The Life of a Digital Nomad
For those who prioritize freedom and flexibility above all else, the life of a digital nomad can be quite appealing.
Digital nomads are workers who move freely from region to region, often as freelancers who work for multiple companies at the same time.
This lifestyle makes the drudgery of office life, long commutes, and the weight of unneeded material possessions a thing of the past, and technological advances have made this all the more attainable. As free-wifi and smartphones become ever more ubiquitous, staying connected while being on the go has never been easier.
No matter where you are in the world, it’s likely you can check the news, keep up with friends, and plan out your journey to the next destination.
Yet, even as technological advancement tears down the barriers to living a nomadic life, there’s one area that continues to lag behind: money.
Working out the best way to manage your funds on the go isn’t simple. Steep ATM withdrawal fees, frozen bank accounts because of ‘unusual activities,’ exchange rate fees, or even opening a bank account – which often requires a utility bill or formal employment – are all financial hurdles for the digital nomad. Those who support themselves through freelance work often get paid through services like UpWork or PayPal, which take fees of 10 or even 20 percent.
I’ve used Bitcoin to lessen the impact of exchange rates and other related fees.
For digital nomads, these financial complications often come to represent the very thing they were trying to escape by living nomadically and un-tethering themselves from the bureaucracy and inflexibility of office life. Expressing his frustrations, one self-described digital nomad writes: “I’ve been an on and off digital nomad for the last couple of years. I’ve been traveling around the world, living in several places and worked both online and in “regular” jobs. What all the places I’ve been to have in common is the complicated non existing solution to how we can earn money from wherever we are and spend it on whatever we want.”
Is Cryptocurrency the Solution?
Confronted by these challenges, many digital nomads have turned to a new technology for solutions: cryptocurrency. The advantages of a currency, like Bitcoin or Litecoin, that isn’t issued by or tied to a single government or bank are numerous. For one, cryptocurrency allows for quick and cheap international transfers. One self-described digital nomad writes: “I’ve used Bitcoin to lessen the impact of exchange rates and other related fees.” In addition, with cryptocurrency, you are your own bank, so there is no longer a danger of frozen funds.
But the promise of cryptocurrency does not end at finance. The underlying technology, ‘blockchain,’ on which cryptocurrencies are built, shows promise for a whole host of other benefits for the international traveler. In its most basic terms, a blockchain is a digital ledger that is kept by a group of peers rather than a centralized organization of government. Any transaction that occurs on the blockchain network is public and immutable, although generally only pseudo-anonymous. The security of a blockchain is derived from its architecture, which requires every network participant to come to a consensus before agreeing to many any changes.
The privacy and security of the blockchain has implications for proving your identity and tracing your transactions – both important parts of a nomad’s day-to-day. And for those working in countries with strict censorship, like China or Iran, blockchain technology (see the Substratum project) could provide full access to otherwise restricted sites like Facebook or Google. Sure, a VPN is often an effective way to get around these restrictions. But with China’s upcoming ban on VPN’s, an alternative solution must be found, and blockchain, again, offers a promising solution.
For the financially savvy, cryptocurrency can even provide a source of income. John Omar, another digital nomad writes: “Trading cryptocurrency has made it possible for me to travel more than ever because I have more money and when I do work, I work from my laptop on no set schedule.” Despite, its immense promise, it’s important to remember that some of these use cases are still under development, and it may be some time until nomads will be able to take full advantage of everything blockchain technology has to offer. But even in its current early stage, being able to cut out the middlemen will likely save travelers time, money and financial anxiety.
One digital nomad describes his positive experience with cryptocurrency:
One of the reasons I believe this is that when you free the market, and make wealth independent and mobile, then many of the things that tie a person down to a place are gone. This next example is anecdotal, but it was an eye-opening experience for me. When I was moving back to Chicago from London once I finished my master’s, it took four days to move my money from a UK bank account to my US bank account, and for two of those days it was in neither account. This experience was incredibly stressful, and I kept wondering how there couldn’t be a better way. It did not occur to me until I was back in Chicago that my Bitcoin and Dogecoin were still in the same place – they were still mine. Furthermore, I didn’t have to pay a fee to move them with me, and they were never out of my control. This was a profound realization for me, especially considering I lost about 50 dollars due to fees and exchanges rates.
With cryptocurrency, remote workers can be more secure in knowing where their money is, and can bring it with them without having to set up new bank accounts and such. This makes it easier for employers to pay their remote workers as well. Borders are gone, workers are free to move, and as a result, I think more people will take on the digital nomadic lifestyle – particularly because many of the most popular destinations for digital nomads have adopted a pro-crypto or crypto-tolerant stance.
This may be especially true for younger professionals, since they are less likely to have things like mortgages or other massive geographical commitments. However, I do not think it will only be young people. Considering that one of the things people wish they did more of in life is travel, we may be witnessing a burgeoning trend of work/travel hybrids. And I, for one, am incredibly excited by that prospect. ~ Darius, TheMerkle.com
if you are planning to build your wealth with cryptocurrency, it’s best to reside in a country with zero capital gains tax…
The Challenges of Taxation
As is common among emerging technologies, the regulatory environment of cryptocurrencies is still relatively un-established – and this uncertainty may be slowing adoption for professional groups, like digital nomads, that could benefit greatly from the technology. One key point of uncertainty is taxation. Profiting from the rising values of cryptocurrencies generally falls under the purview of capital gains taxes.
Some countries – such as Switzerland, Belgium and Singapore – have alleviated concerns through a zero capital gains tax. This makes these countries especially appealing for digital nomads who want to hold their assets in Bitcoin or Ethereum.
So if you are planning to build your wealth with cryptocurrency, it’s best to reside in a country with zero capital gains tax. Unfortunately, the United States is one of only a handful of countries that taxes its citizens no matter whether they might reside. Although, I am by no means a licensed tax advisor here are some important things to note if you hold cryptocurrency and U.S. citizenship:
- The taxation scheme is different if you hold your cryptocurrency for more or less than a year.
- For cryptocurrency that you hold for less than a year:
- When you buy cryptocurrency with U.S. dollars there is no tax.
- When you sell cryptocurrency for U.S. dollars you pay your standard income tax. For instance, you buy 1 Bitcoin for $500 then sell it for $1000 you will pay taxes on the $500 of profit.
- For cryptocurrency that you hold for more than a year:
- If you hold the currency for over a year it is subject to ‘long-term capital gains’ tax not income tax. This long-term rate, of 15% is substantially less than what most people would pay in ordinary income tax.
- For cryptocurrency that you hold for less than a year:
Government Incentive Programs for Digital Nomads
Governments have certainly taken note of this growing class of highly-skilled, global workers, and many of them are trying to attract them through creative incentive systems and tax breaks.
One country at the forefront of this effort is Estonia, a small country that borders Latvia and neighbors Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Estonia already has a well-developed ‘e-Residency’ program with over 20,000 e-residents. The program allows participants to use digital credentials in order to gain access to Estonian resources and programs, even if the individual isn’t physically living inside the borders of the country. Part of the reason this program has been so successful is because it creates a long-term relationship with workers who, for whatever reason, are often moving between countries. This program simplifies the process of establishing and running a global business. The program is especially appealing for Digital Nomads that want to set up their company in a way that benefits from the EU environment but is not subject to high tax rates.
Recently, Kaspar Korjus, who oversees the Estonian e-Residency program proposed ‘Estcoin’ – a cryptocurrency which would be the first government-backed initial coin offering (ICO). ‘Estcoins’ would be managed by the Estonian government but could be utilized by anyone by people around the globe through their e-Residency program.
The “Estcoin” system would be very attractive for Digital Nomads because, according to World Finance, it could “be accepted as payment for both public and private services and eventually function as a viable currency used globally.” Estcoin would not be considered currency or debt – which would allow Estonia to circumvent the money and debt laws imposed on all countries within the European Union. In conjunction with the e-Residency program ‘Estcoin’ could help secure the online identification system already in place. Korjus has also proposed that some of the funds raised through the initial coin offering could be used to fund companies started by Estonia’s e-residents. In issuing a government-backed cryptocurrency
Through these policy initiatives, Estonia could spur incredible economic growth by attracting highly-skilled digital nomads. They could help boost Estonia’s position in the hierarchy of states that try to lure talented workers and businesses.
Although Estonia is perhaps the most innovative in its policy initiatives designed to attract the talent of digital nomads, it is certainly not the only country to recognize its benefits.
Historically, Japan has maintained one of the most insular economies in the world, and has been notorious for its stringent visa process for migrant workers. However, in 2017 the government enacted a visa program that would allow professionals to gain permanent residency in as short as one year. The previous policy required ten years of residency.
Canada and France are instituting similar initiatives. Canada has recently proposed a reform to its startup visa program that would grant permanent residency rights. And France is also trying to attract startup talent through various policy measures.
In aggregate, these political developments mark a watershed moment for governments who are trying to bolster their innovation ecosystems and remain competitive in attracting top talent. As governments figure out how to regulate digital nomads and tax cryptocurrency, and the regulatory environment comes into focus, it is important for all of us to work toward a broader view of nationality.
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