February 29, 2024

How to be an ethical digital nomad 

I’ve been a backpacker and a digital nomad for over 15 years, and in that time, a lot has changed. On the surface, those changes encompass things like the prevalence of smartphones and mobile data, which allow for constant connectivity, as well as co-working spaces that enable remote workers to stay productive no matter where they are in the world. 

On a deeper level, though, there has been a growing evolution toward more ethical and sustainable travel. As destinations struggle with overtourism, pollution, and climate issues, travelers have to be more and more mindful of their impact while abroad. 

That’s especially true for digital nomads, who spend months (or years) living and working abroad. 

If you’re looking to work abroad, here’s my list of nine tips to ensure you are an ethical and responsible digital nomad. 

 

1. Get the right visa 

If you’re going to be working online while traveling abroad, it’s important to get the right visa. A lot of digital nomads travel on tourist visas, even though that is generally not permitted. In fact, if you mention to customs that you’re going to be working and you don’t have the right visa, they might not even let you into the country! 

If you want to live and work abroad as a digital nomad, get a visa that allows you to legally work in the location you’re visiting. That way, you’ll have legal protection as a resident and pay taxes that will benefit the community. It’s harder than getting a tourist visa, but it can be much more rewarding. 

Plenty of countries have digital nomad or freelancer visas these days, too, including Georgia, Croatia, Estonia, and Germany. Dozens more are working on launching them in the future as well, so this process will only get easier and more common.  

 

2. Understand the culture 

When you travel somewhere, whether you’re there for two months or two years, it’s important to understand that you are a guest in a country with its own rules, laws, and cultural norms. It’s your job to understand and respect these to the best of your ability. Learning about a country’s culture before you arrive is pivotal to your ability to fit in and assimilate. Don’t just show up and demand that everyone work around your own cultural norms and biases, put in the work to understand the place, its people, and its history. It’s not only the very least you can do, but it will create a much deeper connection with the destination.  

Don’t be afraid to ask locals about cultural norms when you arrive. Hostel staff and walking tour guides can be great resources. They’re usually more than happy to share their culture with you. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn from asking a simple question that comes from a place of respect and curiosity. 

 

3. Study the language 

When you visit a new destination, try to learn at least a few phrases before you arrive. Not only will this make your travels smoother, but it will show respect to the people you meet. Yes, you could (and should) also download the language to Google Translate (for offline usage), but making the effort is important if you’re staying somewhere for more than just a few days.  

Apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are great places to start picking up the basics. If you want to develop an even stronger understanding of the language before you arrive, or already are at an intermediate to advanced level and want to brush up, taking conversation classes on a website like italki can be a great option too. (You can even filter by native speakers living in the place you’re going to, so you could potentially make a new local friend before you even get there.)  

Once you arrive at a destination you plan on staying in for months (or more), sign up for an in-person language class. Not only is it a good way to hone your linguistic skills, but you’ll also connect with a teacher who can share their tips and advice while also meeting other expats and immigrants.  

When I spent a few months living in Paris, I made sure to sign up for language classes immediately. It was a fun way to deepen my understanding of a city I had visited countless times while connecting with an expert local who could answer all of my language questions. It’s also a great way to make friends when you first arrive. 

  

4. Be mindful of where you stay 

When you first arrive at a destination, chances are you’re going to book a hostel. Many have co-working spaces, making them great places to work and meet people on arrival. But for long-term stays, when you’re going to be in a destination for months (or longer), a lot of digital nomads turn to apartment rentals. 

If you’re going to look for a long-term rental, be mindful of where you rent and who you’re renting from. Short-term rentals have done a lot of harm to communities around the globe, and it’s best to not contribute to the problem whenever possible.  

If you’re not sure whether there are housing problems where you’re headed, a quick Google search will help you do some of your own research. However, you can definitely expect it to be problematic in busy destinations with small historic city centers, where the housing supply is limited.  

 

5. Skip the high season 

If your destination struggles with overtourism (think Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik), avoid staying there during the high season. Increased visitor numbers can be damaging to communities and environments by causing crowding, putting a strain on local resources, and increasing pollution. As guests to a country, the last thing we want to do is contribute to situations that negatively impact communities. 

Instead, try to visit popular destinations during the shoulder season. Additionally, you can consider spending more time in “second cities.” For example, instead of Prague, try Brno; instead of Amsterdam, head to Rotterdam. Second cities usually have all the same quality of life and plenty of interesting things to do and see as their more popular neighbors but are often less crowded (and usually cheaper too!). 

 

6. Escape the nomad bubble and spend money locally 

When you’re living and working abroad, it can be all too easy to spend your time with fellow nomads and expats. A lot of businesses spring up to cater to them, and while those are worth supporting (and excellent places to meet like-minded people), it’s important to get out of the bubble too. If you only visit co-working spaces that cater to nomads, bars run by expats, and restaurants serving Western food, you’re going to miss out on a lot of the richness the destination has to offer. 

While there is nothing wrong with using businesses run by fellow expats, try to expand your network and places you frequent to include locally owned spots that hire local staff. You’ll be rewarded with a greater diversity of relationships (there’s no easier way to make a new local friend than always turning up to the same café or bar for your morning coffee or evening drink) and know that your money is staying in and supporting the community.  

  

7. Give back to the community 

As digital nomads, we often drop into a community, benefit from it in myriad ways (cheaper cost of living, beautiful nature, lower taxes, etc.), and then head out on our merry way again without ever giving anything back. 

Instead, try to find ways to incorporate giving back into your day-to-day experiences. Whether that’s volunteering at food banks, tutoring locals in your language (or in skills you have), or doing community beach cleanups, there are tons of ways you can give back that don’t require an exorbitant amount of time, money, or energy.  

Best of all, this is something you can tie into your passions. If you love to surf, join a program that teaches kids how to surf. If you love to garden, volunteer at a community garden. There are a million options out there, so find something you enjoy and give back. It’s not only rewarding in its own right, but it will help you deepen your experience beyond the standard digital nomad bubble. 

Just be mindful of the pitfalls and negative aspects of certain parts of “voluntourism.” Particularly common in developing countries are programs that aren’t as benevolent as they may seem. A classic example is that orphanages in many developing countries aren’t actually orphanages at all, but instead filled with children taken from their parents so as to populate the facility, which has been set up to bring in money from well-meaning but unaware tourists. Do your research before getting involved in any program, and it’s always best to check it out once you arrive so you can get a better feel for what’s going on.  

 

8. Keep sustainability top of mind 

As the climate crisis worsens, a lot of destinations are struggling. Pollution, water shortages, natural disasters, heat waves…the list goes on. During your stay (and as you travel), do what you can to ensure that your lifestyle is as sustainable as possible. 

For example, if the tap water in your location isn’t potable, don’t just stock up on single-use plastic (that usually ends up in a landfill or the ocean). Instead, get a filter so you can easily purify the tap water. More than that though, be mindful of your water usage in general. Travelers from areas where water flows through taps abundantly aren’t usually aware of how much they can go through in a day, putting a strain on the local supply. Learn the conditions of the community in which you’re staying and habits that you can adopt to keep your footprint small.  

 

9. Travel slowly  

Traveling slowly, both when moving from destination to destination and within the place you’re staying, is an easy way to instantly make your travels more sustainable. Taking the train rather than a plane to a new location means fewer carbon emissions, just like taking public transport instead of catching Ubers (or the local equivalent) is much more eco-friendly (and much cheaper too).  

Not only will you lower your carbon footprint by traveling slowly, but you’ll likely find that you deepen your experience as well. The longer you stay somewhere, the more you’ll discover and the better you’ll get to know it. And hopping around a city on the tram or a bus is a much richer experience than being shuttled from place to place in an air-conditioned cab. 

 

*** 

Working remotely as a digital nomad is a massive privilege. You’ll have the chance to see the world, connect with locals and fellow nomads, and integrate into new and interesting cultures.  

But only if you put in the effort. 

It’s super easy to stay in your comfort zone and only spend time with fellow remote workers, only shop at nomad-centric stores, and generally stay within your expat bubble. But that would be a missed opportunity. It would also be the less ethical choice.  

By working to integrate into the places you visit by learning about the culture, practicing the language, and giving back to the community, you’ll have a much more rewarding experience, ensuring that these destinations actually benefit from you being there. You’ll find that traveling ethically and sustainably is not only better for the community and environment, but it’s better for you too, giving you experiences and memories that you won’t soon forget.  

 

 

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? The best places in the world to be a digital nomad

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