We’ve been digital nomads since before it was a trendy term. After living in China for several years, we made the transition to working online during our year in Bali. This was before Canggu and Ubud were full of latte-sipping nomads.
We’ve made plenty of mistakes and learned quite a few valuable lessons along the way. With the nomad community growing exponentially these days, we thought it would be fun to come up with the 10 commandments of digital nomad life. We did just that while hiking in Patagonia last week and are excited to share our list with you!
1. Thou Shalt Leave Thine Entitlement at Home
Making the transition to digital nomad life isn’t exactly easy. Going from a place like the USA or Western Europe to Southeast Asia or Latin America is sure to bring about some culture shock.
That being said, it’s crucial to leave your entitlement at home. Are things as efficient in these regions as they are where you come from? Probably not.
Is it frustrating? All the time.
But that doesn’t mean you should bemoan the local way of doing things and utter phrases like “This would never happen in the US.” If you want American convenience, you should probably stay there.
As digital nomads – especially from the developed world – we are already incredibly entitled. We get to visit most countries without even needing to apply for a visa. We’re able to afford fully furnished short-term rentals in desirable locations. Eating out every day is something we don’t bat an eye at.
In most digital nomad hot spots, these are luxuries the locals simply cannot afford. So go with the flow, adapt to the local way of life, and appreciate the fact that you get to live this lifestyle most can only dream about.
2. Thou Shalt Learn Some of The Local Language
This ties into the first commandment of digital nomad life but deserves its own heading. To this day, it boggles my mind how nomads (or any travelers, for that matter) just assume everyone speaks English.
No one expects you to speak fluent Thai on your first day in Chiang Mai, but it doesn’t hurt to at least get your “Sa wa dee krap” and “Kop kun ka” down. With programs like Duolingo, YouTube videos, and podcasts, there’s no excuse for simply ignoring the local language and insisting on speaking English.
While we’re at it, speaking English more loudly does not help a confused local understand you any better. Let’s show the world that the digital nomad community is more respectful of local cultures, and that starts with a simple “Hello” and “Thank you” in the local language.
I’ve studied Spanish in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, Thai in Bangkok, and Indonesian in Yogyakarta and Bali. In fact, participating in the Darmasiswa Program in Bali ranks up there with one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and it’s where our digital nomad journey began.
3. Thou Shalt Respect Local Customs
Speaking of being a digital nomad in Thailand, you’ll also want to learn how to wai. This is a slight bow that is common to greet people, and there are different versions depending on who you’re greeting. It doesn’t take much to figure it out and the locals really appreciate it.
This is just one example of respecting local customs. For example, did you know that women who are on their period are not supposed to visit Hindu temples in Bali? You don’t have to understand or agree with it, but it’s important to respect these customs.
It’s sad that we have to mention this one at all, but apparently, it’s becoming a problem thanks to all these influencers in the wild…
Keep your damn clothes on. There are nudist beaches in Mexico if you want to get that perfect picture of your butt, but most of the country is quite conservative. The beaches in Vietnam are not the ones in Europe, so keep your top on, ladies.
4. Thou Shalt Prioritize Thine Health
When traveling as a digital nomad, it can be tricky taking care of your health – physical and mental. You’re constantly changing locations and adjusting to the water, the food, the air, the time zone, and more.
As digital nomads, the urge to go out to eat and party is strong. Trust us on this one!
However, we’ve found that we need to find a balance. That’s why we like to stay in places with decently equipped kitchens.
That makes it easy to prepare a healthy breakfast at home. It’s also a good idea to keep some healthy snacks in the fridge, like carrots and hummus, so you’re not running out for a fried empanada when hunger strikes. And believe me – I love fried empanadas!
It’s also a good idea to look into local gyms and studios. Even if you’re only staying for a week or a month, you can probably sign up for something. There also seem to be donation-based yoga classes in many nomad hubs.
If you can’t find a gym or don’t want to pay for one, you can still keep fit. We like to keep a yoga mat handy so we can easily do our home workout program or put on a Yoga With Adrienne video.
Don’t skip your doctor and dentist appointments. Be sure to get regular checkups in order to prevent something small from becoming a massive health issue that can potentially halt your travels.
Last but certainly not least, take care of your mental health. All the traveling and culture shock can be draining. We’ve been using the Calm app and love it for the daily meditations, calming music, and inspiring talks. Click here to check it out.
5. Thou Shalt Not Be a Burden On Thine Host Country
Being a digital nomad is great and all, but it comes with certain risks. You might get into a motorbike accident in Cambodia or you might get dengue fever after visiting the Amazon. That’s why it’s important to always have travel insurance so as not to be a burden on your host country.
There are plenty of options out there, but our personal recommendation goes to SafetyWing. It’s a company created by digital nomads for digital nomads, so they know what you need.
Thankfully, we haven’t experienced any major medical emergencies in our time as digital nomads. We did, however, get trapped in Medellín during COVID lockdowns. SafetyWing reimbursed us the total cost of our humanitarian flights back to the US with no questions asked.
We’re actually on their Nomad Insurance as we speak, which gives us more peace of mind on this trip through Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. It also ensures we won’t be a burden on any of these countries as we’re prepared with insurance in case something happens.
Their policies start at just $45 for four weeks. We’re proud affiliates of SafetyWing and you can sign up using our link, which will earn us a small commission that helps keep us on the road while giving you quality travel insurance for your next trip.
Click here to check it out and sign up.
6. Thou Shalt Be Vigilant and Aware of Thine Surroundings
Is it safe being a digital nomad? For the most part, yes. That being said, the influx of nomads also brings some unscrupulous characters out to take advantage of the situation.
With all these people traveling around with laptops, smartphones, nice cameras, and drones, it should come as no surprise that some try to capitalize.
We’ve had friends get their entire bags of electronics stolen from coworking spaces where they thought they were safe. Robberies don’t just happen on the street at night, folks.
That’s why it’s important to always be vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Take an Uber if you feel slightly unsafe walking with your laptop bag. Don’t leave your stuff unattended. Never leave your drink at a bar. These are just a few precautions you should always take.
As they say in Colombia – “Don’t give papaya!” It basically means you shouldn’t put yourself in a position where someone can easily take advantage of you, like flashing your brand-new iPhone on a busy street corner.
7. Thou Shalt Not Expect to Become Someone Else
You know that saying “Wherever you go, there you are”? Well, it definitely applies to digital nomad life. Just because you hit the open road with your Macbook and a dream doesn’t mean you will suddenly become someone else.
We’re not saying that you can’t change when you travel as a nomad; change is inevitable when you experience different cultures. Rather, we’re encouraging you to stay true to yourself.
With social media, it’s easy to get sucked into feelings of self-doubt and envy. After all, most digital nomads (especially travel bloggers) only post the glamorous aspects of their life. Don’t try to be like these people, because it’s all a mirage anyway.
Be yourself wherever you go, even if you’re a weird hippie who loves bands nobody else has ever heard of…
8. Thou Shalt Put Forth Effort to Maintain Relationships
This one is tricky and it’s something we’ve struggled with ever since we moved to China in 2010. When you’re living many time zones away, it can be difficult maintaining those relationships you built back home.
As we’ve continued to travel, now as digital nomads moving around a lot, we’ve realized the importance of maintaining the close relationships we have. We’re talking about family and old friends, but we’re also talking about people we’ve met during our travels.
Digital nomad life is fun, but it can be lonely. Technology makes it easier than ever to connect with friends and family around the world to catch up. Even something as simple as sending someone a birthday greeting on Facebook or leaving a nice comment on an Instagram post can help you stay connected with the people you care about.
It’s important to remember that you’re the one who left. Your friends’ lives stay the same. And, unfortunately, when you’re out of sight you can become out of mind. People are busy and have their own lives to worry about. It’s up to you to put forth the effort to maintain your relationships.
All that said, relationships are a two-way street. Hopefully, by you putting forth the effort to keep in touch, your friends will reciprocate.
9. Thou Shalt Not Get Stuck in the Bubble
Let’s say you move to an exotic digital nomad hot spot like Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It’s a beautiful place full of nomads from all over the world who flock there to enjoy the beaches, cenotes, Mayan ruins, and more.
With such a bustling nomad scene, it can be easy to forget you’re even in Mexico at all. You can speak English everywhere you go, there are nomad events every night of the week, and you can sustain on poke bowls and Acai juice.
That’s great and all, but don’t you also want to experience Mexico? Take a Spanish class. Listen to some reggaeton. Eat tacos in the street. Hop in a colectivo and visit some random small town devoid of tourists.
It’s way too easy to get sucked into the gringo bubble (or farang, or bule, or whatever the local word for “foreigner” is). Take it from us – we’re guilty of doing just that many times over the years. It’s easy, it’s familiar, and it’s comfortable.
However, it’s been those times when we took ourselves out of our comfort zones that have been the most rewarding. Like that time we went clubbing with new friends in Ecuador and had no idea how to dance, or the time my professor invited us to witness a cremation ceremony in his village in Bali.
10. Thou Shalt Be Alright With Moving On
This last point can be interpreted in a few ways. For one, we’re talking about moving on from a location. If we stayed in every place we fell in love with, we wouldn’t really be nomads at all. In fact, we’d probably still be in Bali making visa runs every couple of months!
Things like visa policies, changes in your work situation, and life events dictate that you must move on from time to time. That’s why it’s important to not get too attached to a place as a digital nomad. You can always go back and visit again.
Then again, it’s also fine to move on from the lifestyle entirely. Perhaps you do find that perfect place and you just want to settle down there. We know plenty of former nomads who decided to get residency, buy property, and plant roots somewhere, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
We also know people who have given up the lifestyle entirely and moved back to their home country, and there’s also nothing wrong with that. Being a digital nomad can be exhausting, and it’s totally acceptable if you eventually decide it’s not the life for you.
We’ve had this back and forth several times over the years. While we still haven’t found the perfect balance, we’ve decided we like to spend a few months in the US every year, a few months being stationary in a foreign country, and a few months bouncing around. It’s what works for us now, but that might not be the case in a year or two.
Being a digital nomad is all about being flexible and going with the flow. I’m writing this from a yurt in Uruguay because the weather gods derailed our plans for a beach vacation, for example. It’s fine because we know we’ll get that vacation one of these days. Plus it gave me a chance to write this post which we hope you found informative and entertaining!
Do you have any other tips for thriving as a digital nomad? We’d love to hear them if so!
Feel free to leave a comment below or drop us a line. It’s always good to hear from fellow nomads!
Sasha & Rachel 🙂