How to Make Money While Living Abroad
How to Work Remotely as a Digital Nomad or Digital Expat is a topic that is gaining more and more interest each day. Due to the pandemic and the shuttering of offices worldwide, which has caused a massive growth in the number of people working from home, it has become even more feasible to work remotely from anywhere in the world.
While it is possible to earn income from a job in another country, there are other options that may allow you to earn more money working fewer hours. Plus, you can start before you leave home so you minimize your risk of moving abroad and ensure a smooth landing in your new expat destination.
Is Getting a Job Abroad Realistic?
While it is possible to get a job abroad, it may not be the best option to earn income as an expat, especially in countries like Ecuador. Here’s why.
Local Language Fluency if Often Required
Most businesses require their employees to be fluent in the local language because most of their customers do not speak English. If you’re not fluent in the local language, it will be very difficult to find a job.
This is especially true in Ecuador where Spanish is the official language. Even though Cuenca has a lot of English speaking Ecuadorians, most people don’t speak English and even fewer speak la lingua franca in other places outside Cuenca.
In fact, according to the 2020 English Proficiency Index for Latin America released by Education First, Ecuador ranks LAST for English proficiency out of the 19 countries in the study.
Spanish fluency is a requirement to get a job at most businesses in Ecuador, as well as in other Spanish speaking countries.
A Specialized Skill Set is Often Needed
If you have a specialized skill set or education, you may be able to get a job and have a translator supplied for you. For example, Ecuador has a foreign doctor program that encourages doctors to move to Ecuador.
There are also programs to teach a foreign language to students in Ecuador, but the pay is very low: $4 to $5/hour.
When we were doing research to move abroad, we briefly considered New Zealand and Australia. However, even though we have marketable skill sets for available jobs in those countries, they have age and health requirements for immigrants that we didn’t meet.
You may have a specialized skill set that qualifies you for a job abroad, but the pay may be very low and there may be other factors that prevent you from getting a job in your preferred country.
You Might Need a Visa That Allows You to Work Remotely
You need a visa type that allows you to work in another country. Some visa types are specifically for work, others allow you to work, and others prevent you from working.
We have a Professional Visa in Ecuador, which allows us to work remotely, as well as get a local job, if we want to. Ecuador also has a Volunteer Visa that allows you to work as an unpaid volunteer, and a Work Visa that must be sponsored by an employer.
You’re allowed to work remotely in Ecuador with most of the temporary resident visa types, but the same is not true in other countries.
You Might Need to Pay Local Income Taxes
If you get a job abroad, you also need to pay income taxes to the country and province where the income is earned. If you work remotely and earn income online from clients in other parts of the world, you may not owe any local taxes.
In Ecuador, any income earned from companies based outside Ecuador is not taxable inside Ecuador. That not only saves you money, but it saves you the hassle of filing tax returns in Spanish.
Most Low Cost Countries Also Pay Low Wages
In popular expat destinations like Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Belize, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, etc., the local wages are very low. It’s difficult to earn enough money from a job to live even a basic American middle class lifestyle in many countries.
The minimum wage for a full time job in Ecuador is $415/month (2021). That’s about $2.59/hour. Moving from a country like the United States to Ecuador with a monthly budget of $415 before taxes will likely be a drastically different lifestyle for you.
We recommend a budget of at least $500/month/person after taxes for a basic lifestyle in Ecuador, and a budget of $800/month/person after taxes for a more comfortable middle class lifestyle.
You Might Have Stiff Competition
Being a foreigner is often a hindrance to finding a job. This is especially true when there is stiff competition for work, which is common in most developing countries.
Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and other countries in this region have a lot of Venezuelan refugees who need work. Ecuador is prioritizing Venezuelan work visas so they can get jobs here and start paying into the social systems they’re using.
Since they already speak fluent Spanish and they’re willing to work for low wages, they are stiff competition to other foreigners looking for the same jobs.
If your dream of becoming an expat hinges on finding a full time job abroad, you might want to start thinking about Plan B.
How to Work Remotely & Make Money Living Abroad
If finding a job abroad isn’t the best option, then what is? Working remotely as a digital nomad or digital expat might be easier than you think. Here are several options.
Work Remotely from Anywhere in the World with Your Current Job
One way to work remotely is to convert your day job into a virtual job. This is the most viable option for earning income abroad, as long as your employer will allow it.
Amelia works remotely for a commercial lighting company back in Denver, Colorado. She manages their sales CRM tools, sales incentives and manufacturer visits. 100% of her job can be done online.
When we lived in Denver, she worked in the office about 20% of the time and at home the other 80% of the time. When we decided to leave Denver, she told her bosses that she needed to be 100% virtual and thankfully they were ok with that.
Having Amelia’s full American salary while living in a low cost country like Ecuador has allowed us to pay down the debt we racked up from Amelia’s student loan and the lost income following my spine surgeries.
I also work remotely, but my job as a web designer has always been virtual. When we moved to Ecuador, most of my income came from my managed web hosting clients back in the United States. They pay me a monthly fee to host and maintain their WordPress websites.
Since our YouTube Channel has grown, we’ve started earning income from ad revenue and from our patrons on Patreon. As a result, I’ve stopped taking on new web design clients so I can focus on growing our YouTube and Blog business.
We also know another expat who worked as a medical transcriptionist for a doctor’s office back in the United States. She already worked remotely so when she moved to Ecuador, her employer didn’t know she left the country. With modern communication technologies, it’s easy to appear like you’re right next door even when you’re halfway around the world.
Work Remotely Doing Online Gigs
We live in the virtual age. More and more tasks can be done online from the comfort of your home, wherever your home happens to be. You can make money working remotely as a digital nomad or digital expat as long as you have a reliable internet connection and a few basic skills.
Work Remotely as a Website or Graphic Designer
I built my first website back in 1995 while working for Sprint in Kansas City. Since then, I’ve built hundreds of websites for small businesses, as well as some very large business management systems for large corporations and the US government. My entire career has involved web design, software development and the Internet.
However, it’s much more difficult to make a living in the web business now than it was 20 years ago due to the wide availability of virtual workers from low cost countries. As a web or graphic designer, you’ll be competing with people in countries like India, Pakistan, Russia and China where the cost of living is a fraction of that in the United States or Canada.
It used to be common to charge thousands of dollars to build a relatively simple brochureware website. Now, you’ll be lucky to get a few hundred dollars, assuming you don’t lose the job to someone in India who will do it for $50.
To be honest, web design is a loss leader these days. It’s a way to get a business onboard with a web hosting, managed web hosting, SEO or social media management monthly subscription service.
My clients have paid me far more in managed hosting fees over the past several years than the original cost of building their website. Once I get a client onboard with managed hosting, they rarely leave. If they do cancel their service, it’s usually because they decided to delete the website or close the business.
If you’re in the web design business and don’t offer a monthly subscription service, you’re leaving most of your revenue on the table.
If you’ve never done web or graphic design, I don’t recommend starting now unless you live in a low cost country and can live on a small income. It also takes years of experience to become really good and efficient.
Check UpWork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com for web and graphic design of gigs.
Work Remotely as a Content Writer
The web is made of content. Although video and images are extremely popular, the written word still dominates search results and eyeballs. In order to stay relevant, a website needs to produce high quality content on a regular basis. That means companies need writers.
The easiest way to get paid to write while working remotely is on websites like Constant Content, UpWork.com and Fiverr.com. If you’re a good writer with a broad range of experience or the ability to research, you can make a decent living writing content for other companies.
A few years ago, I submitted two business articles to Constant Content, which were subsequently purchased for roughly $80. I spent about 4 hours writing them, so my pay rate was about $20/hour. Not bad.
As an expat, you’ll also have valuable and unique experiences for the readers of International Living and similar media outlets. IL pays up to $350 if they publish one of your articles.
Some people make a full time salary by writing articles for companies and content brokers so this is a viable option for how to work remotely and make money living abroad as a digital nomad or digital expat, as long as you’re a good writer.
Work Remotely as a Social Media Manager
Business social media accounts require constant attention. In order to stay top-of-mind, companies need to post relevant and interesting content to their social feeds throughout the day and week.
A lot of companies, especially small businesses, don’t have the bandwidth to handle this time consuming and tedious workload so they outsource it to social media managers who are experts at getting attention online.
If you live on social media and understand how to attract eyeballs with your posts, this may be a viable way to earn income abroad as a digital nomad or digital expat.
Check UpWork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com for social media manager gigs.
Create Video and Podcast Transcription/Subtitles
The need for transcription services is a rapidly growing. There are millions of YouTube Channels and Podcasts that need transcriptions, translations, closed captions and subtitles for three main reasons: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the hearing impaired, and foreign language speakers.
Transcriptions for Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
YouTube uses a pretty sophisticated speech-to-text transcription system, but it’s still not very accurate, especially with foreign sounding names. It rarely understands the names of towns and businesses here in Ecuador when it attempts to generate automated English subtitles for our videos; however, it needs the subtitles to accurately optimize our videos for search results.
For example, the city of Guayaquil is often translated as “why I kill.” That’s actually a decent phonetic translation, but it’s obviously a very bad phrase to have in our subtitles for both SEO purposes, as well as the hearing impaired.
If names are misspelled or words are inaudible to the non-human transcription system, our videos won’t be as easily discovered in search results. Most large channels and podcasts with meaningful income streams pay humans to transcribe videos so they’re more accurate and more discoverable.
Closed Captions For the Hearing Impaired
It’s estimated that roughly 5% of views on YouTube are from hearing impaired viewers. That’s a lot of people who won’t be able to watch your YouTube video or listen to your podcast if you don’t have closed captions.
In addition, research shows that videos with closed captions have 12% more views and 80% more people watch them all the way to the end. As a channel or podcast continues to grow, the raw numbers associated with these percentages become huge. That means closed captions become increasingly more important as the size of your audience grows.
Translations for Foreign Language Speakers
Our YouTube Channel is based in Ecuador, but we primarily target viewers who live back in the United States and are considering life abroad as a US expat.
We have a relatively small percentage of Spanish speakers who watch our videos, but as our channel grows, we’re getting more requests for Spanish subtitles.
Rev.com is one of the most popular transcription services. You can signup and start transcribing right now. The website charges $1/video or audio minute for English transcriptions, and $3/minute for Spanish transcriptions. They pay their transcribers $0.30-$1.10 per audio/video minute so you need to be a fast and accurate typer to earn a decent living in this field.
If you speak English and another language fluently, you can earn considerably more income by translating videos and podcasts. Even if English is your only language, you can still earn an income living abroad by transcribing videos and podcasts.
Check out Rev.com, UpWork.com and Fiverr.com for transcription and translation gigs.
Work Remotely as a Telemarketer or Customer Service Representative
Several years ago, long before we considered moving abroad, I hired a telemarketer to make cold calls for my web design business. They advertised on CraigsList.org in Denver, but were based in the Dominican Republic.
The husband and wife team were both telemarketers from Southern California, but they couldn’t afford to live there as the cost of living skyrocketed, so they became expats and started working remotely from abroad.
They started in Costa Rica, but the 6 months of rain per year was too much for them so they moved to a beach town in the Dominican Republic where it’s much sunnier. With high speed internet available in most countries, it’s easy to use Skype or MagicJack to make calls anywhere in the world.
If you have the mental stamina to make cold calls, or the patience to deal with unhappy people on customer service calls, you can work remotely and earn an income abroad as a telemarketer or customer service representative.
Check FlexJobs.com, UpWork.com and similar virtual job sites for telemarketing and customer service freelance jobs. Or advertise on CraigsList and similar classified ad websites to work remotely as an independent contractor.
Teach English Online to Adults and Children
We know several expats in Ecuador who earn the majority of their income from teaching English to Chinese children through websites like VIPKid.com. You can earn between $14 and $22/hour, but there are a few downsides.
For example, you have to commit to a certain number of hours per week so it’s not as flexible as other remote working jobs. Plus, if you’re in the western hemisphere, you’ll need to work either very early in the morning (4AM to 8AM) or very late at night (10PM to 2AM) since China is in the eastern hemisphere.
The main requirement for these types of remote working jobs is English fluency. We have a Russian friend who speaks English fluently as a second language and passed the test to teach English online so you don’t need to be a native speaker to do this online job.
Start Your Own Business Abroad
You may have never felt the entrepreneurial calling before, but it’s actually a great option for expats to make money living abroad. That’s because many of the products and services we take for granted back home aren’t readily available in developing countries.
While this isn’t necessarily a remote working income stream, we know lots of expat entrepreneurs. Here’s a list of several expat businesses in Ecuador:
- Inti Luz Properties
- Ecuador Shores Realty
- South Indian Restaurant
- MOMO Restaurant & Deli
- Cuenca Expats Magazine
- The Cuenca Dispatch
- San Sebas Café
- Paradise Indian Restaurant
- Namaste India
- Double D’s Delights
- Bodhi Burgers
- Daisy’s Pet Food
- ArteSana Family Bakery
- VIP Home Healthcare of Cuenca
- RumiSol Yoga
- JungleGym Fitness
- The Tribal Fusion House
- Vino & Van Gogh
- Madre Tierra
- Villa de los Sueños
- Massage Therapists
- Reiki Practitioners
Some of these expat companies are full time businesses with full time income, while others are hobby businesses providing supplemental income. It really depends on your skill set and your goals as to how much money you can earn from your own expat business living abroad.
How to Decide What to Do
Deciding what type of remote working you want to do is the hardest part, especially if you’ve spent your career working a traditional white or blue collar job back in your home country.
Working remotely or starting a business may be a completely foreign concept, but there’s a really good chance you can find something that resonates with you. The real question is: How do you decide what to do?
Do What You Already Know
The most important point to take away from this article is to do what you already know how to do. This could be related to your career or a long-term hobby, but the key to earning income now is to start gaining expertise years ago.
If you don’t know how to touch-type, doing transcription or web design or programming probably isn’t a good option for you. To make a decent living in a typing heavy field, you need to be able to type quickly AND accurately.
If you’ve never built a website before, it’s unrealistic to think that you can start working remotely tomorrow by providing web design services. There is a steep learning curve that is masked by user-friendly web design platforms such as WordPress, SquareSpace and Wix.
It’s just not as easy as it looks and your customers will have unrealistic expectations that you’ll need to manage. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t know what you don’t know.
If you’re struggling to find something that will allow you to make money while living abroad, start by looking at what you already know how to do, as well as things you already enjoy doing. If you’re qualified to give advice on a topic, you can likely start earning income from it and work remotely from anywhere.
Identify a Demand (NOT a Need)
There is a difference between a need and a demand. Your goal is to do something with a demand that has been unrealized or under tapped. There may be a need for a product or service, but if there isn’t demand for it, you won’t be able to earn an income from it.
For example, there is a huge need for dog and cat neutering services in Ecuador. However, there is also a cultural bias against removing a male dog’s, um, manhood. While neutering is growing in volume here, it’s mostly done on a volunteer basis because the locals aren’t willing to pay for it. That’s the difference between a need and a demand.
The list of expat businesses above are primarily successful for two reasons: the founders did what they already knew how to do, and they filled an unmet demand (not a need).
Determine If You Have What It Takes to Work Remotely
It takes a lot of self discipline to work remotely, get your own gigs or start a business. A lot of people simply don’t have what it takes to work from home or be their own boss. They’re easily distracted and lack the motivation to work without someone breathing down their neck.
The easiest way to determine if you have what it takes is to start doing it now while you’re still at home. If you can start earning additional income while you’re still working your day job, that will prove the concept and you’ll know for certain that you have what it takes to work remotely from anywhere in the world.
Be Prepared for Hard Work and Slow Progress
If you want to start an expat business or get online gigs, it will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you think it will. You need to plan for that.
Patience, determination, consistency and perseverance are required traits for entrepreneurship, regardless of where you start your business. It takes a lot of hard work to start, operate and market a new business. If you build it, no one will come unless you promote it like crazy!
Avoid Remote Working Scams
There are lots of people selling digital nomad and work remotely snake oil. They will tell you what you want to hear and encourage you to do things at which you’re not likely to succeed.
While doing some research for this article and the related video, I found people recommending things like online poker, day trading and bitcoin investing. These ideas don’t qualify as earning an income abroad; they’re just different ways of GAMBLING abroad.
The charlatans who push these scams tell people who can barely use the Internet that they can learn how to build websites or do search engine optimization. And they’re happy to share their “secrets”…for a fee, of course.
Please don’t give your money to these con artists or believe what they say. Much of their advice is absurd and will end up costing you more money than you’ll ever make. Some people have lost their entire life savings on these scams.
Consider Multiple Streams of Income
We have income from Amelia’s job, my web design clients, ad revenue on YouTube and our websites, and Patreon membership fees.
Several of our friends in Cuenca teach English online while also teaching yoga and fitness, or writing content for the web.
Even if you have a stable day job back home, it’s always a good idea to have multiple streams of income in case one of them goes away unexpectedly. The same is true if you want to work remotely and earn an income living abroad.
Study the Local Language
As I mentioned before, speaking the local language is critical if you want to find a job in your new country. However, it’s also important if you want to start a business.
In Ecuador, it’s pretty easy to function with just English, but your life will be much easier and your business more successful if you can speak at least a little Spanish.
Start Before You Leave Home
You don’t need to wait until you arrive in your new expat home before you start working remotely or earning income online. In fact, it’s best if you start right now so you have time to prove the concept before you need the income.
If you want to earn money online, it’s easy to get started in your spare time. First determine what you want to do and then start doing it.
Don’t get buried in the busy work or worry about getting everything just right before you launch. Just start. Sign-up on a website and apply for a job or gig or start writing. See how it goes. Learn and adapt.
If you want to start a business in your new expat destination, you can get a lot of the research and planning done before you get there. Figure out where you’re going to get the products or how you’re going to provide the services. Create your brand image and write your business plan.
More importantly, start reaching out to other business owners who have already started a business abroad. Ask them questions about the process, requirements, costs, and marketing methods that work well where you want to live. You’ll be surprised at how helpful some entrepreneurs are when other aspiring entrepreneurs ask them questions.
If you’re worried about how to work remotely or earn an income living abroad as a digital nomad or digital expat, the best way to alleviate your concern is to start doing it now. You have lots of options at your fingertips and there are lots of ways to make money living anywhere in the world. The hardest part is getting started.
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