Do you want to become a digital nomad — and travel the world while making a living online? Well, it’s simple.
First you need to find work you can do online.
And then… you start traveling.
Ta-da! Two simple steps! All done!
Okay, I’m being a bit silly of course. But in a certain sense, becoming a digital nomad really is that simple. There are no ‘secrets’ and you don’t need to follow thousand-dollar courses to become one.
But even if the steps are simple, that doesn’t mean they are easy.
You’ll need to build up an income stream online, potentially make a career change or acquire new skills, not to mention manage the logistics and personal challenges of traveling long-term.
The thing is: there is no set path for doing all these things. There are loads of ways of becoming nomadic — and everything depends on your situation. Some people already have a situation allowing them to go nomadic, while others have to work towards it.
In this post, I want to help you if you’re thinking of becoming a nomad. I won’t cover every aspect, but I’ll highlight some of the many paths to becoming a digital nomad — and maybe expand your notion of what a digital nomad can be.
How to make a living online
I’m sure you’ve already heard many incredible tales about the nomad lifestyle. One month you’re co-living on tropical Bali, the next you’re working from cute local cafes in Lisbon, then the next you’re hanging out at the best surf spots in Costa Rica.
Sounds good? It is.
But to do this, you’ll obviously need some work that you can do anywhere. In most cases, that means a job you can do online.
There are broadly three ways to become a digital nomad:
- Become a remote employee. This means you’ll be a salaried employee for a company that allows you to work remotely. Some forward-thinking companies are cool with this these days.
- Become a freelancer. If you have your own client base, then it may not matter to them from where you are actually doing the work. Many nomads take their freelance career on the road.
- Start your own business. By becoming an (online) entrepreneur and being your own boss, you can gain full control over when and where you do your work.
So what types of work can you do online?
It’s a bit of a stereotype that all nomads are programmers or online marketers, though it’s still true that many of them are. If you have good coding skills or digital marketing skills, it may be easier for you to become nomadic.
Sites like Side Hustle School and Indie Hackers, or job boards like RemoteOK, can inspire some leads or ideas. The Fizzle community is also a great place to learn about online entrepreneurship, blogging, and e-commerce. (It’s what I used myself six years ago before launching this blog.)
Not all nomads are programmers or marketers though. Far from it.
Other online jobs include translation work, motion graphics design, UI design, PR, coaching, social media management, consulting, accounting, and stock trading — to name just a few.
You can even think a little more outside of the box…
Digital nomading: not just programmers
As the digital nomad scene grows and evolves, I’m often surprised by the interesting ways in which people make a living online.
I mean, would you have guessed that you can be a traveling architect? Well, I met one. She travels to places like Bali and Tulum, designing buildings that will be built in totally different countries from where she’s working.
And if you thought you could never be a fitness coach online… well, turns out you can. Recently, I learned of a nomad who trains athletes for Ironman triathlons over video chat — and yeah, I was as surprised to hear about this as you are.
I’ve met nomads who sell t-shirts online, provide psychotherapy to expats, teach English to kids in China over Skype, or teach dancing on YouTube.
Becoming a blogger, vlogger, podcaster, or influencer can also be a path towards a nomadic lifestyle. I myself became a successful travel blogger, which then enabled me to be fully location independent. It’s pretty amazing!
I do feel the field of travel blogging may be a bit saturated these days, but there are thousands of topics you could be blogging about — some of which can be very lucrative.
If you want to stand out as a blogger, then having an interesting niche can help you a lot. A while ago, I bumped into a couple who travel the world while embroidering scenes from their travels, which seemed like a really fun angle to me. They make money selling their embroidery and instructional products via Instagram.
I’m sharing these examples simply to show that digital nomads can start from wildly different places. Think about the skills you have and the skills you could develop — and remember there are a million ways to skin a banana.
Keep in mind that through the magic of cost arbitrage, you may not need to make as much while traveling as you need at home. For example, an annual income of about $12000 or €11000 can be enough to travel or live comfortably in countries like Thailand or Indonesia.
Why not be an analog nomad?
With so much focus on the type of laptop-wielding nomad these days, you would almost forget you don’t necessarily have to work online to travel and make a living.
Long before digital nomading became a trend, people were already traveling the world while picking up different jobs in each country. This is perhaps not as sexy as anything you do on your Macbook, but it’s a tried-and-true way of combining work and travel.
You could work on a cruise ship, work in hostels, teach English as a second language, or become a scuba diving instructor. Some people travel the world while volunteering on organic farms, such as with the organization WWOOF.
Could this seem less glamorous than working online? Yeah, I guess so.
But the barrier to entry is often quite a lot lower. You also get to interact more in the real world with the countries you visit, instead of staying within your WiFi bubble. As an English teacher in a country like South Korea or Japan, you might even make a much better income than many digital nomads.
Among some of the more interesting nomads I’ve met are ones who do things that are both analog and digital.
For example, two nomads I know organize road trip retreats for small groups of other nomads. At the same time, they’re also video production company, shooting marketing videos for hotels and tourism companies along the way. It’s digital in the sense that they work on their laptops, but it’s also very much based in the physical world.
Recently, I met a guy who travels the world as a stand-up comedian and artist. He paints murals, does comedy, and has gigs hosting digital marketing conferences in Chiang Mai and other places. He’s clearly an interesting guy — and not following the usual nomad path at all.
For me, the term ‘nomad’ is maybe a bit broader than how some people see it, but I think it’s cool to have an open mind. Not everyone has to follow the typical digital nomad template exactly.
Let me mention one more example of a nomad job that’s both offline and online. My sister and her husband regularly travel all over Europe in their van, usually staying in places for free in house-sitting assignments. Their business is to buy vintage or second-hand furniture which they then sell on Etsy.com for a good profit. They are absolutely loving their lifestyle.
Sure, it’s not fully nomadic — they need their van and can’t take the furniture business to, say, Fiji or Medellin. But it definitely enables a flexible lifestyle for them within the European region. (The constraint is actually not so different from digital nomads who have to stay in a certain timezone for their clients.)
All I’m saying is this: if you approach it creatively, you may be able to find some interesting ways to take your work on the road.
Build it before you need it
There is one point where I see a lot of new nomads fail. They’re trying to figure out the business side and the lifestyle all at once — and become overwhelmed.
Building up your nomad income is difficult enough as it is. Adapting to a totally different way of living will make things twice as challenging. Don’t underestimate how difficult this can be.
A digital nomad is not on some kind of perpetual holiday. You’re working and traveling long-term, which is a whole different thing. In each place you go, you essentially have to create a new mini-life from scratch. Finding cool stuff to do, maintaining a healthy social life, and having positive travel experiences outside of your work requires a different mindset and skills than you might need at home.
It’s no wonder that some newbie nomads throw up their arms saying it’s just too much, that they end up lonely on the road, or that it’s too hard staying productive.
Now, there are plenty of nomads who have figured out how to have a fulfilling social life and a healthy work-life balance, but this takes some time to learn. My advice is to learn one thing at a time.
If at all possible, build up your online work, remote job, or new business before you set off. At least, I know I would have benefited from doing this myself a lot.
I launched my travel blog the day I departed on my continuous travels, which in hindsight was a dumb move. I had no warm-up at all, didn’t know what I was doing, and was still making zero money from it. I should have started the blog a good 6 to 12 months earlier. I would’ve had time to properly set up my WordPress, learn about SEO, flex my writing muscles, and put some proper workflows in place — and then travel.
It’s a lot easier to lay the groundwork while you’re still at home and undistracted by the logistics and social challenges of traveling. Try following relevant courses, building up your portfolio and clients, or testing your business ideas while you still have some routine. That way you’ll reserve some energy for figuring out the lifestyle once you hit the road.
A failing nomad business and failing to adapt to the lifestyle is a ticket to depression. But having a few things cooking already will give you a much better chance of figuring things out.
(It also helps, by the way, to have some savings in the bank before you leave. It will take some of the pressure off.)
A good way to prepare yourself is to attend digital nomad meetups or conferences or spend time in co-working offices with an international crowd. You can learn from other nomads and get a better feel for how they approach their lifestyle. I help organize digital nomad meetups in Lisbon and they’re always great fun.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to travel always and forever to be a nomad. The whole point of nomading is that you actually have a choice.
It’s okay to go slow if you want or to stay in a place you love. Some nomads move all the time, while others aspire a two-base lifestyle (e.g. spending the winter somewhere else) or want a fixed base but with regular workations. All that is totally valid.
Don’t let digital nomad become your identity. It’s just something you do. And you can do it whatever way you want — and start or stop it anytime.
Traveling without compromise
Finally, if your goal is just to see the world, then becoming a digital nomad is not maybe the best way to do that. It does let you travel, but you’re still constrained by the requirements of your work and the availability of WiFi.
Many nomads find themselves hopping between international urban hubs but unable to go into the countryside or explore in off the beaten track places — except maybe on the weekends. That doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, of course, but it is a limitation.
If your motivation is mainly to travel and less to do with the lifestyle, then I think the best way is still to take a career sabbatical.
If you take time out to go on an extended backpacking or round-the-world trip, you’ll be able to fully focus on experiencing the countries without any distractions. And you’ll feel a level of freedom and adventure that is difficult to attain when you constantly have to juggle work and play.
Instead of nomading, you could also save up, say, $6k and travel as a budget traveler for 6 months in cheap countries. Save up some more and you could even travel a whole year without working. I’ve written posts about how much it costs to travel a whole year and how to travel cheaply. I also wrote a book that will help and inspire you to put your life on hold and go on a great adventure.
Of course, putting your career on hold is not a realistic option for everyone, making the digital nomad path more appealing. Only as a nomad you can travel indefinitely; instead of draining your savings until you have to go home, you can keep your job, keep earning an income that can let you travel for years on end, and even become fully location independent.
How to become a digital nomad
- Find a job you can do online — or start an online business. If you already have a job you do online, see if you can do it remotely.
- Build it before you need it. It’s arguably easier to figure out the income side of things before you set off abroad, or at least make a start so you can hit the ground running.
- Join digital nomad communities in your country or area. This is an excellent way of gaining inspiration, meeting like-minded people, and learning about the challenges involved. Look on Meetup.com for nomad meetups, go to coworking spaces with an international crowd, or chat with nomads in your area on Nomad List.
- Research places you’d like to travel to. Consider cheaper countries to lower financial pressure. You could even save money or pay off your debts by traveling in low-cost countries. Resources like Nomad List can help you choose where to go.
- JFDI. It’s easy to get addicted to the idea of doing something without ever doing it. If you’re on your 5th inspirational nomad conference or your 93rd podcast on the topic, you probably just need to make a decision to go. If it seems too scary, you could go on an organized nomad trip, like the Nomad Cruise or a tour with Hacker Paradise or Remote Year. Maybe don’t do a full year with Remote Year (I think it’s way overpriced) but maybe 3 or 4 months. Then use what you’ve learned to be a digital nomad independently.