Covid-19 Accelerates the Rise of Digital Nomad Visa Options

Estonia may be best known — at least for those in the know — as the nation that rebooted itself in the cloud. Boasting the world’s most ambitious and secure Internet infrastructure, the nation issues its citizens digital identity cards with access to thousands of services — including paying taxes in minutes. In 2015, the government elected to make these available to non-citizens. E-residency entitles entrepreneurs to bank or incorporate in Estonia (and thus within the EU) but not to enter the country, and today there are around 70,000 e-residents of Estonia who have no intention of relocating there, including me.

Originally pitched to global nomads and free agents, e-residency proved popular enough that last year Estonia began hinting at issuing a one-year ‘nomad visa’ offering entry to the country itself. After the pandemic hit, overnight the world’s knowledge workers became temporary professional nomads, and the disparity between national responses threw into stark relief the comparative advantages of alternative citizenship — especially for Americans suddenly locked out of much of the world.

Whereas once investment migrants were typically high-net-worth individuals in search of greater mobility, today an increasing number are well-compensated professionals desperately seeking a Plan B for affordable healthcare and their children’s education, at least until a vaccine becomes widely available. (For instance, I, along with many other Americans, now reside in Canada. According to recent reports, nearly a third of Americans were threatening to move to Canada if November’s presidential election didn’t go their way.) The increasing desire for alternative options has in turn given rise to a new class of visas that may prove to be the gateway for a new breed of middle-class migrants who are keenly aware of other nations’ successes (or failures).

By the time Estonia began accepting nomad applications in August, for example, it was no longer the first — Barbados had unveiled its one-year ‘Welcome Stamp’ in July, attracting more than 1,000 inquiries the first week. Bermuda and Georgia were not far behind, both finding plenty of takers. (This is in addition to the doubling of Americans inquiring about secondary citizenship in the first half of the year.)

Where digital nomads differ from classic investment migrants is in the talent they bring to their hosts. Nomads are invited to reside and consume, funneling overseas salaries into the economies of Tallinn and Tbilisi. Is this the new frontier of the global creative class, wooed by governments as they hop from one pandemic- and climate-crisis oasis to the next?

Investment migration paved the way for competitive residency, but once again the benefits of innovation are trickling down —
EUR 1 million or even USD 100,000 for alternative citizenship is too steep a price for many; EUR 100 for a year in Estonia is the perfect price to give one a taste. After all, once one has adjusted to working and schooling-from-home, why stop at leaving Manhattan for the mountains when one can decamp to a country where the virus is under control? Nomad visas are only the start.

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