If you can work from anywhere, why not work from Europe? The infrastructure is good, there’s a wealth of culture, the internet is fast, and you’ll be in beautiful surroundings. These days, it’s not even that expensive. There are rules to navigate though, of course, so here’s a primer on how to live in Europe as an American who is location independent, or a digital nomad.
I spent a month and a half working from Europe this past summer, some of that in southern Spain, the rest in that Bulgarian apartment pictured above that was just €260 for a month. I’ve got grander plans for next year with my wife along: more time in Bulgaria, a month or two in Greece, and up the coast of Albania and beyond. After all, if you only need your laptop to do your job, why not do it somewhere more interesting?
There have been more than a few rumblings about this topic how to live in Europe as an American in the digital nomad/remote work community as the value of the dollar has risen against the euro. This won’t last forever, but for now it’s kind of crazy not to spend some time in Europe since the continent is such a bargain in historic terms. It’s just a more pleasant place to live unless you love the sprawling car-centric suburbs of North America.
I’m usually raving about the best travel bargains in Europe or the countries that are the cheapest places to live, but when the dollar is hovering around parity with the euro, you can go full-on bucket list instead if you’re making a decent amount of money each month. Heck, go live in Florence Italy for two months and take your time exploring the city when you’re not working. Find an apartment in Seville, chill out on Crete, or find your perfect village in France.
As I write this, some quick searches on Numbeo show that Europe is a terrific value right now. It’s 48% cheaper to live in Barcelona than in Boston, 44% cheaper to live in Prague than Portland, 27% cheaper to live in Toulouse, France than Toronto.
Then if you go down the scale to places that were already a bargain before the euro value dropped, without even trying you can actually live a better life for half the price.
You can’t just roll into Italy and hang out for a year, however. Europe is the opposite of a free-for-all when it comes to rules and regulations. So here’s what you need to know in order to move to Europe to live for a while as a digital nomad or remote worker.
The Schengen Zone Shuffle and Your 90-day Limit
For most of the countries in the EU, there’s a set of immigration rules that unites the Schengen Zone: an area of 26 countries that are EU members applying the same restrictions. In basic terms, you are limited to 90 days out of 180 in the entire zone. So if you spend a 30 days in Italy and 59 days in Spain, then you’ve used up your time in the zone and you must leave the whole zone for at least three months. This is true if you’re in one country or 10 of them.
There are a few ways to get around this though and stay longer in Europe. The most difficult is to get residency in one country if you really intend to live there full-time for an unlimited period. We’re talking about location-independent workers here though, so that’s probably not the best option. It’s slow and can be expensive.
There are digital nomad visas, which I’ll get to in a moment, but the most obvious solution is the “Schengen Shuffle.” You leave the zone and go to a country that’s still in Europe but not part of the Schengen agreement. You spend three months there or combine it with others that are also not members, then you can return to the zone again and you’re starting fresh with another 90 days.
Which countries are not part of the Schengen Zone? Well, there’s a decent range of them to pick from. Some are rather expensive, like the UK and Ireland, while others are a great bargain, like Bosnia and Bulgaria. If you’re American, you can actually stay in Albania for an entire year on just a tourist visa, so that’s a great country to head to for a while. It might just be the cheapest European country to live in.
On Airbnb, you can rent a two-bedroom apartment in the capital city for $800 or less per month. If you decide to go somewhere smaller, like the UNESCO World Heritage history city of Gj, it’s even less. You could rent this place for $388 furnished, with a balcony and washing machine:
Other countries that are not part of the zone (for now anyway) are mostly clustered together, which makes it easy to visit several of them and then return to the zone. They’re basically the Balkan countries, Romania, and Turkey (which is partially in Europe). Some of these you can reach from neighboring countries by bus or train, but otherwise Europe has loads of budget flights that will get you to where you need to go.
There are other options you can fly to as well, such as Cyprus in the Mediterranean and Georgia on the other side of the Black Sea past Asian Turkey. Georgia gives everyone a year upon arrival, so that’s a great place to go live for a while regardless of your situation, but it’s an easy getaway to bide your time until you can return to the EU.
One other easy overland option is to head to Morocco via ferry from Spain, or you could catch a rather quick flight to Tunisia or Egypt.
How to Live in Europe: Get a Digital Nomad Visa
Plenty of countries have announced some kind of visa available to remote workers in the past few years, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic times when former office jobs turned into remote jobs. Now countries are in competition to attract these free-spending foreigners and European countries have been at the forefront.
In some cases the place is going to be too expensive to make sense for all but the best-paid remote workers or business owners: living in Iceland is going to cost you more than living in Silicon Valley, with worse weather much of the year in return.
This is not true for others, however, such as Spain, Portugal, or Romania. That last one offers some of the lowest living prices in Europe. Other countries are on par with US/Canadian living costs, such as Malta, but you’ll really feel like you’re living somewhere far different than your home country.
Each of these digital nomad visas has different rules, but they’re easier to get than longer-term residency visas because they’re usually only good for six months or a year. You just have to demonstrate that you’re earning more than the minimum income to qualify and it’s seldom more than a very average office job salary in the USA. You can usually apply for this type of visa after arrival and it is processed quickly—often the same week.
Variations on Investment Schemes to Live in Europe
If you have some money to invest, you may be able to buy your way in and get long-term residency rather easily. Italy has been at the forefront of this, encouraging investors to buy abandoned houses in Italian villages for next to nothing with a promise to renovate them and move in. Spain has launched some similar programs in villages that are facing population declines. In most cases you don’t have to live there non-stop so it can be your European base.
Some countries have a simple minimum, such as investing €500K in the country (including real estate) or putting that much into a bank account. Obviously this is not an option available to working stiffs unless they just rode the real estate bubble of the past few years and cashed out at the peak. If you are in this position, look into Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. (From what I’m hearing, Portugal’s program is currently on hold.)
Greece only requires a €250K real estate investment to get residency. Latvia has the same level for real estate, or €280K going into a Latvian bank account. There are similar levels in the Balkan countries, where spending that much on real estate will get you a sprawling mansion. Montenegro is less picky about how much you spend as long as you are buying a residence for a family or couple.
Nomad Capitalist has a good rundown on all the options, including Georgia and Armenia across the Black Sea.
Move to Europe, Then Move On
For many digital nomads, that 90-day limit in the Schengen Zone is no big deal. They weren’t going to hang around longer than that anyway. Spring or Autumn in Prague can be magical. Summer crowds and winter weather? Not so much.
Europe has some full-on winters that can be a drag unless you like to ski and it hit 107 degrees F when I was in Cordoba, Spain last summer. Maybe three months will be enough and you’ll want to head somewhere else anyway.
Even before so many jobs went remote, digital nomads were roaming around the world, navigating the tourist visa rules and heading to the next country when their time was up. In Southeast Asia, maybe they tried a visa run or two in order to stay longer in Bali, Chiang Mai, or Ho Chi Minh City. It’s possible to roam the planet for a decade that way if you’d like, especially in Latin America where almost every country gives you three months or six months on arrival.
The charm of Europe exerts a strong pull though, especially for those of us whose ancestors arrived on a ship from there. Much of my ancestry is German and I think I’m finally going to get there next summer, at the end of my 90-day limit in the zone.
I hope you found this quick primer on how to live in Europe as an American or Canadian to be helpful. If you’ve lived there for a few months or longer without getting residency, how did it go?