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International ETFs Explained: Definition, How It Works, and Examples

Last updated 03/20/2024 by

Bamigbola Paul

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International ETFs provide investors with exposure to foreign-based securities, offering diversification and opportunities for global market growth. Understanding the nuances of these funds, including their passive investment strategies, risk factors, and the potential for emerging market investments, is crucial for investors looking to expand their portfolios beyond domestic securities.

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International ETFs

An international exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a type of investment fund that primarily invests in foreign-based securities, including stocks and bonds. These funds offer investors the opportunity to diversify their portfolios beyond domestic markets and gain exposure to global economic growth. International ETFs can focus on various regions, countries, or even specific sectors within foreign markets.

What are international ETFs?

International ETFs, also known as global ETFs, provide investors with access to a wide range of international markets. These funds may track global market indexes, regional benchmarks, or specific country indices. By investing in international ETFs, investors can spread their risk across multiple countries and industries, potentially reducing the impact of market volatility in any single region.

Understanding passive investment strategies

Many international ETFs follow a passive investment strategy, meaning they aim to replicate the performance of a specific index rather than actively selecting individual securities. Passive ETFs typically have lower management fees compared to actively managed funds, making them an attractive option for cost-conscious investors.
Passive international ETFs often track well-known indexes such as the MSCI World Index or the FTSE Developed All Cap Index. These indexes represent broad-based exposure to global markets and include companies from various sectors and industries.

Emerging market ETFs

Emerging market ETFs focus on investing in securities from developing countries with rapidly growing economies. These funds offer investors the potential for high returns but also come with increased volatility and risk. Emerging market ETFs may include countries such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, among others.
Investors considering emerging market ETFs should carefully evaluate the political and economic stability of the countries included in the fund, as well as currency risk and regulatory challenges.

Weigh the risks and benefits
Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.
  • Diversification across international markets
  • Exposure to global economic growth
  • Potential for higher returns compared to domestic investments
  • Currency risk due to fluctuations in exchange rates
  • Political and regulatory risks in foreign countries
  • Higher expense ratios compared to domestic ETFs

Example: Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS)

The Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (NASDAQ: VXUS) is a popular international ETF that provides investors with exposure to global equities, excluding U.S. stocks. Launched in 2011, VXUS aims to replicate the performance of the FTSE Global All Cap ex U.S. Index, which includes large-, mid-, and small-cap companies from around the world.
As of its latest reporting, VXUS is heavily weighted in Europe, the Pacific region, and emerging markets. The fund holds investments in companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor, Nestlé, Novo Nordisk, Tencent Holdings, and Samsung Electronics.

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Case study: iShares MSCI ACWI ex U.S. ETF (ACWX)

The iShares MSCI ACWI ex U.S. ETF (NYSEARCA: ACWX) is a prime example of an international ETF that provides investors with broad exposure to global equities, excluding U.S. stocks. Launched in 2008, ACWX seeks to track the performance of the MSCI All Country World ex USA Index, which represents large- and mid-cap stocks from developed and emerging markets around the world.
ACWX holds investments in companies across various sectors, including technology, healthcare, financials, consumer goods, and industrials. With over 1,800 holdings spanning more than 45 countries, the ETF offers investors diversified exposure to international markets.

Investment strategies for international ETFs

When investing in international ETFs, investors can employ various strategies to optimize their portfolios and achieve their financial goals:
  • Country-specific ETFs: Investors seeking targeted exposure to specific countries or regions can consider country-specific ETFs, which focus on securities from a single country or group of countries.
  • Sector rotation:Sector rotation strategies involve shifting investments between different sectors or industries based on economic trends, market conditions, and sector-specific catalysts.
  • Factor investing: Factor-based ETFs aim to capture specific risk factors or investment styles, such as value, growth, momentum, or quality, across international markets.
  • Thematic investing: Thematic ETFs focus on investing in companies aligned with specific themes or trends, such as clean energy, artificial intelligence, e-commerce, or cybersecurity.
By implementing these investment strategies, investors can tailor their international ETF portfolios to align with their risk tolerance, investment objectives, and market outlook.


International ETFs offer investors a valuable opportunity to diversify their portfolios, gain exposure to global markets, and potentially enhance returns. These funds provide access to a wide range of foreign securities, including stocks and bonds, through a convenient and cost-effective investment vehicle.

Frequently asked questions

What factors should I consider before investing in international ETFs?

Before investing in international ETFs, consider your investment objectives, risk tolerance, and time horizon. Evaluate the fund’s exposure to different regions, currencies, and sectors, as well as its expense ratio and performance history. Additionally, assess the potential risks, including currency fluctuations, political instability, and regulatory changes in foreign markets.

How do international ETFs differ from domestic ETFs?

International ETFs primarily invest in foreign-based securities, offering exposure to global markets beyond domestic borders. In contrast, domestic ETFs focus on securities traded within a specific country’s stock exchange. International ETFs provide diversification across multiple countries and currencies, while domestic ETFs are tied to the performance of a single market.

What are the tax implications of investing in international ETFs?

The tax treatment of international ETFs varies depending on factors such as the fund’s structure, dividends, and capital gains. Investors may be subject to taxes on dividends and capital gains, as well as foreign withholding taxes. Additionally, currency fluctuations can impact taxable gains or losses for investors holding international ETFs denominated in foreign currencies.

Can I use international ETFs to hedge against currency risk?

Some international ETFs may offer currency hedging strategies to mitigate the impact of currency fluctuations on investment returns. These funds use derivatives such as forward contracts to offset currency risk associated with foreign investments. Investors seeking to hedge currency risk should carefully evaluate the costs and effectiveness of these strategies before investing.

How do I choose the right international ETF for my portfolio?

When selecting an international ETF, consider factors such as the fund’s investment strategy, geographic exposure, sector allocation, expense ratio, and liquidity. Evaluate the fund’s historical performance relative to its benchmark index and compare it to other similar ETFs in the market. Additionally, assess the fund’s tracking error, fund size, and trading volume to ensure it aligns with your investment objectives and preferences.

Are there any regulatory requirements for investing in international ETFs?

Investing in international ETFs may be subject to regulatory requirements imposed by both domestic and foreign authorities. These regulations may include restrictions on foreign ownership, reporting obligations, and tax compliance. Investors should familiarize themselves with the regulatory environment of the countries in which the ETF operates and consult with a financial advisor or tax professional if necessary.

Key takeaways

  • International ETFs offer diversification and exposure to global markets.
  • Passive investment strategies are common among international ETFs, tracking well-known indexes.
  • Investors should consider currency risk, political instability, and expense ratios when investing in international ETFs.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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