How to Become a Digital Nomad Step by Step

by David Utke | Last Updated: March 19, 2022

I’ve been a digital nomad since 2017 when I finally made the full transition away from teaching English abroad. As I mention in my about page, I got my start first in the world of corporate finance in Connecticut and then quit my job to teach English in Thailand.

To be honest, I loved every second of living abroad and teaching English in Thailand. The culture, the beautiful women, fantastic food, the proximity to other interesting places; I was hooked. One issue however, I was paid 33,000 Thai Baht as a salary which is equivalent to 1,100 USD.

Granted, I had one blog at the time generating me a few hundred dollars a month so I was not totally broke, but compared to my $65K corporate job I was struggling financially compared to my peers back in New England.

Teaching ESL forced me to make a decision, I needed to make more money so my options were:

*Northern Vietnam. The board with China.

Become a Digital Nomad

I clearly choose option 3 and made the difficult and risky decision to become a self employed expat, a true digital nomad who works online and lives abroad. It’s easily been one of the best decisions of my life as I’m able to spend my time how I wish most days and can live abroad where ever I choose too.

It did take a tremendous amount of work, a lot of consistency and long hours for the first 2 years to establish various income sources, but I’m proof that it’s possible. Now that I make over over $10K a month, I’m free.

I still work a lot, but it’s different as it’s working on my own minimalist business (you can follow along with my travels on my Instagram if you like). In order to become a digital nomad you’ll need to get a few things sorted first if you wish to pursue this path, so let me address a few key points.

What is a digital nomad?

A digital nomad is a person who works remotely and travels abroad, using technology to do so. They might be employed by a business, work with freelance clients, or run their own online business themselves.

I’m partial to building your own self supporting business that involves multiple income streams, but it is possible to be a freelance worker such as a programmer and live abroad or to find the rare company that would be fine with you being based in a different country.

The ability to work online and connect with persons from any place on the planet has made it feasible for people to live this way. The recent advances in global Internet access, smartphone accessibility, and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) connectivity have allowed individuals all around the world to interact with one another through video, messaging and exchanging documents.

Whether you’re working in an exotic co-working space in Bali or your apartment, if your internet connection is strong enough and you have a laptop with the correct software, online work allows you to work remotely from anywhere on Earth.

Digital nomad vs remote worker

A digital nomad is slightly different from a remote worker as digital nomads are abroad and have the freedom to move from location to location where a remote worker might not be permitted to leave the country where their company is located.

A remote worker is also someone who is employed by a company and has the permission to work remotely where as most digital nomads are typically self employed and working abroad on their terms.

Becoming a Digital Nomad Roadmap Step by Step

Many workers are dissatisfied with their routine, 9-to-5 occupations, overbearing bosses, and unachievable revenue objectives. While monotony, poor leadership, low pay and intense expectations aren’t the only reasons we leave our jobs all the time, they’re certainly not innocent bystanders.

For me, what drove me to quite was simply working 8 am to 9 pm at as an internal auditor. I stuck it out for over a year but the idea of doing that kind of work for the rest of my life was for lack of a better word, depressing. In addition, once I went abroad and lived in Thailand and realized their is big world to see, there was no going back to the default life template in Connecticut.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of going around this whole system, let’s talk about how to transition your conventional work-life into this digital nomad existence.

Make the decision that you want to be location independent

To make anything hard become your reality, you have to really want it. Becoming a digital nomad is not an easy thing to achieve and you have to make the decision now that it’s what you want for yourself because the harsh reality is that you may not achieve it until years down the road.

I went abroad to Thailand in 2012 and it was not until 2017 where I started making enough from a combination of freelance and my website portfolio to not require a job anymore. I know a lot don’t want to read this, but it may take you years.

So the first step is to make the decision that this path is for you and be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve digital nomad freedom. Commit to doing the work required for a few years and don’t give up.

Choose a business model

How do you make money as a digital nomad? For me, my income is a combination of freelance from Fiverr, advertising, affiliate marketing, royalties from online course websites and selling paid products. My website properties and YouTube channel provide a way for me to give value to other people and in exchange for providing helpful content and tutorials I get the attention and trust of an audience.

There are numerous business models you can potentially leverage as a way to become a digital nomad. Your focus with whatever business model you choose should be if it can be done remotely from a laptop. I’ve meet expats running drop shipping stores, full time Fiverr sellers, fellow YouTubers, pro bloggers with a portfolio of websites, online English teachers with their own clients.

There is no one best business model. It comes down to what is appealing to you. But as someone who is now a digital nomad I would strongly suggest aiming for a combination of selling your time via freelance and having some sort of passive income. For more, checkout my category page on how to make money online.

Start everything off as a side hustle

Forego any notion of “work life” balance. In order to become a digital nomad you are going to have to work a lot in the very beginning. Not only do you have to do your job, you have to tryout various business models to see which one works and which one you like.

You also have to accept that you will waste time and money on ideas that don’t work out long term. It’s part of the process of building multiple streams of income. I started 4 websites that all failed long term to achieve their goal, which was to get organic search traffic and to make mone.

I spent a lot of money on tools and software that ended up not being helpful. I also had to spend money on equipment I needed like a camera for YouTube. It took me 1 year to figure out how to make a competent YouTube video and an additional year before I started making real money from YouTube.

Everything starts out as an idea. What makes the difference is execution on that idea, learning and adapting, quitting the things that don’t work and being overall consistent day after day. Once your side hustle morphs into the main thing, then you can expect more of a work life balance because you’ll be in control of your time.

Find a time hack

A time hack is a way to free up your time in some way so you can work more on your side hustle. Everyone who is self employed and a digital nomad leveraged some time hack. For me that was being an English teacher in Thailand working 8:30 am to 3:00 pm Monday to Friday.

My job was not stressful and it gave me substantial free time to edit videos, write blog posts, hire writers and just try out different things to find something that works. Others I’ve meet quite their jobs outright and moved in with a family member for 6 months to work full time on their blog, ecommerce store or YouTube channel. Others still simply kept their high paying, high hour job and used the money they were making to outsource content creation.

Most getting started on this path either have a lot of time and a low income or a high income and no time. Time is your most valuable resource so be aware you’ll need to find your own time hack you can leverage.

Achieve escape velocity

The last step it to be consistent and achieve escape velocity as I call it. That means you’re earning a specific amount of money for at least 6 months. For me that magic number was earning $3000-$4000 a month consistently before I knew I was ready to not ever have a job again.

That may not seem like a lot of money, but remember I was already abroad in Thailand where the cost of living is $1000-$2000 dollars depending on how you spend your money. In short, have a plan for success. Most fear failure, but you may very well succeed. So what does that exactly look like?

Get out of debt and reduce unnecessary expenses

Once you think you’ve achieved escape velocity and you’re ready to go abroad, reduce your debt as best you can, ideally to nothing and remove any unnecessary expenses. When living abroad you’re not going to need an HBO subscription nor are you going to need an expensive phone plan.

Pay off all credit card balances as well and make sure to have good credit so you qualify for credit cards that will actually be helpful to you as a digital nomad with points towards flights and hotels as a way to save money.

Do more of what works

Do more of what works. It’s important to constantly be growing and expanding as the old adage is true, what got you here won’t get you there. But you need to balance this with doing what works.

If you’re running YouTube ads and funneling traffic to an email list, don’t all of a sudden jump into a totally different business model. Expand your core offering as it makes sense to compound results instead of getting lost doing a tangent task that may or may not work out.

Again, your time is your most valuable asset so don’t waste it once you find something that is working and generating revenue. Do more of that task and look for ways to expand on it.

Get your visa sorted (visa runs and more)

As a digital nomad, you need to be aware of the visa rules of other countries you want to visit. I strongly suggest joining various Facebook groups on the potential country you wish to move to and ask questions there.

The biggest annoyance as a digital nomad will be your visa. Most countries offer 3 month to 1 year tourist visas or alternative visas that allow you to stay longer. For example, Thailand offers an education visa for 1 year which is a popular option compared to the standard 3 month tourist visa.

Visa runs

There is also a something called a “visa run” which you’ll need to be aware of. A visa run is when your visa expires and you’re required to leave the country. You fly out and go somewhere else for a week or two and the return to get issued a new visa.

During my stay in Vietnam I was on the American 1 year tourist visa. The stipulation with this visa was that every 3 months I needed to leave the country. I just needed to leave, my visa did not expire but my “permitted to stay” stamp did. So I would fly out and travel somewhere new. Upon returning to Vietnam I would get another 3 months.

Every country is different and has different rules and regulations. It’s your responsibility to know the visa requirements and to follow the law. Not doing so will result in fines and at worst deportation which will prevent you from traveling to other countries.

How to be a Digital Nomad – Resources and Tools

Finally, once you’re ready to go abroad there are select tools and services you will need. From my 10+ years of living abroad and being a digital nomad myself, here is what I find most helpful.

Credit cards

Credit cards are incredibly helpful tools for digital nomads because you can get some great cards that give you points on hotels, flights and ride share apps which will typically be your biggest expenses besides your rent.

Chase Sapphire Preferred – My card of choice for all hotel, flight and ride share app purchases. You earn extra points for these categories and when booking flights through the Chase portal they have a 5x value. This card does cost $95 a year but I easily get $1000 or more worth of free flights each year.

Blockfi Credit Card – Currently I use a Bitcoin credit card from Blockfi. It gives me 1.5% cash back on all purchases in Bitcoin. For your second credit card to compliment the Chase card, I would suggest getting a cash back card.

Phone number

This is more directed at Americans but you’ll want a phone number and plan you can use internationally that won’t cost hundreds of dollars a month like most phone plans do if you leave the country and turn on roaming.

You’ll need a phone number for 2FA authentication for apps and you’ll want to have a data plan for when you return home to America.

Google FI – Google FI is a pay as you go monthly plan. You can turn it on or off as you like and it works pretty much anywhere in the world. You must however be in the United States in order to activate this sim card so make sure to do that first before leaving the country.

Checking and transfers

You’ll want to get a checking account ideal for travel as well as a way to transfer money from your bank account to a bank account abroad (if you decide to open up a foreign bank account).

Schwab Investor Checking – The best checking account for expats. Schwab reimburses you on all ATM fees, even from foreign bank accounts. Don’t over do it though when abroad as they will close your account if you’re withdrawing money everyday.

Transferwise – Rebranded as Wise, I still prefer the name Transferwise. This is both a website and app that allows you to transfer money from your home bank account to any bank account abroad. They also offer a “boarderless” account where you can hold multiple currencies in and withdraw as needed.

They offer a dedicated “Wise” debit card so you can transfer US dollars to your boraderless account into the local currency and then use your Wise debit card to withdraw cash at an ATM.

Taxes and bookkeeping

As a digital nomad with a business you’ll need help with taxes because as an expat you may qualify for some unique tax benefits.

Greenback Expat Tax Service – This firm makes completing your taxes very easy. You sign up, get your own account, complete some questions and then upload all your documents for your accountant. Then your accountant will prepare your return and ask you any relevant questions.

Upon completion your accountant will tell you how much you owe as well as how much to pay for your quarterly taxes for the up coming year.

Quickbooks – Book keeping for small business and freelancers. Stay on top of your numbers and know what your profit and loss is each month. I make it a monthly habit to update and manage my accounting every month but you can consider hiring a book keeper. It does take a bit over an hour each month. But I like knowing how much I made and spent.

Luggage

Getting quality luggage is quite important as you’ll be flying internationally. So spend the money on something of quality that will last. Here is what I like, use and recommend.

Away Travel – I personally use their “the large” polycarbonate suitcase. It stores everything I own, has multiple compartments inside, provides a spot to store your shoes and comes with built in security features. This is brand makes the best suitcases I have ever owned and it comes with a lifetime warranty.

How to become a digital nomad conclusion

That’s it for my guide on how to become a digital nomad. I hope you found it helpful, I know it’s a lot to take in but step one is really to decide you want to run a location independent business. While there are a lot of digital nomad jobs, a job always has the risk of your company deciding they want you to be based in an office.

Next is to choose a business model. You make money as a function of value. Provide value through helping other people in some way and focus on growing your income. Once you get to a certain level you’ll then be ready to take that leap and move abroad. Good luck.

David Utke

David Utke is a professional blogger, YouTuber and a highly rated user experience consultant. He translates technical skills in an easy to understand way for beginners with his educational tutorials based on real-world experience. Join over 30,000 monthly readers and 20k+ YouTube subscribers.
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