What is a Digital Nomad? The Honest Reality After Three Years Of Travel

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Digital nomads can live near the beach but laptops and sand don’t mix. Image © Kate Zarb / ohnomad.com

Beyond the hype, we will honestly consider the answer to “What is a digital nomad?” Is it the glamourous one-way ticket to paradise it’s often touted to be? We’ll look at some commonly asked questions and reveal, after three years of full-time travel, the truth about the nomadic lifestyle.

Digital Nomad FAQ

What is a digital nomad?

Digital nomadism meaning/definition

Coined in 1997, digital nomadism is a lifestyle choice that combines earning income online while travelling for all (or most) of the year. With more countries offering visas designed to attract remote workers, theoretically, you can travel the world for as long as your finances and circumstances allow.

Digital nomad vs remote worker

Digital nomads prioritise ongoing travel, although they may have a “home base” for part of the year or stop for periods of time. Remote workers, by contrast, are often quite happy to settle in one place permanently and work from a home office or co-working space locally. Most digital nomads enjoy international travel, but some also spend a lot of time travelling domestically. As you’ll read here, there is no prescribed digital nomad lifestyle and how you want to live it will be very much up to you.

Types of digital nomads

There are as many types of digital nomads as you can imagine, from fresh-faced gap-year backpackers embarking on their first adventure to near-retirees looking for luxurious travel. One of the biggest misconceptions about digital nomadism is that it’s for a particular ‘type’. Not true at all!

Encompassing people from all backgrounds, some reports have found a concentration of male digital nomads in their early 30s. Others indicate Millennials (≈26-41), followed by Gen X (≈42-57) are the largest cohorts and comprise a predominantly female demographic. Males and females aged 26-57 are a diverse bunch. In the last year or two, there has also been a big rise in families with children embracing the digital nomad lifestyle.

> See my post: “Digital Nomad Visas with Family: A Complete Guide for Australians

All agree that the movement is growing, with a 50% increase in US nomads since 2019. Those with ‘stronger’ passports that allow them to travel visa-free to more countries with fewer restrictions have an advantage (Australians are #5 on the global passport power list). Currently, Australian citizens have visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 185 countries and territories.

> See the list of almost 50 counties that currently offer digital nomad visas to Australians

Is being a digital nomad ‘legit’?

Yes, digital nomadism is entirely legitimate, as it’s not one single thing, but instead a lifestyle choice. Yet, it has its challenges and difficulties, like any lifestyle (something those who want to sell you a dream for profit may not always be completely transparent about). I’ll talk more about this later.

Is it illegal to be a digital nomad?

No, there is nothing inherently illegal about being a digital nomad, as long as you are following the rules and regulations of the country that you are living in and have an appropriate visa.

How do digital nomads make money?

The simplest answer is that digital nomads “make money online”. Remote and freelance work, entrepreneurialism and business ownership are all popular. Tech (IT, software), creative / language (writer, photographer, designer, editor, translator), education, admin, social media, sales and marketing jobs transfer well …but there are many other remote careers too. 

> See my post: “181 Best Digital Nomad Jobs Australia: A Guide

I taught English online for the first few years, eventually starting my own business that I now run while also doing freelance work and working casually at a university. There isn’t a single path and a lot will depend on your existing occupation, education and willingness to either invest in training and/or learn new skills that can be used to earn money digitally. 

> See my post: “Well Paid Market Research Online Australia

Digital nomad options

As mentioned, your main digital nomad options are 1) traditional employment done remotely, 2) freelancing and 3) entrepreneurship (often incorporating passive income), or 4) income from investments and/or pensions. This will heavily depend on your career experience, education, goals and life stage. I personally use a combination of all of the above.

How many digital nomads are there globally?

It’s impossible to say exactly how many digital nomads there are, as it is an informal title rarely recorded in official documents. In 2021, 15.5 million (US) Americans identified as digital nomads (or 4.7% of the US population).  Ambitious estimates state this could rise globally to 1 billion by 2050.

How many digital nomads are there in Australia?

Again, there are no exact figures, but a similar percentage of US digital nomad figures (≈5%) in the Australian population would be ≈500,000+ people. With almost 250,000 Working Holiday Visa (417) holders at the program’s peak, this number could be much larger if including those living and working in Australia.

what is a digital nomad
I’d rather wake up to this view any day. Image: Rachel Claire / Pexels

What is a digital nomad NOT?

There is a common perception that digital nomads are wealthy, young, Instagram model-types who “work” from laptops on tropical beaches. While there is a profitable reason for glamorising digital nomadism this way, it does not resonate with my personal (much more humble) experiences or those of many others. My entrepreneurial journey was littered with early failures as I discovered how to use my skills to support myself online. 

Popular books like Tim Ferriss’ “The 4 Hour Work Week” have also perpetuated an idea that technology (among other oft-criticised strategies) can be used to almost eliminate the need for work at all. Realistically, a majority of digital nomads still work full-time hours, simply replacing an office cubicle for a more exotic location. 

The digital nomad lifestyle has challenges:

  • A lack of stability in relationships and routines;
  • Requires a large amount of intrinsic motivation;
  • Heavily dependent on internet access;
  • Self-employment can lead to a lack of “non-work” time and unclear work/life boundaries.

Oh Nomad! helps share many of the mistakes that I made and to get you on the path to success. Depending on your current career, skills, family and financial situation, you may find it much easier to transition to this lifestyle. It’s a legitimate opportunity to make money online and travel the world but still takes time, effort and dedication. There are pros and cons to this lifestyle and it’s important to consider them before embarking on your journey.

Is being a digital nomad overrated?

I love being a digital nomad but I understand why people consider it overrated. It’s those who sell the digital nomad lifestyle as a dream without being honest about the new, but different, challenges you’re likely to face. If you can accept this reality, I think this lifestyle is underrated!

Is being a digital nomad worth it?

The reality of digital nomadism is that it’s not for everyone. For me, the obstacles faced to having a successful digital nomad lifestyle are greatly outweighed by the freedom and control that I have over my work, free time and future. I am excited by novelty, new experiences and places. I’ve established friendships and relationships that thrive over Zoom calls.

It took time and it took a few failures. With creativity, challenges become opportunities. If you’re excited and ready to be a globetrotter, it might all be worth it! Just remember, it’s not a shortcut to ‘paradise’ but simply an alternative route in life, with its pros and cons. 

For those attracted to the adventure and freedom of a location-independent life, it’s absolutely worth it. If you can accept the challenges (changing routines and relationships, the ongoing need for strong wi-fi and establishing a clear work-life balance etc.), the digital nomad lifestyle can be truly life-changing.

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