The 15 Best U.S. Cities for Freelancers in 2020

Updated on February 26, 2020
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Long considered a stop-gap form of employment, freelancing has emerged—thanks to improvements in technology, changes in cultural norms, and an economy shaped by post-recession forces—as a viable, full-time career path for millions of Americans. 

According to the most recent “Freelancing in America” report produced by the Freelancers’ Union, the share of full-time freelancers increased from 17% in 2014 to 28% in 2019. More than half of those workers started freelancing by choice—lured by a combination of lifestyle flexibility and improved economic outcomes. 

Indeed, the opportunity to work from anywhere is enticing to many. It even begs the question—if you could work from anywhere, where would you live? 

While some freelancers choose to live as digital nomads, others want to set up shop in one place. Establishing a base of operations as a freelancer helps you access consistent networking opportunities and work more closely with companies that are hiring on a by-project basis. (As nearly any freelancer will tell you, one of their biggest hurdles is finding consistent work.) 

Great cities for freelancers are relatively inexpensive—for example, housing costs and income tax rates are low. They also have a vibrant and growing freelancer culture: self-employment is generally on the rise, and the city has plenty of places that cater to the freelancer crowd, such as coffee shops.

With all that in mind, we put together a list of the best cities to be a freelancer in 2020. We analyzed data on job growth, self-employment rate and change, unemployment rate, housing costs as a percentage of income, state income tax rate, and even the percentage of coffee shops per capita in the biggest 50 cities in the country by number of workers.

Here are some of our key takeaways: 

  • Though cities from across the country made the list, they tended to cluster in a few key states. Texas and California were both represented by four cities each, while Arizona had two
  • There were no Northeastern cities in the top 15, and only one Mid-Atlantic city (Washington, D.C.) made the top 20. 
  • The cities with the biggest jump in self-employment rate in the time frame measured were Long Beach, California; Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Low housing costs was an excellent predictor of success in these rankings: Only four of the top 15 cities had higher-than-average housing costs. 

Read on to see the complete rankings of the best cities for freelancers in 2020. 

The 15 Best U.S. Cities for Freelancers in 2020  

The truth is, freelancers can live almost anywhere (from big U.S. city to exotic beach town abroad) and still source new jobs, complete projects, and survive—even thrive. 

But the best cities for freelancers have a strong economy that is rife with opportunities for new gigs, while remaining livable and affordable for when its freelance workforce goes through lean periods. An abundance of coffee shops—purveyors of caffeine and WiFi—doesn’t hurt either. 

Accounting for these variables, here are the 15 best cities to work as a freelancer in the country today: 

1. Atlanta, Georgia

The top city on our list, Atlanta, is known as the financial and cultural hub of the American South. It’s a city that supports a large and growing freelance culture, and it boasts a high quality of life that residents don’t need to overspend on in order to afford. 

Atlanta has a self-employment rate of 11.1%, which grew by 0.4% from 2017-2018. With relatively low housing costs (at just 22.9% as a percent of income for self-employed incorporated business owners, on average) and a state income tax rate that isn’t prohibitive, Atlanta helps freelancers to get the most for their money. 

2. Oakland, California

Across the East Bay from, and in the shadow of, a city that has become synonymous with tech and high prices, Oakland has emerged as an economic and cultural powerhouse of its own in recent years. (Native Oaklanders will contend that they’ve always been one, of course.) 

Oakland has well-above-average job growth (4.8%), a high self-employment rate (12.6%), and an abundance of amenities that help power a strong freelance culture. 

3. Tucson, Arizona

Nestled deep in the heart of the Southwest, Tucson is one of the rising stars of the freelance world, with a growing freelance population no doubt fed by the University of Arizona. 

Not only did Tucson see well-above-average job growth (4.0%), the self-employment also jumped an impressive 1.1%, the second-highest increase of all the cities we measured. A fairly low state income tax rate and below-the-median housing costs help catapult Tucson into the top three. 

4. El Paso, Texas

Here begins a run of Texas-area cities, starting with El Paso, located near the border with Mexico in the western part of the state. 

What makes El Paso so appealing to freelancers, besides its state income tax rate of zero, is its remarkably low average housing costs, at just 23.2% of median income. The city also has a sizable and growing freelance community (a self-employment rate of 8.6%, which grew 0.3% last year). 

5. Houston, Texas

The country’s most diverse and fourth-largest city rounds out the top five on our list. No doubt Houston is also buoyed on the list by low tax rates and low housing costs. 

That’s not the whole story, however: Houston’s population is on the rise, and job growth is spiking along with it. Employment is strong, and opportunities to work with major companies in the construction, healthcare, and oil and gas industries abound. 

6. Dallas, Texas

Both Dallas and nearby Fort Worth make this list, and for good reason: Dallas has very low average housing costs (just 18.7% of median income) and one of the lowest unemployment rates on this list at 4.3%. 

In addition, Dallas’ freelancer scene is growing: It grew by 0.7% last year, as more and more people recognize how much further their earnings go in such a low-cost city. 

7. Albuquerque, New Mexico

Another Southwest standout, Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, with an intriguing mix of cultures and climates.

Albuquerque has a sizable freelance population already at 9.9%, and saw a growth spurt of 0.7% in self-employment last year. The city also boasts a large percentage of coffee shops and other places for freelancers to gather and get their work done. 

8. Las Vegas, Nevada

One of the more unique cities to appear on this list is Las Vegas, a city that on its face is not thought of as a freelancer hub. It’s also unique in that it also saw a decline in job growth from 2017-2018, at -2.4%. 

On the other hand, there was a 1.1% boost in self-employment rate in Las Vegas last year, and all of Nevada’s residents benefit from a 0% state income tax rate. Depending on your freelance field, Las Vegas could be an intriguing—if distracting—place to live.   

9. Phoenix, Arizona

In many ways, Phoenix flies under the radar. It’s the fifth-most populous city in the country, and one of the largest by size as well. 

It’s also, believe it or not, already a booming freelance hub. Job growth in Phoenix rose by a monster 5.6% in the period we have data for, and the self-employment rate is above 10%. 

10. Long Beach, California

Los Angeles (which is just a couple of spots down on this list) has a huge number of freelancer workers. No doubt some spillover is what helps make nearby Long Beach so attractive to freelancers. 

Despite high prices and tax rates, Long Beach has seen a spike in the number of freelancers it counts among residents, with a 1.7% growth in self-employment. A high percentage of coffee shops (1.4%) also helps nurture the city’s freelance population. 

11. Fort Worth, Texas

We’re headed back to Texas, this time to Fort Worth, which came in behind Dallas due to its declining job growth numbers (-1.0%) and higher unemployment rate (6.1%). 

On the other hand, Fort Worth’s freelance population is growing, the cost of living is fairly cheap, and no state income tax means your dollar goes further. 

12. Los Angeles, California

Whether they’re freelancing while they wait to land that juicy TV pilot role, or they’ve built a career as a freelance marketing guru in Hollywood, Los Angeles is truly a freelancing fulcrum. The city has the highest self-employment rate of any on this list, at 16.8%—a number that grew steadily by 0.4% last year. 

Of course, prices and taxes are high here. But if you’re going to spend a lot of money to live somewhere as a freelancer, it may as well be a city where you’re surrounded by like-minded individuals and the weather is outstanding.  

13. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

We go from the glitz and glamor of LA to Plains living, with Oklahoma City as another under-the-radar choice for freelancers. Prices and unemployment are low, and taxes are modest. 

Already, OKC has a notable freelance population, with a 10% self-employment rate and a surging job growth rate of 4.5%. 

14. Fresno, California

Nestled between a number of California’s epic national parks, no one can argue that Fresno isn’t a beautiful place to live and work. 

As California cities go, Fresno may be one of the better bargains: Housing costs as a percentage of income are relatively low compared to places like Los Angeles and Oakland. Fresno also has a surprisingly high unemployment rate at 9% and had no job growth—which may encourage residents to move into freelancing as a way to make ends meet.  

15. Portland, Oregon

Considered one of the best places to live in the United States, Portland has a strong economy, a large and established freelance culture (13.3% self-employment rate) and a coffee shop ecosystem that caters to its contractor crowd. 

Prices and taxes are fairly high in Portland, but if you can afford life in the Pacific-Northwest, there are few cities more enjoyable. 

Full Ranking of the Best and Worst U.S. Cities for Freelancers

Rank City Job
Growth
2017-18
Self-
Employed
Rate
Housing
Costs
as a
Percent
of Income
1
Atlanta, Georgia
1.2%
11.1%
22.9%
2
Oakland, California
4.8%
12.6%
32.7%
3
Tucson, Arizona
4.0%
9.2%
27.3%
4
El Paso, Texas
1.4%
8.6%
23.2%
5
Houston, Texas
3.7%
9.4%
24.8%
6
Dallas, Texas
0.2%
9.9%
18.7%
7
Albuquerque, New Mexico
2.4%
8.9%
22.0%
8
Las Vegas, Nevada
-2.4%
9.7%
26.5%
9
Phoenix, Arizona
5.6%
10.3%
27.2%
10
Long Beach, California
3.0%
10.6%
34.4%
11
Fort Worth, Texas
-1.0%
8.6%
25.6%
12
Los Angeles, California
0.5%
16.8%
31.8%
13
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
4.5%
10.0%
22.6%
14
Fresno, California
0.0%
8.8%
25.1%
15
Portland, Oregon
1.9%
13.3%
32.8%
16
Arlington, Texas
7.5%
8.8%
27.1%
17
Washington, District of Columbia
0.6%
8.0%
20.3%
18
San Antonio, Texas
1.4%
8.1%
22.3%
19
Mesa, Arizona
2.2%
8.9%
25.8%
20
Tulsa, Oklahoma
0.3%
9.0%
17.2%
21
Miami, Florida
5.0%
16.3%
34.3%
22
Colorado Springs, Colorado
6.1%
9.9%
33.6%
23
Detroit, Michigan
6.6%
5.9%
28.5%
24
Tampa, Florida
-0.7%
10.2%
28.2%
25
Denver, Colorado
4.0%
10.6%
33.0%
26
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
6.0%
6.5%
27.3%
27
Chicago, Illinois
1.3%
7.8%
28.5%
28
San Francisco, California
0.4%
11.9%
34.1%
29
Austin, Texas
2.5%
10.3%
29.4%
30
San Diego, California
-1.0%
11.5%
35.8%
31
Memphis, Tennessee
0.9%
5.7%
22.1%
32
Raleigh, North Carolina
1.1%
8.2%
25.1%
33
Sacramento, California
2.5%
8.5%
34.9%
34
Seattle, Washington
3.8%
9.9%
34.9%
35
Nashville-Davidson, Tennessee
0.4%
9.1%
24.1%
36
Charlotte, North Carolina
1.8%
8.3%
27.8%
37
Omaha, Nebraska
-1.0%
7.7%
25.8%
38
Louisville/Jefferson County,
Kentucky
-1.8%
7.5%
21.0%
39
Jacksonville, Florida
2.0%
7.8%
30.3%
40
Indianapolis, Indiana
2.1%
6.9%
29.1%
41
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
1.8%
4.6%
25.5%
42
Minneapolis, Minnesota
-1.4%
7.3%
26.0%
43
Aurora, Colorado
3.7%
8.1%
52.5%
44
New York, New York
-2.2%
10.1%
34.2%
45
Boston, Massachusetts
0.3%
5.5%
33.9%
46
Baltimore, Maryland
0.7%
6.1%
28.4%
47
San Jose, California
0.2%
8.4%
36.7%
48
Columbus, Ohio
2.5%
5.7%
30.0%
49
Kansas City, Missouri
0.6%
6.7%
28.9%
50
Virginia Beach, Virginia
-2.3%
7.7%
31.5%

Methodology: How We Ranked the Best Cities for Freelancers

To create this list, Fundera pulled information on seven variables on the 50 largest cities in the country by number of workers. 

We weighted the impact of each variable depending on how important we felt that factor would be in the daily life of a freelancer in that city. The breakdown of each factor is as follows: 

  • Self-Employment Rate (25%): Based on 2018 U.S. Census data, this is the percentage of workers in a given city who identified as self-employed, relative to all workers. 
  • Housing Costs as a Percent of Income for Self Employed Incorporated (20%): Based on 2018 U.S. Census data, this is what the average person employed in their own incorporated business would pay to live in the average house in a given city. 
  • Job Growth 2017-18 (15%): Based on 2018 U.S. Census data, this is the percentage of new workers in a given city, demonstrating whether the local economy is growing and presenting more opportunities to workers. 
  • Change in Self Employment Rate (15%): Based on 2018 U.S. Census data, this is the change in self-employment rate from 2017 to 2018. 
  • Unemployment Rate (15%): Based on 2018 U.S. Census data, this is the unemployment rate for a given city. 
  • Coffee Shops (5%): Based on 2016 U.S. Census data, this is the number of non-alcoholic beverage bars as a percent of all establishments in the city. 
  • State Income Tax Rate (5%): Based on WalletHub’s list of 2019 Tax Burden by State and SmartAsset’s income tax calculator, this is the percent of income that goes towards state taxes.

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking to live in a major city while building your career as a freelancer, nearly any of the top 20 from this list would be a good choice. If you prefer a smaller city or a rural area, you may not have as robust a freelance culture to draw on, but you’ll certainly see other benefits that we can’t account for here. Cities on this list, through concerted efforts or otherwise, will likely continue to see attention and interest from freelancers for years to come. 

Partnerships Editor at Fundera

Eric Goldschein

Eric Goldschein is the partnerships editor at Fundera with nearly a decade of experience in digital media. He covers entrepreneurship, finance, business lending, marketing, and small business trends. He has written for a number of outlets including Business Insider, HuffPost, Men’s Journal, BigCommerce, Volusion, Square, RetailNext, and Keap. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in history and English writing. Email: eric@fundera.com.
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