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How some young Canadians are saving money by embracing the digital nomad lifestyle

Sitting in a bright, plant-filled coffee shop in the town of Písac, Peru — natural light filtering in from a skylight above — Grayson Allen explains that he’s always wanted to work abroad.

The 30-year-old psychologist from Vancouver is a self-described digital nomad, a term for people who perform their jobs remotely from anywhere in the world.

For the last two and a half years, he has worked remotely in the U.K., Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and, most recently, Peru — first for a Canadian company and now for himself.

“It seems like the dream, you know? You get to kind of save money, it’s [a] cheaper cost of living, you get to travel on the weekends still,” Allen told CBC News via Zoom.

“The country’s happy because you’re spending money there. Canada’s still happy because you’re paying taxes even though you’re not using any of the services there.”

Faced with the high cost of living at home, some travellers are turning to digital nomadism to save money — and countries from Portugal to Japan to Barbados have made this arrangement easier by introducing digital nomad visas intended for hybrid work and travel (Canada has also announced its own digital nomad strategy).

Since he started “nomading” on temporary visas, Allen said he’s repaid most of the student loans he incurred from a master’s degree in the U.K. and at one point was saving two-thirds of his paycheque while working remotely.

“A lot of people I know in Vancouver, they’re just surviving,” he said. “My angle is kind of more like, well, if I do want to live in Vancouver in the future, I better make some good money.”

Grayson Allen, a psychologist from Vancouver, says he always wanted to work remotely so that he can travel. The self-described digital nomad has worked remotely in the U.K., Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and, most recently, Peru — first for a Canadian company and now for himself. (Masha Pilipenko)

Canadians likely in the U.S., Mexico, says researcher

Digital nomadism exploded in popularity when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a dramatic increase in people working remotely. One study found that 40 million people worldwide identify as digital nomads, most of them from the United States, where a report found that 17.3 per cent of American workers see themselves as digital nomads.

“There’s quite a lot of talk about digital nomad visas at the moment, and they’re all quite confusing, they’re all quite different. But none of those existed before the pandemic,” said David Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who researches digital nomads.

Long before the pandemic normalized the arrangement and countries and workplaces started implementing these programs formally, the cost of living was a major consideration for digital nomads, he said.

“Digital nomads are quite a broad group. Not all are very high net-worth individuals who are earning lots of money. Some are, but not everyone is,” Cook said.

The combination of remote work and travel has led to growing concerns in some hot spots in Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia that digital nomads and other tourists are pushing locals out of affordable housing and driving up prices.

Cook said Canadian digital nomads are more likely to be hunkering down in the U.S. or Mexico than in Southeast Asian or East Asian countries, for example, because the similar time zones make remote work more seamless.

LISTEN | A money columnist on digital nomadism and affordability:

Airplay8:30The rise of the digital nomad

COVID restrictions boosted phenomenon

But it remains unclear how many Canadians have adopted this lifestyle. More than 11 per cent of the Canadian population is currently living abroad, according to an April 2024 report from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, based at McGill University in Montreal.

It’s hard to know how many of those are digital nomads who are working remotely for a Canadian company, said Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, who commissioned the McGill report to shed light on Canada’s large diaspora.

“My hunch is that they would constitute a very small proportion of the 4.3 million or more Canadians living overseas,” Woo told CBC News. “They will also be a relatively newer phenomenon, given that the ability to work remotely, broadly speaking, is fairly recent [and] obviously amplified by COVID restrictions.”

The federal government doesn’t directly track Canadians leaving the country, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirmed in an email to CBC News. Most of the data available is from what Woo refers to as “indirect sources.”

WATCH | Mexico City struggles with wave of digital nomads:

Mexico City struggles with wave of remote workers

A wave of international visitors seeking a more affordable lifestyle through remote working are causing discontent in neighbourhoods in Mexico City, which have seen soaring housing prices.

CBC News reached out to embassies and programs in the Bahamas, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Seychelles.

There were few responses, but Costa Rica’s tourism board said seven Canadians were approved for the country’s digital nomad visa between Jan. 1 and April 30 this year.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Portugal said it is “aware of a growing number of Canadian visa holders in Portugal, particularly among digital nomads in Lisbon over the past two years, although we lack specific quantitative data to contribute.”

Iolanda Andrade, an immigration lawyer based in Lisbon, counts about 10 to 15 Canadians among her clients — all of whom are digital nomads entering Portugal either using the designated nomad visa or a passive income visa called the D7.

While it depends on the country issuing them, digital nomad visas have certain restrictions that limit their accessibility, including a minimum income requirement. In Portugal, applicants to the digital nomad visa need to be earning at least four times the country’s minimum wage.

“Normally it’s very easy for a Canadian resident or citizen to have the requirements that this type of visa asks for,” Andrade said.

Housing costs in Canada a factor in going abroad

As for whether it’s a concern that Canadians might be leaving on digital nomad visas because of cost-of-living issues, Woo said he doesn’t think the phenomenon should be overstated — least of all because it remains unknown how many Canadians are using these visas abroad.

“The fact that they continue to maintain ties with Canada through work says something about their attachment to the country,” he said.

Some Canadians feel differently. Azra Kassam, a 34-year-old digital content manager, arrived in Calgary from Kenya when she was young and spent most of her adult life in Toronto.

A woman is shown standing in front of a colourful building.
Azra Kassam of Calgary is shown in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, during a recent trip. The digital content manager estimates that she’s saving about $1,000 a month working remotely in Croatia for her Toronto-based company. (Submitted by Azra Kassam)

Kassam used a digital nomad visa in Croatia last year, went back to visit recently and plans to use the visa again when she returns in September.

Originally, cost wasn’t a factor in her decision to apply for the visa. But when housing prices started to skyrocket, it became a more important consideration.

“I think there’s a lot of that sentiment going around right now … you know, the country was supposed to take care of me and they haven’t. And it’s making me want to go find a new life somewhere else, which is pretty sad,” Kassam told CBC News.

She estimates that she’s saving about $1,000 a month working remotely in Croatia for her Toronto-based company. She’s established a WhatsApp community for digital nomads and expats in Croatia that now has 500 members, including some Canadians.

“I don’t plan on really living in Canada any time soon,” Kassam said.

“If I could spend $2,200 on a one bedroom in Toronto or if I could spend $2,200 and that gives me flights, a place to live, groceries, fun things to do — why would I not choose the second one?”

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