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How to Spend Four Years Living Abroad

Beach in Nicaragua
One of many beaches that can be found by those wishing to move to popular and inexpensive Nicaragua, for four years or more.

Did the 2016 election ugliness and the eventual outcome make you feel a need to escape? Do you feel an urge to relocate for four years?

This may be much easier to pull off than you think.

More than half of voting Americans cast their ballot for a different candidate than the one taking office and they’re more than a little apprehensive about the future. We could face a worse climate, eroding health care options, and fewer protections for minorities. On the plus side, the conservative stance will likely keep the dollar at high levels, so for those leaving the country to go elsewhere this is a golden age.

Here's how to check out for the next four years under various visa scenarios. Done right, any of these options can lead to lower monthly expenses and less expensive health care.

Option 1 — Permanent Residency in Another Country

Start by ditching those plans for moving to Canada, as friendly as are the inhabitants. It’s cold and just as expensive, but more importantly, a tough place to get approval to become a permanent resident. If you are not an asylum seeker or refugee, you must have unique skills that are in demand and plenty of cash.

There are other cheaper and more welcoming options out there, including our southern neighbor, Mexico. If you can show income of at least $2,500 per month (plus $500 per dependent) it’s fairly inexpensive and straightforward to acquire a one-year residency permit that can easily be renewed for longer. After four years of temporary residency you can become permanent. If you have trouble proving that amount of income, some offices will accept proof of assets, especially if that’s in conjunction with social security or pension income.

Live abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, Mexico is a colorful and lively town to spend as much time as possible.

There are similar programs with even lower income requirements in retirement favorites Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. Belize has higher prices, but is also welcoming. In some of these countries “retired” means being 45 or older. Even if you’re in your 20s though, you can get permanent residency with proof of income, though in some cases you may need to get help from a local attorney.

Live abroad in Ecuador
A typical landscape in Ecuador. A great place to live abroad for four years or more.

In Europe expect to apply from home, pay more, and get ready for lots of paperwork to attain residency. In some countries it is next to impossible unless you can claim ancestry for a country such as Ireland, Germany, or Hungary. The most welcoming options lately have been Spain, Portugal, and Estonia, though other U.S. expats have found a way through the bureaucracy to permanent residency in countries as varied as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania—sometimes by moving their “headquarters” there and hiring one or two locals.

Live abroad in Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal. One of the least expensive countries in Europe where options still exist to live for the long term.

Move and live abroad in Bulgaria
Bulgaria, in Eastern Europe, is a popular destination for those wishing to move and live abroad.

Lately things are looking up in Thailand. Anyone can now get a six-month visa if they apply from home and retirees can get one good for five years. Malaysia has a popular “My Second Home” program that grants residency after purchase of property.

You can apply for permanent residency in South Africa as a retiree at any age, if you can show monthly income of 37,000 rand, currently around $2,800 per month.

If you don’t mind living on a speck in the Pacific Ocean, Americans can live freely for the asking on islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.

Note that if you’re loaded, it opens up your options tremendously. You can buy your way into residency in Macedonia, Hungary, Malta, and some Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic by putting money into the local economy, buying property, or buying bonds. This usually costs $200,000 to half a million dollars though.

Option 2 — Long-term Living Without Legal Residency

Many countries have very liberal tourist visa or business visa rules that can enable you to stay on for years or even indefinitely without ever applying for residency.  Americans can now essentially get 10-year residency in India by securing a multi-entry visa. You just have to do border runs every 180 days—leaving the country then returning.

In Cambodia, you can live for years without residency by purchasing a business visa upon arrival and then renewing it each year. With this visa you can work or run a business there too—a rarity in most countries.

Tens of thousands of people stay long-term on tourist visas in Mexico, where you get 180 days for the asking upon arrival. Some make a border run and return immediately every six months or pick that time to go on vacation. You can also get 180 days in Peru, Panama, Jamaica, and Colombia (with extension) and they will allow you to leave and return. In Argentina you only get 90 days at a time, but many expats have lived there for years by just hopping to Uruguay or Chile every three months.

The most liberal of all is the country of Georgia: U.S., Canadian, Australian, and UK citizens can stay for 360 days on a tourist visa.  

Become a Digital Nomad

If you don’t mind moving from one place to another every few months, join all the backpackers and location independent workers who don’t have a permanent home. Then the world is your oyster. You can string together visits to multiple countries and stay on the move your whole life if you want. Four years is nothing.

It may be hard to move to Canada or the UK permanently, but you can stay in either for 180 days if you can show the ability to support yourself and an onward ticket. As mentioned in the section above, some countries allow you to stay nearly half a year no questions asked and there are others, such as Fiji, where you can stay four months on a tourist visa.

The most common stay allowed is 90 days, so even if you only visited those then you’d have just four times a year to pack up the backpack and move on. The only real tricky thing to deal with is Europe, where you must leave the entire Schengen zone for at least three months between every 90-day stay. Otherwise you can normally just move on to a nearby country and start the clock over. You could essentially spend an entire four years in just Latin America or just Southeast Asia, for instance, if you plan it out right.

This last option opens up your possibilities and also lends itself to a lower budget. If you don’t have to worry about residency, you can just pick The World’s Cheapest Destinations and be frugal.

What You Gain by Living Abroad

The readers of Transitions Abroad know that living abroad offers tremendous opportunities for learning, cultural experience, and unique adventures. Many long-term travelers have said they learned more on the road than they did in four years of college—for a lot less money. Plus, when you live somewhere for months or years instead of just passing through, you gain a much deeper understanding of the place and its people. You may fire up new synapses in your brain by learning another language.

Moving out of the USA can lead to great health and monetary gains as well, however.

  • The majority of countries around the world are less expensive than the United States, so your monthly expenses will decrease. A strong U.S. dollar means that premium destinations such as Italy are less expensive than normal, while less developed countries such as Nicaragua or Nepal are cheaper than they have ever been.

  • Most countries in the world treat public health care as a given right and provide it at no cost or at reasonable rates. You can pay out of pocket for health care and spend less than what the average American does just on insurance and co-pays.

  • If you choose your country or countries wisely, you can enjoy a much higher standard of living than you do now with lower costs. Most expatriates living in cheaper countries say they eat out more, attend more cultural events, have more free time, and can upgrade their life by hiring a maid, a masseuse, or a trainer on a regular basis.

Whatever you decide to do, it’s best not to make a permanent move before at least visiting your possible destination. You don’t want to go through the process of applying for residency, with all its paperwork and expense, just to find out the place sounded better for you on paper than it is in reality. Take a trial run, rent an apartment where the locals live, and you’ll know in a few weeks if it’s a good match.

Keep those absentee ballots rolling in no matter where you eventually decide to live. Even if you’re on the other side of the world, you can still make your voice heard when each election rolls around.

Four years in Panama
Four years or more in Panama now just doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.

Cheapest Destinations travel blog
A Better Life for Half the Price

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