Steve James has been traveling extensively for the last four years, including an overland trip from the UK to Japan. In this interview, Steve explains how he manages long term travel and gives advice for aspiring nomads.
Where do you currently live?
I’ve just returned home to Britain after a three-month backpacking trip to India, but I’ve spent two out of the last four years traveling through more than thirty countries around the globe, including Japan, New Zealand and Russia. I’m like the Littlest Hobo in the sense that I generally don’t hang around in a single location long enough to feel I’ve “lived” in a place, with one exception: I settled in South Korea for around six months, moving in with a friend living there. In return for free rent, I became the house husband – doing the food shopping, cooking, cleaning and even looking after her lovable shi tzu dog!
What was your visa situation like when you were in South Korea?
In a word, tenuous. As many other remote workers in my situation find, it was a bit of a gray area. I looked into acquiring a business visa, but there didn’t seem to be any provision for a self-employed digital nomad. It seemed to cater only for traditional business or employment, requiring a letter of invitation from a South Korean sponsor, which in my situation I obviously couldn’t obtain. So I had no option but to go with a tourist visa and work under the radar.
The tourist visa rules allowed me to stay for three months at a time in South Korea, but I left regularly for side trips to Japan and the Philippines and so the stamps soon mounted up in my passport, and I was always a bit wary passing through immigration, although I was only ever grilled once. As it was, the gist of their questions seemed to be to find out whether I was working as an English teacher on a tourist visa, which in all honesty I could say I wasn’t!
What does it cost to travel like you do?
The cost depends hugely on the country of travel. In India, for example, my day’s expenses were on occasion as low as $10: a $4 fan room in a hotel, $4 for meals, water and snacks, and $2 for extras such as a few hours of Internet. Yet if I’m passing through London, I might pay out three times my daily expenses in India – close to $30 – just for a dorm bed alongside seven other snoring backpackers, before even factoring in food, travel or Internet. The happy medium is somewhere like Thailand, where you can live on $500-600 per month fairly comfortably. In fact, on my travels, all roads seem to lead to Thailand!
How do you earn an income?
I have a number of irons in the fire. I’m a software engineer by trade, and so my prime earner is undertaking work for clients whilst on the road. I specialize in putting together database-driven websites, but I also do a smidgen of standard web design as well. I started off by undertaking cheap work for friends of friends, which led to semi-regular work from them as well as further recommendations of my services to their friends, and it gradually snowballed from there.
I’m not always busy with that kind of work though, so I tide myself over with my own projects. My latest is a website called Free Wifi Guru which stemmed from the trouble I had in India finding free wifi hotspots. I earn money via the Google Adsense adverts scattered throughout, and whilst I don’t earn a great deal from that particular site, it pays for a few hot dinners every month, and every little bit helps!
Finally, I love to write about my travels, and so I have a number of travelogues up on the web that I’ve written that also contain adverts from which I earn some helpful revenue. Occasionally I write travel-related articles for other blogs for which I earn small fees, too, but that’s motivated by the love of travel writing (not to mention the glory of seeing my work in print!) rather than the money.
What do you like and don’t like about your life now?
Unquestionably the biggest positive is that I have managed to make the leap off the endless corporate treadmill of the nine-to-five work day and have the ultimate freedom to live and work where I want, when I want. It’s a truly liberating feeling which at times I take for granted, so I have to regularly remind myself of the poor worker drones who still live their lives dictated by the alarm clock and chained to a desk, just as I was in my “former life”.
My free-roaming lifestyle is not complete utopia, however. I do miss the camaraderie of work, such as sharing a joke with the people around you, and popping down the pub for an after-work drink to banter about all the things that annoyed you during the day. Life on the road can get lonely at times, and whilst you can easily meet other travelers, it’s rare to find people with which you have the same candid rapport you have with friends back home. Friendships on the road are often fleeting too, as everyone’s constantly on the move.
What advice would you offer for others thinking of moving abroad and supporting themselves online?
Do it! It’s easier than you think, and if you choose your destination wisely the earning threshold for becoming self-sufficient abroad is surprisingly low. Whilst it’s vital to have a plan of action, and sufficient backup funds to tide you through the leaner periods, if you mull it over too much you’ll never end up taking the leap. Think about your strengths, and how you can apply them in an online capacity. Do you write well? Are you artistic? Can you program? Good at snapping pictures? Are you a savvy marketer? Do you have an eye for items you could purchase and sell back home? Are you good at reading the financial markets? So many skills are transferable to the online arena. Start now, work hard at building something up whilst you have the stability of your job at home, and work towards a monthly threshold income you think you can survive on in your country of choice. It will take a great deal of time – it took me two years of solid work – but don’t be discouraged and above all else stick at it. Once you’re consistently reaching your threshold value month on month, celebrate by handing in your resignation and hitting the road!
Do you have any plans to settle down and have a more traditional life?
Having reached the ripe old age of 30 and seeing almost all of my friends married off and owning property, I do feel some pressure to put down some roots. Added to that, the recent house price crash in the United Kingdom and the bit of cash I have gathering dust in the bank makes it an extremely sensible time to buy, though part of me feels that lumping myself with a mortgage would restrict the freedom to roam I have worked so hard to achieve.
Then again, if I ever got itchy feet there’d be nothing stopping me renting out the house and hitting the road again…