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Why a Virtual Job is the Best Job Abroad

Digital Nomad Work Allows for Long-Term Travel and Living Abroad

The author, often a digital nomad, working virtually on a boat.
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 live.

  1. How will I support myself?
  2. How will I live here as a legal resident?

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 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 enter 160+ countries without a visa or by getting 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 globally, their main concern when evaluating your status is whether you can support yourself. In Country A, there 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 get hired locally as real estate agents, hotel chefs, or diving instructors, all of which 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. Assume your business requires a lot of bandwidth-heavy applications like real-time stock trading programs, video chats, or constant uploads of large files. In that case, you'll have to completely strike some destinations off your list. 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.

The author working on a laptop virtually while drinking coffe in Nicaragua. Working on a laptop in Nicaragua.

Assume you need to talk or meet online with clients. In that case, 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 today's digital age, most jobs involve 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 much broader range than you think and the options are ever-expanding, especially since the pandemic. 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.

Editor's Note: Below is just a tiny subset of the many, ever-evolving ways to work as a digital nomad, with those with technical and sales skills generally in line for more highly paid jobs:

  • Freelance Writer/Journalist
  • Editing Jobs including Proofreading and Copywriting
  • Professional Blogging and Affiliate Marketing
  • Content Creators for all media
  • Youtube/Video Content Generator
  • Photographer
  • ESL (English) Teacher or teacher of any language
  • Online Tutor
  • Marketing Manager/Social Media Manager
  • Virtual Assistant
  • Web Designer
  • Web Developer
  • Software Developer
  • Systems Analyst
  • SEO Specialist
  • Data Analyst
  • Graphic Designer
  • Illustrator
  • Transcriptionist
  • Translator
  • eCommerce of all kinds
  • Online Entrepreneur selling products
  • Online Entrepreneur selling services/info
  • Business Development Manager
  • Personal Brand Builder
  • Technical Writer
  • Online team leader
  • Voice Talent
  • Video Production
  • Online Marketer/Consultant
  • Stock or Forex Trader
  • Wealth Manager
  • Accountant/Tax adviser
  • Customer Service Representative
  • Sales Rep (when few face-to-face meetings are required)
  • Life, Health, or Business Coach

It's far easier now than even 10 years ago to look for virtual employees or be one. You could start 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 and work as a Digital Nomad. 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 mid-2024, 14 European countries currently offer digital nomad visas, with the number rapidly growing. These special visas allow digital nomads to live and work in an EU country beyond the typical 90-day limit. The countries include some beautiful places to work: Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Spain. In addition, 58 countries (increasing monthly) across the globe offer different forms of digital nomad visas, with Japan being one of the most recent in 2024.

Most digital nomad visas require that the holder be self-employed or employed by a foreign company, be able to work remotely, and be willing to provide proof of a minimum income level. In fact, since the pandemic, there has been an increase in the community of digital nomads, and the digital nomad phenomenon had already been underway well before. Explore the requirements for each and every country very carefully and learn from fellow digital nomads in the growing online and on-the-ground communities.

Shannon O'Donnell is known for her popular travel blog A Little Adrift. She 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 to get a virtual job that pays you an excellent salary or commission quickly. 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 many online money-making opportunities if you have little to invest in testing and tweaking. Read the book The $100 Start-up for some inspiration. There's a forum called Affiliate World Forum 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 Council 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, Empire Flippers, and other sites geared toward online entrepreneurs. Sure, you have to invest upfront, but then your cash flow is positive immediately, and it will often 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 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: 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. AAccording to some estimates, there are currently 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 permanent residence in any country

These ways of working go back many years at this point in history, and they are becoming fundamentally evergreen as new digital nomad resources and communities pop up daily. Recently, the number of ways of living abroad or at home, usually but not always while traveling frequently, has increased substantially.

* * *

This article was partially excerpted from the highly recommended book A Better Life for Half the Price (see our review), by seasoned and highly knowledgeable Tim Leffel. Buy it at or via

(Editor's note: We want to clarify that we have no affiliate relationship with the book and its author. Tim Leffel has been a contributing columnist and editor to Transitions Abroad magazine and on many occasions over the years.)

Better Life for Half the Price book by Tim Leffel.

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