Working Across Borders: Why Estonia Is Launching a Visa for Digital Nomads

Under the proposed plan, digital nomads will enjoy access to Estonia for a year.

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By Karoli Hindriks


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It's no secret that the way we work is changing. As a growing number of workers become "borderless," opting to work online without a fixed location, governments and businesses have been left with the challenge of designing structures and systems to support the shift to location independence.

Related: Why Europe Is Facing a Digital Skills Crisis

Some industries have welcomed the change in the employment landscape more than others. Technology companies in particular are looking to accommodate remote workers due to an industry shortage of highly skilled talent and a culture built on challenging the status quo. Perhaps it's not surprising then, that Estonia, with over six times more startups per capita than the European average, is at the forefront of developing credible, government-backed solutions to the challenges posed by the decoupling of geography from productivity.

With a population of just under 1.3 million and continent-leading digital infrastructure, Estonia is currently in the process of developing a new visa designed specifically for digital nomads from around the world. Earlier this year, leaders from the digital nomad community joined my company Jobbatical to advise the Estonian Ministry of the Interior to put a framework in place to develop the world's first visa for borderless workers. Under the proposed plan, digital nomads will enjoy access to Estonia for a year, as well as the Schengen Area for up to 90 days, to enable them to live and work in the EU.

The idea is based on a simple premise: the desire to allow nomadic workers to enjoy the same regulatory and legal benefits provided to their static counterparts. Let me explain -- the main obstacle for borderless workers is that the policy framework does not recognize that kind of working. Work permits are typically available if you have a specific employer in the location that you are moving to. Alternatively, nomads can use a tourist visa, but by entering with that and working remotely they will be acting as an illegal worker in the eyes of the law. With large numbers of workers operating on a flexible basis -- both in terms of their job roles and location -- what options are available for individuals that work remotely or for multiple organizations at the same time?

Related: How European Entrepreneurs Can Prepare for the Digital Skills Gap

With this in mind, Estonia recognized the need to bring government regulations into the 21st century, developing a clear system of rules that help, not hinder, location independent workers. The new visa, which will be on par with all other types of work visas currently available, is planned to be formally launched in 2019. Lucky nomads that obtain this visa will be given full access to a range of citizen services and rights and will be able to reside and remain within the country for up to a year. In addition, visa holders will be able to travel -- and work -- for up to 90 days in the Schengen Area, which comprises 26 countries including Germany, Italy and Spain.

The decision to create the visa comes as Estonia's landmark e-residency scheme continues to grow, with the country seeing more applications to the program than births in 2017. By combining initiatives such as these, Estonia hopes to attract thousands of highly skilled workers to its booming tech industry, providing companies with the most important ingredient for success -- people.

While the new visa is an important step toward maintaining Estonia's position as one of Europe's preeminent startup hubs, the initiative is but one of several designed to increase access to talent for Estonia's startups and scale-ups. Earlier this year it was announced that Estonian companies would receive additional support for hiring international workers, with costs associated with transferring workers paid in part by the Estonian government. Like the newly passed immigration bill, the digital nomad visa is expected to tackle Estonia's specialist skills shortage and further add to its burgeoning reputation as a strong innovation and technology hub. Estonia's local economy is also set to benefit from these initiatives as location independent workers opt to send more and more of their time in the country, contributing to the consumption of goods and services while sharing knowledge, skills and know-how with Estonia's residents.

Related: How to Choose the Right European Country to Start Your Business

Yet, Estonia is far from the only country in the world experiencing a skills shortage, particularly within the tech and creative industries. According to a Manpower Group survey 40 percent of employers globally are having difficulty filling positions. As some governments build walls, others are following Estonia's lead in providing a streamlined process for relocation that attracts the most skilled workers. Whether the rest will follow suit is yet to be seen. For now, all we can say with absolute certainty is that it will be the highly adaptive and forward-thinking countries that will leap ahead in the race for attracting, and retaining, the best talent from around the world.

Karoli Hindriks

CEO of Jobbatical

Karoli Hindriks is the CEO of Jobbatical. In 2016-17, EU-Startups named her one of the 50 most influential women in the European startup and VC space.

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