Reports January 15, 2021

How to Freelance for US Publications from Abroad

Eight international freelancers who regularly contribute to US publications share their tips on pitching, taxes, and establishing a beat.

Freelancing for US companies from outside of the US is an obstacle course. It means figuring out what currency exchange rate screws you over the least, how strict your country is about expensing that takeaway you ordered the night before a deadline, and working into the night while your editors are taking their lunch break. There are endless hoops to jump through, hurdles to overcome, and, for US natives who’ve relocated to a foreign country, the pain of having to file taxes in two countries. 

Since moving from New York to Berlin in 2018, I’ve freelanced for outlets in the US, UK, and Germany, with the vast majority of my income coming from US outlets. I have navigated the maze of exchange rates and searched for a suitable tax consultant to receive my panicked emails. Despite the hassle, it’s all been worth the jump across the ocean: Free from the nonstop financial panic of New York, I’ve settled into a city where a healthy balance between work and leisure is the norm, and when writing about US politics, have been able to view the disarray with new clarity thanks to my position outside of the US geographic bubble. I’ve joined the ranks of international freelancers — both US expats and foreign-born writers — who make a substantial portion of their living writing for outlets in the US.

After nearly three years of comparing notes with other freelance writers, I can safely say there is no universal advice on how to freelance abroad, nor will there ever be. Each country has its own unique set of rules and regulations for freelancing, which will shape how you find clients and manage your taxes. But for those abroad who want to break into the US media market, this is an attempt to demystify the process with the help of eight international freelancers.

For Study Hall’s guide to freelancing for US outlets from abroad, I talked to Nithin Coca in Japan, Kylie Madry in Mexico, Vaughn Stafford Gray in Jamaica, Ann Babe in South Korea, Payal Dhar in India, Courtney Tenz in Germany, Diego Arguello in Argentina, and Moira Lavelle in Greece. They shared their tips and tricks on overcoming transfer fees, finding a freelance community, and carving out a niche to land bylines at US outlets thousands of miles away from home. 

What advice would you give a freelancer living abroad who wants to start writing for US outlets?

🇯🇵 Nithin Coca: Don’t be afraid to pitch often, and search for as many editors at that outlet as possible. Don’t always assume that it’s the foreign desk or global editor who is the right one to pitch. I’ve often found it’s editors at other desks — like lifestyle, travel, or culture — who are more open to international stories.

Also, don’t ignore niche media outlets. Several of my first breaks were with smaller US-based outlets like Shareable, Mobilisation Lab, [and] Triple Pundit that cover a specific theme. I’ve found they are quite interested in international stories and often pay rates comparable to mainstream outlets.

🇬🇷 Moira Lavelle: Follow the US news cycle. Many US news outlets are deeply US-focused. Often they are only able to publish international stories if they have some kind of domestic resonance, or are a massive moment of breaking news. Following US news closely can help you find those hooks when trying to place something longer-form. 

Make yourself the best-sourced person somewhere. I cover migration in Greece. I was having a lot of trouble placing stories covering the country broadly or based in Athens. Then I started visiting the island of Chios and the refugee camp there. I was one of the only journalists regularly visiting Chios, so when news broke there, I could call my contacts and cover it quickly. Additionally, when general migration news broke I could provide a unique perspective. The same can be done in any neighborhood anywhere, but I think it’s especially vital in international reporting for US outlets.

🇦🇷 Diego Arguello: Always stay curious and willing to receive feedback, ask questions, and begin pitching as soon as possible. While there are thousands of volunteer sites out there, make sure to know your worth early. There are sites that will exploit you for their own profit, while others will be more willing to give you feedback and guidance. If the site is huge but they aren’t paying folks yet, that’s usually a red flag.

🇯🇲 Vaughn Stafford Gray: Use the SH editor database and start following the editors you’d like to pitch on social media. See what stories they are liking, sharing, and retweeting. Comment and like; be social.

What tips do you have for freelancers struggling to make US outlets interested in non-US-based stories?

🇯🇵 NC: Spell out the basics of why a particular story is important. I write a lot about Indonesia, and I realized early on that even foreign desk editors don’t know that it’s the fourth most populous country in the world, or that its the largest Muslim-majority country. I would never include in a pitch about the US that it’s the world’s second-largest democracy, but I need to include those basic facts when pitching US media about Indonesia.

🇯🇲 VSG: I have had to fight time and time again to defend coverage of both Jamaican and Canadian content. When I pitch, I thoroughly research the publication to see how they tackle non-US-based stories and model my pitch off that. Start with what makes your culture unique [and] what it is most known for. Also, use Google trends to see how often that topic has been searched for. You can use obvious search trends to craft a pitch or piece — however, if the topic is a little more obscure, like “craft brewery closures in the US during COVID,” [you] may have to use the search results as data to prove that the pitch is newsworthy. 

🇰🇷 Ann Babe: Show how your story ideas fit into or are emblematic of global trends, and what makes them special. What’s happening in your backyard that’s a departure from what’s happening around the world? How is your city ahead of or behind the curve? What social solutions have been developed locally that might be useful for another community elsewhere?

Freelancing abroad means navigating currency discrepancies, transfer fees, and foreign tax systems. What tips do you have for working around these issues?

🇦🇷 DA: In Argentina, our local currency is always tied to the USD conversion. In some ways, it benefits me to write for US outlets thanks to this, but there are many fees involved. If I’m not working around a high commission, it might not even be worth [taking the assignment].

🇮🇳 Payal Dhar: This has been the single most vexing issue, but things are much simpler now with the likes of [money transfer and digital payment platform] Payoneer, which lets you have a US-based receiving account. Back in the day, there was the convoluted process of waiting for a check, then filling out forms at the bank, then waiting sometimes four weeks for it to get paid into my account.

🇩🇪 Courtney Tenz:  My best advice: get an accountant. I also maintain a US and a Euro account and ask US outlets to just send checks to a US address. For UK payments, I use TransferWise to avoid fees. If you’re a US citizen, don’t forget to file taxes while abroad, even if your tax home is elsewhere.

🇲🇽 Kylie Madry: If you’re a US citizen living abroad, definitely keep your US bank account open. Transfers and conversion fees can be a nightmare.

What tips would you give for establishing connections with other international freelancers?

🇯🇵 NC: There are plenty of Slack groups, Telegram channels, and more [online communities] for Asia journalists, and it’s been great to be able to connect with others and share the challenges we face in pitching US media.

🇮🇳 PD: We have a freelancing community, a community for women-identifying people, and a pan-India feminists group. These are quite essential for support, resources, finding sources, etc. I’m also part of a few private international writing and journalism groups for women and non-binary folx. Facebook is a good place to hunt. Some groups are private or closed, and you have to know someone on the inside to get in.

🇲🇽 KM: I’m a (recent) member of Frontline Freelance Mexico; I’m in a WhatsApp group of journalists and editors in the city; and I’ve met a handful more through a Study Hall meetup we had about a year and a half ago. Another way I’ve met people is just by going to events and press conferences.

🇰🇷 AB: I’m lucky to be part of a fairly large freelance community in South Korea. I made most of these connections by visiting the foreign correspondents’ club, getting involved in the Asian American Journalists Association subchapter in Seoul, and searching Twitter and Facebook groups. As with anything, quality is better than quantity, so if there are a lot of international freelancers where you live, it’s important to zero in on the ones you’re hoping to build solid relationships with.

What has been the biggest challenge for you when writing for US outlets from abroad?

🇰🇷 AB: The time difference. Because a majority of my clients are on PT or ET, I’ve found myself working lots of long, late, odd hours, with no reliable routine or time off. Sometimes it was because an editor needed or wanted something, but more often, I couldn’t help myself from not tending to something right away, even if it wasn’t urgent. I’ve had to learn to protect my personal time because otherwise, I burn out.

🇬🇷 ML: I really struggled with getting features and slow-news pieces placed. For months when I started out freelancing I was only able to get stringing work [for a wire service contributing small breaking news reporting to larger wire service pieces] or breaking news commissions. I think this was due in part to my inexperience and in part to the fact that most US outlets don’t have space or budgets for a feature story on the shifting minutiae of, say, asylum regulations in every country. They want the big trends and big events, not the slow slice-of-life stories or municipal politics that are possible in local reporting. 

🇦🇷 DA: The language barrier. Not so much for my skills and understanding, but rather due to the fact that everything I had written before in local outlets [in Spanish] just didn’t matter. It’s really discouraging, but in my experience, it’s sadly just the way it is. 

🇮🇳 PD: As a freelancer from the Global South and a POC, I have faced racism directly and indirectly, and I would apprise new freelancers to brace for this. Finding your own intersectional groups is also important. The great thing about the internet is that you can make lasting relationships, personal and professional, even if you’ve never met in real life, with people who can offer support and friendship. 

What has been the biggest reward for you as someone who writes for US outlets from outside of the country?

🇰🇷 AB: Having the privilege to design the life I want. To take the US freelancing part and marry it with the non-US everything else. I can write for New York City publications without paying New York City rent, US health insurance premiums, US telecom bills, and so on.

🇬🇷 ML: Amplifying the voices and stories I am seeing in Greece. I think the things people are telling me are vitally important and everyone should hear them. If I can spread the word a little further than the Greek media ecosystem, I take it as a win.