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EXPLAINED: What is it like being self-employed in Vienna?

Two women working in a cafe Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Is freelance work all it's cracked up to be? (Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)
Is being a "digital nomad" in Austria all it's cracked up to be? And are there any shocks in store for those wishing to start out as freelancers? Vienna-based Emma Midgley from the UK, explains some of the challenges and perks.

I started working as a self-employed journalist and copywriter in Austria at the beginning of January. Before this, I had almost always worked as a salaried employee or contractor for one company, most recently as a journalist at the BBC.

Nine months on, as well as writing for The Local, I have carried out media monitoring for the European Parliament, worked as a contractor for an international organisation in Vienna and been paid by the BBC and an Austrian magazine for work as a freelance journalist. 

So what are the pros and cons to freelancing? 

Freelance work gives flexibility

To begin with the positives, freelancing allows you a lot of flexibility. I can work in my pyjamas at home, or visit somewhere in Austria for a few days and enjoy being a “digital nomad” in a cafe, while engaging in a bit of sight-seeing in my spare time.

However, while the classic vision of the freelancer is a woman or man working while enjoying a coffee in a brick walled cafe, in practice I often find myself working from home. That’s not due to a shortage of cafes, there are many place set up for people working without an office, especially in Vienna. The same is true of start-up haven Graz, which actively tries to attract new businesses to the town with discounts on shared working spaces, networking events and rent subsidies for start-ups.

However I find in my experience, working in a cafe is only good for short bursts. There always seems to be some problem. Either the Wifi is perfect but the seats are uncomfortable, or the seats are comfy, but there’s loud music playing and patchy internet. Not to mention the cost of expensive coffee and the effect on your waistline of constantly being surrounded by patisserie. I’m lucky to have a big enough apartment, a partner with a work office and kids of school age. Otherwise I might be tempted to look at co-working spaces.

Having said that, one perk of being a freelancer is it’s possible to work anywhere. This year, I’ve spent time working on a holiday in the mountains of Styria and between trips to the beach in Norfolk. Friends of mine who work as freelancers tell me how they enjoy work trips to Denmark and Lisbon. They can relish the change of scene, even go surfing and hit the beach, while continuing to earn cash and keep their employers happy. 

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash
Being a freelancer can mean you have the freedom to work anywhere.

Being a working mother, freelance work gives a lot more freedom to be there for my kids at school pickup or to take them to football practice or swimming lessons, than a conventional office job. 

More opportunities

Being a freelancer means more opportunities come your way. You are not limited to job opportunities in Austria, especially with technology such as Zoom and Google Docs it’s just as possible to work for a start-up in London as a business in Vienna. Having said that, as a native English speaker, it is worth looking for contracts or job opportunities at Vienna’s international UN organisations. Jobs at these organisations generally do not require you to speak German and come with good pay, although the recruitment process can be very competitive. 

In order to find work as a freelancer it is a good idea to get out there and make contact with like-minded people, both in person and virtually using social media. I find the Facebook groups Women of Vienna and British in Austria very useful, as well as the Self Employed in Austria group and find virtual contact with people there can lead to in-person meetings and job opportunities. Another good avenue for jobs can be friends, acquaintances or previous colleagues who may be able to put you in touch with freelance opportunities. For example I was recently commissioned to write an article by the father of a friend of my daughter, who also happened to work for an Austrian newspaper.

Once you get one contract, stay in touch with the people you worked with, and more may come your way.

During the pandemic a good way of staying in touch with people and forming relationships is to reach out on social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

Working post Brexit

I am lucky that I moved to Austria before Brexit took effect in 2021. I am currently in the process of applying for my Article 50 EUV Card which will enable me to keep working here. British people moving to Austria since Brexit will face more administrative hurdles in working here, such as having to obtain a Ross Weiss Rot (red white red) residency card, which may not give the right to work in Austria. Since 2021, British people may only be allowed to work in Austria if they are highly qualified key workers, qualified skilled workers in shortage occupations, start-up founders or by means of seasonal employment permits within the framework of the special quotas for tourism, agriculture and forestry. Moving here to work may also require proof of income.

In Vienna I enjoy great healthcare, cheap public transport and subsidised childcare along with a host of benefits I could only dream of when I was living in Britain (which has some of the highest childcare costs in the world).

High taxes

The downside is all this needs to be paid for, which means fairly high taxes. 

While in Britain, people start paying 20 percent tax at £12,570 (€14,700), in Austria you have to start paying tax when your income reaches €11,000. After that, the tax rate starts at 25 per cent and increases depending on how much you earn.

In addition, if you are self-employed in Austria, once your income exceeds €5,710.32 annually, you must also pay compulsory health and social insurance SVS (also known as SVA). The minimum contribution for those earning up to around €8,000 a year is around €160 a month. Once your salary exceeds around €8,000, you will be charged more. 

In practice, you must pay about half of your earnings in taxes when you work as a freelancer, much of which will go into a pension pot, which can be a bit of a shock at first.

In the UK, the equivalent National Insurance (NI) contributions start for freelancers when you earn more than £6,515 (€7,636) annually, and then you only pay £3 (€3.50) a week unless you make more than £9,569 (€11,230) in profits annually. Profits between  £9,569 and £50,270 (€58,980) are taxed at nine percent for NI contributions. Profits above £50,270 are taxed at just two percent for NI contributions in the UK.

I found registering for SVS a fairly straightforward process online, though it helped I spoke German and could talk to the helpline operator without too many troubles. As I’m in my first year of employment I have so far not had to file a tax return, when the time comes next year, I plan to use a tax adviser (Steuerberater/Steuerberaterin), which will be an additional cost.

In the meantime, I’m trying to save half my earnings for the dreaded tax and SVS bill. 

Austrian pensions are more generous

Although it can be painful to pay such high contributions to my SVS fund, Austrian state pensions are far more generous than UK state pensions. UK state pensions are among the lowest in Europe, offering just 28.4 percent of the average salary. By comparison, Austria’s pension is one of the best in Europe, offering 80.9 percent, which is only beaten by Luxembourg and Italy. Providing I get to claim my pension, I could end up happy that I’ve been paying so much into the system. Austria also has a lower retirement age than the UK. As a woman I am currently entitled to retire aged 60 in Austria, as opposed to aged 66 in the UK. The retirement age for women in Austria is due to increase to 65 by 2033, but the retirement age for women in the UK is also expected to rise to 67 in the next decade.

Having said that, I’m continuing to also pay my NI contributions in the UK while I live in Austria, so I have a state pension there as well.

READ MORE: Explained: how does the Austrian pension system work?

Working as a freelancer has other downsides. No holiday or sick pay, no company pension pot and having to constantly submit invoices and calculate tax returns can mean the paperwork piles up. It can be hard to switch off, when you can work anywhere, everywhere can feel like your office. Although you are free to turn down work, you may find a commission comes just when you are planning a holiday or some time off (hence my ‘flexible’ working in Styria). 

However, all that has to be balanced against the opportunities freelance work can bring, and the freedom of being your own boss, and being able to pick and choose when, where, why and for whom you work.


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