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Digital nomad
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‘We are living a fantasy’: what’s it like to be a digital nomad?

More and more far-flung destinations are luring remote workers with special visas. But what’s the reality of life as a ‘digital nomad’?

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham
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Up to a few years ago, the idea of working remotely from a Balian beach or an Icelandic volcano seemed like something reserved for jet-setting CEOs, crypto bros and David Attenborough. But now an increasing number of more-or-less regular people are living that lifestyle. A generation of remote-working ‘digital nomads’ have packed their laptops and relocated to the planet’s furthest-flung corners – all while still keeping up with their day jobs.

It started during the pandemic, when – thanks to lockdowns and office closures – people all over the world had a kind of grand epiphany: that they could work from anywhere. And many bosses, no doubt staring down the so-called ‘great resignation’, appear to have been more than obliged to let them. Some estimates put the total number of digital nomads around the world right now between 15 and 35 million.

All those nomads, in theory, bring extra money into local economies – especially when they’re still drawing advanced-economy salaries. And this has led to a huge number of nations issuing special digital nomad visas, trying their damnedest to attract remote workers to live and work on their shores. These hassle-free visas can last between six months and five years, and often exempt their holders from paying tax – making digital nomads more akin to transitory tourists than old-fashioned expats.

The sheer number of nomads who’ve taken up the offer can have unexpected effects on local economies. Co-working and co-living spaces have boomed. In some places, entire villages have been built for these new communities. It’s a massive experiment that’s very much ongoing.

But what’s it like to actually be part of the work-from-anywhere revolution? We spoke to a few digital nomads from across the world to find out. And if you’re sold on the lifestyle, then we also sourced a few tips from an expert on how to become a digital nomad yourself.

What’s it like to be a digital nomad?

Olivia Warrick, Costa Rica
Photograph: Shutterstock

Olivia Warrick, Costa Rica

Olivia Warrick is a self-employed marketing consultant from Arlington, Virginia in the USA. She and her partner wanted a change in lifestyle after the pandemic and, having visited Costa Rica several times, the central American country appealed due to ‘the friendly culture, the proximity to diverse settings like beaches, mountains and cities, and the weather.’

Costa Rica’s digital nomad visa is one of the more difficult ones to qualify for – principally because the minimum wage requirement is a bit higher. Individual nomads in the country need to be earning $3,000 (£2,500) per month, while for those bringing families along, it’s $5,000 (£4,200) per month. For context, the average monthly wage in the UK is £2,440 ($2,800), while in the US it’s about $4,100 (£3,570). That makes it a somewhat more exclusive digital nomad destination.

For Warrick, the appeal of digital nomad life is all about its flexibility. She currently rents an apartment in the capital, San José, but also frequently takes ‘work breaks’ to destinations around the country. ‘Sometimes it’s the beach, sometimes we feel like heading to the mountains,’ she says.

Warrick’s main fears before moving abroad concerned language, but those fears have gone unrealised. ‘My high-school Spanish has proven quite useful,’ she says. ‘And Ticos [a friendly term for Costa Ricans] are always willing to teach us new words and phrases.’

That’s allowed Warrick to make the most of attractions that are specifically angled towards digital nomads. For example, she and her partner took off to Isla Chiquita, a glamping retreat on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. From there, they could still work. ‘We couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to have a deck office with a full view of the surrounding ocean,’ she says.

One particularly life-changing experience at Isla Chiquita saw Warrick go out on a ‘bioluminescence adventure’, seeing living organisms like glow-worms and deep-sea fish light up the sea at night.

‘It truly highlighted that we are living a fantasy,’ she says. ‘Boating around as the ocean sparkled with what looked like tiny submarine stars was simply spectacular. I think that experience made us realise how fortunate we are to have the chance to live a different kind of life.’

Jenny Williams, Georgia
Photograph: Shutterstock

Jenny Williams, Georgia

During the pandemic, Jenny Williams of sustainable travel company Responsible Travel moved from Brighton to Leicestershire to be closer to her family. From there, she questioned: ‘If we could work from 100 miles away in the UK, why not another country?’

And so earlier this year Williams decided to move to Tbilisi, capital of the rugged western Asian nation of Georgia.

She made the most of the country’s year-long digital nomad visa scheme, which she says was exceptionally quick and simple to apply for. There’s no application fee for the Georgian visa and it usually takes under ten days to process.

Williams hasn’t looked back, finding that the change of location and culture alone transforms everyday life itself into some kind of thrill.

‘Tbilisi has so much character. It’s got theatres, galleries and great local restaurants. But you’ve also got hidden waterfalls, dramatic cliffs and fascinating architecture,’ she says. ‘After work I can go to a traditional sulphur bathhouse, take a cooking class, climb up to the botanical gardens or take in some historic sites.’ 

She rents a flat in central Tbilisi and has opted to live amongst the locals rather than with other expats. ‘It’s a very creative, expressive place,’ Williams says. Her apartment has a central courtyard that not only acts as somewhere to sit and chat with her neighbours, but also a place she can work. 

Like Warrick, Williams also worried about having to live with a new language. ‘Language is a bit of a barrier sometimes,’ says Williams. ‘I hadn’t managed to learn Georgian before I arrived, but I’m picking it up slowly.’

Living in Tblisi is pretty cheap, too. Not only does rent cost much less than it does in the UK, but transport is less pricy, too. ‘You can travel across the country for a few pounds by bus or rail,’ Williams says. ‘Tbilisi is very walkable and buses, metro and even taxis are very cheap.’ Groceries and general shopping aren’t quite as reliably inexpensive, but eating out is affordable outside touristy areas.

Georgia’s time zone only being three hours ahead of the UK is also ideal for Williams. It means she can easily keep in contact with her colleagues, as well as video-chat her family at home.

‘I’m here alone but I don’t feel isolated,’ she says. ‘We sit out, work, chat, hang the washing out. People take calls, call across to each other. It feels very communal.’

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Simone Flynn, Indonesia
Photograph: umikem / Shutterstock.com

Simone Flynn, Indonesia

Having visited the island of Bali in 2019, Simone Flynn – who also works for Responsible Travel – was persuaded to make the move earlier this year by Indonesia’s five-year digital nomad visa scheme.

Flynn decided to move out to Bali with her daughter, who works for a different company but with whom she first visited the island in 2019. ‘We moved out here within a few months of each other but live separately,’ she says, adding that it’s a ‘huge bonus’ that they’re out there together.

As for her visa, Flynn said both getting one and retaining it is reasonably straightforward. ‘I used an agency’, she said. ‘I paid a couple of hundred pounds and the turnaround was seven to ten days.’ She says that, over six months, the visa has cost her around £550 ($628).

Bali being seven hours ahead of the UK suits Flynn to a tee, allowing her to have a more relaxed start to the day. When everyone back home is up at the crack of dawn, Flynn has already been up for hours: ‘Generally I'll have a slow-ish morning,’ she says. ‘Coffee, work out, go to brunch and explore a little, then be back home in time to start work early afternoon.’

Like Williams in Tbilisi, it’s the everyday differences that make Flynn’s life in Bali so interesting. ‘I really appreciate experiencing day-to-day life within a different culture and environment,’ she says. As well as visiting local temples and eating out, she’s climbed volcanoes and learned to surf.

But digital nomadism hasn’t been all roses for Flynn. She initially lived in Ubud in the Balian uplands when she first became a digital nomad. ‘My initial work schedule meant I was working evenings and sleeping in until late morning, which wasn't great for socialising,’ she says. Flynn found Ubud too isolating – and it’s only now that she’s moved down to the coast that she’s really found her groove.

Flynn isn’t sure exactly how long she’ll be in Bali, but it’s been a welcome change. ‘Bali has given me a new lease of life and excitement for the future that I was lacking in the UK.’

How to become a digital nomad: four steps

1. Ask your boss if you can work from abroad

This one seems obvious, but you’ll need to scope out whether your boss is happy with you working abroad. Emmanuel Guisset, CEO of remote-working community Outsite, says that if you already work entirely from home (and you’re good at it), it could be surprisingly easy to make the ask.

‘If you can prove you’re as productive at home as you are in the office, it’s an easy decision for your team,’ Guisset says. ‘Most digital nomads work from home before deciding to work from the beach. You do need discipline for remote, independent work, and those habits are much easier to start at home.’

Hopefully your boss lets you move abroad – and if they don’t? Well, it might be time to look for a job that will.

2. Choose your destination carefully

You’ve got to choose the right digital nomad destination. And that doesn’t just mean choosing a place with low income requirements and an easy visa process. It’s also about researching things like language and culture.

For example, Guisset describes Outsite’s workplace culture in Lisbon: ‘People might finish work around 9pm – but they head straight out after for a late dinner with the group, and everyone is in the same headspace.’ Sound like your kind of thing? If not, there are plenty of other options.

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3. Nail your working set-up

You can’t work remotely without decent internet. Fortunately, plenty of digital nomad destinations know that, boasting wifi connections capable of the highest-res Zoom calls.

‘Before booking anything, I would really recommend checking the wifi speed at your accommodation or finding your local coworking space,’ says Guisset. ‘Working from a remote island sometimes sounds great, but if you don’t have an appropriate workspace and you can’t find a good connection, it gets stressful very fast.’

And don’t forget to neglect the basics, like health insurance and your desk set-up. It sounds boring, but you won’t be climbing any volcanoes with chronic back pain.

4. Find your tribe

Whether you’re in a digital nomad community like Outsite or living amongst the locals, it’s always nice to find a group of people that really get you. As Guisset explains: ‘Finding other people who are living this lifestyle is definitely a key part of the experience.’

Even before you arrive, there are a bunch of ways to find your scene, from getting involved in community events to joining online forums for digital nomads. Your digital nomad odyssey could be the adventure of a lifetime – but who wants to experience that on their own?

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