Do digital nomads need work visas?
Digital nomads are a relatively new trend in the world of work. As more and more people are able to work remotely, many have begun to ask themselves, “Why do I have to be at home to do my job?” ETIAS Visa Waiver for Europe talks us through the legal practicalities of being a digital nomad.
One of the main benefits of working with a laptop is mobility. Over the last two decades, some remote workers have used this to their advantage, taking their computers with them to another country and getting on with their job while enjoying the change of scenery.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has seen the trend take off, with a rising number of digital nomads now at work in all corners of the globe. However, doing employed work in another country is usually only permitted with a work visa, leaving many people asking: “Is being a digital nomad legal?”
Is being a digital nomad legal?
In many countries, foreign nationals working remotely without a visa are not technically permitted. International travellers who enter another sovereign state on a tourist visa must abide by the terms of that visa, which usually includes not undertaking any employed work. This means that there are a number of potential legal issues surrounding digital nomads.
The fact that the employer is based outside the country in which the digital nomad is working also brings up the question of where they should be paying taxes (this depends on the tax laws of the country or countries involved).
Strictly speaking, to perform any paid work in most foreign countries, digital nomads should have a valid work visa. However, most immigration and work laws predate the internet, and the rules are therefore a little hazy. One could argue that most digital work does not take place in a physical location and therefore not on the soil of a sovereign state.
In practice, it is difficult for authorities to police digital nomads. If someone brings their laptop to another country, authorities at the border may ask them to open it and allow it to be checked, but if it is not obviously solely for the purpose of work, in most cases it will be permitted. Once in the country, the chances are that no one will know whether or not the individual is using it to work.
That said, there have been documented cases of authorities catching digital nomads. Police in Thailand have raided internet cafés and questioned foreign nationals apparently doing work, for example in digital nomad hot-spot Chiang Mai. In this example, all were released without charge, but others may not be so lucky.
Visas for digital nomads
Due to the rising popularity of the digital nomad lifestyle and the legal grey area it falls into, a number of countries are planning to introduce a special visa for this purpose.
Estonia is leading the charge in embracing technology and international travel in its laws and infrastructure. In 2014, it introduced the e-Residency scheme, which allows foreigners to become legal residents without a physical presence in the country and thereby access Estonian services like banking, payment processing, company formation and taxation.
Now it plans to roll out a new visa catering to digital nomads. This will allow non-EU nationals who work primarily online to stay in the country for up to a year and carry out their job from there.
Estonia is not the only country that aims to bring its immigration laws into the 21st century with a visa that allows location-independent work. Bermuda, Barbados, Georgia and Croatia are also planning to implement their own digital nomad visas.
In addition, some existing visas and permits, such as Germany’s residence permit, can be used by digital nomads to legitimize their working presence in the country, despite not being explicitly for that purpose.
Digital nomads in the era of COVID-19
2020 has seen the number of remote workers around the world rise and, along with it, the number of digital nomads. The coronavirus pandemic has led many companies to allow their employees to work from home in order to continue to operate at a time when gathering in offices is discouraged or prohibited.
There are now more remote workers than ever before and it is thought that this trend may continue long after the pandemic has ended, as companies can now see that this business model works.
With the number of remote workers growing, there are also a growing number of digital nomads bringing their laptops abroad to continue working away from home.
This is in part due to the ever-changing travel restrictions imposed by different countries to combat the spread of the virus. Many of the states that allow international travellers to enter require them to quarantine for 1 - 2 weeks after arrival, which renders many people’s holiday plans pointless. However, by spending a longer period of time in the foreign country and working for at least the period of isolation, travellers can take full advantage of their trip.
Other digital nomads have chosen to stay long-term in sunnier locations, waiting out the pandemic and working in more pleasant surroundings.
ETIAS stands for European Travel Information and Authorization System, a visa waiver programme created by the European Union to protect and strengthen its borders. From 2022 onwards, all travellers from visa-waiver countries will be required to apply for an ETIAS travel authorisation before entering any EU country.