Last updated on June 14, 2020
Mythology and story, new cultures, and finding just the right way to describe what it feels like to watch a new day begin as the the sun warms the streets of an unknown city . . . these are the things I usually think about when writing new posts. How can I transport other people into a new place?
Since many readers won’t make it on a rickety bus rocketing through the dry deserts of India, I share that with words and photos. It’s those travel moments that compelled me to keep up travel blogging—the want to share the experiences and the stories along the way.
What I rarely talk about is a bit less glamorous and a lot more personal. More pointedly: my job. I’ve only mentioned my work a handful of times on the site, but after many emails from the ALA community about how to save for travel—and more specifically, how I afforded a long-term route around the world for a year! And then for another nine years and counting.
Now, I decided I have something to say to the countless travelers and dreamers emailing about how to work remotely, and how to build a digital nomad lifestyle, or work internationally.
How I’ve Worked Online for 15+ Years
To those not keen to live as a digital nomad, why not try on life as a true expatriate.
After months backpacking Southeast Asia, my niece and I stayed with Anna Jura, a traveling expat friend living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She works in the public health sector and navigates the ins and outs of finding expat work abroad. As an aside, having Anna (my friend) and Ana (my niece) share names made for a fun week of confusion and I often elicited raised eyebrows pointed in my direction since the dynamics of talking to an 11-year-old are a far-cry different from talking to another adult! :-)
Anyways, Anna opened her door to us with a spare bedroom, opened her evenings to us with wandering rants about local Cambodian politics and culture, and with enthusiasm she showed us the tastier eats around her city.
More than that though, she showed me what it is like to truly work abroad an expat in a city you’re in because you like both the city and your work.
Why You Should Work Overseas
Chalk it up to lack of critical thought on the subject, but in my narrow world, it hadn’t fully occurred to me to encourage people to find work in their field of study. To actually take their University degrees and apply for work abroad.
Over the years, I have given a lot of advice in emails always encouraging people to embrace online, remote-based work.
I wrote to one questioning traveler: “Think about all of your unique skills and leverage those into remote-based consulting.” And to another I emailed that she could “build up freelance gigs in one of her skill-sets or consider teaching English abroad.”
All of this is good advice if you want to work from a laptop; and that is my primary frame of reference. I have said it before in places on this website, what differentiates me from many round the world and gap-year travelers is that I worked the entire time.
In the past six years, I have only truly taken two long breaks from my SEO consulting work, my freelance online work, and the weekly upkeep on this blog. One break was in 2009 on my RTW trip for a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal; I spent ten days in complete silence and they locked all our gadgets and notepads in the center’s storage areas for the entire ten days. The other break was in Myanmar earlier this year; I knew the internet was intermittent in the country and welcomed three weeks offline, only checking in once or twice to make sure there were no fires to squash.
My “office” is usually a wifi cafe somewhere in the world . . . and the best cafes have fellow blogging friends gracing their tables like Jodi of Legal Nomads and James from Nomadic Notes!
It’s worth noting that I left back in 2008 to travel knowing this was my reality, knowing I wouldn’t have the same freedoms of other 20-something backpackers who had spent years saving up, then quit their jobs and traveled unhindered and free to indulge in each travel moment. It’s a great story, the quit my job and traveled story, but it’s not my story. I have no regrets, and the fact that I can work remotely regularly makes it on my daily gratitude list.
My Backstory (Exactly How I Pay my Bills)
For a season of my life, I worked at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. I do believe those three-and-a-half months qualify as my only “real job” after college. Well, the only 9 to 5 I’ve ever worked, I should say. I took the NYFA job to help myself transition from living in Florida to living in California.
I moved to LA just after graduating college in 2006, and, like so many other young actors, ambition, naïvety, and likely a hint of narcissism fueled me through the move. But, even back then, I had lucked into fully online based work through a series of happenstance connections shaped by the people, professors, and friends I met while studying at University.
So, I took a location-based job. And I did it simply to meet new friends and find an instant community in a town where finding a community is the only way to survive the crushing anonymity of living in a city with nearly four million inhabitants.
I had worked with NYFA on their annual summer program in Orlando, Florida, so they were a logical choice when I wanted part-time work. It was a three-day-a-week job that necessitated a blouse, skirt, and super cute heels. The outfits were the best part of that job. That’s not to say anything about the company, my colleagues welcomed me, the NYFA students were bright and passionate, and the work was challenging.
But I hated the lack of power, the oversight of a boss when I’d only previously justified my time-management on projects to myself. And lest you think I simply didn’t like work and skated through University on a trust fund, I got a full merit-based scholarship to the University of Central Florida, and I waited tables, bartended, and nannied to pay for the other costs; each of these was a job I loved aspects of, though the former two were jobs I swore I’d never return to again once I graduated.
Back to Los Angeles. I found myself in the routine, packing my lunch each day, the same smiles, the same jokes with friends, and after-work exhaustion, or happy hour on a good day. And it didn’t feel like me. There was a restlessness stirring inside of me, fighting the constraints in the daily routine.
So I quit. Okay, not quite like that, I finished the project . . . my fancy title was the Assistant Director of New Programs, and what it boiled down to was me co-writing an application to grant MFA degrees from one of the NYFA programs. With the project finished, rather than stay on, I gave a cheery goodbye ( still on good terms). Then I went back to my online work, nannied for two families in LA, and spent another year and a half toiling through life as an actor in Los Angeles.
I had an epiphany of sorts, in a conversation with my dad . . . I told him how I was itching to move again, and since I had enough SEO consulting work I was thinking of moving to Boston for a change of scenery. He said “Well, you can pretty much work from anywhere, so I say do it.”
And to this day my dad maintains that he never imagined the sorts ideas that conversation would spark. Within two weeks I had embraced the concept: I bought a one-way ticket to Australia, gave notice to my landlord, and decided to leave acting behind for a while and instead travel and work.
I left just five months later, in November of 2008, with a conservative sum of money I gained from: selling my belongings, my modest savings, and extra work I crammed in the last couple months. To fund the full year of travel I had planned, I knew I needed to bill about 25 hours a week on average for most of the trip, and slightly more than that once I arrived in Europe, where the cost of living is higher than in Asia.
Working Remotely in a Recession
For those who were working at the time, you know what happened in 2008. I had somehow timed my departure to the start of the 2008 recession. Obama was elected the day I boarded my flight. And in the coming years I would see remote based work and travel as the sole reason that I am financially secure now, more than 11 years later. Working remotely abroad allowed me to dramatically cut my expenses, so I was spending far less money in during the recession than I would have if I had been living in LA.
Since that time, I have continued many of the same jobs (still doing SEO, online marketing/SEO consulting, freelance writing, and this blog), while also diversifying my work and income (I have a volunteer site in the works and a book publishing later this fall . . . more on that soon!). Through it all though, I have always and will continue to work remotely, from my laptop, for the foreseeable future. I now live in Barcelona, a city with an affordable cost of living that still allows me a nice remote work lifestyle.
Back to the Present: Living Abroad as a Working Expat
From my background and experience, I have given career advice in countless emails to steer people into working remotely. And in some responses I noted that you could find work abroad, but I never really understood all that it can mean to live as an integrated expat until I lived with Anna Jura for a week.
I am not fond of “real” jobs—ie. office jobs with bosses and clocking in, but that’s just me.
Some people thrive under the structure and work 9 to 5 on projects they love. This is not a novel concept to most of my friends, who love their homes, love having evenings off, and love a structure giving them weekends free of work concerns.
But maybe I finally get it. Anna and her roommate both clock into “real” jobs each day.
Given the option to switch jobs with me, they’d choose their job.
Every expat I met through Anna while in Phnom Penh was highly educated, most were specializing in development work of some sort, though some in marketing, or business, and all were content with their work and life as an expat in Cambodia.
In the past, I’ve met disgruntled expats, those frustrated or with their jobs and ready to take the money they earned working abroad, do a last hurrah of travel until it ran out, and then move home. But the community I met in Phnom Penh changed my perception; these people found a place for their specializations, for their college degrees. Beyond that, the prospect of living and working in this particular foreign city excited them. Their work is not a means to an end as it often is for those teaching English abroad or some such (the end usually being traveling). These are jobs for the love of working in a subject field, and, ultimately, professional work satisfaction.
So much of the travel community is “rah, rah travel, rah, rah save up and take a massive trip . . . or work remotely and travel perpetually.” That’s just one option. There are also opportunities abroad for those with wanderlust and a wish to have a home-base, set-up shop, live, raise a family, and truly enjoy life as an expat abroad.
That’s my new advice. Try on your University degree and see if it fits abroad. Or try consulting and build an online business. Or save up a chunk of money, travel, and return to home-base. My point is, I heartily support travel and think anyone with the opportunity and inclination should take it . . . and think outside the advice anyone might give you and follow your own path to that end. :)
How to Find Work Overseas
I’ve never worked for a traditional company abroad, but I have many friends who have. This page on A Little Adrift does a very deep, thorough dive into how to find specialized expat work from people who have done it. If you’re looking to work online, I recommend that you start here with your research as it covers every step from deciding what work is good for your skills, to finding work, to how to travel as a digital nomad if you choose remote-based work.
If you’re interested in moving overseas, that job hunt is a different process. These resources will give you a better idea of where to find overseas jobs, as well as how others have done it before you.
International Organizations & Databases
- Escape the City: A London-based company that has a weekly newsletter you should sign up to have the best-of-the-best job recs that the week. It has some great resources if you are looking to change careers, or just find new work in your same field—just from a more interesting location!
- Cool Works: The site’s tagline is “Jobs in Great Places” and there are a lot of sorting options—seems like a good place to peruse. The site specializes in seasonal and shorter-term jobs all over the world. (And if you’re looking at seasonal work, you can learn more about it at Job Monkey).
- ReliefWeb: Start here for many development jobs all over the world—it’s easy to search and full of opportunities in many fields.
- InterNations: A huge global community. I haven’t participated, but I know they host events and have active forums.
- Modern-Day Nomads: This has a range of both remote-based jobs as well as location-based adventurous job opportunities in interesting places.
- The Working Traveller: You’ll find more seasonal work here listed in their JobSpy category that is updated regularly for opportunities all over the world.
- Go Workabout: Seasonal jobs for foreigners in Australia; it’s a great database. This is especially handy if you’re considering applying for the fairly-easy-to-secure one-year Work Holiday Visa for those under 31 years old.
- Expat Focus: A good starting point, you will find yourself lost in this site for hours as you start plotting and planning a move. Though there is a free membership part to some of it, you can search through country information without logging in.
- Expat Finder: A full service site that has information on every part of the move.
- Expat Exchange: A robust site with information on a wide range of countries.
- Expatica: Nice all-around resource for every side of the process, it has job boards, community forums, tips articles, and is a well-trafficked site and it looks like there is pretty dynamic content!
- Four Ways to Become an Expat: A few paths you can look at for finding jobs and a type of work that will take you overseas.
- Transitions Abroad: Dense with information; I didn’t like that they don’t link out to other job boards and that such, but has a range of possible topics covered.
Additional Resources for How to Work as an Expat
- The End of Jobs: An essential book for anyone who wants to work as an expat or digital nomad; speaking to why MBAs and JDs can’t get jobs, research on integrated living, and more.
- Big Magic: You don’t have to be a fan of Eat Pray Love to enjoy this book. An inspiring read about creativity that is helpful to expats, digital nomads, and bloggers.
- Four Hour Work Week: No doubt you’ve seen it for years, but if you haven’t read it yet, you should. Some of Tim Ferris’ viewpoints are very counter to how I live my life, but I will give him this: his book changed my perception about what is possible in building an online business. It’s still a primer read for a reason, it’s worth having that knowledge and perspective in your head as you move forward.
- The 80/20 Principle: A good companion to the Four Hour Work Week, this book talks about how 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of your results. As an expat or digital nomad working smarter, not harder, is key and this book provides a good base.