“Digital nomad” sounds like the quintessential dream job: traveling the world armed with little but a laptop and the essentials, making your own schedule in a foreign coffee shop or while sipping cocktails on a beach, hopping from destination to destination as you cross yet another country off your bucket list.
However, as is often the case, the reality has been romanticized.
“Digital nomad” isn’t a job title but a lifestyle choice—an option now available to many thanks to a trend that’s changing the way we balance our careers and our lives:
The same developments in technology and attitudes about work and life that let employees and entrepreneurs work from home are also enabling a new generation bitten by the travel bug to work from, well, anywhere with a WiFi connection.
What is a "digital nomad"?
A “digital nomad” is a person who chooses to embrace remote work as a lifestyle choice, using technology to make a living that enables themselves to be as mobile as they want to be.
Digital nomads leverage remote work to fund and follow through on their desire to see the world.
There’s no prerequisite where you need to stay in a certain number of countries for a certain amount of time in order to qualify as a digital nomad. It’s simply a choice you have as a remote worker or entrepreneur who can make a living that doesn’t necessarily have to keep them in one place.
It’s also a choice that has become easier to make for many thanks to changes in the way we work.
Employers are rethinking the 9-to-5 work day
The 8-hour work day is a relic from a time when optimizing output meant balancing manual labor and life, where you clock in and you clock out.
But with the rise of "knowledge work"—jobs where employees contribute through thinking and knowledge—strict working hours don’t make as much sense when you’re answering emails on the weekend at home or you feel more creative at night.
In fact, in one study at a call center, giving employees the option to work remotely not only increased their job satisfaction, but also resulted in a 13.5% increase in productivity.
Technology has fundamentally changed how we work
Thanks to the technological innovation of the last 20 years, a laptop and the cloud offer us all the tools we need to work better both independently and collaboratively.
Technology has made it so work can get done over a great distance, and it’s really what makes being a digital nomad possible. The rest depends on your how you choose to make a living.
How to become a digital nomad, from a digital nomad
According to Martina Russo, a travel-loving translator who I spoke to about her nomadic lifestyle, the question you need to ask yourself isn’t “how to become a digital nomad”, but rather:
“What am I good at? What do I like to do? What do people need? And can I do this and take it online, so I can fund my lifestyle?”
There are no specific skills that you need to be a digital nomad. You just need to be good at what you do and be able to sell your services or product, or whatever it is, entirely online.
In order to make the transition to a digital nomad lifestyle, you need three things:
- An income stream (or a couple) that you can maintain 100% remotely.
- A laptop and a good internet connection wherever you plan to work.
- A solid grasp of personal finance and cashflow management to live within your means.
What enables Martina to maintain her nomadic lifestyle—making her home in Milan, Italy while spending months at a time in the Galapagos Islands, Cambodia, Ecuador, and other parts of the world—is her freelance business, translating from English, German and Spanish into Italian and Swiss-Italian.
She says she didn't plan on becoming a "digital nomad". But she studied translation and turned it into a freelance business that she could operate completely online—work she loves to do in a new setting every once in a while.
On the side, she also runs an ecommerce store called Freelancer At Work, which sells laptop decals that let other remote professionals show-off what they do.
Her side business got its start when she was in Croatia, working from a coffee shop. People would often give her sideways glances, curious about what she was up to. So she created a "translator at work” decal, slapped it on her laptop to tell everyone: “I was not there just using up their internet connection and watching movies, you know. I was working.”
Her product idea resonated with other remote professionals in her network who saw it (copywriters, editors, developers), and so she turned it into an ecommerce business, partnering with a trustworthy supplier so she could fulfill orders remotely.
In a way, Freelancer At Work is a reflection of Martina’s belief that being a “digital nomad” isn’t a job but a decision to embrace remote work in an unconventional way.
That begs the question, though: What careers are conducive to realizing a digital nomad’s lifestyle?
The best jobs for digital nomads
The only prerequisite to embrace a nomadic lifestyle is whether you can work 100% remotely from your laptop and phone to fund your adventures.
It turns out there are a lot more jobs that fit the bill than you might expect.
Many Shopify Experts also work remotely with merchants as developers, designers, and marketers to help them build their stores and grow their business.
Ecommerce entrepreneurs are often able to free themselves to work as they travel by finding a way to hand off the one aspect of running an online store that could keep a business grounded: shipping and fulfillment.
Some overcome the hurdle by using dropshipping. Some (like Martina) are able to find a supplier they can trust to ship orders to customers. Others get creative with digital products that don’t require any physical inventory to manage at all.
With a solution in place, they’re able to run the rest of their business, from marketing to customer support, while on the road, outsourcing as they grow in order to free up their time.
Check out this episode of Shopify Masters to find out how Chris Cage, owner of Greenbelly Meals, uses his ecommerce business to fund his travels.
Writer, Editor, Translator
Almost any job that deals with words can be done remotely. Whether it’s content creation, book editing, interviewing someone for a story, or writing website copy, you can execute for a client without being in the same room as them.
Either you can find an employer that embraces remote work, or you can create your own business and brand as an independent freelancer or agency.
Developer or Designer
Developers and designers are some of the most common remote positions you’ll find when you look at any job board. You can even create your own products and turn them into a source of income as well.
Nearly all the tools a marketer needs are accessible from their laptop. And since most digital marketing is measurable, it’s easy for clients and employers to keep marketers accountable even when they're working from the other side of the world.
Customer support jobs were among the first to go remote since they’ve work entirely over the phone, email, or chat anyway.
Support is also an ideal position for remote work because companies need teams around the globe in order to offer 24/7 support.
And jobs you wouldn’t expect
The above are the usual suspects for remote work. But more and more, professions are embracing technology as a way to interact with customers and clients without the need to be in the same room. There are even new careers being creating specifically around remote work, like the full-time virtual assistant.
“There are people doing things that I didn't think were possible to do remotely,” Martina says. “You have fitness coaches, psychologists—you have so many [established] professions that people manage to do online that you wouldn't think possible. Also, on the client side, people are starting to open up and accept this way of working.”
The Best Places to Work for Digital Nomads
Naturally, some countries will be more suited to your lifestyle and income as a digital nomad than others.
According to Nomad List, an online community and database of cities for digital nomads, the top 5 cities overall for remote work, based on feedback from users, include:
But the world is a much bigger place than that and every city has its own nuances beyond the obvious cost of living.
Nomad List also crowdsources feedback from its network of digital nomads who review cities based on an exhaustive list of considerations that you might not think about—from cultural differences around freedom of speech and how friendly locals are to foreigners, to whether you’ll have access to ride-sharing services. It’ll even show you the cost of a cup of coffee and the best co-working space.
Check out Nomad List if you’re thinking about working abroad. It’s a valuable resource for travelling remote workers and entrepreneurs to know what they’re getting into before deciding on a new destination to work from.
What are the downsides of digital nomadism?
Life as a digital nomad isn’t all adventures, especially if you’re used to the comfort of heading into an office for a 9-to-5, or even working from home.
“In the beginning, it's very hard,” Martina explains. “You need to be smart and you need to find ways to make sure that you have a certain income coming in every month. One of the best and most efficient ways of doing that is creating sources of passive income.”
If you’re an independent entrepreneur or freelancer, like Martina, she stresses the importance of generating income you can rely on for months in advance and, if you can, diversifying so you’re not relying entirely on one source. Sometimes, the unexpected happens and you’re not able to work for extended periods of time, which can be tough if you haven’t saved up enough money for a rainy day.
“Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. I came into a rough period one day, and I couldn't work for six months. When you're a freelancer, you need to have a plan B. You need to save [money]—it's so important. I've never saved my whole life and now I've learned how important it is to save."
The other thing to be ever-aware of is time zone differences that could have you working odd hours to meet clients and deadlines. You need to factor that in when you’re thinking about where you want to spend the next few months or longer.
But that’s the trade-off for choosing freedom over structure in your work.
Working from your couch or another country
Digital nomadism is an exciting opportunity that’s only going to become more common as technology evolves to better support it and people unlearn the notion that work needs to be done in an office.
The same shift in the way we work that lets us work from our couches at home also affords avid travelers the opportunity to work as they explore new locales instead of having to pick between the two.
If you love to travel, and are tired of waiting for vacation days to see the world, it might be worth looking into how you can embrace remote work to make traveling less of an escape and more of a lifestyle.