Want to put the “free” in freelancing? How about untethering yourself from the bonds of geography, routine, and location dependence? If this sounds good to you, it’s time for you to learn how to become a digital nomad.
In doing so, you’ll join a trend that’s been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. Remote work, which corporate America suspiciously eyed for the last couple of decades, has become the norm, not the exception. For example, a Gartner survey of CFOs showed 74% intended to shift employees permanently to distance work.
But that doesn’t necessarily apply to you, a self-sufficient Unemployable type. You’ve been working on your own terms for a while now. It’s just the rest of the world is finally catching up, making it easier, more acceptable, and more accessible than ever before to be an anywhereist.
So, whether you decide to make the road your home or choose to do a short stint somewhere fabulous, digital nomad life turns your fantasy “office” into reality. That means the backdrop on your favorite web conferencing tools — a glistening turquoise ocean, white sand, and a pair of elegant palms swaying in the breeze — is the real deal, not a canned virtual background.
Let’s dive in.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
A digital nomad is a remote worker who lives and works from anywhere in the world. It’s as much of a lifestyle choice as it is a career path.
Going back to grade school history lessons, you might recall the earliest nomads were Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Empowered by newly discovered stone tools, they traveled around, following food supplies and resources.
Cut to 1997, when authors Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners released a book called The Digital Nomad, which prophesied that technology would be the tool to empower people to live and work anywhere in the world. These modern-day hunter-gatherers also seek things that help them thrive, like a desirable climate, new companions, and a stimulating new culture.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, digital nomads are in full force — predicted to be around one billion people by 2035, living and working either across the US or abroad.
The Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Digital nomads use internet-fueled technology to do their work while leading a location-independent lifestyle. Tools including WiFi, smartphones, laptops, and Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP), among other technology, keep digital nomads rocking their professional life while satisfying wanderlust and other personal goals. On the software side, there is a huge variety of freelancer tools that help you manage and streamline various parts of your job.
With work-from-home becoming more standard, it might be possible to keep your full-time job and make your home anywhere you happen to be. However, if you’re self-employed or running a remote business, negotiating the transition is much easier.
Additionally, the gig economy gives digital nomads the ability to earn money on the road. The best freelancer sites are location agnostic, providing opportunities to work flexible hours, picking up more work when you’re settled and less when you’re on the road.
Now, how you decide to enjoy your digital nomadism is a personal choice. Some people pick a destination, grab an Airbnb, and stay for a while with a stable home office set-up. Others roll from place to place in an RV. And still others live and work together in group housing.
The whole point of the digital nomad lifestyle is to see the world while you’re earning a living. It turns that old-school “someday I’ll travel when I’m retired” model on its head, making someday today.
Typical Digital Nomads’ Jobs
While remote work is becoming more acceptable and many “traditional” jobs are migrating online, most digital nomads’ jobs are in the “knowledge economy.” That means any service-driven business that you can easily pursue online like consulting, education, IT, and content creation.
In other words, most digital nomads are freelancers. If you’re already working in the knowledge economy, the quickest path to a digital nomad lifestyle is going freelance with your existing skills.
That said, some jobs are better suited for the digital nomad lifestyle. Here are a few ideas:
Virtual teacher or tutor: My cousin, a lifelong educator, is also a musician who loves traveling across the US. It turns out both his vocation and avocation are the perfect fit for the nomad lifestyle. While he has an agent who connects him with students worldwide, he and other aspiring virtual teachers can use apps like VIPKid to find assignments.
Content creator: Look no further than Unemployable’s founder, Brian Clark, for inspiration on this note. He’s a prolific writer and avid traveler who lived abroad with his family for a year and plans many future nomadic stints. (Brian talks about it in the Unemployable podcast episode, “A Digital Nomad at 50.”)
Content creation done right is both lucrative and location-independent — plus new experiences and settings usually means fresh inspiration and a creative boost.
Social media manager: This job is always all-digital and in-demand and offers a perfect opportunity to use your phone as your office. If you’re a creative who can write, take photos, and create shareable graphics, that’s the perfect start. All of the other aspects of the job, which include managing brand partnerships, building community, and devising organic and paid strategy based on analytics, among other tasks, are all easily done online and may not even be time-zone dependent.
Video producer: Freelance video editing is another job that translates well to the digital nomad lifestyle. Whether you’re supplying the footage or working with your client’s clips, today’s software makes it easy to produce high-quality videos from your laptop (or even your phone).
How to Become a Digital Nomad
It all starts with the desire to have a lifestyle that includes seeing new places, meeting people, and experiencing different cultures. The rest entails a bit of planning, so here are some tips for ensuring you avoid common bumps in the road.
If you’re still working your 9 to 5, perhaps it’s better to ask how to become a freelancer first.
Prepare Yourself to Travel
Start by wrapping up things at home. This may include selling your belongings or putting them in storage, and letting go of a home or office lease (or renting out your place if you own it). You should also freeze or stop subscriptions and memberships, ensure all your bills are online, find pet/plant care, and forward your mail.
Next, prep your mobile “office.” Make sure you have one of the best laptops for working remotely, choose platform-agnostic digital tools (both web and mobile), and buy or rent a mobile hotspot.
Also, stock up on other travel gadgets, like a device charger, an international power adapter, a travel wallet, and a portable GPS, as you’re going to be moving from place to place.
Finally, do your homework and choose at least your first destination wisely. It pays to figure out in advance where you’ll stay, procure some local currency, and ensure the weather is conducive to enjoying your time in a given locale.
Also, you should check to see if your destination offers an international freelance visa or not. That’s important because a regular tourist visa won’t allow you to work legally (at least with or for the locals, although you can work online), and it also limits how long you can stay.
Set Clear Expectations With Clients
Wrong meeting times and missed deadlines are a recipe for failure as a digital nomad. There’s nothing worse than setting your alarm to wake up early for a meeting, only to realize there was a miscommunication in the time, and you slept through it.
It’s crucial to be transparent with your clients from the start what your expectations are while you travel. Setting boundaries with clients around things like office hours, how they can contact you, and your revision process will ensure everyone is on the same page. If you have set communication methods with an existing client, assess your current procedures, and determine if something needs to change.
Remember, communicating expectations is up to you. Depending on where you’re traveling, you may need to be flexible with your work schedule. If you’ve agreed to send a file to a client by Friday at 5:00 p.m. EST, no matter where you are in the world or what time it is, you must honor that deadline.
Of course, that’s not to say that you need to be working from midnight to 5:00 a.m. every morning to deliver (or maybe it does if that’s your jam). You can plan your schedule in a way that works for everyone while still meeting those set expectations.
Streamline Communication Methods
Now that you’ve set your expectations, it’s time to set yourself up for success with communication methods. Chances are, each client of yours has their own preferred style, but if you have a buttoned-up process in place, it’s much more likely you can sell them on it.
Think about your major points of client contact:
- Essential communication: Setting up meetings, confirming deadlines, and invoicing.
- File-sharing: Sending deliverables, proposals, and launches.
- Collaboration: Revisions, project walkthroughs, and discussing ideas.
Having a streamlined process for handling these areas of client contact will ensure you don’t miss a thing and that you’re both aligned. Email or Slack might work well for your basic communication needs, but if you work with large files or have an intricate revision process, you’ll need something that can accommodate your needs.
It may take a bit of trial and error to find the right methods that work best for you. But once you get into your groove, you’ll be glad you took the time to fine-tune your process. Many freelancing project management software products today come with options to integrate the client as part of your project, so you two can collaborate effectively, set up tasks, deadlines, revisions and discuss the project at different stages.
Follow Through and Exceed Expectations
There’s no quicker way to ruin a client relationship like failing to do what you said you would. It’s all the more important while being a digital nomad. Of course, one of your main priorities should be exploring the country you’re visiting, but you can’t forget about your clients.
It is possible to establish a balance. Think about when you’re most productive—or better yet, when you’d like to work so you can spend time adventuring. Block off that time, get your work done, and get out there.
Just be sure you’re not skimping on quality or consistency. Excellent work goes a long way with clients, but continually showing up and providing the same caliber of work (or better) goes even further.
The Digital Nomad’s Toolbox
As a world traveler, you’re going to need a few tools to help you keep your business running. Here are a few key tools to help you do so no matter where in the world you are.
When it comes to global communications, Zoom is ubiquitous. Nowadays, it’s a verb — and it’s the best way to get some quality face time with your clients from wherever you are in the world
Zoom’s reliable video conferencing system makes it easy to schedule one-off or recurring meetings and even allows you to record each session so you don’t miss a detail. Learn about all of Zoom’s features here.
Trying to schedule a meeting while juggling different time zones can be quite the mental exercise.
This feature from timeanddate.com makes figuring out “when is good for you?” easier than ever. Plus, there are some handy functions like a meeting planner and even a fun countdown clock to share with your clients when you’re celebrating a milestone.
Bonus: you’ll never sleep through or double-book another meeting again.
If you’re a Gmail user, this feature is a game-changer. Whether you want to send a response at a more appropriate time or achieve Inbox Zero, Gmail now lets you schedule emails right within the composer.
If your travel plans aren’t too concrete, this might be your secret weapon for the ultimate digital nomad experience. This tool ranks the best cities and locations for digital nomads based on ratings and reviews from other digital nomads.
It also gives you insight into things like local weather, coworking space locations, and what other members of Nomad List are in a given city or will be there soon.
While it’s not free, for just $99, you get access to real-time data gathered from their 10,000+ members who log their trips and hop on Slack to answer questions, share up-to-date information, and make friends. In many places, community members organize and attend Nomad List meetups IRL, not just online.
The #1 obstacle to your successful digital nomad existence is a reliable internet connection. Skyroam works in more than 135 countries and is secure, fast, and affordable.
Now, you might think that you’ll always be able to track down a WiFi-friendly coffee shop, restaurant, or library, but that won’t always be true. Skyroam is one of the top choices of digital nomads for portable WiFi hotspots, and it allows you to “pay-as-you-go,” so you’re not locked into a long contract or exorbitant fees.
Also, be sure to check out this list of the top 25 freelancer tools to make collaboration, productivity, and organization simple and streamlined no matter where you are in the world.
How much does a digital nomad make?
How much digital nomads’ jobs pay depends on a few different factors: if there is an established online business or passive income source, for example. FlexJobs reports salaries of $50,000 annually or more for digital nomads — higher than many traditional salaries.
How do I start a digital nomad career?
Since digital nomads work while traveling, start by ensuring you can easily do your job remotely. Next, pare down your location-dependent expenses— things like rent, gym memberships, and subscriptions. Finally, do your research! Plan your first stop according to factors like cost of living, length of time you’d like to be there, time of year (and relatedly, weather), etc.
What skills do I need to be a digital nomad?
The most essential skill for a digital nomad is to identify what you can successfully do to earn money online from anywhere. Things like coding, design, writing, teaching, or community management are all skills that are easily translatable to a life on the road. It also helps to have “soft skills” like being resourceful and resilient.
Don’t Forget to Enjoy Your Time Abroad
Traveling is one of the best things we can do for ourselves—both professionally and personally. If you have the opportunity to travel, take advantage of it, but make sure your ducks are in a row before you go.
You’ll be glad you did, and so will your wallet.
Want to keep your business booming and your freelancer skills up-to-date from wherever you are? Be sure to tune in to the Unemployable podcast for more freelance advice and best practices.