Not so long ago, digital nomads were a tiny group of adventure-seeking entrepreneurs on the fringe of society. Times have changed. With remote work arrangements becoming increasingly prevalent, more and more people consider a nomadic lifestyle. On this basis, here is a step-by-step guide on how to become a digital nomad.
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Introduction: What is a Digital Nomad?
The internet is full of content on remote work, but very few pieces treat the actual logistics of becoming nomadic. With this comprehensive guide on how to become a digital nomad, I am trying to change that.
Based on years of remote working experiences and resources from lots of fellow nomads, here is my take on the lifestyle – from pondering the idea of digital nomadism to setting up your nomadic lifestyle and being able to travel indefinitely.
The Different Types of Digital Nomads
Today, digital nomads are a highly diverse group of people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe. Here are some of the most common types of digital nomads:
- solopreneurs in content creation (bloggers, Youtubers, freelance writers, influencers);
- entrepreneurs who run their company remotely – either by delegating physical tasks or by organizing everything virtually;
- employees who work remotely for a company based in their home country;
- investors who live off their investments, including stock market income, cryptocurrencies, and participation in companies; and
- retirees who use their pension or passive income to travel the world full-time.
There are many more, but these are the main access routes to digital nomadism. We are going to discuss all of them at length. But first, let’s get into the pros and cons of being a digital nomad.
The Pros and Cons of Being a Digital Nomad
Being a digital nomad is an incredible adventure, but there are also disadvantages.
When it comes to the benefits of being a digital nomad, the following are the main perks of the lifestyle according to a 2018 FlexJobs survey:
- 85% mention their flexible schedules as an advantage;
- 65% of digital nomads like the ability to live and work where they choose;
- 63% highlight their improved work-life balance; and
- 52% enjoy the absence of office politics.
Other natural advantages include geo-arbitrage – meaning that you live with a US/Western wage in a more affordable country, the ability to discover new cultures, and the possibility to escape a potentially poor job market.
As with any lifestyle, digital nomadism also has downsides. The following are some of the primary disadvantages of being a digital nomad:
- navigating administrative challenges of traveling full-time, including visas, taxes, and financial anxiety;
- loneliness and finding it challenging to make long-term connections;
- being away from friends and family; and
- travel fatigue and becoming too “used” to seeing new places.
No lifestyle is perfect, but digital nomadism has a lot going for it. Whether the lifestyle will be suitable for you will ultimately depend on your values, priorities, and experiences.
- For a longer analysis, read Should You Become a Digital Nomad? 6 Good and Bad Reasons
Getting Started as a Digital Nomad
So, you’ve made up your mind and believe that you can make a nomadic lifestyle work. On this basis, it’s time to get into the practical aspects of becoming a digital nomad.
Finding Remote Work
The first question you’ll ask yourself is how you’ll survive as a full-time traveler.
How will I pay my bills as a digital nomad? How will I finance my travel lifestyle? And finally, how will I save for retirement, finance my kids’ tuition, and pay for all those margaritas that I’ll drink?
Luckily, there are many, many methods to make money while traveling full-time these days. There have never been more opportunities, and the lifestyle has never been more accessible.
In practice, there are two primary ways to become a digital nomad: self-employment or a remote employee route.
I mentioned retirees and investors earlier, but we’ll leave those out in this section, as we are discussing different types of digital nomad jobs.
Self-Employment in Content Creation
In terms of online self-employment, the following are the most popular digital nomad jobs:
- freelance writing (either on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork) or with clients you already have;
- blogging: it takes a long time to turn a blog into a profitable business, but it’s still very much doable;
- Youtube: much like blogging, not many Youtubers make a living, but it’s a possible route for digital nomads;
- freelance photo and video editing;
- all types of influencing: ie, working with brands and promoting their products on social media;
- dropshipping: setting up an online store without physically keeping the products you sell; and
- ghostwriting and copyediting.
These digital nomad jobs are all in the content creation ecosystem, and they require a willingness to be your own boss and set up a personal business.
Being a Remote Employee
There are, however, also alternatives for people who don’t want to be entrepreneurs or don’t want to bear the financial risk.
The first option is naturally to score a remote contract with a company in your home country. If your company offers permanent remote working, that could be a pathway into digital nomadism. It’s still not that common, but more and more companies start to consider those types of contracts, especially tech giants.
Be aware that if you’re an employee on a remote contract, you’re still tied to an employer who controls your schedule and workload.
As such, adding another layer of complications – by being in a different time zone or traveling frequently – won’t simplify your job. You’ll also have to check whether your country’s tax and employment laws allow permanently remote contracts.
Nevertheless, the employee route is becoming more and more common. Especially if you’re not too far away from home (for example, working in Portugal on a German contract), being a digital nomad employee is undoubtedly feasible.
Other Options to Become a Digital Nomad
Finally, if you’re wondering how to become a digital nomad without being an entrepreneur or working for a boss in your home country, there are other options. The following are some unconventional ways to travel full-time without actually having a job:
- volunteering for an international organization;
- finding paid or voluntary experiences on platforms like Workaway;
- working in a hostel in exchange for free accommodation; or
- house-hacking: ie, renting out your place at home and traveling.
Documents and Business Licenses
Once you’ve found your remote working solution, you’ll ask yourself what kind of documents a full-time travel lifestyle requires.
First, let’s mention the basics:
- a passport with at least 6 months validity;
- a driver’s license (some countries require an international driving license);
- an international vaccination card for certain countries;
- a health insurance certificate;
- prescriptions from a doctor if applicable; and
- physical copies and scans of all of these. Store them on Google Drive.
These are the 101 government documents that most travelers should have but always check with your destination. Some countries require additional documents like visas, proof of sufficient income, etc. And that’s without mentioning all the Covid stuff that countries ask for nowadays.
When it comes to business licenses and tax documents, every country has different rules. Most digital nomads have a business in their country of origin and travel on tourist visas with their home-tied business license.
It’s a bit of a legal grey zone, but as more and more countries start to offer bespoke digital nomad visas, it’s getting easier to find out what kind of business documents you need.
Preparing for a Nomadic Lifestyle
Once you’re ready to embark on your digital nomad adventure, it’s time to begin preparing at home. As you will be traveling long-term, you need to reduce your location ties as much as possible. The following are the primary areas in which you need to shift location-reliant elements into digital nomad mode.
Purging is a substantial aspect of full-time travel. First and foremost, get rid of all the stuff that you don’t need.
You don’t have to mutate into a die-hard minimalist to become a digital nomad, but most of the stuff that you have right now might not serve you on the road.
When I became a digital nomad, I got rid of around 70% of my possessions. I did this by separating all of my items into three categories: the essential, the expendable, and the doubtful.
Once divided, it was easy to identify the things that I needed for my digital nomad lifestyle.
- If you need some advice on how to declutter, read this Keep or Sell article.
The next part of the purge concerns your expenses. Reduce all of the payments that you won’t use on the road. Those can be shipping subscriptions, automatic news, and other services.
Aside from subscriptions, check all of your regular expenses. You’ll want to have an emergency fund as a digital nomad – making it vital to save some money before setting off.
Budgeting is not sorcery, but it requires some planning. Control all of your monthly expenses and check where you can save. As you know, a 5$ coffee every day amounts to 150$ a month. That’s a flight.
What Gear you Need
When it comes to digital nomad gear, everyone has different preferences, but here are some essentials:
- A main bag/suitcase/backpack. I use two Pacsafe VentureSafe 45L backpacks for most of my trips, one for carry-on and one for clothes. Aside from backpacks, my preferred suitcase is the Victorinox Spectra, which I’ve been using for many years. When I need more space, I use the Osprey Sojourn 80L.
- A detachable day-pack for day trips: I use the Eagle Creek 25L.
- Your laptop: mine is a Macbook Pro.
- Packing cubes to separate and organize your gear neatly: I use the Gonex organizers.
- Hard drives and a power bank: I use several Lacie 4Tb Rugged drives and an Anker PowerCore.
- An RFID-safe travel wallet for your documents: I use the Pacsafe V200.
- A universal travel adapter: I use the EPICKA Universal Adapter.
- A foldable rain jacket: make sure that it doesn’t take up much space.
- A microfiber towel that you can fold into a small piece.
These are the must-haves, but everything else depends on your occupation and choices. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to keep it as minimalist as possible. After more than three years on the road, my luggage has become smaller and smaller.
For more about nomad travel gear, read my Complete Digital Nomad Packing List.
Banking, Tax, Accounting Solutions, and Mobile Internet
When it comes to banking, there are a few basics that you’ll need to travel indefinitely.
Use a credit card that doesn’t charge you extra for withdrawing money abroad. If you can, get a credit card with miles.
If you already have a business, you’ll know that it’s best to get your taxes in order before becoming a digital nomad. Get tax advice from a trusted source in your home country on how you can handle your taxes as a digital nomad. The same applies to accounting.
Finally, having internet in remote places can be a challenge for digital nomads.
That’s where Simo comes into play. They set up mobile hotspots everywhere in the world. For 9$ a day, it can become a lifesaver if you’re in a region with poor Wifi.
Insurance and Health
If you fall ill as a digital nomad, chances are you’ll need to go to a hospital in your nomad base.
That’s why having nomad insurance is crucial. You’ll need it for health emergencies, but also for lost or stolen luggage and other hiccups that can occur.
Find a trusted company that covers your digital nomad lifestyle. WorldNomads is one of the most popular agencies in this regard.
Where to Go as an Aspiring Digital Nomad
There are many suitable places for digital nomads, and some are genuine hotspots.
Before 2020, Chiang Mai and Bali were arguably the kings of digital nomadism, but the crown has since shifted to Mexico.
The following are some of the most popular digital nomad destinations, but there are many others:
- Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand;
- Tulum, Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, Mexico-City, and other places in Mexico;
- Portugal (especially Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve);
- Croatia (especially Split and Zagreb);
- Budapest, Hungary;
- Prague, Czech Rebublic;
- Tallinn, Estonia;
- Medellín, Colombia;
- Bali, Indonesia;
- Istanbul, Turkey;
- Cape Town, South Africa; and
- Hanoi, Vietnam.
- Many, many more places attract remote workers, but these are the most well-known digital nomad destinations.
What Kind of Visas to Get
That’s a tricky one. It naturally depends on the country you’re staying in, but the vast majority of digital nomads travel on tourist visas.
Even though working online as a tourist is somewhat of a legal grey zone, it’s the only option in most countries. As such, most countries still don’t understand digital nomads, their working arrangements, and their tax status. That’s why most remote workers simply enter a country on a tourist visa, work online, and pay taxes in their home country.
In the majority of cases, the destination doesn’t have a problem with that. One notable exception is Indonesia, where some digital nomads were expulsed in 2020.
But in general, working remotely as a tourist doesn’t cause issues. After all, you’re supporting the local economy by staying there. You are not taking jobs away from the locals, and you aren’t performing illegal work on the spot. Consequently, most countries turn a blind eye and let people work online with a tourist visa.
In contrast, some countries have understood the phenomenon and now offer bespoke digital nomad visas. These include Croatia, Georgia, Costa Rica, Antigua, Portugal, the UAE, Estonia, Barbados, Romania, and the Czech Republic. More will undoubtedly follow in the coming years.
How to be a Digital Nomad in the Long Run: Making the Nomadic Lifestyle Viable
How to become a digital nomad is just the first question. After adopting the nomadic lifestyle, the main challenge resides in staying on track.
Adopting the Right Mentality
Having the right attitude is crucial if you want to become a digital nomad and make the lifestyle viable in the long run. Here are some of the most critical points to consider:
- Always find a balance between work and play on the road. It’s challenging to combine hard work with an adventurous spirit, but it’s essential to succeed as a digital nomad;
- Be prepared to make an effort to deal with cultural differences and language barriers;
- Don’t rely on fellow nomads and fleeting relationships;
- Plan your days well in advance to account for inevitable travel hiccups;
- Utilize your transit hours productively; and
- Don’t expect a lot of social confirmation: unfortunately, most still people don’t understand the concept of digital nomadism.
Dealing With Travel Fatigue and Loneliness
When you’re traveling long-term, you’ll undoubtedly face two emotional rollercoasters: travel fatigue and loneliness.
Travel fatigue is when you feel exhausted – and even though you love traveling, you just want to calm down and take a break. You don’t feel excited about new places anymore, and you’re physically and mentally tired. In that case, allow yourself to get some rest. Go home for a month if you have to. There is no point in sacrificing your mental health just because you want to tick off a few more bucket list items.
Secondly, there will be moments when you feel lonely and miss your comfy environment and routine back home. That’s when local connections can make your life a lot easier. Join local Facebook groups. Go on dating apps if you have to. The idea is that you don’t depend on fellow foreigners.
Staying on Track Financially: a Digital Nomad Budget
The last primary challenge of staying a digital nomad is long-term is the financial aspect.
As in any other career, budgeting is an essential part of digital nomadism. Personally, the 50/30/20 method is an excellent method to stay on track financially.
As such, you can divide your income into the following categories:
- 50% Needs;
- 30% Wants; and
- 20% Savings and Investment.
In this context, a digital nomad budget could be:
- 50% on accommodation, food, transport, internet, insurance, co-working spaces, and technology;
- 30% on tourist experiences, nightlife, entertainment, souvenirs; and
- 20% on investments on the stock market, savings, and debt reduction.
It’s tricky to budget when your income isn’t regular or predictable every month. That’s why you always need an adequate emergency fund to deal with unforeseeable expenses or drops in revenue.
FAQ on How to Become a Digital Nomad
Finally, let’s dive into some frequent doubts about the digital nomad lifestyle and questions that many would-be remote workers ask themselves.
I am from the developing world and don’t earn dollars, euros, or pounds. Is it still possible?
Yes, digital nomadism is not a socio-economic class. It’s a lifestyle.
I’ve seen successful remote workers from every corner of the globe and every minority. Of course, having a Western passport and earning dollars are advantages (there’s no denying that), but they aren’t prerequisites.
I am not young anymore.
Akin to the previous point, there is no age limit for being a digital nomad.
Most digital nomads are indeed in their late 20s to late 30s, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work remotely in your 40s or 50s. Being older could even be an advantage – as you probably have more work experience and a more substantial financial backbone.
I have or want to have a family.
In the 21st century, nomadic families are more and more common. With online schooling and other technological perks, raising a family on the road is doable these days.
I’ve met some digital nomad families who chose this lifestyle specifically to give their kids the opportunity to grow up in a multicultural environment, learn how to adapt – and speak multiple languages. As always, it’s a personal decision.
I don’t have a lot of travel experience. Should I try digital nomadism?
If you’ve never left your home country, digital nomadism might be a bit overwhelming at first. It’s best to try a few months in a similar environment (like a neighboring city) before committing to a full-time travel lifestyle.
Nevertheless, everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes, jumping in the cold water is the best way to grow as a person.