Jobs Abroad

Expat vs. Digital Nomad: Which is Right for you?

Want to move abroad but don’t know the right path to choose? Learn about what it means to be an expat vs. a digital nomad to kickstart your international journey today.

A woman stands smiling and posing in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

Digital nomad and expat are two terms that we’re hearing a lot about these days. As someone who has been both, I can tell you that each is simultaneously awesome and challenging in its own unique ways.

Figuring out which one is best for you requires a bit of knowledge on what makes the two different as well as weighing your own career plans and life goals. We’re here to help clarify the differences between being an expat versus a digital nomad so you can pick the perfect fit for your future.

Read more: 7 Steps to Prepare for Your Move Abroad - Simplify Your Move Overseas!

What is an expat?

An expatriate, or expat for short, is a person who moves abroad for work. Although this sounds similar to a digital nomad, the main difference is that expats tend to make the move overseas more permanent. Expats emigrate to another country, establishing themselves there by getting a job locally and integrating into the society. For example, an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher who moves to China to teach in an elementary school is an expat. Expats can also be those who work for international companies that have offices abroad and have the ability to be transferred there.

Expats also need an appropriate visa before relocating abroad. Unlike the unique digital nomad visas for remote workers, expats generally need to apply for a work permit by either being a skilled migrant or receiving job sponsorship from an overseas employer.

Read more: How to Apply for Jobs Abroad

What is a digital nomad?

A digital nomad is someone who is either employed on a permanent basis as a remote worker or is a freelancer who provides services to various clients completely online. These people are location independent and have the freedom to choose where they work, whether that’s from somewhere within their own country or abroad. For example, a UX designer who is hired as a remote worker for a US company has the potential to be a digital nomad if they get permission to work anywhere.

Read more: 14 Best Digital Nomad Jobs in 2022 - Travel & Work From Anywhere!

As the name implies, digital nomads move from place to place with no fixed residence. This is the beauty of the digital nomad lifestyle – you’re free to travel while you work! More countries are making it easy to move abroad by offering digital nomad visas for 1 or more years, some with the possibility of making it more permanent as a digital expat should you decide to stay.

Pros and cons of being an expat

A group of three women and a man stand around a laptop looking at it and smiling.

After graduating with my master’s degree from University College Dublin, I converted my student visa to a work permit through their graduate visa scheme. I was then free to seek work at any company in Ireland. I ended up taking a job at a breaking news US tech start-up that had just opened an office in Dublin.

I was the only American on a team of 10 but my Irish coworkers became like a second family to me. It took a little bit of time but into my second year in Ireland, I really felt I had integrated into the social fabric of the country – even as an expat.

Becoming an expat is a great option for some but may not be right for everyone. Here are some pros and cons to highlight what it means to be an expat.

Pros

  • As an expat, you can settle into your new country and start a life there.
  • With a local job contact comes local benefits – healthcare and likely more vacation days than the US.
  • Having a physical workplace is a great way to meet your first friends after moving abroad, your coworkers!
  • Living legally abroad as an expat can lead to permanent residency or even citizenship in the long term.

Cons

  • Being more established in a job and country may limit your opportunities to travel.
  • Earning the local currency may not lend itself to a cushy lifestyle if the country doesn’t have a low cost of living.
  • A job in an office (or a classroom) means your hours are fairly inflexible and you won’t likely have the choice to work from home.
  • Getting a work visa for another country can be hard if you don’t have a job offer.

Think the expat life is right for you? Check out our general overseas jobs board as well as our teach abroad jobs board.

Pros and cons of being a digital nomad

A man sits on a deck chair with a laptop on his lap, a pool is in the background.

When I left Ireland, I came to Spain to continue the expat life as an English teacher in Madrid. One year turned into two and a half during which time I also worked on the east coast by the beach in Alicante. In the summer of 2020, I returned to Madrid for another short stint of teaching before transitioning to my current digital nomad role as a Content Writer and Editor here at GO.

Currently, I spend my days working from my studio apartment in the Malasaña neighborhood or down the street at my favorite cafe with a cup of coffee and a donut.

If you’re considering the digital nomad lifestyle, here are some pros and cons to consider before jumping in.

Read more: How to Become a Digital Nomad in 2022

Pros

  • Being location-independent means you can jump around and live in many different places.
  • Digital nomad visas are becoming more popular and ensure your move is legal.
  • Digital nomad visas are generally easy to apply for and tend to be approved quickly.
  • Moving abroad with a job already secured means you don’t have to worry about a steady income.
  • Depending on where you move, a low cost of living means your US salary may go much further than if you earned money in the local currency.

Cons

  • Being nomadic may mean you never feel at home anywhere.
  • The digital nomad life can be isolating – it can be hard to make new friends in a new country when working remotely.
  • Not every country has a digital nomad visa...yet!
  • Moving frequently can be expensive. Costs for transportation like flights and short-term accommodation can add up.
  • International tax law can be confusing if your company isn’t willing to help you figure it out.

Think the digital nomad life is right for you? Check out our online jobs board to find remote work opportunities!

The bottom line

So, what does this mean for you and your decision between setting off as an expat or a digital nomad? Let's break it down for you.

Chart displaying expat vs digital nomad lifestyles

Make the move abroad

A woman stands with her back to the camera, raising her arms in the air. There is a lake and forest in the background.

Whether you choose to begin your journey overseas as a digital nomad or an expat, you’re bound to have the adventure of a lifetime. You may even end up like me and do both! Living and working abroad is an incredible experience that may suck you in and never let go. It’s a big world, get out there and explore it!

Read on for more inspiration for your move abroad: