Digital nomadism: The reality beyond dreams

  • digital nomad
Published on 2023-09-27 at 13:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Digital nomads are reshaping the world with their dream-like, flexible working style. You could think they are living life to the fullest, with plenty of time for vacations and leisure. However, practical realities tend to put the ideal of digital nomadism into perspective.

A rising number of digital nomads worldwide

Digital nomadism has become a way of life over the past few years. This way of working has been on the rise since the health crisis. In 2020, 10.9 million people worldwide identified as digital nomads. By the end of 2022, this figure rose to 35 million. Digital nomads are usually in their thirties, earning an average of $120,512 a year (about $109,000) and working more than 40 hours a week.

Much more than a way of working, digital nomadism is, indeed, a way of life. Gone are the constraints of traditional companies with a physical office and working hours. Digital nomadism promises a "work-holiday" lifestyle. Countries are multiplying the number of visas tailored to the needs of these expatriates in search of freedom. Portugal, Brazil, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Mauritius, Thailand, etc., already have theirs. South Korea and Japan are also considering creating their own digital nomad visas.

Governments believe that these expatriates, just like tourists, benefit the local economy through consumption. Their employment is already guaranteed since they work for foreign companies (one of the conditions for obtaining the visa). It's a win-win situation for all concerned in a world where borders have become merely symbolic. However, the large number of digital nomads hides a reality that is beyond our misconceptions.

The cost of living as a digital nomad

You might be dreaming of living as a digital nomad by the beach or in any exotic location, but you still need to be able to enter and stay in your dream country. Although a formality, visa applications can be pretty restrictive. Each country has its own rules. It may grant a visa valid for one year or more or less, renewable or not, giving access to permanent residence or not. For example, the Georgian digital nomad visa is valid for one year, except for individual entrepreneurs registered in the territory with access to permanent residence. Iceland's digital nomad visa is valid for 6 months, while that of the Bahamas is valid for 1 year, renewable on a case-by-case basis for up to 3 years. In addition to visa restrictions, you might need to meet the minimum income requirement, health insurance, tax status, etc.

There are about 46% of self-employed digital nomads and 35% of employees worldwide. It's easier to be a digital nomad when you're self-employed. Employment has different requirements because the employee is attached to a company. They can't just go to the country of their choice without their employer's permission. However, the employer may refuse to allow remote working from abroad because it involves costs for the employer (social security contributions, professional expenses, etc.).

In both cases, financial issues can be significant. You need to ensure you have enough clients to continue crisscrossing the globe. It would help if you were sure that your salary would be enough to cover the cost of your expatriation. In addition to your visa and plane ticket cost, you also have to consider the cost of living (transportation, housing, food, etc.). These costs are increasing due to inflation.

A change of pace

The dream life of digital nomads sometimes overshadows practical obligations. How do you deal with jet lag and working hours? How do you organize your day and schedule appointments? Again, proper planning is essential to anticipate the changing rhythm of life and manage relationships with clients and your company. Your idealized vacation lifestyle can get lost in the time spent renewing visas, finding accommodation, managing schedules, etc.

Perhaps the real issue is the image portrayed by digital nomadism. During the "honeymoon phase", you will obviously see everything in a positive way. The freedom to move from one country to another at will (assuming you qualify for a visa) is a big plus. But this feeling can be temporary. Unlike classic expats who settle down in a country (renting a permanent home, finding a job, etc.), digital nomads don't settle down. Their activity allows them to bring their work anywhere they go and live the adventure, as long as their visa allows them to do so, and they have the necessary financial resources and Internet connection). Such a fast-paced lifestyle can have consequences.

When locals no longer want digital nomads around

In 2022, about 69% of digital nomads showed their intention to continue their adventurous life for 2 or 3 more years. This figure did not include those who had abandoned their adventure or those who were disappointed by this adventure.

While governments count on digital nomads to boost their economies, locals sometimes blame them for driving up costs, especially housing. Such is the case in Portugal, mired in a housing crisis that has made certain neighborhoods inaccessible to locals. Some companies think they've found a solution by creating "digital nomad villages," a kind of vacation club that caters to the needs of digital nomads. But even here, locals blame digital nomads for changing their habitual environment, especially in terms of ever-increasing prices. They believe that the creation of "digital nomad zones" affects an entire locality.

The same goes for Mexico. The country is quite popular with digital nomads, especially Mexico City, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Rising prices in these cities have not gone unnoticed by expats. Faced with rising prices, more and more foreigners are opting for Oaxaca or Mérida. Considered more affordable, these cities are increasingly popular with digital nomads. But as in Portugal, locals fear gentrification and rising prices. Since 2018, when the digital nomad visa was introduced in Mexico, the number of expats has increased by 425%.

Prices have doubled in popular areas

Mexicans speak of doubled prices, including for basic necessities, while their wages remain stagnant. According to the OECD, the average wage in Mexico is $16,685 per year. In Portugal, it is $31,922. This is far from the annual average wage in Canada ($59,050) or the United States ($54,700). Still, many of their citizens have chosen to settle in Mexico or Portugal. In 2021, some 1.6 million American citizens were living in Mexico. Portugal is also home to many French nationals, with an average annual salary of $52,764 (2022 figures).

To escape rising prices, locals claim they are forced to move, fearing the arrival of more foreigners. According to them, these expats do not make enough effort to consume locally. Their lifestyles and consumption patterns, which remain close to that of their home countries, also contribute to rising prices. Locals also lament the bubbles created by digital nomads, who are often reluctant to learn the host country's language and integrate. Resentment grows and spreads to social networks, where anti-digital nomad comments fuel debates. Foreigners feel targeted, even those who are not digital nomads. Meanwhile, other digital nomads feel the same discomfort because they don't fit the stereotype.

Many digital nomads gave up on their dream lifestyle

Such uneasiness can lead to or add to the fatigue, stress, and loneliness that digital nomads already experience. While digital nomad villages aim to provide a solution by bringing expatriates together in one place, opinions vary. Do these villages still fit the vision of digital nomadism? Some believe that it creates a feeling of loneliness and isolation. The distance from loved ones is one of the main reasons for returning to a more settled lifestyle. Digital nomads who chose to return to normal life speak of a feeling of emptiness: it's complicated to build a life with two suitcases. Getting a loan, buying a house, and starting a family are even more challenging.

It's easy to understand why digital nomadism is more attractive to younger generations. However, they know this lifestyle is less resilient in the long run. The feeling of being nowhere at home leads some of them to give up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of long-term immigration to another country or to return to their home country.

How to make the most of your digital nomad experience

First, beware of misconceptions. The digital nomad is, first and foremost, a worker. The real adventure will have to wait until after work. It's also important to remember that digital nomadism requires suitable hardware and a good Internet connection. Very remote areas may be good for Instagrammable photos, but things can be complicated when it comes to work (poor Internet connection or no Internet at all).

Moving from one end of the country to another every month or week might be a good idea, but only if you're well organized. The digital nomad lifestyle seems to imply that everything runs on inspiration alone. But inspiration doesn't mean you can't be organized. You need to plan your next destination, have a plan B in case of network instability, be easy to contact, and so on.

Not everyone is made for digital nomadism. There are job constraints that might be incompatible with a traveling lifestyle. There might be other issues as well. Some might be more comfortable with hopping countries while others prefer settling in a city every 3 or 6 months. Some might also consider staying in the same country or region until their visa expires. Basically, it's up to each individual to define their own vision of digital nomadism.