Liam Martin of Ottawa, Canada, couldn’t have looked more suspicious when he walked up to the Australian border agent wearing an Armani suit and an overstuffed backpacker rucksack. “So, this bag and your suit don’t make sense to me,” Martin recalls the agent saying. “How much money do you make?”
After Martin, a startup founder and author of a book on remote work, said that he was in Sydney to meet his business partner, the agent started asking questions. “Whoa, wait a minute,” Martin recalls the agent saying. “Your business partner? I thought you were coming here for tourism. Come with me.”
For more than a decade, Martin has been a digital nomad, working while traveling globally each year from January until April. According to MBO Partners’ State of Independence report, although digital nomads defy strict classification, “they combine working remotely and traveling for various reasons and lengths of time.” With the pandemic giving millions a taste of remote work, the report estimates that people identifying themselves as digital nomads nearly doubled in recent years, from 7.3 million in 2019 to 15.5 million in 2021.
Some stay close to home or travel only for short periods. But for those moving from country to country for longer stretches, working while on a tourist visa is a legal gray area at best. Often young entrepreneurs or freelancers from wealthy countries, digital nomads have typically done “border runs” to leave and re-enter a country if they wish to stay longer than their visa allows. They may face scrutiny from border agents—like Martin says he did—and if caught, they may face foreign income taxes, fines, or deportation.
As the popularity of this lifestyle has risen, author and activist Lauren Razavi has been working on a revolutionary alternative that would cut through the red tape: a global passport to an Internet-based country called Plumia. “The goal is that you would actually feel secure about giving up your British or American or Canadian passport and taking this instead, and that it would function in the same way,” says Razavi, who is Plumia’s sole executive.
If successful, Plumia would offer citizenship as a subscription service, as well as a passport, by 2032. You’d opt-in for social safety benefits like healthcare, pensions, and income protection, and pay tax to the municipality where you’re based.
As for geographic territory, a requirement for countryhood, Plumia hopes to one day own real estate in different cities worldwide and to be headquartered in a European castle. Governance structures, ie. voting and elections, are still up in the air.
“A lot of people view a nation-state, the country of origin that they come from, as this constant, unquestionable thing that you can’t change,” Razavi said. “Nomads look at the world much more like, ‘Okay, countries are service providers, and which one is suited to my needs?'”
Plumia, which has thus far received 5,000 applications to join, isn’t the first to propose an Internet country. Wirtland launched in 2008 with “witizens” and its own currency and Bitnation arrived in 2014 as a “voluntary crypto nation,” but Plumia is the first to be backed with investor money—health insurance provider SafetyWing has financed the project since its December 2020 launch . Acceptance would be somewhat selective. Citizens of Plumia would be required to pass background checks, a familiar requirement for those familiar with Global Entry, but would also have to share their employment information and annual income.
For Razavi, a British citizen whose father is an Iranian refugee, the most critical aspect of Plumia is that regardless of where you were born or what citizenship you have, it could offer the same mobility benefits that someone with a strong passport—ie. someone from Japan, Singapore or Germany—currently possesses.
She says: “How are people actually going to have access to remote work opportunities paid at a global level if we’re still stuck in the system where the statistical error of where you were born actually completely limits whether you can earn a global salary? “
Razavi admits, though, that upending entrenched nation-state, passport, visa, and tax systems won’t happen tomorrow. Over the next several years, she plans to start by educating countries about digital nomads and help them develop better visas. She has already met with government representatives at the United Nations.
“Right now, because remote work has gone mainstream, it’s the right moment for the nomad community to mature and to mature into something that is meaningful for the world,” she says.
The scammers and the believers
David Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who has studied digital nomads since 2015, says he’s heard talk of digital nomad nations before, usually “on a beach when someone’s smoking too much.”
“The problem with a lot of these things is that they are private or corporate solutions to what are currently welfare state problems,” he says.
Cook sees a lot of shared values between cryptocurrency and digital nomads, many of whom use get-rich-quick schemes like drop shipping or expensive how-to courses to finance their lifestyle. “There’s a scammy side to both,” he said. “But there’s also the believers—and Lauren and Plumia, I see them as believers.”
Digital nomads from rich countries can also increase the cost of living and the rate of evictions in places where locals earn lower incomes such as Mexico City, the fifth most popular destination for digital nomads according to Nomad List, where locals have protested the rise of remote workers.
In her book, Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and InnovationRazavi acknowledges the damage some digital nomads can cause, including by accelerating gentrification.
But Razavi says that that issue could be solved if anyone could work remotely on a Plumia passport. “Until people everywhere can access the same remote work opportunities and global mobility rights as those originating from the most powerful countries, urban development will continue to result in gentrification on an international scale,” she wrote.
Cook commends Plumia for leveling the playing field and for taking the dream of global mobility to the governmental level—even if recent isolationist campaigns like Brexit and “American first” have made convincing these governments seem unlikely.
A new kind of visa
Plumia’s full vision for a passport is at least a decade away, according to the project’s website, but digital nomads can seek other options in the meantime.
Dozens of countries worldwide are extending an olive branch to remote workers in hopes of enticing high-income visitors by introducing so-called digital nomad visas — permits to legally stay and work for a limited period of time. The first was the Barbados Welcome Stamp, launched in July 2020, which allows digital nomad households with more than $50,000 annual income to stay in the country for a year without having to pay local taxes (US citizens must always pay American taxes whether at home or abroad).
“These long-term visitors engage with Bajans much more authentically than our conventional tourists ever have because they are not just here today and gone tomorrow,” wrote Peter Thompson, founder of Remote Work Barbados in the Barbados Business Authority. In its first full calendar year, the Welcome Stamp received 3,257 applications and approved 2,163—35% of which were families, with the rest being individuals.
But Razavi believes that most digital nomad visas miss the mark. Some force applicants to pay local taxes (foreigners working remotely in Spain, for example, must pay a 15 percent income tax for the first four years, although that is a lower rate than the country’s general 24 percent.) Many other countries have nomad visas that are too complicated or rigid, “Digital nomads tend to be more interested in mobility and flexibility,” Razavi says.
To satiate demands for flexibility, employers such as Adobe, Dropbox and Lyft have also offered “work from anywhere” or hybrid staff policies that allow employees to come to the office fewer days a week, if at all. However, in the majority of cases, “work from anywhere” only means within the same country or where the employer has permanent legal entities.
Still, if the growing crop of digital nomad visas is any indication, change is happening, and that could have a lasting impact. Not just for full-time digital nomads like Martin—who says he was detained for two days when he tried to get into Australia on a tourist visa—but for anyone who wants to work and travel.
“I don’t think we should ever criticize people for being optimistic,” Cook says.
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