Surviving and thriving in the Philippines: Internet based work

If you’re lucky enough to have a pension you can collect here, then surviving in the Philippines is a doddle. If not, it can seem impossible.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at some of the ways to survive here, and the pitfalls that can await the unwary.

Today, I’ll look at income from the internet — how realistic it is and what sort of income you can expect. I’ll cover two main areas: Freelancing for someone else and running your own profitable website.

Freelancing for other people

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There are many jobs you can do online. You may need new skills and you’ll have to make arrangements for collecting payment. So I’ll assume you’re just starting out and talk about some of the infrastructure you’ll need.

Your working environment

First, you’ll need a comfortable and quiet space to work. Here’s what it cost me:

  • Office furniture: P45,000
  • Desktop computer: P20,000
  • Office Renovation: P35,000
  • PLDT (Monthly): P1,299
  • Electricity: P3,000

I choose to work under an air conditioner, so you could reduce your electricity bill if you’re happy with just a fan. I also went for a custom-built desk and proper office chair. So you could cut costs by compromising on comfort.

As I own my house, I converted a large storeroom into an office. That involved building work (and installing my air conditioner). Again, these costs are avoidable (and might not be possible if you’re renting). But you really do need to create a private space where you can work undisturbed. (Working freelance takes more discipline than having a day job, so set definite office hours.)

So, my setup cost about $2,000 USD and my monthly costs are $100 USD, give or take 20 bucks.

Your infrastructure

If you’re US-based, with a bank account there, it’s easy to get paid by wire transfer from most of the freelance sites. If you’re not, it ain’t. Your best bet is either PayPal or Payoneer.

If you go with PayPal you’ll need a local bank account. If you go for Payoneer they’ll mail you a Mastercard you can use at local ATMs. It’s more expensive than PayPal, but more straightforward. Personally, I use both.

Setting up PayPal with a Philippine bank account

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Most banks in the Philippines issue you with a Visa or Mastercard debit card. You’ll need this to get your online account set up. Between myself and my wife, we’ve linked BDO, Metrobank, EastWest Bank and Unionbank to PayPal without any problems.

When making our initial inquiries, the only bank that told us they were incompatible with PayPal was Chinabank. (Double check with your bank, as these things do have a habit of changing.)

Once you’ve got your and your account details, getting your PayPal account verified is easy. (Without verification, you’ll be subjected to transfer and withdrawal limits.)

Here’s how it works: Go to paypal.com and register for a new account. Enter your number and other details. You’ll be asked for a “bank code”, but don’t panic. I’ve used this full list whenever setting up a new account, and never had a problem. The chances are you’ll use one of the top five. Here are their codes:

  • BANCO DE ORO: 010530667
  • BANK OF THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS: 010040018
  • METROPOLITAN BANK & TRUST CO: 010269996
  • SECURITY BANK: 010140015
  • UNION BANK OF THE PHILIPPINES:010419995

Next, PayPal will make a small withdrawal to verify your identity. It’s only 100 pesos and you’ll get it back anyway.

Once this goes through, retrieve the linked numerical code. Enter this into PayPal and you’re done. Being verified means there are no limits on withdrawals or transfers.

I’ve never known it take more than 48 hours for transfers from PayPal to reach my local bank account. In fact, with my BDO account, ifs I trigger the withdrawal before 7am it lands in my bank the same day.

Payoneer

Payoneer is an awesome service but, unlike PayPal, it costs $25 per year. However, you get a physical Mastercard Debit linked to a US bank account in your name.

You don’t need to be a US citizen or resident, but only Payoneer approved depositors (a selection of companies, most freelance sites and other Payoneer cardholders) can put money in your account.

Applying is free, but the first year’s charge is automatically added. Funds are available to you as soon as they are deposited at any ATM in the world that takes Mastercard.

What sort of work is available?

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My go-to site for getting started is UpWork.com. It’s got a huge range of work and is easy to use.

If you’re something of a wordsmith, you’ll have no difficulty finding work as a writer. You can easily get $20-$30 per article. It doesn’t sound like a fortune, but with a little effort you can easily crack 30,000 pesos a month, enough to cover basic expenses. Graphic artists, computer programmers and web designers will also find many opportunities.

If you come from a professional services background, particularly lawyers or accountants, you can command a very solid hourly rate working on things like contracts and tax returns. Of course, you’ll need to maintain any pertinent professional licences.

When I got started on UpWork several years ago, my hourly rate was $20 USD and I was working 20-30 hours a week. The returns add up quickly. During my time on the site (I’m no longer active) I formed relationships with clients who now provide me with full-time, contract-based work. (Ironically, I now manage some of their current contractors on UpWork.)

What other freelancer websites work well?

There are many other freelance marketplaces available to expats in the Philippines. Some are highly specific and some are more general (UpWork being the prime example). It’s a little beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive list, but here are a couple of other recommondations:

(This article on Entrepreneur.com has a more comprehensive list, with a breakdown of pros and cons. But I’d advise anybody to start with UpWork and branch out from there.)

I know guys comfortably earning $40-$60,000 USD out here. It does take time to get started, but once you’re rolling and you’ve built your reputation, it grows exponentially.

What about working on your own Internet based business from the Philippines?

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Running a website takes a lot of work, and it won’t make money unless you get a lot of things exactly right.

I own 16 websites. Some make money, others don’t (yet). They all took hard work, specialist knowledge and a bit of luck to get them wherever they are today.

Even though hosting costs can be as low as $100 per year, some will always struggle to pay for themselves. That said, anything is possible with enough time, cash and effort.

Apologies for injecting a bit shameless self promotion here — but I offer consulting services in this field. (Fill out this form, ask for me by name, and I’ll reply by e-mail.)

How about becoming a world-famous vlogger?

Another option is producing and marketing YouTube videos. If you’ve got the skills and you’ve got the right kind of viral content this can potentially be be a huge money-spinner.

On YouTube, you make about $2,000 for every million views, depending on content. YouTube retains 45%, so if you’re planning on making a comfortable living you need to be generating at least two million views a month. This piece by Business Insider spells out how difficult that is.

Dropshipping & affiliate websites

If you’re thinking to run an affiliate-based website or start a dropshipping business with a partner such as Amazon, then you’re looking at quite a bit of work to get going (although it’s arguably easier than setting up an “authority content” site). The problem is attracting traffic. The solution is investing in advertising with either Facebook or Google. Both are expensive.

Depending on the niche you’re in, you could find yourself paying north of $5 or even $10 per click through on a Google Ad. Some niches go for even more than that. Then, once they’re on your site, if you’ve not done an exceptionally good job of setting it up, they might not convert.

There are plenty of platforms (like shopify for instance) that are built for people who want to operate this model, and they provide good back-end support. They don’t come for free though.

No matter if you’re on the internet or you’re working with bricks and mortar, the old adage of having money to make money holds true. That said, it’s possible to find a profit if you do it right, remain patient and have blood, sweat and luck to spare.

So, what’s your best option?

That depends on what you’re good at, how much you want to make, and how much effort you want to put in. Most native English speakers can find work on one of the freelance sites I mentioned earlier.

More technically savvy people can find opportunities running their own online businesses. Whichever way you go, have a backup plan; this country is no fun to be dirt poor in… and I say that from experience.