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The Differences Between An Expat And A Digital Nomad

4 min read

The Differences Between An Expat And A Digital Nomad

Gone are the days of being limited to living in just one country for life. More people are increasingly moving abroad to build better lives for themselves and their families in every conceivable aspect.

In today’s interconnected world, the concepts of “home” and “workplace” are no longer confined to bricks and mortar. Instead, they’ve evolved into something more flexible. Expats and digital nomads represent the pinnacle of this paradigm shift in how we perceive careers and lifestyles. Likewise, the boundless possibilities of technology and the availability of passports and residencies are helping both of them traverse the globe and live their lives on their own terms.

This article explores the differences between expats and digital nomads, terms that share many similarities but can’t be used interchangeably. We’ll also uncover the motivations that drive them and their challenges. If you’re ready to learn more about these fascinating lifestyles, hang on tight because you’ll never get them mixed up again.


Archipelago San Blas, Panama Digital nomads may have a home base, but they are free to explore the world due to the nature of their work

Archipelago San Blas, Panama


A digital nomad can turn a coffee shop, hotel room and pretty much anywhere with stable internet into an office. This is far from a bold statement – it’s a lifestyle.



Digital nomads are the equivalent of digital pioneers. They’re the individuals who have cracked the code of making income entirely online. Think of freelance writers, remote designers, coders and e-commerce experts. 

They prove that you can transform your passion into profit, all from the comfort of a laptop. All they need is a skill that the market needs and does not require them to attend an office setting. Online meetings, emails and instant messaging apps help them communicate with clients and colleagues regardless of where they are. 

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. This lifestyle requires discipline and a keen sense of management.



Digital nomads are not limited to a single location due to the nature of their jobs. They might have a home base, yet their spirits crave the thrill of discovery. A week in Bali, a month in Lisbon — the world is their oyster. However, don’t let the romantic notion of constant travel fool you. Being a perpetual traveller comes with its own set of challenges, like acclimatizing to new cultures and navigating time zones like a pro.


Related article: What Is A Digital Nomad Visa And How Can You Get One?


Florianopolis, Brazil Unlike digital nomads, expat professions may not necessarily be linked to the online scene, they are engineers, managers, teachers and much more

Florianopolis, Brazil


Stepping onto foreign soil and embracing new customs — that’s the essence of being an expat. But wait, it’s more than a passport stamp. Let’s break it down.



Expats aren’t just tourists — they’re contributors to their host countries. They are engineers, managers, teachers and more. These individuals bring skills that enrich local economies. Unlike digital nomads, their professions might not necessarily be tied to the online landscape. And believe it or not, they often work side by side with locals, fostering an enriching exchange of ideas and expertise.



While digital nomads are never-ending wanderers, expats often establish roots. They become part of the tapestry of local life. It’s a commitment and immersion into their chosen destination's language, culture and daily grind. Yet, they’re not cut off from the rest of the world. Skype calls and Zoom meetings are their lifelines to home, making them feel like they’re only a click away from their native soil and, of course, their clients.


Tulum, Mexico Digital nomads seek new experiences and adventures, living life their own way, while expats move abroad for different reasons, from new business opportunities to tax benefits

Tulum, Mexico


These two profiles have similar motivations and objectives, so sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between them. What sets these two tribes apart? Probably more than you think.



Have you ever felt the pull of wanderlust while also craving stability? That's where the paths diverge. Digital nomads are driven by the call of adventure, seeking experiences that can’t be confined to a cubicle or even their country. They dare to question the status quo and live life on their own terms. Expats, on the other hand, often move abroad with a different purpose in mind. It’s about the chance to embrace financial and tax benefits, sometimes climb the career ladder and even weave personal relationships into the equation.



While most people believe digital nomads are just looking for Instagram-worthy sunsets, there’s more beneath the surface. They might be living the dream of being location and time-independent but are also aware of their budgets. In short, they’re all about stretching their dollars and euros to make the most of their experiences. Flipping the script, expats often rake in more than the locals. It’s the trade-off for bringing sought-after skills and money to the host country’s market.


Punta del Este, Uruguay Expats discover how simple it is to find a decent-sized home at a much more affordable price than major Western cities

Punta del Este, Uruguay


Some people, especially from Western countries like the US and Canada, freak out when a fellow countryman goes abroad. The question is, “Why do people uproot their lives and venture into new countries?”



The grass can definitely be on the other side if you’ve got the right tools. Indeed, who hasn’t ever eyed jobs or business opportunities abroad? Expats often go after that pot of gold – better salaries, lower taxes, a friendlier business climate, a more affordable cost of living or all of the above. They bring expertise that’s valued in their new homes, making them valuable contributors to the local economy while reaping the benefits laid out for them.



Picture this: trading high rents for affordability. Multiple expats discover how easy it is to find a decent-sized house for a fraction of the cost of major Western cities. What’s more, the cost of daily necessities and transport can also be way more affordable somewhere else, allowing them to enjoy an overall better quality of life without breaking the bank — an allure that’s hard to resist.



Picture this serene scene: retirement in a place where your pension goes the extra mile. Some expats seek refuge in countries where the cost of living allows their retirement funds to stretch, giving them the peace of mind to enjoy their golden years. Safety is another beacon. Moving to a region with lower crime rates can be a life-changing decision, providing a priceless sense of security.



This rings a bell for those who fell in love with someone from another country. That’s one of the main reasons why expats move abroad. Whether it’s marrying a foreigner or strengthening family ties, personal connections can transform a place into a home, regardless of geographic location. And it could also help with getting a second residency and even dual citizenship.


Seoul, South Korea It is normal for some digital nomads to be a subcategory of _expats_ as many go abroad in search of new experiences and adventures while working entirely online

Seoul, South Korea


As you can tell, the concepts of “digital nomad” and “expat” are different but can be somewhat similar. Sometimes, they intertwine. In multiple cases, digital nomads could be a subcategory of “expat” as they often go abroad to explore the world while getting their online tasks done. In contrast, expats can simply be retirees, workers, or high-networth individuals, among other profiles — all living abroad to benefit from the perks of different jurisdictions, such as lower taxes and a more affordable cost of living.



Expats and digital nomads reveal a world where geographical boundaries no longer limit ambition. These distinct yet interconnected profiles redefine what it means to build a life. Digital nomads roam a virtual realm, while expats root themselves in foreign soil, adding threads to the tapestry of global cultures. As we close this exploration, their stories echo the sentiment that borders don't bind life's narrative. Whether chasing dreams across screens or planting roots in new lands, both remind us that in this interconnected era, the canvas of opportunity stretches wide, inviting each of us to paint our unique stories.


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Mikkel Thorup

Written by Mikkel Thorup

Mikkel Thorup is the world’s most sought-after expat consultant. He focuses on helping high-net-worth private clients to legally mitigate tax liabilities, obtain a second residency and citizenship, and assemble a portfolio of foreign investments including international real estate, timber plantations, agricultural land and other hard-money tangible assets. Mikkel is the Founder and CEO at Expat Money®, a private consulting firm started in 2017. He hosts the popular weekly podcast, the Expat Money Show, and wrote the definitive #1-Best Selling book Expat Secrets - How To Pay Zero Taxes, Live Overseas And Make Giant Piles Of Money, and his second book: Expats Guide On Moving To Mexico.

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