The biggest myth of nomadic travel is that anyone can do it

A leap not everyone can take.
A leap not everyone can take.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Once a quirky trend enabled by the sharing economy, digital nomads have grown into a bona fide international subculture. There are an ever growing list of startups that exist to cater to them; tailor-made visas cropping up in nomad-friendly countries; and no shortage of lifestyle advice online aimed at them.

But as this community of internet-enabled, supra-national travelers has grown, a mythology has strengthened around them: The idea that all it takes to eschew citizenship and the 9-to-5 brand of corporate capitalism is an internet connection and a slightly adventurous attitude.

The New York Times style section re-upped the assertion recently in an article about liberal families who’ve fled Trump’s America in favor of “world-schooling” their kids as part of a location-independent, nomadic lifestyle: “All you need to do is have a laptop and be an intelligent person,” a source in the article said. “You don’t need a specific skill set.”

Truth is, there are quite a few prerequisites when it comes to packing up and heading out indefinitely (I know, because I’ve done it). If you’re doing it with children—as the Times article focused on—there are even more factors at play. Here are just a few.

  • A powerful passport: It’s a fact not often acknowledged in American media that not every nationality can hop on a plane and expect to be given visa-free entry on the other side. Thus, the practice of entering countries on tourist visas for months-long stints—as most nomads do while working remotely—involves more friction for citizens who hold less favored passports.
  • A knowledge economy job: Not everyone has a job that allows them to do all their work on a carry-on friendly MacBook Air. Indeed, any individual whose job or skillset involves heavy equipment, manual labor, or craftsmanship of any kind would be exempt from the digital nomad lifestyle.
  • A permanent address: While it may be possible to not live anywhere, you certainly need a permanent address somewhere. How else will you keep a bank account, get paid, file your taxes, and be a human? Often, a p.o. box won’t suffice, so a nomad needs family or friends at home willing to let them administratively squat at their address.
  • In case of emergency savings: Natural disasters, stolen laptops, last-minute changes of plans—these expensive incidentals are all more, not less, likely to happen when you are constantly moving, so you better have some savings or a high credit limit to deal with the unforeseeable.
  • Healthcare: Getting medical attention abroad can be confusing, time consuming, and costly—and you’re more than likely to pay out of pocket for it up front, no matter what your insurance situation is at home.

So where did this myth come from? Many people credit Tim Ferriss’ bestselling 2007 book the Four Hour Workweek with popularizing the idea of “geo-arbitrage.” Instead of burning cash in a country with a high cost of living, Ferriss argued, why not move to, say, Bali and build your company there? While Ferriss is well known for his rather spectacular knack for not acknowledging his privilege as a white American male who graduated from Princeton, this particular part of his legacy seems to have pervaded digital nomad culture at large.