Say the term “digital nomad” and it immediately conjures images of paradise. Perhaps you’re picturing an influencer sipping cocktails by the pool in a tropical destination, putzing around on a laptop, doing a little work here and there.
The reality? Well, it’s far more complicated than that. You’ll have to check off a lengthy to-do list before you can just up and go. Plus, once you’re on the road, you’ll have to work just as hard, if not harder, than you did at home.
That said, the freedom is simply unparalleled. You can get up when you want, travel where you please, and check off your bucket list as slow, or fast, as you like. Hello, adventure.
Table of contents
- What is a digital nomad and how do you become one?
- Develop an online skill
- Look for a remote job
- Disclose plans to your boss
- Co-create a work strategy
- Order your passport
- Make a list of your ‘anchors’
- Create a budget
- Save for one-time expenses
- Cut out the non-essentials
- Decide where to go
- Look up visa requirements
- Talk to a tax advisor
- Get a PO Box or virtual mailbox
- Switch to monthly contracts
- Downsize your belongings
- Digitize your lifestyle
- Pencil in your ‘notice dates’
- Upgrade your gear
- Make travel arrangements
- Tie up loose ends
- Sell your car
- Give your loved ones a big hug
- Sample 6-month timeline
- Quick summary
What is a digital nomad and how do you become one?
A digital nomad is someone who earns money online and enjoys location independence.
Since they don’t have to go to a brick-and-mortar office to earn money, they’re not tied down to any single place. Essentially, it’s living life from your laptop.
To get going, you’ll need to find a remote job, downsize your stuff, organize the logistics, develop a routine to stay happy and healthy, set a reasonable travel pace, and maximize your income by living somewhere affordable (respectfully, of course).
If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is! Luckily, you don’t have to have it all figured out right away. Just take things one step at a time.
Develop an online skill
The first step is honing a skill that will let you work online and travel freely, as that’s the bread and butter of this whole operation.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, you could explore becoming a teacher, virtual assistant, coach, programmer, writer, editor, graphic designer, UI/UX designer, web developer, marketer, data analyst, translator, or customer service representative.
Look for a remote job
If you’re not already employed, don’t delay on starting the job hunt, as it can take three to six months, if not longer, to find an employer who’s on board with your need to roam.
Disclose plans to your boss
Many digital nomads wonder how much to tell their employer, for fear that they won’t be allowed to wander freely. That’s a personal decision, but here are three factors to consider:
- Visas. Many digital nomad visa applications require a letter from your boss stating that it’s okay for you to work abroad.
- Taxes. There are tax implications for traveling abroad more than 6 months a year, known as the 183-day rule. You’ll need to figure out the best set-up with the payroll department. (Hint: it’s probably a 1099 contract.)
- Connectivity. Not all destinations have the same tech infrastructure. You could encounter connectivity issues in remote locations, which is harder to explain if your boss thinks you’re at home.
While plenty of folks hide their true location via VPN services, keep in mind that it can put your contract at risk.
Co-create a work strategy
When you’re writing cover letters and doing interviews, anticipate an employer’s reservations in advance and address them.
Some folks might be nervous about you working from a different time zone, so highlight the benefits of it. “Since I’ll be in Europe, I’ll have a head start on work for the day. By the time you log on, my work will be sitting on your desk.”
You can use the Time Zone Overlap Calculator to input your location compared to your manager’s location. From there, establish crossover hours when everyone will be online.
While you may have to adjust your hours for more crossover in the beginning, with enough time and trust, perhaps you’ll be able to work more a-synchronistically—i.e., whenever you want, as long as the work gets done.
Order your passport
If you need a new passport, fill out an application as soon as possible. Passport centers are processing more applications than ever in US history, says a US Department of State memo.
Plan for 1 to 2 weeks to mail in the application, 7 to 10 weeks for passport processing, and 1 to 2 weeks to get it back to you, for a total of 2 to 4 months.
If that’s not fast enough, you can always expedite your passport for $60. That will shorten the processing time down to 3 to 5 weeks (not including mailing times).
If you already have your passport, make sure you don’t need to renew it. Many places require your passport to be valid for at least six months past your departure date. For example, if you’re planning to go to London from January through June 2024, your passport will need to be valid at least through December 2024.
Make a list of your ‘anchors’
Your daily reality is made possible by a series of creature comforts, many of which you may not even think twice about.
From having 24/7 access to WiFi, to that food truck that knows your order by heart, life as you know it has been formed by a slow accumulation of three things:
When you travel, that bubble of safety goes away. It’s a bit like starting from scratch, which is equally liberating and anxiety-inducing. Ideally, travel will pull you out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you can’t get your work done or enjoy yourself. Otherwise, why bother?
Think in detail about your daily routine, so you know how to recreate it abroad. The goal is to strike that careful balance between a little travel, a little productivity, lather, rinse, repeat.
Create a budget
Your budget will help inform your itinerary, as you’ll have a realistic picture of how much you can spend on your anchors and sightseeing.
Save for one-time expenses
Depending on where you decide to go, chances are you’ll have a few large upfront costs to factor into the mix, like:
- tech gear: $1,000-$1,500
- plane tickets: $500-$800
- visa application costs: $300-$500
- pet documentation and transport: $1,000-$2,000
- holding deposit for accommodation abroad: 2x cost of monthly rent
Cut out the non-essentials
Travel can be expensive and times are tough for many people. There’s no contesting that. But simple things like cutting out subscriptions, selling unused assets, doing “no spend” challenges, and eating less takeout can all increase your bottom line.
For example, I gave up a fancy phone contract in favor of a budget carrier, eliminated all entertainment subscriptions, and saved takeout for Sundays only. I also enrolled in courier apps to offset any flexible spending. If I wanted a burrito, I made myself work for it and drop off someone else’s food first.
At one point, I even moved into my hatchback full-time for extra travel funds. I pulled out the back seat and threw down a memory foam, so my two dogs and I would have a cozy place to sleep. I saved $5,000 in three months just by working from coffee shops, showering at the gym, and discreetly sleeping in hotel parking lots.
Depending on how far you’re willing to go to pay for your adventures, you may have more room in your budget than you think.
Decide where to go
Everyone is looking for something different when they travel. It’s all about knowing yourself and what you like (or being willing to figure that out).
For Person A, it might be a small community with a laid-back culture, sunny climate, and plenty of quiet days on the beach or the corner of a cafe. They might do really well in an introvert’s paradise, like a remote coastal town in Southern Europe.
Person B, on the other hand, might have a need for a lively co-working space, endless eateries, a melting pot of cultures, and a gazillion things to do on the weekends. Someone like that might do well in a big city like Miami, London, New York, or Buenos Aires.
Points to consider
- What climates do you prefer?
- Do you enjoy big cities or rural areas?
- What other languages do you speak?
- How would you prefer to get around?
- How experienced of a traveler are you?
- How much are you willing to spend per month?
Look up visa requirements
As soon as you figure out where you’re going, look into how long you can stay without a visa. Many places will allow you to stay for up to 90 days without any extra hassle.
If you do need to apply for a digital nomad visa, expect it to take anywhere from one to four months for approval. Some countries require you to apply from home, while others prefer that you apply from within the country. Depending on where you’re going, you might need:
- valid passport
- traveler’s health insurance
- FBI criminal background check
- proof of employment
- bank statements
- proof of accommodation
Talk to a tax advisor
Each country has its own tax rules and filing obligations. Some places oblige by the 183-day rule, which means you’ll owe taxes to that country if you spend more than six months there.
The IRS website has a whole section for travelers. Country-specific Reddit threads and Facebook groups can offer a treasure trove of information. It’s also good to rope in an expert, so you don’t have to wing it. Google “tax advisors for expats” in your desired destination.
Get a PO Box or virtual mailbox
There are many benefits to keeping a US address while you’re abroad, like keeping your bank accounts open and having one central location for all government documents.
If you don’t have someone to mind your mail while you’re away, set up a PO box that can forward your mail or a virtual mailbox that will scan your mail for you.
You’ll need to create a spreadsheet of all of the institutions that will need your new address, like the US Postal Service, banks, the IRS, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and connections in your Rolodex. Tackle each contact one at a time until it’s done.
Switch to monthly contracts
Start winding down annual contracts as soon as possible. If you’re a renter, for example, switch to a month-to-month contract once your lease is up.
Ask your gym if there’s a monthly rate available. Though it may be more expensive than what you’re paying now, you’ll be able to give a 30-day notice to cancel service, instead of paying out the rest of the year or incurring an early termination fee.
Shop around for phone plans. Ask your mobile carrier about no-contract deals or enroll with a company that has prepaid options. My favorite is Mint Mobile, which offers $45 for three months. Compared to my old phone plan of $85 per month on an annual contract, Mint is a steal. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to traditional wireless.
Downsize your belongings
With the frequent movement that accompanies the digital nomad lifestyle, many travelers end up becoming minimalists.
Personally, I downsized my stuff from a one-bedroom apartment down to two suitcases. My luggage contains tech gear, a family photo album, a few sentimentals, and clothes. It’s all I need, at least for now.
If you’re not ready to downsize completely, you can store your stuff in a storage unit or ask a loved one if they’re willing to hang onto a few boxes. Put your smaller items in your bank’s safety deposit box.
Sell assets on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and everything else in a garage sale. Whatever’s left over can go to a convalescent home or a homeless shelter.
Most airlines offer one personal item (like a laptop bag), one carry-on, and one checked bag that weighs 50 pounds or less. If you have more bags, you’ll have to pay checked baggage fees. You’re looking at $30 to $50 for the first one, and upwards after that.
Digitize your lifestyle
If you have a lot of books, order a Kindle or get an Audible subscription so you can take your favorites on the road. Local bookstores may offer you cash in exchange for your collection.
For a box of family photos, you can put your favorites into an album and digitize the rest. If you don’t want to do it yourself, several mail-in services can take care of it for you. I used Legacy Box and they did a great job.
Pencil in your ‘notice dates’
Find out how much notice each of your accounts will require for cancellation. Work backwards from your intended date of departure and mark those dates in your calendar. For example:
- Home rental: 30-60 days notice
- Gym: 30 days notice
- Car insurance: 30 days notice
- Mobile carrier: 30 days notice
- Health insurance: 14 days notice
- Utilities contracts: 14-30 days notice
Upgrade your gear
While tech gear is expensive, it’s your primary means of earning money while you travel. If anything is starting to fall apart, now is the time to invest. At the bare minimum, it’s always a good idea to have a reliable laptop, smartphone, and a few battery banks just in case.
Make travel arrangements
Lock in the biggest purchases first, like your plane ticket and accommodation. If it’s within your budget, pay the extra fee for a fully refundable booking, as the digital nomad lifestyle can be unpredictable.
From there, focus on nailing down all the details of the first two weeks of travel, which will help you get settled. Look up the amenities you’ll need within a short walking distance or public transport access, like a grocery store, laundromat, or coffee shop with WiFi.
Don’t forget to enroll in traveler’s insurance, order an international bank card, and swap out your carrier phone for an unlocked version with an international SIM card.
Tie up loose ends
A month before you leave, give notice on all relevant accounts, cancel your utilities, notify your banks of foreign travel, and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) with the US Department of State.
Sell your car
Wait to sell your car until the last 30 days before you travel. That way, you can get a rental car and keep your existing insurance rate.
After you sell your car, the clock starts ticking. If you pass the 30-day mark and your rental car becomes your only form of transportation, your insurance could triple.
Give your loved ones a big hug
For all the freedom that comes with the digital nomad lifestyle, there’s a cost: you don’t know the next time you’re going to see the people you love the most.
You’re going to miss out on important moments, like birthdays, holidays, and special events. At some point, you will fall out of the loop on news and updates, as life takes you in a different direction. Sure, there’s Facetime, but it’s just not the same.
Whatever amount of time you have in town with your family and friends, savor it. Tell them you love them. Promise to write, and then do it.
Sample 6-month timeline
6 months out
- Find a remote job
- Work with your employer on a strategy
- Order a new passport or renew an existing passport
- Make a list of your “anchors” to replicate abroad
- Create a budget and start saving aggressively
4-5 months out
- Decide where you want to go
- Talk to a tax advisor
- Look up visa requirements
3 months out
- Get a PO Box and switch over your mail
- Start downsizing your stuff
- Switch to monthly contracts
- Find a vet for any pet paperwork
- Download a language-learning app, like Duolingo
2 months out
- Pencil in your “notice dates”
- Upgrade your tech gear
- Order an international bank card, like Wise
1 month out
- Give your landlord and other accounts a 30-day notice
- Enroll in traveler’s health insurance, like SafetyWing
- Order a universal adapter, unlocked phone, and SIM card
- Get an international driver’s license from AAA ($30)
- Sell your car and use the funds to pay for a rental
- Crate train your pets for flying
- Rehearse your packing strategy and weigh your luggage
1 week out
- Notify your banks of travel
- Enroll in the STEP program through the US Department of State
- Spend tons of time with your loved ones
A digital nomad works from a laptop and finds core “anchors” in each destination, like WiFi, shelter, public transportation, and hobbies that support wellbeing.
It’s best to prepare for this lifestyle at least six months in advance, so you have time to find a remote job, make travel arrangements, downsize your stuff, and tie up loose ends.
If money is your biggest source of stress, master your budget and cut out all non-essential spending. Sell off items you don’t need anymore and pick up extra work on the side. Whatever it takes. You got this! Bon voyage.