For an independent professional, an e-seller, or a small enterprise, the United States certainly seems like a huge and thriving market.
It is one of the largest economies in the world, with more than 320 million people, nearly 28 million small businesses, as well as 18,500 firms with 500 employees or more.
That vast potential can seem irresistible, especially for freelancers or independents who are working in comparatively small markets outside the US. As always, it’s not quite as simple as it seems, but there is significant potential in venturing into the US.
RECEPTIVE TO OVERSEAS PROVIDERS
To be sure, with all that vigorous activity, the US markets attract large numbers of competitors in virtually every industry, every profession. And it can seem daunting to try to find clients and customers across such huge and sprawling country.
But as more and more independents and freelancers have discovered, customers in the US are actually quite willing to work with providers from outside the country. That is especially true for businesses that work in well-defined niches and specialties, and sellers who offer unique and distinctive goods.
In fields such as design, illustration and other creative disciplines, for example, freelancers from certain areas and countries may even carry a certain cachet very attractive to US buyers. Or they’re seen as offering fresh and unique perspectives.
In other areas, such as programming and development, providers from outside the US are often perceived as delivering much greater value and expertise than US providers. In still other situations being from abroad won’t matter much at all.
Yes, you will need your marketing skills to succeed in the US, but for the most part, as a provider from abroad you won’t be at any particular disadvantage in attracting customers.
A RELATIVELY BUSINESS-FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT
In general, the US doesn’t erect many obstacles for freelancers or e-sellers from outside the country — especially if you will be performing the work or delivering products from your home country.
If you are not building factories, opening stores, or operating warehouses in the country, doing business with customers in the US isn’t very complicated. In most situations, you will not need a physical presence in the US — an office, let’s say — unless clients insist on regularly meeting with you face to face.
In fact, most of the complexity involved in managing your US business will arise from the need to get paid by US customers — or to pay your suppliers in the US.
Although there are newer solutions that can vastly simplify this. (More below.)
OPENING A BANK ACCOUNT IN THE US
The conventional solution for billing and getting paid by US customers is to open a checking account in a bank in the US. Your US customers pay for your services with a check — or with a direct deposit — which goes into your US bank account. You then transfer the funds back to your home country via wire.
The trouble is, US laws and banking regulations make it difficult for a non-resident to open a business bank account in a US bank. (That is due to efforts to curb fraud, money laundering, and other illegal activity.)
REGISTERING AS A BUSINESS IN THE US
You will almost always need to open a US bank account in person, which involves an actual trip to the US. Rarely can you do so online, from abroad.
In addition, to open a business banking account you will need to establish a business entity in the United States, which adds an extra layer of complexity. You must then present the necessary registration documents to the bank when opening the account.
US banks will recognize the following as business entities when opening an account.
- A sole proprietorship, where you are the only owner.
- A partnership, which entails an agreement between you and one or more partners.
- A corporation or LLC, entities that are responsible for the taxes and most liabilities resulting from the business.
In addition, registering as a will require you to have an official address in the US, preferably in the vicinity of the bank where you open the account. You will not necessarily need a physical office or store; you can use the address of an attorney or special registered agent, but you must arrange this in advance, and make sure your bank will accept it as a valid address.
The downside of registering as a US business is that you may be subject to US-based income taxes on your profits from the business. Which entails keeping records, filing a return, and paying any taxes due.
In any event, you will need to obtain a US tax identification number to open the bank account, and file a form W-8Ben. You can obtain these directly from the US Internal Revenue service at www.irs.gov.
CAN YOU USE INTERNATIONAL WIRE TRANSFERS?
Yes, this is always an option. Instead of setting up a US bank account, you arrange for your US customer or client to wire your payment from their US bank account to your home bank account.
This does work, and the money does get into your account, although it may take a number of business days. The problem is, your US customer may not be so willing to go this route.
For one, the customer will have to pay a fee to his or her bank to make the transfer. You’ll have to negotiate whether this fee comes out of their pocket or yours.
At the same time, you will have to pay a fee to your bank for receiving the transfer. These fees can significantly reduce the proceeds from the transaction, especially if you receive relatively small payments, very often.
What’s more, your customer will have to initiate the transfer manually, which is more of a nuisance than simply writing a check. Which can irritate clients and delay your payments.
ALTERNATIVE: USING A GLOBAL PAYMENT PLATFORM
Instead of dealing with all the above — just to get paid for your work or goods — freelancers and e-sellers are increasingly turning to global payment platforms, such as Payoneer and others, which bypass all the issues involved with opening US bank accounts.
When using a global payment provider, you won’t need to establish a bank account in the US; everything works through your account the platform, and your usual home country bank account.
In the simplest case, the platform lets you send a payment request — an invoice — to your US customer. They can pay the invoice either with a credit card, an electronic check, or other means. The funds immediately flow to your platform account — which is linked to your bank account in your home country.
Or, if you do business often, you and your US customer can establish accounts on the same payment platform, and quickly send funds across the platform as needed, without getting mired in the details of costly international wire transfers.
Setting up an account on a payment platform can normally be done online in a few minutes, and will usually be active the same day.
The advantage is, you can generally use the same platform in the US, and wherever else you do business — without worrying about establishing bank accounts worldwide.