What Is a Digital Nomad and How Do You Become One?

These globe-trotting remote workers are here to stay.

Written by Jeff Rumage
What Is a Digital Nomad and How Do You Become One?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | Nov 15, 2023

A digital nomad is someone who works remotely, often as a freelancer or entrepreneur, visiting new places for weeks or months at a time.

Digital Nomad Definition

A digital nomad is a type of professional who has enough flexibility to work remotely while traveling the world, often visiting different places for short periods of time.

Digital nomads only need an internet connection to do their jobs, making the lifestyle highly flexible and preferable for those who want to travel and earn an income along the way. Each digital nomad’s experience is different, and will depend on one’s job, income and travel goals.

 

What Is a Digital Nomad?

A digital nomad is a remote worker who often travels to various different locations, whether domestically or around the world. Digital nomads tend to rely on Wi-Fi access from rental homes, hotels, coworking spaces, coffee shops or mobile hotspots to complete their work while traveling. Though many digital nomads are freelancers or self-employed individuals, employees working under a company are able to be digital nomads, too, if their working conditions and employer allow it.

The term digital nomad was popularized by author Tsugio Makimoto in the 1997 book Digital Nomad, which anticipated that the acceleration of technology would eventually untether one’s occupation from one’s location, eliminating the need for people to live near their jobs.

Today, the book’s prediction is within reach, due to the prevalence of wireless high-speed internet, remote collaboration tools and freelance websites. Not to mention the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused many employers to adopt flexible remote work policies and dozens of countries to adopt visa programs that let remote workers stay for up to a year.

The number of digital nomads continues to grow. According to a 2022 report by MBO Partners, which provides support services for independent workers, 16.9 million American workers consider themselves digital nomads. That’s a 51 percent increase from the 10.9 million digital nomad workers in 2020.

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How to Become a Digital Nomad

If you’re thinking about becoming a digital nomad, there are a few steps you should take.
 

1. Decide If It’s Right For You

The digital nomad lifestyle can be exciting and empowering, but it can also be difficult to adjust to when going full-time. This can be due to downsizing your living space and being further away from friends and family at home.

If you wish to become a full-time digital nomad, you may want to take a few short-term trips to your desired destinations first to gauge your feelings. For those looking to be a digital nomad on the road, try traveling in an RV for a year first to see if it’s right for you, said Alise Saunders, a digital nomad travel blogger and consultant at Tales From an Untamed Soul. You probably won’t like the nomadic lifestyle if you don’t like change or if you have trouble adapting to unexpected circumstances.

 

2. Find a Remote Job

If your job doesn’t allow you to work remotely, you might have to find a new one, start your own business or switch to freelance work. But first, you should try to make the case for remote work at your current job.

That approach was successful for Gabby Beckford, who, at the age of 23, asked her boss for the opportunity to travel abroad. When that failed, she pitched them on the idea of traveling around the country to help other teams. After a year of traveling domestically, she quit her engineering job to grow her travel blog Packs Light and travel internationally.

 

3. Plan Your Finances

Creating a budget is an important part of being a digital nomad. Once you have an idea of your income, you will want to compare that against anticipated expenses, such as housing, insurance, food, entertainment and emergency savings. Andrew Williams, founder and CEO of digital nomad blog Remote Tribe, suggests digital nomads save somewhere between six months to a year of living expenses before hitting the road.

If you’re going abroad, you should look into whether your bank charges foreign exchange fees. If it does, consider opening an account with a bank that caters to the needs of digital nomads with no exchange fees and optimal currency exchange rates.

 

4. Establish a Domicile

Digital nomads might identify as a global citizen, but the U.S. government still requires its citizens to claim a legal address, known as a domicile, for tax purposes.

Digital nomads sometimes use a friend or relative’s address as their domicile to still be able to vote, obtain health insurance and register their vehicle. Mail-forwarding services like Escapees also allow nomads to establish a domicile address, most commonly in states with no income tax like South Dakota, Texas and Florida.

 

5. Sign Up For Travel Insurance

Your health insurance might not cover medical care in another state, let alone overseas, so you will want to obtain traveler’s health insurance for extended trips. Travel insurance typically covers medical care, lost luggage and other hiccups that may arise during your travels. Some travel insurance options only cover trips for a predetermined amount of time, but there are a number of insurance options on the market that cater to the unique needs of digital nomads.

 

6. Pick Your Destination

When deciding where to travel, digital nomads have a lot of factors to consider: affordability, safety, time zone compatibility, visa availability, internet speeds and passport requirements.

Some of the more popular areas for international travelers include Thailand, Portugal, Mexico, Argentina and The Balkans.

Beckford estimates the average digital nomad stays in a city for two to four weeks before moving onto the next place, as one month is the length of a travel visa in many countries.

 

Things to Consider Before Becoming a Digital Nomad

Can You Afford It?

Staying in rentals or hotels long-term can be expensive — particularly so if you’re single — but workers with a U.S. salary can make their dollar stretch a lot further in more affordable countries. This strategy, which is quite popular among digital nomads, is referred to as geographic arbitrage.

It’s also worth it to make sure you have a steady stream of income to afford your lifestyle, especially as a freelancer. “Online jobs are not always as reliable,” said Dany Caissy, a freelance software developer, “so it’s important to have multiple sources of income, to have a little bit more security.”

 

Does the Time Zone Sync With Your Job Demands?

One major consideration is your time zone. If you need to be available during U.S. business hours, a country on the other side of the globe may not be a good choice for you — unless you don’t mind working throughout the night. 

“If you’re really trying to keep your core work hours from 9 to 5, it’s just not going to happen,” Beckford said. “It’s extremely variable in that way.”

Asynchronous jobs, like some software development and content creator roles, are most conducive to digital nomads who want to travel with no regard for time zones.

 

Can You Get a Visa?

Over 50 countries have visa programs specially designed for digital nomads. These programs typically have a minimum income requirement and let travelers live there for up to a year. Some programs require visitors to pay local taxes, while others just require the visa fee. Digital nomads are still expected to pay taxes in their home country.

Travelers and digital nomads are also allowed to visit foreign countries on a tourist visa.

 

How Fast Is the Internet?

One key concern for digital nomads is internet speeds. Some countries do not have fast internet, which can make video conferencing impossible. Rural areas, and especially vanlifers on the go, are less likely to have fast internet speeds, so Beckford said she typically sticks to major cities.

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Pros of Being a Digital Nomad

Digital Nomad Pros

  • Travel the world
  • Gain new life perspectives
  • Live life beyond a traditional 9-to-5 career
  • Grow personally and professionally

 

1. Traveling the World

With work flexibility, digital nomads often visit more countries in a year than most people do in their entire lifetime. Where most people push off traveling until they retire, digital nomads are able to experience global sights at any stage of life, as long as they stay on top of their work. Saunders said she would rather “live full throttle,” recognizing that the delayed travel goals some may have may never come to fruition.

 

2. Gaining New Life Perspectives

The culture, people and landscapes Saunders has encountered as a digital nomad have shifted her perspective on life, she said. She was moved to tears, for example, when a Saudi Arabian woman she met on a ferry in Greece told her about learning to drive after a 2018 law lifted a ban on women drivers.

 

3. Living Life Beyond a Traditional 9-to-5 Career

The digital nomad lifestyle is the ultimate antithesis to the shackles of a mortgage, a 9-to-5 job and a rush-hour commute.

Researchers behind a 2019 ethnographic study of digital nomads noted that the biggest theme that emerged from their data was “the individuals’ quest for flexibility and autonomy at work,” adding, “participants referred not only to professional, but also technological, geographical, and temporal independence.”

For Saunders, being a digital nomad is ultimately about living life on your own terms. It forces you to make more intentional decisions about where you want to go, what you want to do and how you want to live.

 

4. Growing Personally and Professionally 

The digital nomad lifestyle is one of constant change. They have to learn their way around new cities, adapt to shifts in time zones and adjust to a new living space every month or two.

While it may be hard, it may also be rewarding. Some studies suggest that new experiences are correlated with happiness and that change can be good for your brain, forcing it to form new neural pathways instead of settling into routine ways of thinking.

Saunders said living in a state of constant change has built her self-confidence: “It has made me realize that I am so resourceful and capable,” she said.

 

Cons of Being a Digital Nomad

Digital Nomad Cons

  • Tax complications
  • Work-life balance can be hard to maintain
  • Loneliness during travel

 

1. Tax Complications

One issue for aspiring digital nomads who come from the United States is the complexity of the U.S. tax code. 

U.S. tax policy requires American citizens to pay income taxes, even when they’re traveling abroad. Foreign bank accounts are also considered offshore and reportable, according to Marylouise Serrato, executive director of American Citizens Abroad.

While the U.S. does have some treaties in place with other countries to limit double taxation, it still does happen. Some digital nomad visas require visitors to pay local taxes, while others simply require the visa fee.

To make sure their bases are covered, digital nomads might want to hire a tax specialist who is aware of special tax rules like the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which as of 2023, allowed U.S. nomads who live less than 30 days in the U.S. to exclude the first $120,000 in foreign-earned income on their U.S. taxes.

 

2. Work-Life Balance Can Be Hard to Maintain

Digital nomads sometimes feel like they have two jobs: their day job and their second job of researching countries, housing listings, internet speeds and visa requirements —  so it is important that they are mindful of their work-life balance.

Having a routine is crucial to stay productive and maintain the digital nomad lifestyle long term, said Katie Johnson, a digital nomad and founder of Roaming Roots Collective, which supports digital nomads in their travels.

“Otherwise you end up spending most of your time figuring out what the heck you’re going to do instead of actually doing anything,” she said. “This goes for work and travel.”

 

3. Loneliness During Travel

Traveling can be lonely, and it’s a big issue many digital nomads grapple with. Nomads might meet interesting people in each country they visit, but those relationships may be limited by language barriers or a reluctance to expend emotional energy on a temporary visitor.

To combat loneliness, digital nomads typically find the most luck socializing with each other in shared housing, coworking spaces or online communities, as they can bond over a common interest and lifestyle. This also allows them to trade travel advice, share travel stories and accompany each other on outings.

There are also a number of programs like Wifi Tribe, Remote Year and Noma Collective that organize trips for digital nomads who want to live, work and travel together for longer periods of time.

Related ReadingIt’s Not You: Working From Home Can Be Incredibly Lonely

 

Jobs for Digital Nomads

As long as someone has a job that can be done remotely with a laptop, they can become a digital nomad. For specifics, here’s a handful of jobs that can allow for a digital nomad lifestyle.
 

Software Developer or Programmer

Software developers and programmers focus on writing, editing and debugging code. They also ensure websites, apps or computer programs run as intended. Many coding roles can be taken on remotely and only need a computer to get their work done. 

 

Graphic Designer

Graphic designers create visual designs like logos, posters and packaging for branding purposes. Thanks to design software tools, many graphic designers can complete their work from anywhere with just a computer.

 

Writer 

To do their jobs, writers only need a blank document to write on, making it a suitable role for a digital nomad lifestyle. Writers can be self-employed, freelance or work for an employer, and work in different types of specializations, allowing for varying job opportunities that are travel-friendly.

 

Social Media Specialist

Social media specialists are tasked with creating, sharing and moderating content for a company’s social media channels. Having a computer and/or smartphone, as well as remote access to necessary social media accounts, are often all that is needed to do this job, making it accessible for digital nomads.

 

Consultant

When fully remote, consultants can assist other professionals from anywhere in the world. Consultants offer their knowledge and expertise to clients to help solve specific business problems. They can specialize in fields like IT, finance, marketing and more, providing multiple consulting paths to choose from.

 

Travel Blogger

A potential dream job for digital nomads, being a travel blogger means one can make a living by traveling. Travel bloggers document their travel journeys on a personal blog or through vlog videos, likely reviewing restaurants, attractions or scenery they encounter for their online audience. This type of job is often self-employed, and may earn revenue through paid subscriptions, advertisements or sponsorships attached to created content.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A digital nomad is someone who has the flexibility to work remotely and travel the world, stopping at various places for short periods of time.

Aspiring digital nomads should research countries and their respective digital nomad visa policies, find a job that allows them to work remotely and travel, make a budget, establish a legal domicile for tax purposes, get travel health insurance and travel only to destinations that are safe, affordable and align with their preferred time zone.

Yes. Digital nomads from the United States are required to pay income tax in the state they have established as their legal domicile.

Nomads often find themselves in a legal gray area during tax season, so it’s best to consult a tax specialist who can determine whether they have to pay taxes to another state or country.

An earlier version of this story was written by Hal Koss and published in 2021.

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