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What Is a Digital Nomad? And How Can I Become One?

how to become a digital nomad

“Digital nomad” sounds like the quintessential dream job: traveling the world armed with little but a laptop and the essentials, making your own schedule in foreign coffee shops or while sipping cocktails on a beach, hopping from destination to destination as you cross yet another country off your bucket list.

“Digital nomad” isn’t a job title but a lifestyle choice—an option now available to many, thanks to a trend changing how we balance our careers and lives: remote work.

Want to become a digital nomad? Learn how to live location-independent by reading this guide. 

What is a digital nomad?

A digital nomad is a location-independent person who embraces remote work as a lifestyle choice, using technology to make a living that enables them to be as mobile as they want.

Digital nomads often work remotely, using wireless Internet, smartphones, Voice over IP, and cloud-based applications to work from cafés, public libraries, co-working spaces, and their homes. They leverage remote work to fund and follow through on their desire to see the world.

Digital nomads tend to be self-employed, working on a freelance basis and not taking traditional jobs. The digital nomad lifestyle is often associated with frequent and relatively long-term travel, and a non-traditional, nomadic way of life.

How many digital nomads are there?

MBO Partners’ 2022 State of Independence research study also found that 16.9 million US workers are digital nomads, a 131% increase from 2019. 

How much do digital nomads make?

Allwork reports that 34% of digital nomads make between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. However, there is no one answer to this question, as digital nomads can make various incomes, depending on their location, skills, and experience. 

Many digital nomads earn a comfortable living through online work, part-time freelancing, and other creative endeavors. Some digital nomads even make a full-time income, though this is more common among those who have established themselves in their field and have a large online following.

Benefits of being a digital nomad

You can work from anywhere

Perhaps the most obvious benefit is the ability to work from anywhere in the world, as long as there is a reliable internet connection. It’s a great way to see new places and experience new cultures, while still being able to earn a living.

You can live a more flexible lifestyle

Another benefit is the freedom and flexibility that comes with being your own boss. You can choose your own hours and work as much or as little as you want. Say goodbye to the thought of commuting. You can make money while still having time to pursue your other interests and passions.

You can be more productive and creative

When working in new places, digital nomads are often more productive and creative. It could be a change of scenery, meeting new people, or simply being out of their comfort zone. Overall, work can be more fun and fulfilling as a digital nomad. 

You get to meet new and interesting people

Being a digital nomad allows you to meet people from all over the world. Working in coworking spaces with other digital nomads is common, and you can also meet people online through communities and forums.

Downsides of being a digital nomad

Financial challenges 

Life as a digital nomad isn’t all adventure, especially if you’re used to the comfort of heading into an office for a 9-to-5, or even working from home.

“In the beginning, it's very hard,” Martina Russo, a travel-loving translator, explains. “You need to be smart and you need to find ways to make sure that you have a certain income coming in every month. One of the best and most efficient ways of doing that is creating sources of passive income.”

Suppose you’re an independent entrepreneur or freelancer, like Martina. In that case, she stresses the importance of generating income you can rely on for months in advance, and diversifying so you’re not relying entirely on one source. 

Sometimes, the unexpected happens and you cannot work for extended periods, which can be tough if you haven’t saved up enough money for a rainy day.

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” Martina says. “One day, I came into a rough period, and I couldn’t work for six months. When you’re an independent contractor, you need to have a plan B. You need to save [money]—it’s so important. I’ve never saved my whole life and now I’ve learned how important it is to save.”

Time zones

The other thing to be ever aware of is time zone differences that could have you working odd hours to meet deadlines. You need to factor that in when you’re thinking about where you want to spend the next few months or longer.

But that’s the trade-off of choosing freedom over structure in your work.

Visa requirements

When it comes to visa requirements, digital nomads have a few challenges. A visa requires an income or a job in many countries. Some countries also require you to have a certain amount of money in your bank account to obtain a digital nomad visa.

The visa requirements in some countries can be very strict and vary by country. Always research the country’s visa requirements before settling in. 

Good internet connection 

Digital nomads need to stay connected while on the move. Finding places with fast and reliable internet access is important to reduce data charges and work comfortably. Internet speeds vary by country, making it hard to stream video or work. 

How to become a digital nomad

1. Have a solid plan for making money

According to Martina, what you need to ask yourself isn’t, “How do I become a digital nomad,” but rather, “What am I good at? What do I like to do? What do people need? And can I do this and take it online so I can fund my lifestyle?”

There are no specific skills that you need to be a digital nomad. You just need to be good at what you do and be able to sell your services or product, or whatever it is, entirely online.

In order to make the transition to a digital nomad lifestyle, you need three things:

  1. An income stream (or a couple of them) that you can maintain 100% remotely.
  2. A laptop and a good internet connection wherever you plan to work.
  3. A solid grasp of personal finance and cash-flow management to live within your means.

She says she didn't plan on becoming a “digital nomad.” But she studied translation and turned it into a freelance business that she could operate completely online—work she loves to do in a new setting every once in a while. 

On the side, she also runs an ecommerce store called Freelancer At Work, which sells laptop decals that let other remote professionals show-off what they do.

2. Be comfortable living with less stuff

Nomads often move around to different places, so they need to live with less stuff. You can’t take all your belongings with you everywhere you go. For example, you may have to live without a lot of clothes or a big TV. 

You’ll also want to cut unnecessary expenses like gym memberships, subscriptions, and high interest debt. Getting rid of these expenses will let you enjoy life (and work) on the road. 

3. Get travel health insurance

Travel health insurance is essential for digital nomads. For starters, if you’re traveling to a new country, you may experience travel-related illnesses like food poisoning or malaria. You can also get injured if you’re out hiking or exploring, for which you’ll need a doctor. 

A few ways to get travel insurance include:

  • Buying coverage through a travel insurance company like GeoBlue
  • Getting a policy through your employer
  • Getting insurance through your government, if your country offers coverage

4. Get travel-friendly debit and credit cards

US debit and credit cards often charge a fee if used abroad. They may also charge you for taking money out of an ATM. Contact your bank and ask for an international credit card and a debit card that reimburses you for ATM fees. You can save money and create more accurate budgets with the right cards. 

5. Unlock your phone

If you’re moving around from country to country, use an unlocked phone. You can use an unlocked phone with any GSM carrier, which is what most international carriers use. You can buy a SIM card from a local carrier when you land in a new country and use it in your unlocked phone. This can save you a lot of money on international roaming charges. 

The best digital nomad jobs

The only prerequisite to embracing a nomadic lifestyle is whether you can work 100% remotely from your laptop and phone to fund your adventures.

It turns out there are a lot more jobs that fit the bill than you might expect.

Many Shopify Experts also work remotely with merchants as developers, designers, and marketers to help them build their stores and grow their business. 

Ecommerce entrepreneur

Ecommerce entrepreneurs can often free themselves to work as they travel by finding a way to hand off the one aspect of running an online store that could keep a business grounded: shipping and fulfillment.

Some overcome the hurdle by using dropshipping. Some (like Martina) are able to find a supplier they can trust to ship orders to customers. Others get creative with digital products that don’t require any physical inventory to manage.

With a solution in place, they’re able to run the rest of their business, from marketing to customer support, while on the road, outsourcing to free up their time as they grow.

Check out this episode of Shopify Masters to find out how Chris Cage, owner of Greenbelly Meals, uses his ecommerce business to fund his travels.

Writer, editor, translator

Almost any job that deals with words can be done remotely. Whether it’s content creation, book editing, interviewing someone for a story, or writing website copy, you can execute for a client without being in the same room as them.

Either you can find an employer that embraces remote work, or you can create your own business and brand as an independent freelancer or agency.

Web developer or graphic designer

Developers and designers are some of the most common remote positions you’ll find when you look at any job board. You can even create your own products and turn them into a source of income as well. 

Marketer

Nearly all the tools a marketer needs are accessible from their laptop. And since most digital marketing is measurable, it’s easy for clients and employers to keep marketers accountable, even when they're working from the other side of the world.

Customer support

Customer support jobs were among the first to go remote, since they work entirely over the phone, email, or chat anyway.

Support is also an ideal position for remote work because companies need teams around the globe to offer 24/7 support.

Plus some jobs you wouldn’t expect

The above are the usual suspects for remote work. But more and more, professions are embracing technology to interact with customers and clients without needing to be in the same room. 

Here are some examples:

  • Virtual assistant 
  • Fitness coach
  • Psychologist 
  • Accountant
  • Recruiting & HR professional
  • Project manager 
  • Teacher/Tutor
  • Marketer
  • App developer
  • Social media manager

There are many remote jobs available for digital nomads, no matter what foreign country you’re in. Job boards like We Work Remotely and Remote.co are good places to start looking for new jobs from startups and big companies. 

The best places to work as a digital nomad

Naturally, some countries will be more suited to your lifestyle and income as a digital nomad than others.

According to Nomad List, an online community and database of cities for digital nomads, the top five cities overall for remote work, based on feedback from users, include:

  1. Lisbon, Portugal
  2. Canggu, Bali
  3. Madeira, Portugal
  4. Mexico City, Mexico
  5. Bangkok, Thailand

But the world is a much bigger place than that, and every city has its own nuances beyond the obvious cost of living.

Nomad List also crowdsources feedback from its network of digital nomads who review cities based on an exhaustive list of considerations you might not think about—such as cultural differences around freedom of speech, how friendly locals are to foreigners, or whether you’ll have access to ride-sharing services. It’ll even show you the cost of a cup of coffee and the best co-working space.

The above is a breakdown of Lisbon’s Nomad Score.

Check out Nomad List if you’re thinking about working abroad. It’s a valuable resource for traveling remote workers and business owners to know what they’re getting into before deciding on a new destination to work from.

Tips for living as a digital nomad

Assuming you have the basics down (updated passport, unlocked phone, international SIM card, fast internet, good work-life balance, etc.), here are a few more tips for living in different countries:

1. Design a life that works for you

“My best tip for any digital nomad is to recognize there’s no one way to do things. This lifestyle is one by design, and what works for others may not work for you. For example, carry as little or as much luggage as you feel comfortable with. 

“Stay in places for as little or as long as you need to feel secure and productive in your work. You don’t need to live in co-living spaces if you’re introverted, that kind of thing. 

“The way I have traveled and worked online has changed dramatically over the years based on my own needs, never how someone says digital nomads should live. Do you, and fearlessly find systems that work for you!”

Hannah Dixon, Founder at Digital Nomad Kit

2. Stay productive on the road by using the Deep Work strategy

“While traveling, you’re surrounded by temptation—there’s always something new to see or do instead of working. I like to implement the Deep Work strategy for maximum productivity, which means getting lots done while having more time for exploring.

“Deep Work involves setting aside a block of time each day for ultra-focused work, anywhere from to to four hours. During this time you’ll set very clear goals around what needs to be accomplished and ruthlessly remove all distractions. This means no phone, no notifications, and no emails. Just monk-like focus on the task at hand. Deep work.

“This can take a little time to master, but after a while you’ll likely be able to produce more in two to four hours than most people do in a regular 9-to-5. I find that, while nomadic, there is extra motivation to get things done using this strategy because there are so many cool things to see and do after work.”

Ryan Turner, founder of Ecommerce Intelligence

3. Get to know the local culture

“Get to know the area, and get to know the locals. Spending more time in different locations gives you the opportunity to make connections and combats loneliness. You get to learn about and experience the culture and have much more meaningful experiences. 

“As someone who has quit my career in restaurant management, sold everything I owned, and moved away from my hometown to pursue a digital nomad career as a full-time traveler, this is my favorite tip for those looking to live this lifestyle.”

Courtney Newton, Disorderly Drifters

4. Check for WiFi

“Always check the WiFi for where you’ll be working. Whether that’s at a coffee shop or remote hostel, do some research on the WiFi in that area to ensure that you can get work done. 

“There’s nothing worse than planning to work somewhere and then getting there and not even being able to open up a web browser!” 

Kassidy Olson, The Hiking Helper

5. Get involved in local coworking spaces

“Coworking spaces are essentially digital nomad hotspots, where remote workers from all industries come together to collaborate, network, and get work done. Getting involved in the local digital nomad community is the easiest way to meet other digital nomads, build connections, and improve overall productivity in a new destination. 

“Plus, many of the local coworking spaces organize events and workshops that allow you to get involved in the community and learn new skills. And they often plan fun social events, like beach parties and yoga classes, to bring the digital nomad community together in a relaxed environment. 

“If you want to fully immerse yourself in the local digital nomad scene, coworking spaces are the place to be. “ 

Allison Sicking, Viva La Travelista

The digital nomad life: Working from your couch or another country

For many people, the appeal of the digital nomad lifestyle is the opportunity to travel and live in different parts of the world while still being able to maintain a steady income. With the right skill set and some entrepreneurial spirit, it is possible to make a good living while working from anywhere in the world.

If you love to travel, and are tired of waiting for vacation days to see the world, it might be worth looking into how you can embrace remote work to make traveling less of an escape and more of a lifestyle.


Digital nomad FAQ

What do digital nomads actually do?

Most digital nomads work remotely, either as freelance contractors or for companies that allow them to telecommute. This allows them to live and work from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection.

Is being a digital nomad legal?

Yes, there are no laws against digital nomads. Some countries you travel to may require a special visa to stay there. For example, Costa Rica offers special digital nomad visas that allow foreign nationals and their families to live and work in the country for a year.

How do digital nomads make money?

Digital nomads make money in a few different ways. Freelancers and online entrepreneurs typically find work through remote job boards or pitch directly to clients. Consultants and other professionals also work as digital nomads. Some digital nomads make money by selling online courses or ebooks.

How do I become a digital nomad?

Digital nomads have different circumstances and goals, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It's important to save up enough money to support yourself while traveling, and you’ll need to be comfortable working remotely. Living a nomadic lifestyle comes with challenges such as homesickness. But, being a digital nomad can be an exciting and rewarding experience if you're up for the challenge.