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.
My first look at the interior of the UN was a long hallway with the harsh lighting of a newspaper office and the stale odor of a war museum. It may have a reputation as one of the most global spaces on earth, but the UN Headquarters looks remarkably similar to every other European and North American government building I’ve visited: a place of rigid rules, polite small-talk, and terrible coffee. The bar resembled an aging hotel lobby, complete with its very own cyber cafe. The cluster of Windows XP computers along one wall each displayed the same error message: “This copy of Windows is not genuine.”
We drank a bottle of wine and caught up on life, work, and politics. As the bottle emptied, John looked around, edged forward in his seat and smiled. “Not a lot of people know it, but this building has one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Every nation donates a piece or two so their country is represented,” he said, draining his glass. “Want to take a look?”
The answer was yes, as John knew it would be. He walked us through hallway after hallway filled with antiquities from all 193 of the UN member states. It took us more than an hour to see everything. Our final stop was the Security Council chamber, and outside its doors was my favorite piece of the collection: a Mongolian gerege.
Figure: A Gerege in Mongolian script, found in the former territory of the Mongol Golden Horde (Dnieper River, 1845). Public domain.
A gerege—also known as a paiza in Persian or paizi in Chinese—is an engraved metal plate with curved edges, about the size of a computer keyboard. Its inscription reads:
By the power of eternal heaven, this is an order of the Great Khan. Whoever does not show respect to the bearer will be guilty of an offense.
In the 13th century, the gerege ensured a person’s safe passage through the Mongolian kingdom. It guaranteed not only the traveler’s protection, but hospitality services from strangers along the way: beds, food, horses, and guides. One of the gerege’s most famous users was the Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo, who traveled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. A gerege allowed him to navigate the vast Mongolian Empire and return home to Venice to tell the tale.*
The Khans used the gerege to give foreign merchants safe passage and benefits including tax incentives and hospitality services.** These merchants acted as business partners, conducting trade and making investments on behalf of the Mongols. An attractive trade environment, the thinking went, would spur economic development across the empire. A network of industries and hubs sprung up around the movement of gerege-bearers.
The gerege is often referred to as the world’s earliest known passport, but in today’s context, it more closely resembles a visa: it declared the purpose of a person’s travel and the rights they were entitled to. It didn’t grant its holders local citizenship, but a special visitor status instead.
The passport concept is both newer and older than we think. Just 100 years ago, no international agreements were in place to govern mobility documents. It wasn’t until after the First World War that the notion of a worldwide passport standard entered the global zeitgeist.
The earliest iterations of travel documents were regional and informal, allowing their holders “passage in and out of a kingdom for the purpose of his negotiations.” Such arrangements were essentially a handshake agreement between two rulers to recognize and respect each other’s authority, in the hope of preventing accidental wars.*
Passports steadily grew more popular, especially across Europe, until the 19th century, when new railway innovations brought travel opportunities to greater numbers of people. The earliest trains traveled at around 30 mph in the 1830s, and their speed had more than doubled to almost 80 mph by 1850. For the first time, rail passengers could start their day in Paris, have lunch in Brussels and fall asleep in Amsterdam.
A new wave of tourism began as millions took up the opportunity to travel Europe by train. It quickly became impractical for the authorities to check every passenger’s documents without massive delays, so the European train network became, essentially, borderless. France abolished its early versions of passports and visas in 1861,* and other countries soon followed suit. By 1914, passports had fallen out of fashion across most of the world.* This period is often referred to as the first “golden age” of globalization in recognition of the intensifying cross-border flows of capital, goods, and migrants.*
Contemporary narratives assume border control has always been a staple of sovereignty, but that’s far from true.* John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, wrote about his experience of crossing borders unhindered in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:
He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs.
Naturally, travel becomes more difficult during times of war and crisis, with borders closed for everyone except state and military officials. The First World War was no exception, but the global travel landscape changed quickly in its aftermath. People from all over Europe fled their homes to escape persecution or simply in search of a better life overseas.
Most new arrivals to the United States passed through Ellis Island in New York, where the Statue of Liberty and the National Museum of Immigration stand today. This checkpoint was responsible for processing 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.* There, they were briefly checked for disease, questioned about their intent, and in nearly all cases, allowed to proceed onwards in their journeys. But this carefree attitude towards migration would not survive the war.
Figure: Ellis Island, New York in 1910. From the US National Archives.
In response to an uptick in migration, the US government passed two pieces of legislation intended to reduce the inflow of Europeans: the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. The number of immigrants allowed into the United States decreased dramatically; Ellis Island was downgraded to an immigration detention center, host only to those awaiting deportation.
The early 1920s also saw the League of Nations—the predecessor institution to the United Nations—begin work on a standardized passport system. At the time, officials tasked with checking travel documents from distant corners of the world struggled to make sense of them all. The papers were various shapes and sizes, written in different languages, gave inconsistent information, and were often impossible to verify with the countries that issued them. Governments hoped to bolster “the economic recovery of the world” by formalizing and simplifying border crossings through the creation of a common passport after World War I.*
Passport standards were defined in two conferences, one in Paris in 1920 and another in Geneva in 1926, where the plans were agreed for 42 nations.* The conferences decided the size, layout, and design of the 32-page passport booklet, as well as the intention for it to be only a temporary post-war measure. The transcripts express “hope for a complete return to the total abolition of travel restrictions in the near future”* and the need for “absolute equality between ‘nationals’ and ‘non-nationals’ in the eyes of governments.”* How intentions can differ from outcomes.
By 1927, the number of people in the world had reached two billion, almost doubling from a century earlier.* The case for regulating and tracking global movement is easier to understand in the face of ballooning populations—you have to know where your citizens are, who’s in your country and isn’t a citizen, and, as the League of Nations argued, help spread wealth and opportunity around. But early critics argued passports were more about control, even within a country’s own borders, than creating a more egalitarian society of world travelers. At the time of the passport’s invention in the 1920s, for example, married American women were literally a footnote in their husbands’ passports, unable to cross borders alone while married men were free to roam.* Some nations anticipated the darker implications of the passport and spoke out against what they saw as Western dominance over the global movement of people.* But less powerful countries held little sway, and citizens themselves, of any nation, had no real voice in the proceedings.
Moving around the world without a passport became impossible. And because paperwork begets paperwork, once the passport was established, it didn’t take long for the visa system to follow. Passports allow people to leave and enter countries, while visas determine whether they’re allowed to live and seek work in a territory. A passport is like a guarantee by the government that issued it (that you are who you say you are and that you can be deported back to the issuing country), while a visa is an agreement between a non-citizen and alternative government.
In the 1930s, governments wanted to resist the movement of German Jews into their territory, but couldn’t deny their entry on the basis of their passports. So, they introduced an additional requirement: as well as a valid passport, these travelers must have a visa too.* When Austria fell to Nazi domination, Switzerland responded by introducing a mandatory visa for Austrian travelers. The term “economic migrant,” regularly splashed across British tabloids as a slur,* was originally invented by the Nazis to attack Jews fleeing Germany. The Nazis even had a plan to tax Jews so heavily through exit fees, which charged citizens to leave countries at the time, they would be poverty-stricken by the time they arrived somewhere else. The objective was for Jews to be an economic burden on the new country and stir antisemitism.*
Figure: Spanish official passport used in 1944 by an official being sent to Berlin. Public domain.
The aftermath of World War II was a time of great upheaval as empires crumbled, countries gained independence, and geopolitics intensified.
The United States found itself in an advantageous position. As a government report from February 1948 put it: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. … Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”* In other words, the United States would prioritize economic growth and do its best to slow inward migration. Over the decades, it has largely succeeded, and influenced the rest of the world’s policies and opportunities in the process.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the connectedness of the world’s economies and cultures grew quickly. This slowed down from 1914 onward due to the World Wars and the Cold War,* but picked up again in the 1980s and 1990s.* For a brief moment in the ’90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to set the stage for another golden age of globalization. It was a time of low-cost communication across borders, cheap air travel, and backpacker culture. But the rise of terrorism brought new fears, restrictions, and chaos to the global mobility landscape.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked and crashed four US passenger jets, including two into the World Trade Center buildings in New York, killing almost 3,000 people and injuring another 25,000. All commercial and private aircraft in the US were grounded for three days, the longest pause in air travel since the industry began.* When flights resumed, the mood had changed: passengers were now suspects, subjected to new security measures and visa discrimination based on their country of origin. This has been the worldwide status quo of both air travel and border crossings ever since.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump created new visa restrictions to stop migrants and refugees entering the United States from six Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, reversed the policy in January 2021,* but its four-year run is a stark example of the passport discrimination that continues to characterize US attitudes toward global mobility.
It’s not only the United States, of course. In April 2018, the Windrush scandal revealed UK government measures to deport or deter thousands of elderly British residents from staying in the country, most of them people of color originating from the Caribbean before the fall of the British Empire. Many had gone to school, built careers, paid taxes, contributed to pensions, and raised families in the United Kingdom, but their citizenship status and passports were quietly revoked in the technicalities of the British Empire’s dismantling. As the journalist and author Gary Younge put it: “This is not a glitch in the system; this is the system.”*
These are examples of the inequalities, prejudices, and colonial power structures still present in the way countries manage borders and mobility. Passports can be protective shields if you’re a citizen of a wealthy democracy, and restrictive tools if you are not. Today, visa rules are largely dependent on the relations between states and, since these rules were developed at different points in time, they often lack consistency across jurisdictions. Friendly nations participate in visa-free arrangements, particularly for tourist travel, and are more restrictive and discriminatory towards outsiders. Research shows that the liberalization of visa policies since the 2000s has mostly been between countries connected by blocs like the OECD or the EU, meaning nations that are already politically and economically aligned.* Citizens of these cooperative blocs have greater mobility rights than those from countries outside of them.
Over the decades, the passport has had new security features added to its pages: watermarks, holograms, disappearing inks, embossed letters, and many other details. The e-passport, pioneered by the Malaysian government in 1998, added microchips with biometric data; and technology will soon remove the need for physical passports altogether. Since 2012, the Australian government has been collecting facial images and fingerprints from passengers in the country’s airports. In 2015, the immigration authorities secured a five-year budget of AU$100M for next-generation biometric processing at Australian borders.* Just like the League of Nations passport committee a century earlier, the advertised goal is to ease queues and “transform the border experience” for travelers.
When face scans replace physical passports, global mobility essentially becomes a digital identity record with a set of inequalities programmed in, fed by a sophisticated and dangerous surveillance infrastructure. We run the risk of having technological innovation without the necessary rights and protections. A century after the invention of passports, and with all the tech we have available today, a fundamental update is long overdue. The opportunity for passport innovation isn’t in the hardware, it’s in the software—the ideas driving how we manage global movement.
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 required||Processing time|
|🇦🇬 Antigua and Barbuda||US$100K||3–4 months|
|🇦🇹 Austria||€3M||24–36 months|
|🇩🇲 Dominica||US$100K||3 months|
|🇬🇩 Grenada||US$150K||3–4 months|
|🇯🇴 Jordan||US$750K||3 months|
|🇲🇹 Malta||€738K||14–38 months|
|🇲🇪 Montenegro||€450K||6–8 months|
|🇲🇰 North Macedonia||€200K||2–5 months|
|🇰🇳 St. Kitts and Nevis||US$150K||3–6 months|
|🇱🇨 St. Lucia||US$100K||3–4 months|
|🇹🇷 Turkey||US$250K||4 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.
Most people are citizens of one country, though there are at least 4.2 million people in the world today who are stateless, meaning they hold citizenship of no country at all.* Stateless people are often victims of geopolitics, falling through the cracks as nation-states fail and new ones emerge, global borders shift, or ethnic discrimination takes hold. Without citizenship, they’re denied passports and, by extension, have no global mobility rights.
In some circumstances, citizenship can also be renounced. When a person receives a US passport through naturalization rather than birthright, for example, they can be “denaturalized” if they violate the terms of their citizenship. Stripping someone of their citizen status requires a high burden of proof and usually only happens in the case of serious crime, terrorism, or espionage. When it does happen, the person is deported back to their prior country of citizenship.
Some people have or are entitled to citizenship of more than one country, such as someone with parents from two different countries who was born in a third. For these people, the notion of nationality is often separate from their social, cultural and linguistic identity. Take me as an example: My parents hold two different passports and my husband a third. I spent time growing up in a fourth country, I’m currently residing in a fifth, and I spent time in more than forty countries during my first eight years as a digital nomad.
I’m not alone. Citizenship options have dramatically increased for people across the globe, and no more so than for the generations growing up in the 21st century. In 1960, 62% of countries revoked the citizenship of a person who took on another nationality. By 2020, 76% of countries had adopted the reverse approach, letting their people hold additional passports without repercussions for their citizenship.*
Nearly all recent policy changes have been towards greater tolerance of multiple citizenships, though acceptance has progressed more slowly in Africa and Asia than the rest of the world.* As the people of African and Asian countries join the global middle class, the trend will likely progress faster. There are already signals: Nigeria saw record numbers of its citizens buy second passports as a precaution against the government’s poor handling of COVID-19 and ongoing protests in 2020.* More prosperity means more options in terms of citizenship and mobility. Nigerians aren’t the first ones to explore their options.
Since the 1980s, a secretive global industry worth $25B a year* has sprung up to facilitate the global mobility of the world’s ultra-wealthy. Essentially, people with enough money can buy the right to live almost anywhere. Of course, there exists a thriving black market for stolen and fake passports, but there is also a perfectly legal market to purchase citizenship or residency. Citizenship has become a sought-after commodity for those who can afford it, akin to fine art or diamonds.
The concept of citizenship by investment originated on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1984, when the government launched the world’s first “golden visa” program. Lacking natural resources or soft power influence, Saint Kitts and Nevis came up with a plan to grow its economy by acquiring more citizens. Foreigners who made “substantial” economic contributions would be granted an additional citizenship and a powerful new passport offering favorable visa access to more than 150 countries, including desirable destinations like the UK, the EU, and Singapore.
In exchange for injecting capital into an adopted nation, these wealthy migrants are entitled to residency, which in many countries, can be converted into a second passport in a matter of months. The cost can be as low as $100K but often totals several million dollars.* There’s often no obligation to reside in or even visit the target country. That nickname, “golden visa,” recognizes the reality that only the rich and powerful can afford to buy these free movement privileges.
Other countries were quick to follow Saint Kitts and Nevis’s lead. Today, more than half of the world’s nations have dedicated programs offering citizenship or residency in exchange for cash.* These programs aren’t just limited to tax havens or emerging economies either; many of the world’s advanced economies are willing to sell passports to the highest bidders.
The UK’s Tier 1 Investment Visa offers a route to residency in as little as 10 weeks for anyone with enough cash. The terms are simple: investors buy £2M (roughly US$2.7M) in British corporate bonds, share capital or loan capital in UK-registered companies. In exchange, the UK government grants residency status, allowing them to live and work in the country. After five years, they can apply for permanent residency. Invest £5M, it takes three years, or invest £10M and it takes just two years. From there, converting permanent residency into citizenship—and the coveted British passport that comes with it—takes only one more year.
Nomad Capitalist is a consultancy that helps its clients leverage their global mobility, to “go where they’re treated best.” Before its launch in 2008, the firms helping the wealthy obtain passports were largely localized to a particular country. They acted as intermediaries between passport-seekers and the government, and had the advantage of being physically present in the relevant country. Nomad Capitalist is global, with a strong social media presence and marketing that targets high-earning nomads—those who make at least $500K a year or have an “investable net worth” of $1M. Long-term clients might choose to switch passport providers like the rest of us do cell phone contracts or credit card companies. Nationality is becoming more arbitrary—but citizenship is only one way to move around the world.
Citizens have the right to reside in their country of origin, and depending on international treaties, they may also be able to reside in additional countries. For example, a person with a Belgian passport has the right to reside in Belgium. The EU’s freedom of movement policy also allows a Belgian citizen to reside in any of the bloc’s other 27 member states—by default and without applying for permission. All they have to do is travel to a place and, if they’re staying for longer than a few months, register with the local municipality.
Residency is different from citizenship. While a Belgian person is entitled to residency in Spain, they’re not entitled to Spanish citizenship, and a non-citizen resident has fewer rights than their neighbors who hold both residency and citizenship. Residents can’t necessarily vote in their host country’s national elections and often aren’t entitled to welfare benefits. In the EU, migrants can apply for either permanent residency or a passport from their adopted nation after five years of living and working as a temporary resident.
Similar arrangements exist between members of the East African Community, a regional bloc consisting of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, and as part of the Central American Border Control agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In these examples, citizens receive alternative or additional passports in recognition of their global mobility rights.
If a citizen spends a long time away from their country of origin (usually upwards of five years, which is about how long it takes to gain permanent residency elsewhere), they may no longer be entitled to the same rights there as resident-citizens. So, when we talk about citizens, there are actually at least three distinct categories of person we may be referring to:
non-resident citizens: citizens of a country living outside that country
resident-citizens: citizens of a country living inside that country
non-citizen residents: migrants who are not citizens, but live and work in the country
The nuances of these statuses are often lost in debates about immigration and borders. The citizenship and residency routes available to those without inherited wealth or birthright advantages are expensive, complicated, and restrictive. And while straightforward wealth isn’t the only way to level up your global mobility rights, it’s undoubtedly the most efficient.
These contradictions and inequities highlight how murky our modern notions of citizenship, residency, and mobility have become. The question to ask is not whether people should be allowed to exit one country in favor of another—clearly that’s already happening. It’s whether we believe everybody should have access to free movement, or that it should continue to be a privilege for the ultra-wealthy alone, with the heaviest restrictions levied on the least privileged.
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.
Figure: Mobility scores of passports worldwide. The mobility score is the total number of countries that can be accessed easily by holders of that passport (visa-free, visa-on-arrival, eTA, and eVisa within 3 days). Source: Passport Index, a real-time ranking of the world’s passports, by Arton Capital, from March 2022. Used with permission.
Figure: Mobility offered to holders of passports from select countries, from United Arab Emirates (highest mobility) to Afghanistan (lowest). Numbers indicate how many other countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access (dark and light green, respectively) or require visas (dark red) for holders of that passport. Source: Passport Index, from March 2022. Used with permission.
Tourist visas often dictate a person must leave after a certain timeframe, but there are fewer, if any, restrictions on how long they have to wait before returning. This has created a loophole that’s enabled a popular nomad border hack: visa runs. Since the beginning, nomads have found inventive ways to work within the rules, but not necessarily in the ways the governments that created those rules intended. A visa run is a short side-trip where nomads leave a country in order to re-enter and reset their immigration clock. With an EU passport, a nomad who wants to live in Thailand for six months might take a 30-day visa on arrival, extend it for 30 days locally, then spend a weekend in Malaysia, return to Thailand for another 60 days, spend a weekend in Indonesia, then return to Thailand for another 60 days. There are no specific rules against visa runs in most countries, but if you found yourself drinking in a bar with an immigration official, you probably wouldn’t bring it up.
The above-board alternative to a visa run is to obtain a work visa and residency permit, a process that might include starting a company in your country of origin and then applying for permission for that company to employ people in the country you want to visit. After that, you need to pay for a lawyer and accountant to ensure you’re complying with local regulations, and file taxes for at least two years, in a language you probably don’t understand. All this takes months, sometimes years, to set up, costs thousands of dollars, and requires ongoing maintenance. The authorities often require you to be in your home country when you apply, and it can take weeks or months for permission to be granted. Even then, the visas and permits come with conditions: spend a certain number of days in the country each year, for example, park thousands of dollars in a local bank account until your visa expires. That’s a lot of hard work and expense just to try a place out for a few months.
So, why not design a new global mobility tool specifically for nomads? To those working in the remote economy of the mid-2010s, the need for something better was already clear: a purpose-built visa allowing temporary visitors the option to register with the authorities on clear terms, no exit flights or visa runs necessary.
It wouldn’t be long until a country set its sights on bringing this idea to life.
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.*
- Who should be included in the scope?
- Employees working for an enterprise registered in a third country
- Entrepreneurs of a foreign enterprise registered in a third country
- Possibly consultants/freelancers?
- How to establish that a person is a digital nomad?
- The person could travel to Estonia through a trusted agent
- A list of trusted agents will be established (a white-list of enterprises that organize digital nomad travel)
- Alternative suggestions?
- What should be the allowed length of stay?
- Possibility to apply both for a short-term (up to 90 days) or long-term visa (up to 12 months)
- What should be the requirement for sufficient income?
- The applicant must have approx. €100 for each day spent in Estonia (€3,000/month)
- Is the income requirement adequate for digital nomads?
- Should digital nomads be permitted to work for an Estonian employer?
- Employment only allowed for enterprises registered in a third country
- Possibility to work for Estonian enterprise, max 5 days per month
- For employment by an Estonian enterprise longer than 5 days per month, the general conditions apply—the Estonian employer must register with the Police and Border Guard and pay the salary in the amount provided in the Aliens Act
- Should family members be allowed to travel along?
- Possibility to bring the spouse and minor children along (visas under the same conditions)
- How to legally define a “digital nomad” what is their purpose of travel?
- What would be the expected number of digital nomads applying for such a visa?
The idea was to facilitate two types of relationship between nomad and host country. The short-stay visa option provided nomads with both mobility and flexibility—a simple invitation to see how they liked life in Estonia. The long-stay visa option was, essentially, a new route to residency, so that nomads who wanted to settle in the country had a legitimate way to do so. Hindriks’s proposal also gave reassurances that local jobs would be protected. Nomads would be allowed to interact and transact in-country, with sensible limits to ensure existing regulations—and Estonian workers—were not negatively impacted.
If Hindriks’s nomad visa had launched in early 2019 as planned, it would have been a world first.* But Estonia’s ruling party was ousted in elections that year, casting doubt over the program and causing a series of delays. The following year, when COVID-19 prompted tourism-dependent economies to take an interest in nomads as a source of cash flow, governments began scrambling to replace tourists with remote workers. In this context, nomad visas became an easy win. And so, in the end, another country beat Estonia to the punch: Barbados opened applications for its nomad visa in June 2020, just weeks before the Estonian program finally went live.*
The Barbados Welcome Stamp, as the Caribbean island’s visa program is known, allows remote workers earning $50K per year to base on the island for up to 12 months, with options to extend. Applicants are required to complete a simple online form, and the visa is granted or denied by email within five days. New arrivals don’t become tax residents; they continue to pay taxes wherever they did so before.* The Barbadian government charges an upfront visa fee of $2K per person or $3K per family, creating a direct return on investment for its taxpayers.* Barbados isn’t looking to steal away the tax bases of other countries—instead, policymakers want the island to benefit from nomads’ day-to-day spending on rent, cars, meals, and everything else they need to live.
The visa’s marketing campaign emphasized Barbados’s climate and lifestyle, a Hollywood cliche of a tropical paradise. Combined with a timezone suitable for US companies, it was an appealing proposition for new and experienced remote workers alike, especially during the European and North American lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley appeared on CNN and BBC News, and adorned the pages of the Financial Times and Condé Nast Traveler. While newsrooms fretted over whether nomad visas were a travel or business story, most editors missed the more interesting insight: the visa wasn’t as groundbreaking as it seemed.
Visiting Barbados had never been very hard for nomads. Prior to June 2020, citizens of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada were automatically granted a tourist visa to live in Barbados for up to six months, and EU citizens for up to three months. In many ways, the nomad visa was simply a smart rebrand of the Barbadian government’s existing offer. But it succeeded in delivering a bold message to the world: digital nomads are welcome here.
While nomads traveled on tourist visas, their status was as short-term visitors, sometimes allowed to conduct business but technically not allowed to work. Nomad visas allow people to perform remote work in a country, as long as it’s for an overseas entity, whether it be a global tech giant or their own small business registered elsewhere. There was never a classification for this kind of internet-driven knowledge work before.
After Barbados and Estonia, others followed: Finland entered the race with an invitation to “become a 90-day Finn” in November 2020, launching a specialized visa geared toward tech workers. Applications were open for just one month, and more than 5,300 people applied. Croatia, Malta, Iceland, Costa Rica, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands are just some of the other countries that announced nomad visas in 2020 and 2021—and many other governments now have imminent plans to do the same.
There’s little doubt that nomads need better policies to travel and live more securely. But the visas in the wild today are a messy attempt to balance local economic necessity and the desires of a demographic that policymakers do not yet understand. They’re often a rushed and over-engineered solution designed to repurpose tourism infrastructure rather than truly serve the nomads they target.
For many nomads, these early visas seem to introduce restrictions rather than an extension of rights and opportunities. There were risks and uncertainties attached to border-hopping on tourist visas before, but the lack of clarity had benefits too. Nomads had the option to “try before they buy” and gradually deepen their relationship with the places they spent time. Relocating was as easy as buying a plane ticket and finding somewhere to stay, because there were no formal requirements to research or adhere to. Now, there are new options to track and compare every week, and the longer-term implications of the programs are not clear.
Additionally, the selection criteria for who gets a nomad visa usually target those with high global salaries. Anyone without those privileges—or with no desire to formalize their status—remains in the gray area of living and working on tourist visas, which are obtained with varying levels of difficulty depending on a person’s country of origin. The income requirements for nomad visas are not ideal, but they are a notable improvement over the strict dependency on what passport you hold or how much money you have in an offshore bank account. Emphasizing salary and profession over wealth and coincidence of birthplace is a good stepping stone towards democratizing global mobility.
In the future, remote workers might apply for a single nomad visa, granted on arrival at a border, and be able to live and work freely across 10 or 20 countries around the world thanks to reciprocal or regional arrangements. For now, instead of reinventing the wheel with a nomad visa, governments could simply allow short periods of remote work on existing tourist visas without any additional cost or conditions for travelers. Small changes like this can bring nomads legitimacy and status, and allow for dialogue and understanding between nomads and governments while they develop robust nomad visa programs in partnership. For this to work, nomads, governments, and host communities need a shared vision.
In the 1920s, the League of Nations created a global standard for passports, and the same is possible for nomad visas today. Governments can work together and develop international conventions, paving the way towards more ambitious global mobility tools based on consensus between countries. The beta versions already exist: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Travel Card, for example, is essentially a corporate visa program.* From just one application, business travelers are approved for stays of 60 or 90 days across 21 different countries, with added perks like fast-track immigration at major airports.
The bureaucracy of crossing borders has gone through many evolutions since Genghis Khan’s gerege, but the dream has remained the same. Nomad visas follow in a long tradition of governments opening their borders to travelers and reaping the economic rewards of knowledge, investment, and prestige they bring. As we will see next, however, what governments think they should do to attract knowledge workers and what they actually want, don’t always align. Making it easier to get nomads into your city, state, or country isn’t the end of the story. As new visas and incentive programs pop up around the world, competition for nomads—and the incomes and innovations they bring—is only increasing. To succeed in an increasingly competitive environment, governments need to learn what makes people who can work from anywhere choose to work from somewhere.