November 18, 2020

Retiring Overseas: Is It An Option For You?

Over the years, I have written quite a few posts about various housing options we have to choose from for our satisfying retirement.

A few weeks ago, How Covid Might Affect Your Housing Choices attracted some insightful comments. A few years ago, I wrote about a new spiritually-based community taking shape on Hawaii's Big Island. 

If you want to remove yourself from the daily mayhem, how about spending your retirement living on a cruise ship or in an RV? See Unusual Retirement Options for more details. Of course, the debate between aging in place or moving to a planned retirement community is one we are all familiar with. I've written about those options many times, including What's Best: Aging In Place or A Retirement Community. A few months ago, there was When Is It Time To Move Into a CCRC?

Of course, the idea of living somewhere other than the U.S. has been in the headlines over the past several months. Some are overwhelmed by the out-of-control virus that feels like it is becoming a permanent part of our lives. These folks are looking for a place that takes the pandemic seriously and has concrete steps to limit the deaths and disruption.

Others have found the political mayhem a bridge too far. Recent events make it reasonable to assume a change in administration will not solve all the problems; the departing Administration and its Congressional supporters seem determined to make things as disruptive and difficult as possible for the country. With the prospect of years of this narrative, an escape to somewhere else (anywhere else!) begins to sound more attractive.

One option I have not really explored as much is the idea of becoming an ex-pat...moving to another country full time. A few readers live in Mexico for part of the year and have commented before on the cost benefits and friendships they enjoy. Former blogger Sonia Marsh spent a year in Belize. The latest figures indicate that over 9 million Americans live overseas for all or part of the year. This total does not include those who have given up their American citizenship to become citizens of another country.

Because I have no experience or personal insight in this area, I thought it best to take a two-pronged approach. First, here is a list of several websites that seem to do an excellent job of looking at the pros and cons of retiring overseas. Not all are U.S.-based, but it seems their advice is universal enough to be worth the inclusion. Each has a slightly different approach, but are worth looking at if this subject interests you.

The last site listed ( expatexchange) is a tremendous place to go if you have a particular country or continent in mind. There are dozens of links to other sites that provide the specifics you may be looking for.

The Costs of Living Abroad

The Pros and Cons of Retiring Abroad

What To Consider When Retiring Abroad

Expat Exchange: Country by Country Guide

Secondly, I ask anyone living abroad, has thought about living abroad, or was an ex-pat and has returned to their home country to share your expertise with all of us. Obviously, moving to another country is not a step to be taken lightly. Nor should it be dismissed as completely unworkable. If the idea is interesting to you, do yourself a favor and spend some time at these web sites and come back to read the comments from readers.

Who knows. Maybe Satisfying Retirement will be typed while sitting on a South Pacific beach someday.


  1. Retiring overseas, or at least out of country, is something that I imagine a lot of people approaching retirement at least think about. We thought about it briefly but being away from our children and grandchildren (all live close by) would be too hard to do full-time. If our children and grandchildren lived on the other side of the country or overseas it is something we may have contemplated more seriously.

    As it is, we live part-time in Mexico heading down for each winter - the classic snowbirds. While we are not full-time, we know many expats that are and they fall into a few camps. They tend to be at least in reasonable health, are perhaps a little bit more adventurous than average, and find living in a different culture invigorating. Where we are in Mexico it's a "small town" environment where you meet friends on the street while you are out and about, and the pace of life is noticeably slower. Some people are definitely there for a lower cost of living. Whether or not it actually is a lower cost of living depends on where you are from and what your expectations are.

    I find there are there are expat national differences too. When the snowbirds like us are in town I would say Canadians outnumber Americans significantly but once the snowbirds head back, among the remaining full-time expats, Americans greatly outnumber Canadians. I suspect the biggest reason for this is healthcare. The Canadians head back to be home enough each year to maintain their Canadian residency requirements for healthcare while many Americans are in Mexico for less expensive healthcare in the first place. I can say that when people do encounter serious health issues, American or Canadian, they move back home. Even those that have said to me: "We love it here. We'll never go back no matter what" do go back when they have a serious life or death health problem.

    I would like to mention that if you are considering moving to another country please do not rush out and buy a place right away. Rent for several years (five years isn't too long) and try it out, it may not be for you. I have seen many people come into town for 2 weeks and leave having bought a place. They sell up back in the US, move everything down, get settled in and find it isn't working out for them. They miss family, the different culture drives them crazy, they struggle with the language, a parent/child/grandchild back home gets sick and needs on-going care. There are as many reasons as there are people. Go slow, take your time, there’s no rush. The real estate market also likely isn't what you are used to back home, it may take months or even years to sell a home in your overseas locale. Don't buy unless you are really really sure. I say this as someone that bought after 5 years of renting and as it happened we closed on our Mexico house just weeks before the pandemic hit. We are still okay with the decision but we went in with our eyes open that literally "anything" could happen, and it did.

    1. Because you are a part-time expat, I am very glad you added your thoughts, David. The point about medical care, both at home and in a serious emergency is important. The expense of American care versus several other countries is a decision maker for many.

      Like you, I could never so far away from family. Mexico is only four hours south of our home, though most of the preferred expat choices are much farther south. In any case, when part of my family lived in San Diego, Betty and I almost moved there because we felt the six hour drive was too long.

    2. My sister in law's father bought on the beach in Rocky Point in the 1970's. He began to live there full time in the 1990's. He returned to his tiny house in the US twice for several years. The first time was for the last few months of his wife's life. The other was the last year of his own life. He came back for good end of life care. He was only a few hours from all of his kids (PHX/Tucson). He was happy with his medical and dental in Mexico- for cash (cheaper then insurance). He was fluent in Spanish. He tried to talk my dad into moving there--but my Mom would not do it. Seems he had the life he desired. He never gave up his citizenship.
      As far as moving to most Western European, Australia or Canada--- it isn't as easy. To do it legally, most have to jump some pretty big hoops- including financial ones. I have a few friends living in Europe full time, mostly on work permits. They have been there for many, many years. One has applied for citizenship and has been waiting a few years. She did it on her grandmother's birth place in England. Asia is fascinating- with Japan being nearly impossible for those who are not working or studying there. Thailand and Cambodia don't seem to enforce their own rules.
      A friend of ours just fled Hong Kong after being there for 30 years.
      A back up plan seems to be important.

  2. We are Canadian, but there is no way we would retire in Canada... or the U.S. for that matter. It's simply too expensive to live there. Mexico is a good choice and it ticks all the boxes for us, but we continue to travel to other countries (we are exploring Turkey right now) because what if there is somewhere better out there?

    But where ever we end up, it would be in a community of locals, not an expat community. In fact, we would want to blend in with the locals as much as possible. That's the best way to take advantage of the cheaper prices. And learn the language. It drives me crazy when expats don't make an effort in their adopted county.

    And we totally agree with the above comment about renting and not buying. It is so much cheaper to rent.

    1. Your comment about living in a separate community instead of blending in with the locals is an important one. I agree with you. To move to a foreign country but surround yourself with a place that looks and sounds like home is really missing a major part of the experience. To live in Mexico, for example, without masking an attempt to speak Spanish is just rude.

  3. I would add a suggestion: find blogs by expats in the country you are considering and follow them.

    My wife and I were attracted to Croatia as a retirement home. THe books all made it sound ideal. But I followed three blogs by three American expats for a year. All three ended up leaving, saying it was no place for an American to live.

    1. Goodly, you make an excellent point - research, research, research. It's a big decision and remember that living somewhere is not like being on vacation there.

    2. Blogs from expats...excellent idea to do some real research.

  4. We have a good friend who sold his home and built a new one on an island off the coast of Central America. I think he vacationed there with friends for quite a few years first. Anyway, he and his dogs seem really happy from what I can see and the area is truly beautiful. For us, though, the medical care is questionable. He injured himself in a fall and had to be flown to the mainland for surgery. A year later, it didn't heal well and he ended up back in Denver to have the repair repaired. So for the better part of a year, he was either on crutches or had an open wound that didn't heal correctly. That would really give me pause. And then there is the instability of the government, although after the last few years, I'm not sure we can talk.

    1. America does not have the best records in various medical statistics, though the image of the best treatment in the world is a powerful one. Even so, I would want a serious problem treated here, even though the doctors and facilities in many countries are quite good.

    2. I do think our medical care is tops in most areas. I was really just commenting on the current instability of our government - or at least the politics. The surgery our friend had ended up being in Cancun, I think. And he waited a long time for that opening. Sadly, it wasn't done right and the redo in Denver was the long term result.

  5. I'll come back and write more on expatness, but I obviously need to say that Central America and Mexico are not the only place expats retire to, or should retire too, necessarily. And in most countries, even in Central America or Mexco, health care is at least as good as ours.

    1. If Betty had her way, we would be in Ireland or England for our retirement years. Health care is very affordable and high quality in both countries. And, if Canada wasn't so cold during the winter....!

  6. My son lives in Japan (with our only grandchild) and we though about moving there for a few years but decided not to do it.
    Not speaking the language was a big deal - and probably not gong to learn it - worried about health care if you can't talk with the medical folks.
    But there is also another issue that is largely unknown. Being an EXPAT creates some retirement investment issues. If you reside outside the US you are not allowed to own US mutual funds and owning passive non-US investments is a tax nightmare. So you will have to rearrange your portfolio to meet these requirements. You will likely have to find a new investment advisor who is experienced in working with EXPATS. These are hard to find and from my experience only work on investment portfolios over $500,000 - being paid by a % of the portfolio size.
    You really need to investigate this situation for your personal situation but it is an important consideration.

    1. That is something about being an expat I would have never known to question. Certainly, someone who is well versed in the types of problems you raise should become part of anyone's planning team before making such a move.

      Social Security payments are made to expats, but in most countries those benefits will still be subject to Federal Income Tax when a U.S. return is filed, just like for those living here.

  7. As someone who has lived overseas for extended periods when Brett was in the navy, even with a support system built in, and loving the country we lived in, it was often difficult and homesickness was a companion who came and went. Not knowing the language, and having only a surface grasp of customs and our neighbors' worldviews or ways of approaching problems or issues always kept us on the outside looking in, and missing the familiarity of the U.S.

    I would still live in Japan if we could, given the chance, but that's with eyes wide open these days to all the many things we still don't know and the problems we could encounter (and that's with family there). It's sort of like living in Hawai'i - many who move here don't last two years as living here is very different from coming here to vacation. I don't know anyone who moved here who hasn't gone through a real slump while they either adjust or don't (us included). It's the reason why almost everyone advises not buying a house here as soon as you arrive, but giving it at least a year if not longer to make sure living here works for you.

    We visited several places during our travels where we thought we could happily move to (Strasbourg still tops the list), while other places we had originally thought would be a good fit turned out not to be a good fit. Before COVID changed everything we were planning to do a long-term stay in Mexico this year and next to see how we liked living there but that obviously didn't happen.

    We absolutely loved our time in England, and could happily live there, but we don't qualify for a long-term visa (no deep connection, i.e. family living there). We have joked (dreamed?) about finding another couple to share a place with as tourist visas are for six months out of the year - they would get the place we share for six months, then it would be our turn for our six month stretch, and so on.

    1. I'm glad you saw this post. Knowing how much you and Brett travel, your history with the Navy, family in Japan, and traveling around the world for almost a year (is that right?), I knew you'd have some perspective that is important to share.

      You have echoed some of what others have said, especially the difficulty in integrating with another culture that is so different (Japan is a good example). Also, not buying for an extended period and understanding that living somewhere is very different from a vacation, no matter how long.

      I am intrigued by your Hawaii comment: many who move there go through a slump and tend to move back to the mainland after just a few years. What causes that feeling of being unhappy or not fitting in? Is it the distance from the mainland, the fact that an island is small, that choices in many areas of life are more limited? Is it cultural? I would be fascinated with your insight about this phenomenon.

    2. In my opinion there are a few things going on that cause people to leave the islands after only a short time. The first thing is that people come here expecting paradise, or at least their idea of it, and soon discover that all the things you disliked back on the mainland exist here too (well, except for snow).

      There's traffic. There are tourists everywhere. Things move too slow. Jobs don't pay very well. Everyday necessities can be expensive. The expense of living here can get to some quickly - many don't plan well and find themselves unable to afford the lifestyle they imagined.

      Some people get bored with living here. They're now living on a small island in the middle of the ocean far away from everything and everyone else and find they can't recreate the life they had back on the mainland and are unable to adapt to island life. "Rock fever" sets in.

      Nightlife is limited on Kaua'i, for example (the island rolls up the sidewalks when it gets dark and there's no longer a movie theater). Cultural activities can be limited as well. For some, there isn't much to do unless you find an activity you enjoy (quilting, paddling, beach clean-ups, hula, tennis, and so forth) or learn to enjoy your own company and being at home.

      Finally, and most important in my mind, is the interconnectedness of local families and other groups on the islands. Many if not most (or all) local families have been here for generations, and everyone knows everyone else and that's hard to break into. Who you know and who you're related to are important here. Large extended families are common and they are tightly knit. It's not impossible to be accepted, but it can take a long time, and many who move here are surprised to find themselves unable to make friends quickly, or find their "tribe," and feel rejected. Fitting in takes effort.

      However, locals have seen newcomers come and go quickly, and can be wary of making connections with people who may leave in a short time. I can speak from experience that a lack of connections or an inability to fit in here can get depressing after a while. It's hard to always be viewed as a "visitor" when you've made Hawaii your home. It can be hard to move over here and discover life here is not going to be all "moonlight and mai tais" and that you may have to work a bit or wait a long while to find your place.

    3. Thanks very much for your explanation about Kaua'i life and its challenges. I have been to the islands enough to sense what you are relating. Spending time at a resort or in a major city like Honolulu is very different.

      Betty and I rented a cottage on Kaua'i near Poipu Beach. several years ago. It was in the midst of a neighborhood with non-stop barking dogs and no AC, so the windows had to be open all the time. No one stopped to wave or say hello when we were sitting on the front porch. Being rather private, solitary people anyway, we were fine. But, I can see how others would have second thoughts.

  8. Hello, thanks for the fun topic. I love both Bob's and Laura's blogs, so nice seeing Laura comment here too. I've lived in France, Denmark and am on my 2nd stint in Switzerland, but came here for a job, and just retired here pre-Covid. I didn't come here to retire and wouldn't be allowed to retire here if I hadn't already been here for work.

    The person who said they'd only integrate with locals...good luck with that! Most expats I know do live in their expat bubble with others from their country or at least who have the same native language. Switzerland is paradise, such a perfect country in many ways, but the Swiss are famous for staying among themselves and it takes many years to have a real Swiss friend (I have a small number of them after being here 13 years). Other countries are easier on that front, for example the very friendly and open Portuguese or Greeks.

    Well said for the person talking about how screwed up your finances will get by becoming an expat, thanks to the US gov't who punishes us for leaving the country. If you are leaving because you have very few resources and need to find somewhere cheaper to live, then it won't be a problem. But if you're a person of resources, then you'll be screwed financially (UNLESS you're among the extremely wealthy elite of the world, only then you'll be allowed into places like Switzerland on one of the limited visas they reserve for such people here...I know a few of them; I'm obviously not in their position). Given the big mess in the US on so many levels, I've decided that the financial hit is worth staying here at least until my older age if and when I need long-term HC (as my LTC policy is only good in the US).

    I've had 2 friends move to Vietnam and they LOVE it. Very cheap, high quality of life, great food, friendly people...just sayin'... The heat/humidity would be downer for me however...

    I wouldn't advise moving overseas unless you do have a real attraction to adventure and to other cultures and languages; it helps to have had an extensive international travel experience at least. I think it would be hard to make the adjustment if you're only fleeing the US because of all its problems. Might be better to stay put and try to contribute to turning things around for the next generations instead.

    Good luck to everyone considering this. You can find me on FB and send me a friend request, citing this posting, if you'd like to bounce ideas or hear more about my expat experiences in 3 European countries (but I'll check you out before accepting to be sure you're legitimately a retiree and not a troll;). All the best, Lynn in Montreux CH

    1. What a generous offer, Lynn, to make yourself available to those who might want to pick your brain about living overseas. Trolls need not apply.

      Your comment about the insular nature of Switzerland echos what Laura has added about life on Kaua'i. Being a rural island with only about 70,000 people, it is very different from a cosmopolitan city like Honolulu. Making friends and feeling like you fit in with a rather closed small island society is not for the faint of heart.

      I would not have thought of Switzerland in that way. My image is of a very worldly and interconnected country due to all the activities in places like Geneva. But, the common person doesn't exist in that world, so it is good to know what things are like at the local level.

      Vietnam? That is interesting.

  9. It's interesting to see many talking about how they'd like to live in England. My wife is English and left 46 years ago but all her family remained there (my wife's parents are now deceased). Most of them now seem to want to live somewhere else and on retirement 5 years ago her sister and brother-in-law moved full-time from England to rural France near Bordeaux. As my wife is a UK citizen we could have easily moved to the UK though my wife has no desire to go back. I guess to some degree we all want what we don't have.

    1. Wanting what we don't have is probably the key to a lot of this. I don't think either Betty or I could actually tolerate the English weather for very long. Heavens, we find Portland and Seattle way too wet and gloomy for our tastes!

  10. Hi Bob!

    Great topic and I'm loving all the answer you've received. My husband and I don't live in another country (yet) although we've seriously talked about it. I happened to love Mexico and hope to at least spend a couple of months there to see if it would work for us. Maybe 2021 if the vaccine is available.

    We had also planned to go to Spain/Portugal this last May to "check it out" because we've heard such great things about it. But now it looks like it will be 2022 before we make it. I so agree that we should first rent and live there for a couple of months before even considering MOVING our entire life there.

    We have lots of friends in Canada (BC) and would also like to be there--but like you, just too cold. I think people really need to think through what is important to us and weather stands out as important. We too live in the desert (Palm Springs area) and while it is PERFECT about 6 months of the year, we are really only interested in finding another location to be the other 6.

    As for fitting into different cultures, from friends who are living in Mexico now say that it isn't as easy there as some imply. Like in Hawaii, Mexican families are huge and they tend to stay that way. They are certainly friendly, but getting close isn't as easy as just saying you want that.

    Anyway, I appreciate the chance to even think about these ideas because my wanderlust is really activated these days. Meanwhile, I hope you and Betty have a Happy Thanksgiving. ~Kathy

    1. First of all, our best wishes to you and Thom for a happy and safe Thanksgiving. We will be getting together with our local family: the people we have dinner with every Sunday. But, no "outsiders" this year, I'm afraid.

      We wouldn't mind not being in Phoenix during the worst of the heat. After 35 years It has gotten old. Flagstaff is an option since it is much cooler and only 3 hours away, but it would be fun to find some other destination.

      I agree, it has been both fun and instructive to read what others have to say. This subject is one that certainly does not have "one size fits all" as an answer.


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