Editor’s note: This article, which originally published on September 25, 2001, was updated by TechRepublic blogger Susan Harkins.
Contracting abroad may sound like an impossible catch-22: You can’t get the visa until you get the work, but you can’t get the work until you get the visa. However, there are alternate arrangements that may allow you to do consulting work outside of the United States. Consider these alternatives:
- Working for U.S. companies abroad.
- Volunteering your technical skills.
- Continuing to contract for your current clients but from a foreign country.
I’ll discuss these options and how you can make them work.
Last in a series
The first installment in this series, “Got the travel bug? Consider contracting outside the United States,” covered which countries are friendliest to foreign IT workers and where to look for information about work permits and visas. The second installment, “Use these resources to find contracting work with foreign clients,” offered advice for finding jobs abroad.
Contract work with American companies abroad
Many companies have problems filling overseas positions for obvious reasons. But if you’re ready to go, you may find yourself hired quickly and often at a higher rate of pay than you would receive for the same job stateside.
Find these kinds of positions just as you would any other — work your network of former clients, associates, and friends to ferret out overseas projects. In some cases, you may need to sign on as a permanent employee to get plum jobs or to satisfy visa requirements. However, if you’d like to stay a couple of years or longer, the prospect of working abroad could make it worthwhile to briefly give up your contractor lifestyle.
Consider working for a nonprofit or volunteering
Since many IT ventures in poorer countries tend to be staffed by local IT workers, they can’t afford to give jobs to foreigners. Even if they can pay, the rate would probably not be to your liking.
But if you’re more interested in the contribution you can make than the financial reward, consider working for a nonprofit group or doing volunteer work. For example, you could teach your IT skills or help developing communities get wired.
You’ll find a great starting point for these opportunities at idealist.org, an offshoot of the nonprofit services organization, Action Without Borders. Use this site to find volunteer opportunities or look for work with nonprofits.
Another useful page is Duke University’s International Career Resources page. Although geared primarily to students, many of these links are also helpful to professionals looking to volunteer.
Transitions Abroad offers a lot of good information and links to more sites that deal with volunteering or working for non-profit organizations abroad. You might check out Finding Dulcinea, as well; click the Nonprofit Volunteer Opportunities Abroad link to the right.
Working overseas while keeping your U.S. contracts
Depending on your skills, you may be able to continue working for your current clients, but from another country. When you don’t need to meet work permit and visa requirements or be fluent in the local language, you can consider living in countries you’d have to rule out if contracting locally. In addition, many countries have a much lower cost of living than the United States, which can enable you to get by while working less.
However, you can’t escape the paperwork completely; you may still need a residency permit. Fortunately, many countries are happy to have foreign visitors with money to spend. You may also be able to stay until your tourist visa is up and then take a train to the border, spend a day in an adjoining country, and return the next day under a new tourist visa. This type of arrangement will require you to have the right kind of clients, to find a new home with the right kind of facilities, and to lay the groundwork before leaving the United States.
Dependable, loyal clients back home
The most important ingredient in this equation is your clients. For this arrangement to be successful, you should have a well-established client base of companies that pay you on time and that will continue to need your services. Ideally, you already do most or all of your work off-site for them.
You’ll need to reassure clients that your commitment to them won’t change and that you’ll continue to be available. Send out a schedule of regular e-mail updates, if you don’t do this already. You may need to be willing to conduct business at any time of the night, when midnight your time becomes noon at your client offices.
To help ensure a steady cash flow, consider working out new payment arrangements, such as a retainer agreement in which you’re paid a certain amount up-front to ensure that you get paid for the work you do. If possible, sign an extended contract with your clients.
If clients balk at your plan, offer to lower your rates slightly as an incentive. If your cost of living is lower, this shouldn’t be too much of a sacrifice.
You could also offer to reimburse clients for international phone calls they need to make to you. Finally, if you anticipate being gone for a year or more, plan on making regular visits back to the United States to stay on your client’s radar and to look for new clients, if necessary.
Dependable Internet, mail, and phone access
No matter where you set up shop, you must have access to certain business basics. You’ll need dependable services for snail mail, Internet services, and telephone service. Make sure that these services and others, such as power and water, are not subject to long outages.
For just about every country, you can find this type of information and more, such as the cost of living, in a comparative format in the CIA’s The World Factbook. However, you can’t believe everything this guide says. For example, it claimed that Nepal has no ISPs, even though Kathmandu and a couple other tourist towns are littered with Internet cafes, which implies that you, too, could get a connection. So consult other resources as well, such as travel guides.
You may be able to stick with U.S.-based companies for your communications needs. Look into service providers that have access numbers all over the world.
A basic infrastructure back home
To keep things running smoothly and handle any snafus that are bound to arise, you need to set up at least a few basic things back home:
- A U.S. mailing address: Set up a box with either the U.S. Postal Service or a place like Mail Boxes Etc..
- Payment arrangements: If possible, have your clients arrange to pay you via a direct deposit into your banking account. You could also have your first-class mail forwarded to you overseas on a regular basis, but this could get expensive. In addition, you may have problems cashing foreign checks.
- A business contact: You’ll need some sort of business contact person back in the United States, someone who will help you deal with clients when necessary. Having a relationship with an attorney could be helpful. For lesser matters, such as handling mail or certain phone calls for you, a colleague may be willing to act as liaison for a small fee.
You can find information on living and working abroad at the U.S. State Department’s Web site. You should also use this site to check whether there is a travel advisory for any country you’re considering.
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