Do you dream of moving to another country—but keeping your job, or finding freelance income? For expats who still want to work, taxes and visas can get complicated. Here's how to pull it off.

By Barry Rueger
May 17, 2021
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For many of us, the pandemic years of 2020-2021 have wildly changed how we approach work and earning. Maybe you've gone fully remote and want to stay that way; maybe you're planning a semi-retirement that involves downsizing just how much work you do. Maybe, like me, you're making a long-held dream of moving to another country a reality. But if you're emigrating and planning to earn money in a new country, things can get complicated fast, especially where taxes and work visas are concerned.

My wife and I are preparing to move to France this year; the selling price of our Vancouver home will buy us a lovely rural property in the Dordogne, with money left over. Although yes, we could just live off the proceeds of this sale, we both really want to keep working—me as a writer, my wife as a pianist and teacher.

Here's how we're planning to make the move across the globe, downsize our working lives somewhat, and yet still earn money in a foreign country in our semi-retirement.

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Research, research, research

We have spent hundreds of hours researching our move to France and everything we would need to get in line to keep working and earning income in a foreign country. Ultimately, we found that the best starting point was the dozen or so Facebook groups for English-speaking people living in France. From immigration to health care, there is a group for almost every expat need—and friendly people willing to share what they know.

However, before making any significant decision, you need to talk to real professionals—like a lawyer and an accountant. Don't solely rely on websites, blogs, and social media posts for advice. You also need to make sure that the information you're reading is current, and not two years out of date. For us, we found that the Canadian government has a good list of French lawyers, many of whom speak English.

Examining housing choices and prices

It's not helpful (or feasible) to keep earning money in a foreign country if 100 percent of it needs to go to your housing costs. My wife Susan is British-born, so we first began looking at properties there. Moving to Britain would be a straightforward process, but we quickly found that buying what we wanted for a retirement home would have taken up all of our sale proceeds. 

It did not take long for us to look across the channel and discover rural France. Nearly every country has online real estate listings, so it was easy to look at lovely cottages and farms. We knew that we wanted a rural property with outbuildings and room for family. France was an obvious choice; property prices are half of those in the United Kingdom.

Other cost-of-living comparisons

We'll be able to purchase our new home outright, so we won't have a mortgage in France. But we still wanted to know how much income we would need to live comfortably. In order to reside in France, you need to be able to demonstrate that you have an income of at least the French minimum wage. That means 1,347€ per month, or about $1,600 US. Our pensions would cover that easily—but would it be enough to live on?

It's easy to find and budget for the average costs of everyday expenses such as food, utilities, and internet for various countries online. On top of those estimates, we know we'll need to pay the two French property taxes, taxe d'habitation (occupancy tax) and taxe foncière (property tax), as well as fund inevitable home repairs and upgrades. We'll also need to earn enough money to budget for replacing many of our electrical appliances, from toaster to blender to toothbrushes: France's 220-volt, 50-cycle power system would destroy them. Thankfully, bigger items like printers and computers can handle either power.

Health care costs

Coming from Canada, we were pleased to learn that France also has a robust public health system, so we wouldn't have to drain our newly downsized earnings should illness arrive. Of course, that's not true of many countries, so do your research first and make sure your income will cover the cost of private health insurance if needed.

Although eventually expats in France can register and get a Carte Vitale, in the interim you do need to pay for private health insurance. This has to be purchased before you arrive in France. The cost of that insurance will depend on your age and situation, but we'll be paying around 600€ per month until we can get on to the French system. You may also need to pay for treatment out of pocket and then make a claim after the fact.

Last but not least, the visas

Make sure you arrive in your new home country on a visa that qualifies you to work; if not, you may be stranded on a prolonged "vacation" without the legal ability to earn.

From Canada and the United States, for example, you can visit France for up to three months without a visa. For longer than that, you need to apply for a long-stay visa, or VLS-TS. The TS stands for Titre de Séjour, or proof of residency. The process for applying for a VLS-TS is fairly simple on the France Visa website—unless you also want to work while you're there. Which we do.

When the conflicting and sometimes long out-of-date advice on the internet became too much to handle, we contacted a Parisian lawyer for advice. Maître Julie Maire is an immigration specialist at TerrAvocat; her advice to us was to consider two different options.

The first, and most simple, is to apply for one-year visitor visas. She tells us that although you cannot be employed by a French employer on this visa, you can still work as a freelancer or as self-employed, which is exactly what we needed. The one big obstacle to this type of visa is that you will not be able to access the French health system while on it; you'll need private insurance.

One option suggested for us was to apply for Passeport Talente visas as entrepreneurs. This is much more complicated, and requires a business plan, documentation, and a French bank account with a minimum of 30,000 € ($36,000 US). This seems to be the path that we'll choose.

On the other hand, many self-employed people will start out with a micro-entrepreneur visa status. It's a fairly simple way of registering your business and handling taxes based solely on your turnover. However, if your business grows large enough (i.e., makes more than about 72,000€ annually or $86,000 USD) you will be required to adopt the tax status of regime réel, and pay taxes on your net income.

Of course, each country's tax system is unique—and much more complex than these pieces of advice alone. You should seek professional counsel if you're thinking of making the move to keep working in a foreign country—and make sure you get the visa status that allows you to do so.