Deciding to work abroad is an exciting moment in your career, whether you’re fresh out of college or just ready for a fresh start. But before you print up new business cards with your “Globetrotter” title, you’ll have to choose: Are you going to be a resident expat or a digital nomad?
The answer will affect everything from practical concerns—such as your visa, healthcare and tax realities—to emotional issues, including your identity abroad and the types of relationships you’re likely to form.
Whether you’re just starting to turn your dream into a reality or are already knee-deep in immigration paperwork, here are a few things to consider about these two very different roads to a global career.
Which “stamp of approval” can you afford?
As a prospective expat, you may find yourself caught in a catch-22: Your new country will require you to have a job before issuing you a residency visa, but many jobs will require you to be a legal resident before extending an offer of employment.
As you wade into the quagmire, be honest with yourself: How long do you really intend to stay in-country? A year? Five years? Indefinitely? If your timeline is relatively short, it’s worth considering whether a residency permit is truly necessary or cost-efficient for you.
As you wade into the quagmire, be honest with yourself: How long do you really intend to stay in-country?
Digital nomads have a few obvious advantages here. Some countries require business visitors to declare themselves as such, but many allow freelancers to enter as regular tourists. And if your clients are based elsewhere, you don’t have to worry about dealing with local taxes on your work.
But remember the flipside to your breezy entry. Since you’re just “passing through,” you’ll be limited to a short window of time in-country, usually a few months or even weeks. You also can’t take advantage of state services, such as enrolling in public schools or registering your address with the post office. You might be surprised at how limited you’ll be without a residency permit; for example, many cellphone providers in Europe won’t offer you a contract without one.
If you want to stay in a particular location for longer than your tourist stamp allows, the (relatively) short-term pain of applying for a residency visa will definitely yield long-term logistical gains for functioning in-country.
What are the cool kids/colleagues doing?
Almost all industries are now looking for leaders with international experience, but different fields reward different forms of that experience. For example, lots of teachers and administrators have worked abroad in schools for at least one academic year—enough time to build relationships and demonstrate student success. That standard means it may be harder to leverage a handful of nomadic tutoring gigs into a full-time teaching job back home. Similarly, while many creative careers are place-blind, aspiring journalists may need to stay in one city for several years to develop regional expertise and a network of sources.
Web design, programming, accounting, and marketing are industries that are especially well-suited to the digital nomad structure. That doesn’t mean professionals from other fields can’t pursue this path, but think carefully about trends and tendencies in your industry. How important are local networks? How dependent is your job on having a particular physical setup or dedicated space? The more self-driven and portable your work, the higher your likelihood of success as a nomad. But if you want to build a stable, long-term practice or business that just happens to be based abroad, you’ll need to commit to becoming an expat.
What are your “relationship goals?"
Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings can make expats feel unmoored and lonely in their new land, especially after the novelty of the experience has worn off. It’s totally normal to feel this way, but don’t give up. It’ll be tempting to sequester yourself away with other expats from your home country, but if you intend to stay long-term, you must find a way to connect with locals. It won’t be easy, but reaching out will eventually help you feel like you truly do belong. Start by making a serious effort to study the local language. And remember, roots grow deeper the longer they’re left in soil.
For nomads, the challenge is how to make a good first (and only) impression. Don’t expect the neighbours to invite you to dinner if you’re only in an Airbnb for a week, but be open-minded and enthusiastic if they do. Adopt the maxim “you get what you give,” and radiate as much positive, friendly energy as you can. However, it’s definitely okay if you don’t connect with locals at every stop. You can meet plenty of fascinating fellow wanderers in hostels, cafes, and bars, and the friendships you form with peer travellers could evolve into a lifelong nomad network.
Either way, the road best taken is the one not journeyed alone.Add this article to your reading list