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Want to work abroad? Become a digital nomad

Beads of sweat fell into my eyes as I heaved my backpack into the small hostel room, swatting mosquitoes and collapsing onto a thin mattress. I had just gotten off a night bus from Rio de Janeiro in a tiny town in southern Brazil with no sleep and no plans. I was just happy to be alone for a few minutes.

"You look like you've seen better days," called out a male voice in an undeniable American accent. My eyes shot open, startled. He had been in the room the whole time, hovering over his laptop in the corner. Nerd, I thought. Who goes backpacking through South America to sit on a computer and scare strange, sleep-deprived girls?

Eric is the definition of a digital nomad: traveling wherever he wants, whenever he wants, for how long he wants, and working (remotely) for whomever he wants.

His name was Eric Charles Olmstead and he was like no other backpacker I had come across in my four months traveling through South America. He was the first "digital nomad" I had ever met, and, despite our awkward first encounter, we would quickly become friends.

What is a "Digital Nomad?"

What was remarkable about Eric was the way he traveled. Most of the other backpackers I had known until I met Eric were like me, traveling for 3, 6, maybe 9 months, then headed back home to get a "real job" and return to the "real world" as we all moaned about with collective dread. But Eric's response when I asked him how long he had been traveling? 10 years.

Excuse me, 10 years?! How could anyone possibly afford to do that? Was this guy employed? Did he miss home? Didn't he want a "real job" at some point? I had so many questions, and fortunately we had just as many capirinhas, our toes in the warm Brazilian sand, the fresh breeze reminding of us of everything we didn't miss about home.

What I learned was that actually Eric already had a job. But not just a job, he had a very successful career as a graphic designer and artist.

After years of working for an agency in Los Angeles, he figured he could actually do his work from any corner of the world, so arranged a remote work agreement before eventually setting up his own business with his favorite clients. He's a digital nomad.

Now he lives parts of the year in Japan or Taiwan, other parts at home with friends and family in the US, and other times he is exploring new continents, traveling slowly and balancing several hours of work a day with living in new countries. Wherever there's a wifi connection, he's in business.

Eric is the definition of a digital nomad: traveling wherever he wants, whenever he wants, for how long he wants, and working (remotely) for whomever he wants.

What Kind of Digital Nomad Jobs are There?

Digital Nomads

Digital nomads need a few things: a computer, a wifi connection, a virtual client base, and a commitment to turn in deliverables on time regardless of how much fun they are having. As Eric says:

"When working remotely the most important attribute to have (other than your tangible skill) is the discipline to always put your client’s needs ahead of your own. Because after all, if you’re living the dream traveling the world and working, it’s because of them."

Digital nomads also don't have to be entrepreneurs. If you can convince your employer to let you work remotely, you can work and travel the world at the same time. That's how Eric started:

"When I began, I had no idea what the hell I was doing or if it was even going to work out. I I figured my clients would tell me to get lost, but I took a chance anyway and it was never an issue for them. I worked in an advertising agency for years. Long hard hours. High intensity. Lots of anxiety. Eventually I told them this lifestyle was not for me and that if they wanted to hire me working from home, that was fine. Meanwhile I picked up other clients. They were fine with that. Then at some point it occurred to me, 'I don’t even need to be in my own country to be doing this.' So I took another chance and told them I was going away. They agreed we’d still work together and, well, the rest is history."

And that's just Eric's story. There are limitless possibilities for aspiring digital nomads (and a little imagination can turn almost any career into one involving digital freelancing), but these jobs usually fall into the following categories:

  • Web designers
  • Mobile app developers
  • Graphic designers
  • Content marketers
  • Social media consultants
  • Digital advertisers
  • Bloggers/writers
  • Consultants
  • Artists
  • Photographers
  • Product managers (example)
  • Etsy shop managers
  • Life coaches

Casey adds:

"Do something different. Everyone has a travel blog now and everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or quit their jobs and travel the world. You need to figure out what your unique brilliance is, and make sure it sets you apart from the masses. Then be prepared for it to take a long time before you can support yourself financially 100%. Also consider how 'nomadic' you want to be while you are trying to grow a business. It's a lot to balance, and it can be really frustrating when you are in a new, gorgeous location, but you can't go on that hike because you need to meet a deadline for a client."

I Don't Fit into Any of Those Categories. How Can I Get the Skills to Become a Digital Nomad?

Many digital nomads simply learned as they went along, and are still picking up new skills and sources of income, like Casey:

"We're just now starting our online marketing business. We're using everything we learned about blogging, email newsletters, photography, social media management, and the tourism industry to help various businesses, especially in tourism, realize the potential of content marketing. We even met people on the road or when staying at hotels and resorts, and then became their directors of marketing or helped them with their online presence."

As you see, her skills expanded and diversified over time, and traveling actually helped her meet more potential clients.

If you're interested in building up the kind of concrete skills that digital nomads need, you could absolutely learn as you go, but enrolling in a course aimed at building a specific skill set will help you exponentially.

General Assembly has several types of study abroad programs for college students, as well as year-round classes at their US-based campuses. If you can't make their in-person course, try their online Web Design Circuits course, which will teach you web design in 12 weeks.

Unlike other professional development courses, General Assembly wants students to immediately apply what they’re learning. "They should be able to freelance, intern, or get a full-time job immediately after they finish the course," says Mercedes Bent, General Assembly's Head of New Ventures. Or, of course, become a digital nomad.

Who Can Be a Digital Nomad?

Digital Nomads

Eric is no longer the only digital nomad I've met during my years of travel. Casey and Daniel Moore, owners of a wildly successful travel blog called A Cruising Couple, and now Moore Effective Marketing, are celebrating their two-year anniversary as digital nomads this year. I last met them motorbiking in Taiwan in 2013 after they finished two years of English teaching and decided, as Casey and Daniel put it:

"We wanted to be able to travel whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted. We loved teaching English, but we didn't like being limited to the two-week vacation time. Once we really narrowed down on the lifestyle we wanted, we then started researching online and found that there were tons and tons of other people doing what we wanted to be doing. Goats on the Road are good friends of ours (as fellow digital nomads), and they are a constant source of inspiration and support while we are on the road."

Now that you've met Eric, Casey, and Dan, you can see that real people are successfully becoming digital nomads, and even creating companies and programs like General Assembly that help more people pursue this kind of career. Here are some other examples:

  • Tim Ferriss pretty much started it all. He does not specifically talk about locationless living, but he offers practical, motivating ways to regain control over your life and your work, which serve as a solid foundation for making the leap to a mobile lifestyle, should you make that call. His basic mantra: Don't let work run your life (unless you want it to, of course), and do NOT postpone doing what you love.

  • Colin Wright moves to a new country every four months based on the votes of his blog readers. He runs several online businesses that permit this lifestyle, and also writes about minimalism, travel, and self-improvement.

  • And just when you thought this kind of lifestyle was only possible for single twenty-somethings, there are even digital nomad families traveling the world, like 1 Dad 1 Kid, Family Vagabonding, and World School Adventures (just to name a few).

How Do They, Well, Afford It?

The advantage of being a digital nomad is that they often choose to live in countries where the cost of living is much less than it would be back home, and they usually live with fewer material possessions since they move around so much. Digital nomads can also sell what they don't need before they leave and use that as start-up capital to cover their basic needs until they pick up more clients.

On the subject, Eric says:

"My primary source of income comes from my clients in the USA. I set up some of these working relationships before leaving, some afterwards. Some clients I’ve never even met before and acquired them through referrals. If you have a skill you can apply remotely and the desire to travel, I’d recommend having at least one solid client you can depend on for fairly regular work. Then just get out there! Start in a inexpensive country if you’re worried about “making it” financially. And sell stuff back home that you think you need but don’t really. That includes your apartment if you’re pursuing this hardcore."

Casey says:

"Right now our travel blog is about 75% of our income, but that is slowly transitioning to Moore Effective Media, our online marketing and photography business."

While on the road, basic money-saving tricks can also go a long way to ensure that working remotely and traveling the world is sustainable for you. Here are a few pointers:

  • Invest in good gear up-front, take care of it, and insure it
  • Make a budget. Then take that number and double it. And stick to it.
  • Buy traveler’s health insurance
  • Learn a bit of the language, especially the bargaining vocabulary
  • Eat where the locals eat
  • Skip the booze... and the hangover
  • Embrace public transportation
  • Travel slower
  • Pass on the souvenirs

What About Visas?

Digital Nomads

Digital nomads do not work for a local company while they are traveling abroad. Because they are paid by clients based in their home country and their purpose of entering the country is not to conduct business locally, they can usually travel on tourist or visitors visas, and don't require a work visa for the countries they visit.

That being said, Go Overseas cannot advise anyone about visa regulations and it is always advisable to check with your country's embassy in the country where you plan to travel and work as a digital nomad.

Is It Right for Me?

There are many pros and cons when considering this type of lifestyle. Pursuing locationless living and owning a "freedom business" enables you to live a life of ultimate flexibility and mobility. This is especially attractive if you value lifestyle design and collecting experiences over earning a high salary and owning many material possessions.

However, you also have to decide if the type of work you would be doing on a virtual basis would be exciting for you or if these are skills you value having in your professional repertoire. Some people just aren't cut out to do web design, blogging, or consulting, or they don't like the idea of important relationships being largely limited to a virtual space. Doing something unconventional can also be very difficult on a personal level.

But remember, becoming a digital nomad does not have to mean giving up your home; it can simply mean having a "normal life" while still being able to travel as you like, when you like, as often as you like without needing anyone's permission to do so. It also gives you the freedom to design your lifestyle and is a very friendly work model for professionals planning to have a family.

Making the Leap

If you have the desire to travel, rebuke the traditional 9 to 5, and take ultimate control over your life and career, then becoming a digital nomad is simple: you just need a skill, a first client, and a small financial safety net. But most of all, you need the courage to try.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” ― Robert F. Kennedy

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.” ― William G.T. Shedd

“Don't be afraid of your fears. They're not there to scare you. They're there to let you know that something is worth it.” ― C. JoyBell C.

Ready to explore your options? Browse General Assembly's classes at home and abroad.

Elaina Giolando

A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-somethings. She currently works as an international project manager and has traveled to over 50 countries and 6 continents for both work and play. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. You'll find her writing here on Go Overseas and also on Business Insider, Fortune, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.