If there’s a question guaranteed to get the average digital nomad “guru” spluttering about technicalities and grey areas, it’s; “is it legal to be a digital nomad?”
Unfortunately for the bluster-merchants, the answer is quite often very clear: No, it’s not legal to be a digital nomad unless you have the right to work in the country you are in.
There are a lot of reasons for this and the good news is that legality probably doesn’t matter too much to the average digital nomad. Let’s find out why:
Table of Contents
Tourist Visas And Digital Nomads
A tourist visa is for the purpose that it says on the tin – tourism. Many countries are very clear about this when you apply for a tourist visa – it doesn’t give you the right to work, it just gives you the right to come and visit for a vacation.
It is very much true that the tourist visa was designed, by most places, in the days before the internet. It is also very true that millions of genuine tourists will check their e-mails or have a chat with the office while they’re on vacation.
This, according to some digital nomad “gurus” makes working on a tourist visa a “grey area” and it’s only “technically illegal to do so.” They’re wrong. It’s not a grey area. It’s illegal.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you’re going to be prosecuted for checking e-mails or taking work calls. Countries have taken a very simple approach to handle small amounts of work done on tourist visas – they bury their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t happen.
Why? Well, any written exclusion to enable tourists to conduct “reasonable amounts of work” would be open to exploitation by those looking to illegally immigrate. It would be a “backdoor” work visa. And nobody wants that.
Unfortunately, digital nomads aren’t conducting tiny amounts of business – they’re working (often full-time) in the countries they visit. If you need a tourist visa, you’re almost certainly working illegally.
More good news! It probably doesn’t matter as long as you are discrete. The only digital nomads that we know of that have been prosecuted for working on a tourist visa have been idiots. They’ve been turned in by locals for working because they kept bragging about the money they were making while doing so.
Shut up and nobody will ever know that you’re working on a tourist visa in the first place. And whatever you do, don’t declare your digital nomad status at immigration when traveling on a tourist visa – say you’re a tourist. Then close your mouth.
We know that this makes some people uncomfortable but it’s much less uncomfortable than being denied entry to a country and then deported or being arrested as an illegal alien.
You should be aware, however, that even though you are working illegally – you can still become eligible to pay tax on your income in a country that you are a tourist in. Most countries make you eligible for taxation when you reside in the country for more than X days in a year. (Typically, but not always, 180 days out of 365).
Fortunately, you’re unlikely to see this enforced either, though we suspect it may occur over the next decade or two as computerized immigration systems make it much easier to say; “Hey! Buddy! You owe us taxes. Pay up before you can leave!” But for now, at least, this won’t happen.
Side note: In a moment of irony, Vietnam has just declared its intention to stop foreigners who haven’t paid taxes from leaving the country. However, the details of just how this will work are, as yet, unclear.
Business Visas And Digital Nomads
Business visas, contrary to popular belief with some digital nomad gurus, are not work permits either. They are typically granted to allow you to carry out a limited range of business activities on a visit to a country without taking up employment.
So, they may enable you to attend a meeting, scope out potential suppliers, conduct training for workers employed in the country, etc. They definitely won’t give you any right to take up paid work and the expectation is that your company, from back home, continues to pay your salary while you conduct these duties.
Business visas are often granted for longer periods of time than tourist visas and may have less strict exit/entry requirements attached to them. For example, when I was in China, a business visa could be obtained that allowed a year’s entry to the country, for British citizens, who had to leave every 90 days for the visa to remain valid. A tourist visa, however, needed replacing every 60 days.
You will find that in many developing nations it’s not very hard to get a business visa and in many places, this is the easiest and cheapest way of staying for a long period of time. This doesn’t make working legal, though, it just makes it easier to stay.
Retirement, Investment, Speculative, Education, Etc. Visas And Digital Nomads
There are so many different classes of visa around the world that it would be impossible to list all those that do not qualify for employment and the right to work.
You need to read the small print very carefully to ensure that you can take up paid work before committing to any visa in the hopes that it will “make you legal.”
For visas that have an educational component, you need to be very certain that you can commit to attending classes too – many places will deport you if you don’t and cancel your visa when they do. That can turn out very expensive.
Side note: It appears Thailand has launched an unofficial crackdown on “education visas” in late 2019. How this will pan out is not currently known but we are fairly confident that unless you are studying on a truly academic program at a university, you’re going to struggle to get more than a year’s visa on this route. Which is fair enough as most “education visas” are sold in Thailand to help people avoid other more expensive long-term residency visas and not for education at all. You could end up losing up to $2,000 if your application is denied too. So be wary.
Residency And Work Visas For Digital Nomads
Depending on where you come from – getting a residency permit and a work visa for a country may be unnecessary (think EU citizens who can work anywhere in the EU), maybe easy enough (it is a fairly simple process for freelancers to obtain visas for Thailand or Germany, for example) or next to impossible (good luck getting a self-sponsored work visa for Iran if you’re an American).
Don’t forget that these visas, if they are granted, will make you liable for taxation in whatever country you’re in (no biggie in the UAE but punitively expensive in Myanmar – so, check the local tax laws before signing up) and in some cases, this may not free you from tax obligations to your home country (check there too before committing).
It’s also worth noting that these visas tend to work out much more expensive than other visa types. Iglu, in Chiang Mai, for example, can do you a work visa if you earn more than $2,000 a month and meet some other simple requirements. But you’re going to have to pay a fairly substantive fee to do so (which includes your taxes and some basic local health insurance and co-working space access).
For many digital nomads, they’re better off existing in the “not legal” category and keeping their mouths shut about working.
Side Note: Iglu’s service is actually great value if you want to pay taxes and get local health insurance and a co-working spot but it’s definitely not for us. Give up 30% of your earnings? Ouch.
Digital Nomad Visas?
We keep hearing “digital nomad gurus” talking with bated breath about “digital nomad visas.” The trouble is that, for the moment, we believe they’re a complete act of fantasy and the chances of a meaningful “digital nomad visa” from anywhere is about zero.
We cover why we think there will never be digital nomad visas in a separate article but seriously, if you’re going to be a digital nomad, you don’t want to wait for these visas to be released – because they’re never going to happen.
The last whiff of a “digital nomad visa” in Thailand turned out to be a fairly sensible cross between an investment visa and a highly skilled migrant program which had nearly zero applicability to digital nomads.
Side Note: We do not expect these rumors ever to stop flying around the system. In 2090, there will still be some plonker spamming Facebook with tales of a fabled digital nomad visa. It still won’t happen.
What Happens If I Get Caught Working Illegally?
I won’t lie to you – countries take a dim view of illegal immigrants and getting caught working illegally is likely to involve your arrest, a fine, possible jail time and deportation. We’d also expect you to be banned from returning to the place you were caught for a number of years.
So… don’t get caught.
There are thousands of digital nomads working illegally all over the world today. The arrest rate for these nomads is nearly zero. You’re more likely to slip on a banana skin than to be caught working online unless you start bragging about it.
Don’t brag about it. This is the easiest way not to get caught.
Don’t worry about immigration – I carry 3 laptops, a graphics tablet, a professional mic setup and a full pro-level camera kit with me everywhere. Nobody even looks at them twice. Just don’t confess to working if asked – tell them you’re a tourist. Tell them that you’re retired (if you look old enough) but don’t say “digital nomad”. Then you’ll be fine.
There’s no legal grey area or “technicalities” involved. If you don’t have the right to work in a country and you work – you’re breaking the law as a digital nomad.
Having said that, it almost certainly doesn’t matter and you’re not going to get caught unless you’re silly about the way you do it.
Digital nomads don’t need to worry about working where they want – at least for the moment.