Liam Martin of Ottawa, Canada, couldn’t have looked more suspicious when he walked up to the Australian border agent wearing an Armani suit and an overstuffed backpacker rucksack. “So, this bag and your suit don’t make sense to me,” Martin recalls the agent saying. “How much money do you make?”
Martin was a founder of startup and the author of a book about remote work. The agent began asking questions. “Whoa, wait a minute,” Martin recalls the agent saying. “Your business partner? You thought you were here for tourism. Come with me.”
Martin was a digital nomadic for over a decade. He traveled from January to April each year while working remotely. According to MBO Partners’ State of Independence report, although digital nomads defy strict classification, “they combine working remotely and traveling for various reasons and lengths of time.” With the pandemic giving millions a taste of remote work, the report estimates that people identifying themselves as digital nomads nearly doubled in recent years, from 7.3 million in 2019 to 15.5 million in 2021.
Many people stay near their homes or only travel occasionally. However, for people who move from one country into another over a longer period of time, working with a tourist visa may be difficult. Often young entrepreneurs or freelancers from wealthy countries, digital nomads have typically done “border runs” to leave and re-enter a country if they wish to stay longer than their visa allows. They may face scrutiny from border agents—like Martin says he did—and if caught, they may face foreign income taxes, fines, or deportation.
Lauren Razavi, an activist and author has worked tirelessly to create a new way of living that is less complicated. She has created a global passport for Plumia which can be used as an Internet-based travel document. “The goal is that you would actually feel secure about giving up your British or American or Canadian passport and taking this instead, and that it would function in the same way,” says Razavi, who is Plumia’s sole executive.
Plumia could offer citizens citizenship by subscription, along with a passport in 2032 if it is successful. You’d opt-in for social safety benefits like healthcare, pensions, and income protection, and pay tax to the municipality where you’re based.
Plumia is a firm believer in the importance of geographic territory as a prerequisite for nationhood. She hopes to own property in various cities around the world and have her headquarters in Europe. Government structures, such as. Elections and voting are still in flux.
“A lot of people view a nation-state, the country of origin that they come from, as this constant, unquestionable thing that you can’t change,” Razavi said. “Nomads look at the world much more like, ‘Okay, countries are service providers, and which one is suited to my needs?’”
Plumia, which has thus far received 5,000 applications to join, isn’t the first to propose an Internet country. Wirtland launched in 2008 with “witizens” and its own currency and Bitnation arrived in 2014 as a “voluntary crypto nation,” but Plumia is the first to be backed with investor money—health insurance provider SafetyWing has financed the project since its December 2020 launch. The acceptance would be selective. Plumia citizens would have to go through background checks. This is a common requirement for Global Entry applicants. They would also need to provide their annual income and employment information.
For Razavi, a British citizen whose father is an Iranian refugee, the most critical aspect of Plumia is that regardless of where you were born or what citizenship you have, it could offer the same mobility benefits that someone with a strong passport—ie. someone from Japan, Singapore or Germany—currently possesses.
She says: “How are people actually going to have access to remote work opportunities paid at a global level if we’re still stuck in the system where the statistical error of where you were born actually completely limits whether you can earn a global salary?”
Razavi admits, though, that upending entrenched nation-state, passport, visa, and tax systems won’t happen tomorrow. In the following years she will educate other countries about digital nomads, and aid them to develop better visas. Already, she has met representatives of the United Nations government.
“Right now, because remote work has gone mainstream, it’s the right moment for the nomad community to mature and to mature into something that is meaningful for the world,” she says.
Scammers and believers
David Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who has studied digital nomads since 2015, says he’s heard talk of digital nomad nations before, usually “on a beach when someone’s smoking too much.”
“The problem with a lot of these things is that they are private or corporate solutions to what are currently welfare state problems,” he says.
Cook believes there are many shared values among cryptocurrency and digital nomads. Many of these people use drop shipping to get rich quick or costly how-to courses in order to fund their lifestyle. “There’s a scammy side to both,” he said. “But there’s also the believers—and Lauren and Plumia, I see them as believers.”
In places with lower incomes, digital nomads can increase living costs and cause evictions. Mexico City is the fifth most visited destination by nomads, according to Nomad List. There, locals have voiced their disapproval at the rise in remote workers.
Her book is available at www.sherbook.com Global Natives: New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and InnovationRazavi admits to the harm that digital nomads, especially those who accelerate gentrification, can do.
Razavi claims that the issue of remote work could be addressed if any person could use a Plumia passport to remotely access their Plumia account. “Until people everywhere can access the same remote work opportunities and global mobility rights as those originating from the most powerful countries, urban development will continue to result in gentrification on an international scale,” she wrote.
Cook commends Plumia for leveling the playing field and for taking the dream of global mobility to the governmental level—even if recent isolationist campaigns like Brexit and “American first” have made convincing these governments seem unlikely.
The new type of visa
Plumia’s full vision for a passport is at least a decade away, according to the project’s website, but digital nomads can seek other options in the meantime.
Dozens of countries worldwide are extending an olive branch to remote workers in hopes of enticing high-income visitors by introducing so-called digital nomad visas — permits to legally stay and work for a limited period of time. In July 2020, Barbados launched the first digital nomad stamp. This allows households earning more than $50,000 per year to remain in Barbados for one year, without paying local taxes. However, citizens of the United States must pay American taxes at all times, whether they are in America or elsewhere.
“These long-term visitors engage with Bajans much more authentically than our conventional tourists ever have because they are not just here today and gone tomorrow,” wrote Peter Thompson, founder of Remote Work Barbados in the Barbados Business Authority. In its first full calendar year, the Welcome Stamp received 3,257 applications and approved 2,163—35% of which were families, with the rest being individuals.
Razavi thinks that the majority of digital nomad visas do not meet their needs. Some force applicants to pay local taxes (foreigners working remotely in Spain, for example, must pay a 15 percent income tax for the first four years, although that is a lower rate than the country’s general 24 percent.) Many other countries have nomad visas that are too complicated or rigid, “Digital nomads tend to be more interested in mobility and flexibility,” Razavi says.
Adobe, an employer that caters to flexibility needs, is one of the best., Dropbox and Lyft have also offered “work from anywhere” or hybrid staff policies that allow employees to come to the office fewer days a week, if at all. However, in the majority of cases, “work from anywhere” only means within the same country or where the employer has permanent legal entities.
However, the rising number of visas for digital nomads could indicate that change is occurring and will have lasting effects. Not just for full-time digital nomads like Martin—who says he was detained for two days when he tried to get into Australia on a tourist visa—but for anyone who wants to work and travel.
“I don’t think we should ever criticize people for being optimistic,” Cook says.
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