Digital Nomad Living: What is it, Why I’m Doing it and a Beginner’s Guide!

The post about digital nomad and my journey as one.

Digital Nomad Living: What is it, Why I’m Doing it and a Beginner’s Guide!

Hey guys, Charles here - coming to you from a much sunnier place than the UK! So, one of the major perks of my job at Google these past couple of years is the capacity for remote working. I can work anywhere, as long as I have my laptop and Wi-Fi. Because of this, I’ve decided to try out Digital Nomad living - First in Malta, then Lisbon, then who knows! In this post we’re going to talk about my lifestyle as a digital nomad, some advantages and challenges compared to a “normal” mode of living and working, and a takeaway at the end - giving you all the info you need to decide if this is the life for you.

1. Who is a Digital Nomad?

In the simplest terms, a digital nomad is someone who is not tied to one location for work (or living), and utilises the internet to work remotely. In the post-lockdown age this might not seem like the craziest idea, but even a few years ago this was quite a fringe group! What is crazy is that this was theorised in the 1997 book Digital Nomad by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. - who would have thought that 24 years later, a big proportion of the workforce would be living this way?

According to ech onitor, the number of people who identify as digital nomads in the US in 2020 surged by almost 4 million - from 7.3 to 10.9 million. On top of that, a further 19 million plan to adopt the lifestyle in the near future. 

I was inspired to join this growing movement, in part, by reading Tim Ferris’ ‘4 Hour Work Week’, which outlines what he calls ‘Mini-retirements’. Instead of (or in addition to) taking one big retirement at the end of your career, he suggests taking several 1 to 6 month trips, where you work remotely, make a shift in your work-life balance towards the ‘life’ element, and continue to grow (or maintain) your finances while travelling. 

Some countries have now recognised this growing trend and are offering specific visas in support of this choice. Whether they’re specifically called ‘Digital Nomad’ visas, or ‘Workcationing’ visas (or many other names), these typically short-term visas allow you to travel to, and work within a territory. Each territory has different prerequisites for application, including long-term financial security (savings of £1500+ for the prior six months), subscribing to a health insurance plan, minimum earnings (often £50k plus), and visa application fees sometimes exceeding £2000. The advantage of these visas is that remote workers often fall between visa categories, being unable to apply for traditional work visas, but are wanting to stay for longer than a tourist visa might allow. Some of these desirable locations include Bali, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados.

2. Where should you go?

The ideal destinations for these work/recreational trips have been worked out by FTN news, which uses a matrix that measures seven key factors for a successful trip. Based on that they chose the Top 20 Places for Digital Nomads.

These factors take into account the major concerns of the digital nomad. First and foremost it’s important to understand that this is not just a holiday. If you’re spending way more than you’re earning, you’re doing it wrong - The cost of living is key. 

You’re also going to be in a foreign country. You might not speak the language or know the area well - staying safe if you’re taking on this lifestyle (especially if you’re carrying expensive laptops and other equipment) is key. You can’t travel, live, let alone work effectively if you keep losing your phone, your wallet, or your passport. 

From there, the matrix looks at internet speeds, which we’ll talk about in a minute, fun things to do, and places to work - which are obviously key in maintaining the trip’s WLB.

Phuket in Thailand is the best place in the world for digital nomads with a total score of 299 out of 320. The island's low average living cost of £818 a month means digital nomads have plenty of cash spare to enjoy the 251 relaxing experiences and 750 adventurous activities in the area. Phuket also scored highly on safety with 4 out of 5.

From Thailand, flights to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Cambodia (all of which ranked in the top fifteen countries for digital nomads) are relatively cheap and quick, offering ample opportunities for people to expand their adventures to nearby countries. Those doing so would benefit from sprawling landscapes with many exciting activities to enjoy such as mountain trekking, swimming and observing exotic animals in their natural habitats.

However, according to the Nomad's List website, these are the current most popular DN destinations. Funnily enough, Portugal is up there with 3 different cities! With Lisbon being the second, which makes me feel good about my decision to go!

  1. Ko, Pha Ngan, Thailand
  2. Lisbon, Portugal
  3. Canary Islands, Spain
  4. Tenerife, Spain
  5. Porto, Portugal
  6. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  7. Madeira, Portugal
  8. Canggu, Bali
  9. Cape Town, South Africa
  10.  Berlin, Germany

Everyone chooses to travel in different ways. Whether that’s staying in hostels, Airbnb's, hotels, with friends, in a van…the possibilities are endless. Obviously, if you’re going primarily to work like me and want to stay in a place that is safe for all your gear/laptop etc. and where you can freely work from if you need to, you may opt for an Airbnb or similar. I chose an Airbnb for my Portugal trip.

Statistics according to FlexJobs:

  • 51% live in hotels
  • 41% with friends or family
  • 36% rely on Airbnb or similar
  • 21% live in a vehicle
  • 16% choose hostels

3. Advantages

So, on the advantages and disadvantages. I’ll let you know what I think of it so far, but first let’s look at the stats: what people’s experience is generally.

Firstly, it’s interesting to understand that this shift doesn’t just benefit you, but also your employer. Maybe it’s the extra energy people have, the comfort of their homes, the money saved on the commute - but 85% of business owners say their business is more productive when people work remotely. Maybe it’s worth suggesting to yours, if you haven’t already.

Secondly, while going on holiday for half your year might seem like a terrible money sink, 49% of digital nomads earn the same salary (or more) than their prior office job. If you’re doing it right, it seems that half of people can maintain their current level of financial reward, without the geographical ties. 

It’s probably linked to the types of jobs that can be done remotely, (highly skilled, managerial and non-physical labour), but 38% of American digital nomads earn over $75,000 per year while enjoying a lower cost of living. (compared to $56,310 average).

Finally, and most importantly for me (and Tim Ferris), only 30% of digital nomads report working over 40 hours per week. Work fewer hours, travel more, see beautiful places, make the same money - what could be bad about that?

4. Challenges

This sort of lifestyle may present unusual challenges. The most common I came across in my research included:

  1. Maintaining international health insurance with coverage globally. 
  2. Abiding by different local laws and sometimes obtaining work visas. 
  3. Maintaining long-distance relationships with friends and family back home. 
  4. In some cases, the digital nomad lifestyle leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication between digital nomads and their clients or employers.
  5. Time zone differences .
  6. The difficulty of finding a reliable connection to the internet
  7. Finally, the absence of delineation between work and leisure time.

Outside of some reports of loneliness, which I suppose is the negative side of having so much independence, 52% of digital nomads report finding reliable wifi as the top challenge of the nomadic lifestyle. If your main concern in life is that you’re only getting 3 bars of signal, you’re probably doing okay! In all seriousness though, this can be a major hurdle to presenting a professional and timely service/product, so doing plenty of research on the infrastructure and facilities where you’ll be staying is a must.

5. The takeaway

Am I going to stick with it? We will see… maybe as this generation of tech industry graduates moves towards their 30’s and 40’s and start families, the need to settle down will be greater. It’s probably not so feasible dragging your boyfriend to a new beach each week so you can sit on your laptop! 

In any case, I’m loving the adventures and new locations after 2+ years of Covid lockdowns and if you haven’t tried it yet, this lifestyle might be more achievable than you think.

Thanks for reading, friends!

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