Why the USA Is a Bad Place for Digital Nomads 4

USA infrastructure for digital nomads

The infrastructure of the United States… only useful if you bring your own car.

Over the last year I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the United States of America, because my girlfriend is working on a research project there. The US has a reputation for liberty and entrepreneurship, which makes it seem like a decent spot for a digital nomad to hang out for a while. It turns out that it isn’t. In this article I look at three reasons why the United States are a bad place for digital nomads.

Poor infrastructure in America

Two of the things that I consider most important in a place to live (temporarily) are:

  • A fast internet connection (data infrastructure);
  • Good (public) transportation (travel infrastructure);

On the first point the USA has a dismal performance. Its typical internet speeds lag well behind those of other rich countries. Even in Bulgaria, a relatively poor country, I get two to three times the internet speed at less than a third of the US cost. It’s cheaper for me to use data roaming on a Mexican SIM card in the USA than it is to buy a data bundle from any of the American operators. (I bought a prepaid SIM card while visiting Mexico City and have been recharging it ever since. If you aren’t so lucky, you can order one online.)

When it comes to transportation, the US is the land of cars. Most things can be done from your car: from going to the bank to dining out, and from seeing a movie to getting married. If you’re somehow driving into the US, this is pretty useful (but be prepared for a lot of trouble at the border). Otherwise the dominance of the car has resulted in severely underdeveloped public transportation, biking lanes, and sidewalks. There are only about three and a half* cities that have decent to good public transportation.

If you’re not staying in these cities you’re resigned to either paying a lot for rental cars and/or taxicabs, or being stuck. Rental cars get especially pricey because of the insurance, for which you’re charged the maximum if you’re a foreigner without an American driving license. Also, while it may seem like a good idea to get a rental car just for the times that you are travelling, you really need a vehicle every day. Without one, even simple things like getting groceries, buying a coffee, or going for a run in the park become impossible in most places.

Fortunately, some cities now have Uber (or its ridesharing competitor Lyft). It is an ongoing battle between the rideshare companies, local taxi mafias, and legislators that decides whether this option will be available to you. For example, Uber recently pulled out of Austin, Texas, because of regulatory pressure, leaving citizens and visitors alike at the mercy of fewer than one-per-thousand-capita licensed taxis. Also, while cheaper than normal cabs, Uber still costs you around $5-10 for a short drive. That’s a very expensive coffee or jog in the park. If you want to try Uber and get your first ride for free, sign up here. (By using the link you donate a free ride to me as well, for which I am grateful.)

Strict US Border Controls

The United States have some of the toughest border controls in the world. Only a few countries are harder to get into. The American attitude is: you’re presumed to be trying to immigrate into the country illegally, unless you can prove otherwise. (This is literally the instruction Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers get for performing their duty.) That means that whenever you enter the country, you’ll have to deal with long lines, exhausting interrogations, and invasive security measures.

US border control immigrations

A typical line for immigrations at a US airport. Note that while the US citizens line seems longer, the visitors line actually takes much longer. (Photo provided by US Government, as taking pictures at the border is strictly prohibited.)

Last time I entered the country after a short weekend trip to Mexico City–perfectly legal under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)–I was held in an interrogation office for two hours and had all my electronics confiscated. The CBP officer “politely asked” me to give her the encryption password for my phone. (In any non-border situation in the US, searching your phone or laptop would require a warrant signed by a judge, and you never have to give up your password under the fifth amendment to the constitution.) When I asked what would happen if I didn’t, she answered that all data would be force downloaded from my device, it would be kept at another facility for up to 30 days, and meanwhile I wouldn’t be allowed to enter back into the country. That’s a pretty sh***y spot to be in as a digital nomad.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re travelling under the VWP, holding a visa, or have long-term residence (a ‘green card’) in the US. I’ve discussed experiences with people falling in any of those categories. If you don’t hold a US passport, entering into the country is a nightmare if you have a nomadic existence. That may be acceptable for someone travelling to America for some weeks or months and having no intention to leave the country. But for the real nomad this is a big deal breaker.

Inflated Cost of Living

Another big consideration when picking a place to stay is the cost of living. It’s why many digital nomads love places like Chiang Mai, Bali, and Prague. It’s one of the reasons that I chose to live in Sofia. Obviously, most rich countries are less attractive to digital nomads in this respect. But you should also consider what you get for the price you pay. In a country like Switzerland you get great and clean public spaces and very efficient transportation. In Italy you get world class food and wine. Spain gives you many free festivals. In Dubai you get the biggest and most ostentatious of everything money can buy.

I’ve found that the US does a poor job of providing value for money. High prices of fresh food, alcohol, transportation, entertainment, and digital infrastructure don’t translate into higher quality. It’s amusing to see how in many an American bar you get served a tasteless beer in a plastic cup for $6, with the bartender expecting a tip for the effort of opening the can. Despite the high cost of living, most US cities offer few nice public spaces. Crime and begging are more common than in most European countries (except maybe Russia and war-torn Ukraine).

Why is this? A decent chunk of the costs of products and services goes to mitigating legal risks, which are high because of litigation practices in the country. But American companies are also lauded for being more profitable than European ones. Many people believe that this is because they are more competitive and efficient. But higher profits for corporate shareholders are mostly the result of higher prices for consumers and worse conditions for workers. Mergers and acquisitions give more market power to big companies to set prices and wages. And heavy lobbying keeps political institutions from giving more power to workers or consumers.

All of this is great if you’re an investment banker, a lawyer, or a lobbyist. If you are, it may be well worth putting up with America’s poor infrastructure, pesky border controls, and high cost, for there are few countries that offer more opportunities to your field of work. But if you’re a digital nomad working in any other sphere, the US is a terrible place for you. If you can avoid the United States and set up shop elsewhere, you will be much better off.

*They are New York City, San Francisco, and Boston. Washington DC counts as half, as it has good public transportation in some parts and none in others.


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4 thoughts on “Why the USA Is a Bad Place for Digital Nomads

    • Martijn Post author

      @Ariana: They go through your phone outside of your view. I am certain that she went through my WhatsApp conversations and my ‘settings’ panel, because she specifically asked questions about those. Other than that, I cannot be sure. I imagine they are looking for connections to suspicious persons, evidence of illegal activities, or clues that you may not leave the country. Also, accessing the settings panel would allow them to note the IMEI number, serial number, and MAC address. That might enable certain agencies (e.g. the NSA) to track and/or hack your phone later, but of course that would require further effort.

  • ccc

    I’ve been the the USA tons of times (since I was a child) and immigration is pretty non-invasive. I suppose I am comparing it to the EU or other similar places where immigration is much more invasive. I am black and so those relatively small annoyances do not compare relative to the hassle of living in the more xenophobic parts of the world. I am an EU citizen (by birth) but have faced more obstacles crossing borders (and just living) there than I ever have in the US. For these reasons despite your musings, the USA would be a better option for me than anywhere in the EU and most places in the world.

  • Mike | Hobo with a Laptop

    I’ve been fortunate to have had a good run in the US. Never had to hand over my phone, but I can imagine that would be a nightmare –I always wipe it when I’m headed to am authoritarian country like that 😉

    Once you’re in, it’s a blast.