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Foreign offices: the Britons who work from home – abroad

Suzanne Bearne
·11-min read
<span>Photograph: lechatnoir/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: lechatnoir/Getty Images

When the coronavirus lockdown forced Mason Palmer, 26, to start working from home, the digital content creator had a rethink about where that home was and in July he moved from Bristol to Milan. “I’ve always loved travelling to Italy,” he says. “I was always going over there; it was like an expensive hobby.”

He did not expect his boss to necessarily be on board with his plans and suggested that he move to working for the company, Working Word, on a freelance basis. But the firm was open to the idea and his boss kept him on staff. “Now I’m like the unofficial Milan branch,” he laughs.

Palmer moved from a £700-a-month houseshare in Bristol to a flat on his own costing €1,050 (£959) a month. “It is more expensive but I did save money during lockdown as I couldn’t spend anything,” he says. “So I did come over with some savings that have helped with the transition.”

Palmer used to have to travel in to Cardiff, which set him back £15 a day, and there were additional costs such as “Pret and Ubers when the train was delayed”. Aside from rent, he has so far found it cheaper to live in Italy. “I don’t have a massive social life as yet and I just feel like glam sitting on my sofa in Milan.”

He doesn’t think he will need to return to the UK. “We communicate a lot through video and, realistically, client meetings aren’t happening in the same way,” he says. “In my mind I had a three-month plan to see if it would work out and it seems to have. Now I’m coming up to phase two where I’m looking to apply for a residence permit, which might mean my tax code might change and there might be some accountancy difficulties.” Because of Brexit he wants to get a permit as soon as possible. “It’s like a ticking timebomb. I definitely do want to stay in Italy.”

Events executive Ellie Halls, 40, has been told that the company she works for will not reopen its office until at least November. Instead of working from the home she owns in Clapham, south London, she is currently in Montpellier in France.

I was already learning French and I love the sun, so I thought it would be a great opportunity

Events executive Ellie Halls

“I’d been working from my flat for a couple of months and wanted a change of scenery,” says Halls, who moved there in July. “I was already learning French and I love the sun, so I thought it would be a great opportunity.” Fortunately, her boss agreed. “My colleague had already gone back to Croatia to be with her family, so a precedent had already been set. My boss was cool with it.”

After finding rental properties on Airbnb out of her price range, Halls booked to stay at Babel, a co-living space. There she has her own bedroom and bathroom while she shares a living room and kitchen with five other people. It costs her £500 a month.

She has a lodger in London but has yet to find a tenant to stay in her room so she is looking at the additional cost as being from her “holiday fund”. She has also found the cost of living cheaper outside the UK. “I was taking private French lessons in London but the ones here are about two-thirds of the price. Wine and eating out tend to be cheaper and while supermarkets can be really expensive, you can choose to go to places like Lidl,” she says.

Also in France is Dan Rawle, who before lockdown was lodging with a distant family friend in Leytonstone in London but his landlord, in his 60s, started to become “very worried” about having a 27-year-old in the house because of the risk the virus posed. Rawle’s office was closed in March, so he moved back in with his parents in Sheffield for two months. However, it wasn’t long until he decided to set his sights a bit further afield. His company did not see any harm in him working abroad, although being on French time meant he had to change his hours to work from 10am to 6.30pm.

Rawle is living in a studio apartment in Melun, on the outskirts of Paris, which he found via Airbnb. It costs him £500 a month, significantly less than the £900 he was paying in London. The location is great: there is a forest about five minutes away where he runs and cycles and there are plenty of markets nearby. “I’m saving on public transport as I was paying £7 a day in London; here I have a pass for about €70 a month.”

Rawle says he thinks he will stay in Paris until Christmas. “I’m waiting for work to ask me to come back. Eventually they’ll want everyone to be in the office,” he says. But in the meantime he is having the time of his life. “I now get the chance to relive that post-uni travel experience but by being a grownup working in a job instead.”

The lockdown also convinced Vinay Chaudhri, 31, to flee London, although as a homeowner there he needed to make the sums add up. The head of brand at the VC fund Backed, moved to Ericeira, a Portugese surfing town 40 minutes north of Lisbon in May.

“The attraction of living in London is the city and what it offers,” he says. “Remove that and the ability to socialise with people who matter, and the appeal dies pretty quickly.”

Finding he could move anywhere in the world and still do his job was, he says: “A unique silver lining on cloud Covid.” He initially moved into a rental apartment in Portugal with his now ex-partner, sharing the €900-a-month bill, before moving in with a friend and paying a similar amount. To make his finances work, he rented out his flat in Bermondsey for £1,000 a month. “One of my primary concerns was whether it was feasible to do this as I wanted to the cover the mortgage in the UK; I was essentially trying to make it as close to like-for-like as possible. I was happy to pay a small premium more for a better quality of life but not so much that it would financially ruin me.”

Like most of the digital nomads, his plans for the future are being made on a month-by-month basis. However, Covid-19 has made him realise that perhaps his work location does not need to be so rigid. “I do think I don’t need to be in London full time now,” he says. “This is like test case experience. In an ideal fashion I’d like to spend a portion of the month outside the UK.”

Before you pack a suitcase …

Check that you are allowed to enter the country and whether there are quarantine restrictions in place. Be aware that the situation is changing all the time, and that you will need to abide by local rules.

Look for insurance policies to cover you. Bear in mind that firms are unlikely to offer cover if you are travelling to a country to which the UK Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel.

If you are planning on working abroad it is important to be aware of the tax implications. Each country has different rules and it is best to seek the advice of an accountant.

“For those looking to pack up and work abroad until the dust settles, there are certain tax rules they need to be aware of,” says Sherad Dewedi, a managing partner at the accountancy firm Shenward. Those temporarily working abroad and employed by a UK company will pay tax as usual through PAYE, while the self-employed will still need to declare their income as usual.

Most workers continue banking with their UK bank unless they decide to stay long term

“To put it simply, if you are a classed as a UK resident and you were born in either England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland (UK domiciled), you have a legal responsibility to declare and pay tax on all of your income, regardless of whether that income has been generated in the UK or overseas,” Dewedi says. “However, like with many tax rules, it can be quite a complex process to determine whether someone is a resident and indeed UK domiciled. This can involve looking at if you are out of the country longer than you are in it or hold a working visa in another country. However, the primary test for determining residency is the number of days you spend in or outside the UK. However, every case should be looked at on an individual basis and ideally by a professional who can ensure rules are abided by.”

Most workers continue banking with their UK bank unless they decide to stay long term and need an account set up through a local supplier. To avoid being charged for cash withdrawals abroad, it is worth considering opening a UK bank account with a provider such as Monzo or Starling, which do not charge you for foreign transactions or withdrawals.

If you are renting out your place while you are away, you will need to file a self-assessment tax return in the UK. Tax will only be due if your total untaxed UK income exceeds £12,500 during the financial year.

You should speak to your employer about whether or not you can claim expenses overseas. If you are freelance, you can claim expenses as you would if you were in the UK.

The places trying to attract remote workers

1) Arranmore Island, Donegal

It bills itself as one of the “most connected places on earth” despite being almost the remotest location in Europe, 5km off the stormy north-west coast of Ireland. In 2017 it launched an appeal to attract remote workers – it had a declining population of only 469 inhabitants – but poor internet deterred newcomers. So Arranmore (Árainn Mhór) worked with the mobile operator Three to create a high-speed offshore internet hub, opened last year. But note that the island is currently seeking to shield itself from coronavirus and its main digital workspace is not taking new bookings.

2) Vermont, US

Snowshoes walkers in Vermont, US
Vermont has hiking trails and ski slopes. Photograph: Alamy

Criss-crossed by hiking trails, ski slopes, 19th century wooden bridges and stunning mountain terrain, the New England state offered a $5,000-a-year grant to new full-time residents who worked from a home office or co-working space in Vermont. The remote worker grant programme was set up to encourage professionals to make the leap into the state. The programme began in 2018 and brought in 218 new Vermonters – but it is currently closed for new applications after funding ran out in January.

3) Locana, Italy

The Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy
Locana is part of Italy’s Gran Paradiso national park. Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

Giovanni Bruno Mattiet, the mayor of the tiny Alpine village of Locana, 45km north-west of Turin, last year promised to pay up to €9,000 if you took up residency in a village that has undergone dramatic population loss in recent years. But you have to have a child and a minimum salary of €6,000. It joins a lengthening list of remote and depopulated Italian, Spanish and Japanese villages offering incentives to new residents, such as €1 houses. Ponga, a village in the foothills of the Picos de Europa in northern Spain in 2007 reportedly offered new residents €3,000, with a bonus of €3,000 for every child, although the scheme attracted few takers. Neither did the promise of a free cow for people who moo-ve to Mishima in Japan, although it delighted pun writers.

4) Canary Islands, Spain

Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands
The Canary Islands are already popular with digital nomads and remote workers but they want to attract more. Photograph: Chema Rodriguez/EPA

The sun-drenched islands off the African coast will shortly launch a campaign aimed at attracting remote workers from across the EU. Yaiza Castilla, the regional official in charge of tourism, told the Observer: “The coronavirus brought this market into sharp relief. It could be a huge opportunity for us to recoup tourism.” There are already more than 3,000 members of a digital nomads and remote workers Facebook group on the islands, with a group called repeople based in Las Palmas.

5) Barbados

Bottom Bay in Barbados.
Bottom Bay in Barbados. Photograph: Gary Corbett/Alamy

The Barbados Welcome Stamp visa, which began in June, costs $2,000 (£1,540) for individuals and $3,000 for families. Applicants (at barbadoswelcomestamp.bb) will be exempt from paying local income tax and can reapply to stay longer at the end of the visa term.

You will be forbidden from working for Barbados employers but the government insists that high-speed fibre internet is widespread across the island, enabling you to connect with overseas clients.
Patrick Collinson