By Lauren Haas
In May of 2013, I sold all my worldly goods and became a digital nomad. That means everything I own fits in a backpack, and I live all over the world. The question I’m asked most often is how to become a digital nomad, so I’m gathering all the details in this one spot.
I’m writing this from a guesthouse on Langkawi Island in Malaysia. I’m surrounded by palm trees and can hear the call to prayer in the distance. When my work is done, I’ll probably walk to the beach. I’m pretty happy here.
How to become a digital nomad
It’s so much easier than it sounds, as major life changes go. The hard part is breaking free; once you’re on the road (or plane), things become pretty simple. I was a nervous wreck in the early days. I assumed life on the road would be hard. I told myself I would solve problems as they arose, and if it was awful I would go home with my tail between my legs and tell everyone “just kidding.” But there were no problems, and it never got hard. Sometimes it’s lonely, but it’s never awful.
What’s the first step?
Travel a lot. Build your skills at finding airfares, booking lodging, figuring out local transportation, and managing language barriers. Totally new to travel, or never gone solo? Start with a road trip by yourself to a neighboring town and work your way up from there.
Eventually, you’ll figure out that going from place to place is cheap; it’s going home you can’t afford.
How do you build a location-independent income?
For most people, this is the trickiest part. Everyone’s career path is different, so it’s impossible to give specific advice, but I can cover some generalities and give you some resources.
If you’re already retired, self-employed, or telecommuting, you are way ahead of the game. If not, don’t be in a hurry. Keep in mind that changing careers, or building a business, takes time. It’s a process usually measured in years, not months. If you’re trying to think of something you can start doing on Monday to earn a living from abroad, you need to step back. “What remote career can you develop over the next few years” is a better question. If you have a home you can rent out, or you have income from a pension or investments, you’ll be able to build your income on the road; otherwise, you need to allow time to build your income before you leave.
Think about the skills you already have and those you can learn. There are sites like flexjobs.com that offer remote work at brick-and-mortar companies, but be careful. The world of remote work is full of scams. If it sounds too good to be true, or if they’re selling you on the job instead of making you sell yourself to them, walk away.
Most of the digital nomads I know are self-employed, as writers, graphic artists, web designers, etc. and most built their businesses before they left home. There’s a lot of talk about making a living from travel blogging, but I only know of a few people who are successful enough to earn a living at it. Most are making pocket change only. If you’re determined to build a travel blogging business, though, I went through a program called Travel Blog Success. (now known as Superstar Blogging from Nomadic Matt). It costs less than some weekend skill seminars and taught me a lot of the skills I use to create this site as well as my personal blog. The course covers how to build your site on WordPress, how to promote it via social media, how to write posts that people will want to read, SEO (search engine optimization), and more.
Teaching English online is a very popular career for nomads. If you have a college degree, there are lots of services that will pay, on average, $20 an hour for online teachers. Without a degree, the pay is generally about half that. Some teachers who have great business skills build very successful businesses teaching online.
I earned my living for the first few years as a content creator and freelance writer. Content creation doesn’t require a lot of creativity as a writer — in fact, it’s almost exactly like being in school. You’re given assignments, you do the research and write it up, and when you hand it in you get money instead of grades. If you liked school, you can do it. Here’s a quick rundown on exactly how you can start building this career in your spare time.
I don’t mean to gloss over the difficulty of this step, but it’s no different or scarier than any other career change. You just have another criterion for choosing the career; it must be possible to do remotely. On the positive side, you probably don’t need to make as much money as you think. I find life on the road much cheaper than life in the States. Once I rented out my house, I found I only need a small income to keep me going. My living expenses in Asia were about $1370/month.
What about your home?
Some digital nomads rent out their house or condo. Besides the income, this gives you the advantage of keeping a legal address in your state for things like banking, buying health insurance, etc. Keep in mind you’ll have to pay landlord insurance, which is higher than your homeowner rate, and you could have unexpected expenses back home if a problem arises. Others sell their home and invest the proceeds to provide a little income.
What about your stuff?
I sold mine. Everything except a handful of art and family heirlooms, which a friend keeps for me. For me, getting rid of my belongings was a welcome identity reset. But some nomads rent a storage unit back home for their furnishings and belongings, and others rent a basement or spare room from family or friends.
What about taxes?
I’m not a tax advisor. I do my own taxes, and so far I haven’t gotten in trouble. My assumptions are:
- I am still a US citizen and, technically, a US resident who maintains an address there
- All my income is from US sources
- I don’t stay in any one country long enough to establish residency there; I am just a tourist
So, I file taxes exactly as I always did in the US. If your income is from foreign sources or you officially become a resident of a different country, you will need a tax advisor.
What about health insurance?
There are two parts to this: Regular health insurance and travel insurance.
Regular health insurance: If I developed something very serious (say cancer) my travel insurance would pay to stabilize me and ship me home; I would still need coverage once I got there. I don’t need a “gold” policy that offers low co-pays and such, though, I only need catastrophic care. I found a policy on the exchange at Healthcare.gov. Another option is Cigna Global, which will cover you around the world and also for up to three months in the U.S.
Travel insurance: I talk a lot about World Nomads on this site. I think they’re a wonderful company — started by fellow travelers who know how to meet our needs.
For about $50/month, I am not only covered in case of accident or illness, but my gear is also covered (up to $500/item), as well as things like lost luggage and trip cancellation. If something happens, World Nomads will hook me up directly with an English-speaking doc and pay for my care. They’ll also refund me for any missed flights, etc. and they will help me get home in a crisis as well. Tip: For some crazy reason, it is way cheaper to buy this insurance four-six months at a time rather than buying a whole year.
How do you bank?
I have my checking account and credit cards with Capital One because they don’t charge foreign transaction fees. (Charles Schwab is also popular with travelers for this reason). I also have a Paypal account and a Paypal debit card. My income flows in through the Paypal account or by direct deposit as US dollars. I withdraw local currency at ATMs and use my credit card (which earns me cashback bonuses) to pay all my bills, including Airbnb, insurance premiums, plane tickets, etc..
I lost my debit card in Indonesia, so I’m using my Paypal debit card for cash withdrawals until a friend who’s coming to visit can bring me a new one. I dislike that Paypal charges foreign transaction fees, but it makes a sweet backup, and it’s very easy to transfer funds in and out.
Where does your mail go?
My mail all goes to a Texas mailing address, courtesy of my mail service at US Global. For $15 a month, they give me an address to use and e-mail me a scan of all envelopes that arrive. I can direct them to throw the mail away, open it and scan it for me (extra charge) or forward it to someone to handle (extra charge). Mostly I let things build up there and then have it all sent in one batch to someone who’s coming to visit. Once a check came and I was able to use the scan from my mailing service to make a deposit to my bank. So cool!
How do you research a country?
I always check the Travel.state.gov page about a particular country and the CDC website as well. I don’t let what I read there freak me out — imagine what a web page listing the dangers of my hometown, St. Louis, would look like! — but I check carefully on visa requirements, immunizations that are absolutely required (good idea to have all your basic shots and boosters up to date before you leave home, including Hep B).
Where do you live?
Mostly I prefer Airbnb apartments. I’ve lived in a cave house in Southern Spain, an apartment high above Cuzco, a cabin in the woods in Turkey, a 6th-floor artist nest in Paris, and a village house in Indonesia. I usually love my little apartments, but sometimes a place isn’t right for me. It’s never more than a month, though, so it’s pretty easy to survive until I can move again!
When I can’t afford a whole apartment, I rent a room on Airbnb. I’ve made lifelong friends with some of my hosts. Occasionally I stay in a hostel, either for financial reasons or just to be social. I love to stay in a hostel for a few days when I first arrive in a city, it’s the quickest way to learn your way around a new place.
I like variety, so I mix things up. A city apartment for a month, country life for a month, join a tour or a trek for a week (that’s my vacation time), chill in a hostel for a few days, maybe even a hotel or a guesthouse once in a while. Occasionally I volunteer for a while in exchange for room and board through Workaway.info (opportunities are NOT vetted there, so do your research!) or join a group trip, just for variety.
Other nomads suggest arriving in a city, staying in a hostel, and finding an apartment locally. They say there are better deals to be found that way, and I believe them. I’m happy with the prices I’m paying on Airbnb so far, though, and I like the security of knowing where I’m going to live for a few months in advance. I also love anticipation, and sometimes I look at the photos of where I’m going next and it makes me so happy.
How do you get around?
I listed my five favorite travel apps in another article and then realized several of them are all about getting around. Google Maps is my best friend (read some tips for using its hidden features here). I love to walk or take the subway. Sometimes I’ll just get on a subway and get off when lots of other people do, to see where everyone goes.
Getting from one city to another, my favorite tool is Rome2Rio. Put in any two cities (or even specific addresses) and it will instantly compare all your options; buses, ferries, trains, planes, carshares, taxicabs. It’s brilliant.
What about phone service?
I use Google Fi, and I love it! It works seamlessly in more than a hundred countries, and my bills average about $40/month. I use it when I’m in the States too, I think it’s a better deal than most people are getting. The base price is $20 for calls & texts, plus about $5-6 for taxes and such, and then I pay $10/GB for the data I use, which is rarely more than 2GB. Sign up and they’ll send you a SIM card for free — you can even get a second, data-only card for your tablet or backup phone!
Isn’t it exhausting?
No, not really. I don’t try to Do All The Things like a tourist would. I just move to a new location and live my life as I would at home — if I were a total social pariah and had no friends. I get up, do yoga, make coffee, check my e-mail and then work all day. Except that at lunchtime, I step out my front door and I’m in Florence, or Peru, or Morocco. In the afternoons, I may work in a shisha bar or a sidewalk cafe.
So I might live in a place for a month but only do as much sightseeing as a tourist who spent four days in that location. That’s plenty for me!
I shop in open markets instead of supermarkets. I cook a lot (love to try local recipes and ingredients) or go out for dinner by myself with a good book. In the evenings, I hang out on Facebook or read or watch a movie. On weekends, I try to enjoy the place I am. I go to the beach, or take a tour, or make a side trip, or go hiking in the mountains. It’s both richer and simpler than most people imagine.
Don’t you get lonely?
Yes. For me, traveling alone is like being in a Buddhist meditation retreat. Sometimes I don’t talk to anyone for months on end; Facebook and my journal are my only company. At first, I had days when I was depressed and just wanted to go home. But I always felt like I wanted to see one more place first, so I kept going. Eventually, I learned to enjoy my own company. It helped to remember that I was sometimes lonely at home, too. Life isn’t perfect, no matter where you go.
I’ve learned to anticipate the loneliness and try to build opportunities to be social into my routine. Once in a while, someone from home joins me for a nice long visit. Other times, I go to a hostel (even if I’m renting an apartment, I can take a weekend side trip someplace cool) or I sign up for a local cooking class, wine tour, or other activity so I can have some fun and spend the day with other tourists. I use Viator for that; I think I pay about 20% more than booking locally, but it’s worth it to read the reviews and to know the tour will be in English and has been vetted by the company. I’ve also used sites that hook you up with locals, like Vayable and Withlocals.
What if you have a partner?
Well, I did for a while, so I know what that’s like. It could be a strain on your relationship. Even if you both work from home now, and you’re used to being in the same space 24/7, you’ll find travel intensifies that experience. Sometimes “home” is a single room. Neither of you will have friends to hang out with separately. It comes down to having great communication skills and both wanting the digital nomad lifestyle equally.
You also need a willingness to create space for yourselves. If you jog or walk for fitness, do that separately and at different times of day so you each have the house to yourselves sometimes. Take weekend side trips separately. Take turns going home for visits. Take separate rooms in the same hostel, or stay in places on the same street, and ‘date’ for a few weeks. In short, give yourselves a chance to miss and appreciate each other, and something to talk about when you come back together. “How was your day” over the dinner table gets old fast when you were in the same room all day.
Is the language barrier a problem?
Not really. I learn a few words and phrases and then mime the rest. I study new words each day for the things I need to buy or get done. In some places, English is common, in other places I become the world’s greatest charades player. Lots of smiling and pointing and appreciation tends to get the job done, and you can function without grammar syntax, just pointing and using nouns and smiling and saying “thank you” a lot. Of course, if you enjoy learning languages, that’s fun too!
My former partner got frustrated by languages and often complained that he lacked my ability to learn words. I have to say, though, that I was the only one of us spending time with flashcards each day. If you’re willing to do the work, focus on a couple of words at a time and practice them multiple times a day, I promise it’s not hard to learn the 20 or so phrases you need to communicate. You can read my approach to managing languages here.
How do you fit everything you need in a backpack?
It wasn’t easy. Right before I left home, I did a ‘test pack’ of the few items I planned to bring, discovered there was no way it would fit, and had a meltdown. Then I went to REI and spent $750 on a whole new wardrobe of packable, lightweight, no-wrinkle, stain-resistant, odor-resistant clothing. I wouldn’t have had to spend so much if I’d thought things through and shopped online, but I’m not sorry I did it. These clothes are magic and make my life so easy. Over the past two years, I’ve refined my collection and I’m really happy with what I’m carrying now. There’s a complete rundown of pretty much every single thing in my pack on this page.
The couple who run the Never Ending Voyage blog manages everything in a single carryon sized bag each. They are my heroes. Maybe someday!
Any other advice?
Be sure to sign up for the e-mail list so I can let you know when I publish more advice on cheap travel and nomadic life. You should see a spot to sign up at the top of your screen, or maybe the side if you’re on a mobile device.
Any other questions?
Did I miss anything you’d like to ask about how to be a digital nomad? Drop a comment below and I’ll get it answered for you!
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