How to Become a Digital Nomad: What I Wish I Knew

How to get started as a digital nomad, remote worker, or location independent! Tips for living the digital nomad lifestyle and for becoming a digital nomad are in this blog post.

So you want to become a digital nomad but just aren’t sure, like, how? How does one go from owning an apartment with a 9-5 job to essentially being homeless in a foreign country?

I feel ya – becoming location independent was something I knew I wanted to do for at least a full year before actually taking the leap! I KNEW I wanted to travel and have more freedom, but felt totally overwhelmed even starting to think about all the logistics.

For me, I had an extremely (un)healthy obsession with Europe. I’d wanted to visit ever since I was a kid, and knew I wanted to see more of it after putting my first foot (well, and then the second) on English soil during a study abroad program in university.

I was working at an environmental nonprofit in California. I loved my job, but was tired of Bay Area life and wanted something new. (Here’s more about how & why I left, in addition to how I navigated my first year of digital nomad life!)

I really wanted to travel and experience different places for longer than the standard 2 weeks of vacation time in America (although I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones because my job gave me 3, lol).

I desperately wanted to feel what it was like to live in various places on my favorite continent (the aforementioned Europe).

Digital nomad life in Plovdiv, Bulgaria - Here's how to live a location independent lifestyle!
[Exploring Plovdiv, Bulgaria on an overnight trip from Bansko]
I wanted to spend the summer in Greece, swimming and eating Spanikopita from bakeries.

I wanted to hunker down and live out a winter fantasy in the Arctic, watching the Northern lights from my porch.

I wanted to bike through rural Ireland while volunteering on a farm.

And I wanted to meet all the European men – what IS IT about accents???

That said, keep in mind that working while you travel is VERY different from just traveling.

Digital nomad working on a laptop in Bansko, Bulgaria - tips for becoming a digital nomad!
[Who needs wifi when this is your office?]
You may just want to take some time off at first (I took about a month off before I really started working), especially if you plan to stay in hostels and take the traditional backpacker route. Or, you may want to reconsider altogether and save up, travel, and go back home.

It is very hard to be surrounded by people who are just having fun, not working, and constantly going to cool places. That’s the reality of digital nomad life at times, though! You will either have to set strict boundaries about your work schedule, not sleep so much, or go somewhere with less distractions to ensure that you ACTUALLY work.

You may want to sit and think about how you really want to travel, and what your ideal style is.

Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, and you’re still sure the location independent lifestyle is for you, here’s what I’d recommend to help you get started.

FIRST OFF – WHAT IS A DIGITAL NOMAD?

Digital nomad life means living that laptop lifestyle and working anywhere, even if that means working remotely in the snow!
[“Working from anywhere” sometimes means working in the snow]
“Digital Nomad” seems to be quite the buzzword as of the past few years! There are a lot of different terms being thrown around – I’ll break their definitions down for you here:

  • Digital Nomad – Someone who travels while working online.
  • Location Independent – Someone who has a job that allows them to work anywhere, but they don’t necessarily travel.
  • Remote Worker – Someone who works online, but doesn’t necessarily travel, either.

So, to me, the term “Digital Nomad” is the only one that specifies working while traveling. With the other two, you could still have a home and live your normal life, but just work from home or from a co-working space in your neighborhood.

FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO FOR $$

Teaching English online with VIP Kid is a great way to make money as a digital nomad!
[I teach English online with VIP Kid as my main source of income]
If you want to travel long term and don’t have a huge savings, or just never want to go back to traditional work life, you’ll need to figure out what the heck to do to take home that (figurative) bacon, baby!

Take a look at this post by Red White Adventures for some digital nomad job inspiration. Search for remote work in It’s A Travel O.D.’s Remote Job Directory.

See if anything strikes your fancy, or if there are any skills you already have that you can leverage either as a freelancer or to help you get a remote job for a company. For example, graphic design, web development, teaching English (or any other language!), content marketing, writing, social media strategy, and virtual assistant work all make great remote careers! I could go on – honestly, almost anything can be done remotely these days IMO.

Check out this article by Chris The Freelancer for more ideas about skill building and selling your services.

There are lots of courses you can take or books to read – check out 90 Day VA, Hannah Dixon’s VA Starter Kit, or Shut Up & Go’s No Bullshit Guide to Finding Digital Nomad Work.

You may also want to consider house sitting because you’ll save SO MUCH on accommodation!

You can listen to podcast The Offbeat Life for ideas. Each week, she interviews people with different remote jobs, and asks them questions about what they do now and how they got there. Compass is another great one – she focuses on interviews with location independent women.

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH LIKEMINDED PEOPLE

Digital nomads working on laptops in Bansko, Bulgaria
[It was so nice to work with other digital nomads in Bansko! LOL but no, this wasn’t the coworking space]
This is CRUCIAL. Working remotely and traveling is still a fairly new idea, so surrounding yourself with people who are already living the nomadically is so important. Most people in your ‘real life’ may either try to convince you to stay, or be supportive but not really get it.

I’d suggest joining digital nomad Facebook groups, such as:

These are all groups I’m in and love. People are so incredibly helpful in giving advice, especially if you’re just starting out! There are also a ton of location specific groups, too, once you take the leap. The Girl Gone International Facebook group was the sole reason I was able to make any female friends in Hamburg!

I also followed a ton of nomads on Instagram, like:

They made me believe that I COULD do it, and that it wasn’t some impossible dream I should let go of. And, most of them have blogs/YouTube channels with even more nomad content to peruse at your leisure (aka 4AM when you should be asleep but are just too damn excited)!!

And as mentioned above, Podcasts are LIFE. I love:

  • The Offbeat LifeInterviews people with different location independent jobs.
  • CompassInterviews women with different location independent jobs.
  • Women on the Road – Interviews women that live in vans.

SAVE DAT $$ HONEY

Foreign money from around the world
[CHECK IT]
Of course, saving is important, too. Once I realized I wanted to become nomadic, I stopped buying anything but the necessities.

I only bought clothes/shoes if I REALLY needed them and knew I’d be taking them with me. I canceled subscriptions. I took a good look at everything I bought to determine if it was really worth it or not. I stopped going out with friends as much and rarely ate out.

I still traveled on weekends, but made sure to take cheaper trips (mostly road trips) and camped a lot. Most of the time, gas was the only extra expense (yes I still ate lol, but it was often food I brought with me from home).

I was also quite lucky as I was living at home, so I was able to save on rent, too. By the time I left, I had $20,000 USD saved. You definitely don’t have to save that much before taking the leap, though. Or that little, depending on your perspective. It’s definitely a personal thing, but I’d suggest saving enough to live for at least a few months without working, just in case. Of course, this differs by location – your money will go a lot further in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe than Western Europe – so factor that into your plan as well.

GET RID OF YOUR SHIT

Clothes in a suitcase - consider what to keep before becoming a digital nomad.
[Get rid of enough stuff so that you can fit it all in a small suitcase]
Yep, if you want to travel full-time, you’re probably going to have to downsize. I didn’t have THAT much stuff to begin with, but once I started packing, I realized just how little of it I could take with me.

I sold and gave away a LOT. I do still have several boxes in my mom’s garage that have sentimental items, like my old travel journals, camping gear that I know I’ll use again, and important documents, but most everything else is now gone.

I’d suggest starting this early, because trust me, you really don’t realize just how much STUFF you have! As soon as I decided I wanted to take the leap, I’d regularly pick a corner about once a week and start sorting.

Need help packing? Here’s what I took with me for 3 months in Europe from winter to spring when I first became nomadic!

FIGURE OUT WHERE TO GO

The streets in Bansko, Bulgaria
[Wandering through the streets in Bansko, Bulgaria]
This is part of having a plan, but I’m sure you’ll have an idea of destinations you’d like to see! Like, if you’ve always wanted to go to Asia, now’s the time to make it your first stop.

I’d suggest picking a place that may already have a strong digital nomad community for your first stop. The transition into this lifestyle can be a little jarring at first, especially when it comes to creating routine. This can be tough when you’re constantly in different places (and timezones!). It can be really lonely and come with stressful logistics, and you’ll probably want people in your corner to help make the transition a little easier.

Here are some digital nomad hotspots:

  • Chiang Mai, Thailand
  • Bali, Indonesia
  • Bansko, Bulgaria
  • Koh Lanta, Thailand
  • Las Palmas, Canary Islands
  • Lisbon, Portugal

You can check out this post on “18 Amazing Cities for Digital Nomads” by Red White Adventures for more ideas! You can also check out Nomad List, a website that rates and gives a price estimate for different locations around the world.

You can also look up different coworking spots – most cities at this point have some!

If you’re struggling, it might be helpful to figure out your values, or what you need most from a place.

For example, mine are:

  • Nature nearby, preferably mountains/forest/some sort of water, either a lake or the ocean
  • Community (I realized how important this was after being alone in England for 2 months!)
  • Affordable living
  • Fresh, local food & vegetarian options
  • Smaller, pretty town – I don’t thrive in huge cities
  • Places with all 4 seasons (of course, this doesn’t matter as much if moving around, but I really like winter – I’m not one of those nomads that runs to warmer temperatures!)
  • Fast, reliable internet

I’m willing to compromise on some of these at times, but places that have all of them are where I’m happiest!

MAKE A PLAN

Rooftops in Bansko, Bulgaria in the evening
[Rooftops in Bansko. Bulgaria had never been part of the plan, but here we are!]
Now that you have an idea of destinations you want to visit, it’s time to make a plan!

I traveled with a friend for the first 3 months before she went home. We planned everything for the first half of the trip before flying by the seat of our pants for the duration.

I’d definitely suggest creating an itinerary for the first couple months. It will be much less stressful if you know where you’re going and have accommodation booked while you’re still figuring out nomad life.

I’d also suggest having a “digital nomad strategy” BEFORE telling anyone. Have a job/freelance work lined up or a plan and pick your first destination or two. You might even want to book your ticket first if you really don’t want to risk backing out!

Trust me, you’ll be much less likely to be swayed by naysayers if you have a plan cemented in your head. I personally waited to tell my family and some friends until I KNEW what the heck I was doing. This way, I felt more confident and didn’t change my mind when people asked how I was going to make money, where I was going to stay, etc.

Also be sure to give yourself some downtime in your plan! You will need it, TRUST ME. Full time travel is more exhausting than it sounds, especially when you’re trying to work at the same time. For the first 1.5 months, my friend and I were moving to a new house sit or accommodation once a week, sometimes even less than that, because we were just so excited and wanted to see everything. It got exhausting FAST. I’d highly suggest staying at least 2 weeks in each place with maybe a few short trips sprinkled in here and there.

Now, I spend at least a month in each place I go, but preferably more. I usually just end up maxing out the time on my visa. Packing, unpacking, figuring out how to get to and from the airport, how and where to buy a new SIM card, how things work in each country, where the grocery store is, etc. – all that gets really tiring when you’re doing it over and over..and over again.

So, factor that into your plan, and don’t tire yourself out at the starting line!

BEFORE YOU GO…

Helpful tips before becoming a digital nomad

Here are some random, helpful tips for full-time travel:

  • Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. This is hands down my recommendation for a travel credit card – you get airline miles with every dollar you spend, a bonus of 60,000 miles if you spend $4000 in the first 3 months, no foreign transaction fees, and more! It does cost $99/year, but you can cancel before the first year is up and avoid paying the fee. It’s worth it just to get the card, get the bonus, then cancel honestly! I currently have the Chase Sapphire Reserve (the next step up) and love it, but I started out with the Preferred.
  • Sign up for Charles Schwab. I’m obsessed with their debit card – I get reimbursed for any ATM fees and don’t get charged when I withdraw money. I used to have Wells Fargo, and they charged me $5 each time I withdrew money from an ATM. No more!
  • Make copies of your travel documents (i.e. Passport, ID, credit/debit cards) and keep them in a separate pouch in your backpack. Carry extra passport photos, too.
  • For travel medical insurance, I use Safety Wing. Luckily, I haven’t had to use it yet, but it helps knowing I’m covered JUST IN CASE for about $40 each month.
  • Forget a phone plan, and just buy a SIM card when you arrive in a new country. Phone plans around most of the world are soooo much cheaper than in the US!
  • Get your phone unlocked by your carrier. In order to swap out SIM cards, your phone needs to be unlocked! Do this BEFORE you leave – don’t be like me, forget, and then have to wait a few days for support to finally get it unlocked after several failed attempts.
  • Get an International Driver’s License if you think there’s ANY chance that you’ll be renting a car! Many countries require them, and they’re super cheap and easy to do back in the US. (Sorry, not sure about other countries!) However, they’re a PAIN in the ass to get and super expensive if you’re already overseas. Also, consider carrying or having a photo of an older driver’s license with you if you’ve recently renewed it. In Europe, they print the date that you first passed your test on your license, but in the US (at least on the California one that I have) they don’t! I almost had to pay extra when we rented a car in Bulgaria because I’d just renewed my license so it only had the renewal date printed on it. They needed me to prove that I’d been driving for 3 years or I’d get charged an inexperienced driver fee. Luckily, I found a photo of an old license on my computer!
  • Set up travel alerts with your banks and credit card companies. Otherwise you’ll end up unable to withdraw money from an ATM because your bank thinks your card was stolen. It’s super easy to set up alerts (and you may even want to put a reminder in your calendar) and you can usually just do it online. You can also call your bank to notify them, too.
  • Sign up for a WhatsApp account! This is the easiest way to keep in touch with people you meet and with friends and family back home if you’re constantly changing SIM cards. You can also video chat/call using Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Skype, or FaceTime (if you have an iPhone – even if you don’t have a phone plan, FaceTime is still free if it’s over WiFi!). Just FYI, if you plan to only use WiFi and not get a SIM/phone contract, set up an account before you leave as WhatsApp needs to text you to confirm your number. AND if you need to call your bank back home when someone hacks into your account (that was fun) it’s free to call 1-800 numbers on Skype, even if you’re out of the country!
  • Set up a mailing account. I’m lucky because I just have all my mail sent to my mom’s house, but you can also use a company like Traveling Mailbox that will receive, scan, and send photos of your mail to you.
  • Google Visa requirements. Make sure you apply for a visa in advance if you need one! Also make sure you’re aware how long you can stay before you have to leave – you definitely don’t want issues with border control.

Then you just have book that ticket! I use Skyscanner (and if you’re not sure where to go, you use their “Everywhere” feature to help you find the cheapest ticket).

I hope this helps – I remember how nervous I was when I was first starting out! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – I certainly still do. You’ve got this!

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How to get started as a digital nomad, remote worker, or location independent! Tips for living the digital nomad lifestyle and for becoming a digital nomad are in this blog post.

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8 thoughts on “How to Become a Digital Nomad: What I Wish I Knew

  1. Loved this! I really considered signing up for VIPkid before traveling again so that I could earn some income on the road. Ultimately I decided it was not for me. Like you said in your post, traveling while you’re working is a lot different than traveling for fun. I was afraid I wouldn’t fulfill the commitment and be able to ground myself to do the work while traveling. Otherwise it seems like an amazing program to work for and gives anyone qualified the chance to work and travel, how amazing!

    1. Yeah, I totally get that! It really is a completely different way of traveling, and is definitely a personal choice for everyone. It’s nice to enjoy travel as it is and not have to worry about work, too!

  2. 2020 is my year of going full on ‘digital nomad’. I have the opportunity to do my contract marketing jobs remotely so I’m planning on taking the plunge after so much dreaming. A really useful guide here and interesting that you’ve shared your work details so openly. A great inspiring post for me!

    1. That’s amazing – so excited for you! Happy you found it useful 🙂 Good luck, and if you have any questions or just want support feel free to reach out! I know transitioning to nomad life is a little tough sometimes 🙂

  3. Such a good round up, thanks for putting together all this info! I’ve been a digital nomad for the last two years and wish I’d had better direction at the start, I definitely struggled with the getting rid of all the stuff I don’t need part!

    1. Glad you enjoyed! Yes, I still have too much stuff, I think. It’s hard to purge, that’s for sure! I always struggle with thinking I’ll need it ‘someday’…

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