I’ve spent time as an expat teaching English in Abu Dhabi and as a freelance writer, jumping from city to city as a digital nomad—and have personally experienced the many ways in which the digital nomad movement diverges from the classic expat way of life.
Becoming a digital nomad or an expat means combining work and travel to explore more of the world than you ever could before, but which one is right for you? This in-depth comparison will help you decide.
When it comes to social life, expats wipe the floor with their digital nomad counterparts.
In fact, making friends as a digital nomad may be one of the single biggest struggles of the lifestyle because we simply move too often to form meaningful relationships in any one location before we’re off again. Even when we stay in a city for months at a time, working from home makes it hard to integrate into the community.
On the other hand, expats often have co-workers to help ease them into their new social circles, and a variety of ways to make friends through clubs, sports, and other regular get-togethers. If you prefer to maintain a close social circle, moving abroad long-term and integrating into the expat community rather than bouncing around the world as a digital nomad will be the best way to do so.
Digital nomads travel more than expats. With no home base and 100% online work, it’s possible to move whenever and wherever you want as a digital nomad. In my past few years as a freelance writer, I’ve lived and traveled in 13 countries across three continents. Though expats have opportunities to travel on weekends and holidays, the expat experience is defined by diving deep into one country and culture, while digital nomads get a shallower, but more diverse, experience in many countries around the world.
Most expats have office jobs or in-person positions in their new countries in sectors like education, tourism, or hospitality. On the other hand, the single defining quality of a digital nomad is their ability to work 100% remotely in online-only positions. However, both digital nomads and expats face obstacles to their careers when transitioning into these lifestyles.
Expats are paid in their new country’s currency, which can mean taking a pay cut when moving from one with a strong economy to one with a weaker economy. But, it’s easier for expats to find a job and move up in their career in the traditional roles they fill than it is for a digital nomad in a remote position.
For digital nomads, the difficulty lies in finding 100% remote work. This reduces job prospects and can also slow down their career trajectory, as many digital nomads opt to start their own business, pursue freelance work, or take remote roles outside of their original field in order to keep traveling. One major perk, though? Digital nomads can work remotely for companies in their home country and be paid in their own currency, which helps their budget stretch further when living somewhere new with a lower cost of living.
Another interesting statistic: when asked how long they planned to stay location independent, only 35% of digital nomads said they had no plans to stop, meaning that it’s only a temporary lifestyle for more than half of them. If you want to permanently leave your home country, finding work as an expat and transitioning into a long-term visa or citizenship may be the more prudent path.
Expats create a new life in their new country, often staying for years or even a lifetime, building careers, starting families, putting down roots. In contrast, a survey of six digital nomads showed that their average length of stay in each place is usually only a few weeks to a few months at a time. Digital nomads pop in and out of countries, seeing the highlights, trying the food, and getting only a slightly more in-depth look at the destination than a tourist may have on vacation.
Expats certainly have it better in this regard. By moving abroad more permanently expats get to take part in the holidays and traditions of the country, learn the language, join the community, and truly immerse themselves in the culture and cuisines of their new home.
Sense of Adventure
We all need a little adventure at times. A break in routine. A new life.
Moving abroad as an expat is terribly exciting—at first. Then you settle into your apartment and fall back into that routine of working nine-to-five just to come home to watch TV and all of a sudden, you realize life isn’t much different than it was before. Expats sign leases, buy furniture, and fill wardrobes with clothes while digital nomads keep it lighter, living in backpacks (mine, the size of a carry-on) and booking hostel rooms or furnished Airbnb apartments to meet the rest of their needs.
If you truly want an adventure, move abroad as a digital nomad. Minimalism is no longer just a choice when you live out of a backpack and you’ll be forced to prioritize accumulating experiences rather than things—websites with cheap flights will replace Amazon in your bookmarks bar and you’ll discover how little you really need to be happy.
Cost of Living
Which lifestyle is easier on the wallet?
As a digital nomad, I probably spend more than my expat counterparts on the buses, planes, and trains I need to fuel my travels. My rent is also more expensive because I have to pay a premium for furnished, short-term rentals on Airbnb. But, I also cut many expenses from my day-to-day life that I no longer need, like a car and a professional wardrobe, and live in countries with low costs of living to help even it out.
Comparing the average cost of living between expats and digital nomads is almost impossible when expenses like food, rent, healthcare, and taxes vary so much around the world. But if your motive for moving abroad is primarily financial, consider becoming a digital nomad rather than an expat this time around.
So, Which One is Right For You?
When expats and digital nomads go head to head it’s easier to see the pros and cons of each lifestyle.
If you prefer more stability in your career, social life, community, and even your accommodation, then it’s time to move abroad to a fixed location as an expat, where you can put down roots and immerse yourself completely into a new culture and a new country.
If you’re looking for a true adventure and a new life where travel is the only constant, then you, my friend, were born to be a digital nomad. (Plus, it doesn’t hurt that adopting the digital nomad lifestyle can actually help you save money as well)
In the end, deciding which one is right for you comes down to personal preference and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of which lifestyle is better. However, one fact still remains: there are more digital nomads and expats living, learning, and making their travel dreams come true around the world than ever before.
Are you ready to join them?