How to Survive as an Overseas Freelancer While Saving Money

Which option would you choose: getting ripped off when you’re overseas or using your hard-earned cash on an amazing trip? If you don’t want to get ripped off, good! Stick around and let’s try to save some money.

Freelancing overseas is a very exciting venture, but it comes with its own challenges — I should know because I travel overseas a lot.

While many of us just want to focus on how to have a good time in our exotic locations, we need to be careful in how we spend our money — so we don’t end up busting our budgets.

Here’s what you need to know to survive as an overseas freelancer:

Get a VPN

I can say from personal experience that getting a VPN service saved me hours of valuable work time and cash (after all, time is money right?).

If you don’t know already, a VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Essentially, what it does is ‘trick’ the internet into thinking you’re in a different location.

How does subscribing to such a service help?

1. You can call long distance for free.

Google Talk is an awesome plugin you can use when you log into your Gmail account. It works like Skype, where you can make phone calls anywhere in the world. Google Talk allows users to call other users within North America for free.

If you have a VPN service, you can hop onto a U.S. server and use Google Talk for free no matter where you are in the world.  Some countries have also banned Skype (or restricted access, like in some parts of China) so in my experience Google Talk is more reliable.

With Google Talk, if you have clients that want to chat on the phone, you don’t have to worry about how long the conversation will be or how much it might cost you.

2. In some countries certain websites are banned

You will find that in some countries, (like certain places in the Middle East and more famously, China) there are certain websites that are banned.

Even more frustrating are what some people call “partially banned” websites where you can access most pages, until you try to login somewhere or go to a website with information that is considered sensitive.

Another tactic some countries have employed is also to slow down the time it takes to load certain webpages. If you need to do some research for client work, you wouldn’t want to waste your precious time trying to slog through websites and seeing which ones you can use.

Having a VPN allows you to browse freely (and sometimes at much faster speeds) so you can make the most of your time. Seriously, the difference between saving 5 to 10 minutes each time can really add up!

VPN services are really cheap these days. You can sign up for as low as $5 a month — that’s less than the price of a latte!

Two Passports

Find Cheap Internet Access

Many freelancers already take advantage of free Wi-Fi access in coffee shops. It is the same with many of us who work overseas.

What’s even better is that many restaurants have free internet access to draw in customers. You can even find Wi-Fi access while walking down the street in Mongolia!

You have to be careful though that you’re not paying super inflated prices at these places because they offer “free Wi-Fi”. Again, you might be paying an extra few dollars each time, but if you are on a tight budget those few dollars can really add up.

If you think about it, a cup of coffee at a local shop in China will set you back about a dollar, whereas a Starbucks coffee will cost you anywhere from $3.50 to $6.00, all for the privilege of using Starbucks’ free Wi-Fi.

In a local restaurant without Wi-Fi, you might pay about a dollar for a meal whereas a restaurant with Wi-Fi will set you back about 6 dollars.

How to Save Money Overseas

  • Book a hotel with internet access included. This can be a cheaper option if you only want to do work from the comfort of your hotel room.  In many parts of Asia, hotels as cheap as $20 US dollars are very nice and can provide you with reliable internet access.
  • Scout out restaurants with meal specials. You can usually find this in and around major cities during weekdays. I’ve been able to find a filling meal and hang out for hours at a restaurant all for about $2.50.
  • Libraries in some major cities will provide free internet access. Browse travel forums or ask locals to locate them. In China, many major train stations provide free Wi-Fi if you don’t mind working in a crowded place.
  • When in doubt, head to your local McDonald’s. Ninety-nine percent of the time they have internet access. Be forewarned, they restrict how long you can use their Wi-Fi. For example, in China they limit access to 30 minutes.

Get the Right Travel Visa

This sounds really obvious, but make sure you have the right type of visa for the country you are in. You technically don’t need a work visa unless you are working locally.

In most cases, a tourist visa will suffice. Another obvious tip: do not overstay your visa!  

Not only will you face huge fines, but you may be required to fly back to your home country and reapply for a visa if you want to enter the same country again.

In many Asian countries, fines can be $200 USD or more.

Determine Cash or Credit

If you’re traveling within Asia, cash is king.  The only places that really use credit cards are hotels (mainly the big chains) and larger department stores in major cities.

Some Southeast Asian countries, like Bali and Thailand, may make you pay the service fees incurred to process credit cards, which is anywhere from an extra 2-4% of your total bill.

Depending on your credit card company, you may also have to pay an extra 1% on purchases not made in your local currency. Credit card surcharges are only a problem if the places you go to actually accept them.

In China for example, stores and local hotels only accept what is known as Unionpay, their version of Visa. Also, some hotels started using Paypal because it’s cheaper for them to process payments that way.

But wait, you say! Isn’t it risky to carry around a lot of cash? Well of course it is.

Make your big purchases in advance online (e.g. booking hotels). Most of these websites allow you to charge your card in your local currency, which might help you save that 1% on your credit card.

Be warned that this might be a more expensive option as many cheaper and local hotels don’t have websites or advertise through these sites.

Take out cash with your U.S. bank card at local ATMs. Basically, any ATM with the “plus” logo on it will be able to take your card.

In most cases, your bank will charge you $5 each time you take out cash, and your withdrawals are usually limited to $1,000 USD per day. This way, you don’t need to carry around copious amounts of cash on the road and worry about it getting stolen.

Bring U.S. dollars to exchange, as this currency is usable anywhere in the world. It would be hard to find a place in the world that won’t have currency exchange places that accept U.S. dollars.

Plus, bills from other countries end up being in thicker wads than U.S. bills. For example, if you carry around $1,000 USD, it’d be ten $100 dollar bills, versus 60-70 Chinese Yuan bills. It will be less noticeable if you carry a large amount of cash that way.

While these tips will apply to almost any country you go to, it is best if you do some research beforehand. There are so many forums out there that will give you tips on where to find Wi-Fi access, ATMs, or places that will accept credit cards.

So what are you waiting for?

Are you a freelancer that travels overseas? What tips do you have to save money?

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  1. Liz says:

    My tip would be to plan plan plan! We went to Europe this summer and carefully studied the hotel market in each city we visited. We were looking for clean hotels in safe easy access neighborhoods. Weren’t always the rock bottom prices but we manage to save money by planning ahead!

    • Sarah Li Cain says:

      Yes, planning is definitely important! I like to look at what coffee shops and restaurants are around as well, so everything is within walking distance 🙂

    • Sarah Li Cain says:

      Yes, I used a free one for ages but it’s definitely not as fast as the one I have now. I remember I spent a good part of an hour trying to log onto wordpress trying to upload a blog for a client. Not good!

  2. Jessica says:

    ahhh my dream. I wish I had done this before I had kids but now my dream is to do this once they are both out of the home. I want to travel the world to write and teach. Thanks for the tips. I’m adding them to my “Travel Frugally” folder!

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