If you’ve paid attention to headlines in recent weeks, you’ll have likely seen all the many stories about Americans wanting to escape the U.S. COVID crisis. Stories on how to seek second passports. Stories on countries where Americans are increasingly seeking information on emigration. Stories on certain countries and Caribbean islands aiming to attract Americans for a year abroad.
What’s often missing amid all these many words is the story of how to live abroad for longer than a year without having to spend $100,000 or more buying a passport. For the fact is, several countries, particularly in Europe, offer “freelance” visas specifically aimed at those who want to live and work in a particular country for the long haul.
So, let’s address that. Because, frankly, that’s often the quickest and easiest way for the average American to gain permission to live and work legally in Europe.
Only a limited handful of European countries offer freelance visas. In most countries, you’ll need a job offer from a local firm, or you’ll need to work for a multinational with local operations that transfer you into a particular country. For most of us, that’s not an option. Instead, we have to look to countries that specifically welcome the independent, freelance worker.
Here are the best ones to consider in Europe:
I chose to pursue a freelance life two years ago in Prague, one of Europe’s most comfortable and picturesque cities, after careful consideration of other European destinations. Primary among those reasons is the fact that the Czech Republic offers what’s known locally as a Zivno, widely regarded as one of the best freelance-worker options in Europe.
This isn’t a visa, and it not specifically targeted at foreigners. Instead, the Zivno is effectively a national registry of independent workers, whether they’re native-born Czechs or foreigners with long-term residence status. As such, you will need a long-residence visa to pair with your Zivno.
But assuming you have marketable skills in something that allows you to earn income online or even locally—as, say, a language teacher—you will likely obtain your Zivno and with that, it is easier to qualify for a one-year, long-term residence visa, a stamp in your passport. Then, assuming you play by Czech rules (pay your taxes and the mandatory health and social security insurance—combined, about $200 a month, minimum), you’ll apply for and receive a biometric, long-term residence card good for two years and renewable for another two. After five years, you can apply for permanent residence/citizenship, if that appeals to you. (Note: Because the Czech Republic is part of the European Union, its passport is one of the five best in the world.)
This is, perhaps, the easiest freelance/self-employed visa to pursue in the EU, which makes it quite popular for those seeking a visa that allows for both long-term residence and permission to earn a living in Europe.
You have two options:
1) A residence visa for independent work (working locally for Portuguese clients as a contract employee);
2) A residence visa for entrepreneur work (essentially the digital nomad stuff collecting clients from around the world).
Under Portugal’s “non-habitual residency” program, income generated outside of Portugal for certain types of “high-value” activities is eligible for a tax exemption, meaning you pay no local taxes (you will still owe self-employment taxes to Uncle Sam, and, potentially, personal income taxes, depending on how much money you earn living abroad).
Permanent residency/citizenship rules follow the Spanish and Czech model in that you can apply after five years.
The autónomo is what freelancers pursue in the land of sangria.
The process, while not especially difficult, can be lengthy—taking upwards of six months to complete, which means a 90-day tourist visa for the Schengen Zone (of which Spain is a member) will often expire before you receive your autónomo. So, you need to plan for that by completing as much of the process as you can outside of Spain. Conversely, as your 90-day limit approaches you can hop across to a non-Schengen country such as Ireland or the UK for a few weeks or months to stop your Schengen clock from winding down.
The autónomo is identical to the Czech Zivno in that it’s good for one year. You can apply for two, two-year extensions, and after five years of surviving on tapas you can, then, apply for permanent residency/citizenship if you wish to remain in Spain as a naturalized citizen eligible for an E.U. passport.
Finally, France’s entrepreneur/profession libérale visa is similar to Portugal in terms of ease of attainment. It’s an ideal way for Francophiles to gain legal permission to live and work in France.
You need to demonstrate that you can fend for yourself financially by proving you earn at least the French legal minimum wage (about €1,540 per month, or $1,800). Beyond that, there are typical documents and whatnot that are necessary for the application, but nothing particularly difficult.
And despite widespread misconceptions about the cost of living in France, outside of Paris, the country is a pretty affordable place to call home.
Here, you want the Freiberufler, Germany’s self-employment visa. It’s not terribly difficult to obtain, so long as you jump through various paperwork hoops that exist—and Germany has lots of paperwork hoops, including revenue plans, letters of intent or contracts from potential or existing clients, and various other documents.
You’ll also need to prove income sufficiency, which generally means at least €5,000 (just over $5,900) in a (preferably) German bank account.
A Freiberufler is good for six months to three years, depending on your application, and you can renew it. The primary challenge is that you will (probably) need to prove you have German freelance clients. If you can wrangle up a few, great. If not, you might want to consider a different country. Should you ultimately want permanent residence in Germany, you can apply after eight years.
Bonus: The Netherlands
The Dutch American Friendship Treaty is your ticket into the Netherlands as a freelance worker. Through DAFT, self-employed Yanks can apply for a Dutch residence permit, and can sponsor a spouse and kids.
This visa is good for two years, and on renewal, you get another five years.
The caveat is that you’ll need to deposit initial capital for your freelance venture of at least €4,500 (roughly $5,300 at the moment). You can seek permanent residency after five years, if that’s a goal. But be careful chasing a Dutch passport: You might have to renounce your U.S. (or other) citizenship, though there are exceptions.