This article is part of a larger series on How to Do Payroll.
International contractors supplement your domestic workforce, adding quality workers to help you achieve your company goals. As foreign independent contractors, they aren’t paid the same way as domestic, US-based employees—options include paying through international bank transfers, digital wallets, and cryptocurrency, as well as payroll software. Foreign workers also handle their own payroll taxes. You must consider what currency you’re going to pay international contractors in and budget for the cost of each payment.
To help you manage these complexities, consider partnering with Remote, an international HR and payroll service that is available in nearly 180 countries and can act as an Employer of Record (EoR). It offers free contractor payroll tools, allowing you to pay your foreign independent contractors with ease. Sign up today.
Ways to Make International Payments
Paying a foreign contractor isn’t as simple as paying domestic workers. There are currency conversions involved, and some countries don’t have the same banking protections as the US and EU.
One of the oldest and most trusted ways to make international payments is through international wire transfer. This SWIFT system seamlessly connects banks across the world, making it simple and fast to pay international workers—costs usually range from $30 to $50 or more per transfer plus there may be an additional flat fee charged for currency conversion.
The use of international wire transfers to send money is slowly declining as companies become more aware of the fees they’re being charged and the loss of money during the conversion of funds from US dollars to local currency. The differences in employment and tax laws between countries is also making this process more complicated.
These companies—think PayPal or Payoneer—offer a digital way to send and hold money outside of traditional banks. They allow you to send money with just a few clicks to people nearly anywhere on Earth. You will pay a transaction fee, which is usually a percentage of the amount you’re sending (can be 1%–4%) and another fee for the exchange rate, but the simplicity and speed may be worth the cost.
The downside, besides the fees, is more for the foreign independent contractor. They’ll be delayed getting their money. Even though you can send money instantly to their digital wallet, it may take a few days or even weeks for them to transfer that money to their local bank account, which may also charge them a fee.
Still gaining traction and trust, paying international contractors via cryptocurrency is gaining popularity. With crypto, there’s no exchange rate, so there’s no loss of money in the conversion. You can use popular cryptocurrency platforms like Coinbase to initiate the payment. It’s pretty straightforward—you log into your wallet, select the recipient, enter the amount, and send.
One caveat to the simplicity and low cost is that cryptocurrency valuations can fluctuate much more rapidly than traditional currencies. Also, not every foreign worker will have a crypto account, so this is definitely an option to discuss in advance if it’s one that you want to use.
You can also pay your international contractor through payroll. You may not be able to use your existing payroll provider, but you have international payroll provider options. These companies can run both your domestic and international payroll, making it convenient and efficient for your company. Most payroll companies charge either a flat monthly rate per contractor or a base monthly fee plus per-contractor rate (could be as low as $10 monthly + $8 monthly per worker). However, if you partner with a payroll company like Remote, you can pay contractors for free.
When you sign up with an international payroll service, you get access to an intuitive platform that lets you see all of your payroll reports in one place. Your employees, both domestic and international, can access their own payroll records and pay stubs without having to bother you or your payroll team. You also get dedicated service and support for one price.
How Much to Pay an International Contractor
Determining a fair compensation structure for all of your workers is key to attracting and retaining top talent. International contractors are no different, but there’s more to consider:
- Local pay expectations
- Currency exchange rates
- Local cost of living
- US and foreign taxes
- Whether the foreign contractor will physically work in the US at any point
The exact amount you’ll pay an international contractor will also vary depending on the work they’re doing. More specialized skills may require a higher pay rate.
If you have only one international contractor, you may choose to pay them in their local currency or in US dollars. The more foreign contractors you have, however, the better it is to standardize your payments.
If you pay in US dollars, you can better budget and set standard rates for different types of work. While this may not be an attractive option to international contractors in places with a higher cost of living, it will keep your foreign contractor pay rates fair.
Paying contractors in their local currency allows you to offer competitive rates without overpaying. It also gives your international contractors fair pay in their local currency. But it could mean that there’s more discrepancies between foreign contractors in different countries.
Ultimately, what you pay a foreign contractor depends on many factors. Make sure you consider each factor and how it impacts your business, budget, and ability to scale your global workforce.
Thinking about hiring a global employee? Check out our guide to hiring international employees.
International Contractor Payment Terms
How you pay your international workers may be limited by local laws. Some countries require payment at least twice per month, even for independent contractors.
If there is no law requiring you to pay on a certain timeline, you are free to pay as you wish. We do recommend that you include payment terms in the independent contractor agreement, so there is no question about how the worker will get paid.
These are the most common payment terms for a foreign independent contractor:
- Upfront: Whether full or partial payment, many independent contractors prefer at least some payment upfront. While this ensures the independent contractor gets paid for their time, it can put your company at risk if the work is never done, incomplete, or unsatisfactory.
- Upon project completion: This payment term is the best for your company as it ensures you’re pleased with the end result before you make payment. But many independent contractors will not agree to full payment at the end because their risk is too great.
- By milestone: A good compromise is to pay by milestone throughout the project. You can make a small upfront payment and then make small payments as the foreign worker completes more of the project.
- Monthly: This is the simplest way to pay the foreign independent contractor, especially for longer projects, and can be the most beneficial for both the contractor and your company. You also get the benefit of knowing that regular payments are going to be made so you can better budget.
Pro Tip: We don’t recommend paying by the hour. While you can have the independent contractor track their time, paying by the hour gets you one step closer to misclassification, which we discuss in more detail later. Paying by the hour alone won’t make an independent contractor an employee, but it does put your company at greater risk when combined with other factors.
Accurately paying your foreign independent contractors requires intimate knowledge of tax and employment laws in the US and the foreign country where your independent contractor resides. In some cases, you’ll need to pay and report taxes to the IRS, collect forms, and ensure the international contractor is paying their local tax obligations.
For IRS tax reporting purposes, you’ll need to determine whether the income paid to the international contractor is US sourced. The ultimate question in making this determination is: Where does the international contractor perform services for your company?
Consider these three scenarios:
1. A US-based company pays an international contractor living and working in another country.
So long as the foreign contractor does not enter the US to do any work, your company would not have to withhold taxes or report payments made to the IRS.
2. A US-based company pays an international contractor who lives and works in the US on a relevant visa.
Performing the work inside the US triggers tax liability to the IRS at a base rate of 30%, which your company needs to withhold and report to the IRS.
Exception: If the foreign contractor is a resident of a country that has a tax treaty with the US, the withholding tax amount may be reduced or eliminated. If the foreign contractor claims an exemption, have the worker complete and return IRS Form 8233 to you. This form will help you calculate the tax withholding amount.
3. A US-based company pays an international contractor who lives in another country but sometimes comes to the US to work.
Even if the foreign contractor lives and works most of the time in their home country, performing any work in the US would require you to withhold taxes and report to the IRS at a base rate of 30%, unless there is a tax treaty with the foreign contractor’s resident country.
Exception: If the international contractor works inside the US for less than 90 days in a year, the payments made are less than $3,000, and the contractor performs services for an entity or office in their home country, you are not required to withhold taxes or report to the IRS.
Most countries will not require you to pay local tax unless you set up a legal entity. Establishing a presence in another country could trigger tax liability. Sometimes referred to as permanent establishment, a foreign country will levy taxes on your business if that country determines you are operating within its borders.
While every country has different enforcement mechanisms, the following scenarios may trigger foreign tax liability for your company:
- Employing workers or independent contractors who provide services to your company which directly contribute to company revenue
- Entering into long-term contracts with independent contractors in the foreign country
- Receiving payments from clients in the foreign country
- Entering into contracts with any business in the foreign country and generating income from those contracts
Your company could establish a presence in another country simply by contracting with an independent contractor who lives in that country, though, in most cases that may not be enough. Otherwise, most of the international tax burden will fall on the foreign independent contractor.
Be aware that some countries have enacted protections for independent contractors in response to the rise of gig work, requiring companies to provide benefits. France, for example, requires companies in certain situations to withhold payroll taxes and provide benefits as though the independent contractor were an employee of the company. Many other countries have passed similar laws. To ensure your company is compliant, it’s best to speak with an international employment lawyer.
You can classify your individual workers as either employees or independent contractors. You cannot, however, classify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes, benefits, and other overhead costs. That is misclassification and could get you into trouble with government agencies, leading to costly fines and penalties such as:
- Back taxes on withholdings for both your company and the misclassified employee
- Back overtime pay
- Employee lawsuits
That’s just what you might face in the US. Most countries have stricter employment laws and, depending on where your foreign worker lives, you could face even harsher penalties:
- The European Union (EU) will require your company to pay the misclassified employee four weeks of vacation time plus all unpaid wages, overtime, and taxes.
- Argentina levies fines and may even hold people personally liable, sentencing them to time in prison.
How do you know if your international contractor is really an employee? Consider these general questions:
- Do you tell the worker when to work?
- Do you tell the worker what to do each day?
- Do you give the worker time off and other benefits?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your international worker may actually be an employee of your company. It’s wise to seek legal advice from an employment attorney specializing in international employment law, since the laws in each country vary.
Need to pay a global employee instead of a contractor? Check out our guide on how to pay an international employee.
Depending on what country your international contractor lives in, you may need to complete tax and employment forms for that country to pay them. You should also ensure that your international worker is properly reporting their income to local authorities in their home country, as best you can.
For US taxes, you’ll need to have your international contractor complete one of two forms: W-8BEN or W-8BEN-E. Both forms come from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and are completed by the international worker. Form W-8BEN is for individual international workers and Form W-8BEN-E is for international workers who have formed their own company. Both forms are similar to Form W-9 used to record payments to domestic independent contractors but are much longer and require extensive information.
When the foreign independent contractor completes the form, you do not need to send it to the IRS. Instead, you use it to ensure you’re withholding domestic taxes at the appropriate rate before paying your international worker.
Having an independent contractor agreement in place is not required but highly encouraged. This document clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each party, discusses the relationship as company and independent contractor, and provides a scope of work for the international worker. This can serve to limit your company’s risk of misclassification, though you still need to ensure that you’re not acting as the worker’s employer in practice.
Working with foreign independent contractors gives your company many advantages, but it doesn’t come without challenges and hurdles. Navigating this relationship can seem daunting; however, with the right tools and guidance, you can expand your workforce to include international independent contractors and continue on your path of growth and success.
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