Main takeaways from my first year of freelancing

When I moved to Medellín a year ago, I decided to make a major change in my professional life and quit my stable job at a language institute. I became self-employed and started to offer my services to institutions, private students, and teachers. Now that I have some experience under my belt, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the pros and cons of working as an ELT freelancer in Colombia.

Medellín, Colombia

Freelancing has many benefits
Working as a teacher for Centro Colombo Americano was great in terms of gaining teaching experience, but I wasn’t happy with being underpaid and having few opportunities to develop professionally. Freelancing allows me to focus on work that pays better and helps me learn new stuff. In addition to working as an independent contractor for International House, I run my own online courses and offer consulting services. I’m now involved in a variety of activities, which is much more fun than repetitive work at a language academy, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot about a few areas of ELT that I hadn’t paid attention to before.

Being proactive is crucial
Since I have no guaranteed number of working hours, it’s all very simple. The onus is on me to find my own clients, which means that I have to keep in touch with a lot of people. Freelancers are recommended to have more sources of income, and there are some pretty good reasons for that. Companies may cancel their English programme, students get a job that prevents them from attending classes, etc. It’s important to be ready for that eventuality and know how to find a way to replace that lost contract.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are extremely helpful
So far, I haven’t had to use any third-party services to find my private students. When I started freelancing, I simply contacted a number of students I had worked with before and offered them advanced English courses delivered through Zoom. It seems that personal recommendations are very powerful because once I managed to get my first students, I started receiving messages from their family members, colleagues, and friends who would like to be taught by me. This makes me very happy since I can keep teaching classes completely independently without relying on a platform that charges a commission.

I like having a flexible schedule
Since I’m not an employee anymore, I can choose when and how much I’m going to work. When I’m too busy, I simply tell the institution or individual who is contacting me that I’m not available at that moment. I can also decide to take a day off anytime I want, which is great. Since I don’t have a fixed schedule, I’m flexible when it comes to rescheduling lessons in case something unexpected happens. Having more freedom is one of the main reasons I made the decision to go freelance. I was actually in talks to teach at two local universities, but both of them require their teachers to work on Saturdays, which would have clashed with my other projects, so I chose to become self-employed instead.

I can teach the way I want to
Working with private students is amazing! I don’t need to follow a syllabus written by someone else; I analyse the individual’s needs and create a course just for them completely from scratch. It’s great to be able to spend time on areas that tend to be neglected, such as teaching listening skills; I follow John Field’s advice to do that, and it works pretty well. I’ve also enjoyed running group courses based on TBLT and the Dogme approach. Being fully in charge of choosing and designing course materials is one of several advantages of working as a freelance teacher.

Teaching isn’t the only thing one needs to pay attention to
When I was an employee, I would just sign my contract and let the language institute deal with the rest. Since I work as an independent contractor on what is called contrato de prestación de servicios, I’m responsible for following local laws and regulations when it comes to taxes and social security. I needed to get a tax identification number (RUT) and sign up for health insurance and pension as an independent contributor. I highly recommend that you check out this Sponge Chat with Nicola Prentis in which she stresses the importance of thinking of your pension. TEFL is usually seen as a short-term career, so this topic isn’t that often talked about.

It can be done only with the right kind of visa
Freelancers tend to have various sources of income, which means that you need to hold a visa with an open work permit. There are two popular ways to achieve that here in Colombia: You can stay on an employee visa (type M) for five years and then get a resident visa, or there is a shortcut for those with a Colombian partner since that kind of visa allows the holder to work as a freelancer. I’ve also seen reports of people successfully obtaining the new digital nomad visa, but that one is more about being able to stay in the country for more than six months. Digital nomads can freelance as well; however, they can’t work with clients based in Colombia since their income has to come from abroad.

Being ghosted is very common
I’ve been involved in quite a few chat or email conversations in which the other party simply disappeared for no apparent reason, even when they have accepted to join my course or use one of my services. It seems that some people believe that ghosting me is a better option than being honest and telling me that they have changed their mind due to my hourly rate or something else. While it’s not that surprising in case of institutions and strangers from the internet, it’s very disappointing when it’s done by someone I’ve known for years, and it inevitably sours the relationship. This has made me focus more on quality rather than quantity, so I prefer to work with a limited number of clients who are genuinely interested in attending my lessons or consultations.

It’s necessary to set clear rules
When you don’t use a middleman to assign classes to you, it’s up to you to arrange everything with your students. Being too nice is a disadvantage because the fact that someone says they will pay you doesn’t mean that they will actually do it. If you want to avoid chasing payments and having uncomfortable conversations, you need to make it clear to your students how things are going to work. You may have to set deadlines for payments and decide what to do in case of cancellations. It’s important to make sure that the process of getting paid goes as smoothly as possible.

Digital nomads are welcome in Colombia

The long-awaited visa reform was approved and came into effect in October 2022. Several of those changes have already been implemented in the past two years and Resolución 5477 finally provides some clarity and official information. There are also a few other policy adjustments, and this post is going to focus on how the new law affects English teachers.

Digital nomads are welcome in Colombia

Let me start with a personal observation. Since my arrival in Colombia in 2017, the country has made progress when it comes to digitalisation and online services; I can get a lot of things done from the comfort of my home. Fortunately, Cancillería has now confirmed that the visa process will continue being done fully online. You simply fill out the application form, upload the required files, and wait for an email. If your application is successful, you will receive an electronic visa that can be used for entering and leaving the country and for applying for your cédula de extranjería. The PDF file contains a verification QR code, so there is no need to travel to Bogotá to get the physical visa stamped into the passport. Yay!

The most interesting news this new law brings is the creation of a digital nomad visa. A lot of people work remotely while being based in another country. The issue is that they usually find themselves in a legislative grey zone since you can stay somewhere without a visa only for a limited period of time. In case of Colombia, tourists can’t spend here more than 180 days per calendar year. Overstaying is not recommended because you risk getting fined and banned from re-entering.

Colombia now allows digital nomads to get a visa and stay in the country for up to two years. It’s supposed to make things easier because those remote workers are going to receive their cédula de extranjería, which will help them with things such as renting an apartment directly from the owner and getting the internet connected. In practical terms, what that means for ELT professionals is that you can legally live in Colombia and work for international online teaching platforms.

To get the digital nomad visa, you need to comply with the following requirements:

• Hold a passport from a country that is exempt from the short-stay visa requirement. You can find the complete list of countries here.
• A letter in English or Spanish issued by the company you work for; it should state what type of contract you have and how much you earn.
• If you are an entrepreneur, you need to attach a letter explaining your project and how you finance it.
• Bank statements showing that you have earned at least 3 times the Colombian minimum salary in the past 3 months. At the moment of writing, the minimum salary is 1,000,000 pesos, which is approximately 230 US dollars, so you should be earning more than 690 dollars per month to qualify for the visa.
• Proof of a health insurance policy covering the whole period of your expected stay in the country.

The requirements seem to be reasonably easy to comply with, but of course it’s necessary to wait and see how the process is going to work in practice. I believe that there are a lot of professionals from all kind of areas who already do what the visa intends to encourage, which is earning money from abroad and spending it in Colombia. Please note that digital nomad visa holders are not allowed to have any income from Colombian employers and the time spent on this visa doesn’t count when it comes to applying for a resident visa.

While this is undoubtedly very good news for many digital nomads, I think it’s necessary to mention that being an online English teacher based in Colombia isn’t for everybody, mainly because of the country’s geographical position. If your students live in Asia, you’ll have to work at night and sleep during the day, which doesn’t sound like a very attractive idea to me. You really need to be sure that this path is right for you before you before apply for the new visa.

Those interested in a more conventional TEFL in Colombia experience are welcome to work with local institutions. There have been a few changes in regulations affecting those teachers as well, so let’s take a look at some of the popular visa categories:

Employee visa
This type of work visa is the most common one among foreign teachers working in Colombia. It is tied to the employer and you can’t work for anyone else when you hold this visa. The most significant piece of news related to this visa category is the fact that the applicant has to attach an apostilled degree or work certifications demonstrating their experience. It’s not exactly clear what that means in the TEFL context, but it’s a sign that the authorities require people to have at least some qualifications. Apart from that, the employee visa is awarded for up to 3 years and you can ask for a resident visa after 5 years, so it’s necessary to renew it at least once if you plan to become a resident.

Permanent partner visa
The unión marital de hecho route used to be the easiest way to get an open work permit, and it allowed the visa holder to obtain a resident visa after just 2 years. However, the 2022 visa reform has made the process much more complicated. You now have to wait for a year after signing the declaration of your partnership before being eligible to apply for the visa. Its validity has been reduced to just a year, and if you plan to become a resident, you now have to hold this type of visa for 5 years and go through numerous visa applications. Getting your residency thanks to this visa is now going to be very time-consuming and quite pricey.

Spouse visa
Those who are married to a Colombian citizen may apply for the spouse visa, which grants them the right to work for any employer in Colombia. The time required for a resident visa application has been extended from 2 to 3 years, but the good news is that this visa is valid for up to 3 years, so you don’t need to do numerous renewals. As a result, this option now seems to be much better than the permanent partner visa.

In total, there are now 49 visa categories. Most of them aren’t really relevant to English teachers, but I recommend that you check the law by yourself and see if there is something that may suit you better than the aforementioned visa types. The bottom line is that there are a few ways to stay legally in the country as an English teacher, and those that involve working for Colombian employers lead to the possibility of obtaining a resident visa in the future.

If you are an English teacher interested in moving to Colombia, you are invited to use my TEFL career advice service. I’d be happy to assist you with your job search and talk to you about your options when it comes to working in this country.