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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Mellor

What is a Digital Nomad?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Come, join the other 35 million people who have decided to work from anywhere in the world and learn how to become a digital nomad.

 

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Simply put, a digital nomad is the modern-day's answer to a generation's desire to connect to a pre-agrarian time, to go where the herd takes them, to be rootless once again.

Snow covered town in Italy.
This could be your new digital nomad home.

Less romantically, and perhaps more superficially, it's a bunch of millennials (remember, we're in our thirties and forties now) and Gen Z'ers with laptops and overly-large smartphones hanging out in cafés with free WiFi nursing a single cup of black coffee for hours while they either obnoxiously yell into a half-working microphone to their Zoom partner on the other end, or sit in the corner, furiously transcribing some conversation that was sent to them so they can make a few bucks.

The truth is, the reality of a digital nomad can be wide and varied. Everyone has their own story, their own opinion, and their own outlook.


Even so, I'm convinced that so many of us became digital nomads because we wanted to move. Someone who told us that "You will get a vacation once a year, for two business weeks only, which is really just ten days. This is your time to see the world, try new food, experience culture, get a sunburn, and get back here in time for Monday." As a group, we couldn't understand that, or accept that. So we haven't. We would rather make pennies and live in a shoebox near an ocean than dollars and live in an apartment in a city.


Or, maybe this is just me, and everyone else just wants to see some cool stuff.

 

Truth be told, there aren't many rules around being a digital nomad. The IRS certainly doesn't care as long as you pay taxes. Countries with Digital Nomad visas don't care as long as you make enough money to live there. So whether you're living in your car and working off a phone, or you're staying at a lovely hotel with a pool in Bali working from your laptop, you'd technically be a digital nomad.


But there's so much more to it.


Are digital nomads really nomads?


Despite having "nomad" in the name, most digital nomads aren't nomadic at all. At least, not a year or two in.

Something I often write about, whether it's about Italy, house sitting, digital nomadism, or general travel, is that it's hard to move around. Constantly being required to pack everything up, clean the house or apartment, find new lodging, find a way to get to that new lodging, and make sure it has everything you need (namely WiFi, but your needs might differ) starts to build up a peculiar kind of stress. It's a bit like juggling. At a certain point, you realize there are more balls in the air than you can actually catch once the routine is over. So you don't finish, you just keep juggling until the balls disappear on their own accord, or your arms get tired.


To continue the analogy, the balls dropping could mean that you made a small mistake, and you booked your train ticket for the wrong day. Or it could be a much larger mistake, and that all the travel bled your funds dry without you realizing it.


In response to this, many digital nomads decide to settle down soon into their travels. However, they choose a place with easy access to other countries, cuisines, or geographical features. For instance, Romania is a popular digital nomad destination with easy and cheap access to the rest of Europe. So you get the ease of weekends in Paris, without having to live near Paris. Likewise, Thailand and Indonesia are popular spots as well. Easy access to Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the rest of South East Asia, easy[ish] to get around, especially if you have a motorcycle, great food, amazing weather, and as much nature as the heart desires.


Settling down can also save money in the long run, and if you're curious how, check out the article below.


Are all digital nomads freelancers?


It's easy, and perhaps common, to think of digital nomads as freelancers. And before 2020, that would have been true. Most digital nomads were independent workers, or freelancers. Once working from home, or working from anywhere that wasn't the office, became acceptable, traditional employees that were simply working from overseas soon became far more popular.

At the time of writing this, there's a slow shift happening. Companies in the States are realizing there are different tax implications for having employees work from other states, or other countries. Oftentimes, this leaves companies with a major tax bill.

To compensate, they're refusing to let their employees be "truly remote" and work from other states/countries. Or, "asking" the employees to become self-employed contractors which passes the tax liability to the employee—you.


Are the specific jobs a digital nomad should have?


The advent of the Internet might not have been the best thing for humanity, but it certainly helped out digital nomads (or, nomads, as they used to be known). Even as recently as the nineties, being a nomad and creating a steady income was an incredibly difficult thing to achieve without a form of steady and consistent communication. Yes, I realize that email was available in the nineties. But if I were doing what I do today back in the nineties, it would be impossible. Internet in a small town in Southern Italy where the radio is still a new invention? Sending any attachment larger than a few KB? And trying to get someone on the phone in a way that didn't cost an arm and a leg? Forget it!

In many ways, being a digital nomad is still in the infancy stage. And I would go a step farther and argue it's still in the "testing" phase. No one is sure if well have digital nomads in the next fifteen years. Even digital nomads aren't sure if they want to still be digital nomads after the first year on the road.

This means that the space is still being explored. Are there specific jobs for digital nomads to work? Not really. As it stands, pretty much everything is still doable.

If you're curious about seeing a list, I've compiled one here that is by no means in-depth but it can be used as a pretty hearty jumping-off point.


So, how do I become a digital nomad?


In theory, it's the easiest thing in the world. In practice, a little harder.


Being a digital nomad requires three things.


  1. A job.

  2. A country to live in. (visas, apartment, etc. included)

  3. And either the desire to live somewhere else, or an open mind.

I discuss some of the other necessities in the article linked here, but the list above are the bare bone basics.


Job

As I mention in this article, there are any number of jobs to work while abroad as a digital nomad. Ideally, you'd be taking the job you currently do on the road with you. As a former checkout-person in a grocery store, this wasn't all that possible for me. But if you have a job that can easily be done from home, than it most likely can be done from abroad.

If you can't take your job with you, take the next few months (ideally before you go) to set yourself up with a new job. This can either be a traditional job that the company will allow you to work from abroad, or becoming a freelancer.


A country

When figuring out which country you want to live in, I urge you to do as much research as possible, Even if you already have a country in mind, please, research.

The most important thing you will need is a visa. Nearly every country will require you have a visa before entering the country, even if it's a visa you purchase at the airport.

Many countries have a "tourist visa" which will allow you to stay for anywhere form 30-90 days. If you're unsure as to whether or not you want to commit to being a digital nomad, I recommend sticking with this visa. It's much easier to obtain, often easy to renew, and usually doesn't have any per-requisites.

In a different article on visas (before you click and head over there, this is general information, nothing specific, expect a small bit with Italy-specific information at the bottom) I do my best to inform you on the different ways you can apply for a visa, but the bottom line is: you need to have a reason to be in that country. I have met my fair share of people who think "Oh, well, if I wanted to move their I could." No, you really couldn't. You either need to have a job there, family there, or you're escaping a brutal regime.


What about a "digital nomad" visa?

A digital nomad visa is slowly taking off in many countries that already have digital nomads that are attempting to bounce in and out of the country to refresh their visa. it also helps them acquire housing. (You don't need anything special to rent on AirBnB in a foreign country, but to rent from a landlord, you often need some kind of financial code or "number in the system".)

It's worth looking for a digital nomad visa, but many of them have minimum income requirements that are difficult for most people to meet (such as $1,500 a month).

For starting off, it's better to use the tourist visa until you know this is the right path for you.


Choosing which country

While it's common to find a country with a lower cost of living than your own, it's not a hard-and-fast rule. Plenty of people move from America to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the Nordic countries because there job will pay them enough to be there. Plus, they get universal healthcare and a Vitamin D deficiency—what's not to like?

Because not all jobs will continue to employ you once you move abroad, it's more likely that you'll be a freelancer. And if you're just starting out, money will be difficult to come by. Enter: Tropical-climate countries with a lower cost of living.

Unfortunately, there's no real beating around the bush. Digital nomads moving to other countries, especially South East Asian countries, are destroying the local economy.

You know how the housing market in America right now is insane? Lines out the door for an open house, people waving inspections, paying with cash?

In places like Bali, the rental market is much of the same. It's common to see posts of digital nomad subreddits or hashtags on Instagram about people going to an open house for an apartment at 3pm and the apartment being rented at 3:02pm. And these are single bedrooms in large houses that go for $600 a month—minimum. These are Indonesians coming to the open house, but expats.

Likewise, a major number of bars, cafes, and restaurants have sprung up in places like Bali and Phuket that solely cater to expats with cappuccinos and, I kid you not, avocado toast.

While I don't think this means you shouldn't be a digital nomad, I do urge you to be aware of your actions. Try buying food from local food vendors and restaurants when you go out, or locally-run grocery stores instead of foreigner-owned, billionaire-run mega chains when you stay home to cook.

Hand-in-hand with this: try learning the language of your new home. As someone who is struggling to learn Italian (I mean, come on, half the words are the same as they are in English and they use the same alphabet. What's taking me so long?) I know how difficult it can be to learn a new language. However, I've found that even attempting it makes all the difference and it shows people that I'm not here to buy up every property in their town and kick them out of where they've been living for the past 500 years, but I'm here to simply see how life in lived somewhere else. And also because I can no longer afford to live in the States.


The desire to be there

In this day and age, I find that people often talk about the practicalities, but rarely talk about the... emotional? Dare I say, spiritual(?), side of things.

I left home to go traveling at eighteen after preparing for it for almost six years. I went of solo-trips by myself as early as fifteen years old. I planned, mapped, practiced, and prepared myself as much as possible. And I wasn't remotely ready for it.

Part of it was because I was leaving home, where I had been living with my mom and brother. I hadn't been "on my own." Another part could be chalked up to the fact this is right after high-school, where you're practically forced to make friends by sitting next to the same people for four years.

Either way, I loved the first month of my trip, and each week after that grew harder and harder. Finding where to sleep (mostly Couchsurfing), figuring out a new language (enough to say "please" and "thank you"), or a new Metro map, or trying not to miss the train, or get on the wrong train (I think I might have gotten on the correct train once in the entire three months), or any number of a hundred things that I wasn't used to.

Of course I had fun. everyone asks, well, did you at least have fun? Of course. But I found that I really had to want it. Sleeping on a park bench, or in a field, had to be seen as an exciting opportunity. Walking around late at night, into the early hours of the morning, wasn't a prayer that I would be safe, but a practical exercise in trust of other people. My entire life was in a bag hat could disappear at any moment.

I want everyone to go traveling, just once, to get themselves out of their comfort zones. But I also want people to know that they don't have to love every second of it. Many of those seconds will be deeply uncomfortable.

Being a digital nomad, or any kind of nomad, is much of the same. Living in Thailand, or Southern Italy, sounds amazing, until you're out on the street, going door-to-door trying to find a new apartment, or the repair shop for your computer (why isn't there a sign clearly posted), or you're out late at night and the transportation stopped running and no one told you that you'd have to walk the two hours home.


Some might tell you that being a digital nomad is the best thing in the world, others might tell you that they went in with an open mind and truly began to hate their lives. Unfortunately, I don't believe there's any real test—apart from just giving it a shot—that would tell you one way or another if the digital nomad lifestyle is right for you.

I will say, having been on the road for a few years, we both really enjoy ourselves, but we also have a soft spot for visiting our hometown and often wonder how it would be to move back.

Not everything is perfect, wherever you may end up. While the cost of living might be cheaper, there's a chance the quality of life will be different. Not necessarily worse, just different.

For instance, now that we live in Italy, we don't have air conditioning, central heating, a dryer, or a dishwasher. But we do have much cheaper and higher quality food, cheap and easy transportation around the country, free healthcare, and, best of all, the chance to do the work we want to do without fear of not being able to afford to live.

And in many ways, that's what it boils down to, especially for the younger generations. A chance to simply do what we would like to do, live how'd we like to live, and get the chance to finally discover what we love. And if that's not living abroad, at least we got the chance.

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