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12 Doses of Reality: The Digital Nomad Lifestyle

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Kat Smith
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Being a digital nomad is incredibly fun. Being able to make money on the go (so long as there's wifi), spending extended periods of time in dreamy places, and having the freedom to say, "let's go here" and actually go there, are huge perks of the lifestyle.

But it's not all sunny days, cheap flights, and immaculate accommodations.

There's a learning curve to this lifestyle and certain things are only real on Instagram. Think bringing your laptop out onto the beach is a dream office? Think again. Sand in your keyboard, glare on your screen, and an overheating CPU makes for a pretty unproductive work day.

But, while you might not actually enjoy working from the beach, being a digital nomad means you can work with the beach as your backyard. You can start and end your day splashing in the waves but stick to staying at a comfortable workspace while you get your job done.

Years ago, my husband and I were digital nomads as we traveled Southeast Asia. Honestly, those few months were exhausting and had us so excited for a sense of stability when we moved to Ho Chi Minh City. Afterward, we relocated to Da Nang and stayed put for a couple of years working remotely with a home base.

Now, we're back on the road as digital nomads but this time with far more experience under our belts. We've been able to figure out what wore us out the last go around so we could make those adjustments and have the digital nomad lifestyle fit far better for us this time.

A landscape photo from Yosemite National Park with El Capital and Half Dome separated by a small river
Being a digital nomad has brought me to places like Yosemite National Park when living in our van

Before we dive in, I want to quickly define a few words that come up a lot in the space. This will help you navigate becoming a digital nomad or see if you'd actually prefer a different lifestyle:

  • Digital Nomad: Someone who works online from various locations of their choosing. They are not tied to one location for their work.
  • Location Independent: Someone who works online and doesn't need to be in one location for their work. All digital nomads are location independent but not all location-independent people work while traveling.
  • Nomad: Someone who doesn't have a fixed address and typically doesn't stay long in any given location. Work isn't tied into this definition.
  • Serial Expat: A person living outside of their home country, usually they pick one place to stay for a year or two before moving on to the next place. Work isn't tied into this definition.
  • Expat: A person living outside of their home country, usually they pick one place to stay long-term. Work isn't tied into this definition.

In my 10 years abroad, I've fit into all of these categories and I think I'll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It can be exciting to have the freedom and flexibility to swap back and forth and pick and choose the lifestyle that fits how you currently feel.

If you're dreaming of becoming a digital nomad, I'm here to say you should go for it. But, before you buy your first ticket abroad, here are 12 doses of reality you need to take in.

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There’s a Big Difference Between Working for Yourself vs. As an Employee

The first dose of reality you need to be aware of is that your digital nomad lifestyle will differ if you work for yourself or work as an employee. Regardless of which route you go as a digital nomad, there are certain pros and cons to both. Still in search for a job or freelance clients? These platforms are great for finding remote jobs.

Working For Yourself

Working as a freelancer or business owner means you'll have more flexibility over your schedule. If you want to catch a train on a Tuesday, no one is stopping you but yourself. It'll also mean you might end up working more than the average employee and your paycheck won't be guaranteed.

It can be tough to plan where in the world you'd like to go if you don't know how much money you'll have in your bank account.

Working as an Employee

On the other hand, working as an employee means you'll lose some flexibility. Depending on your boss, you might be on a strict 9-5 schedule (that's my reality right now) or you might just need to work a certain number of hours or make your deliverables, regardless of the time of the day.

Either way, your work depends on your boss, instead of your work depending on you. On the bright side, as an employee, you have a salary. That means you know your monthly income and you can confidently choose places with a cost of living that fits.

Right now, I'm a full-time employee with a U.S.-based company. They know I'm in Europe and allow me to work European hours but are strict that I work 8 hours a day.

While it was a tough change of pace from previously being self-employed, I can say having a set salary has meant I've been able to live in better places and enjoy more perks of my location without having to stress over the uncertainty of how much money I'll make next month.

a semi-empty plaza in old town Kotor with its venetian architecture still intact
Without being a digital nomad, I never could have afforded to spend 3 months on Kotor Bay

You Can't Work Full-Time and Travel Full-Time

This is akin to: you can't have your cake and eat it, too. I think most people who idolize the digital nomad lifestyle assume that us digital nomads are constantly traveling to new places while seamlessly balancing our jobs at the same time.

It's just not happening that way. And if it is for someone, they'll get either burnt out with the overdose of balancing too much or end up doing both things half-assed.

To really take advantage of being a digital nomad and to make the lifestyle sustainable, you need to cut back on something. There's just not enough hours in the day to do two things full-time.

When my husband and I were living in a van and traveling the Western U.S., we drastically cut back on our hours. We were both working freelance and were able to get our work done in 1-2 days a week so we could use the other 5-6 days exploring remote locations and fully immersing ourselves into travel.

So that's option 1: prioritize travel and cut down on work.

On the flipside, now that the priority has become work, we haven't stopped traveling, we just embrace slow travel. Instead of aiming to see a new place every few days and racing to see what we can, we aim to spend around 3 months in each country we visit. We choose a city or town where we stay for about 2 months and have the other month free to either extend our time in our home base or then slowly travel to 2-3 other places in the country before hopping to the next destination.

In this option, we always prefer to rent a car and drive from one destination to the other. We pick places near enough to each other and go deep on getting to know a specific region. Renting a car allows us to go at our own pace, make some stops along the way, plus it's way less stressful for our pets.

So that's option 2: prioritize work and travel around the world slowly.

Whichever option you choose is up to you. Personally, I've been enjoying #2 because it's been saving us money, allows us to really sink into a place before leaving, and has given us a high quality of life given the slower pace we're at.

If you're on a limited time crunch, you might prefer option 1 though.

Having a comfortable place to call home makes a world of a difference as a digital nomad

Finding Long-Term Accommodation That's Good for Working Can Be a Challenge

I know plenty of digital nomads who work from hostels and plenty of others who prefer a nice hotel or a homey apartment. Regardless, choosing accommodation is something you'll constantly be dealing with as a digital nomad.

As a backpacker, I didn't care too much where I slept, so long as it was super affordable, in a fun part of town, and gave me a clean enough bed.

As a digital nomad, my standards are much higher. That's because I need a good place to work from. How picky you are with your workspace will most likely go back to the type of work you're doing and how many hours a day you need to put in.

I'll put it this way:

  • If you're a freelancer who is prioritizing the travel side of things and plans to put in minimal hours, hostels should be good for you. You might just like to have a private room or shared rooms with locked storage spaces for your computer. Hostels will save you money and will introduce you to other travelers, but they most likely won't give you a quite comfortable space to concentrate.
  • If you're again prioritizing travel but have a job that requires a bit more focus and concentrated work time, you'll probably prefer staying in nicer hotels. This is definitely the most expensive route, but it's a nice way to get the best way of both worlds.
  • If your job is your priority though and you'd rather slow travel the world, I suggest staying at apartments. You can find apartments online, either by booking directly or on Airbnb, or you can browse in-person once you arrive. Getting accommodation in-person will save you loads of money and allow you to vet the place before you move in.

Regardless of the type of accommodation you prefer, I suggest making sure you have a good work space. I'm currently typing this from the couch but I certainly don't work from here everyday. Having a keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand go along way in keeping you productive and comfortable. You'll just need a big enough table and good enough chair to make the set up perfect.

If you want to save on accommodation but still have a good desk set up, I suggest finding coworking spaces you can use. Not all cities have these but it's certainly becoming more and more popular.

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You'll Need to Be Smart About Internet Access

Speaking of a good set up, don't move in anywhere before you ask them to run a speed test on the internet. Nothing will offset your day more like an unreliable connection.

Imagine it being your first day on Kotor Bay and all you need to do is send off a few things before you can go out and explore but the internet isn't working. You wait and wait and wait, watching the connection going in and out. By the end of the day, you're frustrated, having wasted hours that you could have spent enjoying your new surroundings all thanks to bad internet.

A strong internet connection is your lifeblood as a digital nomad and honestly the only thing you really need besides a job and a computer to make this life work.

Regardless of what your accommodation tells you about the quality of the internet, I recommend always getting a local SIM card with plenty of data so you can easily swap over to hotspots on the days that the internet connection just isn't cooperating.

a woman standing on tocks overlooking the Ionian Sea in Corfu, Greece
Being a digital nomad has given me the freedom to visit places like Corfu, Greece

Your Productivity May Take Some Dips

Unless you work hourly, your productivity directly correlates to how much freedom you'll get traveling. If you work with clients or for yourself, the moment you get done with your daily checklist, you can go out and explore.

Now, that is some great motivation to getting the job done as quickly as possible.

While it might sound as simple as that, it's normal for your productivity to dip, especially if you're new to the digital nomad lifestyle. Working remotely from all over the world can be a big change to your normal routine. Always having to find a new workspace and getting into a new flow can be a bigger challenge than you might expect.

The Woes of Constantly Packing and Unpacking

Another harsh reality that you certainly don't see behind the scenes of most digital nomads is that we're constantly in a state of packing, unpacking, or living out of a suitcase or backpack.

Depending on how much stuff you travel with, this can become an even bigger hurdle when you're having to use extra time to constantly unpack, settle in, pack up, move cities, unpack, settle in....you get the idea.

My biggest tip with this: unpack as soon as you can. Living out a suitcase gets old really quickly. It gives me holiday vibes, which doesn't equate to working vibes in my mind. I'm much more productive if I'm unpacked and settled in wherever I am.

Give yourself permission to let your productivity dip, but do some internal digging to see what it was that affected it most so you can make your next move a smoother transition for you.

For example, I always try and move on a Saturday. That way, I have Sunday in my new place to unpack and explore freely without having to think about work. The times I moved on a Sunday, Monday was impossible to get through. I was so distracted by the new sights outside my door that I hardly got anything done. Just by switching my travels one day sooner has made all the difference for me.

a side street in Shkoder, Albania with people walking and a man on a bicycle
Living in Albania as digital nomads meant spending less than 10% of my monthly salary on rent

Be Smart and Make Geoarbitrage Work for You

Whether you've heard of the term or not, many remote workers dream of making geoarbitrage work for them. That means, you live in a country with a lower cost of living than the one you make money in.

That was how I was able to make so little and instead use my time building A Way Abroad when we lived in Vietnam. Since the money I was making was in USD, those dollars went a lot farther than they would have if I was actually living in the US.

It's a big reason why so many entrepreneurs live in places like Bali, Thailand, or Mexico. It's a strategic choice to give them the financial freedom to try something else without the stress of living paycheck to paycheck.

Not every digital nomad takes advantage of geoarbitrage- some make less money than the cost of the living in the place they're visiting. Others break even. Personally though, I think taking advantage of geoarbitrage is the biggest perk of the digital nomad lifestyle that you shouldn't overlook.

If you find a great country with a low cost of living and are making your income in a more lucrative currency, you can either get by with working less and enjoying yourself more or you could save far more than you thought possible by working the exact same amount.

Don't Overlook Banking, Taxes, and Insurance

Speaking of money, don't overlook banking and taxes. The complexity of this will greatly depend on where you're from and the laws of your home country.

For example, this has been a non-issue for me as a U.S. citizen so long as I pay my taxes each year (I file with Greenback Expat Services). Whereas for my Colombian husband, getting an international bank has been a nightmare.

Depending on where your from, you might need to cross a few extra hurdles to get this set up for you. Otherwise, just make sure you're using a bank that can accept international transfers (for overseas clients) and doesn't charge an arm and a leg for ATM fees abroad. One of the best ways to make and receive payments across borders is with Wise. They charge far less transaction fees than PayPal and will give you an account number just like a bank if the sender doesn't use Wise, too. Plus, you can get a Wise debit card that works virtually anywhere.

As for insurance, the type you'll want to have will depend on the visa you chose (more on that in the next point). If you opt for a long-term digital nomad visa, having local health insurance for that country will most likely be part of the deal. If you're traveling more freely and not staying long enough in one place, I suggest SafetyWing Nomad Insurance. This is the insurance I've been using for years, and while they're not the most all encompassing out there, they're affordable, they'll cover the basics, and will reimburse you when applicable.

a woman sitting at a campsite with her van parked beside her in Moab, Utah
The digital nomad lifestyle gave us the freedom to travel throughout the US

You'll Need to Understand Digital Nomad Visas vs. Tourist Visas

Another thing you can't overlook are visas. This is certainly not part of the romantic side of being a digital nomad but it's a true reality.

Visas allow you to stay in a country for a certain period of time and highlight the rights you have while you're in said place. Some countries won't require you to get a visa, others will. It's important that you know that visa rights change for each country and are dependent on your nationality.

Most digital nomads stay in a place as a long as they legally can as a tourist, whether they can enter in visa free or on a tourist visa. In general, you're likely to get 3 months "free" in most countries. This will of course vary but it's a general rule of thumb.

If you go this route, know that by entering in as a tourist, you're not actually allowed to make money while there. This rule though is primarily in place for people working in person. Since remote work is still a relatively new trend, most governments haven't yet caught up to acknowledge how they legally deal with remote workers. That means, for the most part, we fall into a legal grey zone.

But, that's starting to change thanks to digital nomad visas, also called freelance visas or remote worker visas. These visas allow you to legally reside in a foreign country for a year, sometimes longer. These are beneficial to remote workers because they allows us to set up a home base abroad without having to worry about visa runs or being under the table. It's a win for the country itself because, in most cases, we're required to pay them taxes.

If you're looking to travel the world, I'd stick with laying low on tourist visas but if instead you want residency or stability in a specific place, digital nomad visas are for you!

Loneliness Will Kick in at Some Point

Loneliness is a common side effect of people working remotely. It can be tough to build a community if you're constantly on the road and sometimes the thought of having to make new friends again is just really exhausting.

As an expat, it's usually easier to make friends abroad since you're planning to stay put for at least the time being. But, as a nomad, you're most likely only in town for up to 3 months. That's not to say you can't and won't make friends but it will mean you have to constantly put in an effort everytime you land somewhere new.

Loneliness will most likely come in heavier doses if you're traveling solo and if you don't speak the local language.

In times like these, you might fall into a well of staying in bed and watching Netflix. While sometimes that's just necessary, I really suggest you don't make it a habit every night.

To take away some of the anxiety associated with meeting new people, remember: it's a lot easier to strike up a conversation with other digital nomads or expats when you realize they're most likely just as eager to make new friends as you are.

Overlook view over the coastline in St. Kitts & Nevis
You could wake up with a different view as often as you'd like

Get to Know Your Temporary Home Outside of the Expat Bubble

Now I know I just said it's easier to befriend other nomads and expats, but there's a fine balance between sticking in the expat bubble to fight loneliness versus getting out of it to challenge yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Part of the allure of the digital nomad lifestyle is the chance to really get to know a foreign country, city, or town. We're lucky enough to be able to stay abroad for longer than just a vacation, so don't let that time go to waste.

In every place I've ever lived that has had more than a handful of foreigners, there's been an expat bubble. I suggest living outside of it and only making your rounds to the bubble for events or once a week to make some friends.

Otherwise, get to know the real place. Be adventurous and try local food, struggle over the local language, and take part in the local source of entertainment. Not only is this what traveling is really about, but it's sure to save you loads of cash along the way.

Be Sure to Separate Life and Work

I know it may seem like you have to be a content creator to be a successful digital nomad, you do not. I commonly get the question about why I don't have a YouTube or a TikTok, but these questions all come from people who aren't actually nomads.

Don't feel the need to document everything you do. It's not an expectation of this lifestyle. Not everything needs to be turned into a Reel or a TikTok. Even if you're traveling as a content creator, do yourself a favor and separate life from work.

It can be easy to keep your phone out or your eye behind the lens, and while I do think there is a time and place for that, you'll miss out on a lot if everything becomes about getting the perfect shot. Take a break and enjoy the sunset without needing to press record.

You'll Have to Remind Yourself to Turn Off Your Computer

Content creator or not, when you work remotely, it can be really tough to set hard boundaries about when it's time to work and when it's time to play. This is something I continue to struggle with and most other entrepreneurs and freelancers have agreed with.

When there's no official start and stop to your work day, the work can just drag on forever. You can quickly get locked in behind your laptop and forget to actually take advantage of the beautiful new world just outside your door.

If you're stuck in the hustle mode, do your best to set hard turn off times each day or hard start times each morning to make sure you're getting your work done but still enjoy the freedom of this lifestyle.

Starting your own business or working for yourself as a freelancer can be far more time consuming than a regular 9-5 job. When you're the only one responsible for making the thing work, it's easy to feel the pressure that you can't take a break.

I promise though, you can and you should.

Now That’s the Truth About Becoming a Digital Nomad

With these tips and doses of reality, you're ready to embrace the reality of the digital nomad lifestyle. While it might not be all rainbows, butterflies, and turquoise beaches, it still is an incredible way of life that if you're lucky enough to be able to try, I implore you to do so.

Go slow, have fun, and if you're smart about the destinations you choose, you can even save money while you're at it.

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