Working Abroad: What Does it Really Take to Make the Move?
Breaking it Down: Thinking globally with your career trajectory
A Person of Independent, according to Merriam Webster, is defined as “not dependent: such as being enough to free one from the necessity of working for a living.” Now, I am not saying that the goal is to never have to work—it’s a far-cry from that really. My interpretation is that true independence is designing a lifestyle where you are living in a way that works for you, not a life of working just to live. I understand this is a luxury and a privilege to be able to think and operate from this mentality, but if you have the opportunities, and more importantly the resources, to make opportunities that excite and inspire you, then you should absolutely take advantage of those.
I have been a freelance writer for the past 7 months and recently moved to South America this past June to live and work abroad. This big move came after I left my full-time corporate job at a lifestyle magazine in Los Angeles with the goal to live overseas for the remainder of my 20’s. So, one year after walking away from a professional, yet painfully stagnant job, I am now living in Medellin, Colombia while pursuing my passion for writing and building a freelance career. And honestly, if I can do it, you can do it, too.
My goal was to live outside of the U.S., learn a new language, become a certified Yoga teacher, and drive my writing career forward. My pursuit of an independent lifestyle meant a more fluid workflow, with the ability to work remotely, and that would allow me to experience another culture in between sustaining a meaningful work life. And I want you to know that this life is absolutely attainable, which is why I have outlined what it really takes to make the move abroad while continuing, or starting, a freelance career. Keep in mind, these are my experiences living specifically in Latin America and traveling to another continent will surely come with its own set of experiences and pre-travel requirements.
You can read about my first week in Medellin in this blog post and get a sense of what those initial few virginly inhales felt like in my new Latin digs. But this specific guide comes after having lived within the freelance grind abroad for nearly 3 months and my reflections on what it took to get here. It’s a compilation of feedback gathered from research, friends who have worked or are currently working abroad, facebook groups, and travel forums. There are so many resources out there to reference and get advice from about living in nearly every city around the world–the caveat being that you need to be working independently or have a job that allows you take your desk overseas. My intent is to lift the veil on this lifestyle abroad that on social channels may appear to be one long vacation—anyone who is actually working a job in a foreign country for 40+ hours a week knows that is a far cry from the truth. But that doesn’t mean that when you do have time off, it can be pretty damn spectacular. The best thing about moving to a new continent, for me, is that you have access to new cultures right outside your doorstep and the chance to meet international people that you may not have ever crossed paths with back home. It isn’t all what Instagram makes this journey out to be, but it is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Read on for the most important ways you can prepare for your move, how to set up an office on-the-go, tricks to finding that magical work/life balance, and what it really means to be your own boss.
I spent about 6 months preparing for this move abroad, between researching the best suitcases, finding the perfect hiking shoe, dentist and doctor check-ups, finding insurance, updating my passport and driver’s license, notifying all of my banks of my time abroad, and overall research of the country I would be re-locating to. These, in my opinion, are the most important things to prep for before checking-in to the airport and hopping on a one-way flight to your new locale.
Find a health coverage plan that works for you. There are many travel insurance companies out there! Compare pricing and coverage to see what works for you and your lifestyle. A friend recommended, Safety Wing, a super affordable option for travelers. Consider getting insurance locally if you are living in one country for an extended period of time, 6 months+
Credit and debit cards with minimal to zero foreign transaction fees (Charles Schwab is great) and credit cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred are fantastic for travel expenses that earn you points towards future trips. A few people recommended having multiple cards during travels. Leave some in your apartment/hostel and of course, keep a few handy while working around the city.
Make sure you have ways to receive and send money while abroad. Especially if you are working and need to get paid! Link bank accounts to Zelle if you can for the purpose of money exchange and getting paid by employers as you cannot set up a Zelle account while out of the states. Venmo cannot be used internationally and PayPal can be used at no charge when the other person has a business account set up to receive money. Wire transfers through your bank are a great option if you need to send money to a specific person.
Phone plan. This was a big issue for me and took me a few steps and a few expensive bills to get right. A friend recommended using Google Fi (if you have an unlocked or paid off phone). The service works well if you are willing to pay for it. My bill was $100+ a month because they charge you even for making toll-free class calls to overseas institutions. US-based companies that were supposed to be toll free but Google still charges for those calls. I have a huge problem with this and therefore discontinued my service because overall it was too pricy.
Currently I am using a Colombian SIM card-a reasonably affordable option that I pay weekly for.
I did not want to get rid of my US number so I transferred my Colorado # to Google Voice, which allows me to send and receive texts through their phone app. International calls do cost extra though.
For work calls and international outreach, I use the app: Text Now for FREE calling. Keep in mind that they assign a random number to you, therefore, I have been getting calls from diff. institutions and people in the states because this number was someone else’s who then released their number publicly. That is the one drawback.
WhatsApp is the preferred method of communication in LatAm, so this is a must if you are living down here. Free WiFi calling to other WhatsApp numbers is a plus.
Every time I arrive in a new country I have to get a new SIM card. A bit of an annoyance but well worth it so you can have access to your phone (Uber, Google Maps, and overall internet connection no matter where you are). For me this is a no-brainer as a solo traveler.
Medications/prescription drugs/vaccinations. This is a hot and controversial topic. What worked for me may not work for you. I went to a travel clinic in Denver, CO and spent a fortune on shots and vaccinations…I wanted to be overly prepared for my solo sojourn and did not want to risk getting held up at an international airport for not having proper proof of vaccinations. Keep in mind, every LatAm country has different security measures about this so do your research. And keep records on your phone and physical copies of proof in a safe place if you do get some of the more obscure vaccinations, i.e. yellow fever. Most major cities and airports you can get over-the-counter drugs, but if you have specific medications or are on birth control, make sure to stock up before jet-setting.
Be mindful of the time zones you are going to be living in and how that lines up with your employers or editors timezones. Maintaining great communication while living abroad is key, you don’t want your life overseas to negatively impact your productivity or relationship with colleagues and clients.
Language prep. While living in South America it is essential you have some experience speaking Spanish. It is the difference between connecting deeply with the culture and its beautiful people and remaining a gringo on the edge of integration. I moved here with basic Spanish and I am still struggling to keep up with the local dialect. Seriously, study beforehand!
Check out: Duolingo, Complete Spanish on Soundcloud, Spanish Coffee Break podcast, and Butterfly Spanish on Youtube
Because you will most likely be working from different locations each week or month, consider laying out your office supplies before jet-setting to determine exactly what you need to get work done. Our world is becoming more and more digitally dependent, which is a huge advantage for freelancers on-the-go! When it makes sense, try and use digital apps and programs to support your work, which means you will be carrying around a lighter-weight portfolio or backpack and risk getting important items lost or stolen. Try and simplify! Trust me, you don’t want to be lugging unnecessary gadgets around while walking through the city and taking public transportation.
MacBook Pro = life
Wifi! Having a good connection is non-negotiable for many digital nomads. Since living in Medellin, it has been a breeze finding places with great WiFi because it is a bustling and sophisticated city with many independent professionals. I also work from public libraries, co-working spaces, and shopping malls, which takes away my stress of feeling obliged to buy a new pastry or cappuccino every few hours :)
Laptop risers to help with posture during long days
Notebooks / daily and monthly planner / I enjoy hand-writing my notes and crossing-off to-do lists
Pens / highlighters / sharpies
Apps for organization: Google docs and calendar, excel spreadsheets, Plann app, Dropbox, Google Hangouts
Business cards—you never know when you will meet a potential collaborator
Chargers for phone / laptop / and portable charging devices for when you can’t find an outlet. You may also need voltage convertors in some countries.
Random: water bottle, granola bars, hand sanitizer, tiger balm, chapstick, ibuprofen.
Who’s the Boss?
Here, I dive into the pros and cons of being your own boss. Words of advice: hustle hard and stay humble. Try not to think of yourself as better than a project or an opportunity because making contacts and building clients as a new freelancer is a key to success and will help build your positive reputation in your specific industry. With that in mind, I also encourage you to ask for what you want and don’t be afraid to negotiate on pay, this is your business after-all, so you set your value.
Remember this is coming from someone who is new to the world of freelance, I am learning day-by-day through mistakes and missteps about what it means to have a lucrative and independent workflow abroad, but nonetheless I have some advice for those on this same trajectory of independence.
Location independent! This is huge for me as I am someone who is greatly impacted by my surroundings and space. Having the opportunity to set up my work space in a variety of atmospheres each day is a game-changer for my productivity. You know that classic image of someone who WFH (works from home) who is propped up by pillows in their bed while covered in crumbs and coffee stains? Ya, well honestly that is exactly why I love being freelance. Why? Because your work becomes the most important thing. My voice and efforts on the page are not dictated by my wardrobe or my boss’s interpretation of my work based on image or personal interests.
I set-up my schedule. That means I can break up my day with activities, social outings, workouts, tours, and mental breaks when I really need it. I also tend to work through the evening because I like to have some time each day to explore the new locations I am in. Find your flow! This will surely look different for you.
There is immense satisfaction in building a freelance career. For me, segueing into an independent career and moving overseas was a test to simply see if I could do it. Am I thriving? On some days, hell ya! Other days, it feels like it is a game of survival. With those pitfalls comes equal highs of validation and new work relationships that remind me I have something to contribute and my skills are worth investing in.
I have become a fiercely independent person who tends to resist authority, so, this life of unpredictable projects, long-days spent behind a computer screen, and average pay is worth the freedom to dictate my life how I want. Not to say that I don’t take on projects and stories because it is an opportunity to make money, but at the end of the day, I get to make these decisions in my own time based on my personal goals and values—not based on the agenda of an organization or company.
The freedom of choice. As an editorial writer who typically pitches editors my story ideas based around travel, architecture, fashion, and culture, I have a lot of range with what I can cover. Of course, I must consider the publication I am writing for, crafting content that caters to their audience and using their tone of voice, but I have the freedom to choose what I spend my time on. I am currently looking for part-time projects as a content writer for organizations and brands, which involves writing copy that caters to their business mission while adhering to their values that they want to share with future clients. Now, I am not opposed to taking on new work that may not be at the top of my list because I need to make money like the rest of us, but I have the luxury of seeking out institutions that inspire me and that I want to work with. It’s a hustle to find these place and then hoping they are looking for support, but that doesn’t stop me from reaching out and pursuing. Like I said before, ask for what you want and follow through.
Work opportunities and projects can fluctuate, so, plan for the worst. Have as many projects lined-up as you can for a few months in advance with varying deadlines and ensure you have accessible cash to get you through a few months to cover living expenses and unexpected bills.
Motivation! Because I don’t technically have to be at a specific location or online at a certain time, it can become a challenge to find the motivation and the discipline to find routine. But, you guys, if I can find the discipline, I promise you can, too! My mind does not work in a linear way, I have had to train myself and my habits to serve me for successes in my career. So, set a work schedule for yourself but allow for some wiggle room. If a middle-of-the-week trip opens up or you have an opportunity that can’t be missed, be willing to change up your routine in order to seize an experience. This is truly where the work-life balance comes to play…you have to be the gate-keeper of the distractions versus experiences that will undoubtedly come your way.
Work life can get a bit lonely. I think because writing is something I am passionate about, I have become quite comfortable with hobbies and projects that are done in solitude. But I still get lonely and miss the camaraderie between colleagues and sharing space with people to discuss work and career life. So, I try and schedule time each day or at least a few times during the work week to catch up with friends via phone calls, talk to editors, set-up phone interviews with prospective interviewees for stories, and of course, planning outings with new friends and acquaintances.
There are some days where I really crave the feedback and communication with peers in my industry. Working in an office offers you a close look at your colleagues and boss’s jobs, their career goals, their workflow, even their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t regret my time working at a private-turned-corporate magazine despite its consistent frustrations, it helped me build my own repertoire with editors and get editorial feedback and guidance. So, if you are early in your career, remember that this freelance life abroad is a bit like working in a silo. I recommend finding mentors from your industry or with the experience you are looking to work towards, who are willing to discuss projects and provide insight. This will keep your ideas fresh and help grow the evolution of your work and your build your brand.
Balancing work & Travel
Living abroad is very, very different than traveling abroad. This adjustment to a new mentality took me over two months to adapt to. I was living in the most popular and touristy part of Medellin and feeling overwhelmed with balancing my work output and my exploration of the bustling city just steps from my doorway. I felt like I was missing out on everything because I was working long days while trying to hustle new projects and apply for both part-time freelance work and potential full-time work for local companies. When I really made the shift into a productive—and far happier—digital nomad, was when I left the party-centric and chaotic barrio and moved to a much quieter middle-class neighborhood where everybody was getting up early, working out at the nearby stadiums, and headed to work. That simple change in environment helped me to change my attitude towards my own work. I know this will be different for everyone and that is the beauty of this independent life you have created or are in the midst of building.
You decide what works for you, tune-in to your self, understand what drives you, what brings you joy, and what are the essentials for a healthy life abroad that supports a passionate work life. And remember, this is a progression of discovery, so don’t stress when things feel off and out-of-place, make small or big shifts when necessary and stay open to this evolution of self and the work you are making.
Engaging in local events like theatre, film, dance, festivals, museums, dinner parties, and social gatherings will give you insight of the culture and the potential to make new connections and is a necessary mental break from your day-to-day workflow.
Set-up a schedule that makes sense for you. Consider working 4 days a week with longer hours so you can have 3-day weekends or working earlier or later in the day so you have the daylight to explore parts of the city that might not be as safe or accessible in the night.
The best part of living abroad is that you have direct access to cultural experiences and people to practice a new language with right outside of your door. Taking a coffee break or a mid-day stroll can lead to discovering a new part of your neighborhood or meeting a neighbor that might have a story—or 3—to share with you.
Set small and big goals for yourself with your work and travel. I find that planning a weekend-getaway to a new locale is a great way to motivate me to get more work done beforehand. That way, when I am on my mini-vaca, I am present and feel fully deserving of this chance to explore a new location.
Find a community of other freelancers, professionals, and University students who you can connect with. I find that it really helps to find like-minded people who are also working hard in their professions and on that hustle of working hard and playing hard. In Colombia, it’s not hard to find both! People work long hours here but are incredibly present when they are off-the-clock.
Looking for local work on the side? Take a moment to think about what skills you already have in your back pocket that you could make some cash off of or trade with others who have a skill you need.
Perhaps you are a native English speaker, there are many opportunities to teach others and having English as your first language is a huge advantage. Consider teaching basic conversational English to other travelers and even better—the locals.
Consider linking up with tour companies who are looking for ‘talent’ to help guide and provide support for their company that caters to international travelers and tourists. Again, English as your native language is a huge advantage.
Physical trainer, Yoga teacher, or sports enthusiast? Invite people to work out and train with you for cash you or teach public classes for cash. A perk of living in Colombia is there are outdoor gyms and stadiums everywhere to work out.
I have met people who cook for their AirBnb roomies for a little extra cash. You could even look around at local restaurants and panaderias who may need a helping hand in the kitchen
Photographers, graphic designers, and visual artists are in an opportune space to contribute to local brands and businesses who need help with branding and image. Also, event photographers are in high-demand, especially in Colombia where there are festivals and celebrations every other week.
Get creative! What do you love to do in your free time that could be shared with others for a lucrative side hustle?
So, how do you define independent?
Stay tuned for follow-up posts that take a look at the financial aspect of living in LatAm, options for co-working spaces abroad as well as a more detailed transition of my passive life to one of passion. If you have any questions about any of this info OR would like to add to this post about your own experiences that may help freelancers and those working abroad, please leave a comment below!
The world awaits…