At 23, I decided to move to Asia. Not to vacation and party, but to live full-time. As an on-and-off college student who had been in the same American town from diapers to diplomas, relocating to a foreign country was never something I thought about. Moving to California might be nice, but leaving America? Why?
While I was naive to the world outside of my immediate community, my partner, Cody, was the opposite. As the son of an Army serviceman, Cody had lived in Italy, Germany (twice), and seven United States by the time he graduated from high school. In college, he studied abroad in Thailand where he saw the opportunity for a life that was both affordable and luxurious. There aren’t many places in the western world where you can rent a bungalow on the shores of a pristine island beach for less than $100/night. Long story short: it was Cody’s experience that turned me on to the idea of living abroad. As a website designer and developer working remotely online, I realized that I had a unique opportunity to travel and live overseas while engaged in my full-time profession. Concurrently, the term “digital nomads” arose to describe Internet workers like myself who go abroad. To digital nomads, my story will sound familiar. To people thinking about going abroad while working, you may be hesitant for the same reasons I was. My anxieties leading up to this international lifestyle change included:
- Slow Internet.
- Inability to make functional calls to my American clients.
- Unhappy clients due to my working during non-EST business hours.
Here is what I wish I’d known.
Phone calls are fine.
I signed up for TrueMove as my cellular provider in Thailand and have had no significant lag when calling to the States on my cell phone. True’s 4G data is fast, reasonably priced, and has great coverage. Signing up with True was easy. If you’re using a SIM-based cell phone, such as those on T-Mobile’s network, you can use your phone with Thai carriers. Most countries outside of the US use the GSM cellular system with SIM cards. VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is also a great option for making overseas calls. I don’t even use my cell phone to call home anymore; I always use either Google Voice or Skype to call family, friends, and clients in the States. Important Note: if using Google Voice, set up your Google Voice number before you cancel your US phone service as you’ll need a US-based phone number to confirm and activate your Google Voice number. Both Skype and Google Voice work great.
Internet Speed is fast.
100% of my income depends on the Internet, so this was a big concern. I’ve used a mix of cellular data and local Wi-Fi to stay connected and working full-time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Chang, Koh Samui, Hua Hin, Krabi, etc. We’ve also stayed in cities in Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan and Laos without losing access to high-speed internet. At my current apartment in Bangkok, I’m getting 11MBPS download and 1MBPS upload speeds, which isn’t jaw-dropping, but it is adequate. In fact, here in Thailand, I have frequently found myself working on faster connections than some of my colleagues in a major US city. Surprising, but true!
Working abroad hasn’t affected my productivity nor caused me to lose clients.
Experiences may vary depending on your clientele, but working across time zones hasn’t undermined my established client relationships as I feared it might. When I moved overseas, I had one (and only one) client voice that they, understandably, were not comfortable relying on a non-local contractor due to concerns about availability. What if something went wrong with their website and they needed to call me? Fortunately, that client took a wait-and-see approach and later stated that it all worked out better than they thought it would. The website apocalypse never occurred, and my business didn’t go up in flames either; in fact, the clients I have now are the same clients I had before leaving the States 18 months ago and business has only grown. Whether I am traveling or local, my clients are a top priority. That doesn’t change, and I continue to provide the same level of responsiveness that I always have. Working asynchronously doesn’t mean that I’m never available during business hours, it just means that clients may sometimes have to leave a message that gets returned shortly (or tomorrow if it’s not urgent). That was true when I was local too. Coordinating two distinct schedules is part of independent contracting regardless of location, and I have always found convenient times to schedule calls with my clients back home while living in Asia. I do it every week. I may have more time for morning calls one week, but evening calls are better the next week. With asynchronous scheduling, while you do set deadlines, you don’t report in during specific hours, and as long as the work gets done on-time, it shouldn’t matter where or what time of day you complete your tasks.
There are Apple-authorized stores that can fix your Macs all over Thailand.
Shortly after I arrived in Bangkok, my MacBook Pro died. It wouldn’t turn on. Nightmare. I went to iStudio at Digital Gateway Bangkok. They fixed my Macbook Pro for $50 and it’s been working fine ever since.
Video game stores are hard to find.
…and Nintendo 3DS chargers don’t work — get a USB charger. As a gamer, this is something I wish I had known before leaving the States. You’ll have difficulty finding stores that sell games and accessories such as chargers, though you may be able to order those items in Thailand from Lazada.
The closer you are to the BTS, the better.
The BTS (a.k.a. SkyTrain) runs through the heart of Bangkok and is the most convenient way to travel in many parts of the city. Living within a 10-minute walk to a BTS station makes getting around easier.
Use Grab and Uber.
After living in Thailand for over a year, my experience is that most taxi drivers in Bangkok are honest. The authorities are working to curb bad behavior such as overcharging but you may run into a cab driver that refuses to turn on his meter and/or tells you a price up front. These antics are practically unavoidable in tourist areas such as Koh Samui and Krabi. In Bangkok, however, if you’re uncomfortable hailing a cab, Grab and Uber are user-friendly alternatives.
Scam artists will solicit you outside of temples, etc.
Be cautious of anybody who eagerly asks where you’re going, especially outside of tourist zones including airports, train stations, temples, and piers. They will often re-direct you to a particular driver, desk clerk, or destination, where they can charge you extra. These scammers are harmless otherwise but just know that this is a common trap. Another line they’ll use is to claim that the temple or destination you wish to visit is “closed” due to a holiday, etc. and then they will recommend another destination for you. Don’t be afraid to proceed politely past them and get a second opinion from the clerk, guard, or someone else on duty at the location you wish to visit.
- Bring a credit card with 0% foreign transaction fees. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. American Express is accepted in many places, but not as commonly as Visa and MasterCard . However, I found at least one restaurant, Apinara in Central World, that offers a 10% discount to customers who pay with American Express.
- Check to see if you can get cheaper airfare by booking connecting plane flights separately. Rather than paying for our entire trip in a single booking, we saved hundreds by booking a flight from our home state to California, then booking a flight from California to Thailand separately. We used Expedia to book flights on Delta in the States and EVA Air outside the States.
- Use the forums and chatroom on https://nomadlist.com/ to ask questions and get advice from digital nomads around the world.
- Watch Mark Wiens’ YouTube videos for ideas on where to find great food in Thailand: https://www.youtube.com/user/migrationology
- Grab (GrabTaxi)
- Private Taxi (good for longer trips)
- Tours in Chiang Mai