The digital nomad lifestyle is alluring: the freedom to work from anywhere in the world, explore new destinations and cultures and live life on your own terms. However, it’s not all sunshine and beaches.
Before you trade in your cubicle for a backpack, there are some essential things you should know about life as a digital nomad.
Here are 15 aspects to consider that will help you make an informed choice about whether it’s something you want to pursue.
15 Things You Should Know Before Becoming a Digital Nomad
1. You Need a Backup Plan for Your Tech Gear
As a digital nomad, your technology stack is your livelihood. You need to have a laptop with sufficient memory and storage and have a backup plan like an iPad with an external keyboard in case something goes wrong. Depending on where you travel, you may be able to buy a new device or find a computer repair shop, but if you find yourself somewhere remote, you need a way to still work if the worst happens on your laptop crashes.
Before you head for a new destination, research the quality of the Internet access in the accommodation, cafes, and/or co-working spaces you plan to use. Carry a portable WiFi hotspot or an unlocked phone that you can use with a local SIM card as a hotspot if the WiFi goes down where you are. Look for options with broad coverage areas and high speeds. This will ensure you can still work productively even in locations with unreliable WiFi connections.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is essential for maintaining the privacy and security of your devices and data. It will also allow you to access geo-restricted content from anywhere.
READ MORE: 14 Best VPN Apps Compared for 2023
If you have frequent meetings or teach online, you may need a good set of noise-canceling headphones with a built-in mic and an external camera for video calls.
It should go without saying that you should back up all your work to cloud storage services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or Dropbox to avoid losing anything if your devices are lost, stolen, or broken down. This also makes it easier to share files and collaborate with colleagues and clients from anywhere.
2. Slow Travel Can Save Money and Help Prevent Travel Burnout
While the digital nomad life for some conjures up images of travelers moving constantly from place to place, it can quickly lead to burnout. Slow travel – spending longer in one area before moving on to the next – is more sustainable over the long term. One of the draws of the lifestyle is the opportunity to experience living in different places and the local culture.
Slow travel allows you to get to know an area better and make connections in a way that you might miss out on if you stay only a short time.
Staying in one place for months also has the advantage of reducing travel costs over the long run, as you can typically get cheaper accommodation if you rent for longer than a month.
Slow travel also contributes to more sustainable living. Air travel accounts for up to 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and increases digital nomads’ carbon footprint. By flying less often, becoming more eco-conscious, living in sustainable accommodation, using low-carbon local transport, and contributing in some way to green projects, nomads can limit their ecological footprint.
3. Managing Time Zones is Key
If you’re working with a team of colleagues or clients located in different time zones, it can be a challenge to manage your schedule. You need to be prepared to adjust your working hours or find remote work that aligns better with your chosen time zone.
While the digital nomad life does offer a flexible work/life balance, you may end up answering emails at 4 a.m. or working into the night to meet a deadline.
For example, while many digital nomads flock to Southeast Asia, the time differences with the US can be challenging. For this reason, some remote workers with employers or clients in the US opt instead to travel to Latin America, where the time zone is either the same or only an hour or two different.
There are different ways you can keep track of time differences to help manage your work and travel schedule:
Set your devices: You can set your electronics – phone, laptop, tablet, smartwatch, etc – to automatically update based on location. Alternatively, if most of your clients are in the same time zone, you could opt to set your laptop to their location so that you are always aware of the time where they are.
Check time zone converters: You can check the time in different locations using time zone converter websites or dual clocks on your laptop, phone, or other devices. This can help you to log on to virtual meetings at the correct time.
Check for time changes: Some countries observe daylight saving time on different dates, and some do not observe it at all. Be aware of if and when the time zones you are dealing with change their clocks so you can avoid scheduling conflicts.
Plan your schedule: When traveling to a new location, consider whether you will be moving into a different time zone and what impact this will have on any work deadlines and meetings. You might need to allow yourself time to adjust to the new time zone and set your schedule accordingly.
4. Be Smart About Money
Don’t waste money on foreign transaction charges. Fees on transactions in foreign currencies can add 3-6% to every purchase or cash withdrawal you make. Instead, use a debit or credit card that doesn’t charge fees. You can even find accounts that pay cashback on transactions outside your home country or region. Accounts with online banks tend to offer better deals than traditional banks.
When you make a card payment, always choose to pay with the local currency if given the option to pay in your own currency, as the payment processor will usually use a poor exchange rate and include a markup.
Also, be sure to take advantage of travel perks like credit cards that reward you with air miles, upgrade vouchers, lounge access, and so on. Just make sure to pay off the balance in full every month to avoid hefty interest charges.
In destinations where cash is still king, avoid exchanging money at currency exchange kiosks in airports, as their exchange rates tend to be lower and commission rates higher than in other locations. And when you use ATMs, check which ones charge withdrawal fees and which do not. Even in locations where you can mainly use cards, it’s still good practice to travel with some cash, preferably in US dollars, for emergencies such as your card not working or being stolen.
5. Less is More When It Comes to Packing
When you are traveling for an extended period of time, you might feel like you need to pack for every eventuality. While you do need to make sure you have the technology you need, you probably need less baggage than you think.
Carrying heavy, bulky bags can quickly become a burden, especially when navigating through crowded airports, bus and train stations, and unfamiliar streets. The “OneBag” movement is taking hold in some parts of the community. Taking a minimalistic approach to packing allows you to move around and explore more freely. By packing light, you can avoid airlines’ checked baggage fees.
Make a detailed packing list to plan what you need and avoid overpacking. Choose versatile clothing and gear that can serve multiple purposes and mixed and matched for different occasions and climates. You can minimize the number of toiletries you carry by using travel sizes and buying items as you go.
To reduce the amount of paper you carry, you can scan and store important documents in the cloud for access when needed.
6. Plan Once, Pay Less
This will be variable depending on the length of your stays, but flights can be the great equivocator between an expensive trip and going budget.
Book long ahead if you can – or the day before if you dare for a last-minute deal. Needing to book a flight with only a few days to spare is likely to leave a hole in your pocket worth a few hundred dollars.
7. Work First, Travel Second
There are some nuances around the terminology. Digital nomading is about travel while you’re working — the opportunity to exist within and explore a culture with a steady income.
But treat work as your priority — it is enabling your travel. If you work for a company, prioritize being available, working within your deadlines, and completing work at the highest standard. Remote working only works if the quality you create is the same as if you are working in an office cubicle.
And then — your free time is yours.
8. Be a Good Citizen
Digital Nomading differs from other ideas, such as ‘geo-arbitrage’ (where you live somewhere cheaply while taking advantage of a higher salary from another part of the world). The nomad-ing part emphasizes exploring this great planet.
It comes with some ‘good citizen’ implications. Consider the impact on the locals wherever you are. This is their home, and you have the privilege of staying in it.
While many places (and indeed, many countries via their Digital Nomad visa) welcome travelers, it can negatively impact the economy.
Consider Lisbon, Portugal, which, over the last five years, has become a popular destination. So popular that rents have dramatically increased, with many formally private properties now catering to the Airbnb crowd, and locals face rents far above the average salary.
The average rent in Lisbon is around $2,200 a month, while the minimum wage is $760. There are many cases of critical workers — people within nursing, for example — being priced out of a previously-affordable city.
Digital Nomading is not entirely to blame here (foreign property buyers also factor in, as well as local government economic and property management). Still, it’s an example where DN may escalate an already out-of-control situation.
If you’re a landlord in this city, would you instead rent to locals for local currency — or enjoy the lure of charging much higher rent per night to ‘tourists’? Many landlords have sided with their wallets and, taken too far, there are times when it can damage a city.
9. Expect to Feel Lonely Sometimes
Prepare for loneliness or homesickness. This will be a ‘different strokes for different folks’ scenario, but you are likely to spend a lot of time by yourself. Be prepared for that.
One advice that sometimes holds well: whether you’re staying in a place for one week or three months, aim to be social (if it’s your desire) in the early weeks. Accept invitations (safely), join a club (for instance, a gym), and spark up conversations.
If you try to make connections in your first weeks, it may well pay off by weeks three and four.
And don’t use DN’ing as a way to avoid or ignore problems in your life. Don’t use it to run away from something; use it to run to something.
10. Packing and Suitcase Living (Part 2)
A week’s worth of clothes can really simplify life – maybe make it eight days for a little extra buffer.
Don’t pack any red items, and one clothes wash per week — either in your residence or at a local laundry — can mean you are always fresh and well-dressed.
If you are going for the ‘one bag’ mentality, a week’s worth of clothes, two pairs of shoes, and a few special items (depending on the climate) means you can travel light and be able to move quickly when you are ready.
Follow the same logic with hand luggage — do you need an overswamped bag, or can you travel with a laptop, a charging cable and power bank, an e-book reader (an excellent investment if you like a book), your phone, passport, and wallet?
Speaking of power, with the trend of devices moving to USB-C, you really can travel with just one plug and one adapter (you might want two for safety). Even electric toothbrushes and razors are now coming with these ports — making for a clutter-free and simple powered-up life.
11. Digital Nomads and Tax Implications
This is a big one, and we ask that everyone do their own Googling before moving from one country to another. You must figure out your tax residency while DN’ing.
Most countries have agreements to help people avoid double taxation (once from your country of residence, once from the place you’re currently residing). But if you get a Digital Nomad visa, or you stay in one place for, for instance, six months and one day, your tax eligibility may change.
There’s only one hard and fast rule here: you will be taxed somewhere. Make sure you know where it is.
A guide such as Freaking Nomads may be a start, and always double-check and DYOR as you go.
12. Plan Your Mobile Coverage
This will vary from place to place, but plan ahead how you will get data or have a phone number once you arrive in a new country. Maybe your home country’s data plan allows extensive travel, or maybe it’s best to pick up a SIM card at your destination airport or within your first few days.
Again, this will be a DYOR scenario — but at the least, make sure you don’t end up in a situation where you are using “overseas” data and racking up charges of dollars per megabyte or gigabyte.
13. Two Screen Life
If you work more efficiently with two monitors, consider having a tablet as a second screen. There are options for both Android and Apple, with apps such as SuperDisplay on Android allowing you to extend your laptop’s monitor to almost any tablet via cable or wireless.
14. Coffee Shop Life
If you wish to work from a cafe, you will likely find a place that doesn’t mind you sitting there for hours, as long as you order a drink or two or a snack or two.
But suss it out: some areas are more welcome to you taking up a table and using their WiFi than others. Googling “digital nomad + town” or looking for “laptop friendly” or “work friendly” locations on Google Maps can be a help, or just be polite and ask upfront as you seek locations. Don’t assume the default position is “it’s fine”, and again, be a good citizen.
That said, many places are pretty happy with it, and if you strike up a rapport with the owners and do spend a little, you may find your perfect new office.
15. Be Safe
It needs saying. Look after yourself. Understand the safety of anywhere you’re traveling, be alert, and be mature. Make sure you can contact people, know how to reach emergency services, be wary of carrying valuables freely around, and always know where you are staying and how to get there.
This may be the vaguest advice on the list, but we can’t leave without saying it: treat your personal safety as part of your job, and after that, enjoy yourself!
Digital Nomading is an intentional choice — an exploration of different countries and cities rather than being based in one place for years at a time.
It is not a holiday, it is a deliberate choice to work from a new location and explore as you go. It can be deeply fulfilling, but you need to attack your goals with a deliberate and pragmatic plan and be consciously aware of your choices around money, hours, and your mentality.
Make sure you understand tax and visa obligations, pack with an eye to minimalism, and always have a plan for where you are staying and — unless you’re very comfortable with freestyling — where you want to be in three months, six months or a year.
But if you organize yourself well and understand your motives, it really can be the most stunning and memory-packed way to spend your life, and on the roulette wheel of life, at some point, you may find yourself at home — wherever it is on the map.