You’re so lucky.
These are probably the most common things people hear when they tell someone they
have a unicorn job are a digital nomad.
“Ohhh! One of those people sipping cocktails by the pool while on a laptop!”
Yep, one of those people. Except real digital nomads know pools and laptops rarely mix and actually getting work done usually requires less sun glare and alcohol intake.
I digress… Digital nomad, that buzzworthy word that means people do things on a laptop while traveling. It’s a sought after lifestyle, but it’s A LOT more than flamingo floaties and posting on Instagram.
So what’s up with this lifestyle? Is it really that amazing? What are the misconceptions? The realities? The TRUTH?
So glad you asked, grab a coffee. This is a long one!
Table of Contents
What Is a Digital Nomad?
Let’s define what a digital nomad is first, shall we?
I think when some people hear this word they just think—a person with a computer, abroad, with a cocktail in hand.
And while this may very well be some digital nomads, it’s of course, far more than that! A digital nomad is someone who works online and chooses to be nomadic because their occupation doesn’t require them to be tied down to a particular city.
Digital nomads all need the internet to some degree to get their work done, a computer, obviously, and that’s about it!
Many people have remote jobs, anyone that works from home/doesn’t go into an office is a remote worker, digital nomads are remote workers too, but they choose to travel or live in other places around the world, and hence, the phrase digital nomad is a more appropriate way to describe these people.
I am one of these people.
As a full-time travel blogger, I can sit in my
shitty home town, Tampa, Florida, and work, or I can travel and work. Hmm… Not a hard choice for me! And by nature, my work also involves travel because… Ya know… A travel blogger kind of needs to travel.
Naturally, this is the next question.
I’d be one rich b*tch if I had a dollar every time I saw someone in a Facebook group or at a bar or *insert any other random place on earth* ask, “Oh! I want to do that! How can I be a digital nomad?”
One doesn’t really “become a digital nomad.” Being a digital nomad is NOT a job.
I repeat: A digital nomad is NOT a job…
Being a digital nomad is more of a lifestyle and not something that you can become.
You can create this digital nomad lifestyle by:
- Getting a job that’s location independent. One that doesn’t require you to be anywhere and you only need a laptop and wifi to complete the job’s duties.
- Travel and live abroad while working your location independent job.
You may be asking well, which jobs are “digital nomad friendly” jobs? How can I acquire one of those unicorn positions that affords me the location independent lifestyle?
And THAT’S the question you should be asking!
What type of jobs can be done remotely? Once you get one of those, then you can do whatever you want, travel, stay at home, live in a van, work out of mom’s basement… It doesn’t matter. Look and obtain remote work, that’s the priority.
I won’t get into what digital nomad jobs are out there in this post, I’ve done that already in this extensive post outlining all the possible digital nomad jobs out there.
Just remember that being a digital nomad isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle that you must create and work hard at maintaining (you’ll see what I mean, keep reading!)
Don’t get turned off I’m just trying to be real here, guys. Being a digital nomad is great, but it’s not all sunshine, puppies, and rainbows. Here are some things to realize about this lifestyle, what people will think and say, and overall realities that you need to know before diving head first into this life.
1. You’ll Likely Work More Than You Did at Your 9-5.
Oh, sorry, did you think you were just going to sip cocktails behind a computer screen for a few hours a day and call it a day?
Reality: Digital nomads, usually in the first few years, are working way more than the standard 40 hours a week.
Particularly those that are just starting, trying to start their own business, or are building up their reputations and portfolios.
When I first started working online, I was working around 3-4 remote gigs at any given time and about 50-70 hours a week. I learned a lot and thankfully work more “normal” hours now but…
2. There’s Always Work to Be Done.
For most digital nomads, your to-do list is never complete. There’s never an “I’m done!”
Again, putting me in as the example here… Particularly as a blogger, for every one thing I check off my list, I add about five more. For those entering the entrepreneur lifestyle or those who freelance, it’s sometimes hard to accept the fact that you are never done.
3. Being Your Boss ISN’T All It’s Cracked up to Be.
Some digital nomad jobs have bosses, and even set hours too! These can be great because you can draw a line between work and non-work hours.
However, many of these DN jobs afford you the luxury of being your boss to some degree/altogether. SCORE! Right?
Yes! It’s a great thing. I LOVE being my own boss. But others? They don’t know how to manage themselves. I even get sidetracked from time to time.
It’s very easy to give yourself the day off because you can. But that could cost you a client, put you even more behind in your work, and if it gets out of hand, cause you to run out of money.
Being your own boss is great if you’re a good, reasonable, and at times, an austere boss. If you’re a lazy and lax boss, you’re going to be in trouble because it’s YOU who is in charge of getting the hours in for the day. No hours equals no pay, and no pay means no more flights to far away places unless it’s your last flight—to live in mom’s basement again. Womp womp.
4. Your Work Hours Are Undefined.
Some days I’m working, and I PROMISE myself that I’m going to leave a few hours in the day to get something else done—llike, non-work related.
Next thing I know, I’m still staring at my screen, it’s 10 pm, and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet.
Sometimes I promise myself a day off, my first one in about ten days… Just ONE day that doesn’t involve staring at a computer, Nina. Come on; you can do it!
Instead, I get anxiety about having work and end up working half the day or longer.
Then there’s the opposite side of the spectrum where I take three days off in a row, my inbox has runneth over, nothing has got done, my VA is wondering where I am, and I’m now forced to dig myself out of this hole.
Digital nomad hours gets murky, quick! You have to stay on top of it, and it’s just another “added responsibility” of being a digital nomad.
5. You’ll Regularly Be Asked How You Make Money.
I find this question so rude, but it’s the reality of being a digital nomad for some of us.
It starts innocent, the regular travel talk… Oh hey, what’s your name, where you from, how are your travels, what do you do, when do you go home…
“I work online; I travel, I don’t go home.”
*cue momentary silence as the person realizes that you have the unicorn job, the one that allows you to travel and work at the same time. And then like verbal diarrhea, and without thinking how rude their question is… they say…*
“Oh really? How do you make money doing that? / You make a living that way? / How much do you make doing that?”
WHO in their right mind asks this to anyone else? When someone responds that they are a doctor, a veterinarian, an accountant, a librarian, a waitress, etc… Does anyone on earth ask them about their cash flow?!
No. No, they don’t because it’s rude.
I know it’s a “unicorn” job (or appears that way), but you’ll get used to answering this question in a way that ends the line of questioning about you and your finances with a total stranger.
I will admit, I get this more because my job as a blogger is slightly more “unicorn” so if you’re a graphic designer maybe you’ll get away without this rude questions but really… nobody is safe!
If you ask this question, please stop. Please 🙂
6. Community and Friendships Take Hard Work and Are Fleeting.
The whole point about being a digital nomad is the whole “nomad” part, right?
With this comes the above repetitive convo—where are you from, what do you do, where are you traveling next…— that gets very very old (not complaining here, it’s the regular conversation, I understand it, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get old) and even worse… the inevitable goodbye that comes with making friends while traveling.
For those on vacation, it’s fun!
For those who are traveling for years and years, these goodbyes, the lack of community, and perpetually fleeting friendships get a little hard.
You have your friends back home (not many will stick around, just the true ones) and you’ll make friends abroad, but your day to day will involve nobody else. No real friends around you.
If you choose to stick around and live abroad in a particular place, you’ll undoubtedly make friends, but then you’ll be less nomadic… So there’s always something you’ll need to “give up” a bit on.
I’ve made some awesome friends via the internet since this is where “I am,” and we have fun when we meet up around the world but the real community like one has when they live in one place for a while is something you’ll have to get used to not having.
7. Everyone Thinks You’re Living the Dream and on Perpetual Vacay.
About this unicorn job… Right. Everyone thinks you’re on vacation, swimming around on unicorn and swan floaties, with a coconut in hand, and quite literally… on a vacation.
You may have a laptop that you open here and there, but otherwise, you’re just relaxing poolside, right?!
This false notion is perhaps the most annoying of them all because as we learned, we digital nomads are likely working harder than the people making this crappy assumption.
Sure our Instagram is on FIRE with exotic waterfalls, epic viewpoints, a few new countries a year under your belt, and beaches that people only see in postcards but who the hell wants to see pictures of a laptop screen and like, a plate of half-eaten chips and my third cup of coffee? Nobody. So it doesn’t get posted (although I post this on Instagram stories sometimes just to drive home the “I’m not on vacation” notion!)
In fact, I don’t recall the last vacation I took. I know some will laugh and scoff at me, but really, I don’t take vacations. My travels are always in between my work if not FOR my work, and I get anxiety about taking time off!
So get used people thinking you’re on vacation when in reality, you’re slaving away behind the computer and happen to post a pic of the waterfall you went to between emails because your legs may forget how to walk if you don’t remove yourself NOW from the seat your butt has melted into.
8. You May Not Realize That It Can Be Hard to Start as a Digital Nomad.
On that note, people don’t get that digital nomads work really hard, sometimes before they actually work!
When I was starting out freelance writing, I spent just as much time doing the work as I did APPLYING for the work. Applying for some of these remote positions (some of which are not long term but one-off type of things) can be so time-consuming.
When you job hunt, you are never paid. Now imagine starting off trying to become a digital nomad and finding work online which is typically project-based or temp work—You’d need to apply a lot more frequently and those hours applying don’t equal a payout.
When I finally realized blogging could be a job (yep, took me a few years to realize this) I spent countless hours (and still do) teaching myself how to make this a real business.
Luckily, I was successful in doing so, but my learning is NEVER done. And all the hours I was teaching myself, those were never “paid for.”
Nobody is paying me to learn, but I know it will pay off in the long run and I’ll get “paid” then.
Learning, applying, and then actually getting the work done while still trying to further your business and career is A LOT of work. Again, it’s often more work than a regular 9-5.
It just looks more glamorous when the “nomad” part of being a digital nomad comes to play.
Again, those who become a digital nomad with a “regular company and have regular hours” will have it much easier but many digital nomads are entrepreneurs or freelancers, etc.
Now to slightly contradict myself…
9. It’s Not Easy to Become a Digital Nomad, but It’s Not That Hard Either…
People will fantasize saying they wish they can do what you do!
This frustrates me and flatters me at the same time.
I’m flattered that you think I’m so special! But I’m frustrated that you think you have to be special to do this…
Let’s set a few things straight:
- As we know, a digital nomad isn’t a job; there are tons of avenues to take to become a digital nomad. So SURELY there’s a job that could “speak” to nearly anyone out there wanting to become a remote worker AKA digital nomad.
- I’m a regular person. Literally, I have no special talents; no money is coming from the Bank of Rich Parents because nobody in my family is rich or in the business of handing over something (hard work only in this family!), and seriously, I can’t think of ONE thing that makes me special. So what’s really stopping someone from doing this?
- WARNING: Cheesy and cliche line alert… “If I can do this, so can you.” I hate myself for saying that line, but there’s no other line out there that says what it is. Literally, anyone can do this… IF they really want to. If you don’t have the drive, then just give up before you start. Becoming a digital nomad DOES take an extra bit of “oomph” and bit more… balls. Yes, balls, to make it happen. It doesn’t happen overnight, it’s never going to be given to you, and it won’t come easy, but it will come if you work for it.
It’s always disheartening to be put on a pedestal of accomplishments but everyone looking thinks you got there by being special or lucky.
They glaze over the fact that you worked really hard for it, and instead, assume you had some unicorn luck sprinkled on your head and were magically transported on a rainbow to the position you’re in now.
And even worse? They think they aren’t good enough to get there because they aren’t lucky.
My travels, where I am in my career and my online business, and how I got to this exact place in my life has absolutely ZERO to do with luck.
It was ALL hard work, and again, you may need to get used to people not understanding this.
10. You’ll Be Told You’re Lucky.
And continuing on that thought, this one really grinds my gear because I get told I’m lucky ALL THE TIME.
Uhm, thanks? So I guess all those years of hard work were like, just a cruel joke, huh?
I HATE getting told I’m lucky because nothing I have regarding my digital nomad life was gained by luck. I WORKED for it but others, again, don’t see it. My work is always dismissed just because I did it with a glass of wine, or did it from a bungalow in Thailand, or perhaps during my flight to Germany.
I’m lucky to be a native English speaker, and I’m lucky to have an American passport… But millions of other people have this luck too! Nothing about my lifestyle is luck, I worked for it. And so did pretty much every single other person living this lifestyle.
I hope the realities of being a digital nomad didn’t turn you off! People are clambering at the opportunity to be digital nomads by the hoards for a reason… It’s awesome! It’s just not as glamorous as it’s made out to be.
So what’s the digital nomad lifestyle really like?
Well, it’s different for everyone.
For me, the “digital” part is…
Waking up early because I want to, getting work done, and scheduling in my free time for the week to travel and have fun.
It’s the ability to have the freedom to work from pretty much any country on the planet that has decent wifi.
It’s the challenge of furthering my career and business to places I didn’t think I could take it. Making money in a way that took me years to understand and build. Getting paid to do something I really truly love and sometimes, to my own detriment, can’t tear myself away from.
I find what I do, addicting, in the best possible way. I can’t look back, and I’m grateful and thankful to MYSELF for taking on the risk and very hard step into the land of blogging (seriously, choose another remote job, this one is the hardest lol).
In terms of the “nomad” part, to me, it means…
I get to call many places home. I’ve called Portugal, Morocco, South Africa, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand home. (This to me is spending three months or more in a country)
Being a digital nomad means taking my time in countries, finding my favorite grocery store, getting to know the streets around my apartment or home, having conversations with the cashier at my local convenience store, smiling and saying hello to my neighbor, and essentially living a “normal” life in another country.
I’ve had “offices” in over 30 countries, stayed in countless hotels, Airbnbs, and apartments, learned at least the basic words and phrases in at least 20 languages, and have had the privilege to REALLY get to know areas because my style of travel is slower and deeper.
This is the digital nomad lifestyle in my eyes. It will be different for everyone, but one thing is for sure, if it’s what you truly want in life, it will be the best step you ever take.
So how does one seamlessly integrate working and traveling together?
Well, you kinda don’t.
I know. Becoming a digital nomad means traveling and working right? But when it comes down to it, you really need to look at them separately and carefully.
Just because you can technically work from a beach chair because the wifi reaches doesn’t mean you should.
Just because you technically can work from any country, like let’s say the Philippines, doesn’t mean you should.
We can DO a lot of things as digital nomads, but it’s not always the best decision.
And working on the beach is what you may picture digital nomads doing, but it’s not reality. Sand, sun, and water never mix well with electronics.
So as a digital nomad, sure you’ll be working and traveling but not really at the same time.
This is what I do:
- I land in a country (one that I’ve researched heavily in terms of internet infrastructure, the cost of living, and lifestyle).
- I work, I work, I work some more…
- Then I schedule in some play time.
How much you work and how much play time is up to you and your job. But one thing is for sure; you don’t want to be beach hopping while trying to get work done. When you’re working, work. When you’re traveling, just travel.
It’s the only way to actually get shit done AND enjoy yourself. I often work like a normal person for a month or two and then take a few weeks to JUST travel. My job is very flexible since I’m Ms. Boss, so I can do that. But you’ll never catch me attempting to get work done on a windy road on a bus to somewhere or poolside at a resort.
Here are all the other lovely bits about becoming a digital nomad that you may not have thought about along with some hopefully awesome resources to get you started!
1. Finding the Best Places to Travel as a Digital Nomad
This is kinda part of your job too! Yes, it’s actual work to do all this research, but it’s what needs to happen. You actually have to research places you want to visit/live in and explore while working.
As I mentioned, I failed to realize how bad the wifi was in the Philippines and unfortunately, lost clients while I was traveling there it was so bad (this was when I was freelancing). So making sure this doesn’t happen to you is important.
Using something like Nomadlist and Numbeo to start is helpful. Not everything is accurate, and the estimates are of course a bit rough as everyone lives and travels differently, but it’s a good resource for starting out and it does offer some insight to the wifi availability.
Finding places that are on the cheaper end of the spectrum is a no brainer, especially for those wanting to just start out their lives as digital nomads, the cheaper the better! That’s why Southeast Asia is such a hub for digital nomads, it’s so cheap, and the internet is pretty damn good! (Except you Philippines, you guys have a long way to go…)
Where will you vibe? Where will you enjoy yourself? Where will you LIKE THE FOOD?!
I was gobsmacked when I was in Thailand and meeting fellow digital nomads who hated Thai food… Why would you do that to yourself and HOW does one hate Thai food? I don’t get it.
Make sure you like the place on the surface! Of course, once you go, you may realize a place is not for you but definitely, don’t go to a place just because it’s cheap/people told you to/it’s popular and all the while you’re there hating the food, the people and the culture… that makes no sense.
2. Finding Digital Nomad Friendly Insurance
In this day and age, why is this so hard?! It’s sometimes a ballache to find the right travel insurance coverage when you’re a digital nomad because of some of the rules and regulation out there, the length of your trip (usually unknown), where you’re going (uhm, idk yet?!), and a slew of other things…
So while I’ve used Allianz and World Nomads throughout my travels, and they have been OK, it’s still been a bit rough around the edges.
First, I literally had to become an Oregon resident recently BECAUSE of travel insurance purposes. Pretty crazy right? It’s not a big, deal, nowadays I spend more time in Oregon than Florida but like, wtf is this? I find it totally bizarre that some places literally don’t cover Floridians. (Is it because we Floridians are crazy? Seriously, can someone tell me?!)
The main issues with travel insurance, aside from state of residency, are:
- How long is your trip? This is tough to answer as I pretty much never know when I’m coming back to the USA. I usually go once a year for a visit, but beyond that, I don’t know when! I typically buy coverage for a bit over a year and “waste” some months sometimes when I come home earlier/I’ve been left insuranceless when it ran out and I couldn’t renew abroad which brings me to…
- You can’t renew when you’re abroad. This one really SUCKS. While some insurances do allow you to do this (I think World Nomads does, but they can get expensive!) most insurance companies don’t allow this. This means you can only buy travel insurance to extend your trip when you’re in your home country. Uhm, this kinda defeats the purpose of being a digital nomad, doesn’t it?
So travel insurance when you travel a lot and don’t visit home often gets to be confusing. However, I did stumble upon Safety Wing recently, and when I jet off for my next trip, I’m definitely trying them out as they are literally a travel insurance company for digital nomads.
The two issues I stated above are nonissues. They work like a subscription, so you pay monthly, and then cancel when you don’t need them anymore. It can be for two months or two years.
And if your insurance plan is about to run out, and you’re reading this abroad, you can sign up through Safety Wing this second and get coverage, yes, while you’re NOT in your home country.
Not a bad deal, right? I’ll come back and update this post after actually using them which I’m stoked to do on my next adventure.
If you’re curious, just check here to see if this insurance may be for you.
3. Finding the Right Balance of Work and Travel—Going Slower
It will be very tempting to want to go to ALL THE PLACES and see ALL THE THINGS! That’s why you’re choosing this lifestyle, right? BUT I can’t stress enough the power of traveling slower.
First, you get to know a place better which is a special feeling you will soon find out about and second, you’ll be saving tons of cash. Moving around a lot means you’re spending a lot of money, slow down, enjoy a single country for a bit longer and then move to the next.
My happy place is spending around 2-3 months in one country. Usually, visas only last for 90 days anyway (for Americans), so it’s a good amount of time to get to know a place without getting “stuck” there.
I’ve seen LOTS of people get burnt out very quickly because they are moving to a new place every few days. You think it sounds fun at first to be on the move, but I can’t stress enough how much going slower will be so much better for your body, mind, and pockets.
4. Finding Work You Love
You’re becoming a digital nomad for a reason, I assume?
Don’t do something for the sake of becoming a digital nomad.
Find something you love and work for it. Sure, you may do things that aren’t your favorite in between, but overall, you’re working towards a goal—being location independent and enjoying your work. Right?
So with that said, choose your path carefully and strategically.
It’s going to take you a while to “get into this” job, right? Don’t waste time gunning for something for all the wrong reasons, because it seems easy, or you think it will “look and sound cool” or something.
I’ll use myself as an example again; my job looks and sounds glamorous. People want to be travel bloggers because they think we get paid to travel (shocker: we don’t! NOBODY does, no, not even “big bloggers”). They want to start a travel blog to get “free travel” and to make money.
When I hear this (in the many Facebook groups I’m apart or when in convo with random travelers), I want to spit my beer out laughing. PLEASE don’t start blogging for money. It’s a hilarious joke if you think you’re going to make money anytime soon and get “free travel” (nobody travels for free, no, NOBODY)
Certain jobs have appeal but unless you’re passionate about gunning for them, avoid them like the plague. Most blogs fail because people don’t realize how much work goes into them and probably also figured out, nothing in life is free! (Doh!)
Find something you really want to do. Something you’ll love. Something that can sustain you.
5. You’re Not on Vacation
Remember how I said that everyone is going to think you’re on vacation no matter what? Well, it’s OK for them to think that as long as you’re not actually living like you’re on vacation!
Remember—there is work to be done, you’re likely you’re own boss to some degree, and you have bills to pay.
These realities won’t go away and if you spend like you’re on vacation, guess what? Again, you’ll be flying home in no time.
Just like traveling too much, spending too much will drain you, if you live like you’re on vacation—AKA ordering tons of cocktails, eating out for every meal, and sleeping all day at the pool. Live like this, and you’ll be flying home in no time.
Vacations are expensive.
Traveling actually isn’t!
And yes, there’s a HUGE difference.
6. Travel Takes Work
I could go on forever about this one but in case there was any confusion, traveling actually takes a lot of work. You’re not on vacation so nothing is planned out perfectly to the T and all you need to do is follow the motions.
Finding the best flights, how to get to your hotel, what to do when you get there, finding a place with good wifi, searching through countless Airbnbs and hotels, finding out how not to get scammed, where is the best cafe to work from, learning the basic phrases of a new language, getting used to your new neighborhood, finding out how the public transport works…
Should I keep going? All that figuring out takes time and kind of is work! I happen to love this, I don’t mind it, it’s part the reason why I LOVE traveling but… make no mistake, it takes time, effort, and is hard work to figure out. Over and over. Every time you move to a new place (see point above about traveling slow!).
Wow. I must have really put everyone off being a digital nomad now. I know I made it sound a bit…shit. Didn’t I?
I definitely don’t want to put anyone off it I just simply wanted a post explaining the realities of it. I only know how to tell it like it is, nothing else. Everyone puts up a front that this lifestyle is AMAZING (because it is) but rarely talks about the downsides.
So now you know.
And you should also know if I was given the chance to do this all over again, I would. Without hesitation, I’d choose this path again. No other path has made me feel more free, in control, and happier. I love that I work for myself, I love my flexibility, and the fact that I CAN jet off to anywhere I so please with little notice or care while I still get work done.
This lifestyle is the best but it’s not for everyone and without its faults.
So start becoming a digital nomad, now that you’re armed with the good AND the realities of the lifestyle.
There are tons of routes but here are some things I’d suggest based on how I got started…
- Find a job that “speaks to you” that you think you’d want to do. It actually doesn’t need to be remote at first! I started with a job abroad first, then went remote. Here’s a list of over 70 jobs abroad you can use as a starting point.
- For American’s, some of the easiest ways to get abroad is to teach English abroad and work abroad in Australia. They are not remote jobs but again, starting abroad can lead to remote work/test the waters to make sure you like living abroad. Teaching English abroad can lead to teaching online (good income while you work towards something else) and working in Australia can lead to you saving some SERIOUS cash to help support you while getting started.
- Get into freelancing. It’s a great way to get side gigs, work up your portfolio, and eventually build yourself up to gain better more long term jobs. It’s a bit of a slog in the beginning, but when the ball gets rolling, you’re good!
- Look through this site where I have TONS of resources for jobs abroad and remote work and how to get started.
- Get temp and seasonal work now to save money so you can build a cushion while you get yourself started in the remote work area. Or use these ideas as your side hustle if your remote work isn’t paying the bills yet to keep you afloat.
- If you have a job now that has the potential for being remote, ASK! You could literally stay at the company you’re with, and become a digital nomad overnight. It’s happened.
There isn’t a right path or an easy path. There’s only your path, and because there are so many possibilities for work, you have to find and make your own way.
Just know, it’s going to be slow at first, and don’t be scared with taking the first step. Get abroad and get a job on the ground first, it’s actually how a lot of people start anyway, including me.
Oh, and yeah, click those links above! There’s a ridiculous amount of info there for you learn from.
Hopefully, this post did its job by pointing out everything you need to know before you become a digital nomad and some of the realities of the lifestyle. It’s amazing, I wouldn’t change a thing, but it’s not perfect. Because nothing in life is!
So, if you’re not totally turned off from becoming a digital nomad, tell me…
Are you still down to become a digital nomad? What are you getting into? Let us know in the comments!