How to move overseas as a freelancer – a checklist
Over a year ago, after traveling for three months, I moved to Berlin to follow my freelancing dreams and seek a more satisfying life. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve had regrets, and I’ve made great decisions. I’ve learned to adapt to a whole host of situations and how to ultimately survive in a foreign country with an unstable income.
Taking this leap to freelance is a big (though exciting) step in itself. However, when you combine this with moving to a new country, it adds a new level of challenge and uncertainty to the equation. You can plan it well in advance or find your way as you go along, but two things are for certain: it will test you as a person and you will also learn quite a bit about yourself in the process.
If you’re considering making the move to freelancing while also moving to a new country, here are ten things that will help you embrace the exciting world of freelancing without getting too overwhelmed.
1) Know what your services are
If you felt like your skills were going to waste in the 9-to-5, now is your chance to hone in on your preferred work and increase your knowledge in chosen areas. Determine what you really love doing, what you’re strong in, and the kind of packages you could offer once you take the leap. (Here are some tips for packaging your services.)
This is a good time to sign up to some freelancing platforms, like CloudPeeps and start seeing what kind of work is available. Research other freelancers to understand where you sit in the marketplace and also where there might be gaps you could fill with your services. I keep an Evernote list of websites of other freelancers as inspiration and note what I love about their site, offering, blog content etc., which I regularly refer back to.
Don’t forget to research your chosen new destination. Join Facebook groups and Slack communities (Buffer, Tech London, Berlin Startup Slack Group, FreelanceLift are good examples here), reach out to friends in the city/region, seek out blogs online, read as much as you can to understand where you’re heading and its local freelancing “scene.” Think global here too, as with freelancing now your work opportunities could come from anywhere in the world!
2) Research your visa options
Not all countries are as freelancer-friendly as others. This can determine where you want to live initially until you build your business and can prove a steady and stable income for visa requirements.
If you have an EU passport, you will have more freedom. If not, explore other options such as working holiday (if you’re under 31, though it’s only for one year). Berlin is currently focused on building a creative hub so it offers a visa specifically for freelancers, which is ideal for anyone looking to start freelancing in a city that’s affordable and lots of fun!
Be sure to check how long you can be in a country as a tourist before applying for a visa so you don’t overstay your current visa (which will be a problem when applying for a work visa). And most importantly, make sure you are clear on when you can start working. Most countries won’t allow you to work until you have your visa and have registered locally.
With most countries, there are often people available to assist you with the process, especially when dealing with visa offices in the local language. Hit up Facebook Groups and Slack communities to ask questions on this and check out other freelancer blogs online for advice.
Most freelancers I know didn’t apply for the Berlin Freelance visa until they arrived. In this case, engage a native speaker upon arrival to assist you with any heavy documentation you need to complete. Never stop asking questions and try to learn as much as you can here – and don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake. You wouldn’t be the first foreigner to do so!
3) Simplify and get organized
You’ve decided on our resignation date, you know where you want to move to and the flight is booked. Whether you have six months or six weeks (like I did – super crazy, I know!), it’s important to create a checklist so you don’t get overwhelmed. I used a simple excel spreadsheet in Google Docs with headings such as ‘key dates’, ‘admin’, ‘travel plans’’, ‘budget’, ‘contacts’, ‘items to sell’ and batched related tasks to try and move through them faster.
It’s super important to tie up all loose ends in your home country before you leave, which can be challenging and time-consuming. Be ready to roll with the punches and expect some surprises once you’re overseas too (like that old bank account you forgot you had). Update your mobile phone to prepaid to keep your home country number and temporarily suspend or cancel any memberships (eg. private health insurance).
Get mail sent to your parents or a PO Box with someone regularly collecting. Make sure you have all passwords, pins and membership cards/numbers for everything on file. Know all dates and requirements to keep bank accounts and your mobile sim card active, re-organizing this after you leave is no fun, trust me. Using a tool like KeePass on your laptop is a secure way to manage all passwords, plus a physical folder with all items, contact details and client numbers etc. is also useful – but guard that with your life if traveling first!
4) Set up your finances in new country
Bookkeeping can be a bore but it’s vital to running your own business. Get your head around the currency exchange as fast as possible and set clear systems in place to help you keep it all in check. This can even just be a daily check-in or an accountability partner.
Set up a local bank account – one business and one personal. Most banks will have an English speaking service or you can apply online. Handling of money can be different too. In Germany, banking is slow and archaic, and everyone (often) pays in cash, especially in Berlin.
There are some great fintech startups disrupting this space – ideal for freelancers and digital nomads – such as N26 (was Number26), Mondo and Revolut. For international transfers, you seriously can’t beat TransferWise. It’s super fast, has low fees, and is easy and convenient. Never use banks for this and avoid Paypal if possible due to the high fees (though can still be a handy way to receive payments).
Keeping track of all income, spending and business expenses is vital as a freelancer. Find a platform that you feel most comfortable with and that meets your needs (and multiple currencies). I use Wave and Rounded (Australia specific) but some other popular ones are Freshbooks, Quickbooks, Xero and Harvest.
Track your time per client in a tool like Timely or Toggl. Nothing beats a good old-fashioned excel or Google spreadsheet to note down invoices as well. Track your income, currencies and conversions. Make sure it’s backed-up either in the cloud or on an external hard drive.
Seek out a local accountant as soon as you can and understand the requirements you need to meet. You may need to pay tax in your home country too initially, especially if you have a university debt to pay off. So keep your home country accountant informed of your travels and what will be required there too. Tax time may be a different time of year in your new country and the invoice requirements might be different, so be sure to note this.
Although most freelancers don’t think about a retirement plan initially, it’s definitely one to consider. Try to put money aside when you can. For Australians, don’t forget your superannuation back home too and consolidate this if need be. Developing some system early on will be beneficial in the long run.
5) Find a new home
Finding somewhere to live is exciting yet can be stressful. Staying in an Airbnb initially can be a good start (for say, one month) to give you time to arrive and learn more about the options in the city once you’re physically here. Every city will be different with this. In Berlin, there are many great Facebook Groups devoted to house-hunting, which include subletting options (a normal practice) to help get you started.
You may have trouble securing a lease as a freelancer too (the process in Berlin is long, complicated and extremely competitive), so shared living is a great way to start. Also, make sure your accommodation meets your visa requirements. For your visa application in Berlin, you must be officially registered at a residential address and must prove it before your application will be accepted.
6) When in Rome…
What worked in your home country, may not work in your new country – be it in work, relationships or socially. Learn the language – take classes or use DuoLingo or Babbel online in advance to learn the basics to start. Once you arrive, take a language class and keep up the study as part of your daily routine. Give yourself a sense of comfort in saying hello, understanding prices, buying food and reading menus, etc. It’s not only courtesy to your new country but it will also make your life easier.
Be prepared to experience some culture shock from time to time as well. Depending on where you move to, this will be more or less extreme to what you’re used to. Over time, I have picked up some of the cultural habits in Berlin (that used to annoy me) to slip into society more smoothly.
7) Be super social
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Now is the time to really put yourself out there to get settled in and make friends in your new city. Get a mobile pre-paid sim set up as soon as you arrive. Subscribe to newsletters and join any relevant Facebook group or Slack communities. Know anyone who knows someone in your new city? Get in touch, contact all connections before you leave and upon arrival. Even your sisters-friend-of-a-friend-from-backpacking. You never know. The world is seriously small.
8) Network, network, network
Not only do you need to get out there socially, you also need to build your business reputation in your industry. Get some business cards printed (aligned with your website) by Moo Cards or VistaPrint, make a list of meetups, events or upcoming conferences to attend, and get out there!
I was lucky that Startup Safary was on not long after my arrival in Berlin. It was very useful for learning about the local startup scene, making friends and meeting potential connections. Joining a coworking space can also be a great way to broaden your network and seek new opportunities. Get active in online communities, like CloudPeeps and NomadList, to meet a global community of fellow freelancers and digital nomads.
See a gap in the local meetup scene? Then you may want to also start your own meetup as a way to showcase your skills and meet like-minded people, or start a Freelance Friday in your city. Or set up your own workshop or run office hours at a coworking space. You didn’t come all this way to stay at home!
9) Stay healthy and balanced
Moving to a new country can be exciting and it’s easy to get too focused on having fun (enjoying the cheap beer and nightlife) upon arrival. Of course, have some fun and explore the city but also make sure you exercise regularly, manage your mental health (meditate and visualize your goals), and maintain healthy habits and routines as a freelancer.
If you become sick, there’s (often) no one else to pick up the slack. It’s super important to stay as healthy as possible, especially while you’re applying for your visa and setting up your business. There will be stressful moments and you need to be at your optimum to handle them the best you can. You want to enjoy this journey, not struggle through it!
10) Embrace this new lifestyle
You’re going to have self-doubt. You’re going to have tears. You’re going to have moments of “what the hell have I done?” In the end, you made this decision because you were dissatisfied with your previous life and wanted a fresh start. Embrace the highs and lows, learn the life lessons along the way, and make the necessary sacrifices to kick your goals. You will have to learn to push yourself and embrace uncertainty regularly – remember this is why many people stay in the comfort of a 9-to-5, because this ain’t easy but it’s incredibly rewarding. Everyone’s journey is unique — keep a positive attitude and simply do your best.
I won’t lie, taking a leap to freelancing while also moving to a new country is a challenge and might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life. With good planning, patience, continuous learning, a strong network, and acceptance of yourself (you’re only human!), it is possible to do it successfully and come out stronger on the other side. So go for it, take the leap!
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