Freelance web developer salary expectations: How much money can you make?
If you’re thinking about jumping into the freelance life, one of the first things you think about probably centers around salary. How much can you expect to earn as a freelancer? How does it compare to the in-house option? And how will you grow your income throughout your freelance career?
The good news is: Web developers are in high demand, and their salaries reflect that. The bad news is, it can be really hard to pin down a good income estimate—because there’s a ton of variation in freelance earnings.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the factors behind that variability, along with what you can expect to earn, and how to earn more money as your career progresses.
What is a web developer?
In the simplest terms, a web developer is someone who takes a website design and brings it to life.
They build websites from the ground up, using code and programming languages. And web developers work closely with web and UX designers, product managers, and other teams within the company to ensure the website does everything it needs to.
Web developers fall into 3 main categories:
- Front-end developers build the visual aspect of websites—what you and I see when we visit a site (also called the client-side).
- Back-end developers write the code that powers the behind-the-scenes operation of a website (also called the server-side)
- Full-stack developers fill both roles, programming the entire website on the client and server side.
What is a freelance web developer?
Freelance web developers do all the same work as any other web developer, but they work as self-employed independent contractors. Instead of working full time for one company, freelance web developers work on a project-basis, often working on multiple projects—with multiple clients—at any given time.
How much money can you make as a freelance web developer?
A lot of different factors can impact earning potential for web developers. Everything from geography to level of experience to your niche can alter freelance web developer salary expectations, sometimes by a lot.
That said, there’s a ton of data out there, gathered from thousands of freelancers. So we can share some of the estimates freelance marketplaces, job sites, and developer organizations have created based on their own data.
Let’s start with Glassdoor, which offers one of the most conservative benchmarks. According to their data, the average base pay for freelance web developers sits a little over $75k per year (as of May 2021). Here’s what the spread looks like:
2020 data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median annual freelance web developer salary a bit higher, at $77,200.
Both of those estimates offer a good baseline, but taking some of the factors we’ll cover in detail below into account will help you get an estimate tailored more closely to your earning potential.
Their data shows hourly rates, too, instead of annual salaries. According to the tool, the average per hour rate for web developers in North America runs $81 – $100 per hour. The median is a bit lower, at $61 – $80 per hour.
While there’s no way to say for sure how much you’ll earn, consider the estimates above to be a reference point for the range of hourly rates and salaries freelance web developers earn, and how factors like location, experience, and niche might impact your income.
Freelancer vs. in-house web developers salary expectations
So how do those numbers compare with salary expectations for full time in-house web developers? They’re actually pretty comparable.
Developers are the rare example where freelance and in-house gigs tend to have similar levels of compensation, particularly once you solve for benefits and other compensation outside of base pay.
According to Glassdoor, base pay for in-house web developers averages $68,788 per year—less than a $7,000 difference per year versus freelancers. When you add in health insurance benefits, 401k matching, profit-sharing, and other compensation employees often get that freelancers don’t, things get even closer.
Factors that affect freelance web developer salary expectations
Beyond the freelance/in-house split, a number of other points will impact average earnings and salary expectations:
Type of job: Whether you’re a front-end, back-end, or full-stack developer will play a role in earning potential.
Experience level: Salaries and hourly rates alike will, of course, increase as you gain more experience as a developer.
Demand and competition: Developers in general are in high demand—but certain programming languages and skills can make you more marketable (and competitive) than others.
Skills needed: From programming languages to web frameworks and more, the breadth of skills required for a job will impact pay rates, too.
Let’s dig into each of those a little deeper and see just how they impact rates and salaries for freelance web developers.
Type of job
With any development role, there are a lot of niche breakouts you can make. To keep things simple, we’ll break it down by the 3 most common types of web developer: front-end, back-end, and full-stack.
According to data from Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer Survey—an extensive study with more than 65,000 developers participating—annual freelance web developer salaries vary by about $10,000 per year based on the type of web developer.
- Front-end developers report earning $110,000 per year
- Back-end developers earn $120,000 per year
- Full-stack developers make $112,000 each year
Looking at Arc’s hourly data, things are a little closer:
- Front-end: $61 – $80 per hour
- Back-end: $61 – $80 per hour
- Full-stack: $81 – $100 per hour
As you can see, the type of web development you specialize in can impact your salary, but it’s unlikely to make a huge difference—particularly compared with some of the other factors we’ll get into next.
Pay based on experience
Experience is one of the bigger details impacting freelance web developer salaries, which makes sense given the troubleshooting, problem-solving, and programming language requirements for development jobs.
Here, we’ll use data from PayScale to see how salary expectations grow as you gain more experience.
Looking at the average pay for different experience levels across North America:
- Junior developer (1 – 4 years): $58,000 per year
- Mid-career developer (5 – 9 years): $67,000 per year
- Experienced developer (10 – 19 years): $73,000 per year
- Senior developer (20+ years): $81,000 per year
PayScale’s data shows a clear salary progression as freelancers gain more seniority in the industry, making experience one of the most important considerations in setting realistic salary expectations.
How much does an entry level freelance web developer make?
Given all the other factors involved, there’s still a lot of variation, even when you solve for experience. So let’s dig into the spread for entry level web developers.
Filtering for entry level experience (less than 1 year), the PayScale average base salary is $50,636. But look at how wide the range is:
Entry level web developers can earn up to $71,000 at the top of the scale!
Level of demand and competition
Generally speaking, web developers are in high demand.
I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you—a person on the internet. But the data backs it up, too, even projecting strong demand for years to come.
2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows substantial demand for web developers. The field grew by 8 percent in 2019—double the average rate for all occupations. And that growth is expected to continue through at least 2029.
Plus, the most recent available data from the BLS doesn’t account for the huge increase in demand around all things ecommerce driven by brick and mortar closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All that is to say: You can expect web development to be an increasingly lucrative field, now and in the future.
The development skill set required for a job is probably the single biggest determinant of pay. General developer skills—like which programming languages you know and use—can have a big impact on your salary. But there are other skills clients look for (and are willing to pay for), too.
Let’s start with programming languages, since they’re the foundation of every developer job.
Kinsta broke out the top paying languages for web developers. Scala, Go, and Kotlin topped the charts, earning developers near or above $100,000 per year. Here’s the full breakdown:
Stack Overflow’s 2020 numbers put a higher premium on some of the languages web developers use frequently, too, based on the median response. You can see the full breakdown in the report, but here are a few highlights:
- Scala: $150k
- Go: $140k
- C: $125k
- TypeScript: $120k
- HTML/CSS: $110k
Other skills that affect pay
Beyond languages and frameworks, there are other skills web dev clients are willing to pay a premium for.
PayScale broke out the most in-demand skills featured in web developer job listings on their website. Then they cross-referenced those against the salary for each role.
The result is a list of in-demand skills and the impact they have on earnings. Knowledge of Dynamic HTML (DHTML) made the biggest difference, driving up salary expectations by a whopping 56 percent.
Database knowledge (like SQL) also had a significant impact, with 42 percent higher salaries, and Continuous Integration (CI) showed a 41 percent increase.
Several other skills boosted salaries by 30 percent or more, including:
- Apache Cordova
- Database administration
- .NET Core
- Google App Engine
Comparing freelance web developer salary to similar roles
While pay varies depending on whether you’re in front-end, back-end, or full-stack development, web developers overall earn near or above the salaries of other similar developer positions.
Web developer vs. web designer
The spread for web designer earnings is solidly lower than the average web developer salary. PayScale puts the range between $36,000 and $77,000 annually.
Web developer vs. software developer
Software developers earn about the same amount as full stack web developers, averaging $81 – $100 per hour.
Web developer vs. mobile app developer
Mobile app developers charge an hourly rate similar to or slightly below web developers. Their average pay is $61 – 80 per hour.
Web developer vs. WordPress developer
WordPress developers earn comparable pay to web developers, with an average hourly rate of $81 – $100 in North America and a median rate of $61 – 80 per hour.
Web developer vs. game developer
Game developers earn a starting salary comparable to web developers at $70,796 according to Glassdoor. But when you look at the spread of salaries, web developers have much higher earning potential at the top of the range, with most game developers at or below the average.
Web developer vs. data developer
Data developer salaries range from $64,181 to $100,586. While their average salary is higher than web developers, it’s less common for data developers at the top to earn much more than the average. Experienced web developers are likely to earn more.
Where to find freelance web development work
Freelancers are always on the hunt for projects—and there are several places you can find work:
- Freelance job boards and marketplaces
- Job matching services
- Web development forums and communities
- Social media
- Industry events
For more on specific resources within each of those buckets, have a look at our comprehensive list of 34 places to find freelance web developer jobs.
How to earn more money
The large and evolving number of programming languages and skill sets, combined with high industry demand, make it relatively easy to earn a great living as a freelance web developer.
When you’re ready to build an even more lucrative freelance career, here are 7 tips to help.
Choose the most profitable niche to start
Web development work transcends nearly every industry out there—because just about everyone needs a great website these days. By specializing in a profitable, well-paying industry from the beginning of your career, you can start with high rates, build up your expertise and authority, and earn even more premium rates year after year.
Some of the most profitable industries for web developers include:
- Technology: For many tech companies, the website is their product—so they have to invest in it.
- Ecommerce: There’s a direct line from how an ecommerce website functions to their bottom line.
- Banking and financial: High security concerns mean banks and financial institutions are willing to pay a premium for great web developers.
Raise your rates
Raising your rates can seem like a really obvious tip for earning more money, but way too many freelancers overlook it. Just like the price of a good cup of coffee, your rates should increase at a regular clip.
How do you know when it’s time to raise your rates? Here are a few hints:
- It’s a new year
- You’re swamped with work
- You’ve upped your skill set, learning a new language , framework, or skill
- You’ve become an expert in your niche
If any of the above apply, it’s time!
We know communicating a rate hike to your clients can be tough, so we put together a whole guide to talking your customers through a price increase.
Ask for referrals
Getting referrals from current and past clients is one of the most friction-free ways to earn more money. Potential clients referred to you already trust you, based on the referrer’s relationship with them, so it’s easier to close the deal and command premium rates.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1. Follow up whenever you finish a project and ask for feedback. Ask clients to share how you did, along with any tips to make working with you even easier. If you’re stuck, here’s a brief template to get you started:
Step 2. If they give positive feedback, make the ask and do so in no uncertain terms. Adding something as simple as this can do the trick:
Step 3. Make it easy to refer you—be clear with clients about the kind of companies or individuals you’re looking to work with and tell them how referrals can contact you.
Capitalize on room for growth
The web development world evolves constantly. That means there’s always room for you to grow as a freelance web developer, learning new skills and becoming even more valuable to your clients (so you can charge them higher rates!)
For front and back end developers, one option is to go full stack. By adding both client and server side skills to your toolkit, you can open up a whole new pool of potential jobs and command higher rates.
Another option is to add another niche specialization to your resume. Some more profitable niches include:
- Mobile app
- User experience (UX) and user interface (UI)
Offer add-on services
You can also grow your service offering outside of strict programming work. It’s common for web developers to explore web design skills and experience, for example, and combine those offerings into an all-in-one package for clients.
Another option is to build web hosting into your freelance business, too.
Sell your work online
On top of your regular client work, you can supplement your salary with “passive” income by selling your work online.
Build web templates and themes is one of the best ways to do this. You code the template once, and list it for purchase online. From there, thousands of people and companies can buy the template—earning you more and more money for work you’ve already done.
Monetize your expertise
The high demand for web development work also creates an appetite for resources that help people learn how to become a web developer. That demand means you can monetize your expertise by creating educational assets.
Another option is to build and monetize a YouTube channel or email list. You can monetize any kind of community using sites like Podia, Patreon, and Substack.
Make that web developer money
It’s no secret that web developers are in high demand, and clearly that’s great news for freelancer salaries. Freelance web development offers a lucrative way to earn a very comfortable living while doing creative, high-value work for a variety of clients. Plus, there are tons of ways to level up your freelance work and earn more money as your career progresses.
With the tips above, you're ready to dive in.