You don't have to have a website when you start out. Plenty of business owners don't have one from the get-go. But, as these businesses earn more money most of them will build a site. Mainly because it's so easy to setup a landing page, and because it can help bring in more work.
But what about if you are a student? Do you really need a website? Well it entirely depends on what you do. If you are tutoring, offering pet care, babysitting, virtual assistant services and the like, then it won't harm you much if you don't have a website (when's the last time you looked for your baby sitter's website?). In contrast, if you position yourself as a website consultant then you better have a website to showcase your skills. This goes for mobile development, marketing consulting, and other tech-based skills.
So, websites aside, here is a rule of thumb to help you decide if you need a website:
So how can you get clients without a website? Well, say you decide that you want to be a freelance writer. You've found a list of 100 business online that fit your niche. And you know that you want to email them and pitch them on your content writing services. So you send off 100 emails that show how you'll benefit them, and what value you'll provide. You'll also make sure that the email is personalized, and that you add a one or two sentence testimonial.
Now if you've written your pitch well, then you'll likely find some work out of this. At the very least you'll start the conversation for the next phase where you can send them more writing samples, and then a short proposal after that. And yes, some people will turn you down, but other people will say yes. And there you have it. You've found a client without a website.
So what if you decide you want a website? Well website building is kind of like arcade games: easy to start playing, but hard to master. So I won't include a master guide here, but I will give you some advice to get started.
First off, a website is simply a bunch of files on a computer somewhere that is setup to display those files. There is more to that, but in it's simplest form that's how websites work.
But it takes a server to display those files, and some servers you can get access for free, and other servers you'll have to pay for.
The companies give out free hosting because they want to earn your trust, and sell you on upgraded (paid) packages. But they need to get you as a customer first, and so they give you free hosting.
Some of these companies that have free websites are:
But free comes with a price. Often you have a limited option of themes, limited pages, limited storage, and you usually can't choose the web address for your website.
So what if you want to have more options and to have full control of your website. Then you will need to pay for hosting. You'll also want to pay for a domain name. Why? because computers on the web will have what's called a public ip address, and that address is just a bunch of periods and numbers. But typing in 220.127.116.11 is really hard to remember, so you can buy a domain name (like mountainfreshmedia.com) that is easy to remember and to type in.
Fortunately most companies will give you a free domain name for your first year of hosting. So for a year of hosting a free domain name you'll likely pay anywhere between $36 and $96. But you will have full control over your site, and it is a price worth paying.
If you are looking to have full control over your hosting, I recommend two different companies because they both do different things. If you want to install your own theme, and have control over the nuts and bolts of your site I recommend that you go with Bluehost. I use them for my hosting and I've been really happy with their support and the tools they offer.
But what if you just want a quick website? What if you just want to pick a web theme and put your content in it. Then go with squarespace. It will cost you a little more than bluehost, BUT... they have a great user interface, and their sites are really attractive. I've used squarespace on a few sites, and I've been happy with what they have to offer.
One last thing, and it's important. I've been around enough and worked with enough sites that my trust for Godaddy has been shattered forever. I recommend that you never use their services. Mainly because you'll likely have a bad user experience, but also because of some of the things they have done. I won't go into a rant here, but just take my word for it, and avoid godaddy if you can. And if you want to buy domains I recommend you use google domains. Google will provide better service, and I think you'll be happy with what they have to offer.
Overall, you don't need a website. It will help you to get more clients, and it will help you look like a professional. Still, there are ways to get clients without a website, and you can still look like a professional without one.
In contrast, they can and do help. At the very least a simple "brochure site" will list your contact information for people to reach out to you. So do yourself a favor, block out an evening, sign up for free hosting, and get yourself a simple website.