How do you create a truly successful nomad visa? By making nomads' lives easier, says Estonian entrepreneur Karoli Hindriks, who was the person who first suggested Estonia should develop a visa program for digital nomads back in 2018.
Early that year, the CEO and co-founder of immigration and relocation startup Jobbatical sat down for discussions with the Estonian government. Along with her team, she presented the case to the Estonian Interior Ministry, the e-Residency team, and the Police and Border Guard Board. The meeting included insights from another vital group, too: digital nomads themselves.
"The policy was not created by an official sitting in their office and trying to figure out what the rules should be," Hindriks says. "We had this huge database of talent, and many of them were nomads, so we went out and asked, 'What are your biggest problems?' Based on that, we put together our case for the government."
Later, during the visa creation process, the Jobbatical team returned to nomad communities to gather end-user data on what the visa should look like. By involving them right from the start, Hindriks ensured that Estonia's visa program kept the needs and concerns of its target user front and center.
Amid a global talent shortage, countries are racing to attract skilled workers and entice them to stay. Creating visa programs designed to solve immigration and travel issues for nomads could well weigh the balance in their favor.
The irony in all this, says Hindriks, is that countries like Portugal – the "Silicon Valley of Europe" and a favorite destination for nomads – have fallen behind the times. "You have great weather, the timezone is good, the food is good, and the lifestyle is great. And then we look at how we get people in, and things like government forms must be handwritten. Not typed, but written out by hand."
Reassured by historical tourist numbers, countries have a tendency to ignore the glaring flaws in their immigration systems – the issue essentially being that many of such systems do little or nothing to serve the experience of the people using them. In some countries, many government departments still run on pen and ink, or even typewriters.
The real problem, though, runs much deeper – to the core of the global border system itself. Immigration processes, long controlled by Western civilizations, discriminate heavily against people from non-Western countries with "weaker" passports. If you're born in the wrong place, your passport provides you with fewer global mobility rights than your peers who originate from more powerful countries.
Today, immigration processes fail on multiple fronts. Firstly, most skilled workers come from countries like India and China, creating a massive block of talent unable to move freely. And secondly, these processes may have originally been designed to protect local citizens, but most now don't meet the needs of the modern workforce.
Building innovative, inclusive systems and processes on a broken foundation is difficult. That's why focusing on user experience, according to Hindriks, is the key to creating successful nomad visa programs that rethink and streamline the immigration process.
This starts with looking at what's working and not working in countries that have created similar programs. Despite Estonia's success in launching a program, Hindriks still feels the government could have done more for nomads by updating its technology and the visa's approach to taxing temporary residents.
"You can make something sound good, but if it's not working for the users, then the users will talk, and they will not go to your country," she explains. "So, it's important to figure out the user experience."
What the world needs, Hindriks believes, is a "Ministry of User Experience" to guide countries through this process and share best practices based on actual data and results. Barring that, she suggests reaching out to more experienced teams for advice and direction: "We're in this place where we're still using typewriters," she says. "But we already know that we should start using desktop computers."
In a rush to accommodate new waves of location-independent workers, it's tempting to prioritize speedy solutions over effective ones. But by listening to the people they're building visas for, countries can make entering, staying, and working within their borders seamless.
By doing so, countries can draw in global talent, bolster their local economies, and have a more influential voice on the world stage.