The Best Countries in Europe to Get a Freelance Visa

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on September 3, 2020 in Live Better, Remote Working

A larger trend that began several years ago is now ramping up as an after-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: the work-and-live anywhere lifestyle of digital nomadism. What was once mainly a trend among millennials has become a coveted lifestyle among various age groups that now have the freedom to move about the world and work. 

Some can do so because their employers have moved to a work-from-home strategy, others because they’ve lost their job and they’re taking the opportunity to pursue the dream of living abroad. And still others, namely retirees, want to find less expensive places to live, yet maintain the capacity to earn an income legally in the country of their choice.

For many of these people, living and working in Europe is the Holy Grail. 

If you want to bop around from country to country, and navigate between Schengen and non-Schengen countries every 90 days, you can pretty much live forever in Europe. (The Schengen Area is comprised of 26 European countries—including 22 EU member states—that have open borders between each other. The limits of a Schengen visa are 90 days within every 180.)

But most of us want to settle down and live somewhere permanently. And in that case, it’s not like you can just pack your passport, hop on a plane, and settle wherever your heart desires. All countries require that you have permission to live within their borders…which means you need a visa. And if you want to work as well, then that requires a work visa. 

In this instance, I’m specifically talking about permission to work as a freelance/self-employed worker. I’m not talking about being hired locally, or being transferred by a multinational company with operations in some European city. That’s an entirely different visa, and one that will be arranged by your employer.

Securing one of these freelance work visas is easier said than done. Most European states make obtaining a work visa difficult, if not impossible, if you want to work as a freelancer. Some require you start a business, invest a substantial amount of capital, employ locals, or already have local contracts in place. 

That said, a good number of European countries do offer freelance or self-employed visas, and some are relatively easy to obtain. Depending on the country you choose, you can secure the right to live and work in a European country within three to six months.

I know because I moved to the Czech Republic in 2018. As part of that process, I researched numerous European countries to find the one that best suited me in terms of cost of living, taxes, lifestyle, and access to visas and permits that would allow me to live and work.

As such, I can tell you that these seven countries below tend to be the best for those looking to live and work in Europe on a freelance/self-employed visa:

Czech Republic

Prague is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, largely because it was not carpet bombed during World War II—unlike most of the rest of Central and Western Europe—meaning buildings span the last 1,000 years. 

In short, Prague exudes the Old World, European ambiance that appeals to many Americans and Canadians. Moreover, the Czech Republic is so centrally located on the continent that you can reach Moscow to the east or Dublin to the west in about three hours. A few hours by train and you’re in Slovakia, Austria, Germany, or Poland. 

Some websites and blogs claim that the Czech Republic frowns on issuing long-term-stay visas, or that the process is too complicated. I can attest to the fact that that’s wrong. With your documents in order, and a legitimate reason you want to freelance from the Czech Republic, you can obtain the right to live and work here.

In fact, Prague is a melting pot of expats, with roughly 10% of the population having arrived from somewhere else. So don’t write off the Czech Republic based on something written by someone who doesn’t live here.

What you want: The Czech Republic doesn’t offer a “freelance visa” per se. Instead, you apply for a “trade license,” known locally as a Živnostenský (Zhiv-no-sten-ski), or Živno. That’s not specifically for foreigners; it’s for locals, too—anyone who works for themselves so they can obtain state services (such as healthcare) and pay taxes on their income.

With a Živno, you can apply for a long-term residence visa that will give you one year in the country. As the end of that one year approaches, you can then apply for a biometric, long-term residence card, which gives you an additional two years (which is, then, renewable for another two years).

What you need: 

  • A signed letter on bank letterhead from your local banker stating you have at least 110,000 Czech crowns (roughly $5,000) per person in your account. And get your banker’s card, just in case. Also, you will likely need your ATM card as proof that the account exists when you apply for your visa at the Czech Embassy.
  • Proof you have no criminal record.
  • Proof of health insurance in place until you have your visa. Once you’re on the Živno list, you will pay into the Czech state health plan (about $100 a month) and you’ll be fully covered, just like a Czech national.
  • Proof of accommodation in the Czech Republic. Landlords regularly provide this and any agent you use to find a flat will help you obtain it.
  • A business address. This can be the same as your accommodation (since you’ll work from home). Or you can set up a virtual address through an agency that helps you obtain your Živno and residence permit, if you don’t want to go through the process solo.
  • Once you’re officially on the Živnostenský list, you apply for a long-term-stay visa at a Czech embassy outside the Czech Republic.
  • Once you have your visa, register with the Foreign Police.

Spain

Spain is a beautiful place, top to bottom, east to west. Spanish culture, Spanish wine, sangria, and tapas. The country is packed with wonderful cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Cordoba, Malaga—frankly, there are too many to name.

Pretty much any kind of lifestyle you seek—Mediterranean beach city, urban metropolis, wine country—is available somewhere in Spain. And depending on where you alight, the cost of living can be a fraction of what it is in much of the U.S.

What you want: An autónomo, which isn’t technically a visa but more like the Czech Živnostenský work permit for freelancers and the self-employed. You will obtain the autónomo after you obtain a residence permit to live in Spain. 

What you need:

  • First and foremost, you have to apply outside of Spain (so, in your home country) for a residence visa. Then, travel to Spain to obtain your visa.
  • Proof of health insurance in Spain.
  • A health certificate signed by a doctor and translated into Spanish indicating you’re disease free.
  • A clean criminal record.
  • Proof of accommodation in the city where you’ll reside. 
  • Once you’re visa has been approved, you will need to register for an NIE, a Spanish identity number for foreign workers. You will need this number to obtain a residence visa and an autónomo.
  • Once you’re an autónomo, you must register with Spain’s version of the Social Security agency to become part of the Spanish healthcare system. The contribution—about €283 ($338) per month at the moment—automatically deducts from your Spanish bank account at the end of every month.

Portugal

Portugal is one of those off-the-radar countries that’s gaining in popularity because of its proximity to Spain and its lower costs. It’s a fabulous place in its own right—inspiring, Old World cities such as Lisbon and Porto; Instagram-worthy scenery at the beaches or throughout the interior (particularly the wine country); fabulous and fresh local seafood and wines, that would cost $40 or more for a bottle back in the States, but which you can grab here for $10 or less.

In short, Portugal is a great location from which to live a more relaxed European lifestyle, while still earning an income. Plus, Portugal offers a “non-habitual resident” tax plan that grants new residents a 20% flat tax as part of a 10-year tax exemption on most non-Portugal-sourced types of income—a great source of tax saving, if you live in Portugal and claim tax residency. (But that’s a different topic.)

What you want: A D7 visa. It provides residency to foreigners with a source of stable income.

The D7 visa lasts for one year, after which you renew it for two two-year terms. Then, after those five years have passed, you have essentially become a permanent Portuguese resident, meaning that in the sixth year you can apply for a Portuguese passport (learn the language first, though).

What you need:

  • Apply for a Portuguese residence visa from your current country of residence.
  • Proof of criminal background check.
  • Declaration explaining reasons for seeking residency in Portugal.
  • Local medical insurance.
  • Proof of accommodation.
  • Local bank account that shows you have adequate funds to support that yourself—roughly €7,000 for the year (about $8,300), plus additional funds for each adult and child, totaling €3,500 ($4,160) and €2,100 ($2,500), respectively.
  • Proof of reasonable net income each month.

Germany

Germany isn’t always the first place freelancers think about when they’re considering where to live and work in Europe. German weather can be downright mean in the winter, and perceptions persist that because Germany is such a developed nation it must be a pricey place to live.

But while Germany is certainly pricier than many Central and Eastern European locations, the country isn’t universally expensive. Cologne, Leipzig and others are very affordable, and pretty, cities to call home. Even Berlin, increasingly a haven for freelancers-in-the-know, is cheaper than, say, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.

Better yet, Germany has an excellent—if a tad bureaucratic and characteristically anal—freelance visa program.

What you want: A Freiberufler visa, designed for workers across a broad swath of job categories including artist, writer, teacher, software developer, and more. 

What you need:

  • Proof of local accommodation and rental costs.
  • Obtain a Meldebestätigung from the local Burgeramt, the “citizens’ office. This document confirms you’ve registered yourself at a particular German address, and is often required to open a bank account, get a cellphone contract, apply for a residence permit, etc.
  • Proof of health insurance, either through the public German plan, or through a private insurer. But be painfully aware: A private plan must meet all German health-insurance requirements and offer coverage similar to the public plan, otherwise you’re visa application will likely be denied.
  • Proof of financial self-sufficiency. Generally, €5,000 ($5,950) in a bank account is enough. And it’s better, though not necessarily obligatory, if you have a German bank account (which you can open once you have your Meldebestätigung).
  • Revenue Plan (how much you expect to earn and from where) and a Capital Plan (the capital you have for running your business).
  • Resume detailing your professional career and qualifications (potentially you’ll need examples of your work).
  • Two or more letters of intent/signed contracts from potential clients (really important).These prove you’ll have work in Germany. Documents in German and from German companies are better—and sometimes required.
  • Proof of adequate pension plan (if you are over 45).

Italy

When you think Italy, you think food…you think history…you think Roman Empire.

But Italy is also the place to think “freelance work visa” if you want to settle in Europe. The challenge, however, is that the process, like so many things Italian, is bureaucratically challenging.

The work visa simply allows you to enter the country as something more than a tourist. Thus, you will also need authorization to reside in the country.

And be aware that most of this has to take place outside of Italy, in your home country. So don’t show up in Florence, or wherever, on a 90-day tourist visa and hope to go through the process locally. That, of course, creates a chicken-and-egg dilemma, since you’ll need proof of residence in the city where you want to live when you apply for your documents.

Also note that Italy limits the number of work visas it issues annually through what’s known as the Decreto Flussi, the Flow Decree. Generally, that’s about 2,400 self-employment visas issued per year. Applications typically open for a few months every year starting in April.

What you want: Self-employment visa, sometimes called the Freelancer Visa. You will also need, however, a Nulla Osta, which is a police authorization allowing you to perform self-employment work in Italy. Finally, you will need a Permesso di Soggiorno, a residence permit, which you can apply for once you have your freelance visa.

What you need:

  • Your Nulla Osta.
  • Entry visa application form and passport photos, with form signed in front of an officer at an Italian Consulate in your home country.
  • Valid passport, with an expiration date at least three months past your expected time in Italy.
  • Proof of residence in the city where you wish to live.
  • Proof of income to sustain yourself.
  • Proof that your income in the previous year exceeded the minimum wage below which Italians receive free healthcare, about €8,400 ($10,000) in 2020.
  • Flight itinerary.

France

France might well be the Holy Grail for freelancers.

The Eiffel Tower. Parisian bistros for a lugubrious, wine-fueled lunch. Cafés for coffee, baguettes, and a day of writing, or editing photos, or building websites for clients. There’s simply nothing like the ambiance of Paris.

But Paris, of course, is one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Yet many other corners of the country are actually quite affordable and quite beautiful in their own right.

And obtaining the work visa necessary to call France home is actually not so hard, though you will need a good bit of patience.

What you want: Long-term stay visa for the entrepreneur/profession libérale.

What you need:

  • Application with three passport photos.
  • Passport and identity card (think: driver’s license).
  • Police record.
  • Curriculum vitae (resume).
  • Proof that you have financial means to sustain yourself in France, which is typically three months of bank statements submitted with your application. That generally means access to between €32.25 ($38) and €125 ($150) per day. If you don’t have that kind of money in your bank account, you can often get around this by asking one of your existing clients to write a letter for you, addressed to the French Consulate, stating how much it anticipates paying you, monthly, over the coming year. You will submit that to the consulate with your application.
  • Documents to support your capacity to work in your chosen field.
  • Birth certificate.
  • Proof of residency.
  • Health insurance showing coverage in France for one year.

The Netherlands

Like Germany, the Netherlands isn’t always top-of-mind when it comes to a European freelance work visa. Maybe that’s because the place is quite expensive.

That said, if you have the financial means to afford to live in the Netherlands, then this is a great option for a work visa that gets you into Europe. Better still, the application process is relatively easy, though there are several different offices you must navigate.

What you want: A freelance visa is part of the Dutch American Friendship Treaty. The visa is good for two years, and you can renew it for an additional five.

What you need:

  • First, you need €4,500 ($5,360) in capital that you keep on deposit in a Dutch bank.
  • Proof that you make enough money to support yourself in the Netherlands.
  • Make an appointment with the Dutch immigration service to hand in your application and obtain a temporary visa, which will allow you to remain in the Netherlands beyond your 90-day Schengen limit.
  • Make an appointment with the Gemeente, the local municipality where you intend to live. Here you will need to obtain your BSN, your unique Dutch registration number similar to the U.S. Social Security number.
  • For your BSN, you will need: rental agreement and a copy of your birth certificate (apostilled by the state in which it was issued to guarantee its authenticity).
  • With your BSN, register yourself as a “sole practitioner” with the local Chamber of Commerce in the city you choose to live. 

Good luck visa hunting.

By Jeff D. Opdyke

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