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

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In the first part of The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad we covered travel insurance, vaccinations, healthcare on the road, addresses, banking, and retirement. In Part 2 we’ll be covering more of the details that we are often asked about—the rather dull but essential details that make it possible to work while travelling.

Tax

Tax is a complicated issue and we haven’t earned enough yet to make it worthwhile paying for proper advice, so you should take this with a pinch of salt, and ideally get advice from a tax professional.

We don’t live in any one country but we earn a living online and from freelance clients all over the world mostly in the UK, USA and Canada. We have to pay tax somewhere so we choose to do so in the UK. If we were living somewhere else permanently we could pay tax there instead but we never stay in any one country long enough to be resident.

We are registered as self employed in the UK which is pretty easy to do. We have also set up a partnership (again, an easy process) for the two of us. Each year we fill out a tax return online and pay any taxes owed. To be honest, we haven’t had to pay much as we don’t earn a huge amount and due to the personal allowance we can earn £16,210 (after expenses) between the two of us before we have to pay tax.

I keep track of income and business expenses in a spreadsheet as they occur which makes filling in the tax return at the end of the year relatively easy. We take photos of receipts so we don’t have to carry them around.

Visas

New or aspiring digital nomads often worry about visas. If you are working in a country as you travel do you need a work visa? Now, we aren’t qualified to give you the official, legal answer to this as it’s a complicated issue and I don’t think immigration offices around the world are set up for the new breed of nomads who work online as they travel without having a home base.

What I can tell you is that we, and every other digital nomad we know, enters the country on a tourist visa. We don’t mention the fact that we’ll be working in the country, as this will complicate matters, and the fact is our business is registered in the UK and our clients are not in the country we are entering. We have never had any problems with this approach.

Many countries allow us to stay for 90 days on a tourist visa, usually available on arrival. In Mexico, where we are at the moment it’s six months, for other countries it can be less. Often you can cross the border and come back to get another 90 days (or however long).

In the last three years the only visas we’ve applied for in advance were for Egypt (not essential to get in advance), Burma, and Thailand where you only get a month on arrival by plane, so we got a double entry tourist visa that gives you two months then you can leave and get another two months when you come back. You can extend each of those by an extra month too. To visit the US we filled in the ESTA online before travelling.

Just make sure you do some research before you arrive in a country to check the situation and allow yourself time to get a visa if you need to do so in advance.

Internet & Phone

Internet is essential for our work so we often have to choose our destinations based on the reliability of the internet. We like to rent apartments with WiFi much of the time—good bases so far have including Buenos Aires, Salta, Medellin, Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta, Tuscany, Lisbon, and Playa del Carmen.

We have travelled for three years without a mobile phone and haven’t missed having one. We use Skype to call our family for free, and we bought Skype credit to make calls to regular phones for when we need to call the bank etc. Call costs are low and £10 credit probably lasts us a year.

A few months ago we bought an unlocked iPhone 5 but we haven’t bought a SIM card for it yet. We mainly bought it for the camera, GPS and because Simon is developing iPhone apps. It’ll also be a good internet backup when we do get a SIM. The GPS is really handy as we have a tendency to get lost and it works even when you aren’t connected to the internet. We plan to buy local pre-paid SIM cards for it but we haven’t needed to yet as we have good WiFi in our current apartment in Playa del Carmen.

Update 2015: We’ve now been travelling with an iPhone for a few years and have become rather dependent on it, especially for maps to get around. You can read about how we buy local SIM cards around the world, and our favourite travel apps

Flights

We are often asked by people planning a round the world (RTW) trip whether we recommend a RTW flight ticket or buying flights as you go. On our first year-long trip (in our pre digital nomad days) we bought a Great Escapade RTW ticket taking us from the UK to Asia to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, on to the US and back to the UK. It probably did save us money and we were able to travel on great airlines like Singapore Airlines rather than choosing budget alternatives.

But we regretted buying the ticket because we felt too locked in to our plans. It was possible to change dates (for a fee on some airlines) but changing the route was much more difficult. Everyone who travels long term changes their plans at some point. You may not think you will, but you will. Buying flights as you go gives you the flexibility to change your plans, stay longer in a place you love and leave sooner the places you don’t.

Now we rarely plan more than a month in advance and we just buy one way flights as we go. We try to limit inter-continental flights to once or twice a year as they are expensive and we like to spend longer in a region. We use sites like Skyscanner to find the best flight prices.

For some countries you are technically supposed to provide proof of onward travel when you enter, but in practice we are rarely asked for this and most of the time we don’t have an onward flight. As the US can be strict we do tend to have onward flights booked before we enter. If you are concerned then you could also try creating your own onward ticket—Wandering Earl tells you how.

Packing

Us with all our belongings

Us with all our belongings

We’ve been travelling for nearly three years with a carry-on size backpack each. We never have to check our luggage; we bring it with us on planes and buses; we don’t need a separate bag for our laptops; and we don’t have to lug around a huge, heavy pack. We save time and money (no check-in fees) and reduce the stress of travel. We have never regretted our decision and are surprised more people don’t travel with small bags. Whether you are travelling for a week or indefinitely we think carry-on luggage is the way to go.

Sure, we don’t have a huge variety of clothing but as every item goes with everything else we have enough, and we’ve got used to the lack of choice—in fact it makes life easier not having to think too long about what to wear! Compression bags help save space by sucking out the air and reducing your clothes to a much smaller package, and a Kindle saves a huge amount of space and weight for big readers.

For more information see our packing list and our tips for travelling with carry-on luggage only.

Security

Since becoming digital nomads we’ve only had a brush with crime twice—a near-miss mugging in Rio de Janeiro but we didn’t lose anything or get hurt, and in Costa Rica we were pickpocketed on a bus. Considering all that we’ve lost in three years of travelling is $30 from that wallet we think that’s pretty good going.

Here’s a few tips that we use to keep our things safe:

  • We wear a money belt on travel days with our passports, credit/debit cards and cash.
  • We only keep a small amount of cash and one card in our wallet.
  • Simon wears travel trousers and shorts that have a zipped inner pocket that keeps his iPhone hidden.
  • We usually keep our backpacks under our seats on buses not in the overhead compartments.
  • We leave our valuables (laptop, cash, passports) in our hotel when we go out and have never had a problem. We leave them in our backpack which is locked with a small combination lock and also sometimes use a thin cable lock to lock the backpack to a secure piece of furniture.
  • I use my judgement about whether I feel comfortable taking my SLR camera out. Usually I do but if I’m more cautious (like in Rio) I might take my compact camera instead.
  • We have lots of cash and card backups in case things get stolen (see managing your finances while travelling) as well as copies of our passports in our backpacks and online.
  • Our laptop and camera are insured. See the insurance section in Part 1 of The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad.

We are cautious but we never feel unsafe on our travels. The world is not as scary a place as the media would have you believe.

Further Reading

You might find these other posts we have written useful:

We hope you’ve found these posts useful and that they answer some of your questions and concerns about becoming a digital nomad. Although these things may seem overwhelming at first once you hit the road everything falls into place. Let us know if you have any more questions and we’ll be happy to help.

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.

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33 Comments (4 pingbacks)

  1. Hey Erin, thanks for all the info you share. We are about to apply for 60 day Thai visa from the UK and wonder what evidence of self employment you had to show? Our business’s are new so we won’t have a tax return yet. Thanks Kathryn x

    Reply

    • I can’t remember having to show self-employment proof for our Thai visa. Perhaps any kind of letter you have from the inland revenue that shows you are registered as self-employed. For our Indonesian visa we showed a bill for NI from the Inland Revenue.

      Reply

  2. Hi,
    I love your blog, very useful and inspiring. Please can you tell me where was this picture taken? It ‘ s like my dream gateway and I am planing on a trip but really want to know where it is. I love it!

    Reply

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