If you’ve been thinking about becoming a digital nomad, it’s time to get real.
This isn’t a decision to make lightly or quickly – and the choice will last with you for a lifetime. I’ve tackled 15 of the most common questions I’ve heard – and once you get down to the comments, please ask your own questions!
What is a digital nomad?
TL;DR: A person that lives and works while traveling the world.
Ask 100 different digital nomads to define a digital nomad and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Many work online to ensure their job stays as location-independent as they are, while others settle in one location for awhile to start something cool in the offline world.
Note that a digital nomad is not an expat – while everyone has a different definition, I use the term ‘expat’ to mean someone that intends to settle down and live in a place for a longer period of time. They may apple for residency visas, send their kids to the local schools, rent an apartment for a year-long lease, or buy real estate. Digital nomads tend not to be based in one place for that long (though they can).
Where can you get started as a digital nomad?
Almost anywhere can work. Seriously.
What works for you is going to be based on a bunch of things. You’re creating a life for yourself, not just a place to live, and for many that means finding a balance. The key part for most digital nomads, an internet connection
If you’re just getting started with your search, I’d start with nomadlist.com. It’s a great resource for narrowing your options by cost of living, weather, and a number of other filters (cheap? safe? LGBT-friendly?).
Your decision might come down to where other people are – but don’t head somewhere just because it seems everyone’s going there.. Right now, a common hotspot has been Chiang Mai,Thailand. It’s cheap and relatively easy to get started (and yes, I’m biased because I enjoyed the six months I lived there).
It might come down to what languages you know / are comfortable with – Spanish speakers will find South America a wide open space. It might come down to just plain cheapness – for that I’d argue you can live cheaply in many places throughout the world.
Can I become a digital nomad?
Almost anyone can, if they’re willing to adjust and adapt to the lifestyle.
When I got married, my world changed for the better. I partnered up with an awesome person, a world traveler in her own right, and began a journey we’re still making.
As anyone that’s married knows, some changes are necessary to the routine you had before you got married. Which side of the bed do you sleep on? When do you shower? And a bunch of other questions or changes.
Becoming a digital nomad is a lot like getting married. On one level, you’re embarking on a journey, and there’s no way to know where it’ll take you. Both require adjustments and adaptations along the way, and it’s up to you to find a way to do it.
Should I become a digital nomad?
I hate to say it, but it really depends.
The more of these you can say ‘yes’ to, the more likely your journey will be a smooth one.
- I already have a passport, or have started the process to get one.
- I have enough in savings to live off of for a few months.
- I’m ready for an adventure.
- I believe I can be flexible and adapt to whatever life throws at me.
- I believe I’m running to something, not running from something.
- I’m open-minded.
- I have a job or skills that I can take with me (e.g. they’re not tied to a specific location)
- I’m willing to learn a new language, try new foods, and live a different lifestyle.
- I’m willing to put up with some discomfort or disorder during this transition.
At an absolute minimum, a couple of weeks.
It takes at least that amount of time to figure out where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and to otherwise tie up loose ends where you currently are.
If you have a car, house, boat, or other major asset to sell, start thinking in months instead of weeks.
How much money do I need to get started?
The more the merrier – at minimum I’d aim for a comfortable living for 2-3 months.
You can certainly start with less in your bank account or pocket (and many have, myself included), but the last thing you’ll probably want is the feeling that you have to start working right away.
What about my family / friends / spouse / partner / pet?
I’m glad you’re reading about and considering the nomadic lifestyle. It’s a big world, and far too few people have had the chance to really see it.
Obviously, your family / spouse / partner need to be in on the decision-making process. If it hasn’t come up in conversation before, it’s time to start feeling them out. More than a few families have bonded while traveling the world, but it needs to be something they’re investing in, not simply going along with. This is going to work differently for each family, and each member of your family will have different sorts of questions.
As pets go, they’re often more work to keep up with than you might expect. Get beyond the red tape of getting them into the country and through quarantine, then there’s the matter of keeping them fed, conquering the language barrier at the vet’s office, and otherwise working them into the routine. I’ve yet to meet a digital nomad that’s talked about traveling with their pet (if you know of one, link to their blog / site in the comments!).
What about visas?
For most of the last year and a half, our visas have been tourist visas. Europe gives you 90 days to explore the Schengen zone, as do quite a few South American countries. Assuming your passport is from North America, Europe, or another first-world sort of country, visas may not be necessary to worry about ahead of time, since you’ll get them on arrival.
That gets you through the first 90 days / 3 months, in most cases. Past that, you’ll want to look at what each country has available for your nationality. Residency visas invariably take some time to get, but by the time you’ve been in a place for a few months, you might be ready to move on. Some countries are beginning to offer entrepreneur visas, and most have business visas for people that have some business ties to the country – the goal is to find the visa that works best for you and your situation.
What about my mail?
One of the loose ends I tell people to tie up is your postal mail / snail mail / paper mail. I’ve written up a whole post about this – the gist? Change to electronic statements where you can, cancel newspaper and magazine subscriptions, set up a stable mail address or use the address of a trusted family member or friend, and otherwise do what you can electronically.
What happens after I get to where I’m going?
The fun begins! Well, sort of.
Getting settled for however long you’ve decided to be in the country is usually our first concern. We might have booked an Airbnb if we’re in a place for a few weeks or a couple months, or we might get a hotel for a week while we do some local apartment hunting. (More about how to settle into a new place in this post.) During this time we’re also getting over some or most of the culture shock moments, and are otherwise getting familiar with the city.
It really helps to have made a friend or three before arriving – if for no other reason, they’re great for getting to know a city. Buy them a beer or coffee and pick their brain – if you’ve brought your dog with you, you’ll need to know the best type of dog food. If you have kids, you might want to know their thoughts on the local schools.
Networking (both online and offline) and meeting people has long been an essential part of the nomad / expat lifestyle. Even now in 2016, not every question can be answered by the internet. Shy people, take heart. You don’t have to visit every networking party or attend every housewarming event… but having some local friends remains an excellent idea.
Beyond that, getting on with your work and getting in some sort of routine is a great idea.
Can I still be a [insert job here]?
Almost certainly, albeit with some creativity.
Digital nomads have held all sorts of jobs while traveling. The biggest issues that come up usually have to do with licensing, rules, or laws that favor local workers.
For most tasks performed on a computer, it’s becoming less important where the work’s being done so long as it’s being done well. Today, we meet via Skype, chat via Slack, network on Facebook, and find jobs any number of places.
For jobs that have traditionally been done offline, it might be trickier, so it’s time to get creative. Let’s say you’re a licensed doctor in your home country, and after moving abroad, you’ve found the amount of work necessary to become a licensed doctor in a new country is too much work for too little reward. Don’t hang up your stethoscope, though. Nomads are often perfect clients to other nomads. Perhaps you discover it’s easier to open a small clinic in your home, or that you can partner with a local doctor or nurse who’s looking to expand. Perhaps you begin teaching your knowledge in some way, or otherwise packaging what you know into a series of blog posts, books, or videos.
What’s the difference between being a digital nomad and just traveling?
Traveling assumes you’re returning home. Digital nomads are making a home wherever they go.
I often say ‘home is where the wi-fi connects automatically’. It’s not a bed, an apartment, or an address – it’s simply the physical space where I am now. A month or two from now, ‘home’ may be in a different state, province, or country.
How much stuff should I pack?
How long is a piece of string?
This one’s going to vary dramatically based on who you are, what lifestyle you want to live, how much stuff you have to take, and so on. Some folks prefer the minimalist lifestyle and manage to get everything they need into a single backpack or carry-on. Others want to take every creature comfort with them, even if it means a third suitcase.
Although it’s taken eight years of living abroad, today I try to aim for two suitcases and a computer bag. Everything I own, I can carry with me through an airport, into a taxi, or otherwise take with me in one trip.
What about the rest of my stuff?
Sell, donate, store, or take it with you – those are you four main options.
When I left the US in 2008, I took four big bags of stuff (mostly clothes and shoes) to the local Goodwill, I gave most of my furniture to my roommate, I stored some stuff at my parents’ house, and I took what was left.
What to sell: cars, boats, furniture, appliances, some electronics.
What to donate: clothes, shoes, furniture, household stuff, books
What to store: as little as possible, ideally. Beyond having to pay to put stuff in storage, a transition like this is a great opportunity to evaluate what you own.
What to take: the stuff you’ll need, use, and enjoy.
What about (insert your favorite product here)? Isn’t it hard to find (product) in (country)?
This one’s really going to depend on the product and country – and how much effort you’re willing to put into finding it.
For the most part, it’s worth remembering an important truth: people around the world eat, sleep, use a toilet, have sex, and so on. As a result, food, pillows, toilet paper, and condoms can generally be found across the world in department stores, malls, etc. Local mores and beliefs can make something as innocuous as birth control more of an adventure than necessary, but you’ll find something that works (or get a friend to ship you some!).
It’s here where you, dear traveler, decide you simply must have that special flavor or brand of potato chips, or you simply must sleep with a memory-foam pillow. In these cases, your choices involve seeking local brands (if they exist), or often paying a premium to ship in the preferred brand. Whether it becomes worth the extra effort and time to find that memory-form pillow might become the more relevant question.
A few quick thoughts:
- In larger grocery stores, the generic version is just as good as the brand names.
- I consider it totally acceptable to pick up some favorites from home, whether it’s a craving or just a taste from home. Avoid the temptation of only eating stuff from the Western world or your home country.