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Freelance Jobs Abroad

Your Ticket to Living Overseas

If you do freelance work part- or full-time, you may already have what it takes to support yourself overseas indefinitely. When I began doing freelance Web development in 2001 it was with the hope that I could live abroad. My friends and family were skeptical, particularly because I had started after the first dot-com crash, but after two and a half years in Southeast Asia, I have proven it can be done.

Be Realistic

The most important thing when determining if this opportunity will work for you is not to be overly optimistic. It’s all about the ratio of your current and projected income versus the cost of living in your host country. In less-developed countries the cost of living is much lower, which means you can live well on a lighter workload. However, you need to make sure that back home you have steady customers who won’t be put off when they learn you are working from the other side of the globe. Don’t rely on the idea that you can make up for the slack by acquiring local customers in your new location. If you are having trouble landing customers in your own country, it will probably be even more difficult in a new culture.

In Southeast Asia, it is a PR status symbol for businesses to put a foreign face (or name) in front of their company. At first many business owners may be excited by the idea of being associated with you. In countries like Vietnam, foreigners who put down roots can even reach near celebrity status locally. However, when it comes to making the actual business commitment, many will shy away from a freelancing foreigner, who could leave the country suddenly without fulfilling his or her end of the contract.

Supply and demand will also vary from country to country. While the Internet has been readily available in developing countries for a number of years, most companies in Vietnam still fail to grasp how to use the Internet to promote their business. Vietnam seems to be five years behind the United States in its ability to use the Internet for commerce. I’ve read numerous articles published in the United States that trumpet the vast business potential in Asia because of the millions of young Internet users. What analysts fail to grasp is that most of these users do little more than play online games and send instant messages. The average user still doesn’t know how to use office applications or utilize the Internet as an information resource. All of this can make it difficult for Web developers like me to drum up new local business. When you do look for new clients, a good place to start is the local American Chamber of Commerce (www.uschamber.com/international/directory).

Wireless is Everywhere

When I first arrived in Southeast Asia in 2003, Internet connections were faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous than in my U.S. hometown. Now wireless is everywhere too. In countries like Vietnam, it’s often free if you buy a cup of coffee. Even when Wi-Fi is not available, I found I can plug my laptop into networks at most Internet cafes, if I bring a cable.

But be warned: electricity in many developing countries is often unpredictable, going out on a weekly or even daily basis. When I stayed in rural Sichuan Province in China a few years ago, the power was turned off every afternoon to make up for shortages due to mismanagement. In such cases you’ve got to be flexible. Be sure to take extra batteries for your laptop, and keep them charged. Never trust electricity produced by generators. Extra surge protectors and power adapters (cables) are a must. Electrical fluctuations have been so severe at times in Vietnam that I’ve had to replace both surge protectors and adapters more than once.

When Your Equipment Breaks Down…

I found that after dragging my computer to the mountains and rainforests, it began to wear out. Cameras fog up from the inside. Computers rust, cases crack, and screws fall out. The data layer on CDs flake off. You may find that your expensive warranties are of little use. You may wait months for repairs. It’s best to familiarize yourself with how to make repairs to your hardware, or have the funds to buy a replacement if you can’t fix it yourself. Keep in mind that while the gadgets in much of East Asia are more technologically advanced than those in the United States, they are also more expensive.

Do Your Transactions Online

If you don’t have someone at home managing your finances, then online payment systems such as PayPal (www.paypal.com) are a lifesaver. You can send and receive payments from clients with them, and route funds to your own bank. With their debit cards (with credit options), you can withdraw funds at any bank or ATM. Wire transfers and electronic transfers between banks are also an option, but transaction fees can be excessive so make sure you know how much will be deducted.

Working Freelance Abroad Can Simplify Immigration Papers

In many countries you may be able to continue your freelance work on a tourist visa, but you may be required to have a business visa if you take on local clients. While immigration laws are different in each country, as a freelancer you may not have to bother with additional work permits, background checks, and other paperwork required for local professionals. In Vietnam and Cambodia, where business visas can be renewed indefinitely without leaving the country, this makes for an ideal situation. See vietnamembassy-usa.org for information on immigration in Vietnam.

Freelancing Gives You More Time Abroad

I haven’t gotten rich by working freelance from overseas, but I have lived comfortably—much more so than I could have in my own country. While sometimes it is a struggle to force myself to sit and stare at a computer screen when I’d rather be out enjoying myself, I still find plenty of free time to make new friends, assist local charities, and put down roots in the local community.