I’ve never been to Estonia, though I’ve heard great things. When a Facebook ad popped up in my feed telling me about Estonia’s digital nomad event I was intrigued. When I found out the event will be held at the Estonian ambassador’s official London residence, I got pretty excited. After all, as someone who usually writes about techno clubs, punk venues, and hipster cafes, I don’t usually get invited to an ambassador’s reception for free food, booze, and a chat about global opportunities. (feel free to invite me, though! I promise to come and eat your food). Within a few clicks I was signed up, and ready to learn all about Estonia’s digital nomad visa and e-residency programme.
Read on for my experience at this fun event, as well as some useful information about both the Estonian digital nomad visa and e-residency. But first, a few general clarifications.
What’s a digital nomad visa?
One good thing that came out of the pandemic is that remote work has become mainstream. Various countries started offering “digital nomad” visas during the pandemic, encouraging (relatively) wealthy foreigners to spend more time in the country while working remotely. Some of these visas have since disappeared, while other countries have embraced the whole thing.
Estonia was, I believe, the first EU country to do this, and the practice has since been taken up by other open-minded countries (i.e. not the UK, for example).
Now, most digital nomads don’t bother getting a special visa when going to another country. Sure, technically you’re not supposed to work on a tourist visa, but in practice, unless you’re illegally working for a local company at a physical location, the odds of you getting in trouble are close to zero (as long as you don’t overstay, of course). I don’t think any country is going to care too much if someone is replying to emails or working on a design on their laptop a few hours a day.
So what are the advantages of a digital nomad visa?
As far as I can tell, the main advantage is the length of stay. Digital nomad visas can be for up to a year, and sometimes even longer, with an option to extend (the Estonia digital nomad visa can effectively be extended for an additional six months). If you want to get to know a country better, learn a new language, or spend a longer time away, this is a clear advantage.
Another advantage over a tourist visa is that in some countries (Portugal and Spain, for example) you can keep extending the digital nomad visa and in some cases even get a permanent residency. That’s something you can’t do with a tourist visa. In fact, the more often and longer you stay on a tourist visa, the more likely you are to get in trouble.
The disadvantages of a digital nomad visa
You have to jump through a bunch more hoops to get a digital nomad visa, and the cost is higher than a regular tourist visa, which is often free or very cheap.
The main issue I see, though, is that there’s a minimum monthly income threshold you have to meet before the visa is granted. For example, Estonia’s income threshold for a digital nomad visa is around 3500 euros a month (gross). The median annual salary in the UK in 2022 was £33,280, which is actually just shy of that threshold.
Many of the digital nomads I know are looking to live in cheap places that are nice, so they can have a decent quality of life for less. This is more often than not because they don’t make that much money. If this is you, then many digital nomad visas won’t be useful for you.
You basically need to have a stable source of income and be reasonably flush to qualify, depending on the country issuing the visa. Still, a digital nomad visa is far more accessible than various investor and entrepreneur visas that require millions in capital. With remote work now being offered by mainstream, well-paying employers, it’s something worth considering.
What’s an e-residency?
The e-residency programme is something exclusive to Estonia. Even though it has “residency” in the name, it’s actually nothing to do with immigration, and getting this in itself won’t allow you to move to Estonia.
An e-residency card means you can open and run a company in Estonia remotely. As Estonia is in the EU, there are obvious advantages to running a business there if you plan on doing business in the EU. Estonia’s taken some significant steps to make this process painless and profitable. Some of the benefits are: everything is digital, everything is available in English, you can register a company within a couple of hours, running costs are relatively low, taxation is competitive, etc.
As this is a travel blog, my interest mostly lies in the digital nomad aspect, and that’s why I attended the event (apart from the free food and wine, obviously). If you’re interested in knowing more, you can find everything you need to know about the e-residency programme here, and decide if it’s right for you and your company.
Estonia’s digital nomad event
The event was held at the official London residence of H.E Viljar Lubi, the Estonian ambassador, on a wet spring evening. As the invitation mentioned both the digital nomad visa and the e-residency programme, there was quite a mix of people crammed into the room, who all attended for different reasons. Throughout the evening I spoke to a British filmmaker, a Canadian digital nomad, a Slovakian Londoner who works in finance, and another Londoner from the blockchain sector. Some were interested in taxation, others in new opportunities and quality of life. Every single person I spoke to mentioned Brexit as a reason for the UK’s decline. For some, it was the reason for wanting to leave, or start a business elsewhere.
We enjoyed great food and wine, watched a lovely slideshow with stunning photos of Estonia’s natural and urban scenery, and heard from a panel of digital nomads and e-residents about their experiences of applying for their visa, opening a business, and living in Estonia.
Here’s what I took away from this session.
Living or running a startup in Estonia
- Estonia is great for nature lovers, hikers, cyclists, cold swimmers (!) and anyone looking for a good quality of life that involves spending time in the great outdoors. Much of the country is wooded, including ancient woodlands. There are around 1500(!) lakes, and the air is clean. Tallinn is a clean, modern, safe city.
- Internet is fast and readily available, and most of the country is covered by 5g. (“In theory, I could take my laptop and work from a tent out in nature, if that’s what I wanted to do.” – Chris Shirley).
- There’s a strong sauna culture, with many flats even offering private saunas as standard. It’s so ingrained in Estonian culture that the ambassador has his own sauna in the garden at the London residence!
- Winters are cold and snowy, offering local opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. Temperatures can go down to -18C or lower, though buildings are well designed and warm (plus, saunas). Still, you’d need to enjoy (or at least not hate) cold weather and dark winters to live here. The country is next door to Finland, so that should give you an idea of what to expect, though winters are milder than they could be, because of the coastal climate.
- Getting around the snowy city in the dead of winter can be a challenge for people with disabilities, though the country is actively taking steps to remedy that.
- Most people in Estonia speak English.
- Because Estonia is small and remote, it has to make things easy to attract foreigners. They’ve cut down on bureaucracy, and everything you need to apply for visas or run an Estonian business is available online in English. At the moment it’s the only EU country that has it so easy for English speaking nomads and entrepreneurs.
- The cost of living is relatively low.
- Estonia is very forward thinking (again, because it’s small and remote), digitally minded, and keen on innovation. They’re even early adopters of things from fully online banking to self-driving buses.
- Estonia is very small, and people are down to earth. Several of the panellists mentioned seeing politicians just hanging out or shopping at the supermarket, sitting in cafes, or walking down the street. Presumably, the greater awareness you have of Estonian celebs, the more of them you’d spot. As for people being down to earth, if our hosts are anything to go by, then I’d say this is a fair assessment. I saw the ambassador himself have a few friendly conversations with participants, and even refilling random people’s wine on occasion.
- There are plenty of resources and networking opportunities and an atmosphere of cooperation. “If you’re coming to Estonia and there’s someone you see on Linkedin you think might be useful for your business, don’t be afraid to get in touch!” – Madis Päev.
- The general vibe I got is that Estonia is a country on the rise, with a national “growth mindset”, and a real sense of opportunity. The ambassador explained that because Estonia is so small, local companies have to think big from the start, as they would never get enough growth in the domestic market. Apparently people have big ideas and there’s a real sense of being able to make things happen.
- While Estonia is small and digital nomad visas are not unlimited (nor can they be extended too much), the country on the whole is welcoming to immigration. There are plenty of jobs advertised, and I get the impression it’s pretty easy to get a work visa once you have an offer.
- Most people who apply for the digital nomad visa are Americans, though there are also Canadians, Indians, British, and other applicants. The split is somewhere along the lines of 70% men and 30% women.
So would I recommend applying for an Estonian digital nomad visa?
The Estonian digital nomad visa won’t be for you if you don’t meet the earning threshold. It is also not suitable for those looking for a visa that could eventually lead to residency and potential EU citizenship. The most you can stay on this visa is a year and a half, and then you need to leave (unless you get a local job and a work visa, or get married or something). However, in terms of lack of red tape and accessibility to English speakers, it’s highly competitive. You can do the entire thing online…in English!
I think Estonia is often overlooked as an option because people don’t know anything about it, and that’s a shame. If you meet the requirements and aren’t put off by colder climes, then I’d say you should definitely consider it. At the very least visit the country and see for yourself if the legends are true. Estonia can serve as a great base from which to explore other parts of Europe, too, as transport links are good, and countries like Finland are just around the corner.
As an EU national, I don’t actually need a digital nomad visa to move to Estonia, but I’ll definitely be visiting and looking to learn more about this intriguing country. Maybe I can even write a guide!