Live Abroad: Where and How to Live a Better Life at Half the Price of the U.S.
As the host of a travel podcast that features expats, there’s one question American listeners keep asking me: How can I live abroad? If you’re not from the EU or a Commonwealth country, this can feel impossible. BUT Americans in search of a better life do have options to live abroad that don’t involve marrying a random.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, I spoke to Tim Leffel, a travel writer and author of A Better Life for Half the Price, to get the details on specific options that are open to you, how to test out a country before committing, and the questions you need to ask yourself before becoming an expat.
Why live abroad?
Americans often threaten to leave their country during political rants, but frustration with the president is not usually what motivates international moves. So what does?
“No matter how much you travel, you only see the surface level of a place. If you live somewhere, you really get a deep dive into the culture,” Tim says. “You hear that clichéd phrase off the beaten path, but when you live somewhere you really find it.”
He and his family split their time between Tampa, Florida and Guanajuato, Mexico, which they chose because they like the food, the slower pace of life, and because “it’s just drastically cheaper to live there. You take $1000 off the top when you start talking about things like health insurance. Your rent price goes down by two-thirds. All that stuff adds up in a hurry.”
Affordable healthcare is especially appealing for the self-employed. Tim says most expats, at least the ones he’s interviewed in Latin America, “pay out of pocket for their healthcare because it ends up being literally, like, 1/4 or 1/5 of what you would pay in the U.S. and sometimes 1/10. Oftentimes, they’ll have some kind of catastrophic policy in case something really bad happens.”
Ready to move? Determine ‘must-haves’ and ‘deal-breakers’
Which country is best for you? That depends on your preferences and lifestyle. Use these questions to narrow down your dream destination:
- Think about who you are now and not who you aspire to be. Are you laidback or Type-A? Would living in a slow-paced country drive you nuts, or are you desperate for this? Would a mariachi band playing all night annoy you, or would you be dancing along to the music?
- How close do you need to be to friends and family back home? A two-hour plane ride? A 10-hour plane ride? How expensive is it to fly home? How often would you fly home?
- Where do you want to live? Mountains? Beach? City center? Are you looking for a serene beach town or party central? Do you want to be near lots of other expats, or the only foreigner in town?
- Are you running a business? How often do you need to speak to clients on the phone, and where are they located? If they’re all in the U.S., Thailand might not be the best country for you. Need superfast wifi for work? Romania could be a great option.
- What kind of weather do you like? Four seasons? Summer all year?
- What activities do you like to do? Hiking? Museums? Surfing? How close do you want to be to these things? How would you get there? Car? Public transport? Taxi? Walking?
- What’s your budget? And how do you like to spend your money? Do you want to eat out every night? Have a housecleaner? How much do you drink? $1000 a month will stretch much farther in Nicaragua or Bulgaria than a place like Portugal or Costa Rica.
- Are you willing to learn a new language? Or would you rather live in a place like Belize or the Philippines, where everyone speaks English?
How to test out a country before permanently relocating
OK, so you fell in love with a place on vacation. Before selling your house and moving abroad, do a test run for a month to see if reality matches the rosiness of your two-week holiday.
- Rent a place on AirBnB or find a house-sitting opportunity on HouseCarers or Nomador.
- If you plan on staying longer than a month, rent a place for a few days then walk the streets to find your semi-permanent place. “Your amount of inventory expands exponentially, especially in developing countries, if you’re willing to put feet on the ground,” Tim says. “A lot of people that are old enough to own lots of property aren’t on the internet much…and a lot of times people want to see you face-to-face.” You can also search for apartments in the local paper and on expat forums.
- Take language lessons. This a great way to make friends, and if you move, you’ll likely want to evolve past miming what you want. Plus language learning is fun and often involves field trips.
- Live your normal life. Run errands. Check out local schools if you have kids. “We shopped at the market,” Tim says. “We went to the butcher shop, got some pants hemmed…all those kinds of things that you would do if you live somewhere.” Does this place have the amenities you need? Does if feel safe?
- Talk to both locals and expats about what they love and hate about the area.
- Eat in local restaurants. Ask locals about their favorite spots when you’re running your errands.
- Find out what average prices are for locals rather than tourists. Just because the price of an apartment is better than what you’d get in New York doesn’t mean it’s a good price for Mexico City, or wherever you find yourself. Find out what the locals are paying so you don’t get ripped off.
What kind of documents do I need to apply for a tourist visa?
Countries want proof that you have enough in the bank to support yourself, and monthly income requirements vary drastically from country to country. You might only need to prove you have a few hundred dollars in Nicaragua, while in Mexico “it’s more like $2,000 plus $500 for each dependent,” Tim says. “In reality, you don’t need anything close to that to live in Mexico. There are ways around it. I’ve known people that have shown they have $150,000 in their retirement account, and that’s been enough.”
Some countries have more stringent requirements. When Tim taught English in South Korea, they required his actual college diploma, which his mother had to mail him.
Where can I live abroad as an American?
There are two ways you can live somewhere, Tim says, on a tourist visa or legal residency. “I’ve actually done both. Mexico’s one of those places you can stay for 180 days on a tourist visa so that’s hugely attractive to a lot of people, especially snowbirds that only live there part of the year. If you did have to stay longer, than you just go on vacation to Guatemala or Costa Rica or back to the US and then re-enter again and start over. Peru is like that, too. You basically get six months.”
Here are some of Tim’s suggestions on where you can live an awesome life abroad for less than $1,000 a month. You’ll find links to more visa info, but as this is subject to change, always visit the U.S. embassy website for the country you’re interested in, and ask expats via forums what their visa application experience was like.
Great for: People who want to live in Europe on the cheap
“As an outcome of us supporting Kosovo in the Bosnian conflict, Americans can go to Albania for an entire year on a tourist visa. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that will give you more than six months, so that’s a major incentive if anyone wants to live abroad without having to jump through all the residency requirements and all the paperwork and hassle.
“It’s above Greece and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy so it’s got a Mediterranean climate, really nice beaches in the summer, and it’s not all that cold in the winter. And you can get to a lot of places from there pretty easily: it’s next to Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Greece and then you can take a ferry over to Italy and go anywhere from there. And it’s crazy cheap, so it’s hard to believe you’re in Europe. You can go out and get a cup of coffee for literally a quarter or 50 cents. A beer is going to be about a dollar, a glass of wine for $2-$3. You can get a pretty significant lunch for $4-$5. You could find housing for a few hundred dollars a month, even in the capital in Tirana.”
Check out Expat Woman for Albania resources.
Great for: People seeking cool cities at cheap prices
“A lot of people move to Medellin because of the weather. It’s sort of like that eternal spring that might get up to 80 during the day, and it’s going to get to the 60s at night. It’s a fun place, good music. It’s just so much cheaper than living in a big major city in the U.S. or Canada. And then there are other smaller towns in Colombia that are really nice and pretty, but you’re going to have to speak some Spanish. There’s good transportation: a really good domestic airline system, and good bus system, so it’s pretty easy to get around.”
The Medellin Living blog shares how to obtain a resident visa in Colombia.
Great for: People with health issues
“If you have any health problems, and you want to live to a country that’s got great hospitals and great healthcare, Panama would be the place to go. Urban Mexico’s pretty good, too, as long as you’re near a city. In Asia, the best places are Bangkok and Malaysia.”
Check out the top five visas expats use to move to Panama on Panama for Beginners.
Great for: Warm-weather people
“Nicaragua’s good for people who like tropical weather, and there’s a great beach area there, San Juan del Sur, that’s a lot of fun with surfing and all of that, but there’s also mountain areas and coffee plantations and Granada, the colonial city.”
Interested in residency in Nicaragua? Check out the Escape Artist blog.
Great for: Retirees
“There’s probably more Americans living there than anywhere else in South America. That’s because it’s very easy to get residency there especially, if you’re 50 or older, and you get all kinds of benefits for being a retiree including half-price flights that are into or from Ecuador,” Tim says.
“Retirees who realized that they’re not going to be able to make it in the U.S. on what they’ve got saved and what they’re getting from Social Security move to Cuenca, Ecuador and have a pretty comfortable life. You can rent a place for, say, $400 dollars a month, and it’s going to be pretty decent and you can get your groceries really inexpensively, especially if you buy a lot of local fruit vegetables. You can eat out for a few dollars, especially if you go for the meal of the day, which is several courses for $3-$5. Loads of people live there for $1,000 a month, or a couple for $1,500 a month.”
Check your visa options on GringosAbroad.
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