Ben Todd | Jun 2, 2017 | 1
Digital Nomad: Ultimate Packing Guide
You’ve made the choice to be a digital nomad, bought your plane ticket, and now you’re getting ready to pack. Fitting an entire life into a suitcase isn’t an easy chore, it is do-able with our ultimate digital nomad packing guide.
Let’s get started with four packing tips first
The Digital Nomad Pre-Packing TO DO’s
Before even packing, do the following 4 things!
1. Research the country you’re traveling to
What’s fine in Miami Beach during spring break isn’t going to work for a more conservative or colder country. Make sure that the clothes you bring are both climatic and culturally appropriate. Likewise, do some brief research on average sizes for the country you’re going to. In Indonesia, for example, sizes run small. If you’re tall or carry much extra weight, it can be difficult to find clothes while you’re there, so you’ll have to be extra careful when packing.
2. Don’t pack any more than what you’d be willing to carry for at least a kilometer.
As a nomad, your life gets uprooted a lot and I guarantee that you will end up carrying your things at some point — even if your suitcase has wheels.
3. Invest in a decent bag or luggage.
If you’re moving around a lot, you will need something both highly reliable and practical. You don’t want your bag breaking down on you in the middle of a trip. I favor bags with both a lock (for when I’m staying at hostels, camping, or otherwise have few ways to secure my items) and organizational compartments.
4. Packing for one month is essentially the same as packing for one week
If your trip is short – only a month or two – you can take the same clothes that you would only take for one week of travel. Remember: washing clothes is a global phenomenon.
But what do you pack?
For the sake of convenience, I’ve broken down this guide into four sections: documents, clothes, toiletries, mobile office.
The Best Digital Nomad Packing List (What You NEED to Bring)
As a digital nomad, you’ll be wandering around the world through various cities and countries. What you won’t be doing is sitting around in your home country or in an office.
You’ll be bringing what you need to use with you all the time. So it’s key to get this right.
Here’s, based on my own experience as a digital nomad, what you’ll need.
THE Documents You’ll Need as a Digital Nomad
Documents are the most important thing you have to pack. Without them, you won’t even be able to board the plane.
Do not, under any circumstance, forget your passport if you’re traveling abroad. Your passport is the key to your new life.
Paper & Digital Copies of Passport
Make sure you make a copy of your passport — preferably two of them, just in case the worst happens. I like to have a digital copy on my phone, a digital copy emailed to myself, and two printed copies (stashed in different bags).
Better safe than sorry!
Visa / Visa Letter
You may need a visa for your new life, especially if you’re planning on staying long-term. Every country is different (depending on your aforementioned passport), so make sure to research the visa requirements for the country you’re traveling to.
Arrival Information and ink pen
On the plane, you normally have to fill out an arrival card, which may ask for the address or telephone number of the place you’re staying. You’ll thus need to have this information readily accessible. Make sure you also remember to slip an ink pen into your carry-on bag, so you can fill your card out on the plane and get ahead of the queue at the airport.
Additional Means of ID
If something were to happen to your passport, your country’s embassy would probably very much like to see an additional form of identification. I keep my old driver’s license around, but any officially issued ID should work.
Copy of birth certificate
It’s very possible you’ll need this for both insurance and banking purposes in your new home abroad. Additionally, you may need to have this translated into your local language (which is normally pretty inexpensive.) You don’t need to print this one; just make sure you have it on file or available on your computer, for once you arrive at your destination.
Accessing your money will be absolutely essential on your trip. If you lose your cards, it’s not likely you can easily just run back to your nearest home branch bank and get new cards.
Most banks (and credit card companies) will charge you extra fees for withdrawing money from ATM’s (or using the card) outside of your country. These fees can really add up.
There’s also the issue of currency exchange fees you’ll be dealing with. Use your debit card to buy something or withdraw money from an ATM in another country (and in another currency) and you’ll pay exchange fees — sometimes 2-3 percent on top of the market rate.
For example, I found I was paying nearly $8 – $10 Canadian per $100 Canadian when trying to withdraw cash from Thailand ATM’s using my Canadian bank card!
Read our articles about the best cheapest ways to send money abroad or how to get the cheapest currency exchange while abroad.
In general, here’s what you need to bring as a digital nomad in terms of money access.
IN general, a credit card is safer to use than a debit card because you are more covered (fraud protection) and you may be given insurance on purchases made with the card, depending on the type of card.
You can’t carry too much cash safely with you, and traveler’s checks are outdated. Try to find a credit card that won’t charge crazy fees to withdraw money in your new host country. The best sort of credit cards for this are Travel Credit Cards.
These are cards that don’t charge you foreign transaction fees (i.e. no extra fees when using the card abroad). Some of the better travel cards give you cash back or travel points when you use the card to buy flights, hotel purchases, food or other travel expenses. You also get signup bonuses (see our best travel credit cards list).
I recommend bringing TWO different credit cards with you. If you lose one, you have another backup credit card.
Credit cards often get you the better exchange rates when you use them abroad. If you are particularly savy, you can put extra money on your credit card then withdraw from ATM’s abroad using the credit card, and thus avoid the interest fees that your Credit Card company would normally charge for a cash withdraw on the card, while getting a much better exchange rate than you would if you used a debit card to pull money from the ATM!
I use CitiBank, which has global branches and ATMs I can withdraw from for free. Additionally, I was able to open a CitiBank account abroad and connect it to my one in the US, which allows free money transfers.
Debit Cards (2 of them)
Sometimes you can’t get away from using an ATM. As such, you’ll need to have a debit card with you. Just keep in mind you’ll pay ATM fees at the foreign ATM and you’ll pay an ATM fee with your home branch for using a non-branch ATM and you may pay a foreign transaction fee. You’ll also be hit up with a 2-3 percent added currency exchange.
As such, ATM’s are one of the worst (mosways to get your money.
I recommend having two separate bank accounts (with the same bank) with two different debit cards.
You can use one of the cards with the checking account but maintain a lower balance (prevents fraud) while using the second account to transfer money online to the regular checking account.
But you’ll be able to access both accounts directly with each card, if needed.
For some digital nomads, you may be able to get the absolute best rates IF you are able to send money to a bank account abroad. IF you, say, plan to stay in a specific country for a few months, it may be possible to open a bank account. If this is the case, you could use Transferwise to get he absolute best exchange rate by sending money from your bank account to transferwise, then from Transferwise to your local bank account in the country you are staying.
In my experience, you can save at least $30 USD per $1000 USD you send this way vs just doing a wire transfer. When compared to using your ATM, you save even MORE.
As mentioned in the first packing tip, dressing for whichever culture and climate you’re in is key. Once you know temperatures, how conservatively a country dresses, and average sizes you can assemble your wardrobe.
Capsule wardrobes are key for a practical packing for the modern nomad. The idea behind them is that you only pack things which all go together and with a similar color palette, and can be worn in many different combinations. For a capsule wardrobe, use a rule of three, which means that you pack no more than three of each type of clothing item (save socks and underwear.) For example, three t-shirts, three button up shirts, three pairs of shoes, etc.
Obviously, the types of clothing items you need will vary from country to country, depending on the climate. It’s unlikely you’ll need a parka in Jamaica or flip flops in the north of Finland.
My fresh-from-college move was to the wildly varying climate of South Korea. During the winters, the arctic winds come howling down from Siberia, leaving the peninsula a miserably cold block of ice. The summers, however, are swelteringly humid, with temperatures climbing up to thirty-five degrees (95°F).
When I moved to Korea, I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d be settling, so I knew I had to pack light. This is what I ended up taking
- Three neutral-colored t-shirts
- Two tank-tops, to wear as undershirts
- Two button-up shirts
- Three dress shirts
- Three neutral-colored skirts
- Three pairs of leggings (both to wear with skirts and layer under my pants during the winter)
- Two pairs of jeans
- One pair of dress pants
- One lightweight fall/spring trench-coat
- One parka
- Three scarves, of varying weights for different temperatures
- Seven pairs of underwear (enough to last a week without laundry)
- Three bras (one black, one white, one nude)
- One pair of tennis shoes
- One pair of sandals
- One pair of boots
I know this list probably sounds pretty Spartan to some of you out there, but there are a few things to consider.
You can have additional items shipped to you once you know your address
It’s not exactly a secret that flying an extra bag can be exorbitantly expensive, and then you have to drag it after you to your new home in a strange country. It can be both cheaper and a lot more practical to have your things shipped to you, as soon as you know your address. Several of my nomadic friends had things periodically shipped to them during their first year abroad to save on both costs and packing space. For example, one friend didn’t bring any winter clothes when she arrived in Japan in July, but rather, had her cold-weather gear sent over later.
Expat communities are always shedding members, and therefore, stuff.
The bittersweet thing about expats and nomads is that they’re always leaving for new places, and sometimes quite quickly. Things tend to accumulate over time, and it’s rare for anyone to leave with exactly the same things that they came with. Therefore, there are a LOT of people in your new community happy to give away their things. I myself have scored everything from curtains, sweaters, and even a couch (for free!) from leaving expats, and I whenever I pack up to leave again I know I’ll do the same.
Stores exist in other countries.
Even if you were to arrive in Serbia only to find that you had forgotten to pack any socks, I can guarantee you that there are stores there. You can find stores everywhere. North Korea even has stores. Some items might be difficult to find if you’re much larger or smaller than average, but there are always speciality shops and tailors. Additionally, online shopping makes finding even difficult sizes easy. Even if you forget to pack something, don’t worry too much.
Toiletries are where tons of people break the bank on both space and weight limits. It’s easy to throw all of your different products into a case when packing. After all, if you’ve been using these products your whole life; why would they change just because you’re moving?
During your life abroad, products you used back home will probably change. Markets are different in every country; you may not be able to find your normal favorites. It has been years since I used Colgate brand toothpaste or Matrix shampoo, but that has long since ceased to bother me. I have found equivalents that work just fine (or even better!). During your new life abroad, you’re going to have to get used to all sorts of new things, and downsizing before you go is the first step to this.
Really, there are only a few items that you absolutely need to pack.
If you take a medication, make sure you have at least a two-month supply of it as long as it is legal in the country that you are going to. You’ll also need to do some research and see if you’ll have access to your needed prescriptions in your new country, or if you need to take extras with you.
2. Toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste, and dental floss
Even a travel-sized tube will last you a month, which gives you plenty of time to buy a full-sized tube after you get to your new home. Additionally, a travel-size tube means you can take it on the plane, which means you’ll be able to get rid of the taste of your in-flight meal as soon as possible.
3. Travel-sized containers of shampoo and conditioner
You can take those bottles you swiped from a hotel. Make sure it’s enough to last you a week or so once you’ve arrived at your destination, so you won’t be stressed to immediately go out and find refills. There is, under no circumstances, a reason to pack full-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner. They are dually heavy and space eaters. Anyway, depending on how long you’re abroad, you’ll have to buy another bottle of shampoo. You might as well get used to it from the get-go.
Preferably bar soap, as you won’t have to worry about it exploding in your bag and it takes up much less room. (Again, you can take a bar you stole from a hotel.) Bar soap can also double as a quick way to wash out some clothes or scrub out stains. Additionally, you’ll be able to take this onto the plane in your carry-on bag and clean up en route to your destination or immediately after you arrive.
4. Small bottles of lotion, sunscreen, etc.
You can find travel-sized containers in a lot of places nowadays. As most of your bottles probably aren’t full anyway, downsize into these.
5. Contact solution, if you need it.
It CAN be difficult to find contact solution depending on where you’re going. If you’re headed to somewhere super rural, a third-world country, or somewhere very dusty, it’s probably better to bring glasses. Do research for your new home to see if it’s worth bringing your contacts before you pack them.
6. Nail clippers
Nail clippers a very multi-purpose tool. Not only can they trim your nails, but they’re also great at opening packages, cutting tags, opening bottles, or even (in a pinch) stripping wires. They’re also small enough to weigh almost nothing, so they’re definitely worth their space in your bag.
If you’re moving to somewhere like Asia, razors can be crazy expensive. To save on space (and be environmentally friendly!) skip on disposables and get one with replaceable blades or heads.
8. Chapstick, band-aids, disinfectant, tweezers
These are all super small things that can make all the difference in the world, and that are awful to be without when you need them.
A certain famous sci-fi book pointed out that a towel is the most useful object in the galaxy, and it definitely had a point. Not only can it dry you off, but it be used to: double as a blanket or pillow; sit on; make a makeshift bag; and a myriad of other useful things. They even make special, super-collapsable travel-sized towels which scrunch up into almost nothing if you’re worried about trying to cram one of your fluffy shower towels into your precious, limited space.
Toiletries (For the Ladies)
Most of us have tons of additional products and cosmetics we carry around (and a few we’ve not even used in months, or even years.) Take whichever cosmetics you use at least five days a week, and keep in mind that many women in many countries don’t wear as much makeup as we do in the West. Try to minimize what you take – you probably don’t need 52 different colors of eyeshadow. Keep it simple – one tube of mascara, some foundation, etc. If you’re a different skin tone than the normal population (for example, Caucasian and going to the Congo) keep in mind that you might not be able to find your normal shade of makeup. Also, remember that if you ever wanted to start wearing less makeup, now is the time to start.
Most countries have sanitary napkins which are easy enough to find, but tampons can be a challenge in some places. A Diva Cup is a great, environmentally-friendly and space-saving alternative to tampons. With whatever product you use, I would recommend bringing enough to last you through at least your first period. There’s nothing worse than being stranded away from a way to deal with your period when in a foreign country – I know from experience.
Likewise, if you’re on the pill, it may be difficult to find in your new adopted country. (For example, some countries may be unwilling to sell it to unmarried women, etc.) Yet again, do some research and see if you’ll need to stock up before you go. If unavailable and needed, see about an IUD or other such alternative birth control. Condoms, on the other hand, can be found in nearly every country, though sizes may vary.
One last note: nobody ever needs to pack a hairdryer. It’s super bulky, you’d need a converter, and anyway, that much heat isn’t great for your hair.
The Digital Nomad Mobile Office
As a digital nomad, the electronics you bring you will be the core of your new “office” – though this time, without the stifling cubicle! You’ll need a few things to get started.
This is arguably the mosts important part of your packing kit as a digital nomad. If you don’t have the ideal office setup, everything suffers! So get this one right!
Personally, you can go heavy and opt for a more comprehensive office setup where you haul around everything you might need and more. But the cost is the cost in weight — it quickly becomes a slog trying to haul around a lot of office gear (large laptop, mouse, cables, various other items) as a digital nomad.
So ideally, you need to focus on minimalism when it comes to packing your nomadic office.
If you are a digital nomad, you’ll need a laptop — no way around this. A laptop IS your office and the center of your life as a digital nomad.A lot of digital nomads use Chromebooks.
The key thing is that you need a laptop that’s LIGHT and portable, as you’ll be jumping around often and likely working out of coffee shops. You can’t bring a clunky, 17-inch laptop with you easily.
I personally recommend a laptop with a 13-inch screen. If you need more screen space, a 15 inch will do the trick, though these are substantially heavier and less portable. For me, the 13 inch is the best performance & size intersection for the digital nomad.
A lot of digital nomads use Chromebooks.
They’re dirt cheap, light as a feather, and super easy to use. I don’t need anything much more complicated than making a presentation or sending an email, so there was no reason to spend a ton of money on something with a high processing power.
If all your work is done directly on Google (google docs, google spreadsheets, google drive, gmail, etc), you’ll never have to worry about files being lost or accidentally deleted.
You have access to all your filesI go, on any device with Internet. The battery life on the Chromebook is also fantastic. Mine (which is a couple of years old) lasts roughly eight hours per charge.
However, I know a lot of you probably do need something with a bit more power, or you might want to run real apps and programs and not just function on the cloud.
Again, do some research to figure out what you need and if you’ll be able to pick up a laptop for cheaper abroad than you could back home. Places like Malaysia are known for having dirt-cheap electronics, so see if you’ll be able to save a few dimes.
Best Laptops for digital nomads?
Look, there’s a ton to choose from. But I’ve owned quite a few. The cheaper option is the Chromebook. However, if you need to use a lot of windows apps, then opt for the Dell XPS 13. This is just about the best portable laptop that you can get your hands on. I own one and it’s my primary travel/coffee shop laptop.
You might also look at a Surface Pro 4, which is a great tablet and a decent laptop (however, if you plan to use a laptop mostly in the, well, laptop mode, Surface Pro’s are not so ideal — I had a Surface Pro 3 for 2 years and traded it in for a Dell XPS 13).
I’ll be honest here. The first time I moved abroad in 2014 (to France), I used a good old-fashioned Nokia flip phone. It cost me $30, and I think my cell phone bill was something like four euros a month. I only needed a phone to make calls to my clients and contact my boss, nothing fancier.
It is entirely possible that you won’t need much fancier than what I had at the time. However, when I made my next move across the ocean to super high-tech Korea, I upgraded to a smartphone.
Even if my Chromebook got hit by a bolt of lightning tomorrow, I could complete all of my work on my phone. It keeps track of my calendar, has my banking on it, music, social media, and even syncs automatically to my camera (which, in turn, automatically backs itself up online). One of my digital nomad friends works exclusively from her phone, doing coding work.
You’ll need to pick out a phone which suits your needs, and the country that you’re traveling to. Phone friendliness varies by country.
In South Korea where Samsung is king, the iPhone is not very welcome. Apple stores are few and far between, and even some apps won’t work on anything that isn’t a Samsung phone. For example, I have a banking card which can be read automatically by my Samsung, while my friends using other phones are forced to go a much longer route and manually type in numbers.
I personally love my Samsung S8 (make sure it’s unlocked). Pricey, but oh so sweet. Other’s are all about the Apple iPhones. A good alternative Android phone is the Google Nexus phones with super long batter life.
I’ve always loved reading, but as a nomad, it’s a pain to carry around more than one book at a time, and one book will only last a single long-haul flight.
This is where the e-reader shines. They can hold and entire library and the battery life is incredible- if you keep the WiFi off, it can last up to a month. Also, if you’re not completely fluent in the language of your new adopted country, it can be difficult to find printed media. An e-reader can download newspapers, books, articles, and much more which will keep you both entertained and informed. They are also very slim and lightweight, which means you can easily tuck one into your carry-on for those long hours at airports and on flights.
Also, if you’re not completely fluent in the language of your new adopted country, it can be difficult to find printed media. An e-reader can download newspapers, books, articles, and much more which will keep you both entertained and informed. They are also very slim and lightweight, which means you can easily tuck one into your carry-on for those long hours at airports and on flights.
They are also very slim and lightweight, which means you can easily tuck one into your carry-on for those long hours at airports and on flights.
What’s the best e-reader? By far the Amazon Kindle. The nice middle-of-the-road pick is the Kindle Paperwhite. For those who absolutely want the best, Amazon offers a deluxe version called the Kindle Oasis with a better screen and a more bell’s n whistles.
Invest in some good-quality headphones or earbuds before you leave. The mark-ups at airports can be high, and you might not be able to find them at the same places you could back home.
There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to recommending the best travel headphones out there. Personally, I highly recommend the wireless (Bluetooth) BOSS Quiet Comfort 35 headphones.
The noise cancellation on these babies is supreme (many say the best out there) and you’ll be able to focus on work (or a film) even in the loudest of airplanes, trains, or coffee shops. They are, however, pricey (over $300 USD), but absolutely worth it for digital nomads.
Obviously, you don’t have to have a camera, depending on the kind of work you do (or depending on the kind of photos you want to take.) As I partially make my living by blogging, I’ve invested in a slightly bulky DSLR so I can take clean, quality pictures of my travels. If weight is an issue, though, there are lighter high-end cameras which are not too heavy (such as the mirrorless cameras) which rival (or surpass) the DSLR’s.
For some of you, a phone camera or a simple handheld digital camera will work.
This one is key. There is nothing more frustrating finding yourself in an airport or in another country with a dead laptop or phone and with no means of charging!
I have a universal plug adaptor, with four different types of plug-ins on the back, meaning it can work in tons of different countries. It has both a normal plug for my US appliances, as well as two USB plugs on the top for quick charging my phone or e-reader.
Frankly, I keep on breaking my various travel chargers or I lose them. I think I’ve found the perfect travel charger called the MICRO travel adaptor that I’m backing on kickstarter right now — it’s super, super small and looks like something any digital nomad can use.
These can essentially save your life while traveling. One battery pack can (normally) completely re-charge your phone. Your phone may very well be your lifeline while abroad – it’s your map, your translator, your means of communication. If it dies, it makes your life that much more difficult.
I personally recommend the Omnicharge Pro which can charge an iphone at least 6 times.
It’s pricey at about $200, but you can charge pretty much any type of device with the outputs it offers. Yes, this means you can plug in your laptop charger directly to the AC imput or plug it in directly into your laptop DC imput (so you don’t need to bring your laptop charge but use the Omnicharge Pro instead!).
You can pretty much get a full charge of your laptop (even a gaming one) with it. Or you can plug in your DSLR or the DSLR battery charger, etc.
- DC output
- AC plugin
- 2 USB’s
- Wireless charging
You can also charge up the powerbank through USB, a DC output (such as via your laptop charger). All in all, it’s the most flexible powerbank in the world and I use and abuse it. I take it everywhere (coffeeshop, trains, planes, automobile).
Make sure not to forget your charging cables while packing, but also, make sure you don’t bring duplicates. Remember that most phones, e-readers, and battery packs can charge from the same cable.
CODA: Your carry-on
Your carry on should contain, at a minimum, the following items:
- One complete change of clothes
- Three pairs of underwear
- Toothbrush/toothpaste/bar of soap
- Valuable items
Luggage does get lost sometimes, and if this happens, you’ll want the bare minimum to keep you set while the airline tries to find it. It’s also much easier to live out of your carry on for a day or two, instead of trying to unpack and sort through your suitcase immediately after arrival.
This guide should give you a good head-start into packing. Yet again, make sure to research the place you’re going to, and remember not to stress too much over it. In the end, the things that you take with you are just things. It’s your experience that really matters.