2018-11-22 11.07.36

So you want to become a Digital Nomad?

Fact: Digital nomads are people who live in a nomadic way while working remotely using technology and the internet. Such people generally have minimal material possessions and work remotely in temporary housing, hotels, cafes, public libraries, co-working spaces, or recreational vehicles, using Wi-Fi, smartphones or mobile hotspots to access the Internet.

Some digital nomads are perpetual travelers, while others are only nomadic for a short period of time. While some nomads travel through various countries, others focus on one area. I know if American digital nomads that have never left their country, but have traveled every corner of it.

Digital nomads are often younger remote workers, backpackers, retired or semi-retired persons, snowbirds (people who exchange cold winters for warmer areas), and/or entrepreneurs.

Ramon remotely working from the hostel's wifi in Sri Lanka

When did this all get started?

One of the first digital nomads was Steve Roberts, who in 1983 rode on a computerized recumbent bicycle (one where you lay down) and was featured in Popular Computing magazine; the magazine referred to him as a “high-tech nomad”.

The term “digital nomad” started to be used in the early 1990s to describe a new type of high tech traveling lifestyle made possible by the growth of computer networking and popularization of mobile devices like laptops, tablets and PDAs (that’s short for a Personal Digital Assistant, no kidding).

In his 1992 travelogue Exploring the Internet, Carl Malamud described a “digital nomad” who “travels the world with a laptop”. That made things so much easier!

When I started my form of digital nomadism through my own little social network called Letmestayforaday.com in 2001, I started my travels off with a laptop. When I stayed with people I depended on their dial-up phone line of their provider (so that changed daily), where a few years later I was happy to just be able to plug in their DSL-line into my laptop. Don’t let me get started on my Sony Mavica digital camera which needed a backpack full of hard floppy disks.

Newspaper scan of 'Freeloader' Visits Tweeds, Australia

Most print publications from that time will use the term “digital nomad” to refer to the increased mobility and more powerful communication and productivity technologies that new mobile devices introduced. It were the devices that made it all possible.

In modern-day usage, the term broadly describes a category of highly mobile, location-independent professionals who are able to live and work remotely from anywhere in the world with internet access, due to the integration of mobile technology into everyday life and work settings.

So why do people become a Digital Nomad?

People typically become digital nomads due to a desire to travel and location independence. Compared to living in expensive cities, a digital nomad lifestyle also has cost advantages.

A lot of digital nomads that I know are able to take advantage of different jurisdictions and global labor arbitrage to preserve their freedom and freedom of income and taxation (for example, they earn income in Country A, become tax resident in Country B, have a bank in Country C on only online, own a bit of real estate in Country D, open a company in country E, hire labor from country F, and so on).

It’s not a lifestyle made for everybody, here are some challenges

Although digital nomads enjoy these enormous advantages in freedom and flexibility, if you ask them, they mostly report loneliness as their biggest struggle, followed by burnout. There they are in this amazing digital nomad community in Chiang Mai in Thailand, got themselves a cheap modern apartment with all amenities, make an online income but suffocate on the idea to go out and meet other people. So they just make the hours, make money and burn out….

Other challenges include maintaining international health insurance with coverage globally, abiding by different local laws including payment of required taxes and obtaining work visas, and maintaining long-distance relationships with friends and family back home.

In some cases, the digital nomad lifestyle leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication between digital nomads and their normal clients or employers. The ones in their office cubicle. “So you live in Far-Far Away and you can help me out, while I am in my office? And what do you mean, you don’t pay taxes?”

Other challenges may also include time zone differences, the difficulty of finding a reliable connection to the internet, and the absence of delineation between work and leisure time. I know a guy who works the customer service of a big chain of companies in the US and Mexico, while he works from Georgia, the country. He loves to grab a beer at noon, before he’ll have to go to bed to be ready for work after midnight.

Feelings of loneliness are often present in the practice of nomadic lifestyle, since nomadism often requires freedom from personal attachments such as marriage (or a relationship in general!). The importance of developing face-to-face quality relationships has been stressed to maintain mental health in remote workers.

The need for intimacy and family life may be a motive to undertake digital nomadism as an intermittent or temporary activity. Most people embrace digital nomadism and step out of it when they either had enough of it or wish to have a different life from it.

I have discovered this myself by living in a tropical city in Southeast Asia where I could connect little with the locals and I discovered that most other foreigners were teachers. You have to find a way to mingle in, even though your own working hours are different.

Four digital nomads as friends on a hike

And you are free to decide to move around, pick another location on the fly and just settle elsewhere.

But wherever you settle, for long or short terms, you’ll have to start all over again everywhere, whereas people with a normal life would have weekly social activities (sports, long time friends, neighbors, dinner parties, family), you don’t have any of that at hand.

So wherever you end up, join a gym (or even CrossFit classes), head out to pub quiz trivia nights at a local bar or put out a post in a social media group where you ask for a hiking/drinking/badminton/cooking buddy. Trust me, they exist.

(And don’t date teachers, though. They leave once their contract ends and doubt your love if you don’t want to join them to their next patch or some back-home country of them. But that will be another story!)

Ramon Stoppelenburg

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