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Dreaming of working overseas? Here’s how to become a digital nomad

5-minute read

Man working with a view
Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith

4 August 2023

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Could a digital nomad visa give your self-employed life more freedom? Photos of laptops in beautiful settings have become commonplace on social media. But is running your business from anywhere in the world actually possible?

This guide explains the origins of this lifestyle trend and some of the practical things you need to consider – from tax implications and visas to timezones and internet quality.

We also caught up with one small business owner to find out their experience. Alex Merry is a public speaking coach and founder of MicDrop and here he shares his tips, challenges, and key lessons from trialling life as a digital nomad.

What is a digital nomad?

A digital nomad is someone who works from different locations and uses technology to connect them to their job. It’s a lifestyle that gives people the opportunity to travel while earning a living.

The term ‘digital nomad’ has grown in popularity over the past few years with the rise of remote working as a result of the pandemic. And Google Trends data shows how the number of people searching this term has risen in the UK since 2021, with steady growth from the start of last year up until today.

Graph showing Google Trends data for digital nomad search term
'Digital nomad' search trends graph shows growing interest. Source: Google Trends

Of course, small business owners and the self-employed have always had the benefit of freedom when it comes to choosing where and when they work.

So, if the type of work you do is conducted largely online – if you’re a copywriter or coach for example – then you might be considering combining work and travel as a digital nomad.

‘Wonders for your mental health and your creativity’

Alex Merry runs a public speaking coaching business with his wife and recently decided to try running the company from abroad. They wanted to test the experience for five months to see how it could work.

“Consistent good weather can do wonders for your mental health and your creativity – I wrote my first book, Make It Count, in the five months we were away.

“One of the best bits of the lifestyle is you have a desire to explore new areas and try new things. We’re always heading somewhere new on the weekend, and that recharges the batteries for the following week.”

It’s easy to get excited about the prospect of seeing the world and running your business at the same time, but there are practical considerations that can’t be overlooked.

Tax – as long as you remain a UK resident you’ll need to pay tax as usual to HMRC. But some countries may require you to pay local taxes too.

Bank accounts – make sure your UK business bank account has services worldwide and you won’t be charged high fees for transactions while travelling. Challenger banks like Monzo, Revolut, and Starling are popular choices for use overseas.

Visas – you’ll need a visa to live and work in another country for any extended period of time. The rules vary from country to country and the process can be complicated.

Pension – as long as you’re continuing to pay National Insurance then your pension tax reliefs will stay the same, but if you give up your UK residency status then this will impact your pension.

Insurance – if you change how and where you’re running your business, let your business insurance provider know so you can be sure you have the cover you need.

This article is intended as a guide. Make sure you get professional tax and legal advice if you have any questions about taking your business overseas.

Countries with digital nomad visas – where could you work?

These are some popular countries with digital nomad visas in Europe (thanks to good quality internet and nice weather):

  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Greece
  • Malta
  • Portugal
  • Italy – a digital nomad visa is approved but not implemented, but you might be able to apply for the self-employed worker visa for freelancers

You’ll need to prove a certain level of income as part of any visa application, so if you’re newly self-employed then this might be tricky.

It’s also worth noting that the visa process can be complicated. For example, a report in Politico highlights both the administrative challenges for people moving to Portugal and the reaction of residents on the influx of digital nomads.

SchengenVisaInfo.com has more information about visas in the Schengen Area in Europe, including the latest requirements for digital nomads.

Time zone matters

Researching digital nomad opportunities beyond Europe could be tempting, but it’s important to consider time zones.

Alex says: “We’ve always based our remote work decisions around the hours we’re willing to do business calls with the UK.

“I have no interest in delivering workshops at 3am, so unfortunately Bali isn’t going to work for us.”

‘The biggest challenge is finding somewhere to live’

Alex shared some things to look out for if you’re choosing to become a digital nomad:

“The biggest challenge is finding somewhere to live, especially during the holiday season. Prices skyrocket on Airbnb during that time and there’s no incentive for the hosts to drop their rent for you.

“My suggestion would be to plan your trips for the off-season where you can negotiate some really good deals – in comparison to renting in London at least.

“Aside from that and making sure the area you’re in has good internet, the biggest challenge is being away from friends and family.”

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Coworking spaces for digital nomads

Another thing to consider is where you’ll actually run your business from while you’re away from home. Are you going to set up a desk from your holiday rental or Airbnb? Or would a coworking space suit you better?

Research from The Social Hub found the best cities for coworking in Europe for people looking to travel and take their business with them. The rankings are based on factors such as the number of coworking spaces available, costs, wifi speeds, and living costs.

Spanish cities Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia make up the top three coworking hubs in Europe, followed by Bristol and Sheffield in fourth and fifth respectively.

Our guide to coworking explains some of the benefits of using these spaces, whether you’re in the UK or elsewhere.

Woman with laptop in café with coconut drink
Working from a café as a digital nomad. Photograph: BullRun/stock.adobe.com

Ideas for the best digital nomad jobs

Alex found creativity and headspace to write a book and manage his public speaking business from Portugal and Morocco, but there are plenty of other jobs that could be suited to the nomadic lifestyle.

Reddit users at r/digitalnomad share the types of jobs they’ve tried as a digital nomad, including:

  • teaching
  • photography
  • digital marketing
  • web development

You could also consider taking your online business, passive income, or freelance graphic design work overseas.

‘Start with a month and see how it goes’

It can be tempting to want to just go for it, rent out your house, and book a flight. But Alex recommends experimenting with the digital nomad lifestyle before committing.

“The digital nomad lifestyle is something you can dabble with.

“You don’t need to go all in and live out of a VW camper van and be on the road the whole time. Just start with a month and see how it goes.”

Alex now says he plans to move back to the UK but spend a few months away each winter.

“It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that being in one place is better than being in another, but the truth is, they’re just different and it’s about embracing them for what they are.

“Your problems still come with you, but being in a new place might just change how you handle them.”

Alex Merry is a public speaking coach and founder of MicDrop. Sign up to his newsletter for presentation tips.

Have you considered this lifestyle or tried applying for a digital nomad visa as a small business owner? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Photograph: Suzanne Plumette/stock.adobe.com
Catriona Smith

Written by

Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith is a content and marketing professional with 12 years’ experience across the financial services, higher education, and insurance sectors. She’s also a trained NCTJ Gold Standard journalist. As a Senior Copywriter at Simply Business, Catriona has in-depth knowledge of small business concerns and specialises in tax, marketing, and business operations. Catriona lives in the seaside city of Brighton where she’s also a freelance yoga teacher.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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