Suddenly, the label “digital nomad” is everywhere. Remote workers are now taking their salaries and setting up shops outside of the U.S. and now we’ve got a name for that.
Or at least they’re dreaming about it, and wondering about the best cities for digital nomads.
It’s enticing to envision yourself working remotely from Italy’s Amalfi Coast or dining after work in one of Mexico City’s sophisticated restaurants or even living the expat life on Bali. But a little bit of research shows that achieving the digital nomad lifestyle is not as simple as packing a bag and laptop. It can also be pricey if you have your heart set on a Parisian apartment. Lisbon may fit your wallet better. Oh, and make sure the internet speed is fast enough to handle your workload.
And not every country allows someone to just uproot their lives and move there — to find the ones that do, you’ll need to start looking for three words in particular, “digital nomad visa.”
Don’t give up just yet. There are plenty of countries happy to have remote workers and in many of them, the cost of living — especially rent — is lower than what you would typically pay in the U.S.
Truth is, the money you make from your remote American job might go further someplace else.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
A digital nomad is someone who lives in one country and works in another. They may do all of their work from the country they live in, but they’re working for a company or clients that are based in another country, usually their home country. This work lifestyle has accelerated because more people switched to remote work during the pandemic.
An Investopedia analysis found that as of July 2021, 24 regions offered a digital nomad visa, including countries in Europe and Central America. Often, these countries require certain minimum salary amounts or proof of funds to qualify for the visa. Each country with a digital nomad-esque program may not call it that and will have their own requirements. This is not a one-size-fits-all legal term.
In Costa Rica, a temporary residency visa allows you to live in the country for two years, but it requires a monthly income of $2,500 or a deposit. Germany has a program that allows freelancers and self-employed workers to live there for up to three years, but the applicant must have a German residence and bank account, health care and register with the tax office.
Ideally, a digital nomad is looking to work remotely for a matter of months, maybe a year, and at a significantly lower cost of living.
Best Places for Digital Nomads
- Portugal: Best all-around experience
- Colombia: Best luxury living on the cheap
- Thailand: Best money stretcher
- Indonesia: Best expat paradise
- Sri Lanka: Best cheap apartment housing
- Romania: Best income tax break
- Malaysia: Best cosmopolitan lifestyle
- Mexico: Best ease of living
- Spain: Best classic Euro experience
- Curacao: Best tropical living
We’ve broken down the countries that will save you the most in cost of living while still offering you a desirable quality of life.
Best All-Around Experience
City to consider: Lisbon
Like most countries, Portugal has a digital nomad visa that is desirable but requires a few steps to have in hand. The lead applicant will need to have some form of passive income that equates to roughly $9,000 a year, according to Atlys. Applicants also have to show proof of accommodation, have health insurance and open a Portuguese bank account.
The good news is that the cost of living in Portugal is a lot lower than that of the United States. Blogger Joanna Horanin estimates that a one-bedroom apartment costs around $900 monthly and utilities are $100 a month. A meal for a mid-range restaurant is about $16 per person while an Uber ride from the outskirts to the city center is $7.50, Horanin said. She puts her total monthly calculation — for rent, food and fun — at around $1,400 a month. Given that the average monthly cost of living for a person in the United States is around $3,200, that’s a big savings.
Best Luxury Living on the Cheap
City to consider: Medellin
In Colombia, the process of applying for a freelancer visa is largely a matter of paperwork. Aside from your resume and passport photos, you must show your last six months of bank statements that attest that you’re earning at least $2,350 every month. In what is a harder feat, you will also need to secure references from employers in Colombia who say they will work with you. The visa itself costs about $282.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll find the cost of living in Colombia highly desirable. Most foreigners who live in Colombia live on between $1,000 to $2,500 a month, according to Cheapest Destinations Blog. Depending on where you live, rent can be half the cost of what it might be in the United States. In 2019, the average cost for a furnished apartment in Medellin’s ritziest neighborhood was $800 to $1,100, based on numbers cited by How to Expat. By contrast, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City’s Upper East Side is around $4,000, according to Zumper.
Best Money Stretcher
City to consider: Chiang Mai
So Thailand’s digital nomad visa is not exactly a digital nomad visa — it’s actually called an elite visa. The best part: It’s incredibly non-restrictive. The visa can last for as much as five to 20 years, according to Expat Den. There are some restrictions. You can’t work for a company in Thailand and you’ll have to shell out some money to get the visa.
If your cost-benefit analysis still puts the answer at yes, then a low cost of living beckons. The average cost of living in Thailand is 40% lower than it is in the United States, according to SmartAsset. Budget at least $1,500 per month to live in Thailand — $2,000 allows for a comfortable lifestyle. To really drive the point home, a one-bedroom apartment in Bangkok costs about $562 per month in rent versus roughly $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta. Bought your ticket yet?
Best Expat Paradise
City to consider: Denpasar in Bali
If you’ve read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” then you know that Bali in Indonesia is a veritable expat paradise, full of people from all over the world. The country is in the process of creating a digital nomad visa that would be valid for five years and wouldn’t impose taxes on income earned overseas, according to Fortune. The current reality is a bit less desirable — hopeful residents can either stay for 60 days as a tourist, try to get a temporary six-month work permit or become a local tax resident after more than six months, taxed at the same rate an Indonesian would be.
For those who do choose to stay, the cost of living is immensely lower than that of living in one of the United States’ most expensive and desirable cities, New York. Roughly $2,500 a month in Bali will offer the same standard of life as $8,700 in New York, according to the site Numbeo. To rent a one-bedroom in the city center will cost you about $540 a month in Bali. A three-course meal for two people at a mid-range restaurant might cost about $24 in Bali versus at least $100 in New York.
5. Sri Lanka
Best Cheap Apartment Housing
City to consider: Colombo
Digital nomad visas can be a valuable tool for countries that want to make additional income off of non-citizens. In Sri Lanka, the digital nomad visa lasts for 12 months and can be renewed, according to a Harvard Business Review analysis. The visa application process costs as much as $500, and the country does impose a minimum income on applicants. The income you make, however, is not subject to Sri Lankan income tax.
When comparing Colombo, Sri Lanka, one of the country’s capitals, with the cost of living in a smaller U.S. city, like Tampa, the numbers fare well. A one-bedroom apartment in the city center might cost as little as $345 in Colombo versus more than $2,000 in Tampa, Florida, according to Numbeo. Utilities for an almost 1,000-sq.-ft. apartment could run as little as $22 in Colombo versus almost $170 in Tampa. Groceries, on the other hand, can be comparable, depending on the product. One-gallon of milk, for example, is $3.75 versus $4.08 in Colombo and Tampa, respectively. But one pound of cheese is $6.18 in Tampa versus $2.66 in Colombo. The overall savings are clear.
Best Income Tax Break
City to consider: Bucharest
Much like Sri Lanka’s program, Romania’s digital nomad visa is good for 12 months and can be renewed. The main difference is that the fee is much less prohibitive at $126, according to the Harvard Business Review. The country does impose an income minimum and requires the applicant to purchase health insurance, but your income is not subject to Romania’s income tax. The program was only recently approved, so it is in its early stages.
Living in Romania is cheaper than living in the United States, though the cost of living difference is at a lower degree than other countries. Rent prices in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, are roughly 60% lower than those in St. Louis, Missouri.
A one-bedroom apartment in Bucharest runs about $500 in the city center versus almost $1,200 in St. Louis. Salaries are also much lower. The average person in Bucharest makes less than $1,000 a month after tax while the average person in St. Louis makes almost $3,500 after tax monthly. Certain items, like a fitness membership, Levi jeans or eggs, can actually be more expensive in Bucharest. But in general, across consumer prices, rent, restaurant and groceries, Bucharest’s cost of living is lower than that of St. Louis and thus other comparable U.S. cities.
Best Cosmopolitan Lifestyle
City to consider: Kuala Lumpur
If you want to live in Malaysia, you have a choices on how best to work remotely from this Southeast Asian country. You can easily stay as a tourist for 30 or 90 days. But if you want to spend some real time here, go for the Foreign Knowledge Entrepreneur, which applies to someone who has an idea for a business. This is the best fit for someone who already has a business plan or seed funding.
Once you secure the visa, you’ll likely find the cost of living to your satisfaction. A three-bedroom apartment in the city center of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s cosmopolitan capital, is around $850 a month, according to Numbeo. A three-course meal for two people at a mid-range restaurant might cost as little as $18. Better yet, a pint of domestic beer is only $3.40. If you want a slower pace, Georgetown on the island of Penang is known for its street food and vibrant art scene.
Best Ease of Living
City to consider: Merida
With stunning weather, delectable food, vibrant culture and close proximity to the United States, Mexico is a perfect place to get away from it all and still get some work done. Mexico has a digital nomad visa that allows for a one-year stay with opportunity for renewal and a small fee — $45. Wages earned are subject to income tax, and there is a minimum income required.
Luckily, some of that pain will burn off when you realize how much you’re saving in cost of living. Rent prices in Mexico City are almost 80% lower than in New York. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant could cost as little as $8. A 12-oz Coke bottle is less than $1. Better yet, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is around $715.
Merida in the northern Yucatan and on the Gulf of Mexico is another city to consider. It’s much smaller than Mexico City though the cost is about the same.
Best Classic Euro Experience
City to consider: Madrid
For someone who wants the traditional “living abroad in Europe” experience, then Spain’s digital nomad visa is the way to go. The new visa works for people who are employed by non-Spanish companies or earn 80% or more of their income from non-Spanish companies, according to Spain Visa. The is for a year, and successful applicants must still register their stay in the country within one month of arriving.
While you still get more bang for your buck in Spain, it’s probably the lowest value on this list. Rents in Madrid are about 56% lower than in a city like Washington, D.C. — a one-bedroom in the city center might cost around $1,050 in Madrid versus more than $2,000 in D.C. A meal for two people at a mid-range restaurant is more comparable — around $63 in Madrid versus $75 in D.C. But living in Spain likely won’t be just about the cost of living. It’s an experience unto itself.
Best for Tropical Living
City to consider: Willemstad
Maybe you’ve stopped in this Dutch port city on a Southern Caribbean cruise and thought it would be nice to spend more time wandering through the markets amid the pastel-colored colonial architecture. One big bonus is that Curacao is just outside of the hurricane belt that can put residents of many Caribbean islands on edge for about six months a year.
Curacao welcomes digital nomads with the proper paperwork for up to six-months. A studio apartment in Willemstad’s city center goes for about $500 a month and you can apply some of that apartment savings to an Internet package. That $60 or so a month will ensure you can attend any Zoom meetings and get other work done. Digital nomads don’t pay an in-country income tax.
Curacao is on Atlantic Standard Time which is the same as the U.S. East Coast in the summer and one hour ahead in winter.
How Do I Get a Digital Nomad Visa?
The process to get a digital nomad visa differs by country, but it does have certain things in common. To get the digital nomad visa, you’ll generally have to fill out an application explaining why you want the visa, what you do for a living and providing any relevant documents. The permit to allow you to live and work remotely in another country may also be called by another name.
You may have to make an appointment with the country’s regional consulate office or an embassy in the U.S. At your appointment, you’ll have to have your documents in order and submit them to the consulate. If all goes well, you should receive your passport shortly thereafter with a visa inside.
Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times.