If variety is the spice of life, then living as a digital nomad could be the missing element from your personal flavor profile. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a digital nomad is a way to describe someone who can and does work from any location.
As with any major life change, thorough research and long-term planning are key to a successful career as a digital nomad. So, to help you start your journey on the right foot, our guide outlines everything you should consider before leaving home to work on the road.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
A digital nomad can be anyone living without a set “home base” while working an internet-based job. Sometimes, digital nomads work for a company that offers a flexible “work from anywhere” policy that allows them to collect a salary and benefits while traveling from place to place. A digital nomad could also be someone who is self-employed, someone running their own company, or even someone paying their rent by completing freelance gigs on their laptop in internet cafes around the world.
It’s important to understand that a digital nomad is not a person who is always “on vacation.” Most digital nomads do not work from the beach, sipping cocktails with little umbrellas while breezily replying to emails. If it were that easy, everyone would do it! Instead, a digital nomad is someone who chooses to support themselves by working in various locations, often overseas.
There are plenty of upsides to traveling while working, but always remember that digital nomads must provide for themselves the same way they do at home. Basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, financial help, and obtaining legal rights to work (and live) in your temporary location are always necessary, whether you’re home or away.
Is Becoming a Digital Nomad Right for You?
Who is best suited to take on a digital nomad lifestyle? The answer I’ve seen most often in the wild is “Anyone willing to prepare for the worst and adapt to new circumstances.” For in-depth discussions about becoming a digital nomad, I recommend reading the opposing viewpoints expressed in the posts titled “No, You Can’t Be a Digital Nomad” and “Yes, You Can Be a Digital Nomad” on the DigitalNomad subreddit.
The big takeaways from both essays are that before you sell your possessions and skip town, you should ask yourself these questions:
Why am I leaving? Before you leave home, it’s vital to consider your reasons for making this major lifestyle change. Determine what you are trying to achieve in a new place instead of focusing on any negative circumstances you are trying to leave behind.
Will I be able to do my job remotely? You may need to apply and pay for documentation to show you are allowed to stay in your temporary home country for a specific amount of time and generate income there. Familiarize yourself with your destination country’s visa policy, requirements, and restrictions. Visa fees can be expensive, so prepare accordingly.
What are some of the remote work complexities I may not be expecting? Already employed? Talk to your manager about working remotely and how your role may change as a digital nomad. Is your company allowed to employ remote workers in your desired destination country? What are your working hours? What are the expected deliverables? What gear will you need to work while traveling? Will you have access to a fast and reliable internet connection? How will you be paid? Get clear answers to all these questions before leaving home.
Am I prepared to do my job in a different location? Being a digital nomad isn’t easy. You’ll need to adapt to an unfamiliar work setting while also meeting new people, finding and funding your healthcare, finding and funding your transportation, and that’s not even counting the cultural complexities you may encounter on the job.
Finding Work as a Digital Nomad
Well-paying, remote-first jobs are hard to come by in every country around the world. Companies offering lucrative, internet-based jobs aren’t typically looking for people with entry-level experience. Add in the fact that many big, global companies are implementing mandatory return-to-office plans or offering hybrid-only workspaces, and you’re left with a very competitive job market landscape for aspiring digital nomads.
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This is not to scare anyone away from attempting a less conventional way of living and working. The keys to getting the most out of the digital nomad experience are planning well and staying flexible.
How to Become a Digital Nomad
If you’re planning to travel outside your home country as a digital nomad, the first order of business is to research your destination country. You should do more than look up the average cost of living, the nightlife scene, or the crime statistics. You may also need to learn a new language, read about local customs, and spend time understanding the regional political forces to safely adapt to working in a new setting.
Remember those written assignments from your school days? I suggest penning a report about your desired digital nomad destinations—foreign and domestic—before you leave. List the pros and cons of living and working in your desired place, and describe each bulleted point in detail. Taking time to research where you want to go before you get there can limit the chances of you causing a cultural gaffe or being caught unawares by unexpected fees, local laws, or untenable working conditions.
Here is a short, non-exhaustive list of considerations you can add to your written report:
Housing and Transportation
As a digital nomad, you will always need a safe place to sleep and work. Look for nearby co-working spaces or another place with fast and reliable internet access. Long-term rental apps and websites such as Airbnb or Vrbo are some options recommended by digital nomads on online forums. You can also scour local real estate websites for furnished long-term rentals. Shared-room-rental situations like hostels or local hotels will be less expensive, but those may be noisy environments with spotty internet connections.
If you’re a US citizen looking to live abroad, it is wise to keep a US address linked to yourself so that you can still receive a US tax return and use your credit card for your online purchases. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the local public transportation hubs and create accounts on local rideshare apps like Uber and Cabify.
Make sure you have a proposed budget and emergency funds secured before you leave home. It’s a good idea to have at least one year’s salary set aside for emergencies. Ensure you will be able to access your bank accounts while living abroad. Find out what currency you will be paid in while working as a digital nomad, and note the frequency of your paychecks.
Figuring out how to pay your taxes can be a pain at home, but it can be a logistical nightmare abroad. This topic can get complicated quickly, so work with your accountant and financial planner to find out if you need to pay taxes to your home country and also learn how to contribute to your retirement accounts while working away from home.
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You may also have to produce finance reports and pay taxes in your destination country. For more information, check out this article from tax prep company HR Block about preparing to pay taxes as a digital nomad.
You’ll also want to ensure you have health, rental, and travel insurance coverage for the duration of your stay abroad. Research local insurance scams and tips online before signing any documents or paying any money upfront.
Create an Escape Plan
Traveling is hard, and if you’re traveling by yourself, it can get overwhelming. Eventually, you may want to end your big adventure and return to your home country. Plan your escape route before you leave for your destination. Ensure you will have money and social connections back home, which can help you return when you’re ready.
Helpful Links for Digital Nomads
If you arrive in a foreign country ill-prepared for living and working abroad, it’s practically guaranteed to be a stressful experience. So, to help you ensure that you’re as prepared as possible, I’ve compiled the following links to informative sources that can help you plan your new life as a digital nomad:
Taxes: My colleague Jill Duffy wrote an entire chapter about being a digital nomad in her book The Everything Guide to Remote Work. Click through for information about tax help, visa complications, and other information pertinent to digital nomads.
Safety: To determine where you want to stay while you work, visit the US State Department’s Travel Advisory hub for data concerning crime rates, domestic and international conflicts, and the degree of militarization in your destination country.
Job Search: To help you find a job in a new area, check out posts on sites such as We Work Remotely or FlexJobs.
Visa Requirements: To find out how to meet your destination country’s visa policies and requirements, visit its consulate or embassy websites. Avoid third-party visa information sites because they are rife with scammers charging money for false or misleading information.
Community: Life as a digital nomad can get lonely without easy access to family and friends. Check out this guide to making friends as a digital nomad written by Reddit user i_am_nk to learn how to expand your social circle while living and working in a new place.
Not Quite Ready? Start as a Connected Traveler
If committing to a life as a digital nomad seems like a daunting task right now, don’t despair! If you have a remote-first job and flexible time-off benefits, consider talking to your manager about traveling while working. A working vacation isn’t digital nomadism, since you’re living in your home country, doing your same job, and technically you’re on vacation, but there’s less planning or risk involved.
Even if you don’t take any days off, you can see more of the country when traveling by train. During a recent work trip to New York City, I found I was able to complete a full workday aboard an Amtrak train.
To plan your next working adventure, check out our top picks for travel apps.
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