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How to work abroad as a digital nomad

Written 22 November, 2018, 5 minutes to read

Waking up in paradise doesn’t just have to be a dream. Approximately 4.8 million Americans now describe themselves as “digital nomads” – freelancers or remote workers able to work from any country or location they please. And the number continues to grow. So how do you join it? To help you make the leap, we reached out to expat freelancers and remote workers to get their expert tips on how to work abroad as a digital nomad.

Flexibility and skillset

Before you step into the world of remote work, there is one question you must ask yourself: does your current job or freelance gig offer you to flexibility to work remotely or abroad?

If the answer to that is “yes”, you’re off to the races (and you can skip to the next section!). But if the answer is “no”, you have a bit of work to do first, and that starts with building the right skillset for remote work: We’re talking about developing competencies desired by employers as well as those which will steel you for the challenges of a nomadic lifestyle.

First up, consider taking an online course to beef up your remote skillset. Target the most common fields in the freelance workspace, like development, marketing and design. Then develop important sufficiency skills, like project management and productivity, which will help you master your workflows and time management. Companies like GoSkills offer comprehensive courses on all of these – you just need to find and protect time in your day to sit down and do it.

The more you can prepare yourself, the better. Melissa, founder of Tech4Trek, advises aspiring digital nomads to start freelancing in a comfortable, familiar environment first “before immersing yourself in a totally new culture, especially around other nomads, where you are sure to have massive and constant FOMO.” She stresses that “earning your own living requires a totally new skill set including a high level of self-discipline, commitment to goals and very clear priorities.”

Finances

There are a number of ways you can trim down your expenses when working abroad. Management consultant Brad Hines recommends becoming “intimately familiar with personal finance, aspects of geo-arbitrage and travel hacking” and keeping an eye on your three biggest expenses: “housing, transportation and food”. To really save money on transport, you can always let the price dictate your destination – using Kayak Explore, Skyscanner and Google Flights to find the best deals.

Marketing consultant Stacy Caprio recommends looking at sites like Trusted Housesitters where you can house-sit and take care of pets in exchange for free accommodation. She also recommends opening up credit cards with flight and cash bonuses in order to earn miles for cheaper (or free!) flights.

You should also factor in your assets in your home country. If you have a house or an apartment, you might want to consider listing it as a vacation rental. Marketing entrepreneur Matt Holmes, for example, makes “4x the amount that rent costs for a nice Penthouse unit here in Manila, Philippines” when his home is fully booked on Airbnb back home.

Mariel Loveland, a freelance journalist & musician, recommends having a solid nest egg in case any issues arise. Freelance work can be quite volatile, and running out of funds is trickier to deal with abroad than when you’re at home.

Where to go

Wherever you go, your new location will come with its own set of pros and cons. So always work out what your deal breakers are to keep your search focused and realistic.

To that end, freelance copywriter Kim Hobson suggests picking cities that have an existing “digital nomad community”. She explains you can “share tips, challenges, head out on adventures, and generally stay motivated together.” Importantly, these communities also tend to have the facilities you need, like coworking spaces, flexible accommodation, and decent internet.

South East Asia comes highly recommended by SEO entrepreneur Yeshua Quijano, who finds Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Chiang Mai in Thailand to be particularly “digital folk-friendly”.

At the end of the day, you still need to produce quality work to stay competitive as a freelancer, so your working environment needs to support you. While working from a beach-side bar may sound exotic, without a power source, stable internet, comfortable set-up or non-glare screen, it will likely become very unproductive very fast.

Networking abroad

Meeting new people when working abroad comes with some great benefits: companionship, advice and networking to name a few. But those are not always easy to come by, and without taking proactive steps, working remotely can actually be a very lonely experience.

You need to take active responsibility for your own social needs and work meaningful interaction into your day. Coworking spaces are a great place to start; they help you meet people in similar positions and work a sense of stability into your day. But if you’re working in one place for an extended period of time, you should also check out meetup groups, conferences and relevant professional events in the area.

There’s also the issue of client networking. Freelancing has a notoriously high level of client volatility, so you also need to be able to quickly market yourself when new opportunities arise. To speed the process up, have a solid template CV and covering letter ready, and consider putting together a professional website to pitch for new work. At the bare minimum, you should invest time into creating an online portfolio to easily share samples of your work to prospective clients. Just remember to keep it up-to-date!

Work-life balance

Travelling is obviously the main draw of the nomadic remote working, so build in days off to fully explore and enjoy your new location. Content manager Trifan Tsvetkov recommends setting “work hours, days, and vacations as you would when working for someone else. Start at the same time, finish at the same time, work on the same days, and forget about work when you’re on vacation.”

Freelance copywriter Kim Hobson recommends using time zones to your advantage. In the right conditions, she can complete a piece of work while her client is sleeping, “having it ready in their inbox for when they wake up”. It’s a pretty attractive set-up for companies looking to operate “24-hours a day”, so definitely consider pitching to companies on the opposite side of the globe.

Ultimately, working abroad as a digital nomad requires a fine balance: if you neglect your business, you won’t be able to stay abroad for long; but conversely, spending all your time working on your business defeats the point of working abroad. You need to understand what you want to get out from it, as well as what you are willing to put in.

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