Digital nomads face challenges just like everyone else. While digital nomad problems may not be the same as their 9-5 counterparts, if you think the only issues we have is deciding which beach to work from, you’re wrong. This post lists 15 digital nomad problems you should know about if your considering becoming a digital nomad.
The digital nomad life can be awe inspiring, jealousy inducing and even downright unbelievable at times. Traveling to places most people have never even heard of and even fewer will actually see is a privilege and we’re all lucky to be in the position to do it. But Being a digital nomad is not all lush photos at golden hour, we have our problems too! Here are 15 digital nomad problems.
These are things you should consider before embarking on the digital nomad lifestyle.
Table of Contents
- Your First Digital Nomad Problem – What To Pack?
- People Undervalue Your Work And Time Is A Problem
- You Don’t Get Vacations In The Nomad Life
- Everyone Thinks You’re On A Non Stop Holiday
- You’re Working Everyday
- The Challenge Of Loneliness
- Your Friends List is Full Of Strangers
- You Don’t Have Time To See The Sights
- Living to The Rhythm of Visas
- The Expense Of Nomadic Life
- Worrying About your Stuff
- Getting Wifi
- Travel Is Stressful!
- Banking And Finance
- Having The Same Once In A Lifetime Experience
- Final Thoughts – Are The Problems Worth It?
Your First Digital Nomad Problem – What To Pack?
You probably have a house, or maybe an apartment or room full of stuff – either way you have a lot of stuff! Most of your belongings aren’t going to be coming with you when you become a digital nomad.
What To Take
What you take is completely up to you, don’t let anyone tell you what you should and shouldn’t travel with. This post from PackHacker has some good ideas. Here are some recommendations based on my experience though.
- Take 1 case – If you travel often, taking 2 cases is a problem you don’t need
- Take as little as possible Ask yourself “Do I really want to carry this around the world?”
- Buy daily necessities where ever you are – You don’t need to take toothpaste form home!
- Take things for work – These are non negotiable – laptop, camera, etc
- Take things for life – If you can’t live without it, take it
- Take something fun – You don’t have to give up all your possessions! Take that teddy bear or poi if you want to
What To Do With Everything Else
The problem then becomes what to do with everything else. Do you throw it out? Give it away? Put it in storage or just leave it in your house unchanged?
Generally speaking the older you are, the more belongings you have probably accumulated over the years.
This is the advice I recommended in a recent article on becoming a digital nomad family.
- If you’re the cautious type
Leave you’re house as it is with all you’re belongings exactly where they are.
- If you’re the determined type
Put your things into storage and rent out your house.
- If you’re the daring type
Sell your house and get rid of everything!
People Undervalue Your Work And Time Is A Problem
How much do you think an hour of your time is worth? It’s probably more than you think. Here in China teaching an hour of English will net you about $40 and you can find private classes all day long, even if you have no experience.
That being said I get ‘offers’ from people all the time for me to build their business and the expectation seems to be that I should do it for free or for pennies.
“Oh your a digital nomad? I have a small website, you can do some digital marketing for me! If I make any sales I’ll give you a share.”
Usually when you check the website it’s a 3 year old blog with 4 posts about blogging on it.
Unless you’re a freelancer and earn an income from writing or working on clients businesses, you want to ignore 90% of the ‘opportunities’ you get offered.
You Don’t Get Vacations In The Nomad Life
Most people, when they think of going on vacation, think of the places digital nomads live everyday; Thailand, China, Italy etc. So where do digital nomads go when they need a vacation. We definitely need
A vacation is a chance to get away from it all for a while. ‘It all’ being your life. Being a digital nomad is hard work, it’s stressful and there are a lot of challenges (enough to write a whole post on.) So where can we go when we want to get away from the never ending travel?
Usually when I have a chance to take some time off I go home. I got back to see my friends and family and reacquaint myself with the place I left 15 years ago. Of course, it’s great to see everyone and walk down memory lane but is it a vacation? Not really.
The truth is that the concept of a vacation just doesn’t make sense to a digital nomad.
Everyone Thinks You’re On A Non Stop Holiday
Despite the fact that you have to forfeit ever having a real vacation ever again. Everyone you know thinks your on a non-stop vacation. They see the idyllic photos on your travel blog not realizing that that single photo took 45 minutes to set up and that the blog post its embedded into was a weeks work.
It might look like you were just lazing at the beach but in reality as soon as that photo was taken, you packed up and went to the next location for the next shot.
The successful digital nomads that I know, work way more than anyone back home. They don’t take weekends off, they’re focused on building their businesses, their income streams or their jobs.
You’re Working Everyday
The dream of the digital nomad life is that you can work a couple of hours each day and spend the rest of the time on the beach drinking cocktails with the beautiful people in the photos. But that’s all it is – a dream.
The truth is that to be a successful digital nomad takes work, a lot of work! If you’re freelancing it means spending time finding new work everyday, pitching to people and convincing them to give you the gig – and that’s before you even start the actual work!
If you have your own online business like a blog or consulting service, you have even more to stay on top of!
Even if you work remotely, you’re still expected to be available online during certain times of the day and heaven forbid you go a day without checking email. I recommend finding a virtual assistant to help you with some of the work you don’t want to do!
Being a digital nomad you’re at work everyday. Especially in the first few years while your trying to build your income streams past the point of your monthly expenses. Yes you could go to the beach today, but you could use that time to write another blog post or find the next assignment.
Everyday is a workday and burnout is real!
The Challenge Of Loneliness
Loneliness is perhaps the biggest threat to the digital nomad lifestyle. Even if you spend most of your time in places with big nomadic populations like Chiang Mai or Medellin, the nomadic lifestyle brings with it a certain amount of loneliness.
You can’t have long term friends that you see regularly if you’re not in the same country.
You can make new friends with local people and with other travelers but you’ll never get that deep connection that makes a truly lasting friendship.
Technology makes things easier but its not a panacea. When I first moved to China, I used to queue up to buy international phone cards so I could call my folks back home on a landline phone!
Video calls and messaging services have changed the game but it’s still not like being there with them. This is a problem that you just need to learn to deal with.
Your Friends List is Full Of Strangers
Inevitably, you meet people, exchange Facebook friends or add each other on Whatsapp and never talk to them again.
It happens all the time. But after years of doing this you look down your contacts list to send a message to a friend back home and all you see is people you don’t know.
Clear them out and stay in touch with you close friends and family back home.
You Don’t Have Time To See The Sights
After spending years in China (my wife is Chinese) and despite being just an hour or two away, I still haven’t visited the Great Wall. In Chinese there’s a saying:
不到长城非好汉。You’re not a real man unless you’ve been to The Great Wall.
But this is something I’ve heard again and again from digital nomads of all kinds. They went to Phuket and never laid on the beach, went to Rome and didn’t see the Colosseum, missed the Taj Mahal in India and skipped Machu Picchu in Peru.
This issue is partly because digital nomads spend so much time working in order to keep up a lifestyle of constant travel which isn’t cheap. But it’s more than that.
Some digital nomads wear their ‘attractionless’ travels like a badge of honor. They don’t see themselves as tourists and so they don’t do what the tourists do. “It’s more real to do what the locals do.” So they sit in a cafe or just at home on their laptops. But the locals have seen the sights, they’ve lived around them their whole lives and so a little indifference is natural.
But going somewhere and being indifferent to the cultural achievements of the place is just rude!
I guess The Great Wall should be on my itinerary, but let me finish this post first!
Living to The Rhythm of Visas
We love to slomad. We like to take our time, spend as long as we can in each location and really get a feel for the place. But there are some places that just don’t offer long term visas.
We loved Laos, we stayed in Luang Praban, an historical town on the Mekong River. The architecture was beautiful, the food was great, we spent most of our time just walking up and down the streets looking at the houses and gardens. It has a historical bohemian vibe which is distinctly Laotian with French accents here and there.
Amazing BBQ’d meats on long bamboo skewers, with the option of putting it in a freshly baked baguette.
We could have stayed there forever but after 30 days we had to pack up and move on. It was the longest visa we could get.
Living your life to a visa duration can be frustrating, especially when they seem so arbitrary.
As more and more countries introduce digital nomad visas, this should start to get better. Until then it’s just an issue that digital nomads have to deal with.
The Expense Of Nomadic Life
As I mentioned above, it’s expensive being a digital nomad and there are many more costs than you might first think about.
Of course you’ve already factored in your flights and your food budget and how much you need to spend on accommodation but there are so many little expenses most people don’t consider.
Taxis, Uber and trains
One of the things you’ll soon discover when you start traveling is that most of the things you want to see in the world have terrible transport facilities!
Even in huge mega-cities like Tianjin, I went to visit the Huo Yuan Jia Memorial Park recently (if you’re a martial artists you’ll know) it’s a huge place with lots to see.
Tianjin is a city with a population over 10 million, it has multiple subway lines, and a non stop bus service as you’d expect. But to get to this huge tourist destination the only way was to get a taxi. Don’t get me wrong, taxis aren’t expensive here but it’s also not a negligible expense, to get there cost me about $6.
Read any travel blog and somewhere will be an exhortation to buy travel insurance. Of course you should have travel insurance if you’re going to be abroad, just make sure you factor it in to your budget!
Visas aren’t free! Some are fairly cheap – a Vietnamese travel visa costs $25 but some visas are extortionate – A Chinese tourist visa for a US citizen is $140
Worrying About your Stuff
- Getting it on and off flights
- Are you over weight? Did you pack too much?
- In buses, cafes and restaurants having things stolen is a constant worry
- Lose your phone and getting it back is almost impossible
- If your laptop breaks all work comes to a halt
Nowadays wifi is available pretty much everywhere you go but that doesn’t complete solve the problem for digital nomads.
Should we pay for coffee after coffee in cafes and hotel lobbies just so we can stay put and use their internet connection? It gets expensive fast!
Or should we just get an internet connection in our short term rental? The problem is most internet providers wont offer a short term contract. You can use your data plan, but that’s usually even more pricey.
Travel Is Stressful!
For most people travel brings with it a mixture of excitement and stress. You have to worry that you have everything, that you documents are all in order, that your on time and that everything will go smoothly when you arrive. You’re up early, tired and it’s usually a long day with a little bit of uncomfortable sleep on the plane.
But for most people the excitement of going on vacation masks the stress and makes it well worth it.
But if you’ve been traveling for a few years, the excitment wanes. You know what to expect and may have already been to your destination. All that’s left is the stress of traveling.
Banking And Finance
Sometimes I think I’m the only person still using cash. Depending where you are in the world, your dependency on cash will be different but if you’re anything like me, you always want to have a little cash in your pocket when you’re overseas.
This raises the issue of exchanging currencies. Let’s face it, every time you change your money, you are effectively throwing money down the drain! Fees and exchange rates always make foreign currency exchange a loosing game. Let’s take a look at the options
- Airport Exchange Teller – Always the worst rates, avoid at all costs!
- Going to a local bank – Better rates but more problems. Here (in China), foreigners are only allowed to change approximately $500 per day, so if you need to change more you need to make multiple trips.
- Exchanging with money changers – Money changers are common in many countries but be careful! They’re not all out to scam you but don’t trust everyone. Check and double check everything they give you!
- Find a friend to swap currencies with – This is a great option, if you can find someone you either already know or in a social media group in your location, you can swap currencies with them, no fees, middle rates, everyone wins. Do this at a bank so both of you can feel secure that everything is above board.
If you’ve ever earned money in a foreign country with a foreign bank account you may know the frustration of sending money to your home account.
Though it’s entirely possible, it’s never easy. Usually it requires filing paperwork and providing all sorts of documentation.
Replacing Expired Cards
Debit and credit cards have expiration dates and once expired they become useless pieces of plastic. If you’ve never tried getting a bank card sent to you in another country, I don’t recommend it!
I only have one card that I really need to use day to day, when it expires, my only real option is to go back home and renew it. Though it is possible to have someone send you the card, it might be more risk than it’s worth.
If you’re like me and have a list of things to do when you next go back home, add renewing old cards to it!
- Debit cards
- Credit Cards
- Driving License
While were on the topic of bank cards, some banks that see you are logging in or using your card from another country might stop your card. This has happened to me multiple times and getting them to unblock the card is a problem you just don’t need!
I’ve found that using a good VPN service is the answer. I can set it to a server back home and the bank wont know I’m abroad.
PayPal and Ebay does this too, both of my accounts were blocked after I logged in from somewhere in Asia.
Having The Same Once In A Lifetime Experience
You hear about some amazing far off place and decide that it’s the next destination for you. It’s a small town nestled between picturesque mountains and you decide that you want to climb to the top and get a unique view of the whole area. You start out early, and as the you start climbing you feel the cool misty clouds roll in, it refreshes you and you keep climbing.
You start to see the steep climb level out and you know your nearly there, you prepare yourself for a view few people will ever see.
Over the final crest and a sea of mobile devices come into view. It turns out that everyone else had the same idea and your unique once in a lifetime moment is not so unique.
Final Thoughts – Are The Problems Worth It?
I’ve lived this nomadic lifestyle almost all of my adult life and even though I listed a lot of problems with the digital nomad lifestyle, I’m not ready to give it up any time soon.
Working online has become the only way I work and I don’t see that as ever going to change. But beyond my work life, I enjoy being surrounded by different cultures. I think this is something everyone in the digital nomad community can agree on.
Life has problems whether you travel the world working online or stay in your home country working at a local company. Whatever we do and where ever we are, rising above our problems and appreciating what’s around us is the best way to enjoy the day.
Originally from the U.K, Greg has lived in Asia for over 15 years. Fluent in a handful of languages, he ran a management consultancy before creating Face Dragons. He spends his time now traveling around Asia, writing, taking photos, and drinking coffee.