“Digital nomads” often resort to working illegally in the countries they visit

Countries should want to attract digital nomads, and to tax them.
Countries should want to attract digital nomads, and to tax them.
Image: REUTERS/Aladin Abdel Naby
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There are more than 170 countries where United States citizens can travel to without a visa. But if they would rather work in a country rather than just visit, in most countries, the process then becomes difficult—especially if their way of working does not fall in the traditional work-from-office framework.

Many people who are working abroad remotely are doing so, often unwittingly, illegally. Others find themselves stymied by bureaucratic processes that were created for a pre-digital world.

Ireland, for instance, allows entrepreneurs to work in the country after applying for a one-year residency, but the visa is not guaranteed. If you’re not looking to start your own business, but are instead interested in working in Ireland, the actual visa process is more arduous, requiring the applicant to possess a special skill set or provide proof that additional labor is needed in that specific field.

For “digital nomads”—people who use technology to live and work all over the world—these processes are especially cumbersome.

It was a different time when the laws that barred nomads from entering countries to work were first created. There were no smartphones and no internet or online platforms that connected aspiring nomads to new possibilities. But today, starting a new career is as easy as a tweet or a click on a LinkedIn job description. Gone are the days where you’d send a resume by mail or meet face to face for an intro to a new opportunity—neither of which moved at the speed information travels today. All of this means that global governments are going to have to adapt and embrace the age of the digital nomad.

For a long time, governments have relied on the “traditional” way of taxing people; if a person has lived and worked in one place over a long period of time, they’d be taxed a certain amount. But now that people can move easily from point A to B, often without disrupting their work, governments are missing out on an opportunity to tax would-be legal workers.

Digital nomads are a highly skilled and growing community (some estimates suggest that the number of ‘digital nomads’ is set to top one billion by 2035). Countries should want to attract them, and to tax them.

Estonia is one country that is trying to accommodate digital nomads. It is planning to launch a Digital Nomad Visa, which my company helped plan by offering advice, polling the digital nomad community, and bringing together key players in the space, in early 2019.

Nomads who apply for and obtain the visa will be able to legally reside in Estonia for a year as remote workers. The visa will also entitle holders to a “Schengen” visa, which allows digital nomads to visit countries in the Schengen Area—an area comprising 26 European states that have officially abolished passport controls—for up to 90 days. Schengen is made up of countries including Belgium, Denmark, Portugal, and Sweden.

Estonia isn’t the only country that understands the need to revolutionize visas in the 21st century; Thailand recently introduced its Smart Visa. While Estonia’s Digital Visa is available to people working in all industries, Thailand’s Smart Visa will only be available to people who work in “S-Curve” industries such as  automation and robotics, biotech, and next-gen automotive. The visa will allow holders to work in Thailand without a work permit for four years, compared to one year previously. It’s a one-of-a-kind visa that I hope will be replicated in other countries, especially those looking to expand their talent base and offer companies the best talent from all over the world, instead of hindering them with current archaic visa rules and regulations.

What’s happening in Estonia and Thailand makes me truly excited for what the future of work might bring. It will change the world profoundly, allowing people to create change on a global scale and build a life they never thought possible, whether it be in their own backyard or thousands of miles away. For me, it’s simple: Why build walls when you can help build bridges?

Karoli Hindriks is the CEO and founder of Jobbatical.