How to Become a Digital Nomad

Tips for Creating a Location Independent Career

Dreaming of working from the beach or in a bustling city abroad? Thanks to technology, more and more people are making this their reality. A 2018 study on the State of Independence in America found that approximately 4.8 million workers classify themselves as “digital nomads,” and that number is only expected to rise in the coming years. Whether crossing borders every few weeks or staying put in a new city for several months, digital nomads satisfy their desire for adventure and travel without sacrificing a paycheck. Find out what it takes to transition to this life and how you can find remote work.

What is a Digital Nomad?

Digital nomads enjoy the freedom to travel while earning an income thanks to technology. Because digital services shift so rapidly, this type of work would not have been possible even a decade ago. Today’s digital nomads, however, can select from many career paths that allow them to combine their personal and professional passions. Unlike freelancers who work remotely but tend to stay put, digital nomads are location independent, meaning they do not need to stay in a specific place to get work done. Because of this, they work and travel the world for various lengths of time.

10 Steps to Become a Digital Nomad

Because the concept of living a digital nomadic life is still an emerging one, many individuals may aspire to this type of career but do not know how to reach that goal. Fortunately, many location independent paths exist that cater to different interests, education levels, and skill sets. Individuals drawn to a more nomadic lifestyle can follow the 10 steps outlined below to get started.

computer screen with silhouette of person on it

1. If you don’t already have skills to work online, get a job that will help you develop those skills.

Digital nomads enjoy much freedom when it comes to where they work, but most roles allowing this type of independence require individuals who keep abreast of the latest technologies and digital trends. If you do not already have these skills, it may feel overwhelming to learn them, but like most new things, practice makes perfect and there are a number of ways to start developing these skills. Some options include part-time remote freelance work where you work with clients completely online or finding a job at an online media company. Another option may be to work at a coworking space so you can learn from and observe other, more experienced digital nomads. There are a growing number of coworking spaces across the world, such as WeWork and Regus.

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2. Figure out a way to earn passive income

Passive income greatly benefits digital nomads and freelancers by providing incoming money even when they are not working. Examples of products that can bring in passive income are ebooks, online training courses, or exclusive content access. But it does not have to be product-based -- you can rent out part of your apartment or home or the entire space while you are away. While passive income always seems like a great idea, many individuals struggle to find time to create the materials needed to launch the product. If this sounds like you, consider setting aside a time to develop these sources before setting out on your travels. Entrepreneur Magazine provides a list of five ways to generate passive income.

bag with money symbol

3. Find a way to earn active income while traveling

The most important step in becoming location independent revolves around figuring out what type of work you want to do. It’s important to assess your skills and interests. Some individuals may feel more comfortable working in tech and digital spaces while others may feel their writing, editing, or translating skills provide the most valuable service. Still others may be drawn to teaching. Think about your strengths and begin researching options that utilize those strengths. Try and build up a steady portfolio of clients before leaving America, as this will make it less stressful when acclimating to and settling in a new country.

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4. Reduce your expenses

When transitioning to a digital nomadic life, it can be tempting to plan travel in the same way you would when on vacation. But you will need to make your money stretch further, so it’s important to cut costs, both while aboard and “back home.” Do you really need that Netflix and Hulu subscription while you are working and traveling abroad? What about that gym membership? Any ongoing memberships or monthly subscriptions that you won’t be able to use while traveling should be terminated or put on hold so those costs do not weigh you down while you are away. When abroad, Betsy Ball, Co-Founder and Partner of Euro Travel Coach, says house sitting can be a great option for lowering accommodation costs, as can staying in an AirBnB that offers a much lower monthly rate than daily rate. Other easy ways of saving money include cooking rather than eating out, walking whenever possible, taking trains and other public transportation rather than flying, and finding another digital nomad to travel with and split costs.

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5. Reduce or eliminate any debt

As student loan debt passes the $1.5 trillion mark and the average American carries approximately $6,929 in revolving balances on their credit cards, debt presents a real threat to the digital nomadic life. Before embarking on this new adventure, pay down as much debt as possible, especially if you already know your life abroad will require you to use your credit card from time to time. You might not have a steady or even strong income the first couple months, so consider saving a few months’ worth of student loan payments before traveling. If at all possible, pay off your credit card debt completely as the high interest rates associated with these cards can balloon debt quickly and may require you to come home a lot earlier than expected.

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6. Choose realistic destinations

While it might sound incredible to wake up each morning in a stunning flat with the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, the reality is that the world’s top cities (e.g. New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo) are not cheap. You may one day make enough money to land in one of these places, but it’s best to start with realistic (read: more affordable) destinations. Locations in South America and Southeast Asia are best known for low cost of living, but Central and Eastern Europe also offer comparable costs in some cases. Newly minted digital nomads should try to find balance between a city they love and a city they can actually afford.

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7. Make a game plan

Once you get an idea of how you will make a living while traveling the world, it can be difficult to sit down and plan out the details of how to make it actually happen. But, the most successful digital nomads know that planning makes their dreams possible. When creating your game plan, consider where you want to go, how you will make money, what budget you want to follow, if you have a large enough emergency fund, and how you will handle unexpected changes in your itinerary or work plan. You also need to create a plan for leaving home, which may include paying down/off debts, selling or renting property, renting a storage unit, and saying goodbye to friends and family.

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8. Get travel or expat health insurance

Because digital nomads rarely stay in one place for long, it’s important that they purchase insurance that travels with them across country borders. While some individuals may advocate for travel insurance, it’s important to remember that this exists for short trips and only provides the most basic of coverage. Individuals who plan to travel frequently and stay abroad for a longer amount of time should look into expat health insurance as it guarantees a certain level of care and coverage of charges no matter where you find yourself.

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9. Get a credit card with no international fees

Given that digital nomads make the majority of their purchases outside the U.S., it’s important that they don’t pay international fees each time they pay a bill or buy a coffee. According to Credit Karma, cards with fees typically charge an average of three percent on each international purchase. This may seem like a small amount, but it adds up quickly, especially when aboard for a long time. Fortunately, a number of credit cards with no international fees exist to help make life easier for the constant traveler. Many of these charge annual card fees, but most individuals find that the number evens out when considering points and cash back incentives. Review the list of options provided by The Points Guy to find a no-fee card best suited to your needs.

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10. Get in touch with other digital nomads

Traveling around the world while working has plenty of perks, but it can also be lonely. When far away from family and friends, finding a solid community is a crucial step in being successful in this realm. Fortunately, lots of online digital nomad communities exist. Examples include workfrom, Digital Nomad Community, Global Digital Nomad Network, and Nomad List. Individuals can also take advantage of several co-living spaces around the world, including the Old Oak in London, sun and co. in Spain, Angkor Hub in Cambodia, and Nomad Life in Costa Rica.

Top Location Independent Jobs for Digital Nomads

While many jobs exist within the digital/remote space, those who hope to achieve full location independence must find a client or role that is fully-based online. In addition to the range of positions highlighted in this section, individuals interested in pursuing a digital nomadic life can use sites such as UpWork, Remote.co, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com to find currently available work, regardless of their location.

Writer

Individuals with a firm grasp on the nuances of the English language can work in many different industries with these skills. Some may feel compelled to work with an agency for a broad spectrum of clients while others may choose to focus their efforts with a single company. Others may be interested in legal or technical writing.

Virtual Assistant

This broad-ranging position allows individuals to put their administrative, financial, creative, or technical skills to use by supporting the work of their clients. Virtual assistants, or VAs, can provide a range of services, depending on their skillset. Examples include editing services, budget management, digital marketing, data mining, or general clerical skills to CEOs or other individuals requiring support staff.

Web Designer

Given the online nature of their work, web designers can liaise with clients and create web pages that meet individual needs without ever visiting the company’s headquarters. Some may specialize solely in web design and creation while others may focus their effort on website management and upkeep.

SEO Specialist

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, falls under the marketing umbrella and is used by companies to ensure they maintain visibility on Google and other search engines. These professionals work closely with companies or individual clients to ensure their business ranks on keywords that are relevant to their brand or industry.

Graphic Designer

These specialists use their knowledge of graphic design software and art to design a variety of digital images for clients. They may work with book publishers, branding agencies, website developers, or other creatives who use graphics to convey their company’s mission and message.

Virtual Teacher

With the rise of online K-12 programs and colleges, the need is great for qualified teachers who can lead digital classrooms and engage students through the internet. These positions may require teachers to log in at specific times across the semester but generally provide flexible schedules.

Translator

While online translation services are readily available today, individuals seeking precise and accurate translations still turn to those who know the language best. Translators who are fluent in an in-demand language can provide their services with maximum flexibility, so long as they have a steady, high-speed internet connection and clients.

Video Editor

Many videographers do their own editing, but plenty of busy, high powered individuals actually hire professionals to take care of this part of the process. Editors with great attention to detail and an understanding for what their client wants can perform this job with relative ease and flexibility.

Top Destinations for Digital Nomads

Given that a nomadic life typically involves paying for services such as hotels, short-term accommodation, and continuous travel, it’s important that individuals consider cost of living when creating a plan. Areas such as Southeast Asia and Central America offer much lower costs of living than Western Europe or North America, for instance. With that in mind, however, it is also important to find a location with reliable and fast Wi-Fi so you can maintain contact with your clients, as well a local setting that provides favorable culture, lifestyle, weather, and safety.

Below are five top destinations for digital nomads, along with each location’s monthly cost of living. Prices below include everyday expenses such as groceries, transportation, rent, utilities, and a Wi-Fi connection. All prices are based on a single individual living within the city center in a one-bedroom apartment.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Monthly cost of living: $863.73 USD

As the capital of Argentina, the coastal city of Buenos Aires offers digital nomads a central location in South America. Ideal for travel to other cities in the region, individuals enjoy personality-filled neighborhoods, art, history, reliable Wi-Fi, public transportation, outdoor activities, plenty of day trip opportunities, and numerous co-working spaces. The city also provides exceptional value for money when compared to other large cities.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Monthly cost of living: $937.24 USD

In addition to offering an exceptionally low cost of living, Ho Chi Minh City offers digital nomads the opportunity enjoy fast internet, cheap and healthy eats, a burgeoning entrepreneur community, plenty of co-working spaces and cafes, and exceptional transportation. The city also offers good nightlife, and plenty of day-to-day services (e.g. apartment cleaning, laundry, cooking) for extremely cheap, making it possible for workers to focus more on their business.

Bali, Indonesia

Monthly cost of living: $840.33 USD

Digital nomads looking for a great summer and early fall destination can do no wrong in choosing Bali – specifically the city of Ubud. The town comes alive between June and September, yet prices remain low. In addition to being walking-friendly, motorbikes are available for rent and taxi drivers abound. Wi-Fi can still be a bit spotty, but fibre optic is popping up. Several co-working spaces exist, as do cheap laundry facilities, reasonably priced restaurants catering to many diets, and fitness options such as yoga are plentiful.

Tallinn, Estonia

Monthly cost of living: $1,502.66 USD

Though Tallinn costs slightly more than other cities in this list, this location makes up for it in many ways. In addition to becoming the first country to provide digital nomad visas (starting in January 2019), Tallinn also has the second fastest public Wi-Fi in the world, a thriving tech industry, and easy access to the rest of Europe. The city maintains an old world charm and is easily walkable, while many cafes and co-working spaces make it possible to maximize productivity while meeting other digital nomads.

Mexico City, Mexico

Monthly cost of living: $1,055.35 USD

A perennially popular location, Mexico City offers a low cost of living, strong Wi-Fi, more than 150 museums, cuisines ranging from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants, and a burgeoning freelance and digital nomad scene. Uber is well-entrenched in Mexico City, as is public transportation. Mexico also offers visa-friendly policies: tourists and business visitors from 65 countries can stay in the country for 180 days without a visa.

Ask the Expert: What it’s Like to be a Digital Nomad

photo of Betsy BallBetsy Ball offers insight into how she became a digital nomad and details on what it is like to live and work a nomadic life.


Was it difficult to become a digital nomad? How did you make the transition?

Yes and no. My husband and I always wanted to travel more. I feel like what we are doing is something we should have done in our 20s, but we didn’t — so we’re doing it now. It was easy for us to decide to become digital nomads, but making it work was challenging. We did a lot of research before we began this lifestyle. We retired from our jobs and sold our home and most of our stuff. What remains is in a storage unit in the town where we grew up, where my husband’s family still lives. That was the first step. Then we jumped out believing we could do it. Our plan was to participate in Workaway, WWOOF and Trusted Housesitters in order to extend our travel budget. These are organizations that allow you to volunteer in exchange for room and board or watch people's houses and pets in exchange for lodging. We found that this gave us a better feel for what it’s like to live in the local area and we love that. We also became certified to teach English as a Second Language so that we could teach online if we needed extra income.

What kind of remote jobs have you done as a digital nomad?

Our income is from our business, Euro Travel Coach. We started this business as soon as we knew we would become digital nomads, which was about nine months before we retired (we started traveling full time in September 2017). I also taught online for the university where we were faculty during the 2017-2018 school year.

What would you say are the 5 most important steps to take if someone wants to become a digital nomad?
  1. Have a permanent address you can use in the States for your bank account and credit card address. We use a family member’s address. I’ve heard good things about Traveling Mailbox, which also seems to works well.

  2. Understand the visa rules for the area where you are traveling. For example, we are traveling in Europe. Most of Europe is in the Schengen zone. As Americans, we are only allowed to stay in the Schengen for 90 out of 180 days. When we reach the limit of our days, we have to leave the Schengen. The UK, Ireland, Croatia, Romania, and some other European countries are not part of the Schengen, so when we get close to running out of days, we travel there for several months until we have accumulated more days so that we can go back to the Schengen. Every region has different rules. Make sure you know what they are and follow them.

  3. Figure out the most economical phone plan. We changed from AT&T to Sprint before we left and it was a good decision because we pay no extra charges for our international service. When we were with AT&T, the international charges were much higher. Doing some good research on this before we traveled was very helpful.

  4. Pack light. We travel with a backpack and a suitcase, each. Last year we traveled nine months from September to May before returning to the States. This year we started again in September and will go to May, but we came home for Christmas. We go to a family cottage in Canada in the summer. Packing light makes us nimble as we bounce from country to country.

  5. Make sure to stay connected to your friends and family back home. This is easy with technology these days, but staying connected is important for your mental health. Your support system is still there — you simply have to make more of an effort to stay connected to it.

What has been your favorite destination so far and why?

We love Italy so much and keep returning and going to different parts of the country. It’s wonderful. Our favorite part is Piedmont. We love wine and always wanted to work a harvest. The last two harvest seasons, we did WWOOFing on the same winery near Dogliani.

Being a digital nomad looks amazing! Is it always as fun and glamorous as it looks on social media?

No, nothing is as glamorous as it looks on social media! It’s pretty great — but it is challenging! If you have an online business, as we do, you really have to stay on top of it and spend significant time growing your business and servicing your clients. That takes away a bit from the travel and exploring you want to be doing. Also, sometimes, the work that we do to extend our travel budget is definitely not glamorous. We were just in Ireland where I spent hours in a messy, dirty shop with no windows sorting screws because that’s what our host wanted me to do. But it is pretty awesome overall! In the evenings we went to pubs and listened to traditional Irish music sessions, which was fantastic. It made sorting screws completely worth it!

What is the most challenging thing about being a digital nomad?

Being away when things happen at home. We had two former students die in a car accident a few months ago and it was awful not being there to grieve with the family, friends, and former colleagues who loved them so much. Life happens and it can be tough to be away when you want to help or just be around those you love.

Now that you are/have been a digital nomad, what is something you know now that you wish you knew before making the transition?

If you have a web-based business, make sure you learn as much as possible about building websites and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) early on. Get help for what you don’t know. Pay for it if you must to in order to receive a professional service for exactly what you need; it’s worth it. This will help you spend more time on what you want to be doing (in our case, we want to be building more itineraries, leading more trips and helping more people travel) rather than spending your time on technical issues that bring traffic to your site.