We all have that friend (or guilty Instagram follow) who seems to be constantly traveling. They post photos working poolside in Bali one day and hiking in Laos the next. Chances are they’ve joined the growing army of digital nomads, or people who work remotely from coffee shops and workspaces around the globe in order to fund a nomadic, travel-heavy lifestyle.
This all may sound too good to be true, but I know the lifestyle is real because I’ve lived it. For 10 months freelance writing funded my travels and allowed me to live in places as varied as a homestay in Cambodia and a camper van in Japan. A spot with reliable wifi and good coffee was gold, and when I found it, you can bet I wasn’t the only one glued to my laptop and wearing out my welcome.
Nearly five million Americans describe themselves as digital nomads, meaning they both work and travel remotely, according to technology firm MBO Partners. One in six say they earn $75,000 or more a year but a majority earn less than $10,000 annually—and to most digital nomads, this doesn’t matter much. When you’re traveling in countries with a low cost of living, you can make less money, work fewer hours, and still enjoy a higher quality of life. Places like Bali, Vietnam, and Colombia offer the right mixture of affordability, modern conveniences, and reliable Wi-Fi.
The trick is securing work in a remote-friendly field that fits your skill set, while keeping in mind a few realities. “Your income will swing, so yes, you need savings to bridge when your work pipeline is light, or when you’re starting out and still getting established,” notes Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career expert and co-founder of Costa Rica FIRE, a movement of people who are working to retire while they’re young. Before you commit, she recommends putting at least two to three months of income in an emergency fund to cover lean times or a plane ticket home.
Once you’ve got a cushion in place, consider the cost of living where you’re planning to move and come up with a minimum monthly income you’ll need to make to sustain the lifestyle. Don’t forget to factor in health insurance and the portion of your pay you’ll need to put aside for taxes each time you’re paid (freelancer income isn’t taxed upfront). Ceniza-Levine also recommends setting up a special retirement account for self-employed workers.
Setting up an emergency fund and figuring out how much money you’ll need to make each month is only part of it; you’ll need to find freelance work that fits your skill set and covers your costs. To get you started we’ve compiled the skinny on 10 common digital nomad jobs.
Web or app development
Average salary: $93,000
When you build websites, computer programs, and apps, everything you need is either in the cloud or on your computer. In this behind-the-scenes job, you’ll likely have very little client interaction, which means no one will know (or care) if you’re working from Vietnam.
If you have no experience working with code and no relevant degree, you can find online coding schools that will give you the skills to apply as an entry-level or junior web developer. The jobs are plentiful (here are some job boards where you can scope them out: RemoteOK, Working Nomads, We Work Remotely) and the pay is good, making it a top career choice for digital nomads.
Average salary: variable
All you need is a laptop to market and manage your online store, while a supplier handles the stock and mails the goods to clients. Known as drop shipping, this method gives entrepreneurs the freedom to be anywhere. Fulfillment by Amazon provides similar perks.
Brady Deforeest used a similar technique while sailing around Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean and managing her jewelry business. “I sold to wholesale accounts I already had in place including Sundance Catalog. I had a couple girls make some stuff in the U.S. and the rest I made while sailing and shipped out at ports. I had someone helping with the distribution side.”
Average salary: $65,000
The goal of a digital marketer is to generate traffic for clients. Many specialize in SEO, paid traffic, or affiliate marketing and are pros at decoding Google’s search algorithms and analyzing Facebook ad data. The better you do, the more your clients will want to maintain a working relationship with you, which could potentially lead to a steady gig. You can find out about specific job openings here: Remote, Working Nomads, Indeed.
Average salary: $50,800
With the increased demand for content across the web, there’s also a need for people with an eye for detail who can polish and refine a writer’s work. Freelance copy editors are often the final set of eyes on blog posts, web content, and books before they get published. Many copy editing jobs you'll find listed on places like FlexJobs and Indeed don’t require you to keep set hours, so you’ll have lots of flexibility to work when you can find the time between sightseeing excursions.
Average salary: $52,500
Everything in graphic design is done behind a screen–think logos, brochures, and business cards–but to get into the biz you need natural creativity, a solid portfolio, and a good handle of Adobe Creative Suite.
Stacie Buell, a freelance graphic designer who’s traveling with Remote Year around the world, says she found all her clients through personal connections. “It's the years I invested in my old company, and the friendships and mentors I made along the way that help me find work.” But you can also search for work on job boards like FlexJobs, Freelancer, and Upwork.
Average salary: $63,200
Whether it comes in the form of sales copy or blog posts, every website needs written content to sell their brand or product. Copywriters write persuasively to grow a brand and encourage readers to buy a company’s product, while a content writer is paid to write articles or blog posts. In either case, make sure you’re able to do most of your research and sourcing online since setting up an interview with someone in LA while you’re in Singapore can be tricky, even if the actual cost of the call is free using apps like Skype, WhatsApp or even Facebook Messenger. Here are some job boards you can use to search for work: Pangian, Freelance Writing Jobs, FlexJobs, ProBlogger
Online English teacher
Average salary: $38,700 or $10-$23/hour
Forget about being stuck in one place for a year teaching English. If you’re a native English speaker, teaching online via Skype and other programs is a good way to travel while still making a buck. Most jobs—which you can find on VIPKID, Cambly and italki—require teachers to have a college degree and a TEFL Certificate, but for the latter, you can get certified over a weekend or via an online course for as little as $269.
Average salary: $57,000
In photography, it’s all about getting organizations and publications to buy your work. Expect to send lots of query emails at first, but once you have clients who know and like your style you can pitch ideas directly and shoot assignments on commission. Uploading images to stock sites like iStock and Stocksy can provide passive income while you focus on nailing down clients.
Somira Sao, who circumnavigated the globe on a sailboat with her family, took advantage of her unique experience to take photos for Patagonia and several sailing magazines. “As far as sailing magazines go, it worked the same, queries to a bunch of different publications and then one or more would say yes, and I would work with the publication that offered the best rate or were easy to work with,” says Sao who now tries to shoot on commission.
Average salary: $37,200
Working in this field requires a good internet connection and/or phone connection and some solid people skills. You may have to be available during certain hours, so make sure you’re travels don’t lead you too far east (unless working overnight is up your alley). If you’d rather do admin work than talk on the phone, look for virtual assistant job postings. These job boards can help: Indeed, Remote, Virtual Vocations, We Work Remotely, and Fancy Hands.
Translator and transcriber
If you’re fluent in a second language, finding work as a translator or transcriptor is a great way to make money while traveling. A typical client includes ecommerce sites that want to target global markets or companies that want to convert audio or video to text. Pay is usually per minute or per word, and you can work as a freelancer for a company like Rev who connects you to clients, or bid for work yourself on sites like ProZ.com. Check out these sites for job in this field: Rev, ProZ.com, CrowdSurf