Upwork for Freelancers: What You Need to Know

hands typing on a keyboard

 Getty Images

There’s never been more opportunity for freelancers. According to the results of Freelancing in America: 2017 (FIA), an employment study conducted by Freelancers Union and Upwork, 57.3 million Americans are freelancing, nearly a 30 percent increase since 2016. The study predicts that the majority of the U.S. workforce will freelance by 2027. While the job market is booming, it’s important to find reputable job boards and marketplaces to connect with employers. Upwork is a good place to start.

What is Upwork?

Upwork is a marketplace that caters to 12 million registered freelancers in a variety of fields, including:

The interface allows you to apply for jobs and for employers to reach out to you as well. Ready to get started? Here's how to get the most from your Upwork account.

Create Your Profile

You won’t need to submit a resume for every job through Upwork. Your profile serves as a professional landing page, allowing employers to learn about your most recent experience and expertise. It also allows you to narrow your work interests from the beginning. Start by choosing "Freelancer" as your profile type and completing it with the following info:

  • Linking social accounts: Upwork will ask you to link your social accounts to your profile, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In addition to driving more traffic to your profile, your social media presence serves as proof of your past experience. Keep in mind that companies will be looking at these pages, and it's a good idea to keep them focused on your work. If you haven't already, consider creating a page Facebook page and Twitter account.
  • Profile photo: Upload a high-quality, professional photo of yourself. Make sure it's centered and well-focused, and above all, workplace appropriate. If you don't have a photo, consider engaging a freelancer of your own to capture a few compelling images.
  • Professional title: Who are you and what are you selling? A clear title will help you stand out in the freelancer pool. Jane Smith is more likely to attract clients as a "Web Developer: Wordpress, Graphic Design and Visual Branding" compared to a non-descript "Web Developer" title. Clients are looking for someone who can accomplish a specific task, and listing your niches with keywords is a good way to drive traffic to your profile.
  • Description: Condense your professional expertise into a few short paragraphs. While it may seem like a tall order, focus on communicating who you are, and what you do. Jane Smith might begin by saying something like, "I am a web developer with 10 years of experience. I specialize in building Wordpress sites for corporations and small businesses. I also provide graphic design support for my clients to ensure a clean and branded finished product." Be sure to cover the work you do, how many years of experience you have, and your expertise in professional skills and software. If you're feeling stuck, remember that the goal is to communicate what you can provide for your clients.
  • Experience level: Rating your experience level is required to complete your Upwork profile, and you can choose from entry-level, intermediate, and expert. Upwork helps you choose by listing what might qualify you for each category based on your work experience and skill set.
  • Hourly rate: List the minimum hourly rate you're willing to take for any position with a couple caveats in mind: You can negotiate a higher rate with individual clients, so don't worry if you're rate is less than what you're accustomed to. Secondly, Upwork charges a 20% service fee on the first $500 earned from each client, and 10% after that (5% once you earn $10,000 or more). Think about the fees as you set your rate and consider adding a cushion to make sure that your net earnings match your worth.
  • Availability and languages: Here's where you list your daily hours of operation and the languages you're comfortable with. Be honest!
  • Portfolio: Here's where you can let your work speak for itself. Review your past projects and choose the ones that best illustrate your skills. Fill out the appropriate info, including a link, image, and a description, which should include what your client wanted and how you delivered it. Add several portfolio items that reflect the skills you listed in your title description. If you're just starting out, create sample items in your freelancer portfolio to show clients what you can accomplish.
  • Skills: Add up to 10 professional skills here to help clients find you, and list them by expertise level. For example, if you're a tech writer who specializes in software documentation, list that skill above basic editing.
  • Tests: If you don't have a lot of experience, prove your chops by taking some of UpWork's competency exams. Your scores will be shared with employers and lend credibility to your profile. Trying a couple will help you get closer to a 100 percent completed profile, so it's worth it to take the time.
  • Certifications: Select and list the professional certifications you've earned here.
  • Employment history: List relevant employment history here, and consider including references. Like a resume, use bullet points under each position to highlight the most important aspects of the job.
  • Education: List relevant education such as your college degree here.
  • Other experiences: What else qualifies you for the job? If you don't have a formal college degree, this section is a good place to list commiserate work experience that qualifies you for positions. For example, if you're an expert in creating SQL databases but you don't have a computer science degree, list your years of experience here.

    Review Job Listings & Submit Proposals

    Completing your Upwork profile gives you a good chance of hearing from interested employers, and you can take a proactive stance by submitting proposals as well. A free Upwork account provides you with 60 "connects" per month to reach out to employers, and you can opt for a paid account if you want to apply for more gigs. You'll be able to keep track of your proposals and job history in the Find Work and My Jobs links at the top of the page.

    Use your connects wisely by finding reliable job listings. Upwork has a rating system that allows freelancers to review their experience with employers, and you can also research an individual company on Glassdoor and The Better Business Bureau to narrow your choices. After clicking the Submit a Proposal button on a listing, fill out the cover letter field with a friendly pitch that grabs the reader's attention. Here's a template to get you started:

    Hi [employer name]:

    I'm excited to connect with you. I saw that you're looking for a [job role] for [job task to be completed], which is exactly what I specialize in. First, here are a few answers to the questions you asked in the job post:

    • [If applicable, provide a bulleted list of the employer's questions with answers to each.]

    I'm happy to elaborate on any of the points above if you need more info. Along those lines, please take a look at my Upwork portfolio [link to your portfolio] for recent samples of my work. You can also view my business website here [link to your website if applicable].

    As you can see from my samples, I enjoy [list work you enjoy within the niches listed in your profile] because [list reasons you're passionate about the work you do]. I noticed on your website that you [include something about their business to illustrate that you took the time to do your research].

    I’d love to talk with you to see if I'm a good fit for the position. I'm free this week [insert days, time frames and your time zone].

    I look forward to talking with you. Have a great day!


    [your name and contact info]

    Getting Paid

    Upwork's projects are billed weekly, and you'll get paid for completed work 10 days after the end of the billing period. You have the option of being paid through PayPal, Payoneer, M-Pesa, or direct deposit to your bank account.

    Unfortunately, not every client is going to be a good one. If there's a problem with payment or you believe you weren't paid fairly, you can begin the dispute process in Upwork's system. Keep track of your emails and refer to the Reports tab in your account to provide proof of any issues that may arise.

    Upwork Alternatives

    Upwork isn't the only marketplace that connects freelancers with clients, and it's a good idea to create a presence on multiple sites if you're serious about getting more work. A few alternatives include:

    • Guru: Guru lets you display your past work and filter jobs by payment schedule type, including by milestone, by task or by the hour. The system also sends you daily jobs that align with your skills, so you won't miss any opportunities.
    • Outsourcely: Outsourcely and Upwork have similar platforms with a few key differences. First, Outsourcely encourages the connection of employers to freelancers for long-term projects, which means that you're more likely to find steady income using this site. Second, Outsourcely doesn't take a commission cut from your earnings, so you won't need to fight for a higher hourly rate to make up the difference.
    • FlexJobs: Joining FlexJobs requires a $49.95 yearly subscription, but the investment is worth it in this freelancer's opinion. The management staff is thoughtful and responsive, and you won't find scams lurking on this site. To see the types of opportunities they post, click on the Jobs link at the top of the website's page for a free test-drive.