Living Abroad: How to Choose the Country Best For You
The Lure of Foreign Lands
The number of Americans living abroad has steadily grown over the past decade as more people have become interested in exploring another language and culture or finding an overseas job. According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, there are over 6.32 million Americans living overseas (not counting military), a figure based on State Department estimates. While some people are transferred to an overseas post by their employer or have a job offer abroad, for the rest of us it is not an easy task to figure out what country to choose.
Determining the Right Activity
Before choosing a country you should first ask yourself the nature of the goals and expectations you have for your overseas experience. Are you interested in employment, retirement, university study, a long-term language course, volunteer work, or a starting point for more extensive regional travel? Would you like to immerse yourself in the local culture, or settle abroad and open a business?
- If an overseas job is your main objective, research where your job skills are most in demand and then obtain information about employment opportunities in the destination country.
- If you are a student, contact an exchange program either sponsored by your university or offered through a reputable student exchange organization and find out which countries are offered for study abroad. Often your student visa is a great opportunity to work openly or "under the table" in order to either live frugally or obtain extra spending money.
- If you have time on your hands, but little money set aside, volunteer work with selected programs such as Volunteers for Peace or WWOOF is another option.
For a successful stay abroad it is highly preferable to match your destination with your personal interests and your professional or educational goals:
- Costa Rica may be a peaceful and affordable retirement location with a large U.S. expatriate community, but if you want to combine Spanish study with experiencing indigenous culture, you would be better off going to Ecuador or Guatemala.
- If you seek overseas employment and expect the same quality of life as in U.S. cities, you might be happier in an industrialized nation than in a developing country.
- If you are adventurous, you could just travel abroad and look for informal work without a work permit. This option has become more difficult in recent years though, because many developed countries have been flooded with illegal immigrants and have started to crack down on illegal workers.
- If you are seeking a place to retire, consider the cost of living relative to your savings and other factors covered in our column on retirement overseas.
Economic and Political Considerations
Regardless of whether your plan is to study, volunteer, or work abroad, the economic condition of your destination country is an important consideration. When I first went to Brazil as an exchange student the Brazilian government kept the new local currency stronger than the U.S. dollar, which greatly reduces purchasing power and affects the entire year in the country. Financial factors should not be your only consideration, but they should certainly not be left be out. As the U.S. dollar has weakened against many currencies in recent years, a larger number of prospective expatriates are looking for new ways to make their money last. This often means seeking out an affordable destination, especially for those who won’t be earning an income, such as retirees.
When researching the economies of different countries, keep in mind that the exchange rate is not in itself an indicator of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar. Currency exchange rates are subject to market demands and government policies, but you should really be most concerned about the cost of living primarily. A better indicator of how much your U.S. dollars or your overseas salary can buy in your country of interest is to research the cost of accommodation at your destination. Our sidebar at the end of the article lists resources to help you compare the cost of living of different countries and cities.
Unless you transfer overseas through your employer—which is a very common and often desirable occurrence when working for multinational companies with multiple country branches—your income abroad will most likely not be as high as in the U.S. When I lived in Lisbon one of my housemates was a student from Italy. He was looking for part-time work during the school year, but the pay was so low that he finally gave up on the idea. In Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, several peers worked as part-time English teachers because the pay was high by local standards. In New Zealand I worked in horticulture earning a relatively low wage, but the cost of living in the countryside was also very low, and I was able to open a savings account and put money aside every month.
High inflation is another factor to weigh. When used to very low inflation in North America, living in a country where prices go up every day is quite a challenge.
In addition to economics, you should also evaluate the political climate in your country of interest. Anti-American and anti-Western sentiment can significantly impact your stay abroad, and you should do some research before making a final decision. Many developing countries have unstable or even collapsing governments, which fail to provide basic services to its citizens and are unable to guarantee the rule of law. Living in a socially, economically, and politically stable country will make your stay overseas much easier and more enjoyable. Keep in mind that the mainstream media at home often exaggerates dangers abroad for its own purposes. Most citizens around the world are able to separate the perceived external politics of your country of origin with your own individual personality. You will likely be treated with utmost hospitality provided you follow the "Golden Rule" of travel and living abroad, which we call responsible travel or respect.
The Exotic or the Familiar?
To narrow your choice of countries it is useful to consider the countries that already interest you, or where you have enjoyed a vacation. Try to travel the world, or desired regions, extensively enough to know which countries just have the right feel for you. Ideally, you will desire to live in a destination offering the intangible sense that it is where you belong, a place you can call home, and where you will be happy long-term. The intangible can sometimes outweigh the tangible pros and cons, and through the power of will you can often find a way to live in a location if you so desire. Having friends or family abroad may be another reason for you to favor one country over another. You might even be interested in searching for your roots in order to live in the country of your ancestors. In this way you are already somewhat familiar with the culture, language, and people.
On the other hand, some of us are captivated by exotic and unfamiliar locations. What first attracted me to living abroad were tropical locales such as the South Pacific Islands and the Amazon. But soon after arrival I realized that living in countries so vastly different from my own had a price; the heat, the climate, exotic diseases, foreign foods, and a very different way of life made adjustment difficult. Unless you have travel experience in unfamiliar cultures, it might be a good idea to choose a country with a culture that is not so drastically different from your own, and where climate, food, and local customs do not pose a significant challenge.
Many European countries share some cultural traits with North America, and moving to Europe is not nearly as challenging as moving to Japan, for example. Do your homework and read as much as possible about your future destination. Take a language course before you go if you can. Having some idea of the local language will make your adjustment so much easier, and you will be able to make local friends more quickly without relying on expats.
Distance to your home country can be another important factor when you select a new living destination. Moving to Mexico from North America is much cheaper than, let's say, moving to Argentina, especially if you are shipping household belongings. Proximity to your home country may also be important if you need to return home on a regular basis in order to tend to business or visit family. Traveling long distances is more expensive, more exhausting, and more time consuming. However, in the case of the situation in Mexico, for example, you also have to weigh in important safety concerns, as the country's drug cartel war continues unabated. No foreign destination is absolutely safe, and it is important to get the details about the exact location(s) of Mexico's drug war and find out if your preferred destination has an acceptably low rate of violent crime and lies outside major drug trafficking routes.
Popular Countries for U.S. Expats
Through researching country-specific information for TransitionsAbroad.com’s Living Abroad section, it became clear that there are about a dozen countries especially well suited for American expatriates. My list is based on the considerations mentioned in this article and on the countries' overall popularity among Americans. We have also taken into account factors such as how accessible the local culture is for foreigners and whether the locals are friendly and welcoming toward Americans and citizens of Western countries.
For the update of this listing we have also taken into consideration how the global economic downturn and its consequences still affect many countries around the world to this day. Most countries that have been popular with American expatriates for many years are experiencing high unemployment, especially in Europe, which makes it a lot more difficult for Americans to find a job and obtain a work permit. Given the difficult global economics and high unemployment in many countries, our shortlist focuses on countries that are not only beautiful destinations and friendly to the U.S., but are also affordable and have job or business opportunities for expatriates looking for a new permanent or part-time home abroad.
In the spirit of balance, since no long-term destination is perfect in every way, we have listed our pros and cons of ten countries in alphabetical order. Of course there are other countries not listed here (note the absence of many Scandinavian countries which figure high on many lists, as well as the many "cheap" living locations which we believe can have other drawbacks) that may offer you equal or greater appeal, and we encourage your comments at the end of the column should you have your own recommendations based upon personal experience and comparison. In the end, your new home country should "feel right."
Pros: Great cultural wealth thanks to immigrants from all over Europe: capital Buenos Aires is known as "The Paris of South America"; friendly people open to foreigners; great natural beauty; attractive outdoors destinations; relatively low cost of living; opportunities for students, English teachers, retirees, entrepreneurs.
Cons: Unpredictable autocratic style of politics; long history of economic ups and downs that also affect foreign entrepreneurs; weak currency.
Pros: Similar culture as North America; English-speaking; popular with students; great travel destination; very friendly people; opportunities for students; highly skilled professionals, retirees, and business investors; working holiday visa for young Americans; close to beautiful and increasingly popular land of New Zealand.
Cons: Quite a distance from the U.S.; expensive air travel; popular immigrant destination for skilled workers from all over Asia who compete for selective jobs.
Pros: Great cultural experience, ethnic diversity, and generally very friendly people; a decade of economical and political stability (with some notable instability in 2013-2014); huge economic growth over the last decade; opportunities for students, English teachers, professionals, and retirees. If the country is succeeds in hosting the World Cup and the Olympics without a hitch, there will be a huge financial boom.
Cons: Few Brazilians speak good English, and Portuguese is quite a bit more difficult to learn than Spanish; no longer as affordable due to a strong currency; quite far from the U.S. for visits to relatives. Recent instability politically and economically due to government mismanagement.
Pros: Close to the U.S.; sizable expatriate community for a small country; popular with students, entrepreneurs, retirees; low cost of living; great destination for those interested eco-tourism and general outdoor lovers.
Cons: Drug violence is beginning to spread into Costa Rica from neighboring countries; some destinations may be too Americanized for expats looking for a quiet getaway.
Pros: Friendly people, rich history and culture, large expat and artist population; opportunities for English-teachers, entrepreneurs, highly skilled professionals.
Cons: Lengthy bureaucratic procedures to establish residency and open a business; slow economic growth in the Czech Republic and Europe dampens growth prospects for new businesses; Europeans get preferential treatment for all job vacancies, since the Czech Republic is a EU member; English is not yet widely spoken, and foreigners need to learn Czech to communicate.
Pros: A classic destination for American expats and students historically and even currently, even if very expensive; great cultural wealth and lifestyle; opportunities for students, artists seeking inspiration, retirees, and entrepreneurs.
Cons: Difficult for non-Europeans to get a residency permit; lengthy bureaucratic procedures to establish a business; strict financial and professional requirements for the self-employed and entrepreneurs; high cost of living for retirees on a pension in U.S. dollars.
Pros: Another classic destination for Americans with a large expatriate community; great culture and history and generally extremely friendly people; great destination for students. Real estate prices currently very low.
Cons: Few employment or business opportunities for foreigners; lengthy bureaucratic procedures to establish residency; relatively expensive for expats with U.S. dollars;
Pros: Close to the U.S.; rich culture and history, friendly people; great for students, retirees, and entrepreneurs; relatively inexpensive.
Cons: Safety concerns in some locations due to ongoing violent conflict between drug cartels; economic growth is highly dependent on U.S.; Mexico's tourism industry has been seriously affected by the increase in violent crime or its reporting, though we have many contributors who travel and live in the country without incident for years.
Pros: Uses the U.S. dollar as currency; English is more widely spoken than elsewhere in Central America; well-developed expat community and infrastructure; relatively close to U.S. with many direct flights; pleasant climate, diverse tropical ecosystem; great destination for entrepreneurs, especially in the tourism sector, as well as for the many retirees who now reside there.
Cons: Culturally not as interesting as other countries in the region, some say subjectively; high economic and political dependence on the U.S., with an undeserved reputation for being a "Banana Republic" given the contemporary state of global and regional trade.
Pros: Very affordable and welcoming destination for foreign retirees and entrepreneurs; basic English is widely spoken; pleasant climate; great natural beauty, cultural traditions and attractions. Beautiful locations from cultural centers like Chiang Mai to the islands.
Cons: Quite distant from U.S. with few cheap flights; prone to political unrest, extremist insurgency in south, as well as natural disasters (floods, earthquakes); few opportunities for students.
Taking the First Steps
Once you have figured out where to go, you can move on to the next step. Contact the consulate or embassy and find out how easy it is to get the appropriate visa for your country of interest. There are different procedures to obtain the appropriate visa or residency permit, but a large number of countries allow foreigners to visit between three and six months without a special visa and do not require visas for volunteer work or language courses. For university study, business, and employment, however, you have to apply for a visa for most countries. Find out what the requirements are and how long it takes for a visa to be processed so you can plan your departure accordingly.
The resources below will help to give you an idea of how your country of interest compares to others in important areas such as cost of living, health, human rights, economic and political stability, and more.
Resources to Compare the Quality of Life in Countries and Cities Abroad
Note: UBS, The Economist, Forbes, Internations, the World Economic Forum, and others all have worldwide cost of living comparisons and "best of" lists available in changing locations on their respective sites.
Numbeo is the world's largest database of user-contributed data on costs of living worldwide.
Expatistan is a free collaborative database allowing you to compare the cost of living in cities around the world.
Mercer's 2014 Cost of Living City Rankings covers over 200 cities worldwide (both paid and free reports).
Happy Planet Index, published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), is an index of human well-being and environmental impact: www.happyplanetindex.org.
World Happiness Report, The Earth Institute, Columbia University.
Very detailed World Health Organization reports reveal comparative living standards.
Human Development Index, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), hdr.undp.org.
Human Rights Report, Amnesty International, www.amnesty.org.
Corruption Index published by Transparency International, www.transparency.org.
For an amusing and pleasantly ironic read that is tangential but may well be pertinent to the topic of choosing a destination to live abroad, try The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner.
Browse the TransitionsAbroad.com website for more information on working, studying and living abroad.
Participate in the Living Abroad Q&A Column: The Joys and Challenges of Expat life
On my extensive travels worldwide, I have met many American expatriates, and they all had very different reasons for living abroad. I met U.S. retirees in Mexico pursuing their interest in art in picturesque colonial towns; I met English teachers in Europe and South America who use their teaching skills to travel the world and live in different countries; and I met entrepreneurs and business people eager to settle in a new country and start a business. What unites them all is the desire to experience different cultures and expand their horizons—to learn and to enrich their lives with new experiences.
But as much as these experiences are enriching and inspiring, expatriates still face many challenges during their time abroad, from adjustment to a foreign culture to the language barrier, bureaucratic hurdles, moving logistics, visa requirements, and much more. Although the adjustment to an unfamiliar culture is an inevitable part of living in a foreign country, there are many ways to make the transition easier. Most importantly, we need to be well informed and prepared to successfully live abroad. Information is key to a smooth adjustment to another country and culture. It is essential to familiarize yourself with your host country before you go. Read about the history, economy, and culture so you know what to expect. Get background information, learn the language, talk to someone who has been there, and visit expatriate websites, discussion forums, and the many new social media sites where expatriates exchange all kinds of information about living in a foreign country.
In response to this need for information and access to resources, TransitionsAbroad.com will publish a new question-and-answer column on Living Abroad for current and future expatriates in its web magazine "TAzine." The column is intended to provide advice and information and to address practical issues concerning the challenges of living in a foreign country. It also seeks to inspire readers to consider the possibility of living abroad and invite them to explore what lies beyond their own familiar cultural horizons. Leaving one’s familiar surroundings requires risk-taking and the willingness to go beyond what feels comfortable. However, those who have the courage to cross over to another culture will have an immensely rich experience.
The column has an interactive format. Readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the webzine. Please let us know your views in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
We also encourage you to visit our sections devoted to Living Abroad and Living Abroad by Country. You will find a plethora of information helpful both for current expatriates and those planning to live abroad.