So, You Want to Work Abroad as a Freelance Journalist?

by Joe Baur

Your coffee table at home is less like an actual coffee table and more like your favorite copies of National Geographic stacked next to each other in a table-like structure. Your mailbox is a veritable who’s who of photography and travel magazines every month. You’re a photophile and a wordsmith with a serious case of wanderlust looking to cash in on your passion. Outside of working for a corporation and elevating yourself into a high enough position for an international transfer, employing yourself as a freelance writer, photographer, and/or videographer is the best way to go work abroad in a more permanent capacity.

hands on a map
Map out your freelance career.

Many countries are strengthening their immigration policies, making it difficult for anyone to simply make the leap and figure it out from there. Now you need to go in with a concrete plan and proof that you will be making your income from outside your new country. You will likely be required to offer bank statements showing your financial stability as part of your application for the corresponding visa of freelancers. And yes, you will be required to get a visa. Unless you plan to be a digital nomad moving from country to country before your 90-day tourist visa runs out (or you were lucky enough to find a way to avoid the visa hassle). Luckily, there are a number of countries that don’t mind welcoming freelancers.

With all of these logistics in mind, you’re going to need to perfect your freelance game if you want to avoid living paycheck to paycheck and see those assignments come rolling in on the reg. You may be a good writer and a photographer, but that doesn’t make you a freelancer just yet.

Here are some tough-love tips to help you snag those coveted international freelance jobs: 

1. Always have a unique angle.

Editors are always looking for a unique angle, something that separates your story from most anything else they’ve published, but is still in line with the publication’s voice. 

photography equipment all laid out
You’ve got the gear, now you need to get the gig!

An example; there’s no need to go with an angle that everyone already knows, like “Walking around the cafés of Paris.” Everybody knows Paris is walkable and full of cafés. Instead, perhaps, “How Paris became the king of cafés” would be more interesting. This makes it more about the destination and less about you and your experience (more on that later).

It really depends on the scope of the publication you’re trying to pitch, but the point is to never settle for the obvious. Always have a unique angle. 

Having a unique angle applies to your photography jobs as well. For example, everyone has seen the same straightforward image of the Eiffel Tower. How can you capture that differently? How can you capture your story’s subjects in a way that reflects the piece? Always think of what will stand out and make sense for your story.

2. Perfect your pitch. 

First of all, know the publication you’re pitching. Nothing annoys an editor more than getting an email that reads along the lines of, “I’ll be in Santiago next month and wondered if you need anything from there?” 

There are a million “Santiagos” in the world and no editor will ever “need” anything from you. You’re not that special. Only the story can be special and that’s what you need to sell them on.

Most will expect you to answer a series of questions within your pitch. How will you tell this story? Is this a photographic essay, video, or narrative? How long will it take you to deliver the piece? Are any tourism boards or hotels financially supporting you in order to complete this story? In what content vertical within the publication is this for? What’s your professional background? 

Perhaps most importantly: Why tell this story now? Publications will almost always want to know why this story needs to be told now. Editors like timely pitches. Then again, it also helps if you pitch your timely story far enough in advance for it to get to your editor, accepted, worked on, edited, re-worked, edited again, re-worked again, and then submitted for final publication all before your timely angle becomes old news. 

man sitting with laptop, notebook, and coffee
Sit down to perfect your project pitch.

3. It’s not all about you.

Again, you’re probably not all that interesting. Even if you are and you still get notes from your parents attesting to that fact, you’re not more interesting than the people surrounding you in terms of what will make your story worthwhile. Nothing reeks of self-importance more than a piece on traveling to Africa and some writer rambling on about how it made them feel. You can’t take readers or viewers to a foreign destination and make it all about you.

Sure, use yourself to add a little color if you’d like. Did bad seafood send you running to the bathroom before you had a chance to get accustomed to Asian-style squatting toilets? Were you involved in an interaction with people relevant to the story?

As always it depends on the style of the story and the publication. There will be opportunities to insert yourself into the piece, but it always has to make the story stronger. It is and never will be all about you.

4. Find English-speaking media opportunities.

An English-language publication has become a staple of many foreign countries where English isn’t predominantly spoken. I did some freelance work for The Tico Times while living in Costa Rica. Granted some English publications in non-English speaking countries are nothing more than the pet project of some expatriate. But The Tico Times is a venerable institution that has been around for decades and currently counts itself as the largest English-speaking publication in Central America. Suffice it to say The Tico Times is a no-brainer to consider for some freelance work if you’re living in Costa Rica. 

Of course Costa Rica isn’t alone when it comes to English language publications. Japan, for one, has The Japan Times and the Internet is a mine full of information when it comes to English-speaking media in foreign countries. Use it and consider it as an option to pitch some of your freelance writing.

Magazine rack full of photography magazines
Know your publication inside and out before pitching.

5. Build relationships. 

That gig at The Tico Times came because of networking, that much-despised yet necessary facet of most any career. It all started with a late morning coffee that led to one freelance assignment, which eventually led to a regular writing gig. 

You never know who will be able to come through for you, so it’s best to build relationships with as many people within the creative world as possible. Have those business cards printed up and ready to share, folks.

6. Find expatriate communities on Facebook to get integrated.

Most every country on the globe has an active expatriate community on Facebook where anyone can join and get almost any question imaginable answered. This would be a good place for newcomers to introduce themselves and note interest in finding international freelance writing/photography jobs.

That said, hopefully it doesn't need to be pointed out that you must not glue yourself to any expatriate community. For travelers, it’s a cliché that English-speaking expatriates will isolate themselves within the community. What’s the point in living abroad then? 

Certainly, use those connections to help get yourself integrated into your new community, but always keep that curious hat firmly glued to the top of your head. You know, the one that gets you away from the familiar, trying street food made of, well, you’re not quite sure what animal, going to a concert even though you can’t understand a thing, and asking question after question until you find your story.

Then repeat.

man holding camera
Look for interesting angles both in writing and photography.

7. Consider starting with another gig.

Sometimes it’s easier to get your foot in the door of a new country by starting with a more traditional gig, like teaching English. It’s hardly a lucrative industry, but it’ll get you a steady paycheck and (presumably) a legal way into the country. From there, you can start hunting for stories.

Of course if you can afford to go without a paycheck, you might also consider volunteer abroad and internship abroad opportunities to help you get a better sense of the country and the language. This will also help connect you with locals who will give you a better idea of everyday life, which will set you on the path of being an expert on the area you’re hoping to cover for your home country.

Making it in the freelance world is no easy feat. It’s one of those gigs that fits nicely into the trite saying, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Well, that’s because it’s true. Who wouldn’t want to live anywhere in the world, chasing genuinely interesting stories, and sharing them with the world? It’s a pretty sweet gig if you’re on your game and build a name for yourself as a reliable freelancer.

Repetition is the secret to learning-retention: working abroad as a freelance writer, photographer, videographer, or more likely, some combination of those is not going to be a cakewalk. You can’t just up and move across the world and figure it out from there. Have a plan, get started on your home turf if you don’t have a freelance background, figure out your niche, get contacts, build relationships, find a unique angle, and perfect your pitch.

Remember that working as a freelance travel writer/photographer/videographer is still work, so be sure to perfect the balance between work, play, and work-related play. Who knows what experiences will be your next story!

Do it all just right, and you’ll be the one smiling (probably a little smugly) and not the one saying, “Man, I wish I could do that.”