job, only to realize after arriving there that I did not have a work contract, just an invitation, and that I needed to enter a 4-6 month process in order to (pay to) validate my PhD diploma with a local university and get official ID papers in the new country, before the administration of the university would even consider hiring me. I was paid in the meantime (albeit the administration explained to me that my salary would be decided retroactively after being hired, and that the remaining money would be considered an advance on my research expenses, something which was quite uncomfortable to me) and eventually got hired, but the surprise and the whole process was quite uncomfortable. I did not inquire about the legality of the process at the time, assuming that since this is a state university, it had to be an example of probity and follow the law to the letter.

This was not the first time that I had found myself in such a situation. Before this job, I had received (and refused) an offer in another country (France). After announcing to me in July that I had been selected for the job, the chair of the department explained to me that I was expected to move in in August (resigning from my current position with very little anticipation, breaking up my teaching engagements for September), in order to teach in September, even though the contract was only starting in October ("for administrative reasons"). As this was a permanent position, I did not immediately refuse the offer, but asked for the contract, to which I was answered that I would normally get it after I had moved there and started to work. I did not take the job.

I now applied for another position, in another university (still Chile), and was selected. When I asked for the contract (in particular before buying a house close to the new university and moving in), I was answered that the administration was trying to make things go faster for me, but that they usually were writing and signing the contract within the three first months of employment, i.e. after I arrived and started to work (but assuring me that I would get paid for my work anyway). When I signaled that I was uncomfortable with such timing (the administration of my current university wished me to resign without delay so that they can hire someone to replace me, which I was reluctant to do without a new contract), I was asked to "trust" the university, that in their whole history they had never failed to contract someone after selecting them for a job. I was given a letter promising that I would be hired on a given date, but mentioning neither the salary nor the rank that I was offered informally by email. Two months before my starting date, I still have nothing more than an email, this letter, and some whatsapp messages to confirm that I was selected for the job. We are setting up a "vacation without salary" with my current university to allow me to start the new job while keeping the possibility to go back if anything goes wrong with the hiring process.

I trust that I will be hired and I have no reason to suspect any "evil" intentions of any person involved in such interactions. But it seems to me that such "arrangements" are in total contradiction with the very spirit and motivation behind the writing and signing of a formal contract, which would be to forfeit the need of any "trust" between two parties. Instead, I feel that those institutions view the contracts as a mere senseless administrative formality imposed on them "from above" which they have to "go around" in order to "get things done". I am (only) half thinking about telling the new university that I will NOT move to the new place until I have a contract (and teach remotely if needed while waiting for the contract). [For practical reasons, I can't rent a place and buy later.]

Hence my question (sorry for the long description of the background): How (il)legal and common is it for a university to make one move in and work BEFORE signing a contract?

  • 1
    @NobodyYes, the letter of invitation was the prerequisite to obtain a work visa to Chile. For the offer in France, I did not need one because I have the French nationality.
    – J..y B..y
    Dec 22, 2022 at 9:22
  • 2
    You have some leverage on your side: without a working contract, you cannot apply for a visa. Keep on pestering the administration with a request of a formal letter confirming you will be hired and in which role. Sure, the university can assure you they never failed somebody: tell them there is always a first time.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 22, 2022 at 9:25
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    @EarlGrey I have now permanent residentship in Chile and do not need a visa. Plus, it seems that an "invitation letter" (which does not mention nor the salary nor the rank, as the one I received) is enough to apply for such a visa. I am wondering how common such practice is (e.g. in Western countries) and if my understanding that this is a mockery of the very concept of a contract is on the point or a misunderstanding on my behalf of what a contract is supposed to be.
    – J..y B..y
    Dec 22, 2022 at 9:34
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    I think you should consider that in Chilean labor law, even a verbal contract is binding, so having a letter with some basic information might be legally considered a contract already. It is not nice, but its perfectly legal in Chile.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Dec 22, 2022 at 16:25
  • 1
    I can't speak for Chili, but over here the fact that you got paid would be pretty much instant proof of a labor agreement, even if nothing else exists. It would still be rare and frowned upon, but the employer would bear the consequences, not the employee. For details about the law in Chili it might be better to ask this on law.stackexchange.com
    – AVee
    Dec 22, 2022 at 21:14

4 Answers 4


There is no general rule and the answer depends on the country.

I worked in 3 different countries which are not my home country and in 2 of them I received the actual work contract after I started working there.

But in both cases they gave me a 1-page pre-contract that stated the important parts of the contract (position, salary, ...). Often they cannot give you the real work contract (even if they really want to) because country specific laws require for example to have your country specific national identification number (or health insurance number or similar ...) on the contract which applicants from other countries simply do not have before they have physically moved to the country.

  • Which countries or at least continent?
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 22, 2022 at 12:07
  • European countries (also non EU)
    – lordy
    Dec 22, 2022 at 12:21
  • 5
    Definitely the case in Sweden. That said, you are not really supposed to start working before you have your contract, and it most definitely shouldn't be a matter of months before you receive your contract (rather days, or day singular).
    – xLeitix
    Dec 22, 2022 at 15:36

For Germany, this seems very uncommon! It is not permitted to use department-specific software / engage in research activities here in Germany without a signed contract. In rare cases, one has to sign the contract on the very first workday. Nothing is possible before this has not been done.


If we ignore that this happens at a university: The normal case is obviously that you have a contract with a salary, you work the agreed hours, and you get paid the agreed salary. But working without a signed contract will in many countries create an implicit contract: If you arrive ready to work, they allow you or even ask you to work and then you work, then an implicit contract is created due to these facts, and you are employed and need to get paid. It’s legal for you as far as working etc. is concerned.


In the UK the law says that if you work for an employer, then you have an implicit, implied contract with them, whether you have signed a piece of paper or not. At any point an employee has the legal right to demand a written statement of the conditions of employment, as the employer understands them.

It's in everyone's interest that a written contract or document of terms is provided in appointment of an employee, as it saves lots of legal headaches down the line of the employer and employee have different understandings of the terms and a judge has to be brought in to decide who is right.

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