We’ve been getting a break this year from people bragging about their location independent lifestyle constantly on social media. Many who were full-on nomadic have had to stop moving and pick a semi-permanent base. Still, they’ve got options since they’re not tied to a physical job. When I did an article on bloggers stuck abroad, they were in some interesting places.
Despite the lost year of 2020 this has become for travel, many of us with location independent jobs are doing our thing in a place that is at least still interesting and exciting. I get this view every evening, for instance, from my house in Guanajuato, Mexico.
When I go for a walk I pass buildings that have been around since before the USA was even a country. The language I hear around me is not the one I grew up with.
I’ve been doing interviews all year with people living abroad and these citizens of the USA, Canada, UK, and Australia did not return to those countries when the lockdowns started. They’re doing their same job from Panama, Ecuador, Montenegro, Georgia, Cambodia, Bali, or Malaysia.
Making a Living From Anywhere
When I surveyed readers of my Cheap Living Abroad newsletter on what was holding them back from moving to a cheaper country, how to earn a living was at the top of the list, with around a third of them ticking off that check box.
The funny thing is, another third of respondents didn’t check that box and would probably put it at the very bottom of their list. That’s because they have a location independent job or business they can operate from anywhere. Whether they’re in Los Angeles or London or Lisbon makes no material difference in their income. They can live almost anywhere and not miss a beat.
This is the ideal situation for a whole lot of reasons. The main one is that you have true arbitrage: you’re earning money in a wealthy country and spending it in one without the accompanying high expenses. You need less to live on and if you have a really good month, it’s easier to put away some savings. If you want to apply for a residency somewhere foreign, you can show embassy officials that you can easily support yourself while being a net positive contributor to their economy. You’re not taking much from them, but you’re giving a lot. Most countries like to open their doors to people like this.
The other obvious advantage is freedom. You’re not tied to a physical place and the shackles of ownership. You can pick your ideal place, your ideal climate, your ideal culture. Much of the world is on your menu, so you’re not limited to where a company office is where you need to show up five days a week.
What kinds of jobs do these digital nomads or location independent business owners do? It’s a wider range than you probably think. I’ve talked with business consultants and a t-shirt company owner, a war correspondent and a tax company owner, software coders and web marketing specialists.
Some run their own show, some get a regular paycheck deposited into their home bank account each month. Here’s a list of what people I’ve run across are doing as they make a living abroad.
Online team leader
Online Entrepreneur selling products
Online Entrepreneur selling services/info
Software as a Service Developer
Stock or Forex trader
Wealth manager/financial advisor
Sales rep (when few face-to face meetings are required)
It’s far easier now than it was even five years ago to look for virtual employees or to become a virtual employee. You could start out with no clients and gain them through services such as Upwork or Fiverr. There are services advertising remote jobs only, like Dynamite Jobs and HireMyMom.com. An easier route is to strike out on your own while you’re still in your home country, then keep working for those same clients as you change physical locations. If you’re good enough at what you do and keep meeting or exceeding expectations, you’ll probably build up more clients through referrals and actually increase your income.
Keep in mind that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic changed the whole attitude about remote work, probably permanently. Many companies finally realized that everyone didn’t need to gather in one building to get things done. Some actually saw productivity go up without so many useless meetings happening and without people stuck in traffic getting to those buildings. Big companies like Google, Facebook, and JP Morgan/Chase have announced that many jobs will remain remote “until at least 2022.”
Shannon O’Donnell is known in the travel world for her popular blog A Little Adrift and has a story that has become rather typical now. Her “real job” is an online marketing consultant for multinational brands, helping businesses strategically build targeted, relevant traffic from search engines. “While I was still living in the USA, before traveling, I asked my biggest client, ‘If I keep up the same standard of work, you won’t fire me, right?’” She kept that client and a decade later she has built up many more. “Now I’m at the point where I have more business than I can handle,” she says. “I’ve never pitched, I don’t even have a website—it’s all from referrals.”
Many International Jobs Are Not Online
Parachute into any place with hundreds or thousands of expatriates and you’ll probably find a hundred ways people are making a living abroad. For many it’s some kind of hands-on but skilled job that requires their physical presence. They play in the local symphony or teach at the international school. They work for Oracle, GM, Marriott, or Unilever as a manager. Or most commonly, they teach English, sell real estate, or run a restaurant. Some options may be obvious through the skill set you already have. For creative entrepreneurial minds, the options may seem so unlimited that you have to reign in your idea fountain and focus.
If you’re a nurse, engineer, doctor, financial analyst, or a specialist in a specific technology or software that’s used worldwide, you’ll probably have very little trouble finding a job in your field and getting a work permit. Most countries are welcoming to those with professional skills that will transfer.
Experienced teachers can often make the leap by teaching for their own state department, for a certified international school, or by doing a short stint on a Fulbright program. For English as a second language (ESL) teacher, some jobs come through formalized programs aimed at recent college graduates, while others are filled by a network of international recruiters and online ads for teachers.
Think beyond the obvious though and dig around. When I was teaching English in a suburb of Seoul, the other foreigners in my town who were not teachers were some fish-out-of-water contractors and carpenters from the Pacific Northwest. They were building American-style wood-framed houses for wealthy Koreans. I’ve met tennis instructors, divemasters, fishing charter leaders, archaeologists, helicopter mechanics, and fashion designers plying their craft in a cheaper location—while still making a good living.
Here are a few occupations where the right degree or certification can be your ticket to portability.
Portable Credentialed Jobs
Financial Industry Analyst/Manager
Certified ESL (English as a Second Language) Instructor
With these occupations, you can generally make a good enough living abroad to enjoy a similar or better lifestyle than you had before—even if you take a sizable salary cut. Many find that their quality of life betterment makes up for a lot as well: the doctor who can spend twice as much time with patients instead of on paperwork, for example, or the teacher who gets to actually teach her students something lasting instead of just “teaching to the test.” In some cases, the leap abroad takes the person from being a small fish in a big lake to a big fish in a small pond. There’s less competition and less stress.
There are also plenty of jobs out there that don’t require any special certification or experience. Just be advised that the closer you come to skills the locals already have, the less money you can potentially make. You’ll also have a much harder time getting a work visa or business visa.
For the unskilled labor jobs, if you’re not bringing any special experience to the table, you’re competing with locals willing to work for far less than you. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if people from that country are coming to your country to do this job for more money, trying to go the opposite direction for the same job is just stupid. Mexico and Bulgaria don’t need fruit pickers or hotel maids. Nicaragua and Vietnam don’t need coffee bean pickers. Colombia and India don’t need people who can operate a sewing machine. There can be exceptions now and then. Nobody really needs your basic bartending skills—unless it’s an expat pub and they want a native English speaker. Or if you have five years of experience working in a high-end cocktail bar and the Ritz-Carlton is hiring, then you’re a better match than any local could be.
For all of these jobs, you can’t really generalize about what you can find in advance and what you can find in person after arrival. There’s some correlation though between how specific the skill set is and how often the positions are advertised online. If you’re a petroleum engineer or financial analyst, you can likely find ample positions to apply for without leaving your comfy desk chair. Some positions are advertised in industry-specific trade magazines or websites, which you’ll probably be able to find easily if you’re already in that industry.
At the other end, if you’re trying to find one-on-one work for clients (personal trainer, massage therapist, etc.) you will likely need to get your feet on the ground and start hustling. That’s not as hard as it sounds though since at least at first, most of your clients will probably be other expatriates. Word of mouth and getting your name out there on the local message boards may be enough to get your business moving in a hurry. My wife’s a part-time personal trainer and although there are probably only a few hundred expats in my Mexican city, she could probably make it a full-time job if she wanted to.
These physical jobs work best for those making a permanent move and putting down roots, however. They’re not a good match for digital nomads. If you’re just flitting around the world on tourist visas, you’re better off with something virtual.
There are some social and visa dynamics that come into play as you move through these kinds of jobs. For a virtual, digital nomad gig, you don’t need a work visa. If it helps you stay for longer periods, then get one or see if there’s something for online workers, but governments are generally happy to have you spend money in their country without taking any of it from them. You can come in on a tourist visa, work away on your laptop, and keep taking cash out of the ATM. Usually you don’t even need a local bank account. Some countries are starting to think more progressively with visas meant for online business owners, recognizing that more and more jobs are international and border-agnostic.
For jobs requiring certain credentials or education, you may have to go through the right channels and apply for a work visa…eventually. As we speak though there are plenty of ESL teachers at private language schools, dive instructors giving scuba lessons, and bartenders mixing up classic cocktails in boutique hotels on a tourist visa. That’s riskier for both the employer and the employee though. If you’re not in a country with very liberal labor laws, or one that turns a blind eye, sooner or later you’ll probably want to go legit. There’s usually more security in this arrangement too: you’ve got someone vouching for you with the local authorities, someone who knows how to work within the system. If you’re legal, you’re also less likely to get cheated out of your pay.
Think Creatively About Location Independent Income Options
If you don’t have a professional skill that easily transfers, I strongly advise you to find a job you can do remotely. Or make your own. That may be a freelance job, a structured job that allows you to telecommute, or a business you can run online. There are some very good reasons this works much better than the alternatives:
1) You earn first world currency and spend it in a cheaper country.
2) You can show proof of income to immigration without needing to work locally.
3) You can set your own hours and probably work fewer of them.
4) You can hit the ground running instead of taking months to ramp up local earnings.
5) You have zero dependence on the whims and pay rates of the local market.
If you have no earthly idea how you get from your current position to one that works like this, first start thinking of what skills and experience you already have that wouldn’t require much of a pivot. Who is willing to pay for those skills? Also consider ways to turn your expertise into some kind of online platform that would attract a community and enable you to sell products or advertising. It seems like there is an infinite number of e-books, websites, and podcasts out there providing advice on this subject. Most will give you one key piece of advice I agree with: find paying customers and the rest will take care of itself over time. Don’t procrastinate by spending months on a website, a logo, business cards, or detailed projection spreadsheets. Just get moving and test the waters. Find a market need and provide a solution.
There’s one way you can get a virtual job tomorrow that can potentially pay you a nice salary: become a sales rep. These days many sales jobs are done entirely by e-mail and phone, so unless you’re on the other side of the world, you can keep prospecting and selling in your home country just as you would from where you’re living now. If you’re willing to work on straight commission and you’re a hustler, you can barge into nearly any industry and be hired in no time. Sure, you don’t get paid until you deliver, but if it’s a product or service that aligns with your interests and the quality is good, you should be able to get ramped up before too long.
There are also all kinds of online money-making opportunities out there if you just have a little bit to invest in testing and tweaking. Read the book The $100 Start-up for some inspiration. A free online resource is SideHustleNation.com, which is also a podcast. The podcasts Smart Passive Income and Fizzle also have a good track record. There are more than 1,000 ways to make money online that aren’t scammy or underhanded. You just need to find one that’s a good match for you.
One good shortcut is to lay out a little capital to buy an existing online business or blog and take it over. You can find opportunities on Flippa.com, Empire Flippers, Latona’s, and other sites geared to online entrepreneurs. Sure, you have to make an investment up front, but then you are cash flow positive immediately and it often will take less than a year to recoup your investment if you improve the traffic or the earnings. Try finding a deal like that on Wall Street or your local real estate office!
Between when the first version of this book was released and the second, we saw two huge virtual money-making opportunities explode and then plateau: Bitcoin mining/trading and selling custom products through Amazon that you never touch yourself. (The latter is referred to as “Amazon FBA” for “fulfillment by Amazon.”) By the time you read this, there may be a dozen more ways to make money online that I haven’t touched on or that didn’t even exist when I wrote this. There will be people living somewhere exotic just killing it because they got in early, pulling in serious bucks while working wherever they want in the world.
The key to any of these though is actually doing it. You could find enough online courses and e-books to buy that would keep you reading and dreaming for a year. The people who really make an online business work are the ones who get out there and take action. You learn by doing and tweak as you go.
The Downsides of Location Independent Work
There can be downsides to this location-independent work arrangement that only requires a laptop. You need to be in a place with a good internet connection and if your business requires a lot of bandwidth-heavy applications like real-time stock trading programs, video chats, or constant uploads of large files, you’ll simply have to strike some destinations off your list completely—for now. This list of places with slow internet options is getting smaller all the time though. Every year the average internet speeds around the world keep going up and it’s hard to find a major city anywhere now that doesn’t have some kind of fiber-to-the-home, high-speed cable, or very fast mobile speeds. There are still a lot of really desirable places to live though where the pipes just aren’t fat enough to support that kind of data flow.
If you need to talk or meet online with clients, you will likely need to work a very non-conventional workday to be available during their regular work hours if you don’t base yourself in a similar time zone. If you’re in the Americas somewhere and your clients are too, no big deal. But I’ve heard of many freelancers or business owners who had a lot of sales calls in their mix that ended up having to move out of Southeast Asia. The difficulty of being on the exact opposite schedule of the people paying for their services was hurting revenue and relationships. Those who forge on often end up becoming night owls: their client wants to talk at 2:00 p.m., so they’re on the phone at 3:00 a.m. where they live.
In the digital age we’re in now, however, most jobs require more e-mail and file-sharing than meetings or phone calls. One person I interviewed said she blocks out two days every month for calls. The rest of the time she never talks to anyone. It’s just not necessary. I’ve hired more than a dozen people to do one-off jobs for me, from book cover design to WordPress installations. I have only talked to one of them on the phone and that’s because we were getting bogged down in too many e-mails and wanted to hash out the punch list all at once.
This leads to another downside though: a lack of personal interaction. It’s easy to hole up in your home office for days and not talk to anyone, which is not healthy or good for your emotions after a while. Especially if you’re single, it pays to get social activities on your schedule and to keep your body moving. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to find other expats who speak your language no matter where you live and if you schedule some classes in the language of the country you’re a guest in, you can get some double interaction there.
Remember too that you will probably need to become more self-sufficient—or be willing to pay for help. You won’t have a corporate IT department to lean on, or a graphics department, or an expense account. Being your own boss means everything is your responsibility.
The payoffs are large though: no set work schedule, unlimited vacation days, lower expenses, and the freedom to live where you want.
If this kind of life sounds appealing to you, get on my cheap living abroad newsletter list and spend some quiet time thinking about how you could transition to location independence for making a living. Then start putting it in motion and testing the waters while the stakes are low so you can benefit later when you make the move!
Portions of this article were excerpted from the second edition of A Better Life for Half the Price, available in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on this blog for updates by getting new posts by e-mail here.