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.

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.

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

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33 Comments (3 pingbacks)

  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.

    Reply

  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

    Reply

    • 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!

      Reply

    • 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?

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

  4. 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,

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  5. 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!

    Reply

    • 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!

      Reply

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