The Rise of Digital Nomad Visas

The Rise of Digital Nomad Visas

Digital Nomads

An exclusive excerpt from my new book Global Natives, published today!

In December 2016, Karoli Hindriks met with Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior—the officials tasked with regulating the country’s borders.

Hindriks, the Tallinn-based founder of an immigration and relocation company called Jobbatical, believed every country on earth should be working on new mobility tools to attract global talent. At the meeting, that’s exactly what she told the government, then suggested their first step should be to launch a specialized visa for digital nomads. The ministers agreed.

The tiny nation of Estonia—sandwiched between Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—has one of the world’s most advanced digital governments, meaning the country was already in a strong position to pursue a nomad visa. Its e-Residency program, launched in 2014, allows foreigners to register their identity with the Estonian government, establish an online business in the EU, and open a local bank account without ever visiting.

Many nomads and remote businesses were already among the country’s population of e-Residents, so policymakers had direct access to the right target market. The question was what the visa should look like. Luckily for them, Hindriks had a few ideas.

Jobbatical conducted a survey and found that nearly 90% of nomads would be more inclined to visit a country if it offered a visa specifically for them. Encouraged by the community’s appetite, Hindriks came up with a nomad visa concept.

high angle photo of city
Views over the Estonian capital of Tallinn (Jacques Bopp via Unsplash)

Hindriks’s proposal gave reassurances to the government. Nomads would be required to earn at least €3,000 per month and must work primarily for a company registered outside of Estonia. They could interact and transact in-country, within limits, like 5 days per month working for an Estonian business, to ensure existing regulations—and local workers—weren’t negatively impacted.

The idea was to facilitate two types of relationship between nomad and host country. The short-stay visa option (up to 90 days) provided nomads with both mobility and flexibility; a simple invitation to see how they liked life in Estonia. The long-stay visa option (up to 12 months) was, essentially, a new route to residency, so that nomads who wanted to settle in the country had a legitimate way to start the process.

If Hindriks’s nomad visa had launched in early 2019 as planned, it would have been a world first. But Estonia’s ruling party was ousted in elections that year, casting doubt over the program and causing a series of delays. The following year, when Covid-19 prompted tourism-dependent economies to take an interest in nomads as a source of cash, governments began scrambling to replace tourists with remote workers. In this context, nomad visas became an easy win.

And so, in the end, another country beat Estonia to the punch: Barbados opened applications for its nomad visa in June 2020, just weeks before the Estonian program finally went live.

The First Nomad Visas

The Barbados Welcome Stamp, as the Caribbean island’s nomad visa program is known, allows remote workers earning $50K per year to base on the island for up to 12 months, with options to extend. Applicants are required to complete a simple online form, and the visa is granted or denied by email within five days. New arrivals don’t become tax residents; they continue to pay taxes wherever they did so before.

The Barbadian government charges an upfront visa fee of $2K per person or $3K per family, creating a direct return on investment for its taxpayers. Barbados isn’t looking to steal away the tax bases of other countries—instead, policymakers want the island to benefit from nomads’ day-to-day spending on rent, cars, meals, and everything else they need to live.

people on beach during daytime
Barbados launched the first digital nomad visa (Anthony Ingham via Unsplash)

The visa’s marketing campaign emphasized Barbados’s climate and lifestyle, a Hollywood cliche of a tropical paradise. Combined with a timezone suitable for US companies, it was an appealing proposition for new and experienced remote workers alike, especially during the European and North American lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley appeared on CNN and BBC News, and adorned the pages of the Financial Times and Condé Nast Traveler.

While newsrooms fretted over whether nomad visas were a travel or business story, most editors missed the more interesting insight: the visa wasn’t as groundbreaking as it seemed.

Visiting Barbados wasn’t hard for nomads before June 2020. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada were automatically granted a tourist visa to live in Barbados for up to six months, and EU citizens for up to three months. In many ways, the nomad visa was simply a smart rebrand of the Barbadian government’s existing offer. But it succeeded in delivering a bold message to the world: digital nomads are welcome here.

While nomads traveled on tourist visas, their status was as short-term visitors, sometimes allowed to conduct business but technically not allowed to work. Nomad visas changed things: they allowed people to perform remote work in a country, as long as it’s for an overseas entity, whether it be a global tech giant or a small business registered elsewhere. There was never a classification for this kind of internet-driven knowledge work before.

After Barbados and Estonia, other countries followed: Finland entered the race with an invitation to “become a 90-day Finn” in November 2020, launching a specialized visa geared toward tech workers. Applications were open for just one month, and more than 5,300 people applied.

Croatia, Malta, Iceland, Costa Rica, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands are just some of the other countries that announced nomad visas in 2020 and 2021—and many other governments now have imminent plans to do the same.

The Nomad Visa Landscape

“Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Suddenly, the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”—Milton Friedman, economist and 1976 Nobel Prize winner

There’s little doubt that nomads need better policies to travel and live more securely, but the visas in the wild today are a messy attempt to balance local economic necessity and the desires of a demographic that policymakers do not yet understand. They’re often a rushed and over-engineered solution designed to repurpose tourism infrastructure rather than truly serve the nomads they target.

For many nomads, these early visas seem to introduce restrictions rather than an extension of rights and opportunities. There were risks and uncertainties attached to border-hopping on tourist visas before, but the lack of clarity had benefits too. The selection criteria for who gets a nomad visa usually target those with high global salaries. Anyone without those privileges—or with no desire to formalize their status—remains in the gray area of living and working on tourist visas, which are obtained with varying levels of difficulty depending on a person’s country of origin.

1944 Passport

An official passport from Spain in 1944 (Public Domain)

The income requirements for nomad visas are not ideal, but they are a notable improvement over the strict dependency on what passport you hold or how much money you have in an offshore bank account. Emphasizing salary and profession over wealth and coincidence of birthplace is a stepping stone towards democratizing global mobility.

In the future, remote workers might apply for a single nomad visa, granted on arrival at a border, and be able to live and work freely across 10 or 20 countries around the world thanks to reciprocal or regional arrangements. For now, instead of reinventing the wheel with a nomad visa, governments could simply allow short periods of remote work on existing tourist visas without any additional cost or conditions for travelers.

Small changes like this can bring nomads legitimacy and status, and allow for dialogue and understanding between nomads and governments while they develop robust nomad visa programs in partnership. For any of this to work, nomads, governments, and host communities need a shared vision.

The Future of Global Mobility

Back in the 1920s, the League of Nations created a global standard for passports, and the same is possible for nomad visas today. Governments can work together and develop international conventions, paving the way towards more ambitious global mobility tools based on consensus between countries.

The beta versions already exist: the APEC Business Travel Card, for example, is essentially a corporate visa program. From just one application, business travelers are approved for stays of 60 or 90 days across 21 different countries, with added perks like fast-track immigration at major airports.

As new visas and incentive programs pop up around the world, competition for nomads—and the incomes and innovations they bring—is only increasing. Nomad visas follow in a long tradition of countries opening their borders to travelers and reaping the economic rewards of knowledge, investment, and prestige they bring.

As we’ll see next, though, what governments think they should do to attract knowledge workers and what they actually want, don’t always align. Making it easier to get nomads into your city, state, or country isn’t the end of the story. To succeed in an increasingly competitive environment, governments need to learn what makes people who can work from anywhere choose to work from somewhere.

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