5 Key Considerations for Starting a Business Abroad

Last Updated: 

May 27, 2024

Making the move abroad can be exciting but also challenging.  And this is especially true if you’re also setting up business as an expat.

Of course, many people have done it (including myself – Gabrielle Collard) and there are wonderful benefits to living ‘la vida trabajo’ abroad. But if this is something you’re planning on doing, it’s best to get the lowdown from those who’ve gone before.

As someone who’s navigated Spanish legal business structures and lived to tell the tale, there are 5 main considerations I would advise anyone to take on board before establishing a biz as an expat.

Key Takeaways on Starting a Business Abroad

  1. Research Local Regulations: Understand the local business rules and regulations, including incorporation costs, tax obligations, and legal requirements specific to your industry.
  2. Seek Tax Expertise: Engage experts for tax advice, especially if navigating unfamiliar tax systems or languages, to ensure compliance and alleviate administrative burdens.
  3. Cultural Awareness: Be mindful of cultural differences in business practices, communication styles, and attitudes towards work to navigate smoothly in your new business environment.
  4. Language Proficiency: Invest in learning the local language to facilitate communication with customers, understand legal documents, and integrate into the community effectively.
  5. Patience and Persistence: Prepare for challenges and setbacks in establishing your business abroad, but maintain patience and perseverance to overcome obstacles and achieve success.
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1. Research local business rules and regulations

Look into the local business regulations to make sure you’re happy to comply with conventional rules and practices.

Don’t make assumptions based on your experience of business in your home country. The differences may seem small but they can end up making a major dent in your startup budget and your monthly or annual bottom line.

For example, what will it cost to incorporate? In the UK, this is a cost of £13.  But in Spain it’ll set you back a whopping €3,000!

There can often be more than one type of incorporation. Make sure that you select the right structure – so you don’t end up with regrets and a non-recoverable business in the long run.

Investigate whether it will be easy to open a bank account and how likely is it that you could apply for a business loan if it came to that?

If you’re planning on working as a consultant or coach in a particular field, check that your qualifications match the legal requirement in your new abode abroad. 

Also, you may think you’re paying a lot of tax at home, but just how much tax – and how frequently – will you pay as a small business or freelancer in your newly adopted country? Are there any other hidden costs you need to become aware of, like insurance, pensions or other social security fees? 

For example, another experience many solopreneurs are unprepared for here in Spain is the fact that they are obligated to pay upwards of €300 a month for Social Security – regardless of what they’re earning per month!

All of these questions are important to have answers to if only to ensure you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into before you dive off the deep end and start forming your empire!

2. Go to the experts for tax advice

When you’re registering as a business or self-employed, it’s also worth engaging an expert in the process if you can’t yet speak the lingo. Often there’s a mountain of paperwork to plough through, and, as is the case with Spain, your tax requirements are not just based on your business structure but on the line of work you’re in too. Confusing? Just a tad!

And if you need to pay regular VAT or tax returns, hiring a local accountant to do that each month or quarter can shift a lot of time-consuming work from your schedule, giving you more time to work on building the actual business.

In addition, just because you’ve moved to a new country and are embarking on the Big Adventure, doesn’t mean you won’t still have some tax obligations back home. For example, American solopreneurs may still need to file a US State Tax Return.

3. Be aware of cultural differences

There may be certain practices, attitudes and etiquette that you need to learn before you blast your way into a new business culture.  So do your homework, and don’t fall back on old stereotypes. For example, most workers in Spanish cities don’t take siestas and regardless of their long-believed casual relationship to work, they typically work more hours than their British counterparts!

Many American and British workers also see friendliness as equaling openness; They find it easy to talk about their personal lives with people they don’t really know. That means, small talk with the bank manager or their newly hired social media manager may include details about how they spent their weekend or the fact that their dog was recently sick.

But many cultures on the continent are much more formal with people they’ve yet to build a working – or any – relationship with. Still, their being reticent about sharing personal details doesn’t imply they’re unfriendly. They just don’t feel they know you well enough to chat with you about their experience of, say, having shingles!

4. Learn the language

Learning the language of your new country is another cultural hurdle that’s worth crossing. Not only will it give you insight into the specific customs and quirks of your current community (see above), you’ll be more welcome if you’re making the effort – no matter how bad your accent is!

Of course, it’s particularly important to know the local language of your intended customer base in your adopted city or country. You’ll be able to build genuine relationships and increase loyalty with your customers much more effectively. Even just knowing the basics can open you up to a whole new network of people and potential clients.

Having a good grasp of the lingua franca also helps you to be in full control when it comes to your legal and financial responsibilities. You’ll be in a better position to understand your options when it comes to any kind of business-related advice you need.

Also – Google Translate really won’t cut it when you’re trying to decipher the four-page letter you’ve just received from the tax office.

6. Be patient

Finally, setting up a business, whether in your adopted country or the place you grew up in, is always going to come with a few challenges. The best approach is to expect that and be patient. As long as you’ve sourced appropriate support, and have an idea of what you need to do legally and otherwise, there’s nothing that says you won’t be able to make your dream happen.

As an expat business owner, I can tell you that there’ll be sighs and tears, and maybe even a few tantrums! But there’ll also be moments of deep satisfaction, and feelings of great personal pride when the business finally starts to come together. 

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