How to become a self-employed international freelancer abroad

22.09.17
10 minute read
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The allure of freelance work is obvious. And getting to travel is great, but what if instead of just traveling to a hotspot for a week or two, you could settle in a dynamic foreign metropolis or seaside villa and do your job from there?

You used to have to live near your workplace year-round. But with the spread of high-speed internet to all corners of the globe, that’s no longer the case. Now, if you work in the right field and jump through a few legal and regulatory hoops, you can write copy for a London ad agency from an apartment in Kuala Lumpur or design websites for American retailers while looking out your window onto a vineyard in Provence.

This article provides some essential tips and tricks for kicking off your freelancing career with confidence, navigating the bureaucracy and tax office, and assembling the skills you need for success.

Can I legally travel and work as a freelancer abroad?

work and travel as a freelancer abroad

Yes, your home country will not prevent you from traveling and working abroad. You simply need to research the visa and licensing requirements for freelancers in your chosen home-away-from-home. Working with government bureaucracy is a hassle the world over, but if you start the application process early and provide all of the correct paperwork on time and with a good attitude, you can get a visa in around 3-4 months. Don’t try to do this after you leave, though. It’s recommended you contact the consulate of the country you hope to live in while you’re still in your home country

What if my spouse or partner is a resident of another country, can I legally freelance?

Most countries permit you to reside in them long-term if you’re married to a native citizen. If your visa is already secure based on your marriage or long-term relationship, then in many countries you’re free to take on contract work.

What jobs can I realistically do while traveling the world?

what jobs can i do

Some jobs are more suitable for remote work than others. More like graphic designers, not plumbers. Typically, if you have a social job like teaching or one that requires you to be in meetings all day, you’ll also have a hard time transitioning that into a freelance career. However, if you can do your job with a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, then you can probably live wherever you want and book freelance gigs from anywhere.

Typically, the most doable freelance gigs are in content production and knowledge work. Here are some of the most common freelance careers:

  • Journalists/writers/editors
  • Copywriters
  • Graphic designers
  • Software/web developers
  • Photographers
  • Sound or video editors
  • Interpreters/translators
  • 3D modeling and CAD designers

Do I need a special visa to freelance overseas?

do i need a special visa

Often, yes. Typically, to acquire a work visa in a country you need to have a firm, written job offer from a corporation with offices in that country. In more and more countries, immigration offices are developing special classifications to accommodate foreign freelance workers. The rules vary based on a given country's openness or protectionism, but many now offer some sort of freelance visa that allows you to legally reside in that country without being employed by a local firm, but instead taking part-time jobs from a number of vendors. France and Germany, as well as many other EU countries, now have some version of a freelance visa. Other countries, like India, are already saturated with native freelancers so it’s trickier, though possible, to obtain a freelance visa. Some countries are wide open. The UAE, for instance, has select “economic free zones” in Dubai where a freelancer from abroad can easily set up shop and begin soliciting work and isn’t even required to pay income tax.

What’s the average cost of a freelance visa in another country?

Costs vary between countries, and some have you pay a single fee, while others charge for every meeting with an immigration official. Typically, it costs from 100-400 euros/dollars to obtain a freelance visa.

What‘s the difference between being self-employed and being a freelancer?

what’s the difference between self employed and freelancer

When you’re doing contract work for an organization, you’re not their employee. So does that make you self-employed, or a freelancer? The difference can be confusing. If you’re self-employed, it means that you technically own your own business. But it’s only freelance work if you do it on behalf of another company or organization. Not, for example, an independent plumber working for private homeowners. That’s why freelancers are able to conduct their business under their own name, rather than a brand name. Self-employed people often work under an official business name.

Put simply: all freelancers are self-employed, but not all self-employed people are freelancers.

Do I need a business license to freelance internationally?

do i need a business license

In most cases, yes. In addition to obtaining a freelance visa that legally permits you to vie for freelance jobs in a country, you also need to register yourself with the local business office.

Staying in a country less than 3 months

Most travel visas allow you to stay in a country for three months after you’ve entered. If you’re only staying for that long, they typically consider you a traveller and don’t expect you to make long-term visa plans. Because of this, you can usually do freelance work in a country without having to get approved for a freelance visa.

Staying in a country for more than 6 months

Staying past 6 months, however, is typically the cut-off for requiring a freelancing visa, registering your business, and being obligated to pay income taxes to your country of residence.

How do I get paid from abroad?

get paid from abroad

As a skilled expat worker, you’ll likely get paid through a wire service. There are many options, such as Western Union or Paypal. But you’ll want to be aware of the fees and exchange rates charged by different financial institutions. Most banks and currency exchange companies will tell you their transfers are free, zero commission, or really cheap. Sadly, though, it’s not true. They add a markup to the exchange rate, which means you could be paying more than you should.

TransferWise is the new alternative to old-fashioned banking - a borderless account, built for international people. TransferWise is on a mission to make moving money fair and transparent. By using the real exchange rate, like the one you see on Google, there are no sneaky hidden charges with TransferWise. You pay the lowest possible fee, clearly shown upfront.

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What about taxes for freelancers?

filing taxes

Even if all of your income comes from abroad, you'll most likely still need to file an income tax return in your country of residence if you live there more than 6 months out of the year. When filing taxes, expats may be required to complete additional filings and be subject to specific reporting requirements. Most independent contractors pay taxes quarterly, instead of annually.

Taxation regulations vary between countries, so consult an accountant for advice on how to remain tax-compliant back home and in your new country. Depending on where you’re from, they will offer advice tailored to your nationality and the country you’re residing in.

  • For Americans, H&R Block offers a tax service specifically for expats abroad.
  • Citizens of the US can also solicit help from the firm Taxes for Expats, who were was founded specifically to provide just this service.
  • Brits abroad can turn to Tax Safe if you need a helping hand.
  • Aussies may want to look at Expat Taxes who specialize in helping Australian expatriates overseas.

It’s important to research the possible deductions you can claim to reduce your overall tax burden. Freelancers who do content, marketing, development, and IT work can often claim office, travel, and meal expenses. Before you file your taxes, discuss your possible expenses with a savvy accountant and see how much you can save.

How do I find a coworking space?

finding a coworking space

One of the most appealing parts of doing freelance work is the ability to work at home. You don’t have a commute, you’re not tied to a strict workday, there’s no boss interrupting you at your cubicle, you can work in your pajamas, and you don’t have to smell your co-worker’s tuna sandwich during lunchtime. But here’s a harsh truth: working from home can get old, fast. Many freelancers find spending both their working time and leisure time in the same space to be stifling and a little maddening.

As more and more people work remotely, “coworking spaces” have risen in popularity. They effectively replicate the office environment - albeit often with a more chic decor - by filling a large space with desks, long tables, Wi-Fi, and coffee and tea services. Freelancers pay a flat monthly rate for access to the space, and find the option of getting out of the house and working a few hours a week amongst others worth the expense. Freelancing can be a lonely, competitive hustle, so the social and networking opportunities of coworking spaces are invaluable. You’ll likely share industries with many of the people you share a coworking space with, so it should be your goal to buddy up with them to discuss common clients, productivity methods, and job-hunting ideas. And, of course, grab some drinks to vent about your frustrations.

To find coworking spaces near you, try WeWork or create a Google search for “coworking spaces” plus your city.

Any tips on becoming a successful freelancer?

successful freelancer tips

When you create a user profile for a site with freelancers, make sure to use an up-to-date photo and list as many marketable skills as you can reasonably claim. Be as specific as you can with your skills. For example don’t just say you can write in Microsoft Word if you’re experienced or, even better, certified, in advanced documentation software like InDesign or Madcap Flare. Don’t just say you’re a good photographer, but say you’re a master at Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s important that you not just list what you can do, but also demonstrate a knowledge and expertise at the popular tools in your field.

Try to also supplement your core skills so you can compete for more gigs. For example, if you’re a writer, brush up on your editing or transcription skills. If you’re a photographer, learn some video editing.

While sites like Upwork and SimplyHired are invaluable resources, you may consider creating your own website. Sites like Squarespace or Wix offer numerous simple, useful templates for establishing your online presence for a competitive price. Having a URL that uses your own name and includes writing samples and contact info can send a strong signal that you’re a professional with experience who’s ready to work.

Before you start competing for job opportunities, it’s important to determine your rate. You are competing with other freelancers in your skill space, so if you overcharge you won’t get work. But if you undervalue yourself, you could be costing yourself thousands of dollars in the course of a year. Spend some time researching the market value of your skill set and determine a solid hourly rate for your efforts.

You need to stay agile and anticipate how you can grow your skill set in the future. The more you can do, the more jobs you can land.

This may seem obvious, but reliability is a crucial skill to freelancing. That means responding to messages quickly, communicating in a professional manner, being open to feedback, and most importantly, turning work in on time. When you take on work, you must meet your deadlines. You can always gain more skills, but if you don’t turn in assignments on time and ruin your reputation, it won’t matter. Remember, you’re your own PR department.

Any freelance marketplace you use will allow your clients to rate your work and leave reviews. Not every client is going to rate and review you, but many will. And those ratings are crucial to your ability to book future opportunities. If you turn in accurate, quality work on time and with a good attitude, people will say so. If you blow past deadlines and get irritable with your contacts at your client company, they’ll criticize you in reviews. There are no training wheels. It’s important to do good work from the start. Also, if your clients are consistently raving about you and giving you high marks, your profile will be more prominently featured in search results, and you can charge a higher hourly rate. Happy customers lead to more opportunities.

A world of opportunity and flexibility awaits a freelancer who can market his or her skills, complete work reliably and on time, and continue to seek out new clients.

What’s the best way to move overseas?

best way to move overseas

The best way to move overseas is with a modest amount of luggage and an open mind. Try to sell most of your possessions and fit most of your belongings into a couple suitcases. Sell big items like your furniture, keep yourself to a few key keepsakes, sell your books and media and buy an e-reader, and don’t carry things that are easy to buy in other countries like kitchen items or linens. You’ll be able to find anything you need in your new country.

Not every country you go to is going to be like home, and there will be many differences that catch you off guard. But that’s the whole point, right? You don’t want to travel halfway around the world to do the same things and interact with the same types of people you did back home.

Use this general checklist when preparing to move abroad.

  • A valid passport
  • Private health insurance
  • Obtain your medical and dental records from your doctor and dentist
  • A long-term visa for your destination country
  • Cancel your lease and phone plan (and gym membership, car insurance, and any other recurring payment for services you won’t need any more)
  • Have your mail rerouted to a trusted acquaintance’s house
  • Arrange your new accommodations in advance
  • Contact the consulate for the country you’re traveling to and arrange your visa and business license situation in advance

What about health insurance abroad?

health insurance

Even if you’re traveling to a country with a nationalized health service, you'll often have to be a resident of the country for several months before you can enroll. Given this, you'll likely want to purchase international health insurance. World Nomad and IMG Global offer two of the most popular plans for travelers, and you can search for quotes on nowcompare.com and expatfinder.com.

A world of opportunity awaits you as an international freelancer. Work is only part of life, on your weekends you can go exploring through Asian markets or skiing in the Andes. Whether you choose to settle in a megacity or quiet apartment in a quaint Spanish cathedral town, you can build a splendid life for yourself as a freelancer. Find your place.

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