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What I learned living abroad as a digital nomad

Mike Elgan | May 6, 2013
Digital nomad Mike Elgan returns to the U.S. after 10 months of travel and shares these tips for working and living abroad.

The mobile revolution enables living, not just working

Digital nomad conversations tend to focus on how technology enables working abroad. But the larger challenge is living abroad. People send paper mail and packages. They want documents signed. People often say: Let's deal with this when you get back, and they don't understand why you won't be back for six months.

This happens because the world isn't quite ready for digital nomads. They want a U.S. address. They want to communicate via paper. They want you to come in and do things in person.

Our solution was my son and his girlfriend, who picked up our mail and did a huge number of things to facilitate everyday interaction with companies and government agencies. Without someone back home helping you, it's much more difficult to function.

The iPad is great for times when no outlet is available, such as this coffee joint in Sparta, Greece.

Expensive services like Earth Class Mail, which digitizes your paper mail and puts it online, can help. It also helps to use the services of a lawyer, accountant and others who can represent you in various situations, even if you would normally do that stuff yourself.

Wi-Fi is everywhere

There are few places in this world where you can't find Wi-Fi somewhere. We had no trouble, for example, finding Wi-Fi connections in Nairobi, Marrakesh or Istanbul restaurants, hotels, bars and other locations. We never once had to venture into a "cyber cafe."

Kenya leads the world in mobile wallet adoption, but these kids had never seen an iPhone before.

Wi-Fi often doesn't work

Although Wi-Fi is everywhere, it often doesn't work. And it's not clear why. In general, many businesses in the countries we lived in add Wi-Fi connectivity as a way to lure customers but don't really manage it. Locals barely use it, because they tend to use phones and have mobile broadband. As a result, about half the Wi-Fi networks we encountered abroad were "ghost" networks -- you see them, but can't connect through them. We learned to always make sure bits could pass through a Wi-Fi network before we sat down and ordered anything.

It's possible to live and work without mobile broadband

During my entire 10 months abroad, I never got local mobile broadband. I did the entire thing with Wi-Fi.

It's possible to live on Wi-Fi only, but it's not desirable, and I'm never going to do it again.

The main constraint is that you have to navigate an endless range of options, most of them bad, in every new country. It's very confusing, and you end up paying a fortune for some incredibly limited service that assumes you're going to download only 100 megabytes a month, or something like that.


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