Expat vs Digital Nomad: Which Is a Better Fit For You?

I’ve been a digital nomad for the last two and a half years in Asia. And I often chat with expats in the countries I frequent. I’ve learned a lot from them—but even though we’re both “foreigners,” we really live a very different lifestyle.

Today, let’s discuss the differences between digital nomads and expats. We’ll cover the 1 main difference, as well as 5 ripple effects spreading out from that.

I’ll also share some questions to help you identify which lifestyle may be better for you at this time in your life. And I’ll also share why I’m personally a digital nomad.

What’s the Difference Between an Expat and Digital Nomad?

An expat is someone who moves to another country for work or retirement. Typically, they’re moving with the intention to live a steady life in that new country for several years (or the rest of their life).

A digital nomad is someone who works online while traveling to various destinations. Typically, they stay for a shorter period in each city—sometimes days, usually weeks or months, but not usually years.

The main difference between expats and digital nomads is the duration of stay. Expats usually live in their new city for years at a time. Digital nomads usually only stay a few weeks or months in each city, then move onto a new place.

This main difference has many ripple effects, in terms of what life looks like for an expat vs for a digital nomad. So let’s take a detailed look at all these aspects.

Here are 3 factors that may make the expat life seem better:

And here are 2 factors that may make the digital nomad life seem better:

Now let’s dig into each of those points deeper.

Expats Build Social Bonds More Easily

If you’re an expat living in the same city for a long time, you can develop friendships and relationships slowly and naturally in that city. But as a digital nomad, your relationships often get interrupted when you leave the city.

This is the hardest part of digital nomad life, in my personal experience. It can take a lot of effort to keep meeting new people in every city. You may regularly feel lonely as a digital nomad in a new city (before you met anyone there yet).

Expats have another advantage for making friends, too. If you’re working on-site in your city, then you can likely meet people at your workplace and become friends with your coworkers.

But if you work online as a digital nomad, you can’t use your work as a way to meet people in person. You’ll need to put in effort to meet people other ways.

Expats Are Usually More Productive

Laptop setup in the top-floor lounge at The Base condo in Pattaya, Thailand.

Digital nomads are always changing their environment—and that’s not great for keeping healthy habits and routines. New digital nomads can especially find it hard to focus on work while traveling so often.

As a digital nomad, I’ve had entire weeks and months where I didn’t do any work. I was just absorbed in exploring new places and meeting new people in new cities.

But if you’re an expat with a consistent home for more than a year, then you won’t be as distracted with new stuff to see. You can settle into healthy, productive routines.

If work is your top priority for this time of your life, then settling primarily in one location as an expat will likely bring you the best results.

Expats Get Better Deals on Housing

High-rise studio apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

If you’re staying a full year or longer in your city, you can sign a 12-month lease. You can typically pay the same price as locals. Then you can really take advantage of the lower cost of living in affordable regions like Southeast Asia.

But if you’re a digital nomad only staying for 1-3 months per city, you’ll almost certainly pay higher prices, often through platforms like Airbnb.

Personally as a digital nomad, I often stay in high-rise condos through Airbnb. In SE Asia, this costs me $30-50 USD per night. So, I often pay over $1,000 USD per month for housing, even though I’m in very affordable countries.

If I was staying a full year in the same condo units, I could likely pay only half the price. Or I’d get a 30% or 40% discount at least. Staying long-term gets you much better prices on housing.

Digital Nomads Travel More

Airplane view approaching Phuket, Thailand.

A typical digital nomad could visit five or ten countries in a year, spending weeks or months in each. But an expat will typically live 90% of the year or more in one city, with only some potential trips on weekends or holidays.

Because you’re always in new cities as a digital nomad, the novelty of travel is a constant feature of your life. Even if you don’t make time for doing “tourist” stuff, every time you walk outside, you’re still in a new country.

In contrast, being an expat will give you a deeper view into one country… But the basic aspects of that country will not be “new” to you anymore after the first few weeks or months.

So, if you really love travel and seeing new places, digital nomads generally get a lot more of that.

Digital Nomads Usually Earn More Money

Do you know the term “geoarbitrage”? It’s when you make money from an affluent country while living in a country with a lower cost of living. It’s awesome.

For example, if you earn an American salary while living in Vietnam, that’s geoarbitrage. It’s one of the best advantages of being a digital nomad. You can basically be “rich” without even working that hard.

In contrast, if you’re an expat working a job in Southeast Asia (like teaching English), your salary will likely be much lower.

Vietnam has some of the best paid English teachers in the region, but they still make less than $2,000 USD a month (source). That’s plenty of money for Vietnam, but you can definitely make more if you work online with western clients.

So, Which Lifestyle Is Right for You?

Here are some questions to help you identify which lifestyle might be better for you:

  • Do you feel a strong need to have a “home” with all your stuff, which is consistent and steady? Or could you happily switch to new Airbnbs or hotels on a weekly or monthly basis?
  • In the next couple years, which is more appealing to you: Traveling and having new experiences in new places all the time? Or having healthy and productive routines at a home base?
  • What types of social connections do you want at this time in your life? Do you want to meet many people for short-term connections while traveling? Or do you want to build a few solid connections in one city?
  • Do you have skills that would lend themselves to getting an online remote job or building an online income as a digital nomad? Do you have much interest in learning any specific ways of making money online?
  • Do you think you could tolerate some amount of loneliness when traveling alone as a digital nomad? Would you still be happy, or would you feel too homesick or lonely within a few months?
  • Do you have an interest in many countries and cultures you want to explore, or are you mostly fascinated by one specific country?

I hope those questions help you understand some of the challenges and perks of both lifestyles. Also, please realize: Many people will be a nomad for a while, then settle into an expat life in a favorite destination. So, that’s an option, too.

Before I close, I’ll also share some of my personal view of this issue, and why I chose the digital nomad lifestyle.

Why I’m a Digital Nomad, Not an Expat

Sunrise view from Narita airport in Tokyo.

The first reason I’m a digital nomad is just because I love the novelty of travel so much. I get bored and restless when I’m in one place for more than a month or two.

In fact, even when I’m in the same city for a month or two, I also prefer to change rooms every week. Crazy, right? Some people would hate that—but for me, it keeps everything fresh.

Another reason I’m a digital nomad is because I’ve fallen in love with the benefits of geoarbitrage. Of course, you can still benefit from geoarbitrage as an expat living in one city—but you basically need to be earning your income online.

It’s just awesome to live in SE Asia with an online income of $5,000 USD or more a month. It truly is “living like a king.” Once you’ve gotten used to it, you won’t want to downgrade to the kind of salary you’ll get for teaching English locally.

The hardest part of digital nomad life for me is loneliness. However, I mitigate it by maintaining strong friendships over the phone, and circling back around to my destinations multiple times, meeting back up with people I met before.

Anyway, I hope this post has helped you to consider which of these lifestyles is more fitting for you.

As always, the name of the game is understanding who you are and what will make you happiest. So experiment, see what you like, and keep optimizing your life toward that!