To many people, being a digital nomad sounds like the ideal arrangement: working from a beachside bungalow, in a hammock with your laptop, closing the lid at 5pm sharp for an umbrella-laden fruity beverage you drink out of a coconut. With the ongoing trend towards remote working for many knowledge worker jobs, and a growing number of schemes from a variety of countries to entice people to come to work remotely, aviation journalist – and ten-year digital nomad – John Walton gives you the real-world lowdown.
In the real world, life as a digital nomad – someone who has a job that can be done anywhere, and makes the most of it by traveling as they work – is sometimes a little less idyllic, especially these days. But as someone who’s been a digital nomad off and on (mostly on) for the last decade, and still enjoys traveling for months at a time as a semi-nomad, I’ve had innumerable amazing experiences doing so. Here’s some hard-won advice if the work-from-anywhere idea has been sticking in your head and sparking ideas.
The job itself
The first question to ask yourself is what job you’re planning to do for work. Pretty obviously, “aviation journalist” is a good candidate, but a growing number of roles have either gone remote or are doing so. You may be in luck if the kind of job you want to do mostly involves being at a computer, and even more so now that many companies are looking for people to cover multiple time zones.
If you’re looking to break into a new field – like I did when I became a digital nomad – that’s fine, and I don’t advise against it, but definitely have a financial cushion of at least six months’ expenses, make sure you have a backup job option, and a full fallback to come home to.
Also think about whether you want to dip your feet into digital nomadism. If your rental contract is coming to an end, this might be the time to pop your things into someone’s garage or into storage and try out the work-from-anywhere options for a while.
Location, location, location…
Picking a destination – or destinations – is clearly one of the big questions for you. That’ll depend on a number of factors, like what kind of traveling it is that you want to do: spend your life living and working in a different great city every month? Settle down for a season in a beautiful rural village? Follow the summer sunshine?
It’s key to figure out the housing market, and whether there are reasonable options for nomads. Internet speed and availability is crucial, given that there are certain countries (Australia and Germany, looking at you here) where it can be too slow for modern digital jobs, even in major cities.
Is it a relatively safe area, whatever that means for you, especially if you identify as female, LGBTQIA+, disabled, come from a minority ethnic community, or are visibly different in some way? Are medical services adequate, and what does that mean for annual travel insurance, especially if you need a medivac? Is the weather good?
Are you legally allowed to work there? In many countries, being a digital nomad falls into a legal grey area where visas and regulations haven’t entirely caught up with the real world. In some countries, it’s illegal to do any work on the standard tourist visa, while in others a frustratingly vague amount of business is allowed. You’ll need to do research on the countries you’re considering and be sure you’re on top of the various conditions of your business or tourist visa – including any on-arrival or visa waiver programs you’re using, and whether you need to register with local authorities. If you’re eligible, working holiday visas are a great way to dip your toe into this lifestyle.
There will almost certainly be tax implications of where you work, and you’ll want to figure this out for your personal circumstances. If you already have a role in a large company, it may well be happy for you to work from “home” in countries where the business already has a presence, but you’ll probably need to plan things out carefully and make sure you have written agreement in place if you’re taking your job with you.
The most important bits to figure out
These may not be the most exciting points, but they could be the most important. You’ll want to be clear about where you’re going to hold your money, how you’ll access it, and what fees there’ll be for everything from banking to ATM withdrawals to foreign currency credit card charges. There are a growing number of money transfer services like TransferWise that reduce the cost of international transfers, and some of them have multi-currency electronic wallets where you can hold a variety of currencies with a single login.
Housing is definitely going to be a bit dynamic at the moment: with tourism cut back so drastically almost everywhere, you may be able to get a great deal on a furnished apartment that would ordinarily be a short-term let. Wherever you end up living, make sure you have a work area with good ergonomics, even if that means visiting the local Ikea and setting yourself up with an inexpensive laptop table.
Whether or not you’re providing your own IT for a digital job, you’ll want to get yourself set up with a good laptop, with a good keyboard, a good built-in camera (1080p these days) and at least one set of combination headphone-microphones. I actually use three: the cheap and cheerful AmazonBasics in-ear wireless earbuds for my computer, the Apple Lightning-cable earbuds for my phone (thanks for nothing, Apple) and a pair of AirPods that can shift between the two. You’ll also want to figure out how many time zones away you’ll be from your colleagues – sometimes this can be great, but sometimes it can be an issue.
If your budget stretches to it, I highly recommend getting yourself a tablet for reading books, watching movies or shows, and playing games – and that you don’t install email or any social networking apps on it. There’s something that’s really great about having a screen purely for enjoyment that lets you relax. Failing that, get into a routine of closing your email and socials – especially work socials – at the end of the workday.
There’s a lot of advice out there online, so do a lot of research, figure out which sources match the lifestyle you want, and good luck! I wouldn’t trade my years traveling the globe for anything.
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