Jumpstart Your Freelance Career by Working Overseas

It’s the curse of the freelance writer, photographer, or designer: it takes years to build up a reputation and a clientele, and in the meanwhile you’re expected to work for rates that barely pay a living wage.

Well… a living wage in the United States, anyway.

Instead of picking up one-off magazine or website assignments from your current home base in the US, consider jumpstarting your post-college freelance career by taking it overseas. By setting up a home office in a country like India, Thailand, or the Philippines, you are able to actually take those spec photography jobs or penny-a-word writing jobs. You can rent a furnished apartment in the lovely neighborhoods of Chiang Mai, Thailand for $300 a month. Try doing that in Chicago, New York, or even St. Louis. Best of all, you don’t have to wait until graduation to get your freelance career started — between summer breaks, winter holidays, and study-abroad semesters, you can afford to get working now.

As long as you are not actually working for a local company in-country (not earning extra money as a Thai coffee barista, for example), you are generally able to complete freelance work for a home-country client with just a tourist visa. That is: if you are American, you need to complete work for American clients and not for any other country’s clients unless you have an appropriate work permit for that country.

As always, different countries have different regulations, and it is best to confirm all the rules and laws before setting up shop. Many countries are changing their work and visa regulations to reflect online and internet work, so due diligence is a must. Remember that tourist visas are generally limited to a certain number of days, after which you need to leave the country for a short period of time and then return again. (For college students, this means that an overseas freelancing work trip also doubles as a perfect summer break job.)

Once you are set up in your new overseas location, you need to focus on two things: completing work and building relationships. (These are, not coincidentally, the same two items you need to focus on when trying to build a freelance career in the US.) Yes, you’ll want to spend some time touring monuments and mountains, but remember you’re not overseas to act like a tourist; you’re overseas to get a job done. So grab every job you can. Take that spec job and blow it out of the water. Work for below market rate just to get that extra line on the resume. Build your portfolio, and get as many high-profile clients as possible. Use every client project you complete to get the next client, and slowly begin to climb your way up the freelance ladder.

Meanwhile, build relationships both with your overseas clients and with new friends and colleagues in your current country. Find other freelancers and share tips and leads, but don’t limit yourself to just the expat group — be sure to get to know locals as well. Try learning the local language; it’ll be a good exercise for your brain and will help stretch your creative thinking.

Don’t go without knowing the overseas freelancer’s particular tips and tricks. Learn when taxi drivers are cheating you, learn how to count the local currency quickly, and learn how to safely send money online — don’t trust PayPal as your sole overseas bank. Don’t forget to pay freelancer estimated taxes just because you live overseas, and don’t ever try to skip out on taxes just because you’re not making a lot of money yet. It’s an extremely good idea to use some of the money you save as an overseas freelancer to hire a CPA — you’ll have some interesting tax deductions, after all, and a professional can help you sort out your finances so that the IRS will approve.

Read “How to Survive as an Overseas Freelancer While Saving Money” for more helpful tips, and then go west, young freelancer — or east, or north, or south. Sometimes, to jumpstart your career, you have to start by leaving home.

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