digital nomads vs freelancers - 8 differences

Digital Nomad vs. Freelancer: 8 Differences in These Remote Work Styles

The dust from COVID has more or less settled, and people are looking to explore and adventure yet again. However, the ability to travel and make a living hasn’t always been possible. But thanks to technology and the soaring popularity of remote jobs, the ability to work entirely online or even enjoy location independence is completely possible. Nevertheless, there’s still a bit of confusion between two types of remote workers: digital nomads vs. freelancers.

Both digital nomads and freelancers provide a level of flexibility, work-life balance, and freedom that traditional jobs don’t offer, but many people use these terms almost interchangeably. The only problem is that these two varieties of workers have some distinct differences you should discern.

Digital Nomad vs. Freelancer: Defining Both Terms

Before diving into the slighter differences between digital nomads and freelancers, let’s quickly define both terms for the sake of clarity:

  • Digital Nomad: A location-independent worker who earns a living through remote work but at a location or locations they choose.
  • Freelancer: A professional who has several clients or who works for several different companies at the same time.

These are the most basic definitions, but it should give you a basic idea of what each does at its core.

Which Is the Right Option for Me?

It’s worth mentioning that the contrast between the two may dictate which is the best option for you. However, it’s a question you can only answer yourself.

As a general rule, the digital nomad life is preferential for those with little to no responsibilities. No house? Perfect. No kids? Even better. With few responsibilities and no encumbrances, you’re free to explore the world at your leisure.

Freelancing is certainly something that a digital nomad can do, but you don’t have to be a digital nomad to be a freelancer. If you’re not a world traveler or you just want work independence to take on the projects you choose, freelancing may foot the bill.

Again, deciphering the differences in the digital nomad vs. freelancer debacle can open your eyes to the possibilities of each job, as well as push you in the right direction. Regardless of whether you’re looking to ditch the 9-to-5 to indulge your wanderlust or you’re just curious, here are eight differences in these remote work styles.

1. Client Base

One of the major differences between a digital nomad and a freelancer is the client base. A freelancer is a self-employed individual. As a result, they’re responsible for acquiring their own clients via marketing, sales, or word of mouth.

Conversely, a digital nomad can earn income through a variety of different sources, but all are online. Some examples might include:

  • Traditional employment
  • Freelancing
  • Contract work
  • Gig work
  • Passive income, such as investments or rental properties
  • Nontraditional income streams, i.e., day trader, influencer, etc.

As you can see from these examples, a digital nomad can be a freelancer, and a freelancer can be a digital nomad based on client base, but they don’t have to be either.

2. Location Independence

Both freelancers and digital nomads can live wherever they choose. However, by definition, a digital nomad — as the name implies — is constantly moving. They typically don’t stay somewhere longer than six months to a year, but they can also choose to move around every few weeks.

Freelancers enjoy the opportunity to travel freely and be location-independent, but it’s entirely a choice. Some freelancers live the digital nomad lifestyle, while others have a mortgage and a family and prefer to live in a single location.

3. Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is a type of correspondence between remote coworkers in which an immediate response is not expected. Because remote workers may not have a set schedule, asynchronous communication allows them to receive and send messages, albeit with random response times.

While both freelancers and digital nomads may use asynchronous communication, there’s a bit of a difference between the two, depending on job type.

A freelancer who stays in one place may not have the need for asynchronous communication, as they work at the same time that their clients are in the office. Digital nomads are constantly moving, which can mean time zones change frequently. As such, they’re far more likely to use asynchronous communication as a means to communicate with clients or their employers.

4. Personality

In the digital nomad vs. freelancer debate, one thing is for sure: you need a strong, resilient personality. This allows you to find clients and remain calm when things don’t go exactly to plan. The trade-off is that you get total freedom in your work.

However, personality type is certainly a factor in the two remote working styles.

Successful digital nomads typically are more outgoing and laid back. They get used to things going awry, aren’t bothered by having to meet new people regularly, and genuinely embrace the laissez-faire attitude of wanderlust.

While a freelancer may have this same personality, freelancing also lends itself nicely to the introverted worker. You can work alone, only have to contact others when necessary, and can choose your own clients.

5. Employee…or Something Else?

As mentioned above, client bases are different for digital nomads vs. freelancers. However, freelancers are always contractors or gig workers. If freelancers had permanent, full-time employment, they would cease to be freelancers and would instead become employees.

Digital nomads have the opportunity to be employees, provided that their current employer agrees to the arrangement. In modern times, more companies are embracing a digital nomad policy, which could become a more common perk as the modern workplace evolves.

6. Internet Challenges

One of the major hurdles of a digital nomad is finding reliable internet. Not only can the internet be slow, but at times, it’s nonexistent. Moreover, digital nomads may have to turn to nontraditional ways to find internet, such as getting a foreign sim card and hot-spotting their phone or going to an internet cafe.

Freelancers typically don’t have to worry about this. In the U.S., the internet is reliable and speedy in almost all areas. This makes dependable internet an afterthought and something that gives the edge to freelancers in the digital nomad vs. freelancer battle.

7. Stability or Lack Thereof

Stability isn’t a word commonly associated with either freelancing or becoming a digital nomad. However, the lack of stability applies to different areas of each working style.

A lack of stability for a digital nomad typically refers to changing conditions within a country — whether it’s civil unrest or economic differences — as well as little to no support for friends or family. Many times, digital nomads are entirely on their own.

Freelancers also face a lack of stability, but not a lack of support from friends and family. Instead, freelancers face instability in terms of support in the workplace or consistent income. Since they’re working solo and have to find their clients, they may feel a bit isolated and unstable as a result.

8. Tools and Resources

Digital nomads are usually at a disadvantage regarding tools and resources. When you’re living out of a suitcase, finding printers, scanners, software, and other gear can prove daunting. While top-rated digital nomad cities and coworking spaces have made this easier, it’s not always easy to find what you need.

A freelancer often has a home office with everything they need to get the job done. Plus, all home office equipment is a tax write-off or a business expense, allowing them to have just what they need to complete a task.

Digital Nomad vs. Freelancer FAQ

Now that you understand the basic differences between a digital nomad and a freelancer, you may still have some questions. Here are some of the most common questions asked about these two remote work styles.

Does Freelance Mean Remote?

Freelance isn’t completely synonymous with remote work, but the advent of remote work has definitely pushed it in that direction. Remote means that you work over the internet or away from the office. Freelance refers to work that’s done by a self-employed individual rather than with an employer. Freelancers can be remote and remote can mean freelance, but neither is 100% true all the time.

Is Being a Digital Nomad Worth It?

This is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The digital nomad lifestyle isn’t for everyone. It’s chaotic, lonely, and unstable at times. However, it’s adventurous, exciting, and eye-opening as well. The only way to know if the digital nomad lifestyle is worth it is to try it for yourself.

Do Digital Nomads Make Money?

Digital nomads can have various types of income, whether freelance, contract, employment, or passive income. But do they make money? According to one survey, the answer is an astounding yes. Around 1/3 of digital nomads earn at least $100,000, 7% make less than $25,000, and the remaining 60% are somewhere in between.

Keep in mind that the sample size is relatively small; don’t automatically assume you’ll make six figures, nor assume that you actually need to. Around $30,000 can go a long way in Southeast Asia compared to $100,000 in Australia.

Digital Nomad vs. Freelancer: Virtual Vocations Can Help You Either Way

One of the major similarities between digital nomads and freelancers is that it’s not for the faint of heart. Unlike an employee, you’re often responsible for your own hours, finding contracts, or simply finding a place to be as productive as possible. Sometimes, simply finding the right gig, contract, or job isn’t as easy as it seems.

That’s when Virtual Vocations can help. With career services and learning modules, a companies database, and a jobs board that allows you to search by job type, time zone, and other categories relevant to the digital nomad or freelancer, you have everything you need to jumpstart your career in these adventurous remote job styles.

A new destination or a new client? The only thing left to decide is where you want to go next.

Are you a freelancer and/or digital nomad? What inspired you to become one? Connect with Virtual Vocations on FacebookTwitterLinkedInInstagram, and YouTube to tell us about the telecommute job you want. We’d love to hear from you and learn more about which remote jobs you hope to see in our next Employer Alert blog post!

Join Virtual Vocations

Joining Virtual Vocations grants you access to our hand-picked remote jobs database. Learn how our service works, browse job leads by location and career category, or search hundreds of hand-screened remote jobs to find legitimate work-at-home job leads that match your skills and background. Register for free or contact us for more information on our service guarantee.

Check out our menu of Career Services provided by our team of certified professionals, including resume and career coaching services for remote jobseekers. Resume assessments and writing, LinkedIn profile enhancement, and cover letter writing are available to maximize the success of your remote job applications. Discounts on all services available to subscription members, become one now.

Related Articles