Freelance Writers Can Work Anywhere, Right? Maybe Not.

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Is the life of a digital nomad even possible? Is it real?

Yes. No.

Over eight years I’ve lived in four different countries, hopping between the United States, England, New Zealand, Australia and, now, Germany.

The only reason I’m able to do this is because my work is portable. I started early as a social media consultant and recently moved into full-time copywriting.

So I was eager to read The Freelancer’s last post, Expat Freelancers on the Advantages and Challenges of Working Abroad. Writer Joann Plockova lives and works in Prague, and many of her experiences working outside America mimic my own.

Taking advantage of your dual-culture knowledge? Check.

When I lived in New Zealand, my experience running social media campaigns in the United States was a huge benefit. The technology hadn’t yet picked up steam there, so my knowledge and expertise were in demand.

Needing to hustle no matter where in the world you live? Check.

It’s harder to hustle abroad. My work is portable, but my network is not. It’s hard to maintain a solid professional community when you can only stay connected online. I’ve had to more or less start over in each country, making the hustle that much harder.

Trying to run a business in “foreign waters?” Double check.

I’m still not sure I’m correctly registered with the German government. It’s hard enough dealing with taxes in America. Try dealing with German tax paperwork.

Plockova is right though: freelancing is freelancing, no matter where you are. Unless you’re moving with an already healthy client load and established business, you will likely not be typing in outdoor cafes in Ubud.  

Speaking of outdoor cafes, Plockova missed a crucial issue for freelancers considering expat life.

File under: WiFi problems

It took me three months to get reliable Internet in Germany, and very few cafes offer WiFi. I spent more than $200 per month on data sticks and sent a lot of frantic emails to clients when I couldn’t send big files due to slow Internet.

Easy WiFi is not as prevalent outside the States, and it’s been a massive headache in every country I’ve ever lived. So if you plan on country-hopping, find a long-term portable Internet solution. And if you’re moving to a specific country for a longer period of time, expect at least a month or two of shoddy Internet.

I also wish Plockova had talked about her tax situation.

Freelancing: When tax time is all the time

While not a sexy topic, taxes are often the biggest source of contention when you work outside the States.  

The US is one of the few countries that requires you to file taxes no matter where you live or for how long you’ve lived there. On top of that, you still have to file in your chosen country.  

You’ll likely need to hire two accountants. And, remember, if you plan on working anywhere in the European Union, expect significantly higher taxes. I’m expected to pay almost 50 percent of my income to lovely Germany. And sure, you could argue I’m getting more benefits — free healthcare being the big one — but it doesn’t truly even out.

Basically, it depends what kind of freelancer you are.

I work primarily as a copywriter, which means a lot of business clients. Plockova, on the other hand, is a journalist. “Standing out from the crowd as a foreigner can be a massive advantage,” she wrote. “I’ve had numerous editors express their appreciation about receiving story ideas from Prague since I can provide perspective both as an insider and an American.”

Since I don’t write for many traditional publications, I have yet to experience this benefit. I’ve actually had the opposite response. Many businesses are not eager to work with a writer who’s so far away. Our massive time difference means I hold many meetings at night, which isn’t ideal for a good night’s sleep and romantic dinners with my husband.

That said, she is right about having great material when you travel and live abroad. I’ve written a number of essays about my experiences and there’s a constant curiosity on how I make it work. What visa do you get? What are your expenses? The answers to these questions make great content, what can I say.

I live abroad for adventure. To experience the world. For me, freelancing has been harder abroad. But the benefits of a lower cost of living and being able to hop on a train to Amsterdam for the day? That’s what makes it worth it.  

International freelancers, what do you think of Plockova’s article? How would you rate your experience as a freelancer?

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Marian Schembari is a writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner based in Germany, who left her heart in San Francisco, New Zealand, London and New York. Part of her heart belongs to the internet, too. Marian believes in the internet’s power to invite a real, deep look into our... .

Marian Schembari | @MarianSchembari

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  1. Great post, Marian!

    I was born and raised in Germany, and am currently going through the process of registering my freelance writing & VAing business here, so I know the feeling of not being sure if you’ve got it all right. The red tape here drives even German me crazy. And I haven’t even gotten started on taxes.

    But it also works the other way around. It’s not easy for European freelancers to move to and work in the US. Just try setting up a credit account without a social security number… 😉

    As your post describes, working and living abroad always has its pros and cons. Maybe we should all start lobbying for a universal freelance visa for the country of our choice. 😉


  2. Freelancing can be difficult in the states, nevermind abroad. I could not imagine working outside the United States even though I think it would be great. Thank you for the informative article!

  3. I absolutely love freelancing, even though shoddy internet moments can lead to a bit of a panic. I can definitely see why it would be difficult outside of The States.

    This was an interesting, and fun read. I didn’t really think about the Wi-Fi situation elsewhere, since it’s pretty much a given here in the United States.

    – Alexia

    • Alexia,

      Funny you mention it – was just on a Skype call today with some podcasters who are globetrotting and they said that getting good WiFi (especially good upload speeds) has been particularly difficult in their travels. They thought the cafe they were sitting at in Dublin was so popular in part because of its excellent Internet.

      But it definitely varies place to place, and I guess that’s what makes people nervous. I was just to Iceland where there was free awesome WiFi everywhere in downtown Reykjavik. It was downright dreamy, even if I was trying to take a break and not work on vacation!

      Thanks for reading,
      Lisa Rowan

  4. Great freelance writing details Marian. Keep it up.
    I recently wrote on – Powerful Proven Ways to Never be Broke by Writing Content for Fortune 500 Companies in freelancing:

  5. Thanks for sharing the difficulties of writing from abroad. I’ve seen several articles about how sexy it is, but this is the first one I’ve seen that sheds a more realistic light on the challenges that come with it. Good food for thought…

  6. All good points. I’m a new expat freelancer but my husband has his own business with many American clients, so we have experience with late night meetings, crazy taxes, and hustle. At least the benefit of living in the “Start-Up Nation” is plenty of Wifi and hi tech opportunities at every turn.
    Good luck with the challenges and enjoy the day trips!

  7. Marian, good piece. I just wrote a piece on writing and travel for the 2016 Writer’s Market about how to work the two. But a good chunk of mine was about house-sitting in foreign countries for small stretches of time, and being able to write copy (and travel pieces) for American companies, so no foreign tax issues.

    And yes, the Internet woes: we had stretches of dead air in the Bahamas, Panama and Mexico that had us yanking our hair. (Of course, we were still in the Bahamas, Panama and Mexico, so there was that.) Thanks!

  8. Jess Farley says:

    Spot on with the WiFi Marian, we have been travelling as digital nomads through Asia for the past year and some countries are much harder than others.

    Thailand had WiFi everywhere but the speeds were very slow and the connection unreliable, particularly in the wet season.

    In Vietnam internet is cheap, everywhere and very reliable even in rural areas.

    Ubud in Indo was hard as you have to find accommodation with Fibre into the house to get above 1MB per second which adds a significant cost. The image of working from a cafe in Ubud assumes you are not there in the wet season when the copper connection cuts in and out when it rains, or you are happy paying a higher price for food/drinks in a cafe that has Fibre.

    We are currently in Japan where the best option is a personal WiFi device from Softbank (we tried Docomo and one other provider before this but struggled with the connection in our rural setting). We are living in a cabin in the Mountains of Nagano for the winter season and still getting 50MB per second for $80 a month. Japan has the highest 4G coverage in the world at roughly 94% of the country covered.


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