The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad Part 1: Insurance, Health, Banking & Retirement

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It’s the little details that people often get stuck on when planning a major life change like going on a round the world trip, or becoming a digital nomad. We’ve written recently about how we got started as digital nomads and how we fund our travels, and as promised this post covers all the practicalities that we often get asked about—how is it actually possible to work while travelling indefinitely? What about…

Travel Insurance

When we first left the UK in March 2010 we started with a one year backpacker/longstay travel insurance policy that we found using the comparison site moneysupermarket.com. There are plenty of options for one year trips, but the problem for digital nomads comes after a year when your policy expires. It can’t be extended and all the new policies we looked at required us to be living in the UK. We didn’t know what to do and went uninsured for a few months which is not a good idea—if we had had a medical emergency and needed to return to the UK for treatment it would have cost us thousands.

We did some more research and found a few insurance companies that do allow you to purchase policies when you are already travelling. These are the three we found and the quotes we got when we renewed in October 2012.

  • Worldwide Insurance – £336 each a year. We used this policy in our second year. It’s available for most nationalities.
  • World Nomads – £437 each a year. This is a popular travel insurance policy that most nationalities can buy. We used them on our round the world trip in 2007-8.
  • True Traveller Insurance – £294 each a year including the adventure pack option to include activities like scuba diving and horse riding. This is the policy we chose this year. It’s available to anyone usually resident in the UK or Europe even if you’ve already started your trip. You don’t need a return ticket like many policies require. [Update: In 2017 we are still using True Traveller insurance and they are still reasonably priced.]

Obviously, you should check the small print of any policy you choose to see what is covered and what the excess is. We choose insurance that only covers medical expenses, and we really have it for emergencies. We’ve never had to use it so we can’t say how good the policies above are when you actually need them.

You can read a more detailed post about travel insurance here.

Vaccinations

A site I check to find out which vaccinations and malaria preventatives are necessary for each country is Fit for Travel run by NHS Scotland.

It is best to see a doctor or nurse a few months before you travel to get up to date advice based on your situation, ideally one who is experienced in travel medicine.

These are the vaccinations we have:

  • Tetanus, Diphtheria and Polio
  • Typhoid
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Yellow Fever – we only needed this for South America.
  • Rabies – we got this for our first trip but didn’t get the booster when it expired. It’s only really necessary if you are going to remote locations where you can’t get to a doctor quickly after being bitten by an animal. Even if you do get the pre-exposure vaccination you still need a few more injections after a bite.

Simon did actually get scratched by a monkey in Thailand last year and as his vaccination had expired he had to get the full course of five rabies vaccines. One on the day (or as soon as possible after the bite/scratch), then 3, 7, 14 and 28 days later. This was easy to arrange in Thailand and cost $27-47 per injection but finding somewhere to get the last injection in Italy was tricky (as they don’t have rabies there) but we did manage it and it was free.

Luckily we got all of these vaccinations except for rabies and yellow fever for free on the NHS in the UK. I also got a few boosters for an affordable price in Thailand.

We only take malaria preventatives when visiting high risk areas. We haven’t taken any in the last three years but took doxycycline on our RTW trip without any side effects. You can buy these pills without a prescription cheaply in many parts of the world including India, SE Asia and Latin America.

Healthcare

We take advantage of our annual trips back to the UK to get any dentist and doctor checkups we need. When we have needed minor medical treatment on the road we’ve found it easy and affordable. In Thailand we saw a US trained doctor who spoke fluent English and it only cost $7 for a basic examination and $15 for a blood test.

We stock up on our prescription medicine back in the UK and when we run out we either get a relative to post some more to us or buy it locally. In most parts of the world we travel to (Latin America, Southeast Asia, India) you don’t need a prescription and can buy medicines like antibiotics and the contraceptive pill over the counter. We make sure we stock up on these things before we travel to Europe or the US.

Our travel medical kit usually includes ibuprofen, a few plasters, dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) for travel sickness, Immodium for diarrhoea, ciproflaxcin antibiotics for stomach bugs and our prescription medications.

Address

As digital nomads we don’t have a permanent address but it’s very difficult to survive in the world without one, so we use a relative’s address. Any mail that we must get (from banks, inland revenue etc) goes there and Simon’s mum very kindly scans them and emails them to us.

Banking

Get your banking in order before you leave your home country as it may be difficult to apply for new accounts once you’ve left. We don’t get bills anymore and these are the usual way that banks ask for proof of address when opening a bank account.

We wrote about how many accounts you should have and which bank is best for travel in how to manage your money when travelling.

Retirement

We don’t have a retirement fund and never have. Honestly it’s not something we worry about. The world is changing. We don’t do manual labour where we’ll need to stop working when we’re 65. We work on projects that we love and don’t see that stopping when we get older. Plus we are creating businesses that bring in passive income and hopefully this will only increase over the years. Our goal is to earn enough so that we can start increasing our long term savings, but we’re not there yet.

See Part 2 as we continue with the practicalities of being a digital nomad and cover tax, visas, internet, phones, flights, packing and security.

Leave a comment if you have questions or advice to give about any of these issues.

Are you planning a trip? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

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36 thoughts on The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad Part 1: Insurance, Health, Banking & Retirement

  1. Great site thanks guys! Re: doxy for malaria. Read the instructions on the packet carefully. When it says “don’t lie down for an hour after taking” they really mean it!!! I had heartburn for a couple of days after taking them once just before bed. Other than that, no side effects.

  2. Hi

    Great info (as always) ! 🙂

    Do you find that quality Travel Insurance such as those you mention suffice for Health Insurance whilst abroad too ?

    Or do you have separate HI or simply not bother with HI ?

    What’s your opinion on getting a global Health insurance package ?

    I ask because my standard UK HI is up for renewal next month and i anticipate ‘heading off’ around Autumn time and have been looking at some global HI packages but all seem very expensive and wandering if i really need it at all since if travelling long term with a quality Travel Insurance package will cover most things that Health Insurance would ?

    Re Address & Banking:

    For simplicity, continuity & for a professional image I have a UK postal address (for both my business & personal address) provided by a Mail Forwarding company. I have my bank accounts, passport & all personal & business admin items registered there. When I’m abroad they scan & email me what little post I still get. Address costs me about £20 per month and then another £20 per quarter for mail forwarding. This all works out fine most things considered, although forget building a credit record with such an address 🙂
    Surprisingly I encountered no resistance from Banks or Passport office etc using such an address. The only obstruction I encountered was from the Driving License issuers (DVLA) who weren’t having any of it whatsoever so I have had to use my parents address for my license.

    Happy Travels 🙂

    All Best
    Dan

    • We have never had health insurance so we just manage with the travel insurance. The few times we’ve needed minor medical treatment it has been inexpensive anyway.

      Good to know the mail forwarding works for you!

    • Hi Dan,

      Interesting you mention DVLA. I need to renew my driving license but living 12 years abroad already.

      I was thinking to spend one month in a rental house in UK while requesting to renew my driving license. Should take 3 weeks.

      What are your thoughts?

  3. Wow I love the remarks of retirement. That’s so refreshing to hear. I feel the same way but society makes you feel like you’re doomed if you don’t plan right.

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  6. I have been working as a freelance web developer for the past couple of years and have started daydreaming of becoming a digital nomad (which i now want to make it a reality) but wanted to plan and research the risk and rewards first. Your article was a great source of help and inspirations.

    However, the difference is, i plan on traveling alone as most of my friends are tied down to their day job. So i have a question for you, if you traveled alone, how would this changed your outlook and perspectives of being a digital nomad? do you think it would have been even harder since you don’t have the support of each other? Has it been easy to meet other digital nomads?

    Thank you,

    • We know many other digital nomads who are single. I think it can be challenging at times but there are benefits too – you’ll meet more people when you’re on your own. As we have each other we can be a bit anti social at times. I wouldn’t let it stop you travelling as there are loads of opportunities to meet people. In places like Chiang Mai it’s really easy to meet other digital nomads too.

  7. I’ve also used doxycycline once before, and the only (apparently common) side effect I had was extra sensitivity to UV rays, so I got a bit sunburnt. Still, sounds better than going mad from taking malarone (is it?)! Anyway, nice post. Initially, I was surprised that you say you don’t save for retirement. I don’t either (but I’m a bit younger than you guys, I think…not sure that’s an excuse though!), but I think perhaps because it’s such a strongly held cultural assumption that people should and that not doing so is reckless lead me to assume you would. Does that make sense? But yes, I think the attitude you express here to retirement, given your situation, is actually very sensible!

    • We heard about that sun sensitivity but didn’t experience it ourselves, despite my pale skin.

      I do know what you mean about retirement. Part of us thinks we’re being reckless too as it is the sensible thing to do. But also it just doesn’t make sense to us. We’ll see how it goes I guess!

  8. Pingback: The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad Part 2: Tax, Visas, Flights & Security

  9. Great common sense advice. I too get asked many of these questions. Asking is a great way to learn but there is no substitute for stopping the excuses and getting “out here”!Too many people think they want the life nomadic but are paralyzed by fear and excuses.

  10. This post is so helpful! I am with Barclays and they charge a fortune in fees. It is worth researching some banks abroad from which you can take out money that don’t charge fees though. I live in Cambodia for example and the Canadia Bank lets me take out money completely fee-less – if that is a word. :-/.

    • Nine months too late, but maybe this can still help you.. There are two bank accounts we have. From Metro bank in the UK and from Citibank in Australia. We can take money out of ATMs in any country in the world from both of these accounts and not get charged a penny!

  11. We’re in the middle of figuring all this stuff out in preparation for our escape from the UK in March. With regards to travel insurance, Globelink International do a really good long-term option. What kind of savings accounts do you guys use? We’re trying to find the one with the best interest rate that can be accessed while we’re away.

    • I can’t give you a completely fitting answer because I’m not living in the UK, but one tip: go and check out some credit card options as well! When I still was a German (I’m now Australian) and travelled, I had a Visa card (which might have been even an English Barkleys) that paid a decent interest on deposits, and it also meant that all my Visa charges never accrued any interest charges, even if I was out of reach (like Australian desert) and couldn’t pay the bill on time. I didn’t hold all my money in there, but had it automatically topped up from another account. Although: with the new Visa cash cards this might be a thing of the past…

  12. Thanks for sharing this! Particularly since I had not found an alternative to World Nomads (I wasn’t that impressed by them last trip).
    One advice re. travel insurance I can add from personal experience: never get a “couple policy” if there’s two of you! For a family this might be a different story… Reason for this advice: we had one, my wife went from Costa Rica back to Australia to attend her father’s 80s birthday, I stayed behind with the vehicle stamped in my passport. As soon as my wife entered Australia our travel insurance was automatically cancelled (assumed end of the trip), and (without first knowing it) I was left in Latin America without any insurance cover! Anyhow: my wife stayed only 2 weeks, we still had over 6 weeks left on the policy, and didn’t even get a refund for this period.
    How insurances can simply assume something like that is beyond me, but if you check with most companies the difference between 2x a single policy and a couple policy is not more than $10-20 per annum.

  13. This is great advice. Thank you so much for sharing. I had a giggle about the retirement section – the only issue our parents had with us leaving was that we were ‘throwing away our retirement planning’. We may well be doing that, but like you, hard manual labour isn’t on the agenda, and who knows how we will all be getting an income in 20-30 years time?? I think our generation is a groundbreaking one. Testing the assumptions that the previous, and many in our current generation hold close. We will fail? Probably. We will rejoice at having tried? Definitely. We will experience more than we could ever possibly have imagined? Absolutely.

    Funny I was listening to a podcast with Maneesh Sethi and Sean Ogle today and part of what they said was how even 7 years ago, so much of what we have and use now wasn’t even available. 7 years ago, the opportunities that we have were only just starting to come to light. I think it is amazing that people like yourselves and your readers are trying something different. It takes a lot more strength to go against the grain of what is still considered normal than it is to sit back in a comfy 9-5 job.

    • Well, we started our last trip in March 2006, so that would make it almost 7 years ago, and all I can say: it took maybe a bit more searching and digging, but most things were “available” back then too 😉

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Bec. I entirely agree about retirement – we’ll just have to see how it goes, but at least we aren’t putting our life on hold now for possible rewards later.

    • I have to say this did make me smile. EVERY generation thinks that they are a groundbreaking one. Actually they probably are – it’s just different ground. People have been ‘giving it all up’ to go travelling for decades. I have friends who funded their travels in the 1980s and 90s in all sorts of interesting ways, some for many years – starting a cheesemaking cooperative in a Zimbabwe village, building (from scratch) a traveller’s lodge, taking a weekend sailing course and blagging their way onto yachts as deckhands, becoming a cook for an ashram… It’s so much easier now that technology provides a way to provide an income in a fairly conventional way, albeit in a location that’s remote from customers. That’s a good thing – more people will be able to do it. But groundbreaking? No more than usual, I don’t think.

  14. Thanks for sharing guys, we have been nomadic for the past two years and these are issues that we have had to consider ourselves. The Retirement section made me giggle, my parents said recently that if I stay out of the UK for to long I wont be eligible for a state pension however I’m pretty sure by the time I’m old enough to claim it they will have done away with the concept and do doubt tax the elderly purely for being old!

    Looking forward to part 2.

    Continue to spread the Wanderlust!

    Charli & Ben
    Wanderlusters

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