The Ultimate Digital Nomad Handbook
More people than ever before are packing their bags and leaving their desks behind to become digital nomads. In fact, a 2018 study by research firm MBO Partners revealed that 4.8 million US citizens identified as digital nomads.
Moreover, Buffer's State of Remote Work 2019 report reveals that most remote workers have travelled and worked at the same time. 44% of telecommuters travel while working between one week and one month every year, and 25% combine work with travel more than one month of the year.
So what's inspiring people to ditch the 9 to 5 in favour of digital nomadism? Increased connectivity
Advancements in technology have made it possible for people to work remotely almost anywhere in the world. Wireless connectivity is becoming more widespread, cloud solutions enable remote collaboration and portable devices make working on the move easy.
Many startup brands and established enterprises are hiring remote workers as opposed to on-site employees in an effort to reduce overheads and remain profitable. Remote working is also proving popular with those seeking a better work life balance.
The "co" concept
This definitive guide to being a digital nomad is designed for anyone who is thinking of making the lifestyle switch, or who wants to find out about this new way of working and living. It covers definitions, tips and advice, lists of what to pack and much, much more.
What is a digital nomad?
Digital nomads combine remote working with travel. They spend at least part of the year working in different countries from coffee shops, hotels, public spaces and coworking spaces. The "digital" in digital nomad refers to the devices (i.e. laptops and smartphones) they use to accomplish their work.
Nomadic employment is no longer the reserve of coders and copywriters. Over the past few years it's become a popular work style for individuals across a range of industries and at different stages in their careers.
There's quite a lot of research out there around digital nomad demographics, but a lot of it is conflicting. According to one source, 70% of digital nomads are women , yet another research paper finds that 31% are female . Instead of getting hung up on the stats, let's take a look at three of the traits digital nomads have in common.
Every successful digital nomad is able to self-motivate. How else are they going to get work done when they're surrounded by so many interesting distractions - or a beach to laze on!
But the idea that digital nomads have fun most of the time and fit in work when they can is a bit of a myth. Yes, it's easier to take more time off if you live somewhere inexpensive, but the majority of digital nomads have to work just as hard as the rest of us.
Responsiveness is one of the keys to retaining clients as a digital nomad. In an office it's easy to pop over to someone's desk to ask a question, but digital nomads rely on tools like Skype, Slack and Monday to keep them in the loop.
It's all about establishing trust by getting back to people quickly, which is why having a reliable internet connection is so important.
Digital nomads are open to new ideas and experiences: that's one of the things that motivates them to move from place to place. They're able to assimilate different customs and cultures and keep an open mind when confronted with something out of the ordinary.
Digital nomads also need to be friendly and able to handle difficult situations calmly - after all, travelling can be incredibly stressful at times despite all the fun moments.
The difference between a digital nomad and a typical freelancer comes down to lifestyle. The former spend at least part of the year abroad and earn their money digitally. They live in hotels, B&Bs, temporary apartment lets and co-living spaces, getting a taste for the culture and customs of a place before moving on to the next place.
Freelancers, on the other hand, don't necessarily feel the need to travel; they usually work in one location, such as a town or city and might occasionally decide to take their work with them when they go on holiday.
This doesn't mean they work from just one location. For instance, a freelancer may decide to work from home three days a week and a coworking space the remaining two.
Pros of being a digital nomad
Sometimes being a digital nomad is like living the dream, but other times it can be the opposite. Yes, there's the freedom and the flexibility - the amazing sights and fascinating places. But then there's the loneliness, the uncertainty and the daily grind.
Here are some of the positives and negatives all budding nomads should keep in mind:
You'll see the worldBeing able to fund your worldwide travels while working on the road is a great achievement. Without the financial ties of home and money coming in, you can go where your budget takes you, from the scorching beaches of Thailand to the breathtaking glaciers of Iceland.
You'll be able to do the things you love
Let's face it, most of us work to live, not the other way round. Being your own boss means you can free up more time to enjoy the things you love, whether it's scuba diving, mountain climbing or something completely unadventurous and indoorsy.
If you finish your work early in an office-based job you usually have to stay until 5pm or when the working day officially finishes. As your own boss, you can operate more flexibility at times that suit you.
You'll make global connections
You'll inevitably end up forging friendships with people from all over the world. This means you'll always have someone to reach out to and potentially stay with when you return, and your life will feel richer for it because it'll open your eyes to different cultures.
You'll become very independent
If you're already a freelancer or run your own small business you're probably already independent - you have to be in order to manage your finances and make the whole thing work. But being a digital nomad will make you even more self-sufficient because you'll have to overcome challenges - emotional, physical and logistical - on your own. That said, it's also important to ask for help when you need it and maintain contact with people from home.
You'll have a more profound sense of self
A recent study by Rice University together with Columbia University and the University of North Carolina revealed that those who live abroad for long periods have increased "self-concept clarity".
In other words their interactions with different kinds of people prompts them to self-reflectand as a result they are more open minded and able understand other people and themselves better.
The study also shows that people who travel have greater life satisfaction, lower levels of stress, improved job performance and a better understanding about the types of careers that match their strengths and values.
You could save money
You'll probably be tempted to spend everything you earn on traveling, and we wouldn't blame you! But depending on how much you earn and where you are, it's also possible to save money that you can put aside as a safety net or invest in something else.
According to a Worldpackers blog , the cheapest places to live as a digital nomad include Ko Lanta in Thailand, Ubud in Indonesia, Da Lat in Vietnam, Belgrade in Serbia, Tbilisi in Georgia and Medellin in Colombia.
Cons of being a digital nomad:
Flexjobs surveyed over 500 digital nomads about key topics related to their digital nomad career, lifestyle, and work style in 2018, and their findings make for an interesting read.
They found that the top challenges facing digital nomads were the ability to find reliable Wi-Fi (52%); finding a good place to work (42%); networking (35%); time zones (29%); work communications (20%).
Here are some of the other potential drawbacks:
It can be lonely at times
If you're liable to get homesick you probably wouldn't consider becoming a digital nomad in the first place. But even if you don't, you might still experience periods of loneliness. The following tips can help keep feelings of isolation at bay:
- Establish a routine
- Tap into travel communities
- Join a coworking space
In his article on how to never be lonely as a digital nomad , Andrew Henderson explores his favourite antidote to loneliness: establishing a base. He explains:
"By using my trifecta method, you would set up two or three strategically located bases, say in Asia, Europe, and the Americas...You can then divvy up your time in each place accordingly, but have enough time in each location to create long term friendships."
There's no guaranteed work
As with any remote work lifestyle, there will be lucrative times and not-so-fruitful times when it comes to work. This is something you have to accept and be able to deal with which is why it helps to have a financial safety net in place. Being responsive and always sticking to deadlines will help you to retain clients and attract new ones through word of mouth recommendations.
You don't receive employment benefits
There's no such thing as sick or holiday pay when you're a digital nomad working for yourself, but you probably already know that. Again, it helps to set some money aside for if you fall sick. Always make sure you have the relevant insurance to cover you if you need medical intervention while you're away.
People might not understand it
Although more people are doing it nowadays, the nomadic lifestyle is still quite unconventional. Hopefully the majority of your family and friends will be supportive - but there will always be a select few who just don't get it.
Unless you've got a bottomless pot of gold, figuring out a budget and sticking to it is fundamental for all digital nomads. As well as the initial costs, you'll have to factor in your monthly expenses, including travel, accomodation and food.
Set up costs
It's a "lean" lifestyle - you travel light, and shouldn't have to pay a lot of money in advance.
But you will need to invest in the following things.
Quality portable devices are a must-have for any digital nomad. Get yourself a lightweight. reliable laptop that will enable you to work remotely with ease. It should also have a good battery life, be durable and meet your needs in terms of storage power and graphics. Check out remoters' laptop recommendations.
Ideally, everything you take with you should fit nicely into a rucksack. The type of bag you choose will depend on how long you'll be travelling for, your budget, your physicality and just how minimalistic you're prepared to be.
It's very important that the backpack you choose fits your body perfectly and is comfortable to wear. It might feel a little heavy at first but you'll be carrying it around with ease in no time!
Monthly expenses to factor into your budget include:
When it comes to insurance, it's definitely worth investing some time in finding the right policy for you. You'll need to consider emergency medical treatment, lost or stolen items, cancelled flights, adventure activities, etc. If you'll be travelling to different countries, you'll require a policy that covers you in all of them.
You might also want to think about international health insurance plans for digital nomads.
Souvenirs, museums, cinemas, staycations, adventure tours - they all add up! Fortunately, well trodden nomad cities like San Francisco usually have lots of free things to do for those times when you just need to be frugal.
From social media scheduling tools to your phone contract, you'll need to factor these into your monthly spending.
Keep travel expenses to a minimum by using platforms like Skyscanner and KAYAK to search for the cheapest flights.
Accommodation is likely to be your largest monthly expense.
"My biggest expense, both in the states and abroad, is housing. When I was traveling solo, I spent about $1,000 per month. Now that I'm splitting rent, we can afford to stay in nicer spaces and still keep our individual spending lower."
- Gigi Griffis , Writer & Digital Nomad
Can I afford it?
Can you foresee yourself earning enough to be able to support your new lifestyle? As well as establishing a reliable customer or client base before you set off there are other things you can do to save money.
First off, get rid of any necessary expenses and clear any outstanding debt. If you've got a mortgage, consider renting out your accommodation to tenants while you're away (and get someone else to manage it for you).
How will I balance work and travel?
The key is to work faster, not harder. To enjoy the experience you need to learn how to get things done in less time. This is easier said than done but the following tips will help:
- When deciding where to travel to, think about where your clients are based. For instance, if you're based in New Zealand but most of your clients are in the UK, be prepared to do conference calls at unsociable hours.
- Create a schedule that helps you stick to your ideal working hours. Without structure, your work could end up eating into the time you should be spending exploring.
- Consider reworking your schedule so that you can explore at "off peak" times. For instance, you can take the morning off to get to know the city and resume work in the afternoon. It might actually be more convenient for your clients that way anyway.
Digital nomad jobs & skills for people who want to travel the world
If you want to work remotely as a digital nomad, there are a few ways you can go about doing it. Firstly, if your job relies solely on you being online, you could ask your employer if you can work remotely. Failing that, you can either search for remote employment or go down the self-employed route. Some of the most common digital nomad jobs include:
- Website developer
- Mobile app developer
- Social media marketer
- Content marketer
- SEO specialist
- Graphic designer
- Virtual assistant
- Copywriter / blogger
- Digital entrepreneur
- Online tutor
- Video content creator
When it comes to securing a remote position, you can approach companies directly with your CV, enquire through your connections or search job portals. Here are a few of the most popular job portals for digital nomads seeking remote positions...
- We Work Remotely (probably the largest remote work job site out there)
It's the wide range of tech tools, platforms and services out there today that enable people from all over the world to embrace the digital nomadic lifestyle. Without them, working on the go just wouldn't be viable as it'd be impossible to compete with settled freelancers.
Some of the most popular apps include:
A collaborative work management platform that unites in-house and remote teams; it enables users to share files, feedback and ideas and provide real time progress updates
A collaboration tool for teams who can use it to start a project, review contracts, measure A/B tests, plan events and a whole lot more.
The platform allows you to chat over video, text and have video and text chats with up to ten people at the same time free of charge (those in the US or Canada enjoy free VoIP calls).
A super useful website for meeting people on the move - you can use it to sign up for events, lectures, hiking groups, gaming gatherings, photography workshops - the works!
A platform that allows managers to coordinate and manage their teams' tasks, organising everything from company goals to individual project deadlines.
A widely used telecommunications app that facilitates video calls between a range of devices - you can also use it to send instant messages and share files.
A cloud storage solution that allows you a secure backup for your files, photos, videos and more, which you can open and edit from any device on the move.
Nomad Stack lists many of the communities, forums, networks and other resources for digital nomads in one place and has lots of useful content around digital nomadism.
A virtual office membership provides people who run their business on the move with a permanent business address, telephone number and a mail scanning and forwarding service - among other things.
It can be hugely beneficial for those who want to pursue the self-employed route as it allows them to establish a presence in a prestigious location, build credibility and preserve their privacy by avoiding the need to register and display their home address as their business address. You can read what virtual offices are and how they benefit all entrepreneurs in our definitive guide to virtual offices.
Coworking spaces are a digital nomad's dream.
Typically, a coworking space consists of open plan shared office space, break out zones built for socialising and relaxing as well as all the necessary amenities a freelancer or small business needs, from meeting rooms to coffee bars.
Flexible membership plans, including part time, monthly rolling and day passes, make them well suited to digital nomads who don't need a permanent office.
Co-living is an ancient concept that's been embraced by Millennials who prioritise collaboration, openness and sharing over financial assets, which for many are unaffordable.
Co-living spaces are large apartment buildings let by multiple tenants who have their own room or share with others. Amenities and lounge / kitchen areas are shared with other tenants. You can rent on a flexible month-to-month basis and it can be a great way to make new connections.
Coliving tenancies vary in price but it can be cheaper than renting a hotel for a longer period of time. You'll have to be willing to share and happy to relinquish some privacy though - if not, coliving probably isn't for you.
Hiring a live receptionist could be just what you need if you're a nomadic solopreneur who has to juggle lots of responsibilities.
Essentially, these remote receptionists do much of the same work in-house receptionists do, such as answering calls, managing your schedule and other administrative tasks. You might also see them referred to as virtual receptionists and virtual assistants.
When it comes to call answering services, you usually only pay for the hours you need.
Nomadlist is an incredibly useful resource for would-be nomads in general, but particularly when it comes to researching potential locations. The company's algorithm collects over one million data points on 2,500+ global cities every second, from the cost of living and the internet speed to how "fun" and "safe" and "walkable" it is. There's even a jobs board!
Using a tool like this will help you make an informed decision. You can also use it to find and book a co-living space, extended hotel stay or temporary apartment. Cities are always changing, but here are the top five US locations for digital nomads at the time of writing, according to Nomadlist:
1. Battle Creek, MICHIGAN
Battle Creek is described as being an affordable place to live in ($1,747/month), safe, easy to do business in and well-connected internet-wise. The average price of a coworking membership is just $133/month.
Drawbacks? Apparently there's not a whole lot to do and it's not currently a nomad hotspot (which could be a good thing, depending on which way you look at it).
2. Laredo, TEXAS
As cities go, Laredo in Texas is pretty safe. It also benefits from being warm all year round and with the air quality described as "good", is relatively unpolluted.
It costs around $2,588/month to live in (at the time of writing) and a coworking membership comes in at approximately $220 a month. The drawbacks stated are the same as Battle Creek's.
3. Brownsville, TEXAS
Next on the list is Brownsville in Cameron County, located on the western Gulf Coast in South Texas, adjacent to the border with Matamoros, Mexico. The average living cost is $2,259/month and a coworking membership for the month will set you back around $220 a month. A coffee currently comes in at around $3.06, to be exact!
4. Austin, TEXAS
Famous for both its nightlife and natural beauty, Austin comes in at number four. It's a bit more expensive - the average living cost is $3,796/month - but the internet is superfast and it's very popular with nomads who flock to the city all year round.
A coworking membership is ~$300/month.
5. Sioux Falls, SOUTH DAKOTA
According to siouxfalls.com, Sioux Falls has "a focus on community, where you can get that small-town feel, without giving up those 'big city' amenities."
Nomad List describes it as pretty safe with good internet and high happiness levels. The cost of living is $2,485 and coworking memberships are $220.
Next, let's take more of a birds eye view on where's best to live and work in the world. Again, the countries that top the lists aren't always going to be best for you. You need to define what your requirements are first and go from there.
But here are five that come highly rated on Nomadlist. (In no particular order.)
The best place to live as a digital nomad in Iceland is the capital, Reykjavik. It's got a decent average internet speed of 25 mbps, excellent air quality and a lot of places to work from.
As a tourist, you can access many of the country's places of natural beauty from the capital, including the famous Golden Circle, by coach trip or hire a car. After a hard day of mental graft, there's nothing better than taking a dip in one of Iceland's natural lagoons.
New Zealand continues to top traveller and nomad listicles as a bucket list destination. Top cities in New Zealand for digital nomads include:
The quality of life in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, is described as "great". The average internet speed is 30 mbps and a coworking membership comes in at just $55.
Prague and Brno in Czechia are well set up for digital nomads passing through. There are lots of places to work from in both cities. In terms of living costs, Prague is $1,983 and Brno is $1,733. (Prague is the capital and Brno is a city located in the South Moravian Region.)
In short, pack light, and smarter than you would for an average holiday. You'll need to be able to repack your belongings quickly when moving onto somewhere else, so don't take any unnecessary items and invest in a good rucksack or suitcase (okay, not all digital nomads are backpackers). It's by no means definitive, but here's a preliminary list of what to take:
A lightweight laptop, smartphone, hard drive, noise cancelling headphones and travel adapter and chargers.
A phone camera might be fine for some whereas others might want to invest in a good quality DSLR, or even a film camera to achieve that vintage aesthetic.
Electronic readers take up less room and are lighter than books; you can also download recommendations from others on the road.
T-shirts x 6, underwear x 6, socks x 4 and one or two of everything else, including a fleece, waterproof jacket, pair of jeans and swimwear.
A pair of comfortable walking shoes or trainers (depending on what you're planning), flip flops and more formal shoes for going out or on the occasion that you meet a client.
travel hairbrush, deodorant, travel size shampoo / shower gel, skin care, lip balm, sun cream, travel towel, first aid kit, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Water bottle, torch / headlamp, sunglasses, pens, paper, necessary documents, i.e. passport, visas, booking print outs.
Tips to help you succeed as a digital nomad
As a freelancer, there's no room for complacency. However, this doesn't mean you need to stress out about work constantly. Instead, take a proactive approach by keeping an keen eye out for new work opportunities. Check online jobs boards frequently, maintain contact with clients and keep an eye on what's going on in your industry using professional networks.
For example, if you work in the creative industries you might want to follow The Dots , a network that's all about connecting, supporting and championing creatives. You can upload your portfolio and sign up to their mailing list to receive alerts on events, etc.