I’ve been doing this whole work and travel thing for almost two years now and it wasn’t until April 2017 that I started doing it legally. The fact that I didn’t have the right paperwork didn’t even occur to me until a friend and I started talking about taxes and EPF and all sorts of adult things that I hadn’t thought about before.
I began where every millennial begins, by hitting up Google. I was surprised to find very very little information about digital nomading as a Malaysian. Apart from learning that I had to get a business license to operate legally, there really was nothing more. What about declaring my income for tax purposes? What sort of business license should I get? Do I also require a business bank account? How about investing my income? How do I do all this without breaking the law? What is the legal requirement pertaining such work arrangements? Bloody hell, where do I start?
While there are a lot of articles online about working remotely for Americans and Europeans, this idea of remote work is relatively new and almost unheard of at home. Since I firmly believe that working arrangements like these will become more common, I thought I’d contribute to our little community by providing future and budding nomads a starting point to setting themselves up to work and travel (more or less) legally.
I’ll be running you through my current work setup before tackling the two aspects of digital nomading – work and travel. If you’re a Malaysian passport holder and run a business online or work remotely for a foreign company who doesn’t have an office in Malaysia, this article is for you.
And one final note before we jump into the juicy bits, please bear in mind that this is by no means a bulletproof list of documents you’ll need to work legally as a digital nomad. It’s simply a list I’ve found to be sufficient for the time being.*
I currently work remotely for a Swiss company, responsible for product and content marketing. I work 8 hours a day (sometimes more), from Monday to Friday. Sounds like a job right? The only thing that’s different is that I get to work from home, from a cafe, from a beach, from a co-working space, from anywhere on the planet I damn well please. On paper, I’m employed as a freelancer. When speaking to other people, I’ve found different variations of this, like an external consultant, an independent contractor or a contract staff.
Here are some other things about working remotely that differ from regular working arrangements:
- I don’t have an EPF or any sort of retirement fund
- I don’t have health insurance provided by my company or SOKSO
- I don’t get to enjoy the perks of working in an office like free beer at 5pm or Christmas dinner with my team
- I have to invoice my company monthly if I want to get paid
Sometimes it can seem like the additional responsibilities I impose onto myself by agreeing to work remotely can seem like a real pain. But in the wise words of Mark Manson: “What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually. Might as well pick one with an olive.”
My olive is travel.
Remote Work Basics
TLDR: To work remotely as a Malaysian citizen, you’ll need to obtain a business license and have your employer hire your business entity instead of you as a person.
1. Business license + translation
Up till last month, I’ve been invoicing my employer as an independent freelancer, but in my own name and with my personal account. In Malaysia, and for a lot of other countries, the legal workaround for remote employees is to start your own company and have your employer hire your company. In reality, this means obtaining a business license and invoicing the company you’re working for according to the name of your business.
So, I hauled myself off to Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia in KL Sentral, filled out a few forms, paid RM60 for my sole proprietor business license and founded Nomad Press Services. For my next invoice, it will no longer say Nicole Kow, but Nomad Press Services with the number of my business license added to the invoice too.
For travel purposes, it would be wise to get your business license translated by a formal body because no one outside of Malaysia will understand your license in Bahasa Malaysia. If you’re currently away and don’t have these documents with you, I’ve heard that a simple business card can be sufficient proof you run a business (should you need one).
2. Business current account
I headed for Maybank a few weeks after obtaining my business license to set up a business bank account. There were forms to fill and I struggled to find an Introducer too. The whole process took me two days and I’m glad I’ve got it done. From here on out, all my income goes to my business account and all my expenses (work and travel related) will come out from the account too.
3. Health and travel insurance
Like I mentioned earlier on, health insurance isn’t provided by my employer which means that I’ve gotta take care of that myself. I opted for basic health insurance which you can get with any insurance provider and I usually get travel insurance for good measure. Some insurance providers cover you for travel as well so it would be good to check up on that.
While I’m still on the fence about insurances and really disagree with the capitalist element of the insurance industry, the whole point of these policies is to make sure that your butt is covered in the event of an unfortunate incident. There’s also the added benefit of having paperwork to prove that you’re not leeching off the welfare system of the country you visit as a digital nomad.
4. Fixed deposits or any other sort of investments
Finally, since I don’t get any sort of contribution towards a retirement fund or EPF, again, I gotta take care of that too. I’ve started a fixed deposit account a year ago and will be applying for a Private Retirement Scheme in the next few weeks.
You can apply for this at any local bank and if you’re below 30, you might be eligible for the Youth Incentive where the government matches your initial deposit up to RM1,000.
What’s the point of being a digital nomad if you’re not travelling? Here’s the section where I outline the paperwork you need to have ready to make sure you’re not turned away at the immigration desk.
(For those of you wondering how I came up with this list, it’s based on reading a lot of “Visa Requirements” section of different immigration departments around the world. It’s also based on a list of interrogation questions I’ve come across during my travels.)
- Your ticket out of the country – You need proof that you’ll be exiting the country which is usually a copy of your plane ticket out. For Malaysian citizens travelling to Schengen countries, you’ll need to purchase a ticket out of your port of entry. This means that if you arrive in Europe in Paris, you’ll have to have a ticket out of Europe via Paris. Failing to do so allows airlines to deny you boarding the plane to depart.
- An itinerary of your travel plans – The more detailed the better but having a rough idea and a few bus tickets printed out is usually good enough.
- Details of your accommodation – Always have an address of your hotel, hostel or Airbnb ready.
- Visas – As a Malaysian passport holder, you’re allowed into quite a few countries without having to apply for a visa beforehand. If you’re unsure about whether you need a tourist or visitor visa, Google that shit.
Additional documents that are always good to have
- Bank account statements – Have a copy of your latest statement prepared and make sure you’re aware of your current bank balance whenever you’re crossing a border. Immigration officers have the right to ask you all sorts of questions and this is one of the common ones.
- Copies of your translated business license and insurance policies
- A copy of your old passport with relevant visas – If you’re travelling with a fresh new passport, bring a copy of your old one too just in case.
I missed my train from Brussels to London after being interrogated for a good 20 minutes by the immigration officer. When it finally became clear that she was interrogating me because my new passport didn’t have any previous record of me living and studying in the UK, I told her I graduated from the University of Exeter. She then asked if I had my old passport on hand, the one with the student visa, and looked at me like I was a moron when I said I didn’t have it.
After the interrogation, I was given a new train ticket and allowed entry into the UK. I was very much shaken up and broke down in tears as soon my sister picked up my call.
It was an ordeal I really didn’t enjoy, so being extra prepared before my next three-month trip really has no downside.
*DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer or accountant any sort of professional in this field so I would suggest taking this blog post as a starting point. Also, I’ll continue updating this post as time goes on and as I learn more and more about the systems in place and how to adapt it to this lifestyle.