The Basics of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The digital nomad lifestyle can look pretty carefree and glamorous on Instagram – all beachfront writing sessions and working whenever you want, wherever your wanderlust takes you. But in reality, you still have to deal with lots of the same daily tasks you had at home. And some of them are more complex, like housing and banking. 

So how do I handle basic needs like finding places to live, my finances, my health, and my taxes while living as a digital nomad? I’ll tell you everything you need to know in this guide. (Seriously, it’s very detailed, but let’s be real – you need details.) Let’s get started!

*Disclaimer before we begin – I am an American, so this is written from an American perspective! Not all this advice might apply to you if you’re from another country.

How I Find Digital Nomad Housing 

The most urgent need as a digital nomad is finding somewhere to live. Since most nomads, like me, move around about every three months, finding a place to stay is more complex than just signing a one-year lease like you probably did back home. But it’s also not like finding somewhere to stay on vacation, when you’re probably out most of the time at restaurants or exploring. 

Finding great digital nomad accommodation is really about finding a temporary home, rather than just a place to crash. You’ll probably be home more, working and cooking and doing mundane things like laundry and yoga. So you need a place that fits all those needs on a short-term basis. 

Airbnb Options for Housing

For most digital nomads, this search starts and ends in one place – Airbnb. There are so many great apartments and houses available all over the world, bookable with just a click on your laptop or phone.

You can narrow your search by features so you get exactly what you need in your new home, and the reviews provide a good look at what living in that space is actually like.

Here are the essentials I filter for when looking at Airbnbs: 

  • A washing machine. I lived as a nomad in Split for a month without one, and it was just hell. Landromats can be pricey, especially when you only own three outfits so you’re basically washing four items at a time. Having an in-unit washer, or at least one in the building, will make your whole life easier. Finding a dryer outside of North America is probably not going to happen, but you’ll get used to the line-drying life in no time.
  • Decent wifi. You might think every Airbnb in 2021 has this – but it’s not guaranteed! This is often a problem for digital nomads in Athens. You’ll also want to ask your potential host about internet speed if you have a job that requires lots of Zoom calls or a strong connection (as a writer, this is less of a problem for me). 
  • Laptop-friendly workspace. I know working from bed seems like a glam Edith Wharton move, but I just don’t like it. I need a table or a desk or something where I can prop my laptop and get to work, so I always use this Airbnb filter. 
  • A proper kitchen. My idea of a proper kitchen is pretty basic these days – at least two burners, a real sink, a fridge of some sort, and an electric kettle. Big bonus points for an oven and an espresso machine too! I cook a lot at home and love it, so having some basic space to do it and a few tools makes me feel at home while saving me money. 

Once you have been a digital nomad for a while though, you’ll notice one big downside to Airbnb: the prices are much higher than you’ll pay finding an apartment through local sources. You’re paying a premium for convenience and reviews and having everything included in one price.

Finding Local Digital Nomad Accommodation

And a lot of times, this is worth it if you’re not up to hunting down a local place on your own. Especially in very cheap areas, the difference in price might not make a local apartment hunt worth it. 

But if you consistently come back to the same city over and over again, or have lots of local connections, it can be well worth it to seek out your own place off of Airbnb. 

Local Facebook groups, especially ones for expats, can turn up some good options, or you can ask local friends if they know of any good available places. This takes more time and involves a little more risk, since there’s no intermediary if your deal goes wrong, but it can save you quite a bit of money. Just keeping in mind that it’s more of a hassle for landlords to do short-term rentals, so they might charge you more for that as well. 

And if you’re really looking to save money, there’s always housesitting! I use Trusted Housesitters and love it (here’s a link to save 25% on your membership!), but this is a subject worthy of its own post so stay tuned. 

Related: My Digital Nomad Gear Essentials and Packing List

Managing Money Abroad

Now that you have a roof over your head, it’s time to start thinking about managing your money. I’m not talking about things like investing and saving for retirement – I’m a writer, not a financial guru! But you’ll need to think about a few different things for handling your money before you head abroad long-term. 

Choosing a Bank as a Nomad

First, you’ll need a bank that gives you the right debit and debit cards for traveling. That means no foreign transaction fees, refunds on ATM withdrawals, and the capacity to get you a new card fast if you leave your debit card in a Thai ATM (oops!!).

I use, and absolutely love, USAA as they’re champs at all of the above. But while they’ve expanded their membership offerings, they’re not available to everyone in the US (I have membership because both my grandfathers served in the military), so here’s a great list of solid banking options for digital nomads. 

While I do get refunded for ATM fees, there’s a limit on that, so I try to find local banks that don’t charge too much when I need to get cash. I avoid the touristy Euronet ATMs in Europe which have a terrible exchange rate, and go for an ATM attached to an actual bank where possible to minimize the possibility of problems.

I also avoid airport ATMs wherever possible, and definitely airport money-changers who will rip you off every time. Wait until you’re at your destination if you can! 

Credit Cards for Digital Nomads

For credit cards, I get a lot of value out of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which gives me 3x rewards on all my travel expenses (which is basically everything in my digital nomad lifestyle). But the annual fee can be a bit steep, so the Sapphire Preferred is also a good option with lower costs. 

I do love having a contactless card, which is the standard in Europe but not in backwards America which is very behind the advanced credit-card times. And I use my card wherever possible instead of cash to rack up those credit card points, which I then redeem for even more travel!

Sunset with clouds at Jezinac Beach in Split, Croatia with waves on the blue Adriatic Sea.
Walking to this beach in Split at sunset, however, is free.

Some countries have a more cash-based system than others – I use cash for almost everything in Greece, but I honestly don’t even bother going to the ATM in the UK because I use my card for absolutely everything. 

Digital Nomad Health Insurance 

Big shout-out to all my fellow Americans here – you will almost certainly find healthcare and health insurance abroad vastly simpler, wildly cheaper, and infinitely more sane than at home. Seriously, it’s a huge relief and also really makes you realize how insane the US system (“system” really lol) is. 

Finding nomad-specific health and travel insurance is pretty rare, but one company does it all affordably: SafetyWing. (This is not an ad, I just really like them!) It’s about $40/month for global coverage that includes COVID-19, and covers 15 days in a 90 day period in the US as well. 

Caring for Your Health Abroad

This coverage is great for emergencies, but I’ve also found that medical care is insanely affordable (by US standards) almost everywhere else I go. I just pay out of pocket for private care, which I’ve done in Bali and Croatia, and it’s usually about a tenth of my yearly deductible when I had insurance in the US.

Just ask around for quality medical providers who speak English, and you can get great care for not much money without even using insurance. 

And over-the-counter meds, as well as prescription ones, are almost always much, much cheaper anywhere else than the US as well. I keep my insurance in case I get very sick and need a lot of care. But for everyday things like a yearly gynecologist visit, dental care, and heartburn meds I just go to a local doctor or pharmacy, and pay very little for great care and meds.

Asking in local expat Facebook groups is a good way to find these providers. 

Doing Your Digital Taxes 

I am a writer – I did not choose this profession because I enjoy or excel at math. I have been doing my own taxes since I got my first job at 16 and I am still terrible at it. Being a digital nomad makes that even more complex, as does being self-employed, as does being a citizen of one of the only countries to make you file taxes even if you permanently live elsewhere. 

A smiling female digital nomad with a friendly stray cat in Split, Croatia.
This tiny cat and I are equally qualified to offer you tax advice – get a professional.

My advice? Get an accountant. I’m using Wayfare Accounting (again, not an ad) for the first time ever to make sure I am filing my business taxes right and qualifying for the nomad-friendly Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (no federal income taxes anymore for me!). There are plenty of accounting firms who specialize in digital nomad taxes out there, and I think the money spent is well worth it. 

The Perfect Phone Plan 

You can see plenty of ads in the US for “international” cell phones plans, mostly from T-Mobile and Verizon, and I’m here to tell you the hard truth – those plans are terrible for digital nomads.

If you’re on vacation for a week? Sure, pay $10/day or $50/month for that service. But living abroad long-term is made a lot simpler (and much, much cheaper) when you ditch your US phone company. 

What to do instead? Make sure your phone is unlocked so you’re not tied to one phone company. Get a Google Voice number before you leave the US – this is important because they won’t let you do it abroad. Set up all your two-factor authentications to go to this number for your bank and social media logins. 

And then just purchase local SIM cards and swap them out when you enter a new country. Actually, within the EU you don’t even need to do that – your SIM from Greece will work just the same in Ireland, so you don’t even need to swap when you take that flight. 

It Saves You Money

Why should you go through the effort of buying and swapping out SIMs every time you move countries? Well, for one thing, it’s so much cheaper than a US phone plan.

I’ve paid between $10-$20 per month all over Europe for a pay-as-you-go plan with a good amount of data and some phone minutes, and never paid less than $45 for that in the US. 

It Saves You Headaches

It’s also way more hassle-free because you know your phone will actually work in that country – something those vaunted “international” plans often lack on the ground. You will probably get lots of confusing texts in a foreign language – Vodaphone Greece loves to text me in all caps with tons of exclamation points and incomprehensible Grenglish – but it’s well worth it. 

It Makes Local Life Easier

And it’s really useful to have a local phone number when you’re staying in a country for a few months at a time so you can easily make and take calls without confusing anyone.

For example, to get all my packages delivered in Croatia, I get a phone call from the postman when he’s at my building. Having only a US number would make that a lot more complicated. 

All In a Simple Swap

Swapping out a SIM card is much easier than it sounds once you get used to it too. I just carry a little paper clip in my wallet so I can pop out my SIM card as needed and swap it with a new one (or an old one sometimes, as I have about 7 SIMs floating around in my wallet at any given time).

You’ll get used to it fast, and the 30 seconds the swap takes is more than worth it for the monetary savings and the hassle it saves you on the road. 

When I’m headed somewhere for just a weekend – when we’re allowed to do that again! – I don’t typically bother to get a new SIM. Wifi is everywhere, so I usually just get one for a week or more. Some countries have really cheap tourist deals for a week or so though, so if I’m feeling like I want to have cell service I’ll spring for that when it’s available. 

Just don’t call me when I’m going for my evening swim.

Using a VPN

Having a virtual private network, or VPN, is a real lifesaver in the digital nomad life. In large part that’s because it lets you watch all your Netflix shows and use HBO Max just like you’re in the US – truly incredible. It also helps you keep your data safe while you’re working at cafes with less-secure wifi networks too. 

There are a lot of VPN options out there. I’ve been using ExpressVPN (sign up here and get 30 days free!) and love it – it works everywhere, their customer service is really responsive, and it lets me watch absolutely everything I want and work with fast internet speeds. 

More Digital Nomad Living Tips 

There are so many aspects of the digital nomad lifestyle that it’s hard to fit everything into one blog post! Gear alone can be its own guide (and stay tuned, because that’s coming next). Here are my other blog posts on digital nomad life with tips that will make it a lot more fun. 

I hope all this info helps you start your digital nomad life off right – it’s not too complicated once you get the hang of it! And keep an eye out for more nomad living content coming soon too. Questions about any of this? Ask me in the comments! 

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