Digital nomad working on a macbook.

the global lock-down: expats & digital nomads share their stories

(Last Updated On: July 14, 2021)

I have a very unique relationship with COVID-19. As an online instructor, who teaches Chinese children English, I had a privileged glimpse into the private lives of Chinese citizens ever since the effects of the virus began to take hold of the country. I saw the daily realities that set in for some of the families I’d grown closest to. I saw the change in demeanor for both students and parents as their time in lock-down progressed. And then, when I left my home in late January 2020 to travel around Europe for the next year… my first stop was Italy.

Italy made a lot of sense for me as a landing point. Having lived there before, I was comfortable enough with the language and lifestyle to acclimatize to living in Europe. I left Italy March 1, to set off to Romania, by way of Vienna and Budapest. Traveling with a dog has its obstacles, for sure, and plane travel is one of them. Trains were essentially our only option.

For two weeks prior to leaving Rome, I began to have anxiety regarding my ability to leave the country. The situation in the North was rapidly escalating, and I would have to take a train over the Italo-Austrian border. When I left, the situation was still nowhere near what it is today.

Dawn over the Italian-Austrian border showing the Austrian alps.
Dawn over the Austrian border

Eventually, I made it to Vienna, and then to Budapest. From Budapest, I took an 11-hour train ride into Romania. When crossing into Romania, the patrol agents asked where I’d been. When I mentioned Italy, I was suddenly surrounded and swarmed by border police donned in masks and surgical gloves. They collectively took a big step back and began the interrogation process. I could see in their eyes and hear through their masked voices that they, too, were nervous and were trying to remain calm.

When they took my passport off the train, I began packing up my belongings, assuming I would not be allowed to transit through. This was on March 4, 2020. Eventually, a man came back with my (stamped) passport and a declaration for me to fill out. My hands shook as I wrote my information on the form. With a sympathetic smile, he told me to enjoy my stay in Romania.

I didn’t realize at the time that Romania would be where I would set up a temporary home during the global lock-down. I knew that going home would create more risk and challenge than it was worth. I’d developed a bit of curiosity to see what others in similar situations were doing. So I reached out to other expats and digital nomads to hear and share their experiences. These are their stories.


being stuck during a global lock-down

“I live in Spain and we, like our neighboring countries, are pretty much on lock-down. I also live in an area that relies on tourism, so the effects of Coronavirus will extend far beyond our isolation period. Spirits are high, though. This dark time has made me really appreciate Spain, not only because of the excellent healthcare system, but also because of the pride and spirit of the Spanish people.

Everyone across Spain opens their windows or goes on their balconies at 8:00 every night to clap and thank our healthcare workers. It’s a beautiful moment every night, and it’s all I look forward to everyday. Our only human contact!

I fear for my family back home in the US because the political climate and healthcare situation is so different from Spain, but my parents and brother are also following Spain’s lead and self-isolating, so they will be okay. I actually think that me living in Spain has opened their minds (I’m from a small town in the Midwest). It’s helped them learn more about the world around us. Their reaction to this virus spreading and Spain’s response has encouraged them to be more compassionate towards others and think about the greater good. It’s so easy to focus on “me me me” nowadays. Even though it’s a terrible and scary time, it’s in these times that people begin to think more of “us”, which is inspiring. ” – Chad E., Langoly

“I’m in Greece and currently 6 months pregnant. I was nervous about giving birth here without the virus. Now I’m concerned about medical services being overloaded when it comes time for me to deliver. The Greek government is implementing measures to prolong the impact on health services. This effectively means pushing the brunt of the outbreak closer to summer. However I know I have a similar issue back home in the US, where I have no insurance. So I’m staying here and waiting out the situation.” – Steffie A.

“I’m an expat in Germany for nearly 10 years now. I thought a hot second about going home, but I have better health insurance here! I think in the long term my job will be safe too!”

Amanda H.

“My partner (German) and I (Dutch) have been traveling in Southeast Asia since November 2019. Our plan was to work online and hitchhike for 18 months. We first learned about COVID-19 in January in Myanmar. Since then, we’ve kept an eye on the developments while slowly traveling on to Thailand and Malaysia.

Fast forward to our stay in Penang: we’d originally booked an apartment for two weeks, but things became really grim when the curve steepened. It didn’t come as a surprise to me that on March 16, the Malaysian government announced the country would be under ‘movement control order’ from the 18th till the 31st of March. A few hours before the announcement, we’d booked a larger apartment within our same condo.

Since the policy became active, the streets have emptied out. Places of worship have closed, but the muezzins still recite the call to prayer. We haven’t gone to a supermarket yet and relied on our food delivery heroes. Everyone is allowed to go for short walks outside, but public gatherings are forbidden. Apparently, the army has also been deployed, but I haven’t seen them myself. Right now, there is no ‘good’ place to be in the world. As long as we’re welcome to self-isolate in Malaysia, we will stay. We have everything we need here, including a ‘bum gun’. If anything, our digital nomad lifestyle made us very adaptable and prepared.” – Iris, Mind of a Hitchhiker

“I’m in Sweden and my 90-days will be up at the beginning of April. That’s the only reason I plan on leaving. I wouldn’t leave otherwise. Going back to the US honestly makes me really uneasy and nervous.

Unfortunately, it’s out of my hands. I’m just trying to find some hand sanitizer and mentally prepare myself for the long journey back. Also, snacks. I plan on taking a ton of snacks on the trip. Because of delays and long lines and whatnot. Nobody likes to be in a shitty situation and then be hangry on top of that.” – Moe V.

“I am an American citizen but am currently in Lisbon, Portugal and will be riding out the pandemic here. I’m lucky in that I do have temporary residency here, as I’ve been using Lisbon as my home base for the past three years (when I’m not traveling). I also speak and read Portuguese, which is a big help in keeping up with the local news — something I’ve never done until now. To be honest, I didn’t even know who the prime minister of Portugal was until the pandemic happened.

The virus arrived in Portugal later than in most other Western European countries. Officials here had the advantage of being able to learn from their neighbors’ mistakes. They called a lock-down when there were about 1,000 total cases, which is much earlier than in Italy or Spain, for example. So far, most people seem to be abiding by the restrictions. I hope that we will be able to flatten the curve here and avoid completely overburdening the health-care system.

It feels strange to be stuck in my apartment all day, unable even to go out to lunch at one of my favorite vegan restaurants in Lisbon. Still, I know that this is what we all need to do for the sake of those who are more vulnerable. The worst is yet to come, but I am very glad to be in Portugal rather than in the US, where I’m afraid the situation is going to get very ugly. At least the politicians here act like leaders and not like petulant five-year-olds.” – Wendy, The Nomadic Vegan

“I spend 4 months of the year in Spain, and the rest of the year in the US. I’ve got a plane ticket to Spain for next Thursday, and short of a miracle, I don’t see how I can still go. I am engaged to a Spaniard. He was supposed to come back with me after my trip there, and we were going to Vegas to get married. With the travel ban, he won’t be allowed here. We canceled our wedding plans—for now.

We have been managing this long distance relationship for two and a half years. While I’m thankful for being healthy, I’m so very sad, and I don’t know when we will see each other again. If I could just get there, we could be in lock-down together! We have a piso in Madrid, and although I live in rural America, and can at least go outside here, I would rather be in Madrid. I plan to move there next year, but I am regretting not going sooner. I am super thankful for modern technology so that we can still talk and video chat!!” – Katrina W.

“I’m in Norway and it hasn’t even occurred to me to go home to Canada, not sure why I would. I’m not at any particular risk as I’m young and in good health generally. I work from home anyway. Why would I leave?”

Elizabeth S.

“Things in Portugal are okay. I think the Portuguese people are being more cautious than our Spanish neighbours. Since people are generally staying at home and practicing social distancing, the government hasn’t declared a full lock-down yet. I won’t be going home. I don’t want to be responsible for making anyone sick. I’m safer here than anywhere else, and I won’t be a carrier of disease to Canada. Remember, a lot of young people are asymptomatic – meaning they are sick but have no symptoms. If you can stay put – stay put!” – Claudia O

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“My partner and I are full time house sitters and digital nomads currently staying in Salt Lake City, Utah. The travel shutdown meant that all future house sits we’d lined up were cancelled (we were booked until July). This has left us without housing at short notice. Our upcoming house sit was only cancelled one week before we were due to arrive. 

We considered returning to New York as it’s where we are originally from. It’s where most of our friends and family live, and where we have state health insurance. But it didn’t seem smart to get on a plane and return to the U.S. outbreak’s epicenter. Many people are leaving and warned us not to come back. Luckily, the homeowner of our last house sit (with whom we became friends) gave us a great deal renting the basement apartment in his house. Salt Lake City isn’t nearly as dense or hard-hit as other metropolitan areas. We can still go out for walks or hikes (while avoiding others) and support struggling local restaurants in Salt Lake City with take-out. So though we are concerned about out-of-state healthcare coverage, we plan to stay for now. 

Our biggest takeaway is to have a solid safety net of savings. As travel bloggers, our income is directly connected to the travel industry. So, in addition to losing our housing, we lost our income overnight. We are also very glad to be a part of the house sitting community and to have made friends that we can turn to in these trying times!” – Sam, Alternative Travelers

“Czech Republic has completely shut everything down. They’re taking this very seriously. Despite not having as many cases as Spain & Italy, we are on the same level of lock-down/quarantine.

I will not go home to the US for a few reasons.. mainly my life is here. But also, traveling is risky right now. If I leave CZ, I can not return until the state of emergency is over, whenever that may be. If I do get sick, here I have free healthcare… whereas in the US I’d be uninsured and screwed. I could get my mother sick if I went home, because I don’t have anywhere else to stay, and she’s over 60. Personally, there are no reasons for me to go back to the US during this crisis. I’m glad to stay here.” – Melanie M.

“I have free state health care in Spain. I am young and healthy, and would be a bigger risk to bring it to my older parents or parents-in-law. The US is not appealing for me at all.”

Fiona vT

“As I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on March 12th, I’d already planned to stay for a month when I left New Zealand (home) in early February. The timing was lucky as the virus had begun to halt travel plans worldwide and corona was the conversation starter by now. This was when I felt like the virus started to impact people. But for me, it became real, real on March 15th when a Vietnamese policeman and health worker turned up at the apartment. They’d tracked me down as I was in Da Nang when cases were diagnosed. They wanted to make sure I was okay. They told me to self-isolate for 10 more days. That was cool as and I’d now been yelled at twice by locals while running, people are starting to get scared of the virus.

I’d decided to stay in Vietnam. Despite knowing that my insurance would pay my flights, NZ didn’t feel any safer. But on March 20th my brother suggested I go back to NZ. I trust him so found myself flying out less than 24 hours later to self-isolate. One thing I realized in the flight back is I don’t identify with a home. I’m a long term traveler and a passionate Kiwi, but my home is wherever my backpack is. I was happy chilling in HCMC, and I will be here in New Zealand. But I know I’ll be ready to go overseas when I deem it safe and ethical to do so.” – Jub, Chur New Zealand

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“My husband and I are from the U.S. and were at our home base in Oregon when the virus started in China. By the time there were a couple cases on the West Coast of the States, we got on a flight to fulfill a contract producing an event called the RV Entrepreneur Summit in Alabama. We were very diligent about disinfecting on the airplane, washing our hands, and not touching our faces, but otherwise it was still business as usual.  Everything escalated quickly around March 12, which was just a few days before our Summit was supposed to start.

Our team of four people suddenly had to put plans in motion to switch the RVE Summit from an in person conference to a virtual summit. Despite creating a whole lot more last-minute work for ourselves in transition to an online event, we felt a huge relief. The decision was widely supported by attendees (many of whom had already arrived on site because they live in RVs and plan to stay there for the month).

We have decided not to fly back to Oregon but to extend our car rental and drive back instead. We feel we’ll have more control over our potential exposure to crowds. We’ll stay at our home base in Oregon, which we share with extended family. We’ll miss out on some trips but we’re grateful to have a nice place to lay low, where we can garden, go for walks, and continue working for our other freelance clients online. We’re also thankful for the flexibility our work allows us. Even though part of our income comes from events and travel-centered work, they’re not the only income streams we rely on. ” – Michelle C., International Travelers

“I’m in a unique position. I live in Barcelona and had a visit home to Chicago planned for months. I left Barcelona on March 1st before the virus outbreak and was scheduled to fly out again on March 15.

That flight was canceled, so I was put on a new flight on March 16. That flight was also canceled. After 4 hours on the phone with the airline, I was told the only available flight that United could get me on is on April 12. If that one gets canceled, they don’t know if they will have any more flights from Chicago to Barcelona until June.

So I am at my parents home in Chicago, not sure of when I am returning to Barcelona. My partner of 6 years is in Barcelona, so I’m a bit worried about him.

I had VIPKid classes scheduled for this week when I thought I would be on Spanish time so I’m starting at 2 AM everyday and it’s terrible! 

I also work as a freelance content writer in Barcelona, and most of my clients are in the travel or hospitality niche. A client of 2 years recently told me that they can no longer afford my services due to the hit Barcelona has taken and will continue to endure.

This whole situation as a freelancer is very stressful economically, and not knowing when I will return to Barcelona is difficult.” – Christine L., Christine Loconti Writes

“We are Americans currently stuck in America. That may seem a little strange, but we started our family gap year in January and were scheduled to go to Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, China, and Singapore over the next 6 months.  

We have been stuck in Colorado Springs for the last 3 weeks after returning from an impromptu trip to Las Vegas. This global lock-down is scary because there is so much uncertainty. The travel plans we have in the future are jeopardized and it may be likely we will not receive a refund. 

We plan to stick it out in Colorado Springs until the travel ban is lifted. We have been using most of our time outside getting fresh air and going for walks. Although we did not plan to stay in Colorado long term we are sure we will be here until July or August. Once we can travel, we plan to go to Thailand. Our greatest concern is once we are in Asia, we will not be able to obtain a visa and are somehow stuck in the country without a way back to the United States. At this point the only thing we can do it wait.” – Corritta L., Itz a Family Thing

“We are on a fucking lock-down! But at least we have chocolate and red wine!” – Matt S., fellow expat also in Romania – author of Stuck in Transylvania

life today

The situation here in Romania has changed drastically, even over the course of the past few days since I started compiling this post. On March 23, 2020, a curfew was implemented – no one was allowed out of the house except for absolutely essential activity between the hours of 22:00 and 06:00. On March 25 at noon, a full lock-down was mandated. We are allowed to leave the house to get food, go to the pharmacy, vet, or essential work. Every time we leave we must fill out a declaration of where we are going. The streets here are empty. The stores, however, are fully stocked and things seem calmer and safer here than in the US.

Online communities are building and further developing to help combat the feelings of loneliness and total isolation. The world is at a turning point. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. For now, remember, ‘you got this.’ Oh, and #staythefuckhome.

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