Visa 101 for Digital Nomads7 min read
Though technology and modern travel may make the world feel borderless, digital nomads do need to follow the appropriate steps when spending extended periods of time living and working abroad. As you explore your options as a remote worker, the notion of acquiring a visa might feel like a daunting and complex process.
Indeed, it will be one of the more complicated — and more important — boxes you check before you proverbially set sail. Because travel and transport regulations vary from country to country, this article has been written from the perspective of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who aspires to live and work abroad. We’ll begin with some background information on visas, and then dive into the types of visas you’ll need to pursue should you continue on your path of becoming a digital nomad.
As a reminder, this article is designed as a 101 to the subject of visas. We strongly recommend diving into more specific research depending on the regions you plan to visit and, ultimately, call home.
What is a visa, anyway?
A visa is an endorsed document that allows people to enter into other countries for a specified period of time. Visas exist to provide countries with a traceable record of who is in their country at a given time, and this data is used for anything from tourism planning to national security. Unlike passports, visas share similar conventions so the local authorities in a given country can understand its contents no matter where the traveler has originated from.
The information within a visa tells the country you’re entering who you are, why you are there and for how long you plan to stay. Each country will have its own entry requirements for visitors, and they can vary based on an entrant’s nationality. For this reason, it’s important to thoroughly research the visa procedure for your unique circumstances prior to planning a move abroad.
What kind of visa do digital nomads typically use?
There are two overarching visas that apply to any country: immigrant (in which you become a citizen of that country) and nonimmigrant (whereby you do not become a citizen of that country, and are there for temporary travel).
Then, there are four types of travel visas.
- Type 1: Tourist Visa
- Type 2: Immigration and Naturalization Visas (including by marriage)
- Type 3: Student Visas (for studying abroad)
- Type 4: Business/ Working Visas
Most digital nomads visit and travel to other countries on a tourist visa. A tourist visa is a temporary stamp of approval that you are welcome in that country for the specified time period, for the specific intent of travel. Though you will be working while you are there, if your job is agnostic to the country, you’ll most likely be able to get away with a tourist visa.
By nature, tourist visas are temporary and expire within a set time frame. For tourist visa holders entering the U.S., for example, that duration is six months. Tourist visas are one of the underlying forces compelling nomads to be, well, nomadic. You can visit and live in several different countries on tourist visas so long as you’re packing up and moving along within the expiration deadline.
The specific terms of the visa are, of course, critical to fully understand before embarking on your journey. Some countries, like China, impose strict exit requirements, mandating that tourists exit the country (even with a long-term, multiple-entry visa) every 30, 60 or 90 days.
Most countries do not mind if you do business online while visiting their country. After all, this isn’t much different than a executive taking time out of her family vacation to take a call or catch up on emails. That said, if you are soliciting local business as a nomad, you might be required to apply for a work visa. Clearly, this is somewhat of a grey area. For example, if you are compensated to housesit while abroad, does that constitute soliciting business? How about if you take on a small client in the city you’re visiting?
Take the time to research the laws of the specific countries you will be working in. Visit nomad forums and message boards and ask people who are either there currently or who have recently lived (and worked) there. Keep in mind that operating under a veil of ignorance could get you into trouble, which might result in your getting banned or blacklisted.
Want a quick gut-check on the countries you plan to visit? VisaCentral has an easy-to-use lookup tool (www.visacentral.com/ visa-quick-check) to help kick off your research.
How can nomads obtain a visa?
Some countries will require its visitors to apply for a visa in advance. Other countries streamline the process and even allow you to easily renew a tourist visa should you choose to extend your stay. We recommend acquainting yourself with the general rigidness of a country’s visa application process well in advance, so you can be prepared in the event of a long and drawn-out process.
Of important note: Some countries will not allow you to enter their country, or even apply for a visa, if your passport is on track to expire within the next six months. An initial step you should take in the process of becoming a nomad is to renew your passport, if needed.
U.S. → Abroad
If you are a U.S. citizen, some countries will not require you to apply for a visa up until a certain point. For example, if you are travelling anywhere in Australia, a visa is required regardless if you are U.S citizen or not. However, if you are travelling to Canada, no visa is required for stays under 180 days. For specific information regarding the visa policy for the countries you wish to visit, head over to the U.S. Department of State’s resource on Passports & International Travel.
If you do end up needing a visa, a good place to start the process is at the embassy website for the nation you intend to visit. There, you can fill out a visa application form online. It can take anywhere from two weeks to two months to review the application, and at that point, if approved, the consulate will mail you a visa that attaches to your passport. You can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 to complete the visa application process.
Abroad → U.S.
If you are a non-U.S. citizen and your nomadic travels take you stateside, you’ll need to apply to and be approved by the U.S. Department of State. The visa requirements will differ based on your nationality. To complete the application online, visit the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA (www.esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta).
Currently, there are 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VMP), which allows people from these select countries to visit the U.S. without a pre-authorized visa. If you’re from one of these countries, like New Zealand, Switzerland or the UK, you’re in luck! No visa is needed.
What do you do if your visa expires?
As you might imagine, the rules vary by country. For example, in the U.S. you must apply with USCIS before your authorized stay, denoted on your admission stamp or paper Form I-94, expires. It’s recommended that you apply well in advance of your expiration date.
As a digital nomad you’re no doubt used to living your life on the web. Instant banking, instant communications—everything is real time. However, when working with federal agencies, things tend to move slower. A lot slower. Always build lead time into your planning for applications and renewals, because they can take weeks, if not months to go through.
When don’t you need a visa?
If you’re planning to live as a nomad within your own country, you obviously will not require any sort of visa. Just pack your bags and go. That said, some countries are making it easier than ever to go in between partner countries. VisaCentral’s quick-check tool is a great place to look if you are unsure where to go and want to prioritize a country with lax visa policies. For U.S. residents, you’d be surprised by how easy it can be to go in and out of many countries. In fact, U.S. citizens get access to 174 countries in the world by way of having an up-to-date passport. Instead of applying in advance, you’ll speak with a border agent who will process your visa upon your arrival.
Part of your responsibility as a digital nomad is navigating the laws of the countries you are departing and entering. Given the complexities of the global landscape, it’s critical to do your due diligence and thoroughly research your visa obligations early in your planning process.
For lots more information on being a digital nomad, check out our free eBook, Anywhere.