Freelance writer: 5 essentials for living and working overseas

Melinda J. Irvine -- freelancing and living overseas

Being able to work from anywhere that has internet signal or mobile service is absolutely one of the best perks of being a freelance writer. And in this blog I’ll be sharing some of my experiences, as well my 5 essentials  for living and working abroad.

In Australia, I had lived on the road for many years working as a hospitality consultant specialising in online training, WHS, and HR. But in 2016 (after volunteering in a rural province of the Philippines) I started a freelance writing business so I could stay here, work remotely, and adopt the little boy I met roaming the streets a year earlier.

Working your freelance writing business while abroad sounds amazing, but in truth it can be isolating, unproductive, and just plain hard. You’re out of your comfort zone, access to utilities can be very challenging, and you’re clients are back at home (or somewhere else probably in a different time zone). But with perseverance and bit of smarts you can have a great business, a profitable bottom line, and a fantastic life. Let’s go.

operating legally and safely - Melinda J. Irvine Freelance Writer

1. Operating legally

When you’re in a foreign country and start bending the rules you run a very high risk of getting yourself deported (and then blacklisted).  Countries are very touchy about foreigners making money while on their soil and have strict rules about working, operating a business, and paying taxes. So my first tip is to make sure your freelance writing business has been setup correctly in your home country before going abroad.

You’ll definitely require a valid tax ID number and in some countries you may also need to register your business (and possibly a business name). Bring your business registration documents with you (or at least have a scanned copy on your laptop and in the cloud) in case you run into any problems.

REMEMBER: in most countries you are not actually allowed to operate business in their country, you are primarily a tourist who happens to be doing some work while on vacation.

Please make sure you:

  • Check the legalities of working in the country you plan to visit (before you leave home)
  • Have the correct visitor’s visa and keep it up-to-date
  • Don’t take on clients in the country where you are staying

I’m especially strict about not taking on Filipino clients. Even though all my clients are billed with my Australian Business Number (ABN) and pay with Australian dollars, I feel that taking on local clients could end up causing me problems with immigration. Doing the right thing makes good business sense too,  you’ll be a more confident writer and can represent yourself with integrity to your clients.

WIFI and utilities - Melinda J. Irvine Freelance Writer

2. WIFI and essential services

Working from a tropical island in a bikini sounds really sexy, but trust me when I say  (because I did it from 2010-2012) nothing will sag your bikini line (and your budget) quicker than crap WIFI. Do your research into the WIFI signal, outages, costs, and overall availability before you book your ticket to that remote mountain resort and plan to write blogs and web content for clients in between hiking and kayaking.

IMPORTANT: your entire livelihood is linked to your ability to market yourself, conduct research, return jobs, respond to clients, and take care of legalities. Affordable WIFI and phone service are critical if you are going to stay in business.

Here in the Philippines I have home broadband at the apartment I rent (it’s in the name of a Filipino friend who is abroad and didn’t mind sharing his account). Because this service is often painfully slow (like right now) I also have my Australian phone (1.5 gig per month of international data), and 2 other prepaid devices with different carriers. After nearly 5 years I know a range of local cafes, resorts, and shopping centres where I can get decent WIFI (and don’t have to pay a fortune in food/beverages to do it). But it takes time to build this knowledge and usually through a series of less-than-ideal situations.
consistent work routines

3. Setting work routines

When you are always on the road it can be almost impossible to keep consistent writing habits and routines. But these unsexy daily rituals are what drives your writing practice and ultimately your profit. You won’t make very much money if you are always dropping your client work to visit art exhibitions, attend festivals, or swim with the dolphins.

Of course research  the local highlights of the region where you are staying, but set yourself consistent work hours and schedule your recreation time the same way you would from your home office. It’s your business remember, you can set as many (or few) working hours as you wish. But consistent work times will result in far more output — an ultimately more sightseeing and beach time.

working with writing clients

4. Working with clients

When you’re working from a foreign country, chances are you will be working out of a  different time zone to your clients. For the writing itself this often won’t matter, but things can become complicated when your working through edits or changes to the project brief.

For example: I took on this job last year writing a letter to a US Congressman on behalf of a Canadian citizen. But because of the timezone differences I found myself up working to 2.00am and 3.00am just so we could finalise the job inside the client’s work hours. Lesson learned, and there are a number of countries now where I just don’t bother. It’s really hard to maintain professionalism when you’re constantly missing each other’s emails, phone calls and skype messages.

accessing funds overseas

5. Accessing your money

This is a really important one, because accessing your money when overseas can be (not only) expensive, but dangerous. If you’re living on a tourist visa it’s unlikely you’ll be able to open a bank account in your foreign country of choice so you’ll be relying on money changers, ATMs, and EFTPOS.

Since arriving in the Philippines almost 5 years ago, accessing money has become a whole lot easier. But there are still many places that only accept cash or locally issued credit cards. Many ATMs in the Philippines don’t accept international Mastercard, while others don’t accept Visa. Then there’s the security issue.

Being a foreigner standing alone at an ATM isn’t always safe (even when there’s a security guard packing a big fat shotgun). I’ve been in the middle of a withdrawal when the power has gone — and I’m talking as the money was supposed to dispense but didn’t. Then I’ve had to go into the bank, sit in long queues, then fill out paperwork to investigate the incident. Yes, (even though the withdrawal was deducted from my bank balance) I still had to wait 4+ weeks for the $300 to be credited back to my account. Not great if you are on a tight budget.

Another time my home bank in Australia decided that my Debit Mastercard had been ‘stolen’. Of course they didn’t bother to contact me to ask if it actually had, and went ahead and cancelled it. Painfully the next time I went to a Philippine ATM, my card was ‘eaten’ and I was left with a message saying the card had been confiscated and destroyed. Luckily I knew the security guard (yeh it was the same ATM from the blackout incident) and he went inside and gave me back the card with no fuss.

PS: when I called the bank in Australia really really angry about being left in the Philippines with no Debit card, rather than apologise for their mistake they were more dismayed that the card had not been confiscated and destroyed. 

The moral of this little story is never solely rely on one way of accessing your money. Have ATM cards from at least two different banks. Take cash and change it. Or even better send cash to yourself using a money transfer service and pick it up at a cash agent or bank. It’s a whole lot safer than standing outside at an ATM.

Remember also that ATM transactions attract a heap of fees.

  1. Local ATM fee (in the Philippines it’s 200 pesos)
  2. Home country bank fee (in Australia it ranges from $4-5 per transaction)
  3. Currency conversion fee (3-5%)

Add to that the fact there is often a cap on withdrawals (it’s 10,000 pesos in the Philippines). So if you want more than about $300 you’re up for all those fees again.

Tips for saving money

  • Use EFTPOS where you can and ask to process the transaction in your home currency (remembering that not all EFTPOS terminals have this facility).
  • Check the exchange rate every day and shop around for the best prices. Because I check the exchange rate every day I always know whether to change my cash, use EFTPOS, or send money to myself. I haven’t used an ATM in the Philippines for about 2 years now.
  • Register with international transfer services like World Remit, TransferWise, or Western Union. You can transfer money direct from your bank account to a cash agent or local bank. The fees are much lower and I find the transactions a lot faster. Sometimes the queues to Philippine ATMs go on for  hours.

enjoy new cultures working abroad - Melinda J. Irvine Freelance Writer

Everyday I wake up amazed at the technology that allows me to work as a full-time freelance writer and earn a comfortable living while waiting in the Philippines to adopt my little man Jerry. I hope my 5 essential tips have been helpful to you, they are based on my own personal experiences and I’d love to hear from other writers working abroad. Don’t be afraid to say hi or ask a question.

PHOTO CREDIT: all background images were sourced from

4 responses to “Freelance writer: 5 essentials for living and working overseas”

  1. […] a consistent internet connection is critical for freelancers.  Internet is essential for research, accessing cloud-based […]

  2. Cindy Avatar

    Very useful and practical information, especially that you could remit $ to yourself via money transfer services! 🙂

    1. Melinda J. Irvine Avatar

      hey Cindy, we got your postcard on Friday afternoon. Yay. I read it to Jerry this morning before he went to school. He loved the Christmas stamps.

      I used World Remit for sending money to myself, it’s really great. Much cheaper than ATMs and you can pick up from any BDO, SM, Cebuana, Palawan Transfer, M.L.Hullier. Awesome.

    2. Melinda J. Irvine Avatar

      There’s another one called TransferWise that is even cheaper but it takes about a week. World Remit takes 1-2 minutes.