When I’m not watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or camping in the Australian Outback, or taking part in a street carnival in southern Peru, you can find me frantically typing away on my laptop in hostel kitchens, coffee shops and hammocks around the world.
As a full-time digital nomad and travel writer, I have the freedom to work from anywhere.
My partner, Lee, is a web designer from England and, together, we’ve traversed the globe making a living completely online.
The idea that I could live, work and travel on my own terms seemed crazy at first, but there’s never been a better time to build a lifestyle like this. Fast WiFi is available almost anywhere you go. The rapidly growing pace of the internet means that there are jobs galore in web design, app development, freelance writing, SEO and more.
More companies are becoming comfortable with hiring freelancers on the other side of the world who they’ll never actually meet.
According to research by Upwork, 48 percent of companies are open to using flexible workers to meet project demands and find skills not available in-house.
So, I quit my exhausting job with Greenpeace, guilting strangers into giving me their credit card details to save the polar bears. I was tired of chasing people with a clipboard while they were simply walking down the street.
So, I took to the internet.
Seven years and 50 countries later, I’m still living life on the road.
Of course, earning an income online isn’t limited to writing. You can build a remote career in graphic design, web design, translation and more. If you’re looking to untether yourself from your cubicle and pursue any career as a digital nomad, consider these four steps that lead me to success.
1. Establish a Professional Presence Online
After quitting my job, I was broke, desperate and struggling to find a job. Ultimately, I created a profile on Upwork, a freelance platform that connects businesses with freelancers, and I began freelance writing while backpacking around New Zealand.
While I didn’t have any experience or any writing samples, I poured all of my energy into writing confident, personalized cover letters. I applied for every writing job I could find and, when I finally got my first one, I made sure that I’d earn a five-star rating and glowing praise on my profile by perfecting the assignment.
Doing well on the first job made it easier to get a second job and so on.
I learned that, if you do good work and promote yourself, clients will eventually come to you.
Eventually, I moved with Lee—who I met in New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa—to the North of England, where I started working at a nursery full time. (That’s a “daycare” for you North Americans.) But I kept building up my freelance career in the evenings and weekends after my day job.
Although it meant that I was working 60 hour weeks, I still consider this a very smart move; it meant that I had a guaranteed income through my full-time job while I could slowly build up my reputation as a freelancer. It also meant that I was able to save up an emergency fund as a buffer in case I needed it.
In time, I was able to go part-time at my job and part-time with freelance, and, after about 14 months, I finally “quit my day job” fully and pursued freelance full time.
2. Give the Nomadic Lifestyle a Trial Run
You don’t have to jump head-first into a location-independent lifestyle. Because it’s vastly different from the life to which you’ve likely become accustomed, it’s a smart idea to dip your toes in the water to see if you even enjoy it.
You don’t want to end up 2,495 miles from home with nothing but a laptop and a backpack and realize you’d actually prefer to be home with all of the belongings you wish you’d never given away.
Back in 2011, Lee and I did a three-week trial run of a location-independent lifestyle by renting an apartment on the beach in Algarve, Portugal from which to work. This was before we had packed up, sold everything and committed to the lifestyle.
During this trial, we learned a few very important things:
- We learned that choosing the right accommodation is important. Finding somewhere with a high-speed internet connection and enough space to get work done is crucial.
- One of the biggest challenges of this lifestyle is staying disciplined. Even when a beautiful beach is beckoning you from right outside your window. I had to become as efficient as possible so that I could get things done and enjoy the sunshine.
- Eventually, I started to learn about the “feast or famine” nature of freelance work and how to keep a steady flow of work, as well as how to make the most of the slower times.
- Also, we learned that, in order to achieve the right work-life balance, it’s crucial to travel as slowly as possible. Our three weeks in Portugal was just barely enough time to enjoy all of the attractions and activities we wanted to see because we had to fit it around our work.
3. Figure out the Technical Details
This is the boring but necessary stuff if you do decide to dive in. Before you become location independent, you need to figure out all of the technical details. Here are some of the important questions that you need to consider:
- What travel insurance company is best for the destinations you will be traveling, and does it cover activities you might be doing like surfing or skiing?
- Do you still need to pay taxes in your home country?
- What bank account should you use, and does it offer you free international withdrawals?
- With no permanent address, will a friend or relative be willing to receive your mail for you?
- Do you make any monthly payments for things like phone or internet bills, gym memberships or magazine subscriptions?
- Do you have the right visa and do you meet the entry requirements for the country you are planning to visit?
You may want to hire an accountant to help you navigate your tax rules and regulations, which vary depending on your home country—Americans, read here for how to legally reduce your taxes to zero as an expat. And you should be sure to let your bank know when you’ll be traveling. And to where. This way they won’t freeze your card for suspicious foreign transactions.
4. Get Rid of Your Stuff
Put simply: The less stuff you own, the more mobile you can be. Plus, selling stuff you don’t need can help you add to your travel funds.
The only essentials I held onto were a backpack, some clothes, toiletries and my laptop. In fact, the only things I have left at my parent’s house now are a few childhood photos and priceless mementos that I couldn’t bear to throw away. As for everything else, I either threw it away, sold it on Craigslist, donated it to charity or gave it to friends.
You should first divide your belongings and decide where they might be needed most. Or to whom you’d feel best giving them. For example, I gave my friend my old easel and painting supplies from art school. Hearing that she completed a beautiful series of paintings with them was so valuable to me. Much more so than the money I would have made from selling them to a stranger.
After that, you may still have stuff you need to store. You can either ask your family or friends to hold onto it for you. Or you can pay for storage spaces. For those in the USA, there is a cool option called MakeSpace. The company will pick up your stuff, store it for you and deliver it back to you when you return.
For more, I found this Lifehacker article on “de-crapifying your home” to be helpful.
5. Just Go For It
After all of the planning and the thinking and the preparing, the only step left is just to go for it. This can be the hardest step of all because it’s the one that turns it all into reality. Don’t let your fears hold you back!
My advice? Take it easy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself when you first get started.
Choose a digital-nomad friendly destination with a laid-back pace, steady WiFi and a cheap cost of living, so that your work conditions are ideal and there isn’t a lot of pressure on you.
Secondly, take your time. Don’t try to travel to 10 different places in the first month.
Stay in each place for a week or two at a time so that you can do work and explore slowly. It will take a while to get used to the lifestyle of living remotely and to find your rhythm.
Once you feel more established, you can start moving around a little more. However, I still recommend traveling slowly— you’ll have a much better time when you aren’t in a rush.
Lastly, it’s important to not to stress out about being “perfect.”
Working remotely and living a location-independent lifestyle is tricky and you will make mistakes along the way. I’ve certainly made many, and I’ve learned a lot from all of them. As long as you keep learning, you’ll be absolutely fine.
Starting out on this journey sometimes felt like a terrifying yet exhilarating free fall into the unknown. But, looking back, it’s the best thing I have ever done.
There’s nothing to lose and a world of freedom to gain.