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.
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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.