I’m not qualified to be a digital nomad.
I have no idea what the qualifications are, but whatever they are, I definitely don’t have them.
The good news? You don’t need them either.
Nomadism is a lifestyle choice just as much as having a family and living in the suburbs or traveling the country in a caravan as a touring musician. This is The Sims in real life, and it’s your reflection in the monitor. Click your mouse enough times and you can make any lifestyle possible.
Though it may seem like it from the outside, living a nomadic lifestyle is not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. Lift the veil behind a lot of the glamorous snapshots from Instagram and you’ll likely see someone who’s busting their ass behind the scenes or even a broke ventriloquist putting on a puppet show. The reality is that being a digital nomad is hard work to keep up, and constant travel can beat you down.
But if you feel stuck in a job you hate and want to escape the shackles to travel long-term, this may be a good lifestyle for you—but only after considering all the pros and cons.
What is a Digital Nomad?
Mankind has been a nomadic species throughout history. It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago that permanent homes and civilizations became more commonplace. We were hunter-gatherers, traders, farmers and cattle-rearers who traveled from place to place without many possessions. The term digital nomad is a reference to this way of living.
Digital nomads are individuals who make use of digital technologies to create income and live in nomadic manner. Essentially they’re people who make money online through their remote jobs or internet businesses and so don’t need to tie themselves to one location. They can travel from place to place, country to country, as long as they stay connected online.
Aspects of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Many people dream of traveling the world, but most commonly it’s our 9-5 obligations that stop us from being able to. We’re forced to remain in a given location because our source of income is dependent on us going into an office or factory. Pack up and leave and the money well dries up.
Location independence means you’re not tied to one location by necessity. You may choose to stay in one location but at any time you can pack up your bags and go somewhere else. An online income is usually what makes this possible.
When you know you have to go back to work the next week, your travel looks a certain way. You don’t want your holiday (and countless hours of research that went into it) to go to waste, so you plan out every minute of each day. There are strict itineraries and lists of sights to see.
But when you’re traveling for long periods of time, you tend move a lot slower and improvise more. Digital nomads are typically long-term travelers without fixed schedules or plans. Traveling in this manner means the concept of home is mobile and fluid to digital nomads.
Digital nomads use the internet to make an income and accomplish tasks that traditionally would have required a stationary office. They may create businesses and run their teams using software or work for companies that allow them to work remotely.
Not all remote workers and entrepreneurs choose to travel, but digital nomads often embrace their mobile nature and move from place to place.
Digital nomads may take advantage of geoarbitrage, which means earning in a strong currency and spending in places where their money goes further.
A digital nomad may, for example, get paid in US Dollars for their online work but live in Vietnam where there’s a cheaper cost of living.
Digital Nomad Income Sources
Digital nomads typically make money in one of the following ways:
1) Remote Job
Some forward-thinking companies allow their employees to work remotely. It doesn’t matter if the work gets done from home, from an airplane, or from a beach as long as it gets done. There may or may not be set hours, but essentially it’s a traditional job with the flexibility to do anywhere.
Some common remote jobs include:
- Customer Support
With new technologies and the cost savings for companies, it’s becoming increasingly common for companies to allow their employees to work remotely. Even when it’s not offered outright, remote work can be negotiated if you’re flexible (The 4-Hour Workweek has scripts that can help).
2) Coaching & Consulting
Many digital nomads are professionals who make online income by providing remote consulting services for everything from legal work and accounting to fitness and health. If you have expertise that is in demand, chances are you can make an online income from it.
To make their location independent lifestyles possible, digital nomads may work as freelancers. That means instead of being employees, they’re self-employed. And instead of working for one company, they work for a number of companies or clients on a contract or gig basis.
4) Social Media
Some travelers have found ways to get paid to travel through social media. A lot of the top influencers run successful travel blogs or YouTube channels. Others get paid for their photography or videography skills. Some even get free hotels and accommodations in exchange for reviews or mentions.
Many digital nomads are entrepreneurs who run businesses while they travel, managing remote teams using online tools. There is a fine line between a freelancer and an entrepreneur, but generally entrepreneurs are building systems that are bigger than themselves so that they’re no longer a bottleneck to the bottom line. If they stop working, the business still makes money.
Some examples of online business models are:
- Digital real estate: Flipping, selling or monetizing blogs and websites
- Ecommerce: Selling products through an online store
- Digital Products: ebooks, subscriptions, courses, apps and more
- Productized Services: using systems and automation to provide services at scale
Pros of Being a Digital Nomad
Before choosing to live nomadically, I spent time as:
- A corporate employee working 40 hour workweeks
- A full-time pre-med student working various part-time jobs
- An ESL teacher in Asia
- A freelancer with no other source of income
- An entrepreneur hustling 60 hours a week on my own business for two and a half years in one set location
I’ve also experienced the extremes of travel. I’ve done the ten-countries-in-two-weeks thing and made a city my home base for more than a year while I worked on my business. I’ve been the tourist and the flâneur, and I can definitively say the flâneur is better.
Though I’ve visited nine countries in the past year, I’ve spent the majority of my time in two of them. I don’t identify as much with being a digital nomad as I do just someone who likes having options.
So keeping in mind this is my perspective, here are the benefits I’ve found to this type of lifestyle:
When you know you’re capped at a suitcase and a carry-on, you don’t have the option to accumulate possessions. The result is less stuff. Much less stuff.
One of the reasons most people aren’t able to achieve the level of freedom they want in their lives is because they’re still paying for cars, homes and things they thought would make them happier.
As a digital nomad, life becomes so simple and streamlined that you find yourself wishing you had even less things.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes with that. You stop equating happiness and success with material possessions and you begin to value experiences over things.
When you travel, you come across lots of interesting people doing remarkable things. You open yourself up to a wider possible range of connections and opportunities in business, dating and life in general.
And when you assume everyone you meet can teach you something, you start learning more. You forming deeper friendships and accumulate positive experiences that you can draw from.
A lot of my closest friends now work online, each of us running completely different types of businesses. We all share what’s working, learn from one another, and inspire each other to be better.
Travel has shown me that creativity is a lot like having brain babies: it comes from blending seemingly unrelated concepts together and creating new ideas. And it works even better when the ideas are more incongruent. Ideas and inspiration can be found everywhere you go if you start sharing and listening more, and a mobile lifestyle makes this easier.
Life stays interesting when you’re moving around more. You’re more engaged. More present. More creative.
When you work in a range of different environments, you accumulate a wide range of sights, sounds, ideas and experiences that you call later pull from to make creative connections. You bring more to your work because you have more to draw from.
It’s a lot more fun playing Connect the Dots when you have lots of dots to play with. Living a more nomadic lifestyle allows you to collect more dots.
Ultimately, the best benefit is just feeling free.
Our ever-growing list of responsibilities and possessions can end up confining us and leaving us stressed, anxious and depressed. I know this firsthand.
As a digital nomad, you have a lot more control over your routine, schedule and location. You’re less stressed and more free.
Being able to make free choices is a large part of what makes us happy as human beings. Whether you travel frequently or infrequently, fast or slow, knowing that you have choice gives you an increased sense of autonomy.
There’s something about having the ability to decide your next location or project with your own free will that makes you feel more like a demigod and less like a lab rat stuck in a maze.
Life feels more and more like a permanent vacation and less of a struggle. No more arbitrary 9-5, dress codes, or morning commutes in traffic. You make your own schedule, and you can work in your birthday suit if you want to (you know, the ultimate freedom).
Cons of Being a Digital Nomad
Not everyone should become a digital nomad.
There’s a lot of work that goes into creating and maintaining the lifestyle and the lack of permanence can be draining for many.
In fact, many digital nomads end up swearing off the lifestyle after a few years.
The following are potential downsides to living a nomadic lifestyle. Think of it less as a list of cons and more of a list of things that go unconsidered beforehand.
You finally achieve the freedom to travel and quickly realize it was not the party you expected it to be. It’s lonely at the top. Err—on the fringes.
Sure, you can now set your own schedule but every one of your friends still has to maintain regular work hours. You want to go party, and they’re all at work.
When you live an alternative lifestyle for a while, it can become harder to connect with others who are living regular lives.
For frequent travelers, they often report finding themselves struck with a why bother attitude when it comes to meeting new people. When you know you’ll just be moving on, it can feel pointless after a while. Plus you can only have the same getting-to-know-you conversations so many times before they get old. In the end, it can feel easier to avoid becoming attached in the first place.
In this way, dating gets more complicated and solid friendships are harder to come by.
I’ve been lucky in that a lot of my close friends have had similar goals as me from the beginning. We supported each other along the way by forming mastermind groups. Most of my closest friends now live similar lifestyles, and we’re able to meet up in different parts of the world.
One of the keys to overcoming the sense of isolation that often comes from nomadic living is building a network of friends with similar interests. Work from coworking spaces, connect with people online and join different groups. It helps.
Lack of Accountability
When you work and travel alone, there’s no one to hold you accountable. No parents, no boss, just you.
While some thrive by being able to set their own schedules, others are squashed by the lack of routine and productivity can quickly go south.
There are the constant temptations to explore, sightsee and give into hedonism. It takes strong willpower to resist the voice constantly shouting YOLO in the back of our heads. But with a little discipline this can easily be overcome.
This is where your network of friends—whether online or in real life—can help out the most. Share more, connect more and surround yourself with people doing what you want to do and you’ll be a lot better off.
As a digital nomad, you often find yourself in uncharted territory. There isn’t always readily available information or clearcut answers. As a result, you’re constantly figuring things out as you go.
Some examples of digital nomad realities:
- Taxes become a lot more complicated
- Business registration can be extremely difficult
- You’ll spend a lot of time searching for and booking accommodations if you travel often
- Time zones can become an issue working with clients, teams, employees and customers
- Spotty Wi-Fi (especially bad if you’re on deadlines)
- You’ll need an address where you can receive mail such as bank statements and invoices
- Visa rules are different in each country and require ongoing research
- Medical insurance woes
- It will be harder to keep bank accounts and credit cards
- You’ll need to deal with SIM cards wherever you go (unless you’re a Google Fi user)
In the end these challenges just make the journey more interesting. As a modern day nomad, you’re a trailblazer, clearing the path as you find creative solutions to brand new problems.
Digital Nomad Destinations
A lot of digital nomads tend to end up in the same handful of locations, and that’s thanks to them being deemed nomad-friendly by trailblazing bloggers and influencers. Early in your planning, use a website like Nomadlist to do some research and come up with a list of countries you’d like to potentially live in.
This is a list of popular digital nomad locations. While you may see some of them touted online as super cheap places to live, the reality is that short-term rental prices have gone up considerably in a lot of them due to increased tourism and demand from sites like Airbnb. Digital nomadism comes at a cost, and it’s on the way up. Do your research before making any hard decisions.
I’ve added estimations for budgets below based on my experiences, and assuming you want to live alone and work from cafes or coworking spaces from time to time. Of course, you can live in some of these locations cheaper if you really want to, but I’d err on the side of taking more and not less.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is one of the major hubs for location independent entrepreneurs and freelancers worldwide. Many make it their first choice when starting out due to its low cost of living and high networking potential. It’s a nature-filled city in the mountains of northern Thailand filled with trendy cafés, healthy food options and yoga studios so you can stay relaxed, healthy and productive.
Recommended Budget: At least $1000/month
The entire island of Bali is home to many digital nomads, but the towns of Ubud and Canggu are the most popular choices. Canggu is a beachside town with more budget options, while Ubud is the cultural center of Bali and is surrounded by rainforest and rice paddies. With its low cost of living, beautiful jungle scenery and laid-back culture, Bali makes a fantastic choice for digital nomads looking to work and explore.
Recommended Budget: At least $1100 USD/month
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Known to everyone who lives there as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis swarming in motorbikes and decorated with French Colonial architecture. Convenient housing options are aplenty for short-term travelers, with everything from stylish modern condos to traditional apartments on the menu at affordable rates.
Recommended Budget: At least $1000 USD/month
The upscale neighbourhood of El Poblado is where most of the action is for digital nomads in Medellin, though Laureles and Sabaneta are increasingly popular choices for living. El Poblado is jam-packed with bars, restaurants, coworking spaces, and beautiful outdoor cafes to work from. Its stylish spaces, amazing valley views, affordable living and perfect weather year-round make Medellin a tough place to leave for many (including myself).
Recommended Budget: At least $1200 USD/month
Budapest is an astounding European city painted with majestic architecture and split in two by the river Danube. Though the city has become increasingly popular for tourism, the living costs are still cheap relative to Western Europe. There are plenty of stylish cafes and coworking spaces to work from and fast Wi-Fi wherever you go.
Recommended Budget: At least $1500 USD /month
Taipei is the beautiful, modern capital of Taiwan and it has all the conveniences and action of Seoul, Hong Kong or Tokyo but at a fraction of the cost. Filled to the brim with culture, there is plenty to explore in Taipei with its delicious street food markets, beautiful beaches, lush mountains and traditional rural villages.
Recommended Budget: At least $1800 USD/month
Barcelona is digital nomad hub that is home base to a great number of freelancing professionals and entrepreneurs. For those who want the weather of Southeast Asia but prefer the reliability and conveniences of Europe, it makes a great choice. Beaches, plenty of culture, perfect temperatures. It’s a hard place to beat if you have the budget.
Recommended Budget: At least $3000 USD/month
Digital Nomad Trends
The Work-From-Anywhere Trend
Seven years ago, American Express began implementing a flexible workplace program that allowed some employees to work from home permanently and others to split time between the office and home. The result? Increased productivity, a massive saving in office costs, and access to a brand new talent pool of potential hires who would otherwise be unavailable.
Now flexible workplace policies are becoming more and more mainstream in major companies. 43% of American employees spent time working remote last year.
Across all age groups, the demand is similar. More and more, people are sick of an arbitrary 9-5 workweek and want the ability to work when and where they want.
The Rise of the Gig Economy
Full-time, part-time gig and side hustling gig workers have now made the gig economy into a multi-billion dollar industry that is expected to make up 40% of the workforce.
This rise in the gig economy is driven primarily by online apps and platforms like Uber, Lyft, Fiverr, Upwork, Etsy and Airbnb.
Gig workers generally report higher job satisfaction than their 9-5 counterparts, though this may be only for those that choose the lifestyle. There are a certain percentage of gig workers who freelance because they’re unable to find other work and are financially strapped.
But with the majority of millennials increasingly seeing the gig economy as a viable opportunity to full-time employment, freelancing numbers are only going to grow from here. That means more workplace optionality and less schedules.
Living a nomadic lifestyle is not for everyone. You have be highly independent, capable of spending long periods of time alone, able to deal with constant uncertainty, and fine with giving up most of your possessions.
I think most long-term travelers eventually realize that the novelty wears off. It often happens faster than you’d imagine.
We chase what we’ve been programmed to associate with success and happiness and often that’s marriage, homes, cars, possessions, and in the case of digital nomads—more travel.
The same novelty seeking mentality that left you feeling imprisoned by debt, routine and 9-5 obligations in your old life can quickly transfer over.
The key is in finding enjoyment from the freedom and the chance for growth that the lifestyle provides.
That’s just my two cents, so take it for what it’s worth.
What are your favorite or least favorite aspects of the digital nomad lifestyle?