Freelancing in London (As an EU Citizen)
I moved to London six years ago to work as a freelance writer, and so far, it’s been a great experience. London is one of the most competitive places in the world for creative talent, and it’s an awesome place to live.
I originally wrote this post in 2015, and some things have changed since then. Currently, there’s a real possibility that the UK leaves the EU without proper trade deals in place. In that case, it would become a lot harder to come to the UK and just start working. But for now, let’s just hope for the best.
Moving to London seemed like a big step at first, but it turned out that it’s more like a big number of small steps. You can find some of the important ones below. I hope this helps if you’re also about to make the jump.
Find a place to stay
London is one of the world’s most expensive cities, and rents can be ridiculously high. This means your first place is likely to be an expensive shithole. Set a personal maximum, roughly 1/3 of your (projected) monthly income, and try to find a room in a central location.
The British have a funny way of calculating the rent. Rent prices are often listed as “pw", which means "per week". For example, 150£ per week. Multiply by 52 and then divide by 12. Why am I pointing this out? Because you would think that the rent per month would be 150£ x 4 weeks = 600£, when it's actually 650£.
Start your room hunt on a flatshare platform like Spareroom (opens in new window), get a UK SIM card and start calling people. In terms of location, I’d suggest avoiding the hip, expensive areas like Hackney and Shoreditch. But wherever you decide to move, make sure you have Tube, DLR or Overground station nearby. Busses are great, but they're quite slow. And as a freelancer, you’ll probably work in a bunch of different places scattered all over central London.
Many flats are completely furnished, you can pay cash and notice periods are short. Which makes it really easy to move (and that’s important if you want to escape your dirty flatmates or your crazy landlady). A personal note: since cheap neighbourhoods can be sketchy, whenever you go to see a place, walk there. Get a feel for the area first.
Get a bank account
Getting a bank account can be a pain in the ass. Go to a bank of your choice and apply for the most basic account. You will have to prove your source of income, which can be tricky if you are just starting out as a freelancer. I asked the first recruitment agency I registered with for a letter saying that they work with me and help me find jobs.
Also, register with an umbrella company if you don’t start out with your own limited company (more on that in a minute). If you’re with an umbrella company, you’re technically their employee. I didn’t know this at the time, but it might come in handy for you.
Instead of trying your luck at high street banks like HSBC or Barclays, you can also apply for an account with one of London’s many “neo-banks" and fintech start-ups. Here’s an article about alternative bank accounts for freelancers (opens in new window)
This is easy. You need a National Insurance (NI) number to work (and pay taxes) in the UK. Just apply for your NI number online (opens in new window) and visit your local Jobcentre for a quick interview. And in case somebody tells you otherwise: yes, you can start working if you don’t have one yet.
As a freelancer you have two choices: you either work with an umbrella company or you set your business up as a limited company. You can also work as a “sole trader", but that doesn’t give you any of the legal protections a limited company offers, so I wouldn’t go down that route.
When I came to the UK, I started working with an umbrella company. Basically, they deal with all your paperwork. They send out your invoices, make sure you’re being paid on time, and deduct taxes from your income. The downside is that you’re actually employed by the umbrella company, which means you pay taxes like any other full-time employee.
Not having to worry about invoices and taxes, especially in a foreign country, is very helpful. However, at some point I’d suggest setting up a limited company, which is a more tax-efficient way of doing business. Starting a limited company is easy and cheap, but I would highly recommend finding an account. If you don’t have your own accountant, you can use an online accounting service like Crunch (opens in new window). I haven’t used them myself, but I’ve heard good things.
The National Health Care system NHS is free for all UK residents. Just make sure that you register with your local general practitioner (GP) when you move into your new place.
Most agencies and companies don’t look for freelancers directly. So register with as many recruitment agencies as possible when you come to London. Send them a nice email with your CV and portfolio. They might invite you for a chat or just put you in their system, and then contact you when a brief comes in. Follow them on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn, so you’re up to date with their latest job offers.
Think about building a network early on – knowing people in the industry will increase your chances of getting hired again or finding a new role. Be nice, helpful and easy to work with. Tell the places you worked with that it’s been a pleasure.
By the way, here are a few sites you can use to find freelance jobs:
Portfolio and CV
I think there’s already a lot of great information out there on how to create portfolios and CVs. So I don’t want to get into that. But here’s one thing I noticed: quite often I received compliments on my portfolio’s design and layout. So make sure your portfolio looks nice. Don’t just dump your work in there. And since preparing a good portfolio and CV takes time, do it before you move.
Take it easy
Moving to London can seem like a big step, but don’t freak yourself out. Just go. You’ll figure everything out as you go along.