When you no longer need to physically report to work, it detaches where you live from where you work. Suddenly you can live anywhere in the world, rather than being restricted to a single city.
It’s an incredibly freeing feeling. But it also leaves remote workers, freelancers, and other digital nomads with an overwhelming abundance of options. How do you choose a place to live when you can live anywhere on the planet?
As you review the following checklist, sort it by your priorities. For some, living near their parents or children is nonnegotiable. Others feel perfectly happy living in another state or even another country.
Most of all, look to design your perfect life starting from the ground up, in the most literal sense.
Choosing a Country & State
It never occurs to most Americans that they might enjoy living in another country. Most never even move to another state; North American Moving Services reports that 72% of Americans live in or near the town where they grew up.
Yet as an expat myself, I can tell you firsthand how many advantages you can find living in another country. I’ve also lived in multiple U.S. states, some of which I liked far more than my home state.
Consider the following as you choose a country and state to live in, and don’t get caught up in the details of “how” when you first consider places to live. Focus on the “why” first, and when you’ve chosen a country or state based on your ideal lifestyle, you can then figure out the “how.”
As an international school counselor, my wife gets job offers all the time in Asia and the Middle East. But my business is located in the U.S., and I refuse to do any more 3am conference calls.
Just because you can work remotely doesn’t mean you can necessarily set your own hours. And even when you can set your own hours, you still have to communicate and collaborate with others. That could mean coworkers and supervisors, or it could mean partners, suppliers, or clients. Sometimes you need to hop on a phone call with people in real time, and if they work in a time zone on the opposite side of the world, that means working inconvenient hours.
Know your work, and set your own limits on time zones.
Proximity to Family
If you can’t stand the idea of living more than an hour away from your family members, you have a clear radius you must live within. It makes your decision easier, if more limited.
But if you have a little more leeway, such as a living “within a few hours from family, it frees you up to explore travel by air and rail rather than just road travel.
For example, if you want to be able to reach your family within three hours, that gives you 150 to 200 miles of driving radius but over a thousand miles of flying radius. You can then start looking at cities with cheap direct flight routes (more on that shortly), rather than simply drawing a circle around the town where your family lives and shackling yourself to it.
Different countries tax in vastly different ways. As a remote worker, you have the luxury of choosing a low-tax country or state.
My wife and I spent four years living in the United Arab Emirates, where they don’t charge income tax at all. That saved us tens of thousands of dollars in taxes every year, allowing us to save and invest that money to build wealth faster.
Even within the U.S., some states charge vastly higher taxes than others. Look at total tax burden, combining income tax, property taxes, and sales and excise taxes to compare states and countries, and start with these states with the lowest tax burden.
The difference can easily amount to thousands of dollars a year — a sum that can dramatically change your quality of life and wealth over time.
Connectivity & Communication Infrastructure
Becoming a digital nomad requires a strong digital Wi-Fi connection. In today’s world, most cities around the globe offer reliable, fast Internet connectivity. But smaller towns in developing countries may not meet your needs.
Ask around among residents, especially knowledge workers and expats, before moving to a smaller city in a developing country. If the connectivity and communication infrastructure can’t meet your needs, look elsewhere.
Not everyone wants to spend half the year bundled up in coats and scarves to weather the frozen tundra. I certainly don’t.
Consider climate as you choose a country and state to live in. Whether you enjoy having four distinct seasons or would just as soon hike and swim all year round, find a place where you actually enjoy the weather most of the year.
Choosing a City
Many countries and even states are sprawling, with an enormous diversity of big cities, small towns, and everything in between.
As you consider the best cities for remote workers, keep the following factors in mind to choose the right fit.
Not all airports are created equal. Depending on your penchant for travel, you may want easy access to a major international airport with hundreds of flight routes.
Smaller regional airports often only offer a few routes to nearby hubs. It adds hours to each trip, and usually costs more to boot.
If proximity to family matters to you, then air routes can play a major role in where you feel comfortable living. You can cross a thousand miles in two hours of direct flight time, or you can waste 10 hours on multiple flight legs, layovers, and driving gaps.
There’s an old trope that all people fall into one of two camps: seaside people or mountain people. Whether you buy into it or not, the fact remains that you can’t have every natural amenity you want, so you have to choose based on your priorities.
Few cities sit nestled between tropical beaches and mountains with pristine skiing. You can find cities with beautiful shorelines and beaches, cities up in the mountains near great hiking and skiing, cities near wine country, and everything in between, but it’s hard to find cities with everything. Prioritize what you want because it’s hard to get it all.
The few cities with easy access to many natural amenities — such as San Francisco and Santa Barbara — tend to come with outrageously high living expenses.
Cost of Living
The median home in San Francisco ($1,405,199) costs nearly 20 times the price of a median home in Cleveland ($73,686), according to Zillow. Twenty times!
Put another way, you could buy your own home in Cleveland plus 19 rental properties, all generating passive income, for the same price you’d spend on only your residence in San Francisco. The rental income from those 19 properties would likely cover your living expenses, allowing you to reach your financial goals faster.
Cost of living matters. It doesn’t just mean the difference between affording a three-bedroom and a four-bedroom house — it often means the difference between becoming wealthy and living a middle-class lifestyle. Between being able to pay for your kids’ college education or not. Between retiring at 45 and retiring at 70. Between an acceptable quality of life and a great one.
If you can earn a New York City salary without paying New York City rents, find somewhere fun and affordable to laugh all the way to the bank.
Keep in mind that cost of living doesn’t just include lower housing costs. Low cost of living can include low food and grocery costs, cheap restaurants and nightlife, low utility costs, affordable health care, and other discounts that help you save money across the board.
As a final thought, take a second look at living overseas. Start with these countries where you can live a luxurious lifestyle for $2,000 a month.
Cultural Amenities & Local Culture
For many people, the local culture matters, both in terms of amenities and the people themselves.
That could mean access to museums, sports teams, art galleries, and performing arts. Most smaller towns only offer these cultural amenities sparsely, although exceptions certainly exist. Larger cities tend to offer more of these amenities, though they still vary greatly.
Beyond amenities, most people also prefer to surround themselves with those culturally similar to them — politically, socioeconomically, and linguistically. If this kind of similarity is important to you, consider moving somewhere where you feel you’d fit right in and where the local values reflect your own.
Choosing a Neighborhood
As someone who hails from Baltimore, I can assure you that different neighborhoods within a city can feel like completely different cities. So choose your neighborhood with care.
When you can live anywhere, there’s no reason to live somewhere unsafe.
People feel comfortable with what they know, but you don’t have to play that game anymore. Choose a city and neighborhood with extremely low crime rates. With the world at your fingertips, you have infinite options.
And bear in mind that your impressions of a place might not match the reality. I still laugh when I think of my friends’ and family’s reactions when I told them I was moving to Abu Dhabi: “What?! Is it safe?!” Not only is it one of the safest cities in the world, but I was moving there from one of the most dangerous of the U.S. cities. Yet my family in Baltimore couldn’t wrap their heads around that notion.
Try NeighborhoodScout or AreaVibes to research any city’s, zip code’s, or neighborhood’s crime statistics.
Quality of Public Schools
In some cities and neighborhoods, the public schools are so bad that middle-class parents are forced to budget the money to send their children to private schools. It severely restricts their budget and savings rate.
Again, when you can telecommute, you don’t have to play by those rules anymore. You can pick a school district with outstanding public schools and actually cash in on those tax dollars you have to pay regardless.
Alternatively, you could home-school your children. But that requires far more effort and time on your part, both in educating them and in making sure they get plenty of social interaction with other kids.
Try GreatSchools.org to look up school quality measures for any given district.
When my wife and I lived in the U.S., we each had a car, as many Americans do. Then we moved overseas, and our home sat in a somewhat walkable neighborhood. We shared one car there, which worked out well.
The next time we moved, we intentionally chose a city and neighborhood that was extremely walkable. It lay within walking distance of my wife’s work, a coworking space for me to work from, and dozens of restaurants, bars, retail stores, and other amenities. We no longer own a car at all, and I don’t miss it in the slightest.
When you can walk, bike, or Uber everywhere, it forces you to be more active. Physical activity aside, living without a car also saves you a phenomenal amount of money. The average American spends $9,282 per car every single year, according to AAA, between maintenance, repairs, gas, parking, insurance, and car payments.
Similarly, an extensive public transportation system can also help you ditch your car while still letting you reach every amenity you need.
A city with excellent public transportation can reduce your transportation costs and save money far faster.
Choosing a Home
Found the perfect corner of the world to live in?
With the hard part behind you, you can focus on the easier business of finding a hospitable home.
Before even deciding whether to rent or buy a home, start by deciding how long you plan to live there. When you buy a home, you take an initial loss based on the closing costs, both those incurred to buy the home and the second round of closing costs you owe when selling it. It takes time to recover these expenses by building equity.
If you don’t know how long you plan to stay or plan on just a year or two, renting is definitely your best option. Beyond two years, sometimes it makes sense to buy. You have to calculate the costs both ways. Be sure to include all ownership costs, including maintenance, repairs, insurance, property taxes, and both rounds of closing costs. Far too many people just assume they should buy without actually running these numbers.
Bear in mind your changing needs in the years to come. For example, if you plan to have a family, you may need another bedroom or two soon. You may want to rent rather than buy if your needs may change shortly.
Many telecommuters prefer to work from home rather than from a coworking space or coffee shop. You can avoid distractions and boost productivity by choosing a home with a dedicated home office, rather than working from the sofa or dining room table.
Whether you have children or not, many people love having their own outdoor space. It proved a consistent trend during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suburban and rural areas saw a spike in demand as people clambered for outdoor space to call their own.
When you move to a new city, rent for a few months or a year before buying. It takes time to get to know a new city, and giving yourself the luxury of time helps you discover exactly what you want for the long term before you commit.
Visit Before Moving
Word to the wise: Don’t uproot yourself and move across the country or world without visiting your destination first.
It’s all too easy to fall in love with the idea of a place. But your vision of a city and the reality of living there will inevitably clash, so take the time to discover those differences firsthand before you move.
A long weekend spent visiting is better than nothing. A week gives you a better sense, and a month better still.
Walk the streets, talk to the locals, test the Internet speed. Get a sense of the local culture, eat the local food, attend the kind of social and cultural events you would if you lived there. You may find you love it just like you imagined — or you might discover it’s nothing like you envisioned.
No one says you have to stay in the first place you move.
Remote work offers endless possibilities and lets you live anywhere in the world. I’ve lived in six U.S. states and five countries, some of which I enjoyed far more than others.
As you design your perfect life, bear in mind it will always be a work in progress. You don’t have to get it exactly right the first time around, and even if you do, your needs and wants will continue to evolve.
Stretch yourself and your comfort zone as you explore ideas for the ideal place to live. Otherwise, you’ll limit yourself to what you already know and remain one of the 72% of Americans who live where they grew up rather than choosing a home that fits the life they truly want.