The angle of immigration on digital nomads – opportunities and risks of a future way of working

One of the biggest changes that technology has made in the way we work is the rise of the concept of Digital Nomad. For most people with a general understanding of the concept, it conjures up images of sitting in a seaside bar, enjoying some of the world’s most idyllic scenery while working on your laptop using tools. state-of-the-art collaborations, allowing you to stay connected with a dispersed team. the globe.

In reality, the concept presents about as many challenges as it does opportunities. How to maintain productivity? How can I motivate myself? How to deal with the emotional challenges of a nomadic lifestyle? Over the past couple of years, there has been a lot of analysis on how to tackle these challenges, but there has been relatively little analysis on probably the most fundamental challenge – how to do it legally.

What is a digital nomad?

While researching this article, I was surprised to learn that the definition of a digital nomad is nothing new. While the concept is the hot new topic of global mobility, one of the first known uses of the term was in the 1997 book by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners. Digital nomad. This came as a surprise given that it predates most of the tools needed to work remotely, such as wireless broadband, high-performance laptops, and cloud-based applications, but the type of work performed by Digital Nomads have changed dramatically since the mid-90s.

Put simply, if you can get your work done on a laptop, you could technically be a digital nomad. Why go to the office every day when I can work anywhere and have an Internet connection? It goes without saying that a nomadic lifestyle is not for everyone and your boss might not be too happy that you are in a completely different time zone, but for some groups it is. a very attractive way of life.

Many digital nomads tend to come from developed countries due to the fact that their passports give them greater freedom to travel without a visa than other countries. For example, a German passport grants its holder visa-free access to 101 other countries, while an Indian passport grants its holder only visa-free access to 20 other countries. As a result, many Digital Nomads tend to be legally classified as tourists in the countries where they work, which presents all kinds of risks from a tax and migration perspective.

What is a “Digital Nomad” visa?

Simply put, a Digital Nomad visa is a visa for someone who wishes to work in a country / territory other than their country of nationality and also wishes to have the freedom to work in other countries / territories as they wish.

Current examples of Digital Nomad visa programs vary widely. In general, the candidate must either have an employment contract outside the host country, or be self-employed by a company registered outside the host country, or be self-employed with regular income and client contracts outside the host country. ‘Home. Obviously, each country will have its own specific requirements; however, these are generally common requirements.

Of course, there are government fees to pay and these vary widely, ranging from a few hundred euros in Malta or Montserrat, to thousands of dollars in some places in the Caribbean.

According to the European Union’s website, 25 countries around the world have visa programs specifically designed for digital nomads. Some examples include Germany, Italy, Thailand, Indonesia, and the majority of Caribbean countries.

The never-ending arms race – technology against the law

There are few certainties in life, but technology ahead of the law is one of them, and immigration law is a prime example. Even in the most advanced economies, the majority of immigration laws were drafted in the pre-internet age – in the UK, the key piece of legislation underpinning the immigration system was enacted in 1971. As such, although many immigration systems have embraced digital principles, the basic underlying assumptions about work have not kept up with reality. As a result, most immigration systems focus on the physical location of the worker rather than the location of the client / project / deliverable. For example, a team of software developers can be spread across the globe and all work on the same project using collaboration tools and cloud-based systems.

Over time, legislation will develop and attempt to address some of the challenges presented by the concept of the digital nomad, but one key area that is going to be very difficult to address is what I will call the gray area.

For the purposes of this article, I define the gray area as the area of ​​overlap between tourists and workers, and it is best explained using two sample scenarios;

Scenario 1 – A notary goes on family vacation with his spouse and their children. They are all US citizens and decide to come to UK for two weeks to see the sights. The holidays fall at a very busy time of year for the lawyer, and as such, she decides to take her laptop with her so that she can catch up with her late night work.

Scenario 2 – A few years later, the lawyer’s brother moved to the UK and she decided to visit him for a few weeks. Her company has an office in London, so in order to avoid taking time off, she agrees with her company to work from the London office for 6 weeks and will spend time with her brother in the evenings and on weekends.

In these two examples, the lawyer is doing work, but her reasons are very different, and this is where the problems arise in drafting legislation covering the gray area where tourism and work overlap. UK Visitor Rules specifically state that individuals cannot work in the UK if they have requested entry as a visitor. Likewise, to what extent are the counsel’s intentions in Scenario 2 clearer? Her main reason for visiting the UK is to see her brother, but because she’s going to be working while in the UK, does that mean she’s breaking the visitors rule?

Will digital nomads become more common?

The gray area is a challenge that most Western countries still face as they are not popular destinations for digital nomads but for popular nomadic destinations such as Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Caribbean countries, this is a very current challenge. Indeed, it is now common practice for immigration officials in many of these countries to examine visitors’ laptops.


As we have seen with the rise of global tech companies, figuring out where they should pay taxes on their profits is an extremely complicated proposition, and it will be just as complicated to determine what rules should be imposed on unrelated workers. by geographic boundaries. There is already a gap between technological capabilities and legislation, and this will only increase over time. The coronavirus pandemic has created a sort of perfect storm when it comes to this mismatch, as governments around the world have cared about the safety of their populations, the demand for remote working has never been higher and has grown. leads to an explosion in availability and efficiency. collaboration and productivity tools.

More countries will introduce visa programs focused on digital nomads in the coming years, but the promised land of being able to work anywhere on the planet is still far away.

About Andrew Miller

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