Getting paid by international clients as a freelancer can be tricky. Check out our guide to learn the best ways to get paid from abroad without losing on fees.
A 2016 survey found that some 55 million Americans work on a freelance basis, either part or full time. But the meteoric rise in freelance numbers is far from an American phenomenon. Predictions are that half of all workers in the US and UK will work freelance by 2020. And indeed, all around the world, freelance roles are becoming more and more popular.
Many freelancers find their work through platforms such as Upwork. This is a fantastic resource for freelance professionals who could be based anywhere on the planet, to connect with potential clients. If you’re new to Upwork, you need to know how to get your hands on your hard earned cash. Here’s the lowdown.
Working with a new platform for the first time can be a bit daunting. There’s a lot of information you need to take in, just to make sure that you’re all set up for your first job. Luckily, Upwork offer a series of tutorials, and a free ebook, to help new freelancers get to grips with the system.
If you take on a freelance job through Upwork, it’ll be set up one of two ways:
- Fixed-price projects
- Hourly paid projects
All payments go through Upwork. That means that your client will pay Upwork, and the cash will be held for safekeeping, in something known as an escrow account, and released once both you and your client confirm the project is done. Upwork takes a fee for their services, but also offers some payment guarantees if either a freelancer fails to deliver on a job, or a client can’t pay.
Upwork’s fees are as follows:
- 20% for the first $500 billed with any individual client
- 10% for lifetime billings with the client between $500.01 and $10,000
- 5% for lifetime billings with the client that exceed $10,000
To make sure you get paid correctly for your fixed-price project, you’ll agree on the overall price with your client, and also set some milestones, which can be used to trigger partial payment as you work through the job.
The exact milestones will depend on the project type and can be agreed on a case by case basis with the client. For example, you might be a freelance writer, commissioned to deliver 10 articles on a specific topic. In this case, each individual article could be set as a milestone. Once both you and the client agree that that milestone has been achieved, a portion of the payment will be released to you.
Once the client has approved the payment and marked the milestone as satisfactorily delivered, it’ll take up to 5 days before your money will be paid out. That’s because Upwork delays releasing the cash for up to five days as a security measure, to allow them to identify and resolve any disputes before making payment. This doesn’t affect all project types, so check the details of the work you’re taking on. You can access your funds through any of the methods described in the section on uploading and checking your bank details below.
If you work on a hourly paid project, you’ll submit timesheets through Upwork to show the hours you’ve worked before you’re paid by the client. To make sure you get paid for hourly contracts, you have to use the Upwork Desktop App to log time to your Work Diary. Your hours are then automatically invoiced to your client by the Upwork system.
Here again, it’ll take up to 5 days before you can request your payment, and you can choose to access your funds through any of the methods described next.
Whether you’re working on an hourly paid gig or a fixed project, all payments from your client will pass through Upwork.
To make sure that you’re paid correctly, it’s important you have all of your payment details uploaded on the Upwork site. In addition, you’ll want to make sure you’ve completed necessary timesheets or marked milestones as completed - whichever you’ve agreed upon with the client when you take on the project. You’ll also need to provide details of your tax status.
You can enter your bank details, whether your bank is based in the US or abroad, if you want to be paid using a direct deposit or wire transfer. You can be paid in one currency into a bank account held in another currency - but there’s a fee to pay for this service. It may cost more than you think, so we’ll look at that a little more later.
If you don’t want to use a bank transfer, you can also use PayPal, Payoneer, or M-Pesa if you’re in Kenya. The fees vary across different payment methods, so it’s worth doing your research to make sure that you’re getting the best deal - especially if currency conversion is involved. The amount of time it’ll take to receive your cash can also depend on how it’s being transferred.
If you’re working on an hourly paid project, you’ll be paid according to the billing cycle you agreed with your client. This usually means you’re paid every week for the hours you’ve worked - although this payment might take a few days to reach your account. If you’re working on a fixed-price project, you’re paid when you and the client both agree that you’ve hit a milestone or delivered the project in full.
Once you have input your bank account details, you’ll have to select a payment method. Your options are:
- Direct deposit
- Wire transfer PayPal
- M-Pesa (Kenya only)
Direct deposits in the US are often called ACH (Automated Clearing House) payments. They’re paid directly into your local US bank account, but can take anywhere from 2-5 days to actually arrive to your bank.
If you’re outside the US, you can also get paid directly into your local bank account in another country. It’ll take 3 days for your bank account to be active and for you to be able to use it, and the time it’ll take to reach your bank account may vary depending on the speed of the system in your country. But it is possible. Upwork also takes an additional fee of $0.99. And, of course, you’ll also need to keep in mind currency conversion. Oftentimes, you’ll end up losing a lot more on the exchange rate than you realize. If you want to avoid poor exchange rates, it’s a good idea to check out Wise multi-currency borderless accounts. Where you can get the real exchange rate without any markups, and you can get paid locally in the US but still withdraw the money to your bank account elsewhere. More on that later, though.
Fees vary, depending on where the account is held, and what currency your bank account is in. Wire transfers are the most expensive method of getting your hands on your cash, with a $30 flat fee added by Upwork.
If you’re outside of the US, these fees can increase almost exponentially as your money will be transferred via the SWIFT network. SWIFT transfers not only usually mean poor exchange rates with exchange rate markups (Upwork calls them currency spreads) of around 4-5%, but often mean extra flat fees levied by anywhere from 1 to 3 intermediary banks. Not to mention the fee your own bank will charge to receive the international transfer. Sadly, SWIFT transfers also aren’t known to be all that fast. So, it may be best to avoid them altogether if you can.
PayPal allows you to transfer your earnings into your existing PayPal account, which must be linked to the same email address given in your Upwork account profile. You can then use your cash to make payments through PayPal, or move it to your home bank account.
With Payoneer you can transfer your earnings directly onto a Payoneer Debit MasterCard.
Finally, M-Pesa is a payment system which requires you to have a Kenyan mobile phone - and is therefore only currently available to freelance workers in Kenya.
How do I withdraw my earnings in US dollars from Upwork to my bank account? What if I live overseas - aka, not in America?
However you choose to be paid, there will be a delay of up to 5 days before the funds are released by Upwork. This can mean you’re waiting a while before you see your cash.
If you want to withdraw your earnings to a US-based bank account, you’ll have to go through a verification process. Upwork will deposit 2 small amounts into the account you list in your profile page, and you’ll be required to log in to Upwork to confirm the amounts received. This proves that the account is actually yours, and will activate it on the Upwork system.
There are fees levied if you want to be paid into an account based outside of the US, either by wire transfer or by directly depositing money in your local bank account. Being paid into a US-based account is usually the best route, as you avoid any additional fees.
The good news is that you can be paid using local US bank details, even if you don’t hold a bank account in America, if you open a Wise borderless multi-currency account.
With a Transferwise borderless account, you’re paid fairly, and your money is as flexible as you are. You can live in one country, but get paid locally in another - in the EU, the US, the UK and Australia. That means you avoid the fees associated with payments made across borders.
For example: Pat lives in Denmark, and takes on a project paid in US$ through Upwork. Pat doesn’t have a local USD bank account, but wants to minimise the fees levied on her payment and make sure there are no surprise costs. Pat registers with Wise, gets herself verified with Wise, and opens a borderless account for herself. She activates USD within the borderless account and generates local bank details for it. At that point, Pat can then use these local US bank details on Upwork to get paid. Once the payment has been received, Pat can either keep her money in USD in her Wise borderless account or make transfers to other bank accounts in those local currencies.
Aside from the fees Upwork charges all freelancers, which can run up to 20%, there could also be a fee for withdrawing your payment, depending on the method you choose.
- Direct deposits to US-based banks are free
- Direct deposits to banks outside the US are $0.99 per transfer, but incoming bank fees could be added
- USD wire transfers – $30 per transfer flat fee, plus other charges may be added by intermediary banks
There are limits in place on the amount of money that can be transferred by direct deposit in some countries. Upwork detail the restrictions using this system on their website.
PayPal and Payoneer add their own fees, depending on the currency you’re being paid in.
If you’re a freelancer working with clients all over the world, it’s important that you minimise the fees and charges that are applied whenever you're paid by a client in a different country. Some transfer methods, such as international wire transfers both, can leave you exposed to hidden fees from other banks, and means you often don’t get a good deal on your international transfer. You could also lose out if the transfer service you choose uses a poor exchange rate.
The best way to check if the exchange rate used is fair, is to look at an online currency converter. Even if a service says it's free or cheap, you can get ripped off if they use a bad exchange rate. Many banks and money transfer services are notorious for taking an additional 4-5% in bad exchange rates alone. So, the fees you see upfront are unlikely to be all you’ll be charged.
A good bet is to use Wise for your international transfer. Wise uses the live mid-market rate for currency conversion - the same rate you find on Google, and the same rate banks use to trade money amongst themselves - because they believe everyone’s money has the same worth. So people get the same rate as big banks do - and freelancers get to see more of their pay.
If you hold a bank account in a currency other than USD, but have taken on a job which will be paid in dollars, you can still get paid directly into your bank account through Upwork. However, the exchange rate used to convert your payment from USD to the currency of your bank account isn’t transparent. That means that you won’t know before you check your balance how much you’ll actually receive. It may be a better option to get local bank account details for the US with a speciality service like Wise, receive your payment in dollars in that local US account, and then transfer your dollars into your local currency in your bank account outside of America. That way, you can have more control over the exchange rate you get. And how much you receive in the end.
Welcome to money without borders. Wise is the new alternative to old-fashioned
banking — a borderless account, built for international people.
If you live in one country but get paid in another, or another currency, then a Wise multi-currency borderless account could be your solution. If you live in one of the following countries, you’ll be eligible to create a multi-currency borderless account and manage dozens of currencies at once in a single account. You’ll also be able to generate local bank details in the US, the UK, the EU and Australia. And, from the winter of 2017/2018, you can get your hands on a consumer debit card linked to your account, too.
Wise borderless multi-currency accounts are supported for freelancers living in the following countries
- Aland Islands
- American Samoa
- British Indian Ocean Territory
- British Virgin Islands
- Cape Verde
- Christmas Island
- Cocos (Keeling) Islands
- Cook Islands
- Costa Rica
- Czech Republic
- Dominican Republic
- Faroe Islands
- French Guiana
- French Polynesia
- French Southern Territories
- Holy See (Vatican City State)
- Isle of Man
- Marshall Islands
- New Caledonia
- Norfolk Island
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Helena
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon
- Saint Vincent and Grenadines
- Saint-Martin (French part)
- San Marino
- Sao Tome and Principe
- South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
- South Korea
- Turks and Caicos Islands
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
Wise borderless multi-currency accounts support transfers and switching with the following currencies
Wise borderless multi-currency accounts can generate local bank details in the following regions / currencies
Freelancing as part of the gig economy, is a new way of working - and many freelancers would benefit from a new way of banking, too. Upwork is a great way to connect, and make the world your client base. But when you’re working across borders, it’s important to make sure your earnings aren’t eaten away by excessive fees and poor exchange rates. Do a bit of research to make sure you get the best deal available - and the sky’s the limit for your new business venture.
This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.
We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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