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What is a Digital Nomad?

By Lily Ruha
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A digital nomad is a person who works from a location of his choice and often sets his own schedule. Digital nomads work in many different industries including business, education, publishing, visual arts, and personal development. Writers, photographers, software developers, graphic designers, business consultants, executive coaches, transcriptionists, and Web marketers are the types of workers who commonly fit into this category. Digital nomads generally rely on a variety of tools and devices to do their work, such as computer laptops, cell phones, wireless Internet services, Web-conferencing tools, and e-book readers.

The flexibility of work location is what sets the life of a digital nomad apart from those employed in a more traditional environment. A travel writer may visit dozens of locations throughout the world and submit his work to publishers from remote places. Freelance Web developers can write code while sitting in a coffee shop. A work-at-home mother might do her work as an Internet researcher from home, a library or at an Internet café while her children are at school.

A digital nomad typically benefits from the ability to set his own work schedule. Working in the early morning, for example, may be a medical transcriptionist’s ideal choice because he is most alert at this time. Creative writers might begin a new project as soon as an idea appears, regardless of the time of day or night. Individuals who are employed by a large corporation but have the flexibility of telecommuting and setting their own schedules might choose to work a 40-hour week that is split across four days instead of five, for example.

Digital nomads use digital and electronic devices to complete their tasks. Cell phones, Internet access, computer laptops and Web conferencing products are generally the most essential tools. Personal digital assistants and e-book readers are other devices that allow a digital nomad the freedom to easily access information and communicate with others. Some digital nomads will also make use of portable printers, digital cameras, audio recorders, and other devices that may be necessary for completing specific tasks.

Persistent challenges for the digital nomad are typically related to income stability and employment benefits. A traditional work environment in the private or public sector usually offers more income stability than working on a contractual or project basis. Many digital nomads must pay for their own health insurance and continuously search for new projects, opportunities, and streams of income.

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Discussion Comments

By popcorn — On Dec 02, 2011

Does anyone have any tips for becoming a digital nomad?

Recently I have become bored with my daily grind and would really like to figure out a way to still work, but travel at the same time. Going to the same office day in and day out is really starting to get to me.

There are some nomad tours I have come across that look like they would offer me a good deal of structure to my voyage, if I can just get some income while I do them. I think that I would be up for doing just about any work online, as long as it gave me enough to live on while I was moving around.

By wander — On Dec 01, 2011

It is interesting that more and more people seem to be going for the digital nomad lifestyle. I suppose with so many job opportunities being made through telecommuting that the idea of just going where the wind takes you is really appealing.

For myself I managed to run into quite a few nomad campers while I was touring in New Zealand. It is a big thing down there to get a camper van and drive through the country. The people I met just purchased a WiFi stick for their computers and were off. I was really impressed with how they managed to balance months of travel with work. I definitely got a good dose of career envy.

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 30, 2011

I just wanted to mention that I think it's really important to get health insurance if you're a digital nomad. As the article mentioned, most digital nomads are freelancers/self-employed. That means that you're responsible for paying for your own insurance.

I know a lot of people balk at the cost. Or I know some people who say stuff like "Oh, I'm pretty healthy, I don't need insurance." But trust me, it's worth it. I pay about $240 a month for an insurance plan that covers medical, dental, and vision with a $500 deductible. Being able to get medical care when I need it and not go into debt is worth paying the extra money for.

I just got some dental work done for about a thousand dollars. If I didn't have any insurance, it would have been almost three times as much!

By SZapper — On Nov 30, 2011

@Monika - Excellent point. I'm a digital nomad myself, and I really like that I can interact with people as much or as little as I want!

Anyway, I just wanted to share something that's really helped me in my life as a digital nomad: 4G wireless hotspots. You can sign up for a plan to pay monthly for a wireless hotspot that you can use virtually anywhere. This allows me to take full advantage of being a digital nomad.

I don't have to limit myself to places that offer wi-fi-I can work anywhere! I'm going to visit my grandmother next month. She doesn't have the Internet, but I'll be able to use my wireless hotspot to work at her house instead of going somewhere else. Very convenient!

By Monika — On Nov 29, 2011

@seag47 - The ability to limit my interaction with other people is one of the main reasons I became a digital nomad. I used to work in customer service and I hated it! I had no control over the kind of people I interacted with every day, and usually the people I assisted were extremely rude.

Personally, I find that I'm much happier just interacting with my friends, family, and service people at stores and things like that then when I had more human interaction. Yes, human interaction is essential for our happiness, but certain kinds are better than others. Getting screamed at on the phone all day by irate customers certainly didn't help my self-esteem or happiness!

So I guess I'm trying to say that digital nomads don't have to lack social skills. We still interact with people on a daily basis, maybe just not as many as if we worked at an office!

By OeKc05 — On Nov 28, 2011

I used to have an extremely stressful job. It was causing me to have high blood pressure, panic attacks, and fatigue.

When I found a job working from home as a digital nomad, I was like a kid in a candy store. I couldn't believe that the freedom was mine for the taking. I was wide-eyed and giddy, and I fully enjoyed it.

After the first month, my doctor lowered the dosage of my blood pressure medication. I didn't feel as tired, and the smile returned to my face.

True, I no longer had health insurance or a 401(k), but I had something that was worth far more – my happiness. I am willing to pay for doctor's visits myself if it means that I can continue working in this wonderful way.

By seag47 — On Nov 27, 2011

@burcidi – A world of digital nomads sounds appealing, but there are some problems that might cause. If the majority of the population ends up working from home, what will happen to our people skills?

I think that things like a dress code, office etiquette, and making friends with coworkers are important character building blocks. We need some sort of discipline to be well-rounded people, and if everyone works in solitude, how will we obtain that?

I realize there are plenty of digital nomad jobs that involve virtual meetings through cameras, and that might help some. At least then, the people will have a reason to get out of their pajamas and act polite.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 27, 2011

@SarahSon – I know what you mean about missing your coworkers. I worked at a regular job for six years before quitting to become a digital nomad, and I missed everyone terribly.

I have found that going back to visit them in the office helps. I get to socialize and catch up with them, but I also get to remind myself of why I left in the first place. Office politics and workload stress drove me crazy, and I get a glimpse of that whenever I go back.

I am super glad to have the privilege of working from home. As long as I make it a point to visit friends and go do fun things with other people often, I know I will be okay.

By Oceana — On Nov 26, 2011

@ElizaBennett – I don't see how you work with noise in the background! I considered working from my house, but since my husband always watches TV, I can't concentrate. I have to have total silence in order to think of things to write.

Because of this, I drive down the road to my parents house every day to work. We split the internet bill, and I am able to work in my dad's computer room in silence.

I get so much more done this way than if I tried to work at home. I haven't even bothered getting internet service there because of the noise.

By burcidi — On Nov 25, 2011

I admire National Geographic's travelers and photographers so much. They really are 'digital nomands' in full meaning. Not only do they get to travel the world, but they also make money doing it by taking photographs, writing about their experiences and sharing everything online through their cell phone or laptop.

This could have never been possible without technology and internet. It's like we're free of our shackles! I know not everyone can get a job as digital nomads, but I also think that jobs that can be done from a distance online, will eventually evolve into that. Most of us might become digital nomads in the next few decades!

By andee — On Nov 25, 2011

I think I have the best of both worlds. I work in sales and can do much of my work from outside the office.

I have a small office set up in my home, but much of my time is spent on the road anyway.

If I don't have appointments, I have the choice of staying home and working, or going into the office.

Having the choice is what makes the difference for me. If the weather is bad or I am not feeling well, I know I don't have to worry about calling in.

On the days when I feel like I need to get out of the house and am tired of working in sweats and shorts, it feels good to dress up and get out of the house and work.

There are a lot of advantages to being a digital nomad, but I like to balance that with a regular office setting too.

By SarahSon — On Nov 24, 2011

I tried being a digital nomad, and it just didn't work for me. Our company was downsizing, and we had the option to work from home on a part time basis.

I figured this was better than looking for a new job, and the money I would save might make up for the loss of income. I was covered under my husband's insurance, so this was not a factor for me.

I quickly found out that I don't have the discipline it takes to work from home like this. There are too many distractions and a whole day would be gone and I realized I had gotten very little 'work' time in.

This is something I struggled with for about 6 months. I also missed the social interaction of being around other people and found myself getting a little bit depressed.

I finally found a different job working in another office, and was glad to get out of the house and go to work.

By LisaLou — On Nov 24, 2011

I guess I am a digital nomad and didn't even realize that is what I am! I have worked from home for many years, and know I would have a hard time going back to a traditional office setting.

The internet and all of the technical gadgets have made jobs like this so much easier. I also think they are a win-win financial situation for everyone.

I do drive in to the office a few times a month, but that is nothing compared to the daily grind I used to do. The amount of time and money you save by not driving every day, and not buying dress clothes to wear every day is huge.

Companies do not need to supply a lot of extra office space and overhead when they have many employees that work from home.

The flexibility of time is probably the biggest reason I enjoy this type of work. When I need to go to the doctor or attend an event at my kids school, I don't have to worry about asking for the time off.

I just know I can make up the time by getting up earlier or working for a couple hours in the evening. If my kids are sick and can't go to school that day, I don't have to worry about who is going to take care of them.

There are so many advantages to being a digital nomad. I really think that we will begin to see a lot more jobs that offer this kind of flexibility in the near future.

By SteamLouis — On Nov 23, 2011

@fify-- Working as a digital nomad has its challenges too though.

My brother works online and travels a lot. He likes it, but there have been times where he couldn't work for a while and had to return home because he ran out of money. Like many digital nomads without insurance, he doesn't have one either.

The other downside to being a digital nomad who travels from country to country is tax issues. It can be difficult to figure out which country you're supposed to pay taxes to, and you might end up doing something illegal without realizing.

I think there are as many disadvantages to being a digital nomad as there are advantages. It's not as easy as it appears.

By fify — On Nov 23, 2011

I wish I could be a digital nomad too. I have a 9-5 job like most people and I hate it! I have to be up at 7 am in the morning and it's such a challenge for me to do this five days a week. I'm just not a morning person.

My job is also an hour away from home, so I spend 10 hours every week just driving back and forth. If I was a digital nomad, I could spend that time working from wherever I am. I could wake up at the time I want too.

I know that some people enjoy having an office that they go to work everyday. But I really enjoy spending time at home, so I think that I need to be a digital nomad.

By ElizaBennett — On Nov 23, 2011

I guess I'm a digital nomad in a small way, but I never heard the term before. I work from home at my computer. I rarely work from outside the home - unless maybe I need to borrow my mother's washing machine for an afternoon or something like that, and then I bring my laptop and use her WiFi - but I work all over the house.

We have an "office" where I have a desk, and my small children do have toys to play with in there. But there room is more kid-friendly, so I often bring the laptop up there and let them play while I sit on the bed and work.

And, of course, I'm only going to get so much done while they're awake. I also work after they're in bed, and then I take the laptop in the living room so I can sit on the couch and do my thing while my husband watches TV. Not the most sociable thing in the world, but at least we're in the same room!

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