Finding stocks that generate income without excessive risk is a tall order in this unforgiving market.

Accordingly, the search for yield has become a global hunt. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) yields barely 2%, but investors can capture that, and more, via non-U.S. companies, as well as exchange-traded funds and mutual funds that hold dividend-paying foreign stocks.

Moreover, as long as the U.S. dollar stays weak, money earned from overseas sources is worth more to dollar-based investors.

Predictable, steady dividend income is coveted at times, like now, when the outlook for corporate earnings growth is cloudy. Historically, dividends have been a crucial part of a stock's total return -- and an important source of steady cash in a harrowing market, essentially paying investors while they wait for better opportunities.

"In this kind of choppy market, dividends are huge" pillars of support for a diversified portfolio, said Alec Young, international equity strategist at Standard & Poor's Equity Research.

Dividends could be an even bigger source of total return from foreign equities as stock gains moderate, Young said.

One of the best ways to generate income and spread risk is through international-stock ETFs that focus on dividends.

For example, the dividend yield for the Stoxx Europe 600 Index ($DE:SXXL), made up of companies -- large and small -- across 18 European countries, is 4.67%.

One related ETF, First Trust Stoxx European Select Dividend Index (FDD), tracks the performance of 30 high-yielding companies from the broad index that make up the Stoxx Europe Select Dividend 30 Index. The portfolio recently yielded about 5%.

Some of the larger, broad-based international ETFs include iShares Dow Jones International Select Dividend Index (IDV), SPDR S&P International Dividend (DWX) and WisdomTree Dividend ex-Financials (DOO).

ETFs offer investors access to dividend-paying international stocks without the need to do homework on each company. It's an indiscriminate way to invest, so it's a good idea to check what the ETF holds; it could be more heavily weighted in one particular country or sector than you'd like.

The iShares Dow Jones International Select Dividend Fund recently yielded 4.8% and held 103 companies. Its biggest holdings were locally traded shares of Eni, an Italian oil and natural gas provider, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and British American Tobacco.

The SPDR S&P International Dividend Fund, designed to measure the performance of the 100 highest dividend-yielding common stocks, recently yielded about 5.6%. Top holdings include locally traded shares of Swedish telecom provider Tele2 Ab, Telecomunicacoes de Sao Paulo and Australian stock exchange operator ASX.

WisdomTree Dividend ex-Financials recently yielded 5.2%. The ETF, which selects the 10 highest dividend-yielding stocks within each sector (with the notable absence of financial services companies), is weighted more heavily in telecom and consumer staples.

Among its largest holdings are Australia's biggest telecom company, Telstra, Australian brewer Foster's Group and Belgium's Belgacom.

Jeremy Schwartz, the director of research at WisdomTree, said one of the company's fastest-growing ETFs is WisdomTree Emerging Markets Equity Income (DEM). The fund recently was yielding 6.83% and had positions in Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, Banco do Brasil and Brazilian brewer Companhia de Bebidas das Americas.

If ETFs don't suit your strategy, there are about 500 dividend-paying non-U.S. companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

Vodafone Group (VOD, news), Unilever (UL, news) and Nestlé (NSRGY, news) are candidates to consider for dividend income, said Kevin Shacknofsky, co-portfolio manager of the Alpine Dynamic Dividend (ADVDX) fund.

Vodafone shares have a yield of better than 5%. Plus in February 2012, Vodafone will pay shareholders a special dividend from a $3.3 billion pool of cash it received from Verizon Wireless, in which it owns a 45% stake.

Unilever, the Dutch maker of food, soaps and other household essentials, yields 3.6%. Nestlé, the world's No. 1 food company, yields 3.3%.

Another dividend-payer worth noting, though one more sensitive to global economic growth, is SeaDrill (SDRL, news), which has a yield near 10%. The company rents its ships and rig equipment to oil companies for offshore deep-water drilling.

One advantage to buying U.S.-listed shares of international companies is that the dividend qualifies for the same favorable tax treatment that shareholders of U.S. corporations receive.

Just be careful when searching for high-yielding stocks, no matter where the company is based.

"I would caution people about chasing yield alone," said Dan Genter, the president of RNC Genter Capital Management, which runs RNC Genter Dividend Income (GDIIX) fund.

This is because troubled companies sometimes pay high dividends to retain investors and help support their stock. But if business gets worse, one of the first things they could do is cut the dividend to preserve cash.

To be sure, there are drawbacks to reaching overseas for a dividend.

Some non-U.S. firms pay a dividend only once or twice a year, while U.S. companies usually pay quarterly. Currency is another issue to manage; if the U.S. dollar strengthens, the non-U.S. dividend would be less valuable.

Bill Staton, a dividend investor and chairman of Staton Financial Advisors, said he feels safer investing in companies regulated by U.S. accounting rules and securities laws.

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He pointed to Procter & Gamble (PG, news) and Colgate-Palmolive (CL, news), which derive a good chunk of sales from overseas, giving their respective dividends an international flavor.

"Dealing with multinational companies is the easiest way to do it," Staton said. "I prefer buying what I know."

This article was reported by Matt Andrejczak for MarketWatch.