What Is a Digital Nomad?

Digital nomads are people who are location-independent and use technology to perform their job, living a nomadic lifestyle. Digital nomads work remotely, telecommuting rather than being physically present at a company's headquarters or office. The digital nomad lifestyle has been made possible through several innovations, including content management software, cheap Internet access through WiFi, smartphones, and Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) to contact clients and employers. In addition, the growth of a gig economy has played a role, too.

Key Takeaways

  • A digital nomad refers to individuals who work remotely using information and communications technology.
  • A digital nomad may work out of cafes, beaches, or hotel rooms, as they are not tied down to any one location.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic caused a swell of remote workers, some of whom became digital nomads for the first time, opting to work in new states or countries if they could gain access.
  • Digital nomads may also be families who work and study on the road.
  • Digital nomads are not necessarily only young people. The average age, according to one survey, is 35 years old.

Understanding Digital Nomads

The term digital nomad was coined in 1997 in a book called The Digital Nomad, written by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. Their book prophesized the invention of a singular, all-powerful communication device that would allow employees the ability to work from anywhere, among other hypotheses.

In the 21st century, digital nomads use their skills to work via laptops, social media, and mobile phones. Digital nomads might spend a few months working from a beach community in Costa Rica and then another few months in a part-time share in London or Rome. The freedom to choose where to live and work is part of the benefit of being a digital nomad. The rise in short-term home and office shares available worldwide via online platforms means it is easier than ever to book a stay for a few days, weeks, or months.

While being a digital nomad sounds appealing, there are downsides. Although the location may be majestic, the available work may not always use your skills to the fullest or pay all that well. So, to maintain a digital nomad's lifestyle, you may actually work harder for less pay compared to a traditional office job. The rise in remote work and job opportunities has made it easier for workers to try out a digital nomad lifestyle while earning income and building a career.

However, the best way to make being a digital nomad a reality is to have a stream of passive income to supplement the contract work you'll be picking up on your travels. This removes some of the financial pressure not to spend your entire time abroad staring at your screen. 

According to a 2020 Gallup poll, almost two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so after it ends.

Who Are the Digital Nomads?

Digital nomads tend to be younger people and can be found working in most industries in the knowledge economy: marketing, design, IT, writing, media, tutoring, and consulting. According to a 2020 study by MBO Partners, there are 10.9 million digital nomads in the U.S. alone, and 19 million more Americans reported they are considering a digital nomad lifestyle.

Digital nomads may either be remote employees or knowledge process outsourcing employees. Although most telecommuters and freelancers are technically digital nomads, the term is most often used to describe people living or traveling abroad or domestically while working. Some digital nomads have a wide range of clients and make a living through the combination of jobs, while others have formal or semi-formal agreements with clients guaranteeing a certain amount of work or billable hours.

Outsite is an online community of digital nomads that provides access to coliving/coworking, plus offers services to support remote workers. Outsite reports the average age of their members is 35 years old, and 65% of members were either single or divorced.

When Digital Nomads Settle Down

Many digital nomads eventually end uprooted to their home offices. When the wandering is over, the client portfolio a digital nomad has developed often sets up the transition to being a full-time freelancer from whatever local they choose. If a digital nomad is strategic about the location, they can leverage currency and cost of living differences to find a locale where the dollars they earn go much further, reducing the amount they need to work. Some digital nomads stay put after starting a family, and others take their families with them, joining other like-minded travelers with children.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Digital Nomads

Digital nomads are often individuals who want to have freedom and flexibility with the jobs and time to travel. Digital nomads often live a minimal existence rich in experiences versus physical objects. They get to explore new cultures by putting down temporary roots in many locations each year. Digital nomad lifestyles are not for everyone. If you can't earn enough on the road, you may find yourself broke without the money to return home.

You may have to work non-traditional hours and juggle multiple clients. Digital nomads must have access to reliable internet and work and meet deadlines in different time zones. Some digital nomads report feeling lonely on the road without family or close friends, and it may be hard to form long-term relationships. It may be expensive to buy travel health insurance, and even if medical care in some countries is cheaper than in the U.S.

Pros
  • Freedom from traditional office settings

  • Opportunities to travel and learn about new cultures

  • Time to engage in outdoor hobbies like surfing

  • More control over your own time

Cons
  • Can be expensive to travel on a regular basis

  • You may have to work for clients in multiple time zones

  • Loneliness or isolation from family and friends

  • Must be highly organized for ultimate life/work balance on the road

Examples of Digital Nomads

In early 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic hit, countries locked down, and many desk jobs went remote. This new breed of digital nomads was created in response to the pandemic. The population of digital nomads during this period rose high very quickly, with a 50% increase from 2019. However, some digital nomads found themselves competing for resources as a new increase in remote work swelled, and others were forced to relocate back home to family members as countries closed their borders to help curb the spread of the virus.

Another example of digital nomads is families living a nomadic lifestyle, while the parents work remotely and often blog or write about their adventures. Many families who opt for a digital nomad lifestyle either homeschool their children or send them to virtual classrooms.

Digital Nomads FAQs

How Much Money Can You Make as a Digital Nomad?

A digital nomad isn't a specific job that earns a salary, so what you earn as a digital nomad depends on the type of work you do, like working from home versus in an office.

According to a 2018 survey (the most recent figures as of April 2021) from FlexJobs, 18% of digital nomads report making six figures or more, and 22% make between $50,000 and $99,999. These figures show that 40% of digital nomads make $50,000 or more, but 60% make less than $50,000 a year. This indicates that a significant portion of digital nomads is making less than $50,000 a year.

Which Digital Nomad Jobs Pay the Highest?

Computer programmers who work remotely may command some of the higher salaries based on figures from ZipRecruiter. But how much you make as a digital nomad depends on several factors, including if you have a full-time remote job or if you are a freelancer.

What Are the Best Websites for Digital Nomads Looking for Work?

There are dozens of websites for finding remote work. We Work Remotely, Flex Jobs, LinkedIn, and Stack Overflow is great for web developers and IT professionals.

How Many Digital Nomads Are There in the United States?

While it may be difficult to count every single remote worker living a digital nomad lifestyle, according to MBO Partners, there are approximately 10.9 million digital workers in the U.S., as of 2020, the most recent statistics available.

How Many Digital Nomads Are There in the World?

Too many count, but the figure is most likely in the millions. One company's research suggests there are 4.8 million global digital nomads, and that 17 million workers dream of going nomadic in the future.

The Bottom Line

As more jobs can be done remotely, living a digital nomadic lifestyle may likely continue to grow. The choice to make your own hours, have variety in your work environments and give up on commuting while traveling the world are just a few reasons for becoming a digital nomad. However, being a successful digital nomad takes hard work, planning, plus budgeting and networking skills.