\Startup Life Opinion/

Enter the era of the digital nomad

Estonia has recently become the first country in the world to create a digital nomad visa — and others would be wise to follow suit.

By Karoli Hindriks

In 2015, Pieter Levels predicted there would be one billion digital nomads in the world by 2035. As much as I wanted to believe the Dutch founder’s bold prediction at the time, I couldn’t. It was obvious that the world of work was changing, but the numbers weren’t quite there yet. Now, amid a global pandemic, the maths is starting to look right. Millions of people have discovered overnight that they can work remotely, and so have their bosses. 

Once borders reopen across the globe, I believe we will start seeing people’s dreams of working remotely from anywhere turned into reality in massive numbers. And the countries that manage to attract these highly-skilled modern workers will see the positive economic impact of their knowledge and spending power. Smarter countries could even let digital nomads pay tax in exchange for local healthcare and other social benefits. It’s a clear win-win.

There’s just one problem with this: while people and companies may be ready for the new era of work and travel, policy isn’t. 

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Digital outlaws

There’s no legitimate way to work as a digital nomad. The most common way to work legally in a country is to have a local employer. Then there’s always the even more tragicomically outdated option of marrying a local, but getting married in a new country every few months is both unsustainable and kind of difficult to work into your Tinder profile. 

In a nutshell, the law doesn’t recognise digital nomads as a distinct and legitimate segment of the global workforce. This is why they have mostly been working and travelling on tourist visas — which is technically not allowed. 

While a self-employed solopreneur might take the risk of working on a tourist visa and hoping they don’t get caught, companies whose employees work elsewhere as digital nomads are in a bind. At my company, Jobbatical, we recently had a concerned client whose non-EU employee was planning to travel to Spain for a holiday and then stay there with his family while working remotely for a few months. HR was trying to find a legal way for the company to allow this, but the reality is that today there isn’t one. The employee can only pretend to continue being on holiday while actually working. Why is the only workable option one that puts both the company and the employee at risk? 

Enter the Digital Nomad Visa

The frustrating absurdity of countless situations like this one is what kicked off a journey towards what is, as far as I am aware, the first Digital Nomad Visa in the world. The first meeting between representatives of the Estonian government and the global digital nomad community happened in our office two years ago. Along with community leaders, we made the case for a new type of visa. We surveyed over a thousand current and aspiring digital nomads to get their input on what their visa could and should look like. Instead of state officials whipping up a bill about something they have no experience with, the Estonian Digital Nomad Visa Bill was actually drafted in close collaboration with the global digital nomad community. 

Approved by the Estonian parliament on June 3, this visa will allow location-independent knowledge workers to live in Estonia for up to a year while working for employers or clients outside of the country, ushering in a new era of work — one where knowledge workers aren’t tied to one desk or even one continent. 

Some countries, like Portugal with its self-employment visa or Thailand with its smart visa, have taken their first steps in a similar direction. But not all digital nomads are self-employed, nor do all science and technology experts earn €5,600 a month, as required by the Thai smart visa scheme. There’s still a gap between policy and the reality of the workforce. Which is why that Estonian parliament vote was historic: it explicitly recognised a new type of modern worker. 

But why is that such a big deal?

Nab those nomads

When we surveyed those 1,200 digital nomads two years ago, 87% of them said a simpler visa process would affect their choice of destination. This is where anyone interested in bringing skilled talent into their country should definitely be paying close attention. The highly-skilled mobile workforce is ready to leap at the opportunity to settle in your country for a while — and boost the economy with their combined spending power and skill sets. The first countries to give them a way in will reap the benefits. 

MBO Partners research found that there were 7.3m digital nomads in the United States in 2019. And that was before a global lockdown showed millions of people they can work remotely. Those millions, mostly highly-skilled folks, get to choose where they eat, sleep, travel — where they spend their money and share their skills. And as our survey showed, nine out of 10 of them might choose your country if you fix your visa policy for them. Imagine that flow of capital you’re missing out on. Or all the world-changing ideas that aren’t born because your outdated immigration policy is keeping those exceptional brains away from your local ecosystem. 

Because there is no precedent for this, the eventual scope and impact of such a visa is difficult to predict with great accuracy. But Estonia, a country of 1.3m people, projects that a possible 1,800 digital nomads will apply for the new visa annually. Combined, these nomads will contribute tens of millions of euros to the country’s economy. Beyond that, the impact will be felt strongly on the local tech and startup scene, where the nomads’ knowledge sharing and idea generation is expected to have a significant positive effect that will compound over time. 

What if this simple modernising tweak to immigration policy is the missing link between where your country is now and where it could be? 

Karoli Hindriks is chief executive and cofounder of talent relocation company Jobbatical.

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Rajesh Patel
Rajesh Patel

Good initiative. I think Estonia has limited the numbers per year and that’s only 1800 from out side of Europe. It will start waiting period and on a longer time, intention of this kind of visa will be failed. This might be due to liberal policies from other EU countries. I might be wrong but this is my observation being an E-Resident and non-EU citizen.

dave
dave

Our group is 380 strong and growing. We invest, rent, shop and usually stay 3~6 mo’s at a time. We open bank accounts, establish credit lines, mortgages, pay property taxes, fuel, telekom, and vat. Apolitical- non patriots, private people living our lives in private. You stay in your lane- we stay in our lane.

A. K. Shahi
A. K. Shahi

I’m glad to read your informative post and message there in and shall try to learn more and interact with you before associational activities or working if viable. I’m Patna, India based.

Chattar Singh
Chattar Singh

Great idea, out of the box

Olumide Gbenro
Olumide Gbenro

This is exciting! We are working on a similar initiative in Bali, Indonesia with strong chances of success through influential partners. -Olumide Gbenro, Founder, TheDigitalNomadSummit.Com

Roland
Roland

Why not just call it a “contractor’s visa” with the limitation of the contract not exceeding a specified time?

Kingsley
Kingsley

I will be glad to learn more about this topic

Sonit Thakur
Sonit Thakur

SonotThakur

Rajesh
Rajesh

Very good job

Carel Bosman
Carel Bosman

Is it possible to get the text of the Estonian Digital Nomad visa

Isaiah Kings Ewere
Isaiah Kings Ewere

So my brother’s and sisters who comes to Estonia for leisure and study shouldn’t be granted Visa? And if they so choose to work after study they shouldn’t be offered job coz your citizens needs to be fixed first even when he or she does not have the qualifications to achieve job?

Rad
Rad

Your idea is trecherous, the law is bad. What happens to the young students who are now studying IT and electronics in the Universities in Estonia? Estonia should spend money and train their own sons and daughters, after the university, in a required niche area (if needed by sending them to train abroad: Cambridge, Silicon Valley etc), and give them jobs in Estonia, so they contribute to their motherland. Why you want to give jobs to engineers from countries, like India, where guys are only learning computers and English language, only so that they can work abroad, to suck the… Read more »

Sugandh
Sugandh

Why such hatred Mr. Rad? The people who are confident of their talent and skill are usually not the ones wasting their time crying over these issues. It’s high time for us to realize the importance of being a global citizen and stop identifying ourselves with these boundaries we have set. This is a great initiative to attract the right talent and at the same time motivate the local population to outperform.

Blake F
Blake F

And for the most part, none of us want to take Estonian jobs. We already have jobs. We just need somewhere to sleep.

Pratik Gupta
Pratik Gupta

Mr. Rad you do understand that if foreigners work in your country, the contribute to the economy by paying rent, buying food in supermarkets, eating out at restaurants and occasionally spending money at cinemas and mall. All of this contributes to the economy too! And a digital nomad who is employed by say a German employer but is living in Estonia brings in German money to your country. No Estonian employer is paying him to be there. Which means that he/she is contributing to your economy without taking anything away from it. When a foreigner buys in your local markets,… Read more »

Sunny
Sunny

Can you make your point without swearing? It’s less energy expended typing. Innit?

Vinz
Vinz

Its not local jobs. They do have a job to work from anywhere. So if they come to the country they will pay you rent and spend their money in the country for food and travel. Its income to the country and people.

Udit
Udit

Sorry but I don’t think indians focus only on learning English language or computers we are great hub for manufacturing sectors also.
No issue I am just inviting you come to my land i.e India I’ll show u our all sectors in which we were working.
Welcome to india