How to Become a Digital Nomad
When I get back from a trip one of the most common things I hear from friends and family is “I wish I could travel around while working the way you do.” The truth is, most people can.
Do you want the ability to work from anywhere, and have more flexibility in your day-to-day life? As a digital nomad, that’s exactly the kind of life you can live. But how does one actually become a digital nomad? And what, exactly, is it?
A digital nomad isn’t just luxury travel, sitting on a beach, posting photos on Instagram. And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for how to do it.
The crux of the digital nomad lifestyle is being completely location independent. There are many different types of work that you can do within that space, whether it’s being self-employed, working in the gig economy, having a remote job, a job that requires travel or a passive income. In general, digital nomads spend a few months (or longer) abroad and earn an income while on the move.
By being location independent, you can travel anytime, which makes your life more exciting and enriched year-round. So, how do you take the leap and make it a reality? Let’s dive in.
Why Become a Digital Nomad?
Have you gone on a trip and had that burning desire to just keep going? That there’s this part of you that wishes it didn’t have to end on a two-week stint and you didn’t have to go back into the monotony of your life back home? Well, that’s the beauty of the life of the digital nomad. That incredible feeling you have while traveling doesn’t have to end. It can be your everyday life.
According to a survey by FlexJobs in 2018, the main reasons people choose to become a digital nomad are:
- Flexible schedule (85%)
- Work-life balance (73%)
- Enjoy the freedom (68%)
- No commuting (65%)
- Freedom to live and work where I choose (65%)
- No office politics (52%)
- No dressing up for work (51%)
There are challenges, of course, which the survey lists as:
- Finding reliable Wi-Fi (52%)
- Finding a good place to work (42%)
- Networking (35%)
- Time zones (29%)
- Work communications (20%)
That being said, 88% report that being a digital nomad has had a huge improvement or positive impact on their lives.
How to Become a Digital Nomad
While the idea of buying a one-way ticket and “figuring it out when you get there” is appealing, it will likely set you up for a chaotic, stressful experience, which is the opposite of what digital nomad life is about.
It’s important to do a lot of pre-planning before embarking on this life change. We’ve broken down how to become a digital nomad into multiple steps in terms of logistics, work and finance, preparation and planning, getting the right gear, picking your destination, and getting into the right mindset for this change.
Digital Nomad Jobs
First, and arguably most important, is figuring out how you will earn income while traveling. For the majority of people looking to become digital nomads, the most difficult part is establishing the digital nomad job or income that will support their travels. By definition, a digital nomad is someone who can perform their job or create their income using technology, freeing them from being physically present at their job. Finding this job or creating this revenue stream is almost always the sticking point. There are endless options, but let’s run through some of the most common.
1. Transition your existing job into a remote position
Do you really need to be at your desk to do your job?
If you're reading this in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have already spent a significant amount of time working remotely during the pandemic. If so, you’re already well on your way and just need to follow a few steps to keep working remotely after Covid.
If not, that’s not a problem either. If your physical presence is not a true requirement of your job function then you can start working towards becoming partially or even full time remote at your current job. It all boils down to convincing your employer that you can be just as effective working remotely as you can be working from the office. Here are the steps we like to suggest.
A) Work to change the way you are evaluated, so that your employer values your work output.
This seems silly and obvious, but many employers evaluate “good” employees as those that show up on time, don’t use too many vacation days and don’t cause problems. The truth is, those things don’t necessarily correlate to the employees that provide the most value to the company. Instead of letting your boss frame the conversation around your attendance or timeliness, instead start tracking your measurable output, maybe that’s hours billed, maybe that’s reports generated, or maybe that’s sales closed. However you’re most beneficial in your role, start keeping track of those measurable outputs.
B) Intentionally schedule some appointments or “conflicts” that make working from the office unrealistic.
To make an initial case for working from home, you need to prove that it’s possible to your boss. Your boss might not believe you can be as effective outside of the office, so proving that you can work remotely and still get the job done is a huge first step. Schedule a dentist appointment in the middle of the work morning, or have a contractor come out to inspect a project area in the middle of the afternoon. Then take a half day to work from home around the appointment. Start working a little early or stay a little late and make sure that you’re ultra focused when you’re not at your appointment. Complete some key tasks and make sure you note all of the progress you made when working from home.
C) Show your employer your work from home measurables compared to your office measurables. Present your best case and ask for a trial run.
Now that you’ve trained your boss to value your measurables and you have a few trial runs working from home, present your work from home case study. Show them how effective you were working from home on the few days you were “forced” into working from home, and let them know that you felt much more focused working from home and that contributed to your increased output. Ask to work from home 1 day a week or even 1 day a month at first to see if working from home truly makes you better at your job.
D) Work extra hard to make those work from home days extra effective. And then push to expand your work from home days to permanent remote working.
This is your chance to pass the test. On your work from home days work extra hard to show you can be just as effective, if not more effective, when you’re working outside of the office. Track every measurable you can and stack the cards in your favor. After a few trial runs, go back to your boss and show them how much more you accomplish when you work from home. Make it obvious to them that it’s best for the company if you worked remotely on a permanent basis.
2. Look for telecommuting jobs
If your current job HAS to be performed from the office, or your company’s culture does not entertain the possibility of remote working, then it’s going to be really difficult to transition that position into a remote working, digital nomad situation. In this case, it might be time to start looking for telecommuting jobs online or retraining yourself to build a skillset more suitable to remote working.
Flexjobs is a great resource built for the sole purpose of matching up employers with remote workers. In addition, Indeed & LinkedIn both have remote work/telecommute filters that can help you search specifically for remote work opportunities. Popular telecommuting jobs include administrators, technical support, analysts, teachers, and more.
Check out the remote work opportunities above and see if your skillset matches up with any available positions. If not, start researching where you can broaden your skills to better match up with remote working positions.
3. Become a freelancer
If you’re internally motivated and looking for the freedom to break away from the corporate environment altogether, it might be time to start considering freelancing. Valuable technical positions like web developers, graphic designers, writers and more are almost always in high demand. If you have the stomach for it, and the skills to back it up, you can find lots of work opportunities on gig economy websites like Content Writers, Fiverr, Codeable and Upwork.
4. Start an online business
Lastly, if none of these options sound right for you, you can always start your own business. When starting your business though, make sure that you’ll be able to deliver on your promise to your customers. Don’t start a painting business and expect to be able to travel the world when your customers will need you to paint at their location. Instead plan to build a business where your input is still largely based on telecommuting. Businesses like a Travel Blog, Affiliate Marketing, Consulting, or Ecommerce can all be performed from anywhere with an internet connection.
While the why for becoming a digital nomad is clear, how do you actually put the idea into action? Logistically speaking, there are a few key items to get sorted before you become location-independent:
- Digital Nomad Visa & Passport
- Borderless Banking
- Local Number, VoIP, Skype
- International Internet
- Emergency Fund
- Doctor’s notes/prescriptions
- Budgeting and Travel Costs
- Flights and transport
Digital Nomad Visa & Passport
Getting a visa will depend on the duration of your stay in a country. Of course, you’ll need to make sure your passport won’t expire when you’re traveling. In terms of a visa, many countries allow you to stay as a tourist for 3-6 months, so it may not be necessary to get one. Technically, you’re not supposed to work on a tourist visa, but most countries leave this as a grey area and if you don’t mention it at border control, there’s not really a way for them to find out.
If you’re planning a long-term stay, many countries are introducing new digital nomad visas specifically geared towards remote workers. You can find many of those countries on our best places for digital nomads article.
It’s probably a good idea to sort out banking before you head off, since you never want to be in a situation where you’re totally stuck financially. All credit cards work worldwide, so it’s a good idea to have one on you for emergency situations. You likely don’t want to use a credit card for everyday expenses, since every transaction will be affected by the exchange rate.
You’ll want to set up a PayPal account too, which is often used for client invoicing. One thing to note is that PayPal is really strict on all the proof of identification. So if you’re opening another account attached to, say, your N26 card in an EU country, you’ll need a proof of address associated with that card in that country and proof of identity that also shows where you live.
Local Number, VoIP, Skype
You don’t really need to think about a proper phone plan when you’re a digital nomad, since there’s WiFi everywhere and you can easily use Skype or Grasshopper to meet your phone/video needs. But, if you’re staying somewhere for six months-plus, you may want to think about getting a local number that has a good roaming plan.
You can also look into getting a Voice over Internet Phone Service, which is often more affordable than a traditional phone plan.
International Internet Service
It’s pretty obvious that to do the digital nomad thing, you’ll need internet. There is WiFi almost everywhere nowadays, but you don’t want to deal with the stress of searching for a reliable WiFi when you have a project due.
If you’re going to countries where the easiest mode of transport is motorcycling or car rental, you’ll definitely want to get a license in your home country before you leave. You can also get an international driver’s license to drive in any country. Check the country’s requirements before departing, since some may be different than others and oftentimes there are age restrictions for vehicle rental abroad.
Vaccines and Prescriptions
You’ll want to check if there are any required vaccinations needed for your country of choice. Especially if you’re travelling Asia, these can cost upwards of $1000. But it’s not something you want to skip out on. If you have regular medications, tell your doctor you’re going away for a while and need prescriptions for a certain length of time. They can prescribe you the amount you need so you won’t be without while traveling.
This should really be a non-negotiable. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you’re completely stuck based on unforeseen circumstances. By having an emergency fund, you’re giving yourself a bit of a safety cushion in case something does go wrong.
We’d recommend having three months’ worth of income saved for emergencies.
Budgeting and Travel Costs
You’ll want to make a list beforehand of everything essential you’ll need as a digital nomad. This list should include:
- Flights and Transport
- Coworking Space Membership
- Food and Drink
- Phone/WiFi Services
Search average costs of each of these in for the country you’re heading to to get a sense of how much you’ll need. Accommodation and transport tend to be where most of your money goes to, and your budget will depend on the ease you want to live and travel.
But the good thing about budgeting is that, if you budget smart, you can create a lifestyle that fits your needs. For example, if you use the right tactics to book a cheap flight, then you can spend more on your accommodation. If you travel to one of the Great Cheap Places to Travel, your daily expenses will be lower and you’ll have more budget to spend on things you want to do.
The logistics before departure are all really important steps in ensuring your experience is smooth once you arrive. If you are starting a business of your own, things like a Business license, Earth Class mail, and a local bank account might be a good idea to look into beforehand as well.
Prepare for Location Independence
There are lots of ways you can make money as a digital nomad, but what about cutting expenses? Since you are changing locations, some amount of downsizing will need to take place, and this is a great opportunity to think about what areas you can cut back on once you start your new life.
This doesn’t mean holding yourself back from opportunities — it just means saving in areas that may no longer be relevant for you. For example, if you are moving around to multiple cities, you’ll no longer need a monthly gym membership. That can save you $50-$100/month.
You can also downsize your possessions and prep your wallet by selling your non-essentials on Craigslist or eBay. And honestly, once you start getting rid of things you’ve had for ages and no longer serve a purpose, you’ll feel like you’re starting with a clean slate.
You’ll want to make a list of all essential items and pack that first, and add anything considered “nice to have” after. Ideally, you’ll have somewhere to store sentimental items at a parent’s house or consider renting a storage unit. It can be costly, so look into a variety of options before purchasing.
Digital Nomad Packing List
Now comes the part where you begin to actually visualize what life as a digital nomad is going to be like. Your whole life is going to be packed into one (or a few) bag(s), which can be both exciting and daunting.
First, it’s important to do research. Search around for others’ examples of travel packing lists for the country you’re going to, to get a sense of what essentials you’ll need. When packing, think in the same way as you did for your decluttering and ask yourself what purpose each item serves and if it will enrich your experience in some way.
If the answer is a “no,” don’t pack it. A hard rule to follow is “pack as if you’re traveling for a week.” You really don’t need anything more than that.
You’ll be surprised by how little you end up needing when you move abroad, and in life in general. But also how much more satisfying life can be when you aren’t bogged down by clutter and junk. If you want to make the most out of your digital nomad experience, remember the less is more mindset.
Now, let’s get down to the essentials. Here’s what you should always bring as your nomad travel gear:
- Passport: of course.
- Emergency cash/money belt: as mentioned above, always important to have an emergency fund on you.
- Phone and charger
- External power bank as a backup in case your electronics die, it is a life-saver in those situations.
- Universal adapter: if you’re going to multiple different countries, it’s better to have a universal adapter to save space in your bag.
- Personal hotspot device: essential for your work and navigating around a country you’re unfamiliar with.
- Daypack and backpack: you don’t want to be traveling with much more than something you can carry on your back for convenience's sake. But it’s also a good idea to have a smaller bag you can take with you during the day and leave your bigger bag at your accommodation.
- Laptop: would you be a digital nomad without one?
- Extension cord: some hostels/coffee shops don’t have great outlet positioning. Like the phone battery, you don’t want that to be what stops you from getting what you need to done.
For a more complete list, check out our friend's at Head for Horizons for the 12 Items that Every Digital Nomad Should Travel With.
So, you’ve decided you want to be a digital nomad, but where exactly do you want to go? The choice is up to you. Your experience and what you get out of the experience will depend on where you go and how comfortable you are with the culture and lifestyle there.
If you have an open mind and are easily adaptable, then the world really is your oyster. But you will want to think realistically about where you can see yourself setting up camp for at least a few weeks at a time. For inspiration, check out our articles on the best places for digital nomads, the best cheap places to travel or the best places to travel alone.
There are many digital nomad “hubs,” which are popular destinations for the digital nomad. It will be much easier here to meet people and integrate into the life there. But sometimes, it’s even more rewarding to take the road less traveled and carve out your own path.
But again, the choice is up to you. Do your research before you set off and make a list of what you’re hoping to get out of your experience and what destination best fits those needs.
A huge part in making this experience a positive one, is going to be your ability to roll with the punches and dive in head-first. Sometimes, you just have to go for it and let go of expectations.
You don’t have to go into this having it all figured out. You don’t even have to settle on one destination and plan to be there forever (unless your job requires you to be in a particular place). If dropping everything to pursue becoming a Digital Nomad seems too daunting, the best thing you can do is create trial runs in various locations. Plan a week anywhere other than your home and see if you can make it work. Then, slowly graduate to longer trips and more exotic destinations. Eventually you’ll lead up to complete location-independence.
No one says you have to do it all in one fell swoop — and the beauty of becoming a digital nomad is having the freedom to live the kind of life that you want.
The Digital Nomad Life
Travel is transformative. And becoming a digital nomad is a great way to travel farther and wider. How can you go from making this an idea in your head to an actual way of life? We want to help. Check out our full list of Tools & Resources below
Digital Nomad Tools and Resources
As a digital nomad, you also want to be able to enjoy the new environment you’re in and not be stressed about finances. That’s why the 4-Hour Workweek, which is all about: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,” is full of great tips for how to live more and work less. It’s considered a must-read (or listen if you’re super busy like us) for anyone beginning their digital nomad journey.
Back to Digital Nomad Resources
- Best Digital Nomad Destinations in 2020
- Chrome Industries Summoner Backpack Review
- Which Airline Has the Best Frequent Flyer Program
- How to Choose the Best Travel Backpack
- Top 10 Must See Sites in National Parks
- How to Become a Digital Nomad
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