Warning: You Probably DON’T Want to be a Digital Nomad

July 20, 2016

Ahh, the life of a digital nomad.

You wake up late, and are happy to find yourself in Thailand, just a short walk from the beach.

You pour yourself a cup of coffee, answer a couple of emails, and then pull on your flip-flops to wander off and spend the day surfing while your passive income rolls in.

By the time you stumble home drunk at 2 AM, your bank balance has grown considerably, you’ve met all kinds of awesome people, and you’re sure that those suckers back home are envying the shit out of you.

(In fact, they’ve been texting you all day to say so.)

Sounds good, huh?

But does anybody actually live like that?


I’ve never been to Thailand.

(Update: yes I have.)

But from where I’m sitting it seems like a lie.

Here’s the truth: you probably don’t want to be a digital nomad. You probably don’t even want to live abroad for any length of time.

This article is going to be (mostly) a response to this BRILLIANT article by Erick Prince over on Minority Nomad. It’s called “Everything they don’t tell you about being a digital nomad”.

There’s a lot of truth in that article. But first…

Just to clear this up at the beginning

I’m not really a digital nomad.

I’m an expat. I’ve been living here in Madrid, Spain for about 12 years.

For the last year, I’ve been making a living exclusively through writing and blogging, which means I’m location independent.

I’ve travelled a lot since quitting my day job, but I’m not really interested in going full-on digital nomad.

There are several reasons why, and most of them are addressed in Prince’s article. So without further ado, let’s get to my response.

Here’s why you probably don’t want to be a digital nomad (or an expat either, for that matter).

Some points from Prince’s article:

You’ll probably be an international criminal


Like I said, I’ve been living abroad since ’04. And my current lifestyle would be difficult (if not impossible) if I were trying to follow all the local tax and immigration laws and the ones back home to the letter.

Having income and bank accounts in multiple countries sounds cool and James-Bondish, but really it opens up a whole bureaucratic can of worms that you probably don’t want to get involved with.

Just trust me.

Wherever you’re living, you’ll probably at best be in some sort of legal limbo with somebody.

Can you handle it?

Thrilled to be in Barcelona…

You have to be a hustler to be a digital nomad

Oh yeah.

I don’t know about your digital nomad friends. But the real, legit digital nomads I know work their asses off.

Like the author of the other article says, he has to travel around and hustle to take more pictures even if he doesn’t really feel like it. Sometimes the income is sporadic.

You can lie around in bed if you feel sick, but if you’re anything like me, you have thousands of things to do… and lying around in bed ain’t paying the bills.

Personally, I’ve hung out with Gloria from the Blog Abroad (she’s about as nomadic as they come) and seen first hand how she works her ass off making travel look like non-stop fun and adventure.

I see how much time she spends on social media and responding to comments and emails, and all I can say is: I don’t want her job.

You probably wouldn’t either, if you saw what went into it.

Personally, I enjoy the hustle.


But sometimes I just wish it would stop.

What about my other friends with online businesses? They also work their asses off. They can be more or less nomadic, but even when they’re “on vacation” they’re still hard at work for several hours a day.

What about that passive income?

Another point in the article is about passive income.

Well, passive income does exist. It’s what you get when you invest in stocks or an index fund, and get paid dividends without lifting a finger.

Do the math. Even if you’re earning 6% on your money, you need to invest a LOT to be able to spend the next 5 years surfing without going broke.

Another passive income strategy could be to buy an apartment building, hire a manager and head off to the beach to live on other people’s rent money.

Don’t have hundreds of thousands of bucks sitting around to make either of those plans work?

Well, I’m sorry, but you’re probably going to have to work for a living. And work is work, even if you’re doing it on a beach in the Canary Islands.

I really like Paula Pant’s blog Afford Anything when it comes to financial freedom and passive income. She’s into real estate, and I’m not, but she still has a lot of interesting stuff to say.

But guess what?

I bet that at least some weeks, she works harder on her “passive income strategy” than you do at your day job.

About these people who claim to work an hour a day and then just watch the cash roll in… Maybe they do exist. But they must be people with a few good products, a traffic strategy, and a lot of automation or outsourcing.

And trust me, whatever their workload looks like now, they didn’t get there by working one-hour days.

Travel just might bring out your character flaws…

One of the best points from the other article is about those internet memes where travel is all romantic self-discovery.

Is it?

Uh… kinda. Sometimes.

On the other hand, if you were a miserable asshole back in Vegas, you’ll probably be a miserable asshole out in China too. At least after the initial euphoria of being abroad wears off.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Prince’s article:

“Here’s what travel will do. It will expose your character flaws. That’s for sure. But long term travel, and the privilege that comes with being a “wealthy westerner”, gives us the means to reinforce our flaws. Alcoholic? You can get trashed every night and no one will blink. Hell, most places in the world will encourage this. “

Yeah, pretty much.

All that social pressure to be “normal” back home just sort of disappears once you’re living abroad.

For me, it’s great. I don’t have to deal with the opinions of wacko conservatives or small-minded religious nuts back on the ranch, and I’m much happier.

But some people, apparently, need that social pressure to keep them from turning into (this is the technical term) huge douchebags.

Couple that with the loneliness and rapid turnover in expat social circles, and you might have to prepare yourself for some weirdness from yourself and others.

the life of a digital nomad in Spain
Cityscape in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I was there. As a nomad. And it was awesome.

Reverse culture shock is a bitch

Another quote from the article: “One of the biggest issues you might deal with is coming to the realization that your friends / family are assholes. Or backward minded at best.”


I haven’t spent a lot of time back in the US, but I have had to deal with this online.

People back home just don’t understand that other countries are not the US. And that we have a million other things to worry about that have nothing to do with what seems so urgent on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could make us expats seem like assholes, or maybe make the people back home question our sanity.

And I think there’s really no way to bridge this gap and understand each other.

How do you describe a decade living abroad to someone who’s barely even left town?

You don’t. They don’t have enough life experience to understand it. They imagine the whole world is like Kansas City but with better architecture, and miss the fact that living abroad is gonna mindfuck you in 1000 different ways every day.

And that the architecture is the least of it.

So: the million-dollar question…

Do you really want to live abroad?

Here’s the thing.

I’ve met a ton of other expats in these years I’ve lived abroad. And most of them aren’t cut out for it. They whine endlessly about how everything in Spain sucks, they get tired of the bad Spanish salary, or the dating scene, or the red tape, or the shitty customer service.

And they go home.

They’ve had an adventure. Spent a year abroad. And good for them.

Hanging in for the long term, though, is a totally different matter.

Life back home goes on, people forget about you, and here you are, a foreigner in somebody else’s home town, wondering what exactly you’re doing with your life.

Living abroad is great, but it’s not for everybody.

I’d say, as a rough estimate, that the success rate is about 10%.

The rest of those kids are back at home now, telling their friends from high school about that one time they were in Europe, and how cool it was, mincing along the Seine, drinking Sangria in Seville, whatever.

Listen: you probably don’t want to live abroad for the rest of your life.

But as usual, that’s just what I think.

I’m out.

Till next time,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What’s your opinion? Have you lived abroad and had any of these experiences? Are you a special little unicorn who makes a living off a one-hour work day? Whatever your story is, I’d love to hear about it… Right here in the comments!

P.P.S. If you want more like this, I have a new article where I talk about my personal experience with the Four Hour Work Week. I guess you could say that it’s not all sunshine and roses.

P.P.P.S. Looking back on this article a few years later, I’ve become both more nomadic, and more like a special little unicorn who works an hour a day. I’ve also got some stuff about Financial Independence you can read about here. But still, the main point stands: living abroad isn’t always easy or fun, and neither is nomadry. So think twice before selling your house and moving to Bali to take up dropshipping.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Love it!! You are spot on. Just finished my first year abroad, certified international educator, in China.

    People stateside really don’t understand and if bothers me when other expats complain. For me it’s like, no one is forcing you to stay here…GO BACK HOME!!

    Anywhoooo….thanks for this!

  2. Love both articles and feel the issue of telling The Whole Truth applies to much being written on social media…and portrayed in ALL media.

    Question: my husband and I are seriously considering spending a year living in Paris for the purpose of traveling around Europe. We’re two self-aware 50ish black people who are not running away from U.S. or planning to work. How much of the acclimation aspects of this article apply to us?

    1. I think Paris should be fine, but I’m not an expert. I hear it’s a big city and somewhat cold (emotionally cold) for people living there, but everybody seems to love it when they visit.

    2. Can I chip in with $0.02 worth? Read a couple of articles on French manners, especially in stores and restaurants, French style and dressing (yes they do judge by that) and practice your bonjours and au revoirs and you’ll be fine. Paris is the ultimate cosmopolitan city. You’ll have a great time.

  3. We’ve been nomadic for 3 years now and yes, we work our asses off! Many more hours than we ever did back home. But I much prefer working for myself in far off countries than my old 9-5. It’s true it’s not for everyone and it can get lonely. Mostly because you miss people that ‘get you’ and you really spend your days having the same conversation with every new person you meet – “yes we’ve been travelling for 3 years. No I’m not lucky. How do I make money? Eh, it’s complicated, do you have 3 hours spare for me to explain all of my monetization methods to you???. ” this conversation gets old quickly.
    It’s a crazy old lifestyle, but one I’m currently enjoying. Will we keep it up forever – who knows.
    Great article definitely some truths in there!

    1. Please don’t hate me but I am so curious as to how you do it. Been wanting to for years but really feeling overwhelmed with it! I have 3 hours to spare haha.

    2. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty boring marketing / SEO stuff behind the lifestyle, which makes it feel less like “luck” when you’re right in the middle of it.

  4. I’m not a nomad, but a serial migrant. I’ve been in Madrid since Christmas. Still struggling with Spanish and all sorts of practical stuff, but Madrid has been easier than Stockholm, London, Betlin, Amsterdam and Geneva. Maybe it’s experience, but I think the Spanish are friendlier and more social than anywhere else I’ve lived.

  5. You can actually have the same experience moving to Miami from Los Angeles and coming back home. Miami is so foreign a city in the united states that when you go back to Los Angeles after over a decade you are CLEARLY an alien they have no idea how to relate to. This is also why I’ve considered becoming a digital nomad – If I’ve crossed this line already may as well go further because theres no going back – I will always be different.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I’m a 36 year old auxiliar in Madrid, in my third year. I hope to make it to ten years one day.

    If you ever want the perspective of a sarcastic, witty, and slightly curmudgeonly thirty something trying to make it in Madrid, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.


  7. This is such a refreshing article – most of what I read about digital nomad life makes it sound as though it’s all treacle and honey. I lived In Vietnam for two years and definitely reached the level of expat cynicism you talked about – that was how I knew it was time to leave…

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