Why a Virtual Job is the Best Job
for Working Abroad
Write on a boat, work anywhere when you choose the virtual life.
To live abroad for an extended time,
you have two big questions to answer, no matter where you
- How will I support myself?
- How will I live here as a legal
In most long-term international living
situations, these two answers go hand in hand. The kind
of work you do, and where your money is coming from, will
determine what kind of visa/residency you can get.
If you are just going to bop around
the world on tourist visas as a digital nomad, staying as
long as you can and then heading somewhere else, you won't
have many restrictions if you're from a developed country.
Citizens of Finland, Sweden, and the UK can get into 173
countries without a visa or by getting one upon arrival.
For the USA, Denmark, Germany, and Luxembourg it's 172.
For Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, 171. Canada, France,
Ireland, Japan, and others, 170. Those with a New Zealand
passport can get into 168 and those with an Australian one,
When you want to stay longer than a
few months, however, that's when things get tricky. In nearly
any country in the world, their main concern when evaluating
your status is whether you are able to support yourself.
In Country A that may be a low bar of $600 a month coming
in each month or the equivalent of that times 12 sitting
in a bank account. In Country B it may be several thousand
dollars a month—plus more for each dependent.
If you can't meet this threshold, you
will likely be relying on tourist visas, never being able
to stay longer than three or six months at a time. If you
do earn enough already though, you won't likely meet much
resistance from the authorities with this arrangement. Stay
out of trouble and all will be well.
Apart from a few outliers like Cambodia,
however, most countries won’t allow you to work without
a work permit, so you can’t legally be a bartender. English
Teacher, or massage therapist. Many do it anyway, of course,
but there’s always the danger of being suddenly deported
If all of your money is coming from
the USA or Europe, however, they’d love to have you settle
down with your laptop and spend lots of money in their country.
You’re a net contributor rather than a net taker, so you’re
a plus for the local economy.
There are other tried and true options
like teaching English as a second language that can be satisfying
and lucrative. I’ve done this myself in the past: in Turkey
(on a tourist visa) and in South Korea (on a work visa).
Or if you can get transferred while working for a company
you like, they’ll take care of the paperwork and you’ll
probably be living better than you did at home. Some people
manage to get hired locally as a real estate agent, hotel
chef, or diving instructor, which all pay better than the
standard local wage.
If you read books on working your way
around the world, you’ll also find plenty of jobs out there
that don't require any special certification or experience.
Just be advised that the closer you come to skills the locals
already have, the less money you can potentially make. You'll
also have a much harder time getting a work visa or business
For the unskilled labor jobs, if you're
not bringing any special experience to the table, you're
competing with locals willing to work for far less than
you. Here's a good rule of thumb: if people from that country
are coming to your country to do this job for more
money, trying to go the opposite direction for the same
job is just stupid. Mexico and Bulgaria don't need fruit
pickers or hotel maids. Nicaragua and Vietnam don't need
coffee workers. Colombia and India don't need people who
can sew t-shirts. There can be exceptions now and then.
Nobody really needs your basic bartending skills—unless
it's an expat pub and they want a native English speaker.
Or if you have five years of experience working in a high-end
cocktail bar and the Ritz-Carlton is hiring, then you're
a better match than any local could be.
The Benefits of a Virtual Job
If you don't have a professional skill
that easily transfers, you’re better off finding a job you
can do remotely. Or make your own. That may be a freelance
job, a structured job that allows you to telecommute, or
a business you can run online. There are some very good
reasons this works much better than the alternatives:
- You earn first world currency and
spend it in a cheaper country.
- You can show proof of income to
immigration without needing to work locally.
- You can set your own hours and
probably work fewer of them.
- You can hit the ground running
instead of taking months to ramp up local earnings.
- You have zero dependence on the
whims and pay rates of the local market.
Of course this means you need to be
in a place with a good internet connection and if your business
requires a lot of bandwidth-heavy applications like real-time
stock trading programs, video chats, or constant uploads
of large files, you'll simply have to strike some destinations
off your list completely. There are a lot of really desirable
places to live where the pipes just aren't fat enough to
support that kind of data flow.
Working on a laptop in Nicaragua.
If you need to talk or meet online with
clients, you will likely need to work a very non-conventional
workday to be available during their regular work hours.
If you're in the Americas somewhere and your clients are
too, no big deal. But I've heard of many freelancers or
business owners who had a lot of sales calls in their mix
that ended up having to move out of Southeast Asia. The
difficulty of being on the exact opposite schedule of the
people paying for their services was hurting revenue and
In the digital age we're in now, however,
most jobs require more email and file sharing than meetings
or phone calls. One digital nomad I interviewed for A
Better Life for Half the Price said she blocks
out two days every month for calls. The rest of the time
she never talks to anyone. It's just not necessary. I've
hired more than a dozen people to do one-off jobs for me,
from book cover design to Wordpress installations. I have
only talked to one of them on the phone. That was because
we were getting bogged down in too many emails and wanted
to hash out the punch list all at once.
Jobs That Can Go on the Road
What kinds of jobs do these digital
nomads or location independent business owners do? It's
a wider range than you probably think. I’ve interviewed
business consultants and a t-shirt designer, travel writers
and a CPA, software coders and web marketing specialists.
Here's a list of what people I've personally run across
or read articles by are doing as they make a living abroad.
- Systems Analyst
- Web Designer
- Programmer/Code Writer
- App developer
- Online Teacher
- Professional Blogger
- Freelance Writer
- Technical Writer
- Web Editor
- Online team leader
- Online Entrepreneur selling products
- Online Entrepreneur selling services/info
- Software as a Service Developer
- Graphic Artist
- Voice talent
- SEO Consultant
- Online marketer/consultant
- Stock or Forex trader
- Wealth manager
- Tax adviser
- Sales rep (when few face-to face
meetings are required)
It's far easier now than it was even
10 years ago to both look for virtual employees or to be
one. You could start out with no clients and gain them through
services such as eLance, Odesk, and Envato Studio. An easier
route is to strike out on your own while you're still in
your home country, then keep working for those same clients
as you change physical locations. If you're good enough
at what you do and keep meeting or exceeding expectations,
you'll probably build up more clients through referrals
and actually increase your income.
Shannon O'Donnell is known for her popular
travel blog A
Little Adrift and was named National Geographic Traveler
of the Year for her approach to meeting needs on the ground
as a volunteer in various locations around the world. Her "real
job" though is being an online marketing consultant
for businesses, helping them with their website content
and search engine positioning. "While I was still living
in the USA, before traveling, I asked my biggest client,
'If I keep up the same standard of work, you won't fire
me, right?'" She kept that client and a couple others,
and built up many more over time. "Now I'm at the point
where I have more business than I can handle," she
says. "I've never pitched, I don't even have a website—it's
all from referrals."
If you have no earthly idea how you
get from your current position to one that works like this,
first start thinking of what skills and experience you already
have that wouldn't require much of a pivot. Also consider
ways to turn your expertise into some kind of online platform
that would attract a community and enable you to sell products
There's one way you can get a virtual
job tomorrow that can potentially pay you a nice salary:
become a sales rep. These days many sales jobs are done
entirely by email and phone, so unless you're on the other
side of the world, you can keep prospecting and selling
in your home country just as you would from where you're
living now. If you're willing to work on straight commission
and you're a hustler, you can barge into nearly any industry
and be hired in no time. Sure, you don't get paid until
you deliver, but if it's a product or service that aligns
with your interests and the quality is good, you should
be able to get ramped up before too long.
There are also all kinds of online money
making opportunities out there if you just have a little
bit to invest in testing and tweaking. Read the book The
$100 Start-up for some inspiration. There's a forum
called StackThatMoney.com where members pay $99 a month
to talk about how they're killing it with affiliate marketing
sales. You can find other ideas on the forum at ClickMillionaires.com
and on reputable blogs/podcasts like The Suitcase Entprepreneur
(suitcaseentrepreneur.com) and Smart Passive Income (smartpassiveincome.com).
The other shortcut is to lay out a little
capital to buy an existing online business and take it over.
You can find opportunities on Flippa.com, Empire Flippers
(empireflippers.com), and other sites geared to
online entrepreneurs. Sure, you have to make an investment
up front, but then you're cash flow positive immediately
and it often will take less than a year to recoup your investment.
Try finding a deal like that on Wall Street or your local
real estate office!
The key to any of these though is actually
doing it. You could find enough online courses and e-books
to buy that would keep you reading and dreaming for a year.
The people who really make an online business work are the
ones who get out there and take action.
* * *
This article was partially excerpted
from the book A Better Life for Half the Price (see our review), by Tim Leffel. Buy it at Amazon
(paperback) or at CheapLivingAbroad.com (e-book).
(Editor's note: We have no affiliate
relationship with the book and its author, who has been
columnist and editor to
Transitions Abroad magazine and TransitionsAbroad.com on
many occasions over the years.)