From smartphones to Netflix, the digital world isn’t exactly new. But it is changing, maybe faster than we sometimes realize. And an incredible and still emerging aspect to this digital world involves the way we work. You’ve likely heard of the team “digital nomad” before, since it’s rising in popularity. It refers to a new, traveling workforce that relies on not much more than their laptops and WiFi for their income.
A few short years ago, being a digital nomad was not much more than a far-fetched dream for most. But that is changing rapidly, as more and more people ditch their desk jobs and take up this remote lifestyle. Get this: the number of digital nomads more than doubled over the past couple years, from 4.8 million in 2018 to 10.9 million in 2020.
If it’s any indicator of the changing trends, even the dictionary is on board. Miriam Webster added “Digital Nomad” to the dictionary just this past year.
So what exactly does it mean to be a digital nomad, what is this world like, and how can you become one?
Well, since I’m a digital nomad myself, I have some answers to those questions. Pack up your favorite travel Nalgene bottle, because we’re hitting the road.Shop Travel Nalgene Bottles
Defining Digital Nomads
Here’s the thing about being a digital nomad that most people get wrong: it’s not actually a job in itself, and there’s nowhere you can apply for this role (that I’ve seen yet). Digital nomadism actually refers to a lifestyle, and you can have any job or role while living this lifestyle. Here’s what it means to be a digital nomad, and the state of this world today.
I’ve spent a lot of time living life as a digital nomad, and breaking down this term. In order to fall under this category, you need to do two things:
- Have a “digital” career, one where you’re making money using technological tools. This can be full-time, part-time, or freelance work.
- Travel, or practice location independence.
As I touched on before, the world of digital nomadism has exploded in recent years. And even with the pandemic grinding global travel to a halt for a period of time, there is still increasing interest in digital nomadism, and more people than ever appear to be making the transition to this lifestyle. In 2021, there were 35 million people living as digital nomads around the world, and the rise of working from home appears to have triggered ongoing growth in the digital nomad space. Experts even argue that companies should have a “digital nomad” work policy at this point.
As someone who is in the digital nomad community, I can tell you firsthand it’s pretty decentralized. Everyone does their own thing and lives their own lifestyle, although we often cross paths and hang out together.
Here are some other things you might want to know about digital nomads:
- The amount of time digital nomads spend in any one place will obviously vary, but many spend anywhere from weeks to months in one place.
- While digital nomads range in age, the “average” age is 32-years-old.
- Digital nomads stay in Airbnb’s & guesthouses, hotels and hostels, and many work in coworking spaces or cafes.
Working From The Beach? Not Quite.
When you think “digital nomad,” you might have a vision of kicking it from the beach, drink in hand, with a laptop perched on your knees. While this is possible, it’s usually pretty far from the reality of living life as a digital nomad. Sand and laptops generally don’t mix, and trying to work with the sun glaring on your screen is all but useless (in my experience). While everyone does things differently, here’s what living life as a digital nomad typically looks like.
Firstly, if you become a digital nomad, you’ll have to pick places to live and travel. You’ll commonly find digital nomads in South America, Europe, and across Asia, particularly SE Asia. You’d likely pick one place as an initial “home base,” and stay there for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and might take some smaller trips on the side. While I personally go through periods of more intense and constant travel, these usually only last for a few weeks at most. These times are fun, but tiring, and it’s always a challenge to balance work on the road when exploring a new place. Who wants to stay inside on their computer when there’s a beautiful place to sight-see?
Yes, bringing your laptop to a beautiful rooftop or beach is idyllic (right now I’m working from a hostel rooftop with a view of the Duomo in Florence, Italy), it’s not always possible or really the best option. Your biggest priority is probably going to be a place with WiFi and good outlets. Add “quiet” to the list if you’re looking for a place to video chat in peace. I also make sure my Nalgene Wide Mouth bottle is full to the brim with water before I head to my workspace for the day.
And while you’d like to spend most days traveling and living the good life, you’ll obviously have to spend plenty of time working. In my book, this is one of the biggest challenges of being a digital nomad, because you have to make time to work and travel at the same time. It’s a good problem to have, but tricky to navigate nonetheless.
Other challenges digital nomads can face? Finding reliable WiFi can be tricky, and missing home or your friends/language/cuisine. Working in different time zones can mean waking up or going to sleep at unusual hours. And you have to stay organized, which can be a challenge when moving around all the time. Imagine losing your laptop when it’s the one precious tool you rely on for your work? Sounds like a nightmare to me.
How to Become a Digital Nomad
Before I figured out how exactly to live life as a digital nomad, I had tons of questions. It took lots of research and first-hand trial-and-error to figure out how to not only transition to life as a digital nomad, but how to actually live this lifestyle month after month. Here are just a few of the ways to become a digital nomad, and what this life might look like if you decide to take the plunge.
I’ll divide this part into two sections, “work” and “travel.”
When it comes to work as a digital nomad, your main priority is finding work that is digital, or fully remote. This is usually the biggest hurdle aspiring digital nomads face in getting started, and the truth is that the job each digital nomad has varies wildly from person to person.
Full-time roles: Many digital nomads hold full-time remote jobs, and only work for one company. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies are now offering fully remote roles, where any location is acceptable. If you want to hold a full-time job as a digital nomad, make sure your company’s location policy is flexible (for example, they don’t want you to be only US-based). Many companies are still figuring out tools and policies for digital nomads, including managing cybersecurity concerns.
Another consideration for full-time employees who want to be digital nomads: time zones. If your work needs to happen in a certain time zone, this could mean waking up at all-hours of the night, or taking meetings at the crack of dawn. These are all manageable concerns, but just things to be aware of before you take the plunge.
Part-time and freelance roles: With the rise of digital and remote tools, as well as freelance “gig” sites, it’s become increasingly easy in past years to work as a part-time employee or freelancer to make money as a digital nomad. There are many potential careers and jobs in this criteria, including language teacher, graphic design, virtual assistant, programmer, editor, writer, tech support, customer support, and plenty more.
Like many digital nomads, I actually do a few different things to hodge-podge together my career. I’m mainly a content writer who is skillful in SEO, but I’m also a video producer and editor.
To find these jobs, you can search on websites that are specific for part-time or freelance roles. If you want to start up a career in a new field, say, you want to become a freelance writer but you don’t have any experience, you can look for online courses to take. I personally took an online course in video editing.
I could write pages and pages on traveling as a digital nomad, but I’m going to keep this to some “entry-level” things to keep in mind.
Where you’re based as a digital nomad depends on personal preference, along with other factors. Some places you’ll be able to get a visa-on-arrival for, some you’ll have to apply for in advance. Some places might have excellent resources for remote workers (like coworking spaces and cafes), while a remote village in the mountains might not even have much electricity.
I personally pick locations based on my budget at the time, and what’s regionally available. I like to try to get the most out of each journey, so if I can easily visit other countries or move locations with a quick train ride or low-cost flight, that’s the best option for me.
Visas for remote workers in countries other than that of their residency is still a bit of a “gray” area in most of the world, and differs from country to country. Some countries offer visas specially for digital nomads, or short-term remote workers. Most digital nomads cannot apply for a traditional “work visa,” because they’re not actually working with an employer in the country they’re visiting.
Many digital nomads simply use tourist visas, when acceptable. Before deciding to visit a place and work there, please check local laws, regulations, and if you need to, consult with a legal expert.
As with everything else, costs for digital nomads vary wildly. One of the biggest factors I’ve found in my living costs is location. Some parts of the world simply cost far more or far less than others. In general, the cost of my Airbnb’s and occasional hostels is less than my rent in the US, and my cost of living can be less or about the same. I come from a place with an exceptionally high cost of living (New York), so this perspective might be different for you.
The bottom line: picking a location based on the cost of living there will have a big impact on your budget.
Also keep in mind, the more quickly you travel, the more it’s going to cost. Generally speaking, taking flights every few days can quickly add up, as transportation costs are some of the more notable ones for digital nomads. I prefer to travel slow for my own enjoyment, but it’s also more cost effective.
Foodies, prepare to be delighted for life as a digital nomad. Depending on where you’re living you could be eating authentic elote, fresh pasta, homemade dosas, or drinking an Arabic coffee. Some places it will be affordable to eat the local cuisine for every meal, but I often cook some meals at home, to save money. Eating a cheap breakfast in the hostel is my preference, so I can use that extra month for other activities.
If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you have at least a working knowledge of English (if not and you’ve read this far, I’m impressed). But depending on where you go, that English might or might not be enough to get by with. In most of Europe, for example, many people in the main cities will have at least some English, and even municipal signs might also be in English. But in a remote village in India, you’ll be hard-pressed to find English.
No matter what your mother tongue is, knowing a bit of the local language is always a plus. I like to try to at least familiarize myself with words or phrases of the language in the place I’m staying in. I’ll turn to my trusty iPhone language apps, and practice a bit while waiting for the bus or in airports. And never underestimate the power of Google Translate and hand signals for getting around.
If you’re intrigued about becoming a digital nomad, I feel you. I dreamt of this lifestyle for years before I took the plunge, and while it took a little while to get it off the ground, it was the best decision of my life. If you’re thinking of taking that leap, I applaud you. Know that there are others just like you out there in the world, and that if I can do it, you certainly can too.
When you’re packing your bags, don’t forget your trusty Nalgene bottle.
It’s an absolute digital nomad essential.