If you’re a U.S.-based freelancer, working with international clients can be a good way to expand your portfolio and earn extra money—but it can also come with some unexpected costs.
Different time zones might mean working unusual hours
The first cost? Your sleep. As The Freelancer reminds us, working for a client in a significantly different time zone can lead to some late nights or extremely early mornings:
A client emails you asking to set up a call at 1:00 p.m. “That sounds great,” you think to yourself. “I’ll have time to grab a little lunch and then get back to it.” You draft a confirmation email, but you stop halfway, remembering this client is based in India. You’re in New York, where 1:00 p.m. for them is actually, uh, hold on, let’s Google it…3:30 a.m. for you. Not great.
The Freelancer suggests being clear about your boundaries and availability—that is, being upfront about which hours you generally work and which hours you don’t—but acknowledges that sometimes you’re going to have to sacrifice a night of sleep if you want to keep those international gigs.
The same goes for remote freelancers who want to work while traveling the world, by the way. If you’re out of sync with the people who pay you, you’re the one who’s going to need to make the sacrifices.
Getting paid might cost you money
When you do get paid, you might get stuck with extra fees. The Write Life has a good list of the different types of payment methods available—PayPal, wire transfers, international bank accounts—but notes that you’ll still probably have to pay a few extra dollars just to get access to your hard-earned dollars.
When you’re being paid online for international services, you have to understand that you’re going to pay extra fees, in comparison to working with a local client.
These fees are tax-deductible, but if you’re currently pinching pennies, you might be better off looking for domestic clients with a more streamlined payment system. (Direct deposit is my favorite method of payment, hands down.)
Your taxes might become more complicated
On the subject of taxes: When you work with international clients, you’re going to have to be extra-vigilant about your tax obligations. As The Freelancer explains, those international clients might not send you 1099s—but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for accurately reporting the income you’ve earned:
If you’re based in the US, your international client may not provide 1099s. They’re only an American tax provision. If this is the case, you should still confirm your yearly income with your client, just to be sure your records match and your tax information is accurate.
If you’re a U.S. freelancer earning money from international clients while working from a non-U.S. location, it gets even more complicated. The IRS has a calculator to help you determine whether your work is eligible for the foreign earned income exclusion (that is, whether income earned in a foreign country can be excluded from your tax return), but you might want to go ahead and hire a CPA to help you file your taxes, just to make sure you don’t make any inadvertent mistakes.
You might earn less money per hour overall
Lastly, you’ll want to make sure that your international work is paying at the same per-hour rate as your domestic work, once you take all the factors into account. In other words, if an international client and a domestic client pay the same rate, but the projects you complete for the international client come with late nights, a bunch of extra fees, and tax hassles, that client might not be the best use of your time.
Payoneer has a good guide to help you decide whether working with non-U.S. clients is “worth it:”
By factoring in ancillary costs of foreign activities, you could set your rates to match what you earn domestically on projects. However, think about the time value of money. If language, communication, and other obstacles slow you down a lot, you may not earn enough with a particular client to continue the work. In this case, adjust rates accordingly, or share politely and honestly your need to end the service.
Freelancers who’ve worked with international clients—what advice do you have to offer? Is building an international portfolio a good way to grow your freelance career, or should U.S. freelancers try to stick with U.S.-based clients?