Why a Virtual Job is the Best Job
Digital Nomad Work Allows for Long-Term Travel and Living Abroad
Write on a boat, work anywhere when you choose the life of a digital nomad.
To live abroad for an extended time,
you have two big questions to answer, no matter where you
How will I support myself?
How will I live here as a legal
In most long-term international living situations, these two answers go hand in hand. The work you do and where your money comes from will determine what type of visa/residency you can get.
If you are just going to bop around the world on tourist visas as a digital nomad, staying as long as you can and then heading somewhere else, you won't have many restrictions if you're from a developed country. Citizens of the USA, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Japan, and others can get you into 160+ countries without a visa or by contacting one upon arrival. Note: restrictions can change depending on your citizenship, so always verify via your government agency website.
When you want to stay longer than a few months, however, that's when things get tricky. In nearly any country in the world, their main concern when evaluating your status is whether you can support yourself. In Country A, that may be a low bar of $600 a month coming in each month or the equivalent of that times 12 sitting in a bank account. In Country B, it may be several thousand dollars a month—plus more for each dependent.
If you can't meet this threshold, you will likely be relying on tourist visas, never being able to stay longer than three or six months at a time. If you earn enough already, though, you will likely meet little resistance from the authorities with this arrangement. Stay out of trouble, and all will be well.
Apart from a few outliers like Cambodia, most countries won't allow you to work without a work permit, so you can't legally be a bartender, English Teacher, or massage therapist. Many do it anyway, of course, but there's always the danger of being suddenly deported or fined.
However, if all of your money comes from the USA or Europe, they’d love to have you settle down with your laptop and spend lots of money in their country.
You’re a net contributor rather than a net taker,
a plus for the local economy.
There are other tried and true options,
like teaching English as a second language, that can be satisfying
and lucrative. I’ve done this myself in the past: in Turkey
(on a tourist visa) and in South Korea (on a work visa).
Or if you can get transferred while working for a company
you like, they’ll take care of the paperwork, and you’ll
probably live better than you did at home. Some people
manage to get hired locally as real estate agents, hotel
chefs, or diving instructors, which all pay better than the
standard local wage.
If you read books on working your way around the world, you'll also find plenty of jobs that don't require special certification or experience. Just be advised that the closer you come to skills the locals already have, the less money you can potentially make. You'll also have a more challenging time getting a work or business visa.
If you're not bringing any exceptional experience to the table for unskilled labor jobs, you're competing with locals willing to work for far less than you. Here's a good rule of thumb: if people from that country are coming to your country to do this job for more money, trying to go the opposite direction for the same job is just stupid. Mexico and Bulgaria don't need fruit pickers or hotel maids. Nicaragua and Vietnam don't need coffee workers. Colombia and India don't need people who can sew t-shirts. There can be exceptions now and then. Nobody really needs your basic bartending skills—unless it's an expat pub and they want a native English speaker. Or if you have five years of experience working in a high-end cocktail bar and the Ritz-Carlton is hiring, you're a better match than any local could be.
The Benefits of a Virtual Job
If you don't have a professional skill that easily transfers, you're better off finding a job you can do remotely. Or make your own. That may be a freelance job, a structured job that allows you to telecommute, or a business you can run online. There are some excellent reasons this works much better than the alternatives:
You earn first-world currency and
spend it in a cheaper country.
You can show proof of income to
immigration without needing to work locally.
You can set your own hours and
probably work fewer of them.
You can hit the ground running
instead of taking months to ramp up local earnings.
You have zero dependence on the
whims and pay rates of the local market.
Of course, this means you must be in a place with a good internet connection. If your business requires a lot of bandwidth-heavy applications like real-time stock trading programs, video chats, or constant uploads of large files, you'll have to strike some destinations off your list completely. There are a lot of really desirable places to live where the pipes just aren't fat enough to support that kind of data flow.
Working on a laptop in Nicaragua.
Working on a laptop in Nicaragua.
If you need to talk or meet online with clients, you will likely need to work a very non-conventional workday to be available during their regular work hours. If you're in the Americas somewhere and your clients are, too, it's no big deal. But I've heard of many freelancers or business owners who had a lot of sales calls in their mix that ended up having to move out of Southeast Asia. The difficulty of being on the exact opposite schedule of the people paying for their services was hurting revenue and relationships.
In the digital age we're in now, however,
most jobs require more email and file sharing than meetings
or phone calls. One digital nomad I interviewed for A
Better Life for Half the Price said she blocks out two days every month for calls. The rest of the time, she never talks to anyone. It's just not necessary. I've hired over a dozen people to do one-off jobs for me, from book cover design to WordPress installations. I have only talked to one of them on the phone. That was because we were getting bogged down in too many emails and wanted to hash out the punch list all at once.
Jobs That Can Go on the Road
What kinds of jobs do these digital nomads or location-independent business owners do? It's a broader range than you probably think. I've interviewed business consultants, t-shirt designers, travel writers, CPAs, software coders, and web marketing specialists. Here's a list of what people I've personally run across or read articles by are doing as they make a living abroad. The options are constantly growing, especially with the development of technologies available worldwide, making communication possible almost everywhere.
ESL (English) Teacher
Marketing Manager/Social Media Manager
Online Entrepreneur selling products
Online Entrepreneur selling services/info
Business Development Manager
Online team leader
Stock or Forex trader
Customer Service Representative
Sales rep (when few face-to-face meetings are required)
It's far easier now than even 10 years ago to look for virtual employees or be one. You could start out with no clients and gain them through
services such as NomadList, RemoteOK, Upwork, Digital Nomad, Flexjobs, Contena, and others. An easier route is to strike out on your own while you're still in your home country, then keep working for those same clients as you change physical locations. If you're good enough at what you do and keep meeting or exceeding expectations, you'll probably build up more clients through referrals and increase your income.
Editor's note: As of 2023, 11 European countries currently offer digital nomad visas. These special visas allow digital nomads to live and work in an EU country beyond the typical 90-day limit. These countries include some beautiful places to work: Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. Most digital nomad visas require that the holder is self-employed or employed by a foreign company, is able to work remotely, and must be willing to provide proof of a minimum income level. In fact, since the pandemic, there have been an increase in digital nomads, and the digital nomad phenomenon had already been underway well before.
Shannon O'Donnell is known for her popular
travel blog A
Little Adrift and was named National Geographic Traveler
of the Year for her approach to meeting needs on the ground as a volunteer in various locations worldwide. Her "real job" is being an online marketing consultant for businesses, helping them with their website content and search engine positioning. "While I was still living in the USA, before traveling, I asked my biggest client, 'If I keep up the same standard of work, you won't fire me, right?'" She kept that client and a couple of others and built up many more over time. "Now I'm at the point where I have more business than I can handle," she says. "I've never pitched, I don't even have a website—it's all from referrals."
If you have no earthly idea how you get from your current position to one that works like this, first start thinking of what skills and experience you already have that wouldn't require much of a pivot. Also, consider ways to turn your expertise into an online platform that would attract a community and enable you to sell products or advertising.
Becoming a sales rep is one way you can get a virtual job tomorrow that can pay you an excellent salary. These days, many sales jobs are done entirely by email and phone, so unless you're on the other side of the world, you can keep prospecting and selling in your home country just as you would from where you're living now. If you're willing to work on straight commission and you're a hustler, you can barge into nearly any industry and be hired in no time. Sure, you don't get paid until you deliver, but if it's a product or service that aligns with your interests and the quality is good, you should be able to get ramped up before too long.
Use Your Imagination and a Bit of Startup Investment
There are also all kinds of online money-making opportunities out there if you have a little
bit to invest in testing and tweaking. Read the book The
$100 Start-up for some inspiration. There's a forum
called StackThatMoney.com where members pay a small fee
to talk about how they're killing it with affiliate marketing
sales. You can find other ideas on the forum at Startup Investors Directory and reputable blogs/podcasts like The Suitcase Entrepreneur and Smart Passive Income.
The other shortcut is to lay out a little
capital to buy an existing online business and take it over.
You can find opportunities on Flippa.com, Empire Flippers, and other sites geared toward
online entrepreneurs. Sure, you have to invest
upfront, but then you're cash flow positive immediately,
and it often will take less than a year to recoup your investment.
Try finding a deal like that on Wall Street or at your local
real estate office!
The key to any of these though is actually
doing it. You could find enough online courses and e-books
to buy to keep you reading and dreaming for a year.
The people who make an online business work are the
ones who get out there and take action.
Editor's Note (9/2023):
We should elaborate upon the often-overlapping distinctions
between being a digital nomad, a remote worker, and a location-independent freelancer.
• A freelancer is a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer. Freelancers tend to work in the creative, skilled, or service sector, such as in film, art, design, editing, copywriting, proofreading, media, marketing, music, journalism, tourism, consulting, website development or design, computer programming, photography, language translation, tutoring, and many more.
• A digital nomad is a location-independent worker who earns a living through remote work but at a location or locations they choose.
By some estimates, there are up to 35 million digital nomads worldwide, 50% from the U.S.
• A remote worker is someone who works remotely. They could be a freelancer, an independent business owner, or someone working on a remote virtual team.
• A virtual job is a job that can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. It is a type of remote work that allows employees to work from home or any other location.
One of the differences between digital nomads and remote workers is that digital nomads travel as they work and do not have a permanent residence in any country.
These ways of working go back many years at this point in history, such that they are becoming fundamentally evergreen with new resources available daily. Recently, all such forms of making a living abroad or at home, usually but not always while traveling frequently, have increased substantially.
* * *
This article was partially excerpted
from the highly recommended book A Better Life for Half the Price (see our review), by Tim Leffel. Buy it at CheapLivingAbroad.com or via Amazon.com.
(Editor's note: We have no affiliate
relationship with the book and its author, who has been
columnist and editor to
Transitions Abroad magazine and TransitionsAbroad.com on
many occasions over the years.)