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Estonia launches new visa programme for wealthy 'digital nomads'

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By AP
Dusk falls over Estonia's medieval capital, Tallinn, Thursday, June 27, 2019.
Dusk falls over Estonia's medieval capital, Tallinn, Thursday, June 27, 2019.   -   Copyright  AP
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On the edge of the Baltic Sea in the medieval town of Tallinn, an experiment is underway that could change the way people work and live.

On August 1, Estonia launched a new visa, designed for a new breed of professionals, known as "digital nomads".

The visa lets people working remotely for companies abroad - or freelancers - stay in Estonia for up to one year at a time.

Edilson Osorio Jr., is the CEO of blockchain company OriginalMy. He's been here for eighteen months, working at a coworking hub in Tallinn.

"I'm managing everything far from home, far from my team, and because of COVID-19, right now my whole team is working remotely as well," he says.

"It's a very interesting experience, and it has proved for everyone who has digital services and digital solutions - they can manage everything from anywhere."

Estonia has experience in innovative public policy.

The country is known for its wide network of digital public services based on the compulsory digital identity of its citizens, such as electronic voting, digital prescriptions, and thousands more.

In fact, all interactions with government can be undertaken digitally, apart from getting married, divorced or buying property.

'E-resident'

Non-residents have been able to take advantage of the digital infrastructure by becoming a so-called "e-resident".

More than 70,000 people from 170 countries have taken up e-residency with the attached digital identity that gives them access to Estonian digital services, albeit not a right to actual residency.

With this new visa scheme, Estonia wants to attract high-earning digital nomads – professionals, who work independently, mostly in IT, finance, marketing or similar fields.

Entrepreneur Karoli Hindriks is the founder of Jobbatical, a company that helps digital nomads immigrate around the world.

She was the driving force behind the new visa and started lobbying political decision makers four years ago when she saw a gap in the existing policy.

"In order to go and work in a country, you have to either have an employer locally or you go there as a tourist and that's what a lot of digital nomads do, but the thing is, they are actually not allowed to work, which means they are forced to be illegally there," she says.

Estonia's government estimates that up to 1,800 people will apply for the digital nomad visa within the first year.

In the first months, five people have received a new digital nomad visa, coming from the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Singapore.

"Estonia came up with the digital nomad visa, which is what I would call the in the start-up world the MVP (minimum viable product) of the digital nomad visa. So, which means, let's see how it works and let's improve it," says Hindriks.

Hindriks hopes the new visa will encourage more entrepreneurs to live and work in Estonia, bringing ideas and skills to the country's tech scene.

"For me, the most powerful thing is that Estonia will get access to ideas and those ideas will help to boost the local ecosystem," she says.

While she believes the COVID-19 crisis will hinder visa uptake in the short term, in the long-term, it may prove beneficial.

"The numbers have grown, and my estimation is that there will be an explosion of digital nomads, post-pandemic. Why? Because there are millions of more people who now know they can work remotely. Not only them, but their bosses know they can work remotely," she says.

Estonia has been relatively sheltered from the coronavirus pandemic.

The country implemented tough immigration rules for foreign workers and students.

For Christoph Huebner, a German digital nomad who's been travelling for several years running his health insurance business from his laptop, the main downside of the new visa is the income threshold.

At 3,500 euros net income per-month, only the richest can qualify.

"The demographics of digital nomads are very, very diverse, but usual professions that they have is that they work as programmers, IT industry, marketing, especially digital marketing, SEO. And usually, they don't make 3,500 (euro) net income what's the minimum for the digital nomad visa," says Huebner.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, it's too early to say what effect this new visa policy will have on Estonia.

But for people working from home, the digital nomad lifestyle could provide inspiration for a new relationship with work.