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Global Natives

The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation

Lauren Razavi

A guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, for travelers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders. What is the future of remote-first work when a global and mobile life is increasingly possible?
110 pages and 210 linkslast update 18 days ago
Rachel JepsenEditor

Part I: An Assignment in Bali21 minutes, 13 links

Coworking Retreats

My first visit to Indonesia was in April 2015. I flew from London to Bali to report a business story for The Guardian newspaper. My assignment was to dig into a new trend popping up all over the internet: coworking retreats. Two young entrepreneurs, one American and one Israeli, were making waves with a new kind of travel company. They organized trips for a niche but growing demographic of remote workers, freelancers, and digital makers—people who had the freedom to work from anywhere.

The startup was called Hacker Paradise, but their definition of “hacker” went beyond code. Soon, I’d find out they used the term to refer to people seeking financial independence, creative freedom, and the ability to work on their own schedule. Business was booming, yet my Guardian editor was unconvinced. She just couldn’t believe that people were traveling to faraway, exotic destinations only to work on a laptop for the whole of their stay. Why would anyone choose to do that?

It wasn’t so difficult for me to imagine. I’d spent the few years prior hopping around the world as a journalist, first as a travel writer and then as a foreign reporter. With a passport covered in stamps, combined work and travel was already my reality.

I arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport and haggled with a taxi driver outside. We drove north, away from the airport and towards the town of Ubud. As we reached the first intersection, giant billboards advertising cheap flights, hotel deals, and mobile data towered overhead. A few roundabouts later, they were replaced by enormous, ornate statues of Hindu gods. This is the contrast of Southeast Asia: the old and the new coexisting, but in a constant battle for space.

After a while, there is just one, single-lane road to Ubud, so the journey can take anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on traffic. My driver explained that there’s always a lot of traffic in Bali, though I shouldn’t worry, because they have ways of dealing with this. “Sometimes people drive slow so we beep, beep, beep to make them hurry,” he said. “Other times, though, it’s monkeys or fallen tree. Then we just have to wait until fixed.”

Ubud is the part of Bali that featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book Eat Pray Love in 2006, and in the Julia Roberts movie based on it four years later. By the time I got there, it was a town brimming with hippies left over from a wave of European and American migration in the final decades of the 20th century. The island of Bali is also Australia’s favorite holiday destination, so you can’t go far without encountering the shrill laughter (and spilled drinks) of Aussie tourists.

More recently, a new wave of foreigners—bright young things hoping to self-actualize through yoga—had arrived in the town. Their presence meant all sorts of fresh businesses were popping up along the main thoroughfare: hipster coffee shops, vegan brunch cafes, and artisan ice cream parlors. It occurred to me that Ubud looked a lot like Shoreditch or Brooklyn—if you plopped one of those places down in the middle of the jungle, that is.

I reached my guesthouse and was greeted by a smiling receptionist decked out in traditional Balinese style: a local batik sarong, a white tunic, and a headdress known as an udeng. His colleague, who was wearing exactly the same outfit, insisted on carrying my bags. The villa was simple: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a front porch. The staff told me about the air conditioning, the wifi, the yoga, and the massage services, and that I could come back to the front desk if I needed anything.

It was only 6 p.m. local time, but my day was done. I collapsed into bed and slept for 12 hours.

The next morning, the guesthouse staff served me banana pancakes and fresh mango juice on the porch. The room price was just $30 per night including a hot breakfast. In London, you’d be lucky to get some sad-looking eggs and an instant coffee for that price, let alone somewhere to stay for the night.

The Hacker Paradise founders chose my guesthouse for its proximity to the coworking space they were based at. After breakfast, I double-checked the location on Google Maps and set off in that direction.

The air was thick with humidity and pollution from the burning off of fields and trash. Bali is celebrated as a paradise and has been known as “the land of the gods” for decades, but that reputation refers to a previous iteration of the place. While still seeped in natural beauty, it’s also been full of traffic, noise, and smog since the 2000s.*

A non-stop procession of motorbikes screeched down the road and monkeys sprang along the power lines like gymnasts, stealing snacks from Chinese tourists whenever the opportunity arose. I thought of friends working office jobs back home in the UK, and wondered if they’d prefer to dodge monkeys instead of navigate tube trains on their way to work each morning.

I arrived at Hubud (pronounced who-bood; a portmanteau of Ubud, the town, and hub, a gathering place), the coworking space I would work from for the next few weeks. The building, made primarily from bamboo, sat opposite Bali’s Sacred Monkey Forest, on a street aptly named Jalan Monkey Forest.

“Hey, how can I help?” asked the receptionist, a Balinese millennial with a flawless undercut and an international school accent. I told him I had a workspace reservation and a meeting, then handed over my laptop so he could set up my wifi.

Hubud was Bali’s first coworking space when it opened in 2013,* and its founders were responsible for bringing high-speed internet to Ubud, fronting their own cash to create the infrastructure necessary for remote work.

The investment paid off.

By 2015, Hubud had become one of the world’s most renowned coworking spaces, featured in the pages of Lonely Planet, Forbes, Huffington Post, CNBC, and others. Increasingly, nomads were coming to Bali specifically to work from Hubud, where they were sure to connect across cultures and meet interesting people.

Hubud’s atmosphere rivaled a hip college hangout in a global city like London, Amsterdam or New York. People of a dozen different nationalities were chatting, coding, working, and gesturing towards video calls. The man-buns, spaghetti straps, and flip-flops gave the appearance of a hippie squad let loose in an airport business lounge. This wasn’t a space for tourists or locals. It was a space for a third kind of people: globals, whether they came from Indonesia, America, or Africa.

“Who’s your meeting with?” the receptionist asked.

“Casey and Alexey from Hacker Paradise.”

“Out back,” he said. “But you need to take your shoes off.”

I stared at him blankly for a moment. He stared back.

I removed my shoes, put them on a wall rack with everybody else’s, and headed “out back.”

Startup in the Jungle

I had exchanged a few emails with Casey Rosengren, an American in his mid-20s, to organize my trip to Bali, but I hadn’t met him in person or heard his voice. His communication style was concise and efficient—something that stood out in my inbox full of overzealous PRs, startup companies, and tourism boards all vying for press coverage.

That first day, Casey was bouncing around like a kid who’d had too much coffee, though I’d soon learn he never touched the stuff. Casey grabbed Alexey Komissarouk, his co-founder, and we all sat down on beanbags.

The story of Hacker Paradise begins in the spring of 2014, when graduation was nearing and Casey was hunting for his first post-college job, business degree from the University of Pennsylvania nearly in hand. The problem was, he didn’t really want any of the roles an Ivy League education opened up for him. More than a job in Silicon Valley, where he’d sent in a few applications, he wanted to travel.

So, Casey looked at other options. He considered volunteering with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) or striking a deal through the global barter platform HelpX, which connects travelers with homestays in exchange for language classes, gardening, cooking, farmhand, and animal welfare work.

He liked the concept of mixing work and travel, and especially skill-sharing, but none of the options were quite right. He decided to try organizing his own barter deal instead, and reached out to six hotels in Central America with a proposal: web skills for room and board. It didn’t take long for one to bite.

El Sueno Tropical in Puerto Carrillo, Costa Rica wanted Casey to come and help them set up a yoga retreats business. He would create a website for them and help out with online marketing. The barter deal was agreed, and Casey booked his flight. But when the yoga instructor’s laptop was stolen, the program ended before it had even begun (the details are hazy, but Casey recalls sentiments amounting to, “Fuck Costa Rica, I’m going back to the UK”).

Suddenly, Casey’s whole plan fell apart. This is often the way on the road, but he hadn’t even gone anywhere yet. The hotel said he could still come for a few days, but they didn’t have enough work to honor the three months they’d previously agreed on.

Casey wanted more than a quick vacation, so he pitched them a different idea: What if they launched a retreat for software developers instead of yogis? The hotel said yes, and Casey started thinking about how to pull off the retreat he’d promised. He built a simple landing page and arranged video interviews with potential participants. It quickly became clear he’d need help, so he began searching for a business partner. He posted about his plans on social media and in online communities, inviting anyone who was interested to get in touch.

One of the people who responded was Alexey, an Israeli citizen and UPenn alumnus. The idea of taking off appealed to him too, but for different, more complicated reasons.

Since graduating, Alexey had been working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. As a non-citizen employee, he was living on an H-1B visa for highly-skilled foreigners. Under this system, workers have to reapply every three years, and visas are allocated by lottery. In practice, a person might meet all the criteria and be great at their job, but still be rejected at random.

This is what happened to Alexey.

He was now obliged to leave the United States for at least a year before he could apply again. He had the option to return to Israel, but figured he’d rather travel, so Casey’s project in Costa Rica seemed like the ideal fit.

The first time Casey and Alexey met in person was when they moved into a two-bedroom apartment together at El Sueno Tropical in September 2014.

Luckily, they got along well.

The first iteration of Hacker Paradise was the group of young coders who flew out to join Casey and Alexey in Costa Rica: 15 people signed up for the full three months, and another 20 or so came and went. The group usually included mentors and speakers, too, who Casey and Alexey invited free of charge in exchange for giving talks and business advice.

It’s easy to understand the appeal for the techies who became Hacker Paradise customers. Rooms and apartments at the Costa Rica hotel cost around $25 per night, or $700 per month. At the time, the price of a San Francisco hotel room averaged $397 per night at the time,* equivalent to around $12K per month. The median price of an apartment rental in the city was around $3.5K per month*—five times higher than the offer in Costa Rica.

In November 2014, as their trip came to an end, Casey and Alexey had taught themselves how to build a remote work community on the road.

They figured if one group of people could sustain themselves and work productively for a month or two in the jungle, there must be a lot of others who could afford and benefit from the same experience. That initial commitment—to give it a try for a few weeks—is all Hacker Paradise needed to win repeat customers. Once people tasted the lifestyle, many chose to stay, or returned to the community as it spread to different locations around the world.

Word got around; people referred friends, family and coworkers, and others saw social media posts praising the startup’s trips.

Casey and Alexey broadened their definition of “hacker” from coders to any entrepreneur, freelancer, or remote worker who sought to “hack” their location while working remotely. Three border hops later, they were talking to me in Bali.

In the months since Costa Rica, Hacker Paradise had become a fledgling travel company, balancing the heads-down productivity of a startup office with the novelty of global adventure. The only stringent rule was that trip participants had a project to work on during their stay. It could be a professional project, side project, or something personal. The rule served to deter tourists and party animals, and encouraged shared values of focus, collaboration, and purpose.

Hacker Paradise

Figure: Hacker Paradise organizers Casey, Nicole, and Alexey in Hubud. (Photo by Jesse Onslow, used with permission.)

The Hacker Paradise remote work package consisted of accommodation, coworking, and community, plus added extras like group dinners and local SIM cards (useful for wifi on the go). Flights and ground transport weren’t included, since the target audience didn’t board a plane in one country of origin and arrive in a cluster like tourists. Instead, these travelers zig-zagged their way to meeting points independently, organizing side trips to see monuments, visit friends, have business meetings, and get medical or dental work done in a preferred country.

The “work from anywhere” concept was proving especially popular among the alumni of startup accelerator programs like Y Combinator and Techstars. Venture capital-backed companies like the social media management tool Buffer and the live translation service Babelverse had already been founded by nomads, and operated as remote, globally-distributed companies. While many folks stuck around in San Francisco or London after raising investment, some were heading elsewhere to build their companies—places where their money would stretch further.

Before organizing their next trips, Casey and Alexey made sure to visit each potential destination, scouting out accommodation, food, and coworking spaces across Southeast Asia. They also researched and optimized the timing of trips, adjusting for local climate and air quality at different times of the year. They thought about anything that could inconvenience a remote work traveler, rejected places that didn’t meet the threshold, and went the extra mile by, for example, providing their own routers, portable outlets, and wifi boosters where necessary. As a remote worker often caught out by these aspects of travel, I could understand the appeal.

As Casey and Alexey shared their story, something clicked for me. I’d stumbled across a group of people I had a lot in common with. We looked at the world through the same lens, and brushed up against the same problems.

“Is there a name for people like you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Casey said. “People call us digital nomads.”

At that moment, I realized I was one too.

Over the following years, I continued traveling as a digital nomad and wrote extensively about the future of work and global affairs.

I also kept in touch with the Hacker Paradise community and joined their trips to explore other parts of Southeast Asia. Casey Rosengren and I became (and still are) good friends, and he introduced me to other nomads around the world, many of whom appear in or made contributions to this book. None of us realized it back then, but we were witnessing the birth of a new global subculture of digital nomads.

I started writing Global Natives in the spring of 2020, about five years after first learning about digital nomads on my trip to Bali. It was only when the pandemic hit that I stopped traveling long enough to sit down and think about what I’d learned from my adventures, and consider what I wanted to take forward into the new era of work and travel. I ended up busier than anticipated while I was writing the book: I’ve spoken about digital nomad policy at the UN, I’ve been an expert advisor for governments, and I’ve become known as an activist in the wider digital nomad community. I’ve also joined the Y Combinator alumni company SafetyWing to work on making these ideas a reality through a moonshot project called Plumia, an internet country for digital nomads. Those more recent stories don’t appear in this book, but they’ll certainly appear in the next one.

For now, I just want to give you a sense of where these stories have taken me. Too many books analyze problems without offering solutions, and Global Natives aims to unabashedly buck that trend. These pages set out to reveal possible futures and propose pragmatic ways to get there from where we are today.

In this next part of the book, we’ll go through the basics of who digital nomads are and how they live and work. After that, we’ll examine the technology, culture, and mindset driving the lifestyle. Then, we’ll explore the places, policies, and ideas guiding more people to choose this path, and look at the tools and global infrastructure necessary to realize the potential of remote work and borderless living.

Part II: Understanding Digital Nomads30 minutes, 20 links

Who is a Digital Nomad?

A digital nomad is someone who works remotely and travels at the same time. Those who fit this label also tend to match other identities, depending on where and who they are—and who’s asking. Like other social groups, nomads often outwardly define themselves in ways that don’t resonate with their own perceptions. They have to tick the right boxes for immigration, insurance, healthcare, and taxes, and the rules and norms often vary drastically between countries. By traditional institutions, nomads might be called expats, tourists, or business travelers. The paperwork might say they’re young people studying or interning abroad, or identify them as retirees on a round-the-world trip.

People often assume nomads are constantly on the move, but each new place takes an investment of time and energy, hassles and costs. There are incentives to stick around a while. Some nomads relocate every year or two, deeply and slowly exploring each area and organizing side trips to nearby cities and countries. Others travel to a new destination every month or six months, getting a feel for the place before moving on. Often, they’ll keep returning to favorite spots, strengthening their connection to a destination and community with each visit.

A study by MBO Partners found that 32% of American nomads planned to be nomadic for less than one year—though as the Hacker Paradise story shows, people often end up staying on or returning to the lifestyle after trying it out—and 54% planned to continue for the next two years.* Rather than establishing a set routine in one home city, nomads adapt to each new place they go. The fundamental human desires stay the same—food, fun, friends, fitness—but the rituals vary from place to place. Nomads design the interactions between their work and other aspects of their lives, optimizing for what they want to see and experience.

Nomads are longer-term visitors than tourists, keen to create stability, habits, and routines that support their productivity and wellbeing, just like everybody else. Many still consider their country of origin to be their home base, and spend regular time there, or in another chosen home, each year. Whatever their travel pattern, the defining feature of the nomad mindset is a flexible attitude toward location. They aren’t choosing the life of a settler, but of a slow-traveling nomad.

For me, life looks different—but in other ways, entirely consistent—depending on my location. Long summer walks are my exercise in Amsterdam, while I’ll hit the gym and pool in my building in Kuala Lumpur. Lunch in the UK may be a sandwich from an outdoor market, while it’s likely to be a plate of rice from a hawker center in Singapore. Wherever I am, I’ll probably play Pokémon Go on my smartphone to explore new neighborhoods. I almost always know the location of the best specialty coffee shop—a global craft culture that crosses national boundaries. I might also do karaoke in Thailand, hop between cocktail bars in Hong Kong, and have a beach barbecue in Melbourne. Like most of the nomads I’ve met, I’m a great believer in doing what’s good in a place—usually whatever the locals do—to keep myself entertained, even if it’s something I wouldn’t instinctively choose to do elsewhere.

These lifestyle differences are an inherent part of the fun of all travel, and they’re also what prompt an important process of self-reflection and personal growth during nomad trips. Through travel, people come to understand what shapes their sense of identity, community, home, and belonging. And their thinking is constantly challenged by cultural and social differences, giving them a uniquely global perspective.

People often question the long-term viability of living as a digital nomad, which is a valid response if you understand most of us to be location-hopping every other week. But the nomad reality is slower-paced, and mainly concerned with the idea of creating the life you want, in the place that suits you best, unhindered by the requirements of conventional work.

How Many Nomads Are There?

Because nomads are such a fluid group, few governments, institutions, or organizations invested in surveys and research related to them in the 2010s. There just wasn’t much incentive while nomadism was still a fringe movement. Today, though, visa and border policy are beginning to modernize, spurred by the global shift to remote work. We’ll explore how this is playing out in the later parts of the book, but what you need to know for now is that who exactly nomads are is difficult to measure, quantify, and analyze.

Since 2018, the consultancy firm MBO Partners has published a yearly State of Independence in America survey, one of few studies to collect data about digital nomads. While the survey only covers US residents, the 2021 edition found that 15.5 million Americans already identify as digital nomads (up from 10.9 million in 2020 and 7.3 million in 2019).* It also indicated that 65 million Americans are either planning to become digital nomads within three years, or are considering it. If those numbers prove accurate, 25% of the US population could be nomadic by the middle of the decade.

Digital Nomad Growth

Figure: Growth in American digital nomads, from a survey by MBO Partners.*

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The Nomad Work Philosophy

One of the rare early studies about digital nomads was initiated by a Harvard Professor named Beth Altringer.

Working across design, behavioral science, and innovation, Altringer was used to hearing about the latest hubs, ideas, and trends from around the world. In 2014, everybody she spoke to seemed to mention the same place: an Indonesian town of 30,000 where a group of expats had launched a vibrant new coworking space. Just a year after opening, it was now home to a disproportionately large startup community, and the town had become known as a global hotspot for entrepreneurship and sustainable design.

The name of that town was Ubud, and the name of the coworking space Altringer kept hearing about was Hubud, the same place I met Hacker Paradise in Bali. She decided to take a trip, interested in investigating whether this success could be replicated elsewhere.* She spent several weeks working from Hubud, meeting digital nomads in the wild and trying out the lifestyle for herself. The questions that compelled her most were around nomad finances, so she returned to Harvard and launched a survey.

The highest earners in Altringer’s study were finance professionals, serial entrepreneurs, and top-tier software engineers, bringing in $8K per month on average and carrying minimal debt. Some of this group were motivated primarily by the tax advantages of a location-independent lifestyle, an issue we’ll explore in the next section of the book. Other high earners included the early employees of successful startups, salaried employees of big tech companies, and elite freelance coders represented by talent managers. Many of these people considered nomadism a long-term lifestyle, though some of them traveled within their home country rather than going overseas. The most successful nomads in the study tended to have in-demand skills, have already proven themselves professionally, and held their own interpretation of what constitutes a good life.

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Nomads and Taxes

This is my first time at Davos and I find it quite a bewildering experience, to be honest. … I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, and of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water. … This is not rocket science. We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes, we can invite Bono once more, but come on, we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it: taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit.Rutger Bregman, historian and author*

Who pays what to whom, and when, is hard enough to figure out when you still live in the town where you grew up. Frequent or infrequent relocation, dual or multiple citizenships, and other features of global, remote work challenge tax norms. Who we pay taxes to has traditionally been about where we live and work, but the internet has made the “where” part more difficult to pin down.

Taxes can be hyperlocalized: If you live in an area where people are well-off and pay more into the system, there are better services available—from recycling facilities and good schools to road infrastructure and community spaces. But you also pay taxes into your nation’s military whether or not you want to go to war, and into its arts programs whether or not you love the theater, and into its scientific research whether or not you believe in evolution or vaccination. So, what does it mean—and how do taxes work—when you see yourself as a global citizen?

Let’s look at an example. If a nomad with a German passport is based in Vietnam for six months and works remotely for a US company, the tax implications quickly become complicated. Our nomad is likely registered with the German authorities for income taxes, and their US employer will transact with them as a German resident and pay their salary into a German bank account.

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Part III: A Brief History of Nomads31 minutes, 37 links

Notebook Nomads

If I had been born a century earlier, I probably would have found myself in Paris rather than Bali, hanging out at a bookstore instead of a coworking space.

In 1919, an American woman named Sylvia Beach opened a book shop, Shakespeare and Company, on Paris’s Left Bank. It was a good time and place to be a bookseller: Paris was a literary and artistic capital, home to all the major French book publishers, literary journals, event spaces, and art galleries. The country’s best thinkers—Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Anatole France—flocked to the city to be part of its unique culture.

But Paris wasn’t just a hotspot for France’s experimental creative scene—it was a gathering place for writers and artists from all over the world, favored for its embrace of extravagance, diversity, and creativity. The core selling point of Beach’s shop was that it stocked only English-language books; it quickly became a hub for the city’s growing expat community. A variety of North American and European writers abandoned their countries of origin to take up residence in Paris, where they lived, worked, and played as part of a global crowd. The ideas that came out of their movement still influence our thinking and culture today.

Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, which is still considered one of the 20th century’s most notable works of fiction. The book was banned in the US, the UK, and Joyce’s home country of Ireland for over a decade, censored for its scenes depicting masturbation and menstruation. It was one of many books to emerge out of Paris between the First and Second World Wars. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) is a first-person account of the sexual and travel adventures of the stereotypical American bohemian in Paris. George Orwell was also there, working as a dishwasher in restaurants—an experience he immortalized in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, too—posthumously assembled as A Moveable Feast in 1964—which features the city’s cast of characters in that period: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

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Portable Technologies

In March 1983, a recently-formed technology company called Compaq Computer Corporation shipped an exciting new product: the world’s first portable computer, the Compaq Portable.

Despite a price tag of US$3,590 (equivalent to around US$9,500 today), the model sold upwards of 50,000 units in its first year. This beast of a machine weighed 28 lb (13 kg) and folded up into a luggable case the size of a portable sewing machine. Crucially, it was designed to be taken as carry-on luggage. The tech journalists loved it. In 1982, PC World Magazine ran a cover story titled “Traveling with the IBM PC’s First Portable Competitor.” It features a photo of a man seated beside a swimming pool, transfixed by the rectangular screen of his bulky Compaq Portable. Next to him is an empty cocktail glass. This just might be the first portrait of the work from anywhere movement we know today:

PCWorld

Figure: PC World Magazine, 1982.

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From Vision to Subculture

If you were in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, Tim Ferriss needs no introduction. He is, after all, the person who won, by a huge margin, Wired magazine’s “self-promoter of the year” by public vote back in 2008. You might have encountered him at somebody else’s party, distributing copies of his five bestselling books. Or maybe you’ve come across his blog, YouTube channel, or podcast, where he interviews the crème de la crème of entrepreneurship and entertainment: celebrated characters like Marc Andreessen, Jimmy Wales, Margaret Atwood, Hugh Jackman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Amanda Palmer.

Ferriss’s first and most popular book was The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, published in 2007. Its core argument is that people should design the life they want and see the world now, not work in a soul-destroying job and wait for retirement to really live. In popularizing this idea, Ferriss piloted and promoted a new philosophy of life and work—one that has been simmering away in the background ever since. This notion of exploring the world and enjoying the good life became digital nomads’ guiding principle, and a global subculture of people began pursuing remote businesses, blending work and travel in new ways.

The same year The 4-Hour Workweek was published, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. Facebook was three years old, and though it already had 14 million users,* its addictive qualities were not yet so expertly tuned. (For context, 2.8 billion people now use Facebook at least once a month.)* Twitter had been around for just a year, a niche microblogging site populated by the small, fascinating subset of early adopters who still wear the “joined in 2006” badge on the platform today. YouTube was in its terrible twos, blubbering and buffering its way toward relevancy. Instagram, and the shiny influencer culture it is known for, had yet to be invented.

The mainstream internet may have been in its infancy, but the tech builders of Silicon Valley could see what was coming just as well as their predecessors had: all the tools necessary for people to work from anywhere, conveniently, affordably, and effectively. Ferriss was a prolific networker in the Bay Area, detecting those same signals as he wrote The 4-Hour Work Week. But would anybody choose to use their ever-thinner laptops and fancy new smartphones to actually do this? Or would “running away to Bali” just be something Californians excited themselves about at acid parties?

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The Birth of Nomad List

In April 2013, an MBA grad named Pieter Levels, then 27, sold all his stuff and set off from the Netherlands to travel the world.

A few years earlier, when he was studying at Rotterdam School of Management, Levels accidentally launched his first online business. He uploaded electronic music mixes to YouTube and his channel, Panda Mix Show, quickly took off. By the time Levels graduated in 2012, he was making $2K per month.* A friend commented that this income meant he could live “pretty much anywhere.” He’d already spent six months studying abroad on an exchange program as a teenager, so the idea of going overseas didn’t faze him much. Plus, he was curious to see if he could maintain an income on the road.

Over the next few months, Levels got rid of everything that didn’t fit in his backpack, then boarded a one-way flight to Thailand. He kept hearing about The 4-Hour Workweek, but assessed that the business of dropshipping was “bullshit” and definitely not his scene.*

Yet being a YouTube music star wasn’t quite right either. For Levels, modest success on a third-party web platform, especially one owned by a global tech giant like Google, didn’t spark joy. He wanted to build something of his own—a different, more independent kind of online business. A self-taught coder, he decided he would launch 12 startups in 12 months while he traveled from place to place. These “startups” would be bootstrapped, built entirely by Levels, and have no outside investors. By the end of the experiment, he figured he would probably have come up with a longer-term plan.

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Part IV: Papers, Please: Managing Global Mobilityan hour, 44 links

The History of Passports

The United Nations Headquarters in New York is a notoriously difficult place to get into. There are official tours covering a few of the building’s rooms, but to get any closer to the action, you have to be invited. Luckily, I had an in.

In 2018, a friend in the UN press and communications department, the writer and activist John Dennehy, got in touch while I was staying in Manhattan. One of the perks of working at the UN—along with the possibility of being granted a diplomatic passport—is being able to bring guests in for drinks at the bar.

John warned me there was a strict dress code: shirts, “real pants,” and no sneakers. I managed in an all-purpose black dress and ankle boots with only a few scuffs, but Jesse, my partner, had to buy a new suit for the occasion. Packing for the more spontaneous invitations isn’t easy as a digital nomad with limited luggage space.

Passing from the New York City sidewalk into the UN grounds is essentially a border crossing—from American to international territory—and John is an expert in doing just that. His 2017 book, Illegal: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Crossing Borders, is about getting deported from Ecuador, being smuggled back in, and living as an illegal immigrant there.

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Defining Citizenship

To understand how a better system for managing global mobility might operate, we first have to examine how people are moving around the world today. Passports and visas are one part of the story, but there’s also the matter of status. Governments grant people different rights through statuses like citizen, resident, and asylum seeker, according to the criteria of their choosing. This defines, in legal terms at least, the relationship any of us can have with a place.

Capital requiredProcessing time
🇦🇬 Antigua and BarbudaUS$100K3–4 months
🇦🇹 Austria€3M24–36 months
🇩🇲 DominicaUS$100K3 months
🇬🇩 GrenadaUS$150K3–4 months
🇯🇴 JordanUS$750K3 months
🇲🇹 Malta€738K14–38 months
🇲🇪 Montenegro€450K6–8 months
🇲🇰 North Macedonia€200K2–5 months
🇰🇳 St. Kitts and NevisUS$150K3–6 months
🇱🇨 St. LuciaUS$100K3–4 months
🇹🇷 TurkeyUS$250K4 months

Table: Select citizenship by investment programs. Source: Henley & Partners.

The most straightforward status a person can have is to be a citizen of a country. Citizenship is generally granted as a result of birthplace, heritage, or a process called “naturalization,” which refers to adopting a new country and becoming a citizen over time. Citizens can live, work, and play within the borders of a country. They’re entitled to apply for a passport and that passport allows them to travel to other countries. They’re expected to follow the rules and laws of the places they visit, and if they don’t, they can be deported back to their country of citizenship and banned from returning in future.

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Borders and Passport Power

The majority of nomads come from advanced economies in Europe, North America and Oceania, which means they hold some of the world’s most powerful passports. Their lifestyle leverages an unjust reality: a person’s country of origin is what determines the restrictions placed on their movement. But nomads also represent a significant democratization of mobility rights, from an elite minority buying passports to a more diverse group of people having the opportunity to live borderless lives.

According to The Passport Index, a passport comparison website run by the investment firm Arton Capital, tourists from advanced economies are granted a visa exemption or visa-on-arrival in 70% of countries worldwide.* There’s little practical difference between these two visa categories, and when people mention “tourist visas,” it’s usually arrangements like these they refer to. Tourist visas offer anywhere between seven and ninety days in a country, and a strong passport allows you to stay longer and renew more easily.

For the right passport-holders, tourist visas are granted with few questions, but they do come with specific requirements. Some countries ask for exit flights, while others want to see a confirmed accommodation booking for the length of a person’s stay. Providing these documents means making decisions about when you’re leaving, where you’re staying, and where you’re going next in advance, which, for nomads, would mean firm commitments (or accepting financial losses) ahead of time.

Passport Mobility Map
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The First Nomad Visas

Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Suddenly, the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.Milton Friedman, American economist and 1976 Nobel Prize winner

A few weeks before the end of 2016, Karoli Hindriks met with Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior—the officials tasked with regulating the country’s borders. Hindriks, who is the Tallinn-based founder of an immigration and relocation company called Jobbatical, believed every country on earth should start working on new mobility tools to attract global talent. At the meeting, she told the government just that, and suggested their first step should be to launch a specialized visa for digital nomads.

The Estonian ministers agreed. The tiny nation—sandwiched between Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—has one of the world’s most advanced digital governments, meaning the country was already in a strong position to pursue a nomad visa. The e-Residency program, launched in 2014, allows foreigners to register their identity with the Estonian government, establish an online business in the EU, and open a local bank account without ever visiting.* Many nomads and remote businesses were already among the country’s population of e-Residents, so policymakers had direct access to the right target market. The question was what it should look like. Luckily for them, Hindriks had a few ideas up her sleeve.

Jobbatical conducted a survey and found that nearly 90% of nomads would be more inclined to visit a country if it offered a visa specifically for them. Encouraged by the community’s appetite, Hindriks digested the insights and came up with a concept. Here are the notes she sent out ahead of a roundtable meeting in February 2018.*

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Part V: Nomad Hubs39 minutes, 48 links

Craft Beer and Loathing

On an unusually warm November afternoon in 2011, the newly-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped out of a limousine and strode into a former brewery in Shoreditch, London. The brewery was now a coworking space called, creatively, Tech Hub, and Cameron was there to announce his new vision for London’s dilapidated East. He called it “East London Tech City,” but everyone else knew it by another name: Silicon Roundabout.

The moniker originated with Matt Biddulph, the Chief Technology Officer of a social media startup called Dopplr, back in 2008. Biddulph was peering out of his window at a Shoreditch intersection, the ugly one between Old Street and City Road, when he fired off a tweet:

Matt Biddulph tweet

Tweet from Matt Biddulph: “‘Silicon Roundabout’: the ever-growing community of fun startups in London’s Old Street area.”

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The Remote Work Effect

Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location.Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Founder

At the onset of the remote work era, people living in the world’s most expensive cities were the first to jump ship. A Pew Research Center study found that 1 in 20 Americans moved in response to COVID-19, often spurred by the prospect of more space, lower living costs, and convenient access to nature.* The biggest exodus was from San Francisco: almost 40% more people moved out of the city in 2020 than the year before.*

By December, a fresh bid to become the next Silicon Valley had emerged—and like Silicon Roundabout before it, the idea started on Twitter. Delian Asparaouhov, principal investor at the venture capital firm Founders Fund, was one of the many Californians who’d become disillusioned with San Francisco during the pandemic’s first year. Among the growing discontent on social media, he tweeted:

Delian Asparaouhov tweet
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What Makes a Nomad Hub?

If there’s one global metric every city in the world wants to be celebrated for, it’s the vaguest possible one: “quality of life.” Each year, brands such as Monocle, The Economist, Mercer, and Deutsche Bank publish annual lists of the best cities in the world to live, work, and raise a family.* Nomads and expats look at similar features when choosing where to go: clean air to breathe, a nice home to live in, political stability, personal safety, and to know the community they’re moving to is accepting of people like them.

But cities that are celebrated for their high quality of life are not necessarily the same places that deliver a high quality of life for nomads. In fact, the high cost of long-term living associated with these destinations is often what nomads are moving away from.

The expensive property markets, in particular, make nomads consider how much further their money would go in a different place—or, indeed, a string of different places. An accommodation budget of $3,500 per month in New York City gets you a 1-bedroom apartment on a 12-month lease. In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur (a similarly melting pot city, known as “the New York City of Southeast Asia”), a 1-bedroom apartment will set you back just $450 per month, on flexible terms, and often includes access to an on-site gym and swimming pool.

These days, many different indexes and rankings examine the pros and cons of destinations from the perspective of remote workers, yet they rarely agree with one another or accurately reflect where real nomads spend time.

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Confronting Gentrification

Almost 15 years after the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class, the book that inspired David Cameron’s Silicon Roundabout, author Richard Florida was still being grilled about the role his ideas played in accelerating gentrification. In a 2017 interview, Florida admitted that his initial exuberance for innovation clusters had been naive.* In that year, the 50 largest metropolitan areas were home to just 7% of the world’s population, yet they’d come to generate 40% of global economic growth.* This consolidation of economic power happened regardless of whether a place was designated as an innovation cluster or not. If the city started out rich, it grew rapidly. If it was poor, it lagged behind its wealthier neighbors. No innovation cluster had ever bucked the trend.

The most consistent outcome of innovation clusters was not the birth of unicorns. It was gentrification. Real estate in poor areas marked for urban renewal were gobbled up by international businesses and ultra-wealthy investors. Property prices climbed quickly, and existing communities found themselves unable to afford the subsequent rent hikes. Locals can rarely afford to continue living in neighborhoods when they’re suddenly overwhelmed by affluent outsiders. When nomads relocate to cheaper places, they trigger a similar process.

During the pandemic, Mexican destinations rose to the top of Nomad List. While other countries introduced lockdowns, health mandates, and travel restrictions, Mexico’s borders stayed open and the government adopted a laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Citizens of more than 70 nations could stay up to six months in Mexico as tourists, just as they could before. If they wanted to stay longer, a quick visa run across the border, even if only for a few hours, would grant them a six-month extension. With much of the world closed and more remote workers than ever before, Mexico became a vibrant hotspot for digital nomads, along with other fringe groups seeking to vote with their feet: libertarians and anti-vaxxers. As one former Silicon Roundabout entrepreneur described it to me, the draw for foreigners was simple: “Mexico City is as buzzing as Brooklyn or Shoreditch, but everything is super cheap—plus, everyone’s here!”

But what about the host communities on the receiving end of these newcomers? In Tulum, chain link fences separate the luxury condominiums from the shanty towns where local cleaners, construction workers, and food vendors live. While in Playa del Carmen, upmarket resorts are situated within gated communities and armed security guards only permit locals to enter for work. In both places, signs and billboards advertise 0% finance for Americans and Canadians to purchase local properties and monetize them on Airbnb, as well as expedited immigration services for such investors.

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Part VI: Borderless Future35 minutes, 24 links

New Travel Markets and the Rise of Subscription Living

On the Eastern edge of Amsterdam’s inner-ring is an area known as “The Knowledge Mile.”* This “innovation cluster” launched as part of a city marketing campaign in 2015,* presumably the vision of a team familiar with the ideas of Richard Florida. When I visited two years later, the project was in full swing. Every other building in the area was either a trendy cafe, a startup office or part of a university. If a founder invited you to their product launch, the venue was likely to be on a tree-lined boulevard named Weesperstraat, the Knowledge Mile’s main artery.

My destination was about halfway down, next to the local WeWork. The entrance was set back from the street, a giant potted plant on each side of the automatic doors.

Stepping inside, four oversized letters glowed overhead: “ZOKU.” One wall had mailboxes, and the other a rambling manifesto of sorts, the kind advertising agencies charge startups a fortune to come up with. The doorway led to a small, shoebox-shaped room containing a wall plastered with event posters and two janky elevators—no reception desk in sight. It looked more like the entrance to a student housing complex than a hotel lobby. Was I in the right place?

On the top floor, I stepped out of the elevator into a plant-filled glass corridor. Greenhouse doors led to a series of rooftop gardens, each one with furniture in a different style. At the end of the corridor, double doors opened into a vibrant, oversized living room. There was Heineken on tap, a 3D printer, copies of Monocle magazine, and a cosmopolitan crowd of young professionals. Remote workers tapped away on their keyboards, guests chatted over coffees and cocktails, and tattooed chefs prepared meals in an open kitchen. The atmosphere reminded me of Hubud, the Balinese coworking space that was influential in the early nomad movement.

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Same, Same, But Different

An interest in the exotic has always underpinned tourism. Beginning in the 17th century, graduates of England’s elite Oxford and Cambridge universities embarked on grand tours of Europe. They’d trek through France and Italy to experience the “otherness” of foreign cultures, visit famous monuments, and eat unfamiliar, potentially toxic foods like pasta and focaccia bread. The strangeness of these places and the experiences they offered made the journey a key rite of passage for the English gentry. In the 1800s, as railways and steamships expanded travel, the availability and ambition of these grand tours increased alongside. Americans flocked to the museums and art galleries of the Old World, and Europeans vacationed further afield in the colonial outposts of Asia and Africa.

But as more people visited places that were previously only knowable from books, questions arose about the “authenticity” of their travel experiences. In E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, published in 1924, the protagonist is perpetually disappointed to discover that life in the East was not too dissimilar to life back home in England. She laments afternoons of tea with scones and evenings of tedious networking drinks. Where was the real India?

Today, the desire to see the “real” culture will be familiar to anybody who has visited Egypt’s Pyramids—located opposite Pizza Hut’s Giza outlet—or tripped over the Starbucks coffee cups littering the Great Wall of China. Modern package holidays, luxury cruises, and all-inclusive resorts have dominated leisure travel for decades, streamlining the delivery of exotic experiences to be efficient, predictable, safe, photogenic, and profitable. The sights, trinkets, and stories may change, but the role of “tourist” remains largely the same whether you’re visiting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán region. Globalization can make everywhere start to feel the same.

For cities and countries keen to attract and accommodate nomads, the economic appeal can be a similarly homogenizing force. While tourism has led to thousands of McDonald’s and Starbucks outlets and Ramadas by Wyndham in every country on earth, the knowledge economy has its own globally recognizable aesthetic: exposed brick, tables made from reclaimed wood, and plants galore. Its venues are often set in converted warehouses and sell things like Gesha coffee beans from Ethiopia and Danish open sandwiches (which serious-looking men with mustaches will inform you are called smørrebrød). Other menu items may include Australian brunch dishes, Panko-fried Japanese chicken burgers, and American grilled cheese sandwiches. There’ll be either Oatly (from Sweden) or Minor Figures (from the UK) for the vegan lattes. No, they intentionally don’t sell any Coca-Cola products, and they think it’s weird that you asked.

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An Era of Global Natives

In a 2016 speech, former British Prime Minister Theresa May made a bold declaration: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship is.”*

To a politician like May, countries are fixed and citizenship is absolute, so restricting people’s movements and rights based on their country of origin makes perfect sense. Only, countries aren’t actually like that. They disappear, appear, and fail, and the name and borders of the country you were born in can change during your lifetime. Citizenship can be bought, sold, renounced, and revoked, yet it’s still the coincidence of a person’s birthplace or heritage that determines their ability to move around the world; where they can go, when, how, and for how long. The benefits and restrictions that come with your citizenship, or citizenships, can shift too.

Technology and global trade have diluted the ties between nationals and strengthened the bonds between geographical strangers. As we’ve learned in this book, to be from and connected to just one place is becoming rarer, and people feel increasingly disconnected from the nation-states issuing their birth certificates and passports.

The early signals—like visas and tax breaks—suggest there will be more digital nomads in the years ahead, and there’s a lot at stake in how that future unfolds. Unless nomads have a voice in how global mobility is managed, there’s no guarantee our rights will be protected. The nomadic lifestyle could be outlawed before it’s possible for more people to experience it. We could see harsher border restrictions, raids on coworking spaces, work equipment confiscated at customs, and nomads regularly deported back to their country of origin. Or, nomads could be understood in the context of a much larger story of global mobility and human freedom.

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Acknowledgments8 minutes, 24 links

The book-writing journey is one of hills and valleys, euphoria and despair, triumphs and crushing defeats. People say it takes a village to raise a child; well, it takes one to produce a manuscript, too. A book is a collaboration; it involves the creation of an intimate circle, a “scenius,” in which ideas are shared, refined, unpicked, and developed freely and without ego or judgement.

In the year and a half it took to write Global Natives, I learned an enormous amount about the craft of writing and about myself. I fear, however, that I was hell to live and work with throughout the process, from the beginning to the very end. Which makes me glad to have these final pages to issue some well-deserved thank yous.

Almost a decade ago, my friend John Dennehy gave me some simple but important advice: “Live like hell until you’re 30, then write about it.” Global Natives is what emerged from following his advice. While I don’t know which country we’ll be in, I’m certain John and I will still be facing off about words, ideas, and politics in a retirement home someday. I’d like to thank him for his friendship and guidance over the years, as well as for reviewing drafts of these chapters.

I’d like to thank Sarah Ronald, who many years ago came out with a comment that stuck with me: “The real value you bring to the table, Lauren, is your ability to see and express connections that others don’t.” When I was struggling with Global Natives, those words inspired me to prioritize connection and clarity over commentary, and to cut anything that felt like filler.

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