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Making a Living While Breaking the Law

Would you pounce on the opportunity to convert the almost unbelievably aqua blue waters of Thailand into your office space? For hundreds of thousands of “digital nomads,” the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Digital nomads are the 21st century’s answer to the conventional worker: a cohort of entirely mobile wage-earners who conduct business online while country-hopping to their hearts’ content.

The nomadic business movement harkens back to the rise of individualistic travel trends (think the “Hippie Trail” of the 60s and the surge of backpackers in the 80s). Increased business technology and lower travel fares have led to a resurgence of this tradition, allowing contemporary nomads to travel freely while still earning a living.

Adventurous employees looking to upgrade their monotonous workdays with a tropical beach or two may consider this lifestyle ideal. After all, the nomadic way of living offers an ample assortment of benefits such as augmented buying and saving power, increased cultural awareness, and the lack of a commute. However, potential adherents to this way of life should pause before packing their bags. The digital nomad scheme has one major flaw: It’s not always legal, thanks to the sluggishness of international law and strict visa requirements.

On their international escapades, digital nomads usually enter destination countries as tourists, taking advantage of visa-free rules afforded to citizens of developed countries. Depending on the country, these rules allow travelers to enter a country for 30 to 180 days strictly for tourism purposes. The terms of tourist status differ from country to country; however, as a general rule, it is not permissible to work in a foreign country as a tourist. In Thailand, for instance, the Immigration Act (1979) specifies that “foreigners entering Thailand are not permitted to work, regardless of their types of visa, unless they are granted a work permit.” Obtaining a work permit often involves a much lengthier application process and generally requires a local employer as a sponsor, and is therefore impractical for digital nomads who are largely self-employed or work remotely for a foreign employer. In response, digital nomads usually just exploit the visa-free rules, sometimes even leaving a country only to return an hour later to reset their visa-free time in a country. Such immigration policies clearly restrict the nomadic lifestyle’s ruling tenet of effortless mobility.  

"The digital nomad scheme has one major flaw: It’s not always legal, thanks to the sluggishness of international law and strict visa requirements."

Digital nomads are thus trapped in a legal gray space. The introduction of new technology has completely upended the traditional definition of “employment,” as immigration laws in many countries were written before the widespread use of the internet. Realistically, digital nomads rarely get in trouble, even if they are living in a country on tourist status, as long as they don’t poach domestic clients from other firms or work directly for a local company. Still, they are breaking the law, and in a foreign context, this fact can have serious repercussions such as steep fines and even potential deportation.

Thus, countries need to revisit their immigration laws to include special provisions for digital nomads. One can look to “working holiday visas,” which allow digital nomads to live legally in a country and work remotely or even as employees for local firms, but they are far from perfect. Indeed, these visas are selectively given to a tiny portion of the population—usually those between ages 18 to 30 and/or those who have recently completed higher education. Moreover, they are only available in a select number of countries for citizens of other developed countries, generally in a reciprocal fashion. Thus, despite being a better legal option than a tourist visa, the working holiday visa is not a universal solution for digital nomads.

A better alternative would be a special digital nomad visa, such as the one introduced by Estonia. This specialized immigration status will allow mobile workers to live in Estonia and conduct business remotely for up to a year. The tiny country expects a large influx of nomads as a result of this new legislation. According to Killu Vantsi, adviser at the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department in Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior, the government anticipates the arrival of at least 1,400 new workers. This could be a boost to Estonia’s economy: More people, after all, translates into more local consumers. 

Estonia’s way of thinking should serve as a model. All nations should create a new visa specifically for digital nomads to clarify and regulate the conditions of their stay. Indeed, the dominance of global business practically mandates that countries relax their immigration laws to attract workers from the global talent pool and retain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Today’s technology-infused business environment is perfectly suited for the adventurous entrepreneur. Digital nomads’ uniquely itinerant lifestyle should not be hindered by unnecessary visa requirements or the fear of being deported. The modern worker must be allowed to be mobile.

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