Up until the late 90s the term “digital nomad” never existed. At least not in the way we know it today.
It might have been a thing in sci-fi books or in the heads of early tech pioneers. But for the rest us, the term might well have described an exotic tribesman on a horse with a Casio watch.
Digital nomads are everywhere and everyone wants to be one.
Who wouldn’t want to be a digital nomad? Who wouldn’t want to give up the grind and embrace the open road like a modern-day Don Quixote, moving from town to town, country to country, with their trusty Macbook Pro in tow?
In this age of connectivity, where the internet allows unprecedented freedom, digital nomadism makes sense. Why sit in a cubicle all day when you can do the same thing from anywhere in the world? What’s the point?
Add the fact that millennials have less chance of owning their own home anytime soon compared to when their parents were the same age, and you can see why embarking on a life of never-ending travel appeals.
So what, exactly, is a digital nomad and how do I become one?
Time to back up a bit. all this talk of open roads and Don Quixote made us get ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to basics.
A digital nomad is someone who can work from wherever they want. When you see someone sitting in Starbucks with an open laptop next to their skinny soy latte, chances are they’re either writing The Next Great American Novel or they’re a digital nomad.
Actually, even writing The Next Great American Novel is digital nomadism. As long as they’re getting paid.
In short, a digital nomad is someone who’s given up the trappings of office life to opt for one of independence. A life where they can work from anywhere they want for whomever they want, as long as that anywhere has good wifi.
A digital nomad needs good wifi, because they work online. That’s the “digital” part (the travel and the work-from-anywhere thing covered the “nomad” part, we hope).
For example, although it’s possible to work as a roving plumber or car mechanic, traveling from place to place fixing toilets or stripping engines, that doesn’t make you a digital nomad. Nothing digital about that.
A digital nomad, it’s worth repeating, works online.
Most of the time the perception is that digital nomad work for themselves as freelancers. This is not always true, though.
Many digital nomads work for companies who allow their staff the option of remote work.
But whether working freelance or for a company, as long as you don’t need to clock in and out of the office every day, and can work from wherever you want; your own sofa, your local coffee shop, or a beach in Thailand, you’re a digital nomad.
You might be wondering what you can do as a digital nomad. I mean, “working online” covers a pretty broad base, broad enough to be unhelpful.
The truth is though, you can do anything as long as it’s online.
We already mentioned remote working for your current company if they allow you to do that.
More companies nowadays allow their staff work-from-home days, so in effect, if you can get them to allow you to work from home all the time, you can become a digital nomad. They don’t care if you’re at home or not. They care that you’re getting your job done. There’s nothing you need to do in an office you can’t do from anywhere. Even meetings. Especially meetings.
If you’re more adventurous and feel like working for yourself as a freelancer, there are also tons of options.
Freelance writers, editors, proofreaders, and bloggers occupy a large chunk of the digital nomad workspace.
So do translators, accountants, graphic designers, web developers, online marketers, and personal assistants. Think anything you can do online as long as you have internet.
You can buy and sell domain names for websites. You can day trade in stocks – day trading is could well be the earliest form of digital nomadism. People did that with telephones and nothing else back in the day. You can be an online coach or mentor to people.
The options are endless if you’re prepared to think outside the box a little.
A good place to check out what work digital nomads do is on one of the freelance sites like Upwork. The variety of different job options will amaze you. And every single one is possible to do from anywhere in the world, as long as you have internet.
It makes it possible to travel in perpetuity.
Before the rise of the internet and the ability to work from wherever you want, travel always had limits. Financial limits and time limits.
You could travel until your money ran out or until you had to get back to work. One or the other. Unless you had money, of course. Lots of money.
Now internet access pretty much everywhere means you can earn money as you travel and you have no “job” to get back to. Your job is in your laptop right there waiting for you whenever you switch it on. Perpetual travel is possible, even for those of us who weren’t born rich.
And talking of being rich, that brings us to the next aspect of digital nomad life.
It’s not enough if you’re traveling all the time to simply plug in your laptop, do whatever you do, and earn money. It would be nice if it were that simple, but you’re not loaded with cash, so it isn’t.
You’re going to have to learn to budget, to make your dollars you earn work for you.
The easiest way to do this is to go someplace cheap to work.
It makes sense, right? If you’re living in San Francisco or New York City or London or Tokyo, you’re in an expensive part of the world. Your rent’s going to be expensive, your food, your living expenses. All super expensive. Have you seen how much a pint of beer costs in London?
So it stands to reason that whatever you’re earning in cities like these, whether as a digital nomad or not, is not going to go very far.
Unless you’re very rich, but we already established you’re not.
The way around this is to go somewhere less expensive than San Francisco, New York, London, or Tokyo.
Somewhere where the same amount you earn in those places will be worth more and stretch far further.
That is the freedom of digital nomadism and the reason why many people get into it in the first place. We touched on this earlier when we spoke about young people not being as wealthy as their parents generation anymore.
If you’re earning US dollars, the world is your oyster. You can go to a place where the rent is cheap and the living is virtually free in comparison. The world is full of places like this.
And so is the US. You don’t even need to go abroad.
A recent story came out about the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma offering digital nomads $10,000 to move there to work.
Yes, that’s correct. Tulsa would pay you to go there and work as a digital nomad.
This is because Tulsa wants to attract creatives and professionals, which in turn will (they hope) attract tech companies to the area. They also hope some digital nomads will stay in town and build their own companies.
Tulsa isn’t the first – other cities in Alaska, Vermont, and other states have gone down the same path in recent years. And it’s worth pointing out that average rent in Tulsa is over four times less than average rent in San Francisco.
Now think how much cheaper than Tulsa rent would be in parts of Latin America or Eastern Europe or Asia. And you’re still earning the same money as you did in NYC. You might even be able to start calling yourself rich! At least in the place you’re at, anyway.
We’ve now touched upon the essence of digital nomadism.
That ability to go somewhere cheap(er) and stay awhile, until it gets more expensive. Or until you get bored and fancy a change. The world is your oyster, remember?
As long as you got good wifi, that is.
Which leads us to ask what are the favorite destinations amongst digital nomads?
It’s not enough to be
cheap. You could go to the center of the Sahara Desert to a country like Niger
or Chad and it will be cheap there, for sure. But good luck getting decent
internet in those places.
You’re going to need a place with a little more infrastructure if you’re going to earn money while traveling. You’re going to need a place with a Starbucks at the very least!
In recent years, Thailand, and in particular the city of Chiang Mai has attracted lots of digital nomads. Malaysia, Laos, and Vietnam also offer alternate destinations in Southeast Asia.
Cape Town, South Africa is popular, too. Argentina’s recent financial collapse means it’s gotten cheaper while still retaining a good internet service.
This makes it a magnet for location independent digital nomads.
Still in Latin America, Colombia is cheap and very switched on, particularly Medellin. Mexico is also a good option, being close to the States. Ecuador offers great value.
In Europe, Portugal is a winner for digital nomads. Also Eastern Europe, from Lithuania to Poland to Hungary to Bulgaria to Ukraine. All these countries have costs of living far less expensive than the west but with stable internet.
If you’re adventurous, look at the “Stan” countries of Central Asia.
As a digital nomad, you can go to all these places. Part of the fun is trying them out.
But before you start packing, we’d recommend you first start being a digital nomad at home.
Start off working from your couch. And then spread your wings and head to your local coffee place. You’ll see a bunch of other people working there too. You can rent a coworking space somewhere. These places are the 21st century internet cafes where people can go, find a space, and plug in. Most cities in the world have these now. Get online and you’ll find one near you.
Sometimes being around other digital nomads and freelancers is the motivation you need to get on. A co-working space provides that more than a couch or Starbucks stool can.
There’s a good reason we recommend starting at home. You want to know you can do this. It can be daunting going out on your own and hustling for clients to freelance for. It can be scary even getting out from the confines of your office and your workmates. If you test the waters for a few months at home first, you’ll know if this life is for you.
Because there are downsides and it would be disingenuous not to mention them.
The major downside is lack of steady earnings, at least at first. Unless you’re remote working for your company, you’ve gone freelance. That means up and down months. Can you handle that?
Another is sickness. You might have given up your health package at your job to go freelance. Now you have nothing. And you’re abroad. What do you do? Buying international travel and health insurance is vital here.
And then there’s the pesky question of visas and immigration. You might want to stay working for a few more months or years in the country you’ve found. But will they let you? Colombia, for example, allows foreign visitors only six months stay per calendar year.
You’ll need to do your homework on the immigration rules of the countries you’ll be staying in.
But in all this though, remember you’re now a nomad.
And as such you’ll want to move on anyway, like a modern day Don Quixote.
If you want to become a digital nomad, you can. You may need to learn some new skills. But you’re on the vanguard of the future here. In years to come, digital nomading be the norm, not the exception. Getting in now won’t harm your future prospects at all.