Digital Nomad 101 – What Is It and How Do You Become One

A digital nomad is… wait, what is a digital nomad?

Digital nomadism and hanging out in Starbucks on your laptop is not the same thing. Nor is taking selfies with your laptop at a beach / hammock / pool / overcrowded cowork space in Canggu, Bali, that offers free yoga lessons and trendy chairs that will hurt your back.

Being a digital nomad and freelancing is not the same thing. Freelancing is just one means of generating money to live your desired lifestyle and freelancing is also different to remote working.

Location independence and being a digital nomad is also not the same. You can be location independent long before being nomadic.

Most people who want to be a digital nomad have no idea what it means. So here’s the complete 101.

What is a Digital Nomad?

In 2015 I reconnected with an old friend. She said “you’ll love my new boyfriend, he’s like one of you, he’s a digital nomad.”

“But I’m not a digital nomad.”

“Of course you are” she said “what else are you?”

I left home in 2011 to work and live on the road, moving from place to place as I wished. There wasn’t a term for such a lifestyle back then – it was just living and working and traveling. Now it feels more like a movement.

Here are the basics.

Being a digital nomad is not a status symbol. If you’re starting it for status and Instagram followers it’s not going to work out. So forget the idealised images you see of hammocks, parties, and sipping cocktails on the beach next to your laptop (seriously, who ruins a cocktail with work?)

Being a digital nomad is to travel and live without society’s traditional barriers. It is a contemporary opportunity to enjoy the freedoms of a nomadic lifestyle, and to make new connections with places and people around the world. So what does that involve?

Nomadism

Before settlements and civilisations there were nomads. As a human race we were nomadic for far longer than we’ve had permanent settlements. Some cultures are still nomadic. For example, Mongolian herders who move their animals to fresh pastures every three months, or the Khoisan of Southern Africa.

A nomad moves from place to place and has no permanent home. Some people love the security of home. A nomad enjoys the sense of travel and a transient existence.

Travel

Some digital nomads travel from place to place to place, sometimes only spending a month or a week in each. Others move every few months. None of them put down roots as nomads are always just traveling through.

Travel is integral to the digital nomad lifestyle and for many nomads, it’s the ultimate highlight of their lifestyle. Most people travel for two or perhaps four weeks in a year, only when they go on vacation. Digital nomads spend most of their year traveling, so just imagine how far and wide they can go.

Location Independence

Being nomadic and constantly traveling means being independent of any single location. Don’t conflate location independence with remote work or freelancing. There are many different commitments that tie people to a single place: like a job, family, children, friends, mortgage repayments, business investments, or assets you can’t sell.

To achieve location independence you need to be free of these commitments. Some digital nomads take their family and kids with them. For most nomads, the biggest pressure is securing an income that can support their lifestyle (i.e. stepping clear from the job at home).

Digital

This is where we are incredibly fortunate. I know a nomadic writer and editor who has been living this lifestyle since 1995. Back then she had to use public libraries in faraway places and fax her work. Now we live in a digital society and it’s far easier for anyone to earn a living remotely.

Thanks to a digital society we can always be connected, anywhere in the world. You just need a computer and a Wi-Fi connection. A few nomads work from cafes but most utilise coworking spaces, which are more reliable and conducive to working.

There are more opportunities to successfully do a job or run a business remotely, without the physical connection to a single place. And it’s much easier to live without a permanent home, when your means of income don’t require one either.

This is Not a Trend

So in short, nomads have been around forever. Digital is the opportunity for a new generation to travel and achieve location independence. You can call it a trend but then you risk searching for something that’s been created by social media.

There is no single digital nomad lifestyle. Sure, most digital nomads have similar interests and hang out in similar places, but there is definitely not one path to take. The very essence of being nomadic is to create your own path, not to follow a trend.

How to Become a Digital Nomad

Let’s think about context. Forget how to find remote work for now (see the next section). In this section I’m going to cover the broadest picture, so you can understand the basic steps that are required to becoming a digital nomad.

Always Think Long Term

Nomads don’t go away for three months then return home. They leave home, period. Their journey is fluid and has no definitive end point. Placing a time limit on the whole process defeats the very freedom of what you can hope to achieve.

When I first went traveling in 2007 my mission was to stay away from home as long as I could. Eventually my shoestring budget ran out. When I left for a second time in 2011 I had a different mission: not to return home.

Who knows how you will respond to such a new way of living? You might be happy to be home three months after you left. You may keep going and going and going. But to become a digital nomad you have to be focused on the long term. It will give you purpose and make you more committed, because changing your entire lifestyle is not an easy process.

Location Independence

Location independence can actually start at home. The most obvious mistake made by newbie digital nomads is to first fly to the other side of the world, then try to get a job working online. Most quickly run out of money and return home much poorer than when they left.

Finding remote work is the biggest challenge faced by most wishing to become digital nomads. Just remember, you can search and perform remote work at home. Imagine wanting to live the life of a traditional nomad and herd livestock across the Mongolian Steppes. Do you wander off and hope to find animals on the way? You can explore what’s possible and achievable while still enjoying the financial security of your existing job.

Freelancing can start at home. So can learning digital skills and finding remote work. Yes it’s not as fun being at home but think long term, because soon you may never need to be home again.

Travel

Where to go is the fun part. This is usually why you go in the first place and the options are endless. Even five years ago it was still a challenge to find a reliable place to work. Now there are cowork spaces virtually everywhere and mobile Wi-Fi almost everywhere else.

Finding a place to work from is incredibly straightforward. Just leave and you’ll find one. And if you don’t like a place you just move on. So don’t get hung up on where to travel, especially when there are more pressing concerns, like how to work remotely.

How to Become Digital and Work Remotely

Now let’s get really practical and explore how to find work that will support your lifestyle.

But first a word of warning. Dozens of schemes target digital nomads with social media ads, promising a great return if you first pay a fee. These schemes cover everything from being a remote travel agent to starting a drop-shipping business or turning into a business consultant If it really is such a good scheme, why do people spend so much money advertising it on social media?

Here are there five overlapping avenues that will help you work from an independent location. It’s not a case of trying one and not the others. Over time you’ll find what works for you.

Learning Sought-After Digital Skills

Most remote work is simply work you can do online. You don’t need to be physically present in one location, like a plumber, doctor, firefighter or solicitor. Some professionals have adapted their profession to a remote workplace. For example, project managers now manage projects of remote workers for a remote client.

However, some professions are already perfect for remote work. These professions utilise digital skills that can be done anywhere. Demand for these skills far outweighs supply. So even if the digital nomad journey doesn’t last long, your digital skills will be still be very useful. Consider:

  • Coding including Web and App Programming (how to build the future)
  • Digital Design (how to build the future user experience)
  • Digital Marketing (how to market the future)
  • Social Media (a niche digital marketing skill)
  • Data Science and Analytics (how to make sense of the future)
  • Network and Information Security (or cybersecurity as you may know it)

Finding Remote Work

A high proportion of digital nomads work remotely for a single company. They do not freelance. A massively growing percentage of small and large businesses prefer to hire remote workers. This reduces their office space and overheads, gives access a wider talent pool, and usually increases efficiency. It’s a win-win for everyone.

  • See if your current employer is open to you working remotely, even if nobody in the company does it.
  • Use a website like Search Remotely to find companies advertising remote jobs.
  • Join Facebook groups for digital nomads where remote jobs are advertised.

search remotely

Freelancing

Freelancing usually involves working remotely. And some people work remotely for multiple companies at the same time, which is just like freelancing. In general, freelancing is a more transient existence as you mostly work on projects rather than having a contract for company. You may have anywhere from two to 20 different clients at any given time however getting paid as a freelancer can be highly rewarding. It’s the most flexible means of generating income remotely but it’s also the most unpredictable, especially for first timers.

Upwork is the world’s largest freelance site, created by the 2015 merger of what were then the two biggest freelance sites (Elance and Odesk). While there are some niche freelance sites as well, Upwork has the most jobs and most competition for jobs. Operating successfully on sites like Upwork takes time. You must slowly build your profile and platform experience before increasing your hourly rate. This is why it’s better to focus your energy on just one or two platforms, rather than creating and maintaining profiles on multiple platforms.

Starting Your Own Business

If you’re a freelancer you are your own business. People are paying for your skills and services. Generating more freelance work demands investment in your own personal business, including searching for work and developing your service offer.

Many digital nomads operate a more conventional online business – conventional in that they don’t sell their personal services. Instead they develop a product or service, to be sold using a business model that does not require a fixed location. Some digital nomads even hire remote workers to operate their business.

Digital nomads are more successful starting remote business focused on a service or digital product, rather than a physical product. Every product needs a place to go, which isn’t easy when you have no room. There are also risks with cashflow.

Finding a Niche

Think about the traditional approach to living and working. An employer needs someone with a particular profession (for example, marketing). The employer can only find a successful candidate who lives or wants to live close to their office. Their options are limited.

In a global environment the talent pool is enormous. An employee can find someone based anywhere in the world! So they can look for someone with the niche skill that best fits their business. For example a digital marketer, or a social media marketer, or an Instagram marketer.

Having a specific niche skill is even more important for freelancing, where prospective clients are seeking a unique skill for a set project. When I first started freelance writing I wanted to do sports writing because I liked sports, travel writing because I liked travel, and I boasted that I could write about anything the client wanted. The reality is that my prospective clients wanted a writer who knew something very well, not a bit of everything. This true of every industry.

It’s easier to develop your freelancing and remote working by developing a niche and specific skills. The traditional approach taught in schools and colleges is top down. For example, it’s marketing then digital then social then Instagram. Operating the other way around is far more effective. After mastering Instagram you can offer more social services, then digital and other marketing.

Realities of Being a Digital Nomad

Fast forward and you’ve left home. Let the good times roll! Well, not always. Like any lifestyle being a digital nomad has its ups and downs. The highlight is the freedom to take your own path. So don’t take the following guidance too practically. After leaving you’ll figure most of it out on the way.

Managing Your Finances

Digital nomadism is a pretty cheap way of living. Just think how far you can travel when you don’t pay rent. You don’t need as much money for vacations because you’re already on the other side of the world!

You may decide to use a travel program like Remote Year. Generate a monthly income above USD 1000 and you’ll survive. However, your expenses will be very different to life at home and budgeting can be hard to get used to.

  • Trail Wallet is a good app for managing your finances.
  • Transferwise and Revolut are the best bank accounts for storing and spending money in multiple currencies. They will save you up to 5% over traditional banks and Paypal.

Choosing Your Destinations

The perfect digital nomad hub destination:

  • Is really cheap
  • The sun shines every day you are there
  • There are no restrictions on long you can stay
  • Has wonderful food, nature, energy, people and coworking spaces

And hey, that’s just my dreamy list. There is no perfect destination. Most newer digital nomads seek out the cheapest places to stay in. Others head straight for the most famous digital nomad hubs, like Bali, Chiang Mai, Lisbon, Sofia or Medellin. Or maybe an upcoming nomad destination like Cape Town or Tbilisi. Some people prefer cities, others want a more remote existence.

There are no rules or guidelines of where to travel. Just go. Most nomads are the same in wanting good weather, relatively cheap daily living, and the opportunity to meet like-minded people. And that can be found at hundreds, thousands of destinations around the world. You don’t need a set schedule or time limit. In fact, the more flexible you can be, the easier it will become.

Finding a New Support Network

The hardest part to survival is letting go of your traditional support networks. Friends and family are back home. Where do you turn when you need a shoulder to cry on? Or to simply have a conversation that doesn’t start with “where are you from?” It can be tiresome meeting new people all the time, because you actually want to spend time with the same people most of the time.

It really helps to travel with a flexible schedule. A new location may look perfect from a distance but it won’t be enjoyable in the medium-term if you don’t make new friends. Whereas you may plan one week somewhere else, meet a great group at a cowork space, and stay for six months. That’s the beauty of travel and being nomadic.

Adapting to the Lifestyle

Many digital nomads actually work the 9 – 5. They have set hours but work from different places each month. Others work very random hours but base themselves in the same destination for half a year at a time. Everyone adapts differently and the sudden change from routine brings unique challenges.

Some nomads struggle to adapt to life without a typical kitchen or routine weekly grocery shop. I still struggle to not drink at least four beers every night. I move fast and want to spend every evening immersed in the destination, which means bars and restaurants. Some lose their health due to less opportunities for regular exercise. While others find a flexible lifestyle means more time to get fit, perhaps via yoga or surfing.

It’s impossible to predict the challenges you will face. But these challenges are much easier to face when you think long term and can make small adjustments each month or destination.

Where To Stay When You Can Stay Anywhere

For every day you are location independent you still need somewhere to stay. Just like living at home, your biggest expense will be accommodation.

Short-term apartment rentals generally fulfil most requirements and provide best value, whether they’re found via Airbnb, another website, or locally in the destination (cheaper). Apartments help you preserve a little privacy versus staying in hostels, plus they’re cheaper and have more amenities than hotels.

The longer you spend in one place the better deals you can find. Your travel costs are also lower when you move less often. But spend too long in one place and you may soon find you are a little stuck.

Remote Working From Coworking Spaces (and cafes)

Digital nomads work from anywhere. Like, anywhere. On a plane, in a cafe, waiting for a bus, on the terrace of an apartment rental, and just about anywhere they can sit with a laptop. But for all the images of laptops on the beach, or working from Starbucks, the vast majority of digital nomads rely on working in cowork spaces.

Coworking spaces are almost everywhere in the world. They provide reliable Wi-Fi, a shared office environment, and the bare essentials required by most professionals. Just to have a proper office chair and desk space will make a big difference to your long-term health, as well as your long-term employability.

Coworking spaces are also the best place to meet other digital nomads. Most have regular social events. Yes you must pay to use a cowork space, with monthly rates somewhere between USD 100 – 270 dependent on where you are. It’s almost worth it. Cowork spaces offer services in three categories.

  • Spaces where local people can do their remote work (for example most spaces in India)
  • Spaces where small businesses can have flexible office space (such as WeWork)
  • Spaces where traveling nomads can do their remote work

Most spaces do a little of all three. Those focused more on traveling nomads tend to have the most social and transient vibe, making them good places to make friends and feel part of the local environment.

How To Stop Being a Digital Nomad

This is the question I’m struggling with. After nearly a decade as a digital nomad I’m frightened by any thought of setting down roots. Paying rent scares me like crazy. I can’t imagine being tied down anywhere. Even after so long I still want to move.

So a word of caution – the digital nomad lifestyle is as challenging to stop as it is to start. Just like traditional ways of living at home, it’s something you do for the long term and eventually you just live it, without the need for articles like this.

If you want to learn more about becoming a digital nomad, we can recommend the following online course:
How to Become a Successful Digital Nomad: The Complete Guide