Why experts are calling for public sector to simplify digital nomad visa processes
Countries worldwide are facing skills shortages. Simplified global migration and digital nomad visas could help plug the void, but governmental red tape and bureaucracy is preventing that from happening, according to experts.
Failure to capitalize on the digital nomad movement, may leave countries short changed on talent. “Where talent moves will define the success or failure of economies,” said Karoli Hindriks, co-founder of Jobbatical, an Estonian tech company dedicated to making the visa process for hiring international talent faster and cheaper. “Every country is fighting for the same people and governments know that they need to get the attention of the talent.”
But governments are stuck in their ways and aren’t catering towards remote workers enough yet, she stressed.
Some countries have been faster to push through digital nomad visas. Estonia was the first to offer one in 2020, and has since been followed by Australia, Brazil and Spain. But others lag behind, and those which are attempting to attract digital nomads, are doing a half-baked job of it.
For example, there have been instances where a country will go as far as to build a marketing campaign around offering a digital nomad visa. But it then fails to get any policies in place, or make the online application process live in time.
Many governments have “flirted with the idea” of nomad visas by launching a marketing campaign without having an applications website live, said Lauren Razavi, director of special projects at SafetyWing, a company building out a product collection of insurance, pension savings and income protection for remote workers and digital nomads worldwide. “That really solidified the negative reputation that nomad visas are getting among digital nomads,” she added. “Nomads are fast acting. If you hear about a new visa and think it might be interesting, you want to go within the next few months. If they don’t even have an application website, that’s really problematic. It’s why some programs have struggled more than others.”
Even when a new application portal is up and running, it’s a complicated process to understand what different countries offer. For example, Portugal’s digital nomad visa program, introduced last October, is somewhat convoluted: different areas in Portugal ask for different things. In some locations, consulates ask for proof of solvency calculated at 12 times the minimum national wage in a Portuguese bank account. But currently, it’s almost impossible for digital nomads to open a bank account in Portugal. And while processing times for visas are 60 days, they are often far longer.
Moving to a new country can be daunting when the visa process isn’t transparent enough, said Hindriks. “The talent that is moving is thrown between authorities and lawyers, who are all talking in a language that you don’t really understand, which makes it more scary,” she said.
And nomads are having to be smart about how they keep track of all the changes. For example, Lily Bruns, founder and co-host of Remote Commons, created a directory that lists visa programs, both ones that are catered towards digital nomads and ones that are commonly used by digital nomads. It includes who the visa targets, the length of stay allowed, what nationalities are welcomed, who is eligible, taxation and income requirements, and whether the application is online or not.
Bruns is based in Chiang Mai in Thailand and works as an advocate for remote worker visas, but has consistently met with contention. “I caught onto this difficulty that people were having with their visas and thought ‘well this is the government shooting itself in the foot. Why are we giving these digital nomads a hard time? Shouldn’t we be really happy that they are these responsible tourists and talented people who want to share knowledge and opportunities and start businesses?,’” said Bruns. “There is so much red tape and hassle and the appropriate channels don’t exist. It kind of forces everyone to exploit gray area solutions and then the government gets mad and clamps down on things.”
However, there are governments who strive to be innovative. “If a government is innovative, small and feisty and looking for opportunities, then they are more interested,” said Bruns.
For example, tax haven countries like Barbados are looking for opportunities to win over this pool of remote-working talent. Barbados has a 12-month visa that welcomes everyone who makes over $50,000 a year. And yet, a 12 month-long visa better suits the needs of a remote worker than a digital nomad.
“You have digital nomads who are hopping around,” said Bruns. “They’re looking to date, not to get married.”
Razavi agrees, saying that countries need to better define who they are trying to target. If a country’s visa is 12 months, that is a different worker to someone who is looking to stay there for one to three months.
While countries are overall enthusiastic about attracting both talent pools, everyone is working in silos, leading to everything being inconsistent and making it more challenging for these workers to navigate.
“You have all of these governments launching their own nomad visas without really speaking to one another,” said Razavi. “Nomads are still lacking a legal and residency status. Governments are feeling around in the dark a little bit without speaking to nomads enough about what these global mobility tools should look like.”
That may deter some nomads from bothering to apply for visas to work abroad, she added. If a place launches a nomad visa, there is a significant amount of research that needs to be done to really understand what it means.
“When it comes to digital nomads and this borderless living terrain, it’s really important to be collaborating across borders,” said Razavi. “I’d love to see more international standardization of digital nomads as an understood term and more specifically nomad visas. We understand what a tourist is, we need to get to that stage with nomads as well.”
Regardless, companies like Hindriks’ Jobbatical plan to continue working with governments, to help them understand how to make the remote worker visa process faster, easier and more efficient. “The more as an ecosystem we can actually voice the changes that are needed from the public sector side, the faster we can win in that global war of talent,” added Hindriks.